Remembering Frank Thompson
Frank in 1931, aged twenty-three years, when he adopted the surname Thompson
In contemporary Britain, more children are born to unmarried parents than to wedded couples yet – just a generation ago – the shame of a birth outside wedlock was such that even the innocent offspring would be stigmatised. Consequently, many chose to carry the truth of their origins privately their whole lives without admitting it even to their nearest and dearest.
Imagine Sarah Thompson’s surprise when, after she and her sisters had grown up and left home, they were summoned back by their father, Frank Thompson – who was a Vicar in the Church of England – and informed that he had been born as Frank Peters to an unmarried mother. It was a startling discovery, although it did not change their affection for their father, yet it remained such a sensitive subject for the family that Sarah was only able to research the full story after both her parents had died.
“I am the youngest of four daughters and while we were growing up there was a man called John Thompson who we knew as our grandfather and Altrincham was where we came from,” Sarah admitted to me, “It wasn’t until after my father retired that he summoned us all to tell us his life story. He didn’t tell us before because he had been born in Stepney Workhouse and was illegitimate, and my mother Eileen had reservations about revealing the truth because she felt they had a social position to maintain. She had known from when she first met him and she was close to his adoptive mother, and obviously we all loved John.”
Sarah Thompson’s research confirmed her father had been born in Stepney Union Workhouse on June 28th 1908 and his mother was Ellen Rosina Peters who was twenty-eight years old and a resident of Limehouse. “I think she must have had a drink problem,” Sarah revealed to me,“He told me he remembered waiting for her outside a pub as a child. In the hospital records, I found he had a brother Albert, born in 1911, who died aged eleven months. He never talked about that and I found it very sad.“
“At some point he must have lived with his grandparents, George & Ellen Peters, because he told me he remembered looking under the bed for Christmas presents and his grandfather got out and stepped on his finger and broke it – he told me this when I asked him why his little finger was crooked. His grandfather was a Lighterman who had three daughters and five sons.”
Frank’s mother Ellen earned twenty-four pounds a year as a kitchen maid but she was unable to maintain steady employment and was admitted to the Red Lamp Rescue Home for Fallen Women, although she could stay only three months. Frequent ill-health put her in the Stepney Workhouse, leaving her unable to care or provide for Frank, and after being passed around among friends and relatives, he was admitted at eight years old to the Children’s Society home at Knutsford in 1917. His mother agreed to contribute four shillings a week to his care.
On 17th December 1922, at fourteen years old, Frank enlisted into the Royal Engineers’ Training School and he took the surname ‘Thompson’ at twenty-three years old, when he became part of the family of Jack Thompson who ran the Children’s Society home in Altrincham, though he was never officially adopted because he was too old.
The fragments that Sarah has pieced together tell a tragic story of a young woman losing control of her life and her child, and a child learning to survive without parents or a family, leaving us only to speculate about the emotional cost of these experiences. Yet the outcome was that Frank became a hardworking, selfless individual who chose to devote his life to public service as a priest. Beloved of his wife and daughters, he enjoyed a happy family life and always put the well-being of others above his own.
Contemplating her discoveries, Sarah is relieved that her father won the love of John Thompson and his wife, the matron, who ran the children’s home, so that – even after he left to go into the army – he always returned to stay with them while on leave. Yet Sarah also regretted she had never been able to speak with her father about his childhood and the loss of his mother. I just wish I’d known all this when he was alive, so we could have talked about what it was like growing up in an orphanage and I could have told him how proud I was of him,” she confided to me.
There is an unexpected symmetry in the conclusion to this story which imbues it with a poignant irony and speaks of the nature of social change across one generation – since Sarah is a single parent herself. “I can remember telling him, and him giving me a big hug and saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,’” she recalled fondly, ” My elder sister said she thought, perhaps, it had helped him come to terms with his past.”
Frank is sitting second from left in the football team at St Aidan’s Theological College, Liverpool, where he studied for the priesthood
Eileen Thompson, taken at the time of her engagement to Frank in 1938
Frank Thompson at the time of his engagement
Wedding at St Anne’s church, Birkenhead, where Frank was a curate on November 20th 1939 – John Thompson is standing on Frank’s left
Sarah in her school uniform, aged seven, at a family-friend’s Christening in 1957
Sarah and her three older sisters and pet dog Muffin on the vicarage lawn, Ryhall 1960
Frank & Sarah on holiday in the Isle of Man in 1960
The family having tea in the vicarage kitchen,1961
Frank dancing at his daughter’s twenty-first birthday party in 1961
Frank & Eileen outside the vicarage at Ryhall, Lincolnshire, 1965
At the Christening of Sarah’s son in London, 1981
Sarah Thompson has been a teacher in Hackney for thirty-five years
Portrait of Sarah Thompson copyright © Sarah Ainslie