Family history dilemmas - to tell or not to tell?


28 August 2018
Rome_(Italy),_Padlock_at_Ponte_Palatino_--_2013_--_3-24072.jpg Family history dilemmas - to tell or not to tell?
Professional researcher Kim Cook shares her experiences of dealing with family skeletons and secrets, as we ponder how you should move forward when handling family history dilemmas.

Professional researcher Kim Cook shares her experiences of dealing with family skeletons and secrets, as we ponder how you should move forward when handling family history dilemmas.

Case study


This case involved a third party, Jenny – one of my many overseas contacts, made through an interest in the same unusual surname, although we were not related. A warm and generous person, she was always ready to help others with their research.

Some years ago, an excited email from Jenny told me that she’d recently discovered another family with the surname we were interested in, in a town some 35 miles from her home town. Ernest and his wife were elderly, with a large family of grown-up children, and had recently moved to be near two of their married daughters. Although Jenny had some information in her own records, Ernest was happy for Jenny to contact me to confirm where his father had come from, and determine whether they might be related to Jenny’s family or to mine. 

Ernest, the youngest of a large family, named his parents as John Mathieson Flimby and Bridget Flimby. John and Bridget had married in the country where Ernest now lived, in about 1912, although John had been born in England. Ernest knew nothing of his father’s parents or possible siblings in England, and was keen to learn more. As soon as I read the unusual middle name, alarm bells rang. Although he came from a family with no connection to Jenny’s or mine, I was sure he had married in England. When I checked my records, I found my memory was correct.

John's background

John Mathieson Flimby had been born in northern England, and had married in his home town in 1906. He and his wife Ellen had had three children in quick succession. In 1911 Ellen Flimby and their three children were at the same address as that on the marriage certificate, but John wasn’t there. Ellen, described as a widow, had taken in lodgers, presumably to make ends meet. In my earlier research, I’d been unable to find any record of John in 1911, or a death record for him, before or after 1911. Passenger records were not, at that time, readily available. I’d previously been in contact with Ellen’s grandchildren, but they knew nothing of their grandfather, assuming that he’d died before they were born.

At the time of John Mathieson Flimby’s disappearance from available records, divorce was possible, but extremely difficult and expensive, and probably beyond the financial resources of this family. While this might prove to be a case of divorce and a second marriage, there was also the possibility of bigamy. I promptly emailed Jenny, warning her not to divulge any information until she knew more about Ernest and his current family, as this could prove to be a very sensitive case.

To tell or not to tell Ernest?

This was very definitely a case of not to tell, or at least to tell only a small part – just the names of John Mathieson Flimby’s parents. John’s marriage to Bridget might have been bigamous or followed a divorce – both untenable if the family were Catholics. Although John had been baptised, and married for the first time in the Church of England, the name of his second wife Bridget, and the fact that Ernest was the youngest of a very large family, suggested that Bridget might have been a Roman Catholic, and that John may have converted when he married. The implications for Ernest and his siblings would be huge and, to them, abhorrent.

Sadly, Jenny didn’t see my email until too late. In her enthusiasm to help Ernest, she had already emailed him, giving him details of John Mathieson Flimby’s first marriage, and the birth of three children in England. The result was a very angry reply from Ernest, denouncing her ‘interference’, and confirming that, as a devout Roman Catholic, he refused to believe his father had been previously divorced. Jenny was mortified, as it had never occurred to her that her act, intended to be generous, had backfired so badly.


Spontaneous generosity is a wonderful attribute, but there is always a need for caution in family history. This is so, not only where second marriages and second families come to light, but where there is evidence of anything – a criminal conviction, time in a workhouse or asylum, illegitimacy, or bigamy – that might be regarded as a stigma. It’s always better to hold back information while you check what the enquirer already knows, and tailor your response accordingly. Sadly, the two sides, English and overseas, of the Flimby family never did reunite.

Case study

Peter & Alice

This is another case where the well-meaning disclosure caused major distress. Peter was born in the 1930s, knowing he was the child of a second marriage. He remembered his much older half-siblings, some of them similar in age to his mother, and was aware of their disapproval. Early in World War II, his elderly father died, and his mother took him away from the family home. Soon after, she married again, but the step-father didn’t want Peter, so he was boarded out with a child-minder. Once old enough to work, he was left to get on with life alone and, in this bleak situation, he chose to emigrate.

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He settled well in his new homeland, found a good job, and met and married Alice. They had a long, happy marriage, and four children. A long-term family friend, who had also grown up in England, joined the English family history society covering her ancestral area, and spotted that another member, Sarah, was researching Peter’s family. Sarah was a grandchild of Peter’s father. I became involved because I was a friend of Sarah’s, and a member of the same family history society.

Acting on my advice, when Sarah wrote to Peter and Alice, she deliberately omitted the dates of her grandmother’s death and her grandfather’s remarriage a few weeks later, as these would have made it obvious that Peter had been illegitimate. Although Peter’s status had later been legitimised by his parents’ marriage, the circumstances were sensitive and likely to cause distress.

Shortly after the first contact, Peter died suddenly, but Sarah and Alice continued to correspond and developed a long-distance friendship. Many years later, when the elderly Alice was planning to visit England, it was arranged that, towards the end of her trip, Alice would stay with Sarah and her family for a while.

At this point, Mike, another member of the same family history society, who happened to be researching the same surname, wrote to Alice. In his very first letter he declared that ‘of course, your husband was illegitimate’. Alice was devastated. A pillar of the local community, with traditional values, Alice was a local councillor, magistrate, and charity volunteer.

The discovery that her beloved husband was illegitimate hurt Alice, and she came to the mistaken conclusion that Sarah must have told Mike. Consequently, Alice didn’t notify Sarah when she arrived in England, but sent a message saying that she wouldn’t visit Alice after all. Sarah couldn’t understand this, and was very hurt. 

To tell or not to tell Alice?

Sarah had initially made the right decision, which was to tell, but not in full. Mike, new to research, was eager to display his skills in interpreting the results of his research. He had found no birth record for Peter under his father’s name and, having found a marriage for Peter’s parents, then found the birth recorded under his mother’s maiden name. Delighted with his discovery, he completely failed to appreciate that information of no consequence to him, had very distressing implications for the person he shared it with.

When Mike had done a little more research on his own family, it emerged that he wasn’t even related to Alice or Sarah, but his thoughtless revelation nearly split a family apart. He should have followed Sarah’s example – tell, but only partly, and with discretion.


This almost led to a permanent split between Sarah’s family in England, and the family of her emigrant half-blood uncle. Guessing that Alice would stick to the early part of her travel schedule Sarah went to a hotel where she knew Alice was staying. The reception Sarah received was initially very chilly and, when she learned what Mike had written, Sarah was very distressed. Fortunately, Alice had enough old-fashioned courtesy to hear her out as Sarah explained how it was possible for a total stranger to interpret records in the public domain, and reveal family secrets.

Sarah also produced family trees she’d taken to meetings attended by Mike. These clearly showed that the sensitive dates had been left off all her records that were likely to be seen by others. Eventually, Alice agreed to stay with Sarah, but for a much shorter visit than had originally been planned. It took years of long-distance communication (no internet at that time) before Alice thawed completely, and relations became really cordial again.

Read more of Kim's solutions and case studies for coping with a family history dilemma in the October issue of Family Tree magazine.

About the author

Professional researcher Kim Cook has always had a keen interest in people, and in history, so family history was an early enthusiasm. She paid her first visit to the GRO (then at Somerset House) in 1961, in 1977 she was a founder-member of the East Surrey FHS and, in 1987, of the one-name society, Witheridge FHS, of which she is President.

In 2003 Kim set up her own company, Orchard Research, writing and presenting courses and seminars, and undertaking research for clients. She has also published parish transcripts, and a short ‘Dictionary of Family History’, and is also preparing a history of her locality.

(image copyright Dietmar Rabich)