DNA solved the mystery of my Dad's adoption
Peter Williams' father was unofficially adopted, but never looked into his birth family. However, after his father died, Peter took it on himself to uncover his paternal roots and found success with DNA testing
My father, Fred Williams, was brought up by Jon and Jane Naylor. I found them in the 1911 census where his name is given as Frederick Ernest Williams and he is described as a “boarder”, but he told me that he was brought up as a Naylor and didn’t find out that he was adopted until he had to order a copy of his birth certificate to take up an apprenticeship.
His birth certificate named his father as Frederick Williams and his mother Frances Williams (formerly Atkinson). He never tried tracking down his biological parents as far as I know, and showed no interest in doing so (although he may have known more than he let on as he once said his father was Swiss).
When he died in 2008, I wished I knew more about his background. I started getting interested in family history, but there was no branch for my paternal side. I couldn’t find a marriage between a Frederick Williams and Frances Atkinson in Chorlton or anywhere else, and I began to suspect that Frances had registered the child under false pretences.
When you suspect that the only clue you have is based on a lie, it can be difficult to know which way to turn. I checked the rate books for the area to see who was living at the address given on the certificate, but no names stuck out as being relevant.
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My Eureka Moment
In the end I took a DNA test with ancestry.co.uk, and it was this that provided me with my eureka moment. Initially I was put off by all the matches. I just didn’t know what to do with them, or which ones would be relevant. Then, following advice in WDYTYA? Magazine, I tested a cousin on my mother’s side so that we could rule out matches who were related to my mother.
Next, I marked up all the matches that I shared with my cousin, and eliminated them from my enquiry. It was exciting looking at all of these matches that could be connected to my father’s family – people I had never known. Most of them were distant matches (fourth, fifth and sixth cousins) with no family trees attached. This was hardly any more use than the birth certificate I had! However, the closest match was with a third cousin, Peter Chapman, and he had a large family tree linked to his account. I looked at the tree to see if he had anyone in the Chorlton area in the early 20th century, and there, straight away, I saw Frederick Williams.
I was so excited that I couldn’t quite believe it. It had seemed too easy. I immediately got in touch with Peter and he gave me more background. Frederick Williams senior was born in Germany in 1863 to parents Friedrich Augustus Wilhelm and Caroline Döll. He came over to England and trained as a hairdresser, anglicised his name and settled in Manchester.
His first son, George, was born a year before Frederick married the mother, Drusilla, and he was put up for adoption. This was Peter Chapman’s grandfather, so we were both descended from adoptees. My father was born 19 years later in 1906, when Frederick was 43. In 1905, Frederick and Drusilla had their eighth child, Mabel, but she died before the year was out. I wonder if that tragedy drove Frederick to have an affair with Frances Atkinson, if that was her real name.
I was shocked to discover from Peter that Frederick died in 1916 in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. I would like to find out more about that, and about his family in Germany. Peter’s wife Louise has already done lots of research, and connected with family members in Germany. She had even been told that there was a family rumour of a younger illegitimate child – my father! Both Peter and I have also done a Y-DNA test with familytreedna.com, which confirmed that we share a paternal line.
My next step is to see if I can uncover matches on my father’s mother’s side, by grouping matches that I don’t share with Peter or my cousin. Finding her would be the cherry on the cake.
Sarah Williams is the editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine