Recording my dad’s birth

Those following my Brexit rants will be aware that a major obstacle to my completing the application forms for French citizenship is the absence of my father’s birth certificate. And indeed until very recently this was compounded by the apparent loss of all passports.

So, since the referendum I have been wandering around in circles, wondering what to do next, hoping the whole problem would go away, grasping at various MEPs’ statements that there might be a special status of EU citizen, and considering whether it might be easier to apply for Irish citizenship. There would be the same issue of no direct proof that the A W Filson who was my father was indeed the son of Major J T Filson and Mabel Alice Hamilton Hunter. But the Irish would no doubt be readier to accept circumstantial evidence like newspaper reports – and besides, they seem to be generous in their issuing of Irish citizenship to those seeking a way out of the Brexit quandary, and to people with less Irish connections than mine.  After all, I have two Irish grandparents.

Unbeknownst to me, my brother-in-law, Peter, was more proactive than me: he wrote an excellent letter, outlining my circumstances and dilemma, to his MP, who happens to be Sir Keir Starmer. He sought his advice on which person or department within the Home Office I should write to in order to obtain a statement that our father had possessed a British passport. As expected, Starmer wrote himself, asking this question of the head of the Passport Office.  That was in March.  There has still not been a reply!

When I arrived in London a week ago, my sister, Deb, said that she had unearthed several of Dad’s old passports amongst the papers of our brother, Dan, who died two years ago!  So, problem solved, I thought.  This may not say anything about my father’s birth but at least it proves his nationality, and that is probably the nearest I am going to get. (I’m tempted to say to Peter, don’t pass on this information to Starmer and see if the Passport Office ever replies!)

Before coming to London I had arranged to visit the Indian archives in the British Library.  Now that I possessed the passport I felt this was less urgent, but went all the same.

It was worth it, if only to visit the British Library.  I passed through an undistinguished door beside St Pancras Station and found myself in what is like a gigantic piazza. I liked the architecture, which I know is controversial, and I loved the sense of activity and enjoyment – people everywhere going to exhibitions, meeting friends in the cafés, or clearly going to or from one of the many reading rooms.  I was in awe of this, the biggest library in the world.

Getting a Reader Pass is a scarily complex business. I had started the process online and then had to go by several desks having my passport and proof of residence verified, photo taken, and finally the treasured Reader Pass, valid for a year. Then having left most possessions, including pens, in the cloakroom, I made for the Asian section.

There, somewhat embarassed at my rusty research know-how, I approached the help desk.  They were everything help staff should be:  friendly, helpful, intelligent, authoritative and not patronising.

I said hesitantly that I had thought that maybe I might find some circumstantial evidence of my father’s birth, maybe something like a newspaper report. Did I know, asked Aliki, the help desk person, if my father had been baptised.  I could have hit myself: as an atheist I had not even thought of something so obvious! Of course, with two Irish Protestant parents, my father would have been baptised.

Aliki did not just abandon me at the unfamiliar microfilm reels. It is always worth searching records for the year after the one you expect she said, as events like baptisms may not be recorded immediately. And there it was, the entry showing that my father had been born on 23rd August 1913 and baptised in January 1914!

I have paid £18 and for this I will apparently receive an official copy stating that since birth registers were not compulsory at this time, baptism records like this are taken as the equivalent.

Wow.  Search over.  I asked Aliki, who is Greek, if she was affected by Brexit.  Yes, she said, she was keeping her head in the sand and hoping it would all go away.  Her husband is British and this is quite clearly home.

I took advantage of being in the Indian section to start finding out more about my grandfather, and while I was doing that, Aliki – fired up by the challenges – found the record of my grandparents’ wedding in Colombo, Ceylon.  So undoubtedly next time I am in London I will be returning for more family research.  I haven’t even mentioned to Aliki the connections with the East India Company on our maternal side!

I finished by having lunch with our cousin, Ursula, curator of Persian collections – another part of the Asian section.  I asked her if there were many staff like Aliki coming from the EU.  Many, she said, and the British Library would be lost without them.

Now back in France, I await the baptism record with enthusiasm and reckon I can now go ahead with collecting all the other endless records I need.  I propose to tick the little box asking if I have my father’s birth certificate and then produce this baptism record as the equivalent.


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