Wearside Echoes: Who was Little Nina’s big daddy?

HAPPY TIMES: Little Nina on her wedding day with husband Ken. It was on this day she discovered she had been abandoned as a baby.
HAPPY TIMES: Little Nina on her wedding day with husband Ken. It was on this day she discovered she had been abandoned as a baby.
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THE daughter of a Seaham woman abandoned as a baby is hoping Wearside Echoes readers may hold the key to solving an 80-year-old family mystery.

Dorree Gallie has spent years trying to track down her grandfather, believed to have been a “foreign” performer at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre in the 1920s, without success.

She is now pinning her hopes on readers piecing together the puzzle and said: “For most of her life, my late mother never knew who she was, or where she came from.

“It wasn’t until her wedding day that she discovered the people she thought of as her parents were, in fact, a couple who kept her after she was abandoned by her birth mother.”

Although details of Dorree’s background remain sketchy, family legend has it that her grandmother – Hughina Wilson – was found walking the streets of Seaham in 1922, heavily pregnant and homeless.

“She had been a dancer appearing at the Sunderland Empire,” said Dorree. “The story handed down through the family was that a local couple, Albert and Alice Scott, very kindly took her in.

“My mother was born on May 11, 1922, and named after her biological mother. She was also given the unusual second name of Yovette, although she was referred to in the family as Nina.”

Just weeks after Hughina senior, known as Big Nina, gave birth, she told the Scott family she was leaving to find work – promising to send money for her daughter. No money ever arrived.

“She abandoned her baby,” said Dorree. “Apparently there were one or two birthday cards, but the Scotts never passed them over – as nothing had been explained to Nina about her birth mother.

“Nina was brought up as Scott, and it wasn’t until I sent for her birth certificate that I discovered that her true name was Wilson – she had been registered as Hughina Yovette Scott-Wilson.”

The birth certificate revealed nothing, however, about Nina’s father. Indeed, the space for her father’s name on the document had been left blank.

“The tale was that her father was of foreign origin, either French or Belgian, and was appearing on the same bill as Big Nina at the Empire – but this has never been proved,” said Dorree.

“I have tried looking at some of the poster archives, but have come up with nothing.”

Dorree has, however, managed to track down Big Nina’s last known address to Mexborough, near Doncaster – and she has even contacted a half-cousin through one of the genealogy websites.

“It turned out that after Big Nina left Seaham, she travelled south to Yorkshire and married within two years. She went on to have two sons, but nobody ever knew my mother existed,” said Dorree.

“In fact, Big Nina farmed out her eldest son for the first six years of his life too. She must have been a really strange lady, having borne children to then conveniently place them elsewhere!”

Big Nina, who had been born in Jarrow, died in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, in 1971. The secret of who fathered her secret daughter, Little Nina, died with her.

“Tracking back on the 1881 census I discovered a Wilson family living in Jarrow and felt sure this must be a connection as the mother and daughter were also called Hughina,” said Dorree.

“The mother, Hughina Fraser Wilson, had married a George Wilson in Newcastle in 1870. At first I thought their daughter Hughina must be the connection with my Big Nina, but this was not the case.

“Big Nina’s mother was actually called Elizabeth Shimmin. In March 1903, when four months pregnant, she married George Wilson Jnr – who wasn’t even born when the 1881 census was held.”

The Wilson family originally hailed from Scotland, but had moved to Jarrow in the late 19th century – presumably for work. George senior had a job in the local dockyard, as did his son.

Big Nina was born just a few months after the wedding, at the family home of 33 Stothard Street in Jarrow, in August 1903. Less than two decades later, she was to give birth to Little Nina.

Little Nina went on to marry Boldon Colliery man Kenneth Buckham and have three children of her own, including Dorree. Sadly, however, she was never to learn about her family history.

“I only managed to find out all these details after my mother developed Alzheimers,” said Dorree, from Scarborough. “How wonderful it would have been if I’d made these discoveries years ago.

“At least I now have some heritage to pass on to my own children and grandchildren, but to find out any information about my maternal grandfather would be the icing on the cake.

“To have any details about him would just fill such a huge gap and you never know, I may well have some European family somewhere.”

l Dorree would like to hear from anyone who may have information about theatre acts at the Empire in 1921, or from anyone with links to the Wilson family of Jarrow. She can be contacted by email at Eerrod@yahoo.co.uk or by phone on 01723 369750.

Sidebar: Possible leads

WEARSIDE theatre historian George McCarthy has stepped into the spotlight in the hunt for Little Nina’s father.

George, who has devoted decades to documenting all the acts to appear at Sunderland Empire over the past century, has drawn up a short-list of possibilities.

“In those days, sadly, the chorus girls were never named – either in the reviews or playbills – as they were considered to be at the bottom of all the acts,” he said.

“Hughina’s name isn’t mentioned in any of the programmes, which makes the task of searching out which show she was in far more difficult.”

Among the list of foreign entertainers performing at the Empire around the time Big Nina fell pregnant in August 1921 were athletes The De Wynne Brothers and acrobats Togan and Geneva.

Also taking to the stage that summer were musical pantomimists the Argaut Brothers, terpsichorean act Dennis Du-For, sea lion performer Marcelle and a Follies cast member known as Gus Chevelier.

“There are many tales of chorus girls being taken advantage of in the hope of better things,” said George.

“I have a piece from the Echo of 1919 that states the conditions the girls had to endure, such as sleeping eight to a bed riddled with bugs and poor meals.

“So, as you see, they were the bottom of the heap.”