The Estate of Sarah Pamela Woolston

23 December 2019

A vibrant life

Pamela Woolston and one of her friends at a local fayre circa 1970

Pam and one of her friends at a local fayre circa 1970

Sarah Pamela Woolston spent most of her life looking for her family.

Born in London at the height of the Second World War, Pam, as she was known, never married, and lived most of her life with her parents. She was a company secretary and a big traveller – passports we are privileged to have trace her trips to America, Western Europe, Yugoslavia and Israel. She volunteered in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, made dresses, and took a keen interest in history, with a vibrant and plentiful circle of friends, many from the north London synagogue she attended. But she could never shake the feeling that she was alone – the closest family she had been in touch with were second cousins in California, and even that contact had withered.

The desperate search to find family

Pam's parents on their wedding day, Harry Woolston and Ray Marks

Pam’s parents on their wedding day, Harry Woolston and Ray Marks

Letters Pam wrote to her friends reveal how desperately she wanted to find her family – for personal purposes but also as a religious obligation. Pam’s family were Jewish, and she wished to observe the memorial practices of that religion for those relatives she knew existed but had not met – for most of them had passed away.

When Pam’s name was initially listed as an estate, by the government, identifying her parents was easy – they were the only ever marriage between a Woolston and a Marks. Both were also easy to find on the 1939 Register, conducted at the outbreak of the Second World War. However, neither seemed to exist before that. What on Earth was going on?

It transpired that both of Pam’s parents had changed their names. Harry Arnold Woolston, her father, had been born as Aaron Arnold Wollstein. Similarly, her mother adopted her father’s first name as a surname, transforming herself from Rachel Rotenberg to Ray Marks – and shedding six years in the process! Little wonder that Pam had such difficulty in trying to find any relations.

The People Finders

One of Pam's many family history photographs

One of Pam’s many family history photographs

Finding Harry was the easier of the two. Aaron Wollstein disappeared from London Electoral Registers in 1935, and the year after Harry Arnold Woolston appeared. The school admission register for Aaron had a birthday matching that of Harry’s 1939 entry. Most helpfully, the marriage certificate eventually revealed that Harry’s father was Abraham Wollstein – although we had already contacted his relatives before that arrived!

Ray was a much harder find. Not only had every one of Ray’s siblings changed their surnames, they had changed their first names as well. Moreover, every one of them picked a different surname – and none apart from Ray became Marks. It was only the 1939 register, where Ray appeared to be living with three totally unrelated individuals, that eventually opened the case up to us. It transpired that this was her mother (still using the name Rotenberg), a married sister, and a brother, whose own name had changed entirely to Joe Orton.

An unforgetful discovery

Harry Woolston's address book

Harry Woolston’s address book

Pam’s family are scattered around the globe, from New South Wales to the New World by way of Spain, Ireland and Hertfordshire. One of the best parts of dealing with this estate is that, even though Pam did not own her flat, the Jewish charity who helped support her had kept all of her possessions. We were privileged therefore to have not only photographs of Pam dating back decades, but also a veritable archive of family photos, going back to the late 19th century. In this collection were photographs of the ancestors of Pam’s beneficiaries – some of which they had never seen.

We also were lucky to hold large amounts of non-photographic family memorabilia, ranging from the invitation Pam received to the Buckingham Palace Garden Party – she went in a dress she made herself – to her grandparents’ wedding rings, by way of a letter Harry wrote to Ray shortly before their marriage. In dealing with Pam’s estate, we were able to discover not only the names and dates of her family, but also to breathe life into them in a way that often we are not able to do. That is what makes the estate of Sarah Pamela Woolston so fascinating, and so unique.

Written by James Green.

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