Christopher Morley

A secret life 'jigsaw puzzle' search ...

By Christopher Morley

My West End World War II story started in London on 9 August, 1993. It evolved as a four dimensional secret 'jigsaw puzzle' ... with TIME being the most significant criterion. Only one or two pieces discovered on most days of puzzling - for example, dated photos, documents and mixed images of places - rather than the typical whole box containing all the 'picture' pieces spilled at once upon a table.

A birth certificate dated 1949 ... a "doodlebug" falling in 1944 ... a shadowy carved image of the dates 1927-1946 ... a vine-tangled headstone dated 1944 ... a big red binder dated 1941...  newspaper images of destructive London Blitz bombing during late 1940 and early 1941 ... a grainy film image of an RAF fighter pilot Battle of Britain hero in 1940 ... and a sepia photo of a lovely young woman dated 1941. Finally, enough framed 'jigsaw' (though not without holes) to reveal my surprising life jigsaw puzzle!

Day One started oh so innocently in St. Catherine's House, London WC2 record room ... which was the repository, and a somewhat chaotic search place, filled with row after row after row of large and heavy red, green and black binders where the public could lay hands on UK Birth, Marriage and Death records. I did not know at the time that this building at the corner of Kingsway and Aldwych had been Adastral House during WWII - the Air Ministry headquarters.

9 August 1993 was just ten days after my fifty-second birthday. My wife, Sandra, and I had come over from Canada for only our second visit to England, our birthplace, since emigrating when young children. The reasons for our visit were, primarily, to report on my mother's final weeks to her extensive family of sisters and brothers in Stoke-on-Trent and to bring several inheritance items. Mum had died in March. Right after her funeral service I had felt a huge, compelling upsurge of emotion and intent: "I must go to England ..." then, after a pause, I surprised myself and everyone by adding: "and while I'm there I must get a 'proper' birth certificate".

('Proper' birth certificate alluded to the fact that my existing certificate was only a small square of paper ... nothing like Sandra's or my sister's long, folded forms with many columns of information. Other than my name under the heading "Birth Certificate" there was just a penned-in number on the upper right hand corner.)

Sandra and I were teachers and waited until the Summer to fulfill this travel task.

We arrived in London on Saturday 7 August 1993, rested on Sunday with the intent of being among the first commoners to enter Buckingham Palace early on Monday morning - the inaugural day of it being open to the paying public! However, early though we thought our arrival at the gate was, many had thought to come much earlier and the line was already halfway up the Mall. I suggested that, instead, we could go and "take care of that birth certificate stuff" and visit the Palace after.

Soon, there we were in St. Catherine's House, the London General Register Office (GRO), wandering and wondering in the Public Records area shortly after 9:30AM ... then learning how to pull and place heavy Birth registers from shelves to reading tables ... struggling to claim and maintain table space with an amazing number of other searchers. To my surprise I could not find the entry for my birth in the 1941 July-September quarterly volume 3 ... I was born on 30 July, 1941.

After fruitless searching of even earlier volumes as well as later ones we checked the accuracy of the system by looking for Sandra's birth entry, her sister's and my sister's. All present and accounted for in the correct quarterly volumes. As were some family marriage records we sought out in green registers and, even, family deaths in the cliche black registers.

By 10:45AM I felt significant frustration ... to put it mildly. Where on earth was I in these hugely important official record registers? I decided to go over to the clerk's counter with my question and little square birth certificate. The young man behind the counter heard my question, looked at the birth certificate, looked at me ... swallowed noticeably ... pointed behind him off to a far corner of the room and said: "May I suggest you look over there, sir?"

"Over there" was reminiscent of a classic Dickensian Victorian archival place - dark wood shelving and arched lintel-like tops made more than slightly forbidding by the deep shadows. (One could almost 'see' cobwebs and believe that a Scrooge-like figure was ready to emerge ghost-like, ranting "get away ... get away".) When I looked up at the engraved lettering over the shelves containing only a few brown volumes and saw the words "Public Index to ADOPTED CHILDREN Registers" I did immediately get away, however - virtually running to Sandra to jabber at her about the madness of the clerk. I insisted that we re-search all the registers again hoping for a different result … which is a definition of insanity, I believe. Part way through this agitated task, with Sandra's encouragement, I agreed to check the (ridiculous idea!) Adopted Children register 1927-1946.

It took me less than thirty seconds of page turning … and there it was. My name ... Christopher John Morley ... beside an entry number, the same as the one penned on my little birth certificate. Fifty-two years ago I was NOT born to my mother who had recently died!!!  My birth was recorded in the 1941 Volume 3 Birth register, no doubt ... but under a different name. Thus began my search for Who Am I? ... and for my Birth Mother.

The whole task of discovery took me forty-seven active search days in England. Eleven in late August prior to our return to Canada. Thirty-six during October - November, 1993 - when I came back alone, my teaching work put 'on leave' as I could only think of THE SEARCH for MY MOTHER! Amazingly, less than twenty years ago, this meant hours and hours of 'hands-on' researching in a variety of document and book archives. (Where, oh, where was the Internet???) Not to mention many more hours and kilometres of walking London's circuitous roadways, paths and alleys trying to find these archives. (Bless you, London A-Z map book!) Fortunately, I was often helped by sympathetic, curious, even incredulous people in many government and social agency offices, in public and special libraries - even Londoners on bus and tube rides, in hotels and parks when I could not help telling anyone who would listen. The intensity of my passion to find my birth mother, initially, then all about her was fierce and unrelenting, filled with alternating states of elation ("I found something!") and despair ("another closed door!") Talk about a "roller coaster" ride.

I cannot include all that I found in this telling ... but I do want to present some very important information about my birth mother, a Londoner who grew up in Holborn and worked during at least part of the WW II years for the Air Ministry in Adastral House. (Yes, the very same St. Catherine's building where my search started.) I'm not sure of her position. I assume a clerk function based on what I eventually learned about her pre-war jobs.

As mentioned previously, my very powerful, immediate first impulse ... after settling down from the shock of  the discovery ... had been to seek out my "mummy"... believing, then, with all my heart (and hopes) that she was still alive. However, I was told at the GRO inquiry desk that I could not get my birth certificate until I'd had a mandatory interview with an Office of Population and Census (OPCS) counsellor ... a wise precautionary requirement set in place after the government had legislated freedom of access to one's birth history in the 1960's ... after all, prior to that decision, all adoptions were "as if born to" secrets. My (adoptive) parents certainly held to that view right up to their deaths! And being a fifty-two years of age  'late discovery adoptee' further confirmed that ... much to my chagrin!

Only two days before our scheduled return to Canada I had the (accelerated from typical six months wait time ... bless them!)  OCP interview, also at St. Catherine's House, with a very caring counsellor who, after our talk, gave me a slip of yellow paper with my registered birth name on it: "John Powell Dietl".

Armed with that I returned to the previously much-handled 1941 Volume 3 Birth Register, found the entry immediately, filled out the birth certificate request form, paid for the 'quick service' ... 24 hours later I had, at last, an official copy of my long, birth certificate of many columns in my hands! The first surprise ... my mother, Ethel Louisa Dietl, was married ('Maiden Name' column filled out ... 'Taylor'); the second surprise... only a straight pen line in the 'Father' column; the third surprise ... her twenty-five years of age declaration (I had assumed an unmarried teen-age girl) ... but I still thought I could find her yet alive ( 52 + 25 = 77 years old).

Sandra broke into my reverie with an obvious question ... and the black registers beckoned ... common sense said "have a look". Time for searching was running out, though ... a plane to catch! In a rush ... we found no death entry for Ethel Louisa Dietl in the two years subsequent to my birth date ... then as I was packing up to leave St. Catherine's a strong electric shiver shot down my spine ... and a gentle force seemed to pull my arm toward a particular black register ... 1944 Volume 2. I opened it and her name "Dietl", the sole such surname, jumped off the page and prompted my spontaneous strangled distress cry-out of "No ... no ... no!!!" Hopes dashed so soon?

As we left the building to walk up Kingsway to Holborn Station I noted a small plaque commemorating the building's use as Adastral House during WW II ... at that time (August), so early on in my search, I did not understand the significance.

I discovered much later that during the early Blitz months of September 1940 - April 1941 my birth mother was living and working in London, commuting to Adastral House from Stockwell by then - her Holborn home had been bombed out! Apparently in the Autumn of 1940 a 25 year old married woman, with her husband already away at sea for many long months, facing death nightly from the Blitz, had sought out comfort, reassurance of LIFE and had entered into a close friendship with someone other than her husband . Made obvious by my full-term birth on 30 July 1941. (This truth was actually confirmed by her former husband himself in August 1994 when I sought him out and travelled back to England to meet him! He was then 83 years old. A most generous, genuine gentleman ... well past any hurt. A perfect host, under most unusual circumstances, to his wife's bastard child! My official English social status designation, it appears.)

Moral concerns? None from me. I wouldn't be here, would I? Anyway, I think that judgment and hypocrisy would have had no place in a Blitz world of bombs raining down nightly, death always potentially just seconds above your head! I'm a romantic, too. Since I have not been able to find details or witnesses I choose to assume she had a 'love affair' with, quite possibly, one of those brave RAF fighter pilots of whom Mr. Churchill stated: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." I would be honoured to be the issue of such a relationship which might have happened between my mother ... and a 'Captain Powell RAF'? ... in late 1940 in war torn West End London. (She registered "Powell" as my second forename on my long birth certificate! Hope springs eternal ... my lost father's name?)

Very early in my search, when I returned to London on 23 October, 1993, I could only presume three probables as starting points: an adoption agency involvement; my mother being buried somewhere in the London area; and some of her family may still be alive. I determined to find the adoption agency, her burial place and, eventually, a relative who could offer me some of her history. Also, I knew by my birth certificate that I had been born in Bournemouth, not London. Why?

Any great success days when I made real progress were intended to be "champagne cork popping" days! (We seek any incentive to 'soldier on'.) I actually had a few of these ... among the good days, not-so-good days and many dark and dreary and cold fruitless searching days:

1) October 28 at the Guidhall Library I discovered the recorded list in the City of Westminster Civilian War Dead which contained my mother's name and her date of death ... 30 June 1944 ... nearly three years after I was born!

2) October 29 at the Guildhall Library ... I found a book,  The Doodlebugs , by Norman Longmate with a Table of Contents phrase "Aldwych 30 June 1944" and detailed information about the early afternoon V-1 bombing between Adastral House and Bush House, outside the Aldwych Post Office, which killed 46 and injured 399!

Since my mother's Death certificate contained the phrase "due to war operations" and a death date of "30 June 1944" and the Civilian War Dead  referenced "at Aldwych Post Office" I could draw only one conclusion. She had been killed by a V-1 flying bomb ("doodlebug"). Not really champagne drink days after all ... I left the cork in ... horribly distressed ... but I had learned a lot and knew I must carry on.

My immediate desire to locate her burial place was delayed by my prearranged seeking for the adoption agency my mother used. I presumed the use of such an agency with much hope and NO confirming evidence found to date. Nonetheless, I went off on a lot of train trips to do interviews with my (adoptive) family aunts and uncles in Stoke-on-Trent (all of whom knew of my adoption, I found out immediately!) plus many librarians, social workers, et al in Bournemouth-Poole, Shrewsbury … following a route of where I lived during my first eighteen months of life. Surprisingly, by good luck more than good research, one brief reference clue in a Bournemouth library pre-WW II document led me back to London's Marble Arch area where I ended up having my most incredible "champagne cork popping" day!

3) November 15 at the National Adoption Society office (it had been one of over forty agencies operating in England in 1941) the brilliant lady in charge, in response to my asking if they had a 1941 file in the name of "John Powell Dietl", dug deep into the back of a file card cabinet then, holding up a green file card, said: "Here it is."  My adoption record !!! Abbreviated, yes ... but with full file available in their distant storage place. ... "please wait a week for us to have it sent here". (Yes. I DID pop the cork later! Curiously, to celebrate also my only, now adoptive, sister's birthday.)

4) November 17, after calling about twenty cemeteries, another wonderful lady at Hendon Cemetery and Crematorium told me that my birth mother WAS buried there! London Transit got me to the gate within an hour and, armed with a map of the older sections of the cemetery  quickly provided, I found my way to her gravesite!  And to being the closest to my mother since she left me at a hostel in Temple Guiting, Gloucestershire when I was two months and one week old. (Information found in adoption file later.)

Kneeling at her overgrown, tangled grave ... obviously not visited for years ... I had learned only a little bit about who and how she was ... but much about her final fateful day of life. Obviously, the incessant bombing of London  ... realities of the Blitz and the Aldwych V-1 blast, in particular, played a huge part in her life and death. And, therefore, in my life ... then ... and now ... since the secret had finally come out.  In that moment, though, as my tears splashed on wild rose vines growing from her grave, I only felt and cared about LOVE for this unknown mother who had given me life.

To me my Birth Mother stands out as a heroine ... commuting daily for several years to her work at Adastral House under constant threat of bombs, carrying a child ... a new life statement of courage and confirmation in the face of enemy action bent upon inflicting such prolonged, vengeful loss of life on Londoners. She actually carried a child in pregnancy NOT just once, but twice. After me (her first ever pregnancy and child) and the understandable aftermath consequences, in time she and her husband had reconciled. On 30 June 1944 she was seven and a half months pregnant with his child (my half-sibling), working her last day at the Air Ministry office before going on leave. (I wonder if her baby was counted in the 46 killed toll?)

Of course, London was filled during WW II with a population of similar heroines and heroes, I realize. And I still hope to meet one more, in particular - my father - alive or in confirming records. Having been a baby growing and surviving in my London born and bred mother, Ethel Louisa Dietl (nee Taylor) for six months in London ... before she evacuated to Bournemouth to be with her mother and sister for my birth and while waiting for the National Adoption Society to find adopters for "Baby" ... I like to believe that I have some right to think of myself as "a (bit of a) Londoner" ... and a part of West End WW II  history.

Standing in total shock, I started my story on 09 August, 1993 in St. Catherines House repeatedly asking out loud: "Who am I?" Slowly realizing that to find my birth mother meant, also, hope to find myself. ... yet not knowing I was already in Adastral House where my mother had last worked on 30 June 1944.

On 29 October, 1993, though, I had to end my "fantasy" about finding "my mummy alive" (despite the Death Certificate evidence) ... after reading the horrible Aldwych V-1 bombing descriptions, then reflecting on the reality whilst walking from the Guildhall Library to St. Catherine's / Adastral House ... i.e. the internal "fantasy'" of the Child Me still hoping for "my mummy" to be alive now had to face the truth of her death. On that day, outside St. Catherine's House, I sat on the Aldwych kerb emotionally overcome. Within metres of where her body probably had lain. Wondering ... did she think of me during her final breaths and thoughts and feelings? How amazingly close to her I was! Just separated by 49 years of time ... no longer by distance. Whatever forces, energies, connections exist between this Life and beyond ... in painfully difficult moments we do feel, experience, respond to something without knowing what ... I HAD felt my mother's guiding hand helping me to find the answers. Which gave me a reassuring sense, if only a little bit, that I had found her!

A few weeks later a woman on a train, with whom I had (of course!) shared some of my story, said to me upon leaving ... "I hope you find her picture."

And I did.

This page was added by Christopher Morley on 28/12/2011.
Comments about this page

What a story, and how hard it must have been to go through all those setbacks before you found the answers. Christopher, if I can help in any way, please contact me. (I'm the Enid's friends writer). All the best Jan

By Jan Gore
On 11/01/2012

I can not imagine how you felt when you first discovered you had been adopted ,and the journey of discovery about your back ground, I do hope your story inspires others in simlar situations. My grandad was killed two days earlier then your mum, in a V1 attack on the Guards chapel. Such a terrible time , and the aftermath of children left with out parents. I wish you ,and your family all the best ,and I am so glad you discoverd your history , indeed it is a amazing story.

By katharina miller
On 21/02/2012

Hi Christopher I've only just found your comment but would love to meet up if you're over here. Please get in touch if you're free. Look forward to seeing you Jan

By Jan Gore
On 18/11/2012

I found your story fascinating, thank you. My aunt Nancy was killed in the same explosion on 30 June 1944. She had only been visiting London briefly, to collect her degree from the LSE around the corner. A few minutes earlier, or later, and she would have been unharmed.

By John Rogers
On 10/11/2013

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