DNA

DNA can be somewhat of a contentious and confusing issue but for someone like me it is incredibly helpful and slots in well with solid research when tracing a family tree. DNA has shown me that you can’t always believe oral history handed down through the family and you can’t always believe the formal documentation that more often than not you use for proof.

It was thanks to a DNA test that I “met” a very close match online. I thought I had thoroughly researched my family history over three generations but this relationship did not appear and given the match, it should have. I have a huge amount of collated information, oral family history, birth certificates, court notes, newspaper articles that I have used to prove that William Shute, my grandmother’s husband, is my grandfather. My match was descended from the Doherty’s so we compared notes/trees and realised that my Shute connection was unlikely. A descendant of my supposed grandfather William Shute kindly agreed to have her DNA tested and there was no match.

My grandmother separated from her husband very early in her marriage and to all intents and purposes Jack Doherty became her husband and my mother’s father. My mother was told that Jack was not her biological father when she had to provide a birth certificate on her marriage. Her birth had been registered under William Shutes name probably to ensure her legitimacy. My mother was very distressed to be told that Jack was not her biological father but she always regarded him as her father and the man that had raised and loved her.

For me, this makes DNA testing worthwhile and our family celebrated the confirmation that our Pop was definitely our biological grandfather as well as the Pop we loved. I can imagine this would not be the experience in other cases and why some are wary of having their DNA checked.

Am I a Shute or a Doherty?

In December 2014 I sent away my DNA for testing to Family Tree DNA. Like so many others I wanted to learn a little bit more about my family background, cultural history and genetic makeup. There were lots of matches, and it helped me to track down links to my Dad’s family.

When Ancestry became a significant provider in DNA testing, I decided to send a sample off to them as well. My tree which had grown through hard research was on Ancestry, and the thought of easier matching through their site enticed me. Once again lots of matches and connections made to cousins across the world. The thing I didn’t expect was to find that despite all the well-documented research and my mother’s own oral history the information was incorrect when it came to her parentage.

My mother was born on 5 September 1914 with a loving mother, Hazel Annie Shute (nee Chisholm) and her father, John (Jack) Doherty who cherished her from the day she was born. When my mother was 24 years old her mother, Hazel Annie, died from a long and debilitating illness. Her father, Jack shared his daughter’s grief at the loss of the woman he had loved for the past 25 years.

Two years later, in 1941, before my mother’s marriage, her father sat down with her to explain that he was not her biological father. He gave her a copy of her birth certificate which stated that William Shute, the man her mother had married in 1914, was her father. My mother was heartbroken. Her response was that as far as she was concerned Jack would always be her father despite what any piece of paper said.

Hazel & Pop copy

My mother, Hazel Edith with her father, John (Jack) Doherty

Despite my own sadness at finding out that my Pop was not biologically connected I continued my research and found documentation and two scandalous articles in “The Truth” that detailed my grandmother’s split from her husband and the subsequent case for support of her and her child. It is so difficult to describe the deep sorrow I felt at finding the evidence to prove Jack Doherty was not my biological grandfather. My grandmother’s story and details of the newspaper article can be found by clicking on this link.

When my Ancestry DNA results arrived, initially there were no surprises, but I did connect up with a few more cousins.  It was only last year that I was stunned to discover another match and that I had a close cousin that I knew nothing about. After contact, we were able to work out that we were related through Jack Doherty and his sister Kathleen Doherty.

Like my older, brother Colin (who despite all evidence refused to believe that Jack Doherty was not his grandfather), and my sister Maggie, I cried tears of joy that not only could we claim him as our Pop because of his love for us but now we had the evidence to prove he was our biological grandfather.

Why did they not declare that my mother was his daughter? It was more than likely that this decision was taken due to the consequences of illegitimacy. My mother’s birth and the announcement that she was illegitimate would have met with a hostile reaction from relatives including her uncle who was a strict Baptist minister.

Australia followed England’s law on “bastardy” which was harsh. These laws were not changed until 1926, but that did not change attitudes even well after World War 2. An illegitimate child was literally parentless at law, and even the subsequent marriage of the parents could not legitimise the offspring. To provide her with a secure childhood and remove the stigma of illegitimacy and the social, legal and emotional consequences it would have been felt that this action outweighed any impact this may have on her later in life. I like to think that Wiliam Shute agreed to this but I will never know.

I am now waiting for results from the Shute family line to confirm that William Shute was not my grandfather. Life is strange and full of surprises.