They adopted a child

My nana was a difficult woman. She fell in and out with those around her, including her two daughters-in-law, so that they never really knew where they stood with her.

She was very popular with her seven granddaughters though, as she sewed and knitted amazing dolls clothes, but you did need to be careful of her and there were times when we knew it was best to go and play at the bottom of the garden and well out of the way.

She did not talk much about her past, even her two sons were vague about who was who in the extended family. All in all she was a bit of a mystery woman. There were stories of her ‘real’ father and her adoptive father, and other snippets of information. It was said of Nana that she never did let the truth get in the way of a good story, so when she did say something it was often dismissed by the adults around us as another one of ‘her fancies’. So when I began to trace my family history I was faced with a number of these stories to try and weave my way through in an attempt to get to the truth.

I did not even know her real age. Her birthday was celebrated on the 2nd May, but no one was really sure what year she was born. She said she was born in 1900, but she also said that she was 21 when my father was born in October 1920, and her marriage certificate in December 1919, said she was 21 then as well, so that meant that she was probably born somewhere between 1898 and 1900.

What I did know, or thought I did, was that she was born in Palmerston North, New Zealand. Her name was Siscelia May Henderson, but she was always known as May. Her adoptive father was Robert Henderson, and he adopted her when she was about 12. Her ‘real’ father was Dan Corkery. Her mother’s name was Annie and Annie had also married Daniel O’Sullivan, probably when May was a teenager as there was a much younger half-sister. But I had no idea when, or in what order, Annie was married to any, or all of these men or even what her maiden name was! There was also one occasion when May had told my mother that she (May) was illegitimate.

I began by looking for a birth registration in the name of Corkery or Henderson. I searched from 1897 to 1914, believing that adopted children were re-registered with their new name. As I was to find out, that did not happen until much later in our history. May did not appear to be registered within that time frame under either of these names. This fitted with a comment my mother had made, that May had required a copy of her birth certificate for a pension which my mother had gone to the registry office to get for her. They had been unable to find a birth registration, and her pension had eventually been granted on other evidence of her age. I was therefore not the first person to discover that there appeared to be no registration of her birth.

I then searched for marriages for May’s parents and eventually found the marriage of Annie Corkery and Robert Henderson in 1895. The marriage certificate showed that Robert Henderson was a bootmaker and a batchelor and Annie Corkery was a spinster. Both were said to be of full age. This marriage occurred some three or five years before we believed May was born, and if Annie was a Corkery, then who was Dan Corkery and where did he fit into the picture? So the questions now were, was May actually older than she claimed, and was she the illegitimate daughter of Annie Corkery, adopted by Robert Henderson some time after Robert and Annie married?

Back to the library to search the birth registers now working back from 1898. Again no success, but in one of those curious genealogical moments the woman sitting at the next fische reader asked what I was searching for. As I explained to her, her eyes lit up and she told me that she collected information about Henderson families in New Zealand, and to wait there and she would be right back!

On her return clutching a large folder, my new friend was able to tell me that Annie and Robert Henderson had divorced in 1910 and that there was a newspaper report of the proceedings, which I could view in the library of the city where they were living at the time of the divorce.

So another trip to another library, and when the newspaper report was located the picture began to become clear.

Annie Henderson (Mr Innes) applied for a dissolution of her marriage with Robert Henderson, on the ground of the later’s habitual drunkenness and failure to maintain his wife. Respondent did not appear.

Petitioner, in evidence, said that she was married to Henderson in 1895. They adopted a child in 1898…

They adopted a child! At no time had May ever said that Annie was not her mother. She said a lot of uncomplimentary things about Annie, but never that. This new information also made a lie of the ‘fact’ that Robert Henderson adopted her when she was about 12.

Other information in the newspaper report suggested that it was likely that she was born in 1898, and adopted by Annie and Robert as a young baby.

May’s christian names had also intrigued me. She was always very insistent that her name was spelled Siscelia rather than the more common spelling of Cecilia, and heaven help anyone who got the spelling wrong. For all that, she was always known as May, her second name. Why I wondered, in a family where everyone was called Annie or Mary or Margaret or Jane, would you give a child the more fanciful name of Siscelia, and thereafter refer to her as May? I wondered if Siscelia was the name her birth mother gave her.

Back to the library again, and this time I searched the entire birth register for 1898 looking for all girls registered with the name of Cecilia or Siscelia. Several hours later I found her! Cecilia May Munroe, registered April quarter 1898 and in the city that all evidence suggested was her place of birth. At this point I was delighted that she had been given an unusual name, and not called Annie or Mary or Margaret or Jane!

The next step was to apply for her birth certificate. A couple of weeks later I received a phone call from the births, deaths and marriages office to explain that they were unable to release the birth certificate I had asked for because it was subject to the adoption act. Such records may only be released either to the adopted person themselves, and she was dead, or application may be made for the release a minimum of 120 years after the event. But, if I was able to provide the name of the adoptive parents then they would be able to let me have a post-adoption birth certificate! That at least confirmed for me that I had found the correct person, however I will not be able to find her birth mother’s name until the original certificate is released in 2018.

May aged about 4 years old 
It is believed that the photograph was painted by her adoptive father, Robert Henderson who was a bit of an artist.

So, who was Dan Corkery, May’s ‘real’ father? My uncle confirmed that he did exist, and that he had met him and his wife a number of times, the last time being in 1937 when Dan came alone to the house and argued with my grandmother. He apparently offered her some land he owned and she told him that he had not wanted her when she was young, so she now did not want him or anything to do with him.

As adoptions at this time were usually between people who knew each other, and there was only one Corkery family living in that area, my working hypothesis for the moment is that Dan Corkery was a brother of Annie, and that she and Robert had adopted her brother’s illegitimate child.

Identifying Annie’s siblings is not proving easy. Annie’s parents were Jeremiah Corkery and Mary Hurley. Information suggests that they were married in England. Free BMD has the marriage of Jeremiah Corkarian and Mary Hurley in Staines, Surrey, in 1853. I have yet to order this certificate, but it does look possible. There is another pairing of a Jeremiah Corkery and a Mary Hurley, also in Staines in 1881, I have that certificate although the marriage is much later than I would have expected, and this is not them.

They appear on the 1861 UK census living in Cranford, Berkshire, with children John, age 4; Mary, age 2 and Jeremiah, age 3 months.

In 1871 they are in Walthamstow, Essex with John, age 14; Mary, age 12; Katherine, age 7; Edward, age 5; Robert, age 2 and Margaret, age 3 months.

The family came to New Zealand about 1873/5, but to date I have found no record of their arrival.

Daughters Mary and Catherine married here in New Zealand, and I have that information. Edward and Robert both appear on a number of electoral rolls, along with another possible son, Thomas, probably born about 1874/5, who was a witness at May’s wedding. I have found no trace of John in this country.

New Zealand death certificates list the sex and age of surviving children, and Mary Corkery’s death certificate in 1907 lists four sons and four daughters, while Jeremiah’s, a year later, three sons and four daughters. However only the last three match for sex and age on each certificate, and it is difficult to consistently match the ages of the older children on both certificates with information from the UK census returns.

I cannot find any official evidence of Dan Corkery. My uncle remembers him in 1937, so he was still alive when Jeremiah and Mary Corkery died. He does not appear on any electoral rolls covering the general area of the country, although if my uncle’s story is correct, the man known as Dan Corkery clearly owned land in a couple of different places. There is no record of a marriage or a death of a Dan(iel) Corkery recorded in this country at the relevant time. However Edward Corkery does appear on electoral rolls covering the areas my uncle believed the land to be. Was he known as Dan? If he was May’s father, he was married at the time of her conception and birth.

There were several Munro(e) families living in the general area, so guesswork is not very easily going to identify May’s birth mother. One Munro was a shoemaker, the same occupation as Robert Henderson her adoptive father, is this possibly another link between the families?

Working on something I read somewhere, that a birth mother was likely to marry within five years of giving a child up for adoption, I checked the marriage records from 1898 to 1909. Unfortunately they are listed nationally, with no easy way of identifying where the marriage took place. There were a number of Munro brides, but only one Munroe and that was in 1900, and electoral rolls show that she did live within 30 miles of May’s birthplace at the time she married. So she is high on my list of possibles as the birth mother. In a twist of fate, my uncle knew several members of her husband’s extended family, and a descendant of one of them married my cousin’s son.

What of May’s life as an adopted child of divorced parents? They are only her stories and very small bits and pieces of hard facts. She said she lived with her Corkery grandparents and went to the school over the road. That is possible, until Mary Corkery died in 1907 or Jeremiah in 1908. In 1906 Robert Henderson was in jail at the other end of the country. Was his wife Annie living with him down there or was this one of the times he had abandoned the family and Annie had taken May and gone to live with her parents?

May had pointed the Corkery house out to my uncle many years ago – not possible, as it burnt down in 1910.

May said that she lived in a Catholic orphanage and was brought up by nuns. There is no record of this, and no time for any such stay to have been anything more than short term if there is any truth in the story at all.

At the time of her parents divorce in 1910, it is recorded that May was living with her Henderson grandmother in the next town, as her mother had to go out to work to support herself. She certainly did attend school in that area. The divorce records show that ongoing custody was to be decided at the time of the decree absolute application. I have not been able to find that decision.

Annie married Daniel O’Sullivan in 1911. Sometime, possibly shortly after that, they moved away. May might have moved with them, or followed later, as in 1916 she was working in a hotel in the town where they were living and where their daughter, May’s half sister, was born a year later. It was while she was living here that May met her future husband (my grandfather), shortly before he went off to war.

What did she know of her beginnings? She obviously knew her birth father, but it is unclear if she knew anything about her birth mother. There is only one mention that came to light when I was telling some family members what I had found. It jogged a memory of May talking about being in the orphanage (if that is even true) when a beautiful woman came in and was nice to her. After the woman had gone, one of the nuns asked if she knew who the woman was. “That was your real mother”, was the answer she said that she was given. Is this true, or is it a story from a person who never knew, and always wondered?

She was always very clear about her fathers, Dan Corkery, her birth father who she obviously had no time for, and Robert Henderson, her adoptive father who she thought was wonderful, even though my research has shown that he was a thief and a drunkard, and had served several terms in jail! She had no time at all for Annie, but apart from that one almost forgotten instance, she never indicated that Annie was not her birth mother.

And as for the much celebrated spelling of Siscelia? Her birth registration was Cecilia, at the time of her parents divorce in 1910 it was still Cecilia. Siscelia does not appear on official records until her marriage to my grandfather in 1919!


© KiwiChris 2008