Over a year ago I posted a photograph in a blog post about one of my first DNA searches to identify lost family. I promised to write the story of Philip Holmes and the steps we took to identify him – both conventional genetic genealogy steps using DNA and family trees as well as a few more unconventional methods. A few mysteries still remain, including being unable to find any living descendants of Philip – or at least any who will answer our messages on Ancestry. There’s a little more information in this post from last year if you want to read it to get a few more details.
We often remark in DNA searches that you should “follow the DNA” rather than a name. People often have a name to work with. Names can be changed, made up, mis-remembered. DNA cannot be faked or changed. In this case we did have reason to believe that the name of the person we were looking for was indeed Holmes. That’s because it was on a birth certificate.
Myrena or “MPH” as I have always known to her or even “Carol’s Mum” was born to Ethel Marena French, formerly Ethel Marena Stevens. At the time she had Myrena she was married but had disappeared for a while – possibly a couple of years – and then resurfaced with a new baby in 1931. She always claimed that Mr Philip Holmes was the father of her little girl. The birth certificate reflected the name Holmes although she was not married to him. The baby’s name was also recorded in the birth register under two different surnames – French and also French-Holmes . It’s not often that there is any paperwork connecting the name of an otherwise unknown father to the birth of a child to an unmarried mother. This appears to be a case when it was allowed – or Carol’s grandmother, Ethel, just made sure it happened. Carol did some research and gave me this information:
“The ‘French’ bit was because it was my grandmother’s legal married surname at the time. Interestingly, there were 2 birth entries; one that says Holmes-French & one that just says French. I looked into this & apparently it wasn’t that common but was usually when the parents weren’t married but the father was present when the birth was registered & consented to his name being on the birth certificate/entry.”
So it seems in this case there was some further confirmation that we were looking for a man called Holmes. But who was he? DNA at this point had not revealed anything closer than 4th cousins who could be from Carol’s missing maternal grandfather’s side. This did not make it easy to “follow the DNA”. A lot has changed in 18 months of DNA matches on Ancestry. Mainly, though, Brits still face the same issues in that matches are generally US- based and reflect a connection to an ancestor possibly back in the 1700s. So whilst we did do a lot of tree-building and match-connecting, Carol also took the less-favored road: simply researching men of the same name who would have been around the right age in 1930 to have been her grandfather. She mainly used voter registration lists from London for this, generating a list of around 100 people to work with.
There was reason to believe that Philip Holmes may have spent time abroad. The photographed that sparked my involvement shows a man standing next to a mule in an environment that certainly does not look English. It was this idea of a possible overseas involvement that led Carol to briefly investigate a movie star of the 1930s as her possible grandfather.