Reuniting families in Worthing

PUBLISHED: 00:16 23 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:28 20 February 2013

Kathleen Vowles, Chris’s mother

Kathleen Vowles, Chris’s mother

Canadian troops spent many months in Sussex during the Second World War. Worthing man Chris Vowles reunites children born to Canadian fathers with their families through his website Canadian Roots

Chris Vowles has been looking for his father for the last 18 years. He knows that he was a Canadian solider serving in Britain during World War Two. He knows that his fathers name was Charles and that he was around 42 years old when he came to Britain. Chris has even had his DNA tested and put on file. He has searched tirelessly but Canadian privacy laws, along with the fact that for a fathers name to be on the birth certificate they either had to be married to the mother or present at the birth, have prevented him from ever finding his Canadian family.

However, this hasnt stopped Chris from reuniting 79 other Canadian war children with their families over the past three years. Chris has worked on over 200 cases, from Kathi Mullins in Canada who is looking for her half sister in Sussex, to Dave Petts from Worthing who has discovered that he has eight Canadian half-brothers and sisters.

An estimated 22,000 children were born to Canadian fathers during the Second World War. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and other formations spent many months in Sussex. Together with British troops, they became involved in a series of exercises across Southern England. As a result, a lot of the children born to Canadian fathers are from Sussex, many of which were to unmarried women.

To these women the stigma of being an unmarried mother often resulted in the child being given up for adoption. Many who tried to trace their boyfriend had very little luck after regiments were moved on. Even those women who had married Canadian soldiers found that the marriage was bigamous.

Chris set up the website Canadian Roots in 2008 to allow children fathered by Canadian soldiers, who are now in their sixties, to trace their living Canadian families.

There are two of us: me and a volunteer, Grace, a probate genealogist in Canada. We dont charge a fee. We dont need money, just knowledge, time and research, says Chris.

It takes a minimum of four hours out of my day. I have to review all the cases, communicate with my contacts in Canada, think of new ways to approach finding these men and their families. Its far more than a hobby.

The response we get makes it well worth it. People cry with happiness when I call them with information about their families.

Jan Elsey, from Brighton, had a photograph of her Canadian father, along with a letter of deed poll changing her name to her fathers. Chris and Grace used this information to trace her father and his family.

My fathers niece got in contact and sent me photographs of him and his grave, as he had sadly passed away a few years previously. I must admit that my eldest son looks a lot like him.

I feel like I have a better understanding of my past now especially when the doctor asks for my medical history. Before I had no idea, then my fathers niece filled me in.

Another Canadian Roots success story hit the media last year when Dave Petts, 65, visited his family on a very emotional 15 day trip to Canada in June, after discovering that he had eight half-brothers and sisters. He also paid a visit to his fathers grave, who had died in 1997.

The family parties were overwhelming. It was a tremendous two weeks meeting 47 extended Canadian family members. We visited the Niagara Falls Hotel, had dinner in the revolving tower and saw the area that my dad had worked as a farm boy when he was 16.

Although I never met my father, my family have given me a list of details about his life, along with photographs and memories. We keep in touch every day by email and there are plans for some of my Canadian family to visit us in Worthing. I cant describe how kind theyve all been. I was amazed at how easily they have welcomed me into the family.

Canada does not have the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, the Canadian Privacy Act gives individuals the right to access and request personal information about themselves, but restricts access by other individuals. For example in the UK anyone could request and purchase a copy of your birth certificate online but in Canada this action is denied. The only time the Act does not apply is when you can prove that you are related or the individual has been dead for 20 years. As you may imagine, this makes life hard for Chris and Grace.

Some cases have taken 40 or more hours, spread over months, to solve, whereas some cases are solved within an hour, says Grace Fulford, Canadian researcher.

On days when we solve a case, it seems the world really is a beautiful place! We have dozens of cases of joyous discovery. Many of them call or write to us to tell us how grateful they are for this late-in-life gift of more family members. They rejoice in each others grandchildren and marvel at how many things they have in common.

Added to the war children from England trying to trace their Canadian families, there are families in Canada trying to find English children.

A few people in Canada have asked us to search for a child left behind in England by their father or uncle during the war someone theyve heard about or figured out on their own might exist, often based on old letters that have surfaced when their parents died, says Grace.

An example of this is Kathi, from British Columbia, who is trying to trace a half-sister from her fathers time in Eastbourne and West Sussex. So far the Canadian Roots team have discovered that the childs name is Susan, Sandra or Evelyn and that she was born in 1942 or 1943. They have recently found information that suggests she was from Brighton and are calling for anyone who thinks that they may have any information.

So although Chris has sadly not yet traced his own Canadian family, the number of lives that Canadian Roots UK has changed, and continues to change, is phenomenal. I never imagined that I could help this many people, says Chris. And there are still more to be helped. I think that everyone deserves to know where they come from to be in touch with their roots.

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