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Remembering Frank Thompson

November 24, 2014
by the gentle author

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.”


Application to put Frank into the Children’s Society home, December 11th 1916, when he was eight

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

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Molasses permalink
    November 24, 2014

    In this world there is good…

  2. marianne isaacs permalink
    November 24, 2014

    What a wonderful story . It some ways things have gotten better! Weren’t the names of these institutions appalling . So lacking in sensitivity and respect and yet a lot of the people working there would have been fine people. Did he ever see his mother and what happened to Miss Peters ?

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 24, 2014

    I found this very moving and interesting. On Christmas day two years ago, thanks to my son who, at my request, sent for the birth certificate of my 2 x great grandfather, Samuel Denton Russell, who was born in 1838 just after the start of civil registration, I discovered that he was actually the son of Samuel Denton and that his mother was a widow, Elizabeth Russell. All of which means that, despite growing up thinking I was a Russell, I do not have one drop of Russell blood in my veins. It is a very strange feeling indeed which is hard to explain but Samuel Denton, my 3 x great grandfather, whose name and occupation, shipwright, actually appear on the certificate, has a fascinating history. I now know that he was a witness to the great Tooley Street Fire on 22 June 1861 when he saw a wall of a warehouse fall on Mr James Braidwood who was the then Chief of the London Fire Brigade. This event made national news and the funeral of Mr Braidwood, who was buried in Abney Park cemetery, was an incredible occasion. All the church bells in the City of London were rung, shops were closed and huge crowds lined the pavements to watch the funeral procession pass by.

    There are lots of reports of the terrible fire, which was the worst in London since the Great Fire of London, online if anyone is interested, it is well worth reading. My Samuel Denton’s account of what he saw makes chilling reading, and he was lucky to survive himself as he seems to have been the closest person to Mr Braidwood when the wall fell.

  4. Peter Holford permalink
    November 24, 2014

    This must have been a not uncommon occurrence. After a great deal of research I discovered that my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Kain, was illegitimate but that it had been carefully concealed. She was born in Bromley by Bow in 1838 but the family were from St Leonard’s, Shoreditch. She wasn’t baptised until 1843 (at St Leonard’s) and her father was recorded as John Kain. Her marriage to James Holford again recorded John Kain as her father, occupation – mariner. But I could never find John Kain in the records. When I got her birth certificate the mystery was solved. It showed that her mother was also Elizabeth Kain and there was no father recorded. I think the deception was so effective that I bet James didn’t know and perhaps Elizabeth herself may not have known she was illegitimate. I guess that her mother went to Bromley so that the folk in Shoreditch were not aware of the ‘shame’!

  5. Annie permalink
    November 24, 2014

    What a great story and the photos bear witness to a life well lived. The shame is not with his mother but with his father who vanished in a moment. His loss.

  6. Donald Carlton Burns permalink
    November 24, 2014

    Such a lovely story of a life well lived. It proves once again that every life is a story for a book. this is another for our human library.

  7. jeannette permalink
    November 25, 2014

    to see the report on the boy in the rescue officer’s own writing….to think his good wife wished to keep the secret….to think he got a chance to break the chain when his own daughter became a single mother…..
    life is so strange and beautiful. thank you.

  8. Neville Turner permalink
    November 25, 2014

    A moving story of the strength of the human spirit to move a person forward against adversity and hold onto the inner good of people around you.

  9. November 28, 2014

    hummm this marrying malarky is really quite recent 1950′s innovation! I was asked by a friend in the 1990s to do some research for a TV programme in the Scottish Record Office to find out about WW1 soldiers shot for desertion. I failed to make much headway and a member of staff rushed up to me as I must have looked very bereft. He then explained that daily they were dealing out with people absolutely freaking out when finding that MOST working class people did not marry but lived in sin. For most it was too expensive or in remote areas of Scotland too difficult to find a minister. It was quite normal to ‘live in sin’ and have common law marriages in Scotland. Any other social historians reading Spitalfields life? perhaps they can comment on the experience of England/ Wales. But it seems to me illigitmacy would be hidden if attempting to move up a class.

  10. November 29, 2014

    I think the shame came from being a single mother and NO father. The tragedy was Ellen having to give up her son because she couldn’t cope on her own. This meant Frank lived without either parents. Very happy ending to this story which could have been so different if it hadn’t been for John Thompson and his wife.

  11. Jane Caine [Thompson] permalink
    December 3, 2014

    I am the third daughter of Frank Thompson. I know my Father felt shame about his early life and the stigma of being illegitimate. That was the sadness.
    In later life and particularly when he was nearing death he began to speak of regrets about losing touch with his Mother.
    We never knew what happened to her, the trail goes cold. My fear is that she died and was buried in a paupers grave. We have been unable so far to track her death certificate and have no idea whether she died before or after the war. So much was hidden from us and there are so many gaps in our knowledge as a result.
    I was in the process of adopting a baby son at the age of 27 when my Father told us some of his true circumstances. I had always been close to John Thompson and of course thought he was my grandfather! A lovely man. We never knew Muriel Thompson she died before my parents married.

  12. Barbara permalink
    December 29, 2014

    A remarkable story of one man’s journey through life . I don’t think I could imagine a worse start but, despite everything , Frank obviously found purpose and was able to show compassion to others through his ministry . Although incredibly sad in parts, the fact that Frank went on to raise a lovely family of his own , must surely be his sweetest victory .

  13. Al Sarpong permalink
    June 16, 2015

    Lovely story, and very emotional. Sarah was one of my teachers at Berger Junior School in Hackney and she was always very good. I was one of her pupils when she had her own child. I was just curious to know what happened to her and what she looked like now. She has aged beautifully! :)

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