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Mystery inheritance led U.K. author to history of Langley family

Fiona Chesterton has written a book about her pioneer cousin, Jessie Heading Underwood

A forgotten Langley pioneer has a new plaque marking her resting place, thanks to a relative’s dogged search that began with a sudden surprise inheritance.

Fiona Chesterton’s journey from Cambridge, England, through forgotten family history, to a placing a headstone in Fort Langley’s cemetery began with a message that came out of the blue from the B.C. government. It would also lead to her writing a book about the history of her Langley relatives, as well as her own family’s story.

“It is a very personal story for me,” Chesterton said.

She would find herself feeling a strong connection with her “Victorian cousin” who had made the trip to Canada more than a century ago.

“I wanted to do my best by her,” Chesterton said.

In 2011, Chesterton received a letter from the Office of the Public Guardian and the Trustee of British Columbia, informing her that she was inheriting $35,000 from the estate of William Underwood, who had died in 1994.

Underwood was a longtime Langley resident, who had died without a wife or children.

Untangling his family tree and finding his family – 10 distant relatives in Britain and Australia would each receive a tenth of his estate – had taken B.C. authorities the better part of 17 years.

Although the B.C. courts were now satisfied, Chesterton was not. Her first instinct was that it might be some kind of a scam – who actually gets an inheritance from a distant relative they’ve never heard of?

Once those suspicions were satisfied by the B.C. authorities, she wanted to learn about this mysterious branch of the family.

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She began researching William Underwood, and became even more fascinated by his mother, Jessie Heading, an illegitimate child who left England behind in the Edwardian era and transformed her life in British Columbia, raising a child as a single mother and owning her own property in Langley.

The story of what her research uncovered is in Secrets Never to be Told, Chesterton’s new book. Researching the book would begin with a package of William Underwood’s effects from B.C., including Victorian and Edwardian photos of Jessie. She would eventually travel to B.C. to visit local archives, and the grave site of her relatives.

Chesterton and Jessie were related through William Heading – Jessie’s grandfather, Chesterton’s great-great-grandfather.

While Chesterton’s branch of the family stayed in Britain, Jessie had good reason to leave.

Born an illegitimate child in 1877 in a working-class district of Cambridge, Jessie was given up for adoption to a housekeeper named Harriet Rooke. Jessie grew up largely in the home of Rooke’s employer, whom Chesterton notes had the very Dickensian name of Ebeneezer Canham.

By age 14 local records described Jessie as a dressmaker’s apprentice. In her early 20s, she would work as a nanny to several children.

Her journey to Canada appears to have been a personal reinvention. After the death of her adoptive mother in 1912, the 34-year-old Jessie Heading packed up and left for Canada, claiming in her immigration records to be three years younger than she actually was.

She would arrive in Canada with $25 and a job waiting for her, again as a nanny, working in Vancouver and New Westminster.

By the time she arrived in Langley in 1919, Jessie was going by the last name McDonald, and she had a young son, William. She went to work as a housekeeper for George Underwood, a Milner farmer and one of the original purchasers of land that was once the Hudson’s Bay Company farm, near Glover Road.

Chesterton’s research never turned up any evidence of who William’s father might have been. Chesterton speculates in Secrets Never to be Told that perhaps William was adopted, just as Jessie was.

But the court records did include a letter to the court from a neighbour of George Underwood.

Underwood was at the time “an elderly bachelor,” the letter said.

“One day a lady arrived at the farm with her young son who was about five years old. Her name was Mrs. McDonald and her son’s name was Willie,” the letter said.

She stayed on as Underwood’s housekeeper, and “shortly before he died Mrs. McDonald had the minister for the local church come to the house to marry her and Mr. Underwood.”

“It was no secret that Willie was an illegitimate child,” the letter added.

When the couple married in 1920, Jessie would have been in her early 40s, and her new husband was in his 70s. Jessie fudged the information about her family for the marriage records, giving herself legitimate parentage and saying she was a widow.

Chesterton’s book noted the ease with which Jessie could re-invent herself in an era when official documentation was scant.

“Jessie Ashbowl Heading could become Mrs. McDonald if she so wished without any trouble at all,” Chesterton wrote. “No identify documents required.”

“Date of birth?” she added. “Well, flexible.”

William’s last name became Underwood as well, after his new stepfather.

The marriage to Underwood did not give Jessie and her young son control of the farm when Underwood died the following year – her in-laws seems to have believed she manipulated her employer into marriage. But not long after, mother and son moved to a new home, a small house in the 19700 block of 56th Avenue, in what is now Langley City.

She lived until 1970, dying at the age of 93, a year after the first moon landing. Both mother and son seemed to have lived quiet lives, working and raising poultry. The site of their 56th Avenue farm is now a light industrial area, and the property was the source of the inheritance that went to Chesterton and her nine relatives some years later.

“Their life went under the radar,” Chesterton said.

With help from staff at Langley Centennial Museum, Chesterton searched down more details of Jessie’s life, and also of her death, which led her to Jessie’s grave at the Fort Langley Cemetery.

There were three plots there. George Underwood has a large, Edwardian-style headstone, recording his dates of birth and death at 1845 and 1921. Jessie’s son William had a newer-style flat headstone, noting his 1915 birth and 1994 death.

But between them was a bare, unmarked plot where Jessie was buried.

Chesterton said she was sad that the only one of the family not recognized was the woman who had come so far, alone. She was determined to remedy the lack of a memorial.

“Yes, she was an ordinary woman, her life, some would say, was without distinction and made no mark on the society in which she lived – but it was not without bravery or dignity, that’s for sure,” Chesterton wrote.

This month, Chesterton got to return to Langley to see the new headstone for Jessie, which she arranged for from England, with the help of local masons and Township staff at the cemetery.

The new headstone includes the name Jessie Heading Underwoo, dates of birth and death, a pair of roses to symbolize her English origins, and the legend “Not forgotten.”

One reason Chesterton felt connected to Jessie was that she was also an illegitimate child. Although her parents were together, they didn’t marry, and simply didn’t speak about their complicated family history until she worked it out for herself much later in life.

“She was an illegitimate child, and I was too,” said Chesterton.

She got to see the headstone on Jessie’s grave for the first time on Sept. 12, her first post-pandemic visit back to Fort Langley.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I just felt, yes, this is right.”

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On Sept. 12, Fiona Chesterton finally got to see the gravestone she commissioned for her distant cousin Jessie Heading Underwood. The British journalist and writer documented her research into the Langley branch of her family in a book, Secrets Never to be Told. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)

Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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