ON an autumn day in 1847, a wedding took place at St Hilda’s Church in South Shields, which was unusual by any standard.
The bride, Ellen Bell, was Christian, her bridegroom, Solomon Deutchman, Jewish.
More than 150 years later, the discovery of their unusual match has thrilled and intrigued their great-great-granddaughter, Ann Rachlin.
All her life, she had believed herself the descendant, solely, of Jewish ancestors who had fled history’s Central European pogroms.
Yet here was a strand of her genealogy unexpectedly rooted in the coalfields of North East England and, moreover, in the Christian faith.
“Like the television programme, I had to ask myself, ‘Who do you think you are’?” she says.
As yet, not all her questions have been answered. The renowned musician, educator and founder of Fun With Music, who holds the MBE for her services to music and children, would love to be able to go back further into her family’s associations with the region.
Because while she knows the end of Ellen’s story – a sad death in the workhouse – she knows little or nothing about its beginnings in the marriage of Ellen’s pitman father, Jasper Bell, to her mother, Frances, here on Tyneside.
At present, they are as far as she has been able to go back.
But one step on that journey the other day, was to take time out to see South Shields’ mother church of St Hilda’s, to soak up the atmosphere of where her great-great-grandparents tied their remarkable knot.
Ann, 78, who lives in East Sussex, is a regular visitor to the North in her role as a fellow of Durham University’s Grey College.
But it was the first time she had been to St Hilda’s.
“It’s very meaningful to see it. It’s so beautiful,” she said.
Her great-great-grandmother, Ellen, was born in 1819 and baptised at the church of All Saints, Newcastle, where her parents had married two years earlier. Ellen was their second daughter and the family lived in Byker.
How she met Solomon Deutchman, a cap maker ,who came originally from Posen in Germany – Prussia, as it was then – is unknown.
What is known is that Ellen subsequently converted to Judaism, taking the name Sarah Deutchman in accordance with Jewish custom, and that at some point they moved to Leeds.
There they appear to have hit hard times because, by 1867, Ellen/Sarah was dead, having died giving birth to her 10th child, a little girl, also called Sarah, in the Leeds workhouse hospital. Her small daughter died nine months later.
Ann started her search for her great-great-grandmother’s story in Leeds’ Jewish cemetery.
“I wept when I found her grave, a pitiful, lonely memorial, set apart from the other graves, facing the wall.”
On it was written: “November 25, 1867, Sarah Deutchman, daughter of Abraham, aged 46 – died with a good name.”
Abraham is a reference to her conversion to Judaism. That she ‘died with a good name’ indicates that she had become a very pious Jew,” says Ann.
But what also moved her was that. not far away, were much grander memorials to Solomon and his second wife, Polina.
“Sarah’s insignificant stone is dwarfed by their larger, more affluent memorials,” says Ann, an indiction, she says, that her great-great-grandfather was eventually able to recover from the poverty which had claimed the life of his first wife.
Ellen’s mother Frances, by the way, died aged only 46, but her father, Jasper, lived on into old age with the couple’s other daughter, Mary.
Ann, who last year published Edy Was A Lady, the lost memoirs of actress Ellen Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, now has her own extraordinary family story to pursue.
As she says, it’s proving a fascinating journey.