One of my great great grandfathers was known for most of his life as Charles Stephen Freeman, a coal miner of Seaham, Co Durham. All that distinguished Charles from the rest of the local population was his thick foreign accent which he never lost. My grandmother, a granddaughter of Charles, told me that he was Swedish, and an oil painting of Charles in the back bedroom of my grandmother’s house, which I remember from my childhood, showed him as a seafarer on a sailing ship. In my childish imagination he was a swashbuckling Errol Flynn-type character sailing the Spanish Main. He had thick, vividly-red hair and beard, and a most unusual beard pattern with the growth entirely below the jaw-line. Sadly that painting didn’t survive my grandmother’s move to a smaller house in 1961, and all we have now is this very poor picture of Charles as an old man with his red hair and beard turned white.
In the 1970s, with my interest in family history increasing, I obtained birth, baptism and marriage records of Charles Stephen’s four children. He’s listed on all of these records as Charles or Charles Stephen Freeman, coal miner. But search as I might, I couldn’t find any marriage of a Charles or Charles Stephen Freeman.
Eventually I found the marriage in the records of Sunderland Parish Church in 1872, and this was my first indication that things were not quite as simple as they seemed. On that record he wasn’t Charles or Charles Stephen Freeman; he was Charles Freedman, aged 30, a miner, the son of Erich Freedman, a soldier. So Charles married under the name FREEDMAN, but a year later, on the birth certificate of his daughter, and on all subsequent records, the surname was given as FREEMAN. Why the change of name? My grandmother said she didn’t know.
I decided to visit as many of Charles’ descendants as I could find. The younger ones, unsurprisingly, knew nothing of Charles, but some of the older ones knew of him and a few re-iterated what my grandmother told me – Charles was Swedish, and in his younger days he’d been at sea. One added, and my grandmother later confirmed, that Charles had “jumped ship” and settled in the UK. One elderly relative, however, Bella Beck nee Freeman, really threw a spanner in the works. She said that her grandfather (Charles) wasn’t Swedish at all, he was Russian and a Jew, and he’d escaped to sea in his teens when he was about to be conscripted into the Tsar’s army.
I put this to my grandmother and she reacted as if I’d accused her grandfather of being a mass murderer. She made it very clear that I should never repeat those suggestions to anyone! Naturally I began to wonder. For the first time I realised that Freedman was indeed a Jewish name, and his wife’s even more so, her maiden name was Susanna Speakman. But they were married in an Anglican church and their children were baptised, so even if they had been Jewish, they didn’t remain so.
I found Charles on the 1881, 1891 and 1901 censuses, and these confirmed his name and approximate year of birth, 1842, his occupation, “miner”, and gave his place of birth as “Sweden”. The last two added that he was a “Naturalized British Subject”, but this appears to have been a lie as he does not appear in the naturalisation records at The National Archives at Kew in London.
With all the documentary evidence and most of the anecdotal evidence from the family stating that Charles Stephen was Swedish, and nothing concrete supporting Bella’s “Russian Jew” story, can I really give that story any credence? I probably shouldn’t, but the problem is that there are actually artefacts and other indications that suggest both a Russian and a Jewish connection to grandmother’s family.
When my grandmother died in 1982 I had to dispose of her belongings, including an old violin which resided in the bottom of her wardrobe. As a child I’d played with this violin and it was damaged, so I was inclined to throw it away. However, I heard that a young chap of my acquaintance wanted a violin, so I sold gran’s violin to him quite cheaply so he could repair and use it. Only when I’d committed to this transaction did I notice the violin label which was just visible through one of the F-holes. It read “Rigart Rubus Petersburg 1850”. A Russian violin! As far as I’m aware, gran’s parent’s didn’t play the instrument, so it presumably had belonged to one of her grandparents. Two of the four grandparents were born in the Cornwall/Devon area and one was born in Leeds, so it seems unlikely that any of those three would have owned a Russian violin. The fourth grandparent was Charles Stephen. Was the violin his? Was this evidence that the Russian origin story might not be so wide of the mark after all?
If I’d only known then, there was actually another significant artefact among my grandmother’s possessions which presumably came from either Charles Stephen or his wife. It was in grandmother’s “button box” – an old Peak Frean’s “Royal Scotch Shortbread” biscuit tin – which I’d simply handed over to my mother in 1982 without more than a glance at the contents. I never actually examined the contents until some time after my mother died in 1999. I was going through my mother’s possessions, deciding what to keep and what to throw away, when I came to that “button box”. I looked inside, and there, among the buttons, thimbles, press studs, bobbins of thread etc, I saw a very strange item indeed.
It was a circular pendant, probably of pewter, with a diameter of about 1.85 inches (4.7 cm) and its principal design feature was a Star of David (or Magen David), the symbol of Judaism. In the centre of the star was a Hamsa or “Hand of Miriam”, and between the points of the star were six apotropaic all-seeing eyes. Two holes in the “palm” of the hamsa look as though they may have contained gemstones, and there are indications that the pendant may have been gold-plated or gilded, though the specks of gold colouration could, just possibly, be corrosion. It is a Jewish good-luck charm. Only a Jew would have purchased and worn such a charm and the only possible Jews in grandmother’s known ancestry were Charles Stephen Freedman, his wife, Susannah Speakman, and their forebears. Yet more evidence supporting Bella Freeman’s version of the story.
How could my grandmother have dismissed the idea of her grandfather being Jewish so strenuously, when she owned such an obviously Jewish item which could only have come from that side of the family? I knew grandmother had lied to me about a different ancestor’s bigamous marriage, so she was prepared to lie to hide things about her forebears she found embarrassing. Did she deliberately lie about her Jewish ancestry? On reflection, however, I might be inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, my mother had the “button box” for 17 years and never spotted the Jewish symbol – I’m confident she would have told me if she had noticed it. Perhaps my grandmother inherited the button box contents from her mother (Charles’ daughter) and had never gone through it item by item, or she saw it but never realised its significance. Or am I being too kind?
In 2011 I took a series of DNA tests, including an autosomal DNA (atDNA) test which can match with blood relatives in all family lines. Among my atDNA matches are a significant number of individuals with Russian “.ru” e-mail addresses and/or seemingly Russian names including FYODOROVA, KARPOV, ANDREEVA, GURNOWSKA, VOROTYNTSEVA and OVECHKINA. Of course, these matches could be through any of my ancestral lines, but I know all my ancestors for five generations and many lines for seven, and the only line from outside the British Isles is the one which includes Charles and his father. Sadly, none of the Russian matches has responded to my e-mails, nonetheless this is yet another tantalising hint that Bella just could have been right. Though I must add that there were two atDNA matches from Sweden too.
Earlier this month I found Charles on the 1861 census – under the name Charles Friedman. He was a 19 year old “ordinary seaman” on the 137-ton Sunderland-registered brigantine “Hannah” which was engaged in the “coasting trade”. On census night, 7th April 1861, the ship was off Flamborough Head. Charles gave his place of birth as Gothenburg, Sweden – so on this occasion he specified his city of birth, not just the country. This census return shows that Charles had Sunderland connections as early as 1861. And look at the spelling of the surname! FRIEDMAN – even more obviously Jewish than Freedman.
So was he a Swede or Russian Jew? Or can aspects of both descriptions be true. If we allow the escape to sea to avoid conscription in Russia to have occurred, say, a generation earlier, could we accommodate both accounts? That’s just wild speculation, of course. In truth, we simply don’t know – yet.
See also “The Odessa Holocaust and the Russian Nan“