Robert Fisk’s World: Hidden secrets of a scandalous branch of the Fisk family tree

I didn’t like him a lot because I suspect my father grovelled to him
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A mystery this week. It involves a probable Victorian adultery, the initials "LT", a bust of Hitler and Mussolini, and an 83-year-old man called Bob Rose who lives in Hampshire. The story starts, however, with a lady called Dinah Leney, of Bethnal Green in east London, who married her 32-year-old husband, George Rose, in 1859. I know this because Bob Rose has just sent me his detailed family tree in which my mother Peggy, my dad Bill and I all appear. Rose was my mum's maiden name – at Maidstone Grammar School for Girls, her fellow pupils would taunt her with the words "Peggy sat on a pin, Peggy Rose" – and old Bob Rose would be a cousin of hers. A cousin of mine, too.

But here's the catch. After her wedding in 1859, Dinah had two children – George, born in 1866, and Thomas, born the following year. Bob, however, remembers being told by an elderly relative that there was a problem about Thomas; that, far from being the son of George and Dinah, he was the child of a love affair between Dinah and a mysterious member of the local gentry.

By then, the couple were together running a pub called The Bear at Burwash in East Sussex. It is still there and it is still a pub and, I have to admit, quite a lot of members of the Rose family seemed to have been in the hostelry business.

But, if the story is true, who was the anonymous father of Thomas Rose? Bob Rose tells me he inherited a sterling silver, gold-lined Vesta box (yes, it was to store matches) which was presented to Thomas Rose for his 21st birthday and engraved with the words "TR from LT, April 25th 1888". Who is "LT"? Why wasn't such an expensive object given to his son by George Rose, who would have been Bob's great-grandfather and my great-great grandfather (I being the great-grandson of the "legitimate" son, George Rose Jnr).

Reader, keep your patience! I called up my Aunt Dorothy – my late mum's sister, who is still alive in Eastbourne – in her 80s but with a razor-sharp memory – and asked if she had heard about all this. "Aha, yes," she said. "I remember that Arthur (her father, my grandfather) said he wanted to discover our family tree. Then, after a couple of weeks, he said 'Well, we're not going to take this any further'."

That was the end of Arthur's interest in genealogy, and I can guess why because Arthur, the son of "legitimate" George, faced the opposition of his own wife's family when he chose to marry her in 1894. Arthur and Phyllis, both of whom I knew as a little boy, were married at Fairlight, near Hastings, and my mum celebrated their courage by calling our Maidstone home "Fairlight". Arthur wouldn't have wanted to further antagonise his in-laws by dodgy revelations about the Roses!

But as a little boy – about 10 years old, I guess, so this would have been about 1956 – we had an occasional visitor to our Maidstone home, an ex-army major with a slightly plummy voice. He would come with his wife to have tea or drinks with Bill and Peggy and would reminisce about the 1914-18 war, in which he served. I didn't like him a lot because I suspected that my father grovelled to him, as he did from time to time with people whom he thought were his betters, but the major had been in the Second World War as well as the First, and in 1918 he might have been sharing my father's humble rank of second lieutenant. I remember him telling my dad how (of course, I cannot recollect his exact words now), whatever the conduct of the 1914-18 war, "the ordinary soldiers had wonderful morale".

On subsequent visits, he gave me a set of original Great War photographs taken from a British barrage balloon that was spotting for targets over the French town of Béthune. I still possess these pictures, with their incredible detail of the German and British trenches far below. And in subsequent visits, he gave me a cheap metal bust of Hitler and Mussolini, joined at the shoulders and carrying the legend "Berlino-Roma". Presumably the gift of a friendly Italian fascist to his German opposite number, the Major had found it on the desk of a Nazi official in newly-liberated Hamburg in 1945. He also found an SS dagger, which he also "liberated" and gave to me. I still have them (though not on my desk!).

The odd thing about all this, however, was that the major had the unusual family name of "Leney". How he met my father, I have no idea, nor whether my mother knew that her great-great grandmother was called Leney. Did my parents realise – and if my aunt knew of the family suspicions, be sure Peggy knew – that Major Leney bore the same name as the possibly adulterous Dinah?

Old Bob Rose – and forgive me, Bob, for calling you old, but it helps the reader sort out all these names – has also discovered that the son of "illegitimate" Thomas (Charles, born in 1893) became, like my dad and Major Leney – a soldier in the First World War. In fact, Charles met his own wife, Alice Caron (they were to become, of course, Bob Rose's parents) when she was fleeing the French city of Amiens to escape the massive German offensive of 1918. They were actually married in Amiens the following year. Did Major Leney know Charles in the Great War? For if he was related to Dinah Leney, he would also be related to Charles.

Mystery still unsolved, of course. "LT" remain just initials on a piece of 19th-century silverware. A gift from a wealthy family friend or from the secret lover of Thomas's mother? The Leneys obviously enjoyed gifts. Thomas got a matchbox holder from "LT" and, almost a century later, I got a bust of Hitler from Major Leney. I think Thomas did better than me.