Its 1917 - Bertie Thomas is off to France and later Salonika to join in the fighting during
World War One.
Two years earlier when he had tried to enlist officials told him he had to produce his birth certificate...............the problem was, Bertie didnt have one!
The story leads back to 1885, when one night a liveried carriage drew up outside the home of washerwoman, Mary Steer (1818-1904) a 69yr old washerwoman of Mill Cleave cottage, Mill Close, Withypool, Somerset.
A nurse, Jane Storey (1837-1925) handed out a bundle to Mary Steer. The driver, who picked up his passengers from London at Dulverton station, whispered abruptly: "not a word to anyone !"
The bundle was, in fact, a baby!
Tongues soon began to wag about the parentage of the new-born baby taken in by Mrs.Steer.
Rumors abounded as Mary, with hardly two pennies to rub together, paraded baby Bertie in fine clothes and a pram, later sending him to school.
The Locals reckoned it was connected to the weekly envelopes she received from a neighbour who was a woman related to the Mildmays of Dulverton. I believe this 'neighbour' may have been Lady Hamilton nee Edith Charlotte St.John Mildmay who married James Archibald G. Hamilton in 1889. She was staying at Hollom House in the 1901 census. This was the family home of the Mildmays. Edith being the sister of Alice Mildmay.
On leaving school, Bertie, aged 12, went to work for farmer John Williams at Stone Farm, Withypool. Bertie told his son, Wilfred, that Farmer Williams made him eat and sleep in the barn and barred him from the house. He worked alongside John Williams's son, Wilfred John Herbert Williams and remembered a time when he was with him at the top of the hill in Dulverton. Wilfred pointed his finger and told Bertie that all the land, as far as he could see would one day belong to Bertie, but didnt say why, and Bertie thought no more of it at the time.
Mary Steer was born in Knowstone Devon in 1820 as Mary Troud and was married firstly to Mr Crocker and secondly in 1879 to a widowed blacksmith, John Steer, at Dulverton Registry office. John died in 1895 and Mary was taken into the Dulverton Union Workhouse in 1903 where she died on 31st January 1904 and just after that, at the age of 20 Bertie left Withypool to live in Swansea. In 1908 he was working for Bowens Sarso Mineral Water Company which later became Corona. He was one of the first people in Swansea to hold a Heavy goods vehicle licence, so when enlisting, he went into the Motor Transport Corp.
He married Mary Jane Harris on 19th Feb.1910 and they lived at 889 Neath Road Morriston Swansea.
At the outbreak of the war in 1914, when he tried to join up, he sent home for his birth certificate, but there was no trace of it or a Bertie Thomas born in Withypool, or London in 1885.
Bertie approached a solicitor a Mr.D.O.Thomas who went to Withypool with Bertie where he learned that Bertie had been born in July 1885 as well as the rest of the story. As a result the solicitor placed an advert in The Times in Sept. 1915 appealing for information about Berties birth and parents.
On 8th september 1915, there appeared this advertisement on the front page of The Times........
"IF THE NURSE OR OTHER PERSONS WHO CAN GIVE PARTICULARS OF THE BIRTH OR PARENTAGE OF A MALE CHILD KNOWN BY REPUTE AS BERTIE (OR HERBERT) THOMAS, BORN IN OR ABOUT 1885, SOMEWHERE IN LONDON, SUCH CHILD BEING IN THE SAME YEAR PLACED IN THE CUSTODY OF ONE MARY STEER, A WASHERWOMAN, OF WITHYPOOL, SOMERSET, AND AFTERWARDS APPRENTICED TO A FARMER AT WITHYPOOL, SOMERSET, WILL COMMUNICATE WITH D.O.THOMAS, SOLICITOR 21 YORK STREET, SWANSEA SHE OR THEY WILL BE SUITABLY REWARDED."
also the solicitor was interviewed by a reporter for the South Wales Post who stated that he was distressingly vague about the identity of those he believed to be the parents. He commented frustratedly "if my information is correct - and I have no reason to doubt it - then the young man comes from 'very high parentage indeed'.
Of course Bertie was off to war whilst this was going on and when he returned he was told that any papers amassed by the
Swansea solicitor had been lost during the WW1 bombings.
When Wilfred started to investigate the mystery, he went to the solicitors in Swansea Thomas & Thomas and they told him that all the papers were destroyed in the 2nd World War, when the city was bombed, but Uncle told them there and then that the sreet where their offices were was not damaged by bombs or fire as he was in the local ARP and he knew for certain that that was true, but they still denied it all, so what could he do.
When Bertie was in Withypool with the solictor he had also contacted the local Vicar, the Rev.Mr.Newman, back in 1915, who then held the benefices of Withypool and Hawkridge, who told him that he had thought it prudent to destroy certain papers left with him relating to the boy.
A keen-eyed Daily Sketch reporter picked up on the story and his interview with Mr Thomas was reproduced in the Somerset County Gazette the same month.
Poor Bertie never found out who he was and died in 1965 of a cerebral haemorage. He asked his son to try and find out so his proper name could be put on his tombstone.
Berties son, Wilfred Thomas, lived in Wellington. He is now also deceased. He had tried most of his life to unravel the mystery. He reckoned that Bertie was the love child of Edward VII and singer Alice Mildmay of Dulverton, but there is no proof of that.
Edward. as Prince of Wales, was notorious for picking up actresses and singers at the theatre. He certainly knew Alice from hunting trips to Dulverton, and the Mildmays were the only family
in the area to own a liveried coach.
Alice, who never married, went to live in South Africa around this time to a Mission- Wilfred suggests she may have been shunted off to avoid a scandal.
Apparently Mr. D.O.Thomas said he found out who the parents were, but didnt tell Bertie, he only told him that he came from 'very high parentage' and they were still alive to that day - apprx 1915 which would rule out Edward VII who died in 1910.
Was this correct or is it possible he said that to thow him off the scent! ??
Berties son, Wilfred was resting his hopes on finding an advertisment referring to a missing legacy to his father, printed in a Barnstaple newspaper. He was told that the notice related to certain financial arrangements having been made for Berties benefit. Although he doesnt have details of the legacy, he claimed to be the rightful heir to a 700acre estate in Dulverton.
If there was money provided for his upbringing, it seems certain that there would have been something for his future.
Whatever it was, where did it go?
This is not a search for an inheritance as that would be long gone! It is a search for an identity!
Over the years vital documents have gone missing. Papers given to the local Vicar, the Rev. Rowland Newman by Mary Steer, for safekeeping disappeared. and then records in Mr.D.O.Thomas's office were destroyed in bombings, during the second world war.
Whoever Berties parents were, any nurse/escort would have had to have been recommended for the job of escorting him to Somerset, and moreover, would presumable have been a person who could be trusted to act with discretion. The nurse, Jane Storey was in the employ of the Mildmays so must have been sent up to London to bring the baby to Withypool, or to meet the train. If Bertie was the son of Alice Mildmay, such an indiscretion would, surely, have been removed much further away from the family home. Its more likely that the Mildmays were co-operating in a cover-up for someone else - but WHO?
There is the story of Prince Eddy (Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence) who had a child with Annie Crook, this child was a daughter called Alice Margaret Crook. He died in 1892 aged 28.
One of Edward VII's affairs was with Jennie Jerome, the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill. There was a quarrel between the two men which was resolved in 1884 when Jennie reputedly started an affair with the King. See Churchill thrown out of England
But if it is true that both Berties parents were alive in 1915 then was his father George ? - Edwards' son? I checked to see where he was in 1884 and found he was in the Royal Navy from 1883. Then I found he was home to be invested as a Knight, Order of the Garter, which was on 4th August 1884. I dont know how long he was home, but maybe he met and had a brief affair with Jennie Jerome? Its possible he attended parties hosted by Jennie with his father. Bertie would have been conceived around October 1884 to be born in July 1885.
Whilst reading about Winstons' early life, it says that he was at a prep school in Brighton in 1885 and on returning home for his summer holidays that year, Winston and younger his brother, Jack were immediately sent off with their Nanny (Mrs.Everest) to a Hotel in Norfolk.
Is it possible that Jennie was pregnant?........ Bertie was apparently born in July 1885.
A few clues to Berties parentage:
In 1881 census Alice Mildmay is living at 42 Porchester Terrace, Paddington. She was staying with her Great Aunt, Charlotte Trotter, whose husband was a naval Officer, Rear Admiral Henry Dundas Trotter (1802-1859)as was the husband of Alice Keppel,(a well known mistress of Edw.VII), the Hon. Henry Keppel, so they may have known each other. Charlotte would have been 36 when he died. Prince George (George V) was also in the Royal Navy.
Also in 1881 the nurse, Jane Storey, is in the employ of Mildmays at Hollom House, Dulverton. She is buried in the Mildmay vault in Dulverton cemetary, her epitaph reads: Jane Storey, wife of Robert Storey, for 67 yrs devoted nurse and friend in the family of Arthur St John Mildmay of Hollam, died 18th March 1925 aged 88 yrs.
The 1891 census show Berties place of birth being London.
1901 shows Bertie aged 15 as a carter at Stone Farm Exford, employed by 26 year old farmer John Williams who, incidentally, was the local church warden.
When Bertie visited Withypool in 1915 with his solicitor he learned from the Rev Newman who was the benefices for Dulverton and Hawkridge. that the minister has 'thought it prudent' to destroy certain papers left with him relating to the boy.
The Rev. Rowland Newman died 17th Nov.1919
Berties daughter had haemophilia - sometimes referred to as the Royal disease.
His granddaughter, whom I know and related this story to me, is the image of Queen Victoria, even the same height and build.
Edward VII was born Albert Edward but always known to the family as 'Bertie'. In those days a child was often named after his paternal grandfather.
Alice Mildmay was born in India 23rd May 1857 and died unmarried in 1922 She was in Paddington in 1881 and later went to Africa. In 1901 she was living at Orchard Cottage, Mundesley in Norfolk with her servant, Zacchia Molape who was born 1881 in Basutoland, later known as Lesotho.
Edward VII actually visited Alice Mildmay on several occasions when she was at Weatherslade Farm Withypool, which was being farmed by Robert Williams - this information was given by Fred Milton who was living there as a young boy.
This story is also in a book called “Somerset Stories” by Robin Bush, published 1990, Robin was the Deputy County Archivist at the Somerset Record Office and also on TV “Time Team” programme .
The picture below is the only early picture the family have of Bertie with his family. This is the picture from which I took Berties head. Scroll down to see pictures at bottom of page.