Looking for Lilian

by Adele Sullivan


I only need 30 seconds upon meeting you for the first time to tell you that I have Norwegian ancestry.

“Hi, I’m Adele, my Grandfather was Norwegian, this way please – the interview panel will be ready in just a moment.

Hi, I’m Adele, can I have a large pack of Rennies, yeah so my Grandad. He was Norwegian.”

My Grandfather Erik was right posh. He was slight of build, always wore a suit – even when going out to feed the ducks and chickens, and he smoked a pipe. He didn’t talk much. I didn’t talk much to him. I didn’t need to because I always talked to my Grandma and Grandad always used to disappear upstairs for a bath so it wasn’t really that big a deal. Anne Hill (egg tempera on paper)

It continued to be that way even after I heard snippets about his life. He and his father – Karl Johan had had a massive row over how the family business was run. His English mother wasn’t just posh but was seriously minted and her family disowned her after she got pregnant by a fit Nordic sailor, the Karl Johan in this story. He had a sister that was much older than him. His own Grandad was called Hans Henrik. His entire family disappeared in the war and he and my grandmother spent years searching for them after they married.

Wait! What?

At some point in the 1930’s, when Hitler was starting to make more than just a name for himself in Germany my great grandparents decided the best thing for them to do was to leave London and return to Norway. Grandad it was assumed didn’t go, because of the argument. They then disappeared. Grandad’s whole family. His parents. His sister and her husband. All gone.

It would be untrue for me to say that, whilst it didn’t exactly produce an “awwwww, that’s like really sad” it did leave a romanticised impression on me. “Errrmiguuud my poor grandad, all alone in the world”. That’s how my teenage brain processed it. And I swore, with all my teen sincerity, that I would find out what happened to them. I’d do it for my grandad. That I continued to not really bother speaking to. Suffice to say, I never found out, I never asked and that was the end of that.

But over the years, the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Grandads family kept popping up and some 12 years after Grandad’s death – I think I’d read a book, it involved a ghost and a necklace or something, pure fluff –  I was hit with a wave of grief. A grief for having a million questions about who he was, a sudden interest in this man that had nothing to do with him being from Norway, or wearing suits or the macabre teenage appeal of a tragedy. I just realised I didn’t know him and I’d never have the opportunity to find out. Because when I did talk to my grandma about him – he sounded really ace. There’s the pigeon story I can’t quite recall because I’ve forgotten chunks of it, (he basically enrolled a pigeon into the Norwegian Navy), he taught some kid I didn’t know how to play chess – which annoyed me a bit because he never taught me to play chess and while I didn’t want to, it’s nice to be asked and anyway who was this child stealing my grandfather!!! – even though I was an adult when he died.

At some point, I went off Grandads dad, for reasons I won’t share and I became fixated to the point of obsession about his mum. I asked my Grandma once what her name was - my Great Grandmother. It was in the kitchen – everything happened in the kitchen in that house! And she struggled to recall the name but she thought it was Louise or Louisa Copeland or Copeman. She was from Tunbridge Wells. That’s not actually what she said but I remembered the Cope bit. Once I joined ancestry I searched for Louise Copeland, Louisa Copeman, Cope. Nothing.

In the course of searching, I discovered my uncle was also trying to unravel the mystery. He reported that Erik, his dad and my Grandad had told him that it was Lilian Curtis. Even if you squint the words as you would your eyes, it’s a bit of a push to get Lilian Curtis from Louise/Louisa Copeland. Still, we had a name and it came from Grandad himself. I searched again. He searched. I don’t think we left a single stone unturned in our search for the elusive Lilian Curtis. I messaged anyone and everyone that had a loose connection to Curtis in Tunbridge Wells or Karl Johan with a loose connection to anywhere. Any free time I had I would spend working on my family tree but primarily looking for Lilian. I lost days sometimes. Nothing I found fit what we knew - Lilian came from an Upper to Middle-Class family in Kent. No marriage certificates, no births or christenings, nothing that officially tied Lilian to Karl. I trawled through websites of hotels that were former family seats and tried to picture Lilian strolling in the gardens and hopefully being nice to servants. But there was no such person.

Over the course of lots of searching (it’s taken over a decade) I have declared with absolute certainty that Lilian was from a Military family that had ties to French aristocracy - and my DNA test bore this out for it did say… 10% France. Then, Lilian was a member of a prominent Shipping family in Portsmouth. Lilian wasn’t British, she was American silly! Then following up on a mystery DNA match that did not link in with anyone I already knew about, I decided that Lilian was from Newcastle. This was the best! I’d always wanted to be Northern, but it was a slightly harder sell. They were a Mining family and the most likely candidate for the Great Great Grandfather position had been in prison. Nonetheless, I was so consumed with finding out who Lilian was that each and every possibility had enough validity if I selectively applied evidence to it. Grandads favourite football team were Newcastle – boom! Found her. The Norwegian contingent spread out across America – this Lilian is definitely the one, we just need to ignore that she married someone else. This Lilian never married, never left Portsmouth and was a committed spinster until her death, very much on English soil. (I adopted her, she was my favourite).

I needed to find her because I needed to find them. I needed to know how Grandad’s English family could have left him alone. A feeling that has only intensified since having a child of my own. I could never leave him. How could they not reach out to him?  Ignoring all the obvious points such as – they may not have known he existed. There is a massive gap between Karl Johan being a hottie sailor and Grandad coming along. The more I learned about Grandad’s story, the angrier I became at this mystery family, for first abandoning their daughter and then their Grandson.

But, after DNA tests, chasing up implausible leads, and accepting that my Great Great Grandparents were not American Boat Building Miners, descended from French aristocracy living on the south coast, in Tunbridge Wells, via Newcastle – it has been finally solved by my uncle. During Lockdown he’s been quietly plugging away at his own theory. He’s always had questions about my Grandads close relationship to the Biddlecombe’s, a family his parents were close to, and that Karl Johan and Lilian were close to. So close that my grandparents bought a house with the Biddlecombe’s after the war. In the Biddlecombe family tree, there is a child named Adele, born to Eliza Curtis, a servant in a Public House and a Frenchman named George Coponet. Eliza went on to have a second daughter – Lilian, with Joseph Biddlecombe, (whilst still with her husband) whom she would marry after George had died.

Coponet. That was the name my Grandma gave me all those years ago.

And just like that, the obsessive need to find Lilian’s family has evaporated. Grandad wasn’t alone. He did have family around him. They weren’t mega-rich – which in a bizarre way is a relief. A sense of…  “yes ok, yup, that feels better”. This fits with who we are now. Not just me but all of my family. We’re a family of workers. We do stuff. We don’t sit.

Except it isn’t that straightforward. The sheer extent of that tragedy goes beyond a teenager’s dramatic fantasy of a skinny lad. A thought trips a wire in my head and I get to wondering at what point Grandad figured out that his parents were missing. The story goes that the reason Grandad didn’t go with them was due to the big row that was had. This turns out not to be the case. There was no big freeze across the generations. There may have been a barney, its par for the course for fathers and sons but this big blowout never happened. The intention was that Grandad would always join them back in Norway. When did he stop hearing from them? How did he survive when money stopped coming in? Was he actually living with anyone? In a string of emails that have been batted back and forth, I remember two things my uncle said. 1) Without regular income my Grandad found himself in a series of Boarding Houses, having to do midnight flits before the rent was due. 2) Grandad had no documentation and he feared anyone questioning his nationality, and with good reason. He’d come over on a fishing boat we believe in 1921, when he was 5. Karl Johan, Lilian and Erik were not meant to be in this country. They were living in London under a false name and had been since their arrival. There is some evidence of this (though not verifiable), in a notice in a Norwegian paper, a man named Karl based in Edgeware in England is seeking information about what happened to his family who hadn’t returned from a brief visit home to attend his sisters’ wedding in April 1940. If he knew he was related to the Biddlecombe’s, he could prove his Englishness. But by all accounts, he didn’t know, or the Biddlecombe’s were reluctant to claim him as a family member.

Which brings us full circle. We now know that my Grandad did have family around him, he just may not have known it. Or, they may have refused to confirm it.

I would still like to find out what happened to them, Karl and Lilian, but the reality is, we will probably never know. The accepted theory is that they were bombed out in Bergen. I think of Lilian, of what she had to endure, drastic and devastating changes to her life that she had no control over. For as much as Lilian turned out to be not the woman I thought she was, the same very much applies to her husband Karl Johan. I am speaking in glowing terms of a woman I didn’t know who could have been a bit of a moo in reality. Without knowing more about her it's too tempting to paint her as a tragic heroine and until I learn otherwise, I see no reason to correct it. I would like however to learn more about their life, Karl’s too, so I’m taking steps in an entirely new direction – the exciting and wonderful world of Bookies. My Great Grandfather was a Turf Accountant in the 1920’s – I had to google that one. My instinct, which has failed me pretty consistently so far – is telling me this is where we need to go next because there is a very slight possibility… Great Grandad was a bit dodgy.

(2021 - All rights remain with the author)