Tuesday, May 17, 2016

International man of mystery

My father Ted Riding
My parents probably met in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where my British mother had gone to work as a medical doctor in 1962. They moved to Johannesburg in 1963 and to Durban in 1964. I have no memory of my father who died from lung cancer in 1967, a month before my second birthday. My mother was left with three young children to raise alone. All our mother knew about our father’s origins was his date and place of birth (1917, Vancouver, Canada), his father’s name, his mother’s given name, the place where his parents lived in Canada (Lytton, BC), and that he had a lot of siblings. My sister was named after our mother's mother and I was named after our father’s mother. I knew nothing else about my namesake, or where our father really came from, until I was 50 years old.

In the 1980s I wrote to the Ridings listed in a Canadian telephone directory. Some kind people actually wrote back to me, and one of them even sent me family photos in order to see if there was any resemblance (bless you). There were other letters too, to the Canadian authorities and anyone who might know something about my father’s family. Nobody did. The search went cold.

Our mother died in 1992. In 2000 my brother obtained our father’s 1967 estate papers via a private researcher. His death notice for estate purposes containing information supplied by our mother revealed the first name of a wife who was not our mother. I knew our father had lived in England before coming to Africa as our mother had kept an official letter that had once accompanied a King’s Badge issued in his name in 1943 (sort of, his initials EG were transposed for some reason to GE). The Internet was still pretty new, but I eventually extracted some more secrets from it, namely further details of my father’s marriage and the name of a son born to the marriage in England. I found my father’s marriage index and my half-brother’s birth index by manually searching GRO indexes on 1837online.com (now known as Findmypast.com) launched in 2003.

I found my half-brother’s telephone number listed on the British Telecom website and called him. He was “shocked but not surprised” to discover he had siblings in South Africa. Our father was a mystery to him too however. He told me he last saw his father in South Africa in 1951 at the age of eight, when his pregnant mother returned to England with him after a short stay in Port Elizabeth. I travelled to England to meet him in 2005. My half-sister, who was born in England in 1951, passed away in 2001 so I never had the chance to meet her.

In May 2009 I ordered my father’s GRO marriage certificate dated 1942. I noticed an age discrepancy for him and that the name given for his father was not the same as the name my mother had provided on his death notice. The discrepancies were frustrating, but the record proved to be one of the keys that would ultimately unlock my father’s identity. It contained his British Army unit, rank and service number which enabled me to obtain his non-public World War II service record later that year. His enlistment papers dated October 1939 contain a name and address for his father. I now had a third name for his father, namely William Riding, and a new place of birth for my father, namely Liverpool in England. My father’s first and middle names were switched around, consistent with the initials in the letter my mother kept. There was no UK birth record using any of the known variations of his name and date of birth however. I looked up his father’s supposed address online and decided against writing to the homeowner who had a different surname. I no longer took any of these “facts” too seriously and I thought that many people would have come and gone from that house in the 70 years since my father enlisted. I was wrong.

Starting in 2009, I submitted my DNA to all the main testing companies in the US as their genealogy products became available. I didn’t get any close matches other than some known cousins on my maternal side.

I took great interest in the Canada 1921 Census launched by Ancestry.ca in October 2013. My father and his family would surely be in it. They were not, and I was deflated again. In 2014 I noted with cautious optimism Findmypast’s announcement that they would be publishing the 1939 Register containing details of the population of England and Wales at the outbreak of World War II. In November 2015 I searched these records for the address my father had provided for his father to see if there was in fact a person by the name of William Riding living at that address. To my surprise there was.

I searched his name and birth date on Ancestry.com and luckily found a public family tree containing William Riding and his wife Ellen (thank you Jane). In 2010 a grandson of theirs and second cousin of the tree owner had written some notes on the tree, including the fact that one of their sons named George born in 1922 had disappeared during the wartime period (thank you Terry). The name and age of the missing son was wrong (according to what I knew about my father), but the circumstances were too much of a coincidence to dismiss. Ellen died in 1955 and William died in 1980, but George still had living siblings and one of them kindly agreed to submit a DNA sample to AncestryDNA for comparison to mine (thank you Jean). The results were consistent with me being their niece.


My father left his parents’ home in Liverpool in April 1937 at the age of 14 after a few rows with his father. My aunt who submitted the DNA sample, now married with a different surname, still lives at the same address that my father provided in his enlistment papers. I now have a copy of my father’s birth certificate giving that address as his place of birth in 1922. The only part of his date of birth that he kept was the day. He changed his month and year of birth and assumed a new middle name which later became his first name. As of 2016, my father has 5 children (two now deceased), 8 grandchildren, 4 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild that I know of. Thanks to technology and persistence, his surviving siblings now know what became of him and his surviving descendants now know where he came from.