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My grandmother’s private past

My great great grandmother Ethel and grandmother Joan. Calcutta. (now Kolkata). Circa 1945

Image and Narrative contributed by Zak Gifford, Qatar/UK

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother Joan Thompson (right) with her maternal grandmother Ethel Minnie McNair (left). It was taken in Calcutta (now Kolkata) around 1945. My grandmother Joan was born in Ranchi in 1930, illegitimately. Not much is known about the events surrounding her parentage though photographs in our family archives show her father Frank Thompson and mother Kathleen Chaplin, both in each other’s company and with friends, as young people.

Ethel, my great-great grandmother in the picture, was married to a British reverend Joseph Chaplin and had three daughters and a son including Kathleen and they lived in Calcutta. She was a matron at La Martinere and I remember my grandmother Joan saying that Ethel worked with midwifery too, since we also have photographs of her working with babies. Joan described Ethel as being born in Srivilliputtur, Tamil Nadu and as half-caste which could mean she was Anglo Indian (Eurasian), but could also mean that she was of mixed Indian ethnicity who had adopted Christianity. I have been told that Kathleen always wore gloves and make-up to conceal her heritage.

My maternal family lived in Calcutta, and so did Frank Thompson’s. He was an Anglo-Indian and was close to our family. My great-grandmother Kathleen, her siblings and Frank were a group of young friends. Kathleen and Frank became lovers, and when Kathleen (Joan’s mother) fell pregnant at the age of 22, she moved to Ranchi from Calcutta for the duration of her pregnancy, which is to say that the scandal was contained within the family. It seems that Frank was too young to raise a child in that time, as he was still a teenager. After returning to Calcutta, Kathleen was unhappy and within two years, left her baby Joan in care with her mother, Ethel and moved to England. Frank and his family both remained absent after the birth of my grandmother Joan. Joan was then raised by Ethel, her maternal grandmother. I do not know what stories may have been told about Joan’s presence, and how the family dealt with it. Frank went on to study History and English at university and then began working for H.M. Customs.

Frank eventually married, but his wife died during child birth. His second daughter Jean (name similar to Joan), died a few days later and they were buried in the Lower Circular Road Cemetery in Calcutta. He then married again and had a daughter in Calcutta, moved to England and had a son. Though there is no evidence of any physical presence of Frank’s in Joan’s life, he did inconspicuously support her financially, enabling her to attend St Thomas’ school, and La Martinere in Calcutta, and Lucknow when much of Calcutta went through an exodus and evacuation during the Japanese Raid (WWII) in 1942. It seems that while Kathleen kept in touch with Ethel, she never spoke or wrote to Joan.

Joan spent time at boarding schools from the age of three, seeing her grandmother and aunties often. After graduating school she learned to type, and worked as a secretary at Blackwood Hodge, a British construction company in Calcutta. When Joan turned 19 in 1949, she received word that her mother Kathleen wanted her to move to England. Joan sailed on the SS Ranchi (ironically named after the city of her birth) from Calcutta to Middles-borough, England to meet with her estranged mother after 17 years. Upon her arrival she discovered that Kathleen had married a reverend and had a daughter named Wendy (later they also adopted a son) and was greeted by a new family – a step-father and half-sister. Living with her mother after 17 years turned out to be an uncomfortable experience and so when Joan met my grandfather, Walter Jewitt in the 1950s, she married him after meeting only twice – much to her mother’s disappointment. Walter and Joan had a daughter and a son (my mother, Susan and her brother Peter). This story was pieced together through conversations with Joan and Wendy.

After Joan’s death in 2017, and with the help of her baptism certificate and her last name ‘Thompson’ (birth certificates did not exist) I discovered, at the British Library, documents about Frank’s marriage and children and managed to track down his son, my great half-uncle, who seemed to know of Joan’s existence via the family grapevine and that Frank financially supported a half sister, but nothing more was ever said of it.

Joan, my grandmother always spoke about India beautifully, and longed to visit, though she would reject the ‘Indianess’ of her identity. Her accent indeed was unique, and was often questioned by the British public, but when in company of Indian people (i.e restaurants) she would excitedly share stories about her life in Calcutta, with the exception of her parentage. Joan’s grandparents, Ethel and Joseph also eventually moved to England and settled in Devon.

For us in the family, extended or close, Ethel, Kathleen and Joan are exemplary women who did the best they could considering their time, societal pressures and circumstances. We look at their stories and choices as ones of great courage and are fortunate to have an extensive photographic documentation of their lives.


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