England (2001)

Tracing the Rellies

Unlike our other more adventurous travels, this trip had a very specific goal -- to locate and meet some of Valerie’s long lost relatives in England.  Imagine our excitement at meeting six first cousins who, just one year earlier, we didn’t even know existed. 

 Ancestral Village - Shipton-Bellinger                                                                                 Cousins Alan (black shirt), Connie and Joyce with Valerie

Val’s father, Ralph Bellinger, was born in England and came to Canada at the age of twenty-one, leaving his home and family behind.  Since her father died when Valerie was still in her teens, she knew virtually nothing about his past  history.  With almost no information to go on,  we set out  to research her family background although we didn’t even know the names of her grandparents or her father’s brothers and sisters.  

After several years of dogged research, we were eventually able to put together the beginnings of a Bellinger family tree through a combination of persistence, luck and the kindness of strangers.  Along the way we had to overcome a number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles resulting from erroneous birth dates, misspelled names and other blind alleys.  It was a detective story worthy of Sherlock Holmes. 

Researching the Rellies Our first step was to locate a birth certificate for Ralph Bellinger in the hopes that it would reveal the names of his parents, Valerie’s paternal grandparents.   What should have been an easy first step turned out to be much more difficult than we expected and almost brought our research to a halt before we got off the ground.  

Val had always understood that her dad was born in 1896; that he was less that ten years older than her mother.  All of our searches through the birth records for 1896 in the General Registry Office of England came up blank, even when we bracketed his birth year by plus or minus several years.  Taking us further down this blind alley, a check of his Canadian Army service records showed 1896 as his birth date as well which added to our confusion..   

Thwarted in this first attempt to finding his parent’s names, we decided to make a search of the 1891 Census in England hoping to find any records of his parents or possible siblings living in Workington, Cumbria in that year.  To our great amazement, we not only found his parents, Frederick and Lydia, listed in the census;  we also found a two year old, Ralph Bellinger listed as one of their children.  That put his birth date as 1889, a full seven years earlier than Valerie had thought!!   

To confirm this new date, we then checked the newly released 1901 census but were shocked to find no record of any Bellinger family in Workington in that year.  It was another blind alley.  After several frustrating months and many unsuccessful searches of other spellings like “Ballinger” and “Bellenger” in Workington and other nearby villages, we appeared to again be stymied until I tried  the old computer search trick of inputting “Bell*****” and allowing the computer to fill in the remaining letters. It worked. This time the surprise result was a happy one.  It listed a Frederick “Bellingesfamily in Workington.  There had apparently been a transcription mistake between the census taker and the recording clerk, who had inscribed the final letter in their name as “s” instead of “r”. 

What’s more, the 1901 census included a 12 year old Ralph Bellinger as one of their nine children, once again placing his birth date as 1889, at odds with his military records but consistent with the 1891 census.   Struggling to reconcile the two dates, we eventually concluded that Valerie's dad had falsified his age in order to qualify for enlistment under the maximum age limit of 45 years.   Actually 50 years of age when he joined the army, Ralph had claimed to be only 44 years old in order to join the army and fight for his country at the beginning of World War II.   While the motives for his deception were admirable, it certainly made it difficult for future genealogists!  

Our next goal was to locate any living relatives of Valerie’s father in England.  Since all eight of Ralph’s siblings would have been a hundred years old and presumably already passed on when we begin our quest, our search was directed at locating members of the next generation, who, in effect, would be Valerie’s first cousins.  It was a daunting task.   We had absolutely no information on any of their names or addresses.   Our only hope rested in an old, handwritten list of addresses of several of Ralph's siblings from back in 1950, when Val’s brother, John, had bicycled around England as a young man and stayed with several of his Bellinger uncles and aunts fifty years earlier.  It wasn’t much of a lead but it was a place to start. 

Using this old list as a basis, we sent out letters addressed to “Current Occupant” of each of the five addresses along with letters to every Bellinger listed in the telephone directories of each of the five different cities on the list.  We probably sent out fifty letters in total in the hope that one would reach a Bellinger relative.  Although most of the responses were negative, we were pleasantly surprised at how many of the recipients took time to respond.  Some even did some research on our behalf, inquiring of their neighbors or other local Bellingers about our request. One very nice woman even located and mailed pictures from the local library of one of the original Bellinger family, who was a thatcher in the local community decades earlier.  We were most grateful, however, to a young college student, Charlene Bellinger, the true heroine of this story, who received one of our letters and thankfully, forwarded it on to her grandfather in Derbyshire.  It was the big breakthrough. the "big bite"   that we’d been hoping for from our fishing expedition. 

Two months after sending out our letters, we received a brown envelop from an Alan Bellinger in Hope Valley in Derby.  It was the “eureka” moment that we’d been praying for in our search for the rellies.  Alan was one of the first cousins that we had hope we might find.  His letter contained the names and addresses of five other first cousins along with a gracious invitation to visit him at his country estate in the beautiful Peak District of England.  We began to put plans into place to visit the rellies  the following summer. 

Tracing the Ancestors.  We also decided to use the  trip to try to trace some of the Valerie’s more distant ancestral roots in England.  In a previous trip to England a few years earlier, we had come upon a village in the south of England called Shipton-Bellinger and had stopped to inquire about the origins of the name.  It turned out that the town has a history dating back over one thousand years and was listed in the Domesday Book in 1086.  The land, where the town was located, had been granted by William the Conqueror to one of his followers named Berringer (which became Bellinger) for services rendered.   This suggests that Valerie’s ancestors can be traced back to the Normans and even further back in time to the Vikings.  My wife - a Viking!

Our first stop on this trip was Brize Norton, a rural village near the city of Oxford.  It was here that the Bellinger clan had lived for several centuries and where Valerie’s grandfather, Frederick Bellinger, was born.  Checking at the local pub for information on any Bellingers who might still be living there, we were told that half the people in town were named Bellinger.  A walk through the rows of headstones in the local cemetery confirmed that that had been the case for over one hundred years.    We were able to locate the Astrop farm, where Val’s great-grandfather, Charles Bellinger, had worked as a farm laborer and the old building in which he and the other farm workers lived.  

Val's great-grandfather's home - Brize Norton                                                                                         Val's father's home, Victoria Road, Workington


We also contacted a Liz Bellinger, a family historian living in Brize Norton, who had traced the Bellinger family tree back to the 1600s in nearby Gloucestershire and who generously shared her genealogical information with us.  She also told us that Charles and his brothers were Morris dancers, who performed in the village each year on Whit Tuesday until 1870.  She said that "when presented with this information,  it sent shock waves throughout the current male Bellenger clan, who disassociate themselves with any form of dancing, especially the sort which involves bells, straw hats and ribbons.” 

When work on the farms became scarce, Grandfather Frederick Bellinger moved north to find work in the mines and steel mills of Cumbria, near the border with Scotland.  It was there that Valerie’s father was born so we drove up to Workington to visit his home town.  With a little local help, we found his childhood home, a two bedroom, row house on Victoria Road, where he, his parents and his eight brothers and sisters had lived.  We visited his church, where he was required by his father to attend services three times each Sunday; and spent an afternoon strolling around the dreary working class town where Ralph had lived as a young boy.   After spending the day in the Workington, Val  began to develop a better appreciation as to why her dad had chosen to leave England for a better life in Canada.   As we stood on the weathered, old docks of Workington that evening and watched the sun go down over the Atlantic Ocean, we could almost feel Ralph Bellinger's presence standing alongside of us, on the same spot  where he may well have stood ninety years earlier dreaming about a new life across the sea.  

Meeting the Rellies.    The primary goal, though, of our trip was to meet some of Valerie’s first cousins.   The anticipation was high as she prepared to meet these blood relatives, none of whom she even knew existed for the first sixty-seven years of her life.  As one might have expected of any  relatives of Valerie, all of the six cousins were charming, intelligent and good-looking and they all welcomed Valerie with genuine warmth and enthusiasm. 

Our first stay was with Alan Bellinger from whom we had received the initial letter.  A retired bank president and practicing spiritual healer, Cousin Alan lives in an elegant, three hundred year old stone country home in Hathersage, Derbyshire.   A recent widower, Alan served as our host for our two day visit taking us on a tour of the stately Chatsworth House, to the plague town of Eyam and through the beautiful hills of the Peak District.  He also introduced us to his two sisters, Cousins Joyce and Connie, in nearby Sheffield.  Like Val, Joyce is a retired nurse and an enthusiastic gardener and, after only a few hours strolling around her garden together and sharing a cup of tea, they felt like they’d known each other all of their lives. 

Cousins Gordon and Jean with Valerie                                                                                          Cousin Hazell and her daughter, Judy, with Valerie

We drove over on the West Coast of England to meet the other three cousins.   We found Cousin Jean at her home in a small village in rural Lancashire, where we were joined by Cousin Gordon, who lives nearby with his wife, Sheila.  Jean is the widow of the late Bishop of Chester. Gordon, is a recently retired vicar of the Anglican Church.   Jean remembered the visit of Val’s father during the war and the visit of her brother, John, on his bike tour of England in the late 40’s and we spent a wonderful afternoon getting caught up on the family histories.  

Our final visit was with Cousin Hazell and her family in Church Aston, Shropshire on the following day.   They gave us a tour of their beautiful home, invited us for lunch and then sat down with us to look through some old family picture albums, which featured several generations of Bellingers.  It was there in the parlor of their country home that Hazell pointed to a photo of a young man in the album and remarked that they were not sure who he was.  Valerie looked at the photo in stunned silence and tears welled up in her eyes.  “That man is my father” she said softly. 

It was a poignant moment and a fitting confirmation that all of our research efforts had paid off.  Forty-seven years after Ralph Bellinger’s death, Valerie was finally reconnected with her father’s past and with her English roots.

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