I grew up in the knowledge that my maternal great-grandmother Jessie Oakman had been of Dutch parentage with the maiden name of Bruggemeyer – I had no other information and left it all on the back burner until my retirement in 2009. At my grandmother’s behest I did once telephone the only Bruggemeyer in the London telephone directory and was rewarded with a number of expletives that made me think maybe my Dutch connections would better be left alone! The internet has provided us with an array of search tools to discover our ancestry and I made full use of those available at the Local Studies Centre at Valence House, Becontree Avenue, Dagenham where the efficient and friendly staff and volunteers provide much help and encouragement. I had always imagined that the Bruggemeyers were penniless refugees, but that proved not the case. My great-great grandfather Willem Johannes Bruggemeyer, a merchant’s clerk, came to London from Rotterdam on the ship Colombine on 14th May 1839. At some point Willem’s Dutch wife Alida and children joined him and, on checking later censuses, I found that they first settled in the Old Kent Road where their granddaughter Jessie was born at 23 Nelson Square on July 6th 1858. Jessie’s father, also named Willem Johannes (William John) and born in 1832, had married Elizabeth Whinham, daughter of an attorney’s clerk, in 1855. At the time of the 1861 census Jessie was staying with her grandparents in Lewisham - so where were her parents? Quite by chance I was flicking through a hard copy of the 1861 Barking census at Valence and found that they were living at 93, Church Road, Barking! My whoops of joy that day startled all those working around me for never in a million years did I imagine that my quest for information on my ancestors would lead me to my own doorstep. They had a live-in servant as had the family in Lewisham. The knowledge that Jessie grew up in homes with servants made her later life even more poignant; my grandmother Minnie Blake, who lived in Dagenham for the most of her life, revealed to me shortly before she died that, as a child, she had been in the workhouse with her mother. She talked about the shame she felt at having her long hair shorn and, as a result, all the other kids knowing that she was a workhouse dweller; she was also expected to do her share of the cleaning before attending school. That shame stayed with her until the end. At some point Willem junior left the family home in Barking for in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper dated 1 st January 1888 was the following advertisement: William John Bruggemeyer, who left Barking about 22 years ago, is asked for by his daughter. He is supposed to have sailed for the Cape of Good Hope. What happened to him is a mystery. However, his wife Eliza, later surfaces in Bromley St. Leonard, Bow and is now married to Joseph Honey who, according to the 1861 census, had been a boat builder formerly living in Fisher Street, Barking. They had nine children living with them; three belonging to Joseph and six to Eliza, including my great-grandmother Jessie. Alida died in 1864 and Willem senior later married Irish Ellen May Riorden. On Willem senior’s death in 1872 Ellen left England for a new life with her children Mancha, Ellen, Charles and Elizabeth where they settled in Chicago. Mancha became an eminent judge in America. In 1892 he married his first wife Roberta and, on her death, founded the Bruggemeyer Memorial Library in Redlands, California in her memory; the library still stands. He later befriended librarian Helen (Nell) Thomas and married her in 1929 (another great surprise as I thought I was the first librarian in the family!). Incidentally, Mancha’s brother-in-law Thomas Paine Westerndorf wrote the popular song I’ll take you home again,Kathleen, which Henry Ford obtained a signed copy of for the Ford Museum and Thomas Edison acquired the rights to play it on his new fangled phonographs. At the age of 71 Mancha was elected Mayor of Redlands, California. He died in 1949 aged 83.
Jessie Bruggemeyer married Edward Oakman, whose family can be traced back to 1577 in Hertford and Cambridgeshire, at St. James the Great, Bethnal Green on 20th June 1875; my grandmother Minnie Louisa was born at Stratford in 1899. Jessie, mother of ten children, was widowed early on and brought them up alone. Most of the current descendants of Willem Johannes Bruggemeyer live in America, but there are many descendants of my great-grandparents Jessie and Edward Oakman still living in east London and Essex.
Photograph taken in garden of 129 Arnold Road, Dagenham pre-1937
My grandmother Minnie Blake is "tallest" in photograph - she stood on a box (as she was very short). Her mother Jessie Oakman (nee Bruggemeyer) is clutching one of her grand-daughters (small child). My grandfather Fred Blake is seated and facing the camera.
After three years researching just one particular branch of the family I realise that the task of completing my family tree is a long way off!
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Christine Osborne for supplying information on various members of the Bruggemeyer family.