England / London / Travel Writing

London Family History

Today, we went in search of a piece of my family history.  The story goes like this…

During WWII, my grandfather, Garland Earl, was stationed in London.  When I told that to our Fat Tyre Bike Tour guide, he immediately asked if he was part of the something-or-other corps.  I had never heard of whatever terms he used, so I told him honestly I had no idea.  We really have very few details of my grandfather’s early life, or his marriage to my grandmother, Rose Hazel Wrench.  What we have are a few old black and white photos, precious few documented details, and a few stories passed down.

We have been told is that Garland Earl was stationed here.  Rose Hazel Wrench was in the RAF, which we know because we have an old black and white photo of her in her uniform.  As the story goes, Gar would see Rose walking by where he was every day, taking food somewhere – we believe to soldiers, but it’s really hard to separate out fact from fiction in some of this.  However, she was so thin, my grandfather always noticed and wondered if she had enough to eat herself.  So when she was walking back again, he always bugged her until she stopped and shared his dinner with him.  And somewhere along the way, they fell in love.

IMG_1865They were married on July 4, 1944, still about 10 months before VE Day.  My father always had a black and white photo of the the two of them, Garland Earl in his uniform with his right arm tucked behind him, Rose Hazel in her wedding dress, pressed up beside him with a spray of white flowers in her arms.  Both of them smiling, standing outside a church with a distinctive arched door.

When we knew we were going to take this trip, I asked my step-Mom to send me a copy of the picture of the two of them.  I also emailed my cousin, Jimmy, who is likewise interested in the few pieces of family history we have, asking him if he had any information on where they were married.  A few copies of the picture arrived in the mail, with a copy of what was written on the back of the photo taped to the back: the name of the church they were married in.  Surely I could track that down.

But then Jackpot arrived in my email.  Cousin Jim had the marriage certificate, which he scanned and emailed.  It contained the exact address of not only the church, but also Rose’s apartment, right down the street!

So I googled it, and the church is now a Pentacostal church, but it’s the same building. (Gotta love Google maps street view!)  Before we left the states, I mapped out driving as well as public transportation directions, and brought them with me.  Today, we went and found the church.

It was actually very easy to get there using the underground, then switching to overground.  30+ minutes door to door, and only about 5 blocks of that was walking outside, which was a good thing since this was our coldest and only rainy day.

IMG_4020When we turned the final corner, I was talking to Scott as we strolled, and suddenly I realized that was the church in front of us.  We stopped opposite the church on the street and took a few pictures, then got out the picture we had with us, and compared it.  It looks like a wall that was very close to the church had been taken down, but the base of it remained.  Put that wall back up, and we could easily pick out the door they were standing in front of in the picture in our hands.  The door that was dark, black-looking in our photo, was bright red here, with black scroll work, and set in a light to medium tan stone church.  Those could easily be the colors in our black and white photo.  It would have been gorgeous for a wedding.

IMG_4022I had my older daughter, Gar & Rose’s great grandchild, take a photo of my husband and I in the same spot, holding the copy of the picture I had brought with me.  I wanted to take a moment and just absorb that I was really standing in that spot, but unfortunately foremost in my mind was that I was kind of cold, definitely getting wet, and had a husband and two daughters with me that were being such good sports – but this didn’t hold the same meaning for them.

Then, we attracted the attention of a woman inside the church, who was cleaning, I think.  She came out asking what we “were about”.  So I showed her the photo I have, and told her the story.  She got all excited and called her friend out too yelling “Come out here, this is important!”  So her friend came out and I was told the repeat the story.  The first woman who came to see what we were about, is named Rose.

IMG_4027They took pictures of the photo I had with me, as well as the notes I had written on the back.  I gave them our contact information.  You never know.  And they let us in the church to take pictures inside.  They were all excitement and touched at the story, the “great love” they said.  They wished our girls well in finding their great love one day, but Scott said not until he’s ready.

After one last picture outside, we made our way down the street to 58 Middleton Road, and it was barely more than a block away, on the opposite side of the street.  And end unit, stone, row home.  Overgrown in the front, clearly having seen better years.  All quiet and dark.  We took a few photos, I stared at it a few minutes, and we moved on.

It did run through my mind there, and as we made our way home, I wonder what she was thinking when she stood there nearly 71 years ago?  They were young, and in love.  But he had received a dear John letter and been divorced by his first wife after he arrived in London.  She had been through the Blitz, and been doing her part with the RAF, and the war was still going.  Neither of them were naive kids anymore.

IMG_4023But did she already know she would leave her home and follow him back to the states, assuming the best?  There’s no way she could know that in a little over 4 years, she would have their first child, my father, John, in Ohio, far from her family here.  Then a second boy 2 years later, my uncle Frank.  A third boy 3 years after that, my uncle Rick, the father of Jim, who sent me the scan of the marriage license.  We believe she named Frank and Rick after her brothers, but again, so much is word of mouth and uncertain in this information.  She couldn’t know her first boy would contract Polio, be put in leg braces, and she would bring him to prayer meeting, praying for a miracle.  She couldn’t know that 13 years after this photo was taken, she would die in childbirth, as would the daughter they had been hoping for, leaving her 9, 7, and 4 year old sons to grow up not knowing her, or any of the family who were probably celebrating at this wedding with them.

IMG_4033She never knew that her oldest had the braces removed, and in spite of being the kid in early elementary years who wore leg braces to school every day, you would never guess anything had ever been wrong.  Or that all 3 boys would go to college.  That all three would marry, and she would have 7 grandchildren, and (to date) 5 great-grandchildren (I think I’m right on that?).

She didn’t know that Gar would have such a hard time after her death, that he never really spoke of her after she was gone.  We don’t know exactly how she died, or much about their time together.  My father did learn from old friends of Gar’s at Gar’s funeral in 1990, that Rose’s death was incredibly hard on him, and he was never the same.  I wish we knew Rose’s family that is here.  Apparently, from an old letter or two that survived but hasn’t helped us in finding the London branch of the family, my father has first cousins somewhere.  But after Rose’s death, Gar didn’t keep up contact.  That side just fell away.

It’s a strange, sweet, and sad story.  All my generation has to pass on is a couple of old black and white photos.

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