Visiting My English Roots

Mom and Tracy in a 'Brummie' cab.

 Armed with a torn map, notebooks, old addresses and cameras, my sixty-something mother, preteen daughter and I climbed into a cab outside the Albany Hotel in Birmingham, England and asked to be taken to Crocketts Road in the Handsworth neighborhood. We had flown across the pond with the Friendship Force; the first week staying with a host family outside of London, the second week on our own exploring our roots.

Sarah Rogers Bickley
Samuel Bickley
My dad’s side of the family was not what you’d call close-knit according to family bibles and tales told by uncles and aunts. Samuel Bickley, my great, great grandfather, was a machinist in a hosiery factory in Leicester when he met Sarah Rogers, his workmate’s daughter. After a short courtship, they married in 1870 and found work as pearl button finishers in Birmingham. They lived for many years at the back of 71 Garbett Street. The family grew to include six children; Harry, an opera singer, Lucy, whose husband owned the midland’s Aston Football Team, Edith,  Sarah, Alice and Samuel Thomas, my great grandfather.

My ancestor's corner store where they lived above.
June, 1984
In their later years, Sarah and Samuel became shopkeepers and lived above the store at 114 Crocketts Road…thus the reason for our visit in June, 1984. There was still a general store on that corner; the original building enlarged and renovated. We met the proprietors, Mr. and Mrs. Hunt who were quite gracious in helping with our quest for information. Mrs. Hunt went a few doors down the street to get a neighbor, 82-year-old Mrs. Biddlestone, who remembered the Bickleys. She recalled her trips to the store to “buy sweets when she was a child.” 

Mom wandering the cemetery at St. Mary's
Church in Handsworth, Birmingham, England.

Our taxi driver waited patiently as we snapped photos and talked to local residents. Next we asked him to take us to St. Mary’s Church where we could search the cemetery headstones. We took photos of beautifully engraved markers; finding names related to us. Of course we tipped the driver well as he’d spent an afternoon with us, but mom also insisted on exchanging mailing addresses and giving him a big hug!

 The next day we were at it again; in another taxi driven by John Bartley. This time we rode to Victoria Street where my great, great aunts Lucy and Edith had lived across the street from each other. These street addresses had all been recorded in handwritten lists and passed down through the generations. While mom and I took photos of the old homes, the cabbie chatted with the folks walking by. He too was caught up in our mission and eager to help; sure enough an elderly man and his wife remembered our ancestors and invited us into their home! Ada and Jack Popplewell recalled that Edith and her husband owned a dairy and delivered milk along Victoria and the surrounding streets. Mom and the Popplewells kept in touch over the years and at the time I updated this family history in 1998, their granddaughter Ida was still alive and living in North Wales.

Nellie Lavinia and her three boys.
Samuel Thomas left home as a young boy, wandered the streets, worked as a brass finisher, and was a regular at the local pubs. Known as a ladies’ man, his marriage to Nellie Lavinia Warner produced three sons, but the couple soon drifted apart. He apprenticed as a fitter for the motor car industry and made two trips to Canada to pave the way for future employment. Nellie was an alcoholic and unable to care for her young boys, so they were raised by their grandparents, Samuel and Sarah.
 Samuel Thomas and his sons immigrated to America on the HMS Mauritania in July, 1914, leaving Nellie behind. She’d been institutionalized and died of pulmonary congestion the following year. Samuel found work in Detroit….most likely with the automakers and because it was similar to Birmingham’s working class society. He left the boys with three different foster families…a real father of the year!

My grandfather on the left, served in
the Canadian Army during WWI.

My grandfather, Samuel Horace, was the oldest and by age sixteen, he also took to the streets. He eventually joined the Canadian Army where he served during WWI and later met my grandmother Fanny Mae, one of twelve children and as he called her, the “prettiest of four daughters” living in Orillia, Ontario.
After they married and settled on Glastonbury Street in Detroit, Grandma and Grandpa looked for and found his younger brothers, Oliver and Harry. My dad recalled long talks with both his uncles about their different backgrounds growing up. Annual summer visits to  Uncle Harry and Aunt Sadie’s farm in St. Clair Shores continued all through my childhood.

The word farm triggers the smell of cut grass and manure, the thrill of feeling cow’s milk squirted on us, the excitement of climbing high into the barn loft and jumping into piles of hay…over and over again. The highlight of each visit was a tractor ride for us kids….and the huge farm table filled with both family and farmhands eating the huge dinner meal together.

 We were close with Uncle Harry’s three boys. Uncle Oliver had several wives and a daughter we met a few times…..but he never seemed to bond with his brothers or their families. How grateful we are that my grandfather searched for his siblings; otherwise I wouldn’t have a favorite Bickley cousin and west coast buddy today!

Family history passed down through the ages is priceless. I remember discussing the Friendship Force opportunity with my parents. Since my dad was not able to get off work, he urged my mom to go for him. So much was planned for us; touring Windsor Castle, seeing the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace and living with a lovely family for a week. But walking the same streets as my ancestors and hearing stories from the past were the highlights of our trip to England. That and the letters of gratitude from the taxi drivers for the friendship pins and hugs mom bestowed on them.

Headline of Letter to the Editor I wrote
to the Birmingham Mail; printed
October 12, 1984


  1. I was just talking to a friend about what we know of family history, wondering how much is embellishment. In my family, I know that it is quite a lot since we do not have very good records. That's okay, there are still some good stories. You are lucky to have pictures with identities attached.

  2. I can't imagine what an amazing journey that must have been! Your family really is going to appreciate this.

  3. Wow. Loved hearing about your family history and seeing the photos. The great photos really made the people you write about come to life.

  4. What a wonderful story! Pearl button finishers, dairy farms, alcoholic mothers, hardworking people. We all have variations of these threads as the fabric of our lives. Thanks for sharing. Brenda

  5. Great stories and histories! So much is made up or left out in my family and my husband's family that it is hard to gather real history from the weeds!

  6. wow. i've SO wanted to do this, but our northern irish roots are very difficult to trace in detail. love it. thank you for sharing your adventure in your personal history.

  7. What a great trip back in time! Fun to learn about the history of family.

  8. Fascinating! What a great opportunity to find out more about your family history. I loved learning about the job of pearl button finishers. Thanks for posting!