Tracey Bird’s hobby is all consuming – and has a profound impact on other people’s lives.
The 58-year-old dedicates her spare time to reuniting families and has matched hundreds of people over the last 33 years. Incredibly she gives her time for free, her desire to help sparked by personal experience.
In 1987 when she was still a teenager she discovered that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological dad, sparking an obsession with genealogy which was to last a lifetime.
“Secrets will always come out,” the mum-of-five says, “I tell you, whether it’s 100 years or 50, secrets will always come out. Someone in the family will always know something, and somebody will always say something. Always.”
READ MORE: Woman swims from Northern Ireland to Scotland after training all winter in ice-filled wheelie bin
Tracey didn’t know about her dad until she was 16
Tracey found out about her own biological dad when she was just 16, after her brother revealed it during a game of Monopoly.
She didn’t look for her dad until she was 33. “I knew his name,” she says. “Just his name, and the area where he lived. That was it.”
Once her children were asleep she began thumbing her way through a Kent telephone directory, until there it was. Swanscombe, Kent. Name: Moll.
There were at least 20, but she rang every single one, to a chorus of “It’s not me, sorry love.”
Eventually one man said: “Oh, I can’t be your dad, duck. I’m too old! But it might be my son.”
The man’s son, it turns out, was her biological father. He’d gone to Australia on the ten pound boat in 1969 and enlisted in the navy there.
“I’d hit the jackpot,” Tracey says.
NEVER MISS A STORY AGAIN. SIGN UP FOR MYLONDON’S BRILLIANT NEWSLETTERS HERE
She has five children and five grandchildren
Eventually, she got through to the Royal Australian Navy, who said he was there but he was off on leave. She sent a letter to be put in his cubby hole, and with two kids and a full-time job to keep her occupied, she almost forgot about it.
Half way through lunch three weeks later, the phone rang. “You don’t know who I am?” a voice said.
In that moment the penny dropped. and she realised she was finally speaking to her biological father. “I thought about you all this time.,” he said.
Tracey had her story published in Pick Me Up! Magazine in 1993, and requests began pouring in in their hundreds, asking her for help finding their own family members.
“People wanted to find their mums, dads, you know. That’s where it started,” she says. “I just like putting families together.”
Some days she received more than 500 emails asking for help.
MyLondon’s brilliant new newsletter The 12 is packed with news, views, features and opinion from across the city.
Every day we’ll send you a free email at around 12pm with 12 stories to keep you entertained, informed and uplifted. It’s the perfect lunchtime read.
The MyLondon team tells London stories for Londoners. Our 45 journalists cover all the news you need – from City Hall to your local streets.
Never miss a moment by signing up to The 12 newsletter here.
The desire came from her own experience of finding out the truth in teenage-hood.
“That’s why it’s always best to tell the truth from the beginning,” she says. “If you grow up with the truth, you’re not curious. If you grow up and don’t know the truth, you’re curious.”
Tracey has five children, the eldest 36, the youngest 17, and five grandchildren. She is a single parent and all of her children have moved out, bar Luke, who still lives with her in Woking.
Luke is autistic, and attends cooking school. Tracey used to work as a phlebotomist, but left her job to give Luke the right care.
She says: “I’d go up to Richmond whenever I could and look up adoption records on Microfiche.
“This gives me an outlet, know what I mean? It’s something to do. I think I’d go stir-crazy otherwise.”
Nowadays, most of her clients find her through word of mouth. People refer their friends and tag her in comments on Facebook, saying: “You should ask Tracey Bird, she’ll help you.”
Tracey says she’s like a ‘dog with a bone’ when it comes to reuniting families
Often, the people she helps appear by chance. She spots them looking for family members on ancestry.com or over-50s groups.
Almost always, her clients are older, having found out about an adoption or secrets in their childhood.
“So in the evenings it’s get the old laptop out, and off I go,” she says. “Looking, searching.
Many of them she keeps in touch with, referring to them on a first-name basis – Sam who found her aunt in Ireland; Rowlie down in Australia who found a son of her husband’s.
Rowlie even brought her family round for a Chinese takeaway when she’d come to England for a reunion.
Now, her network extends all over the globe – London, Dublin, Scotland, Australia.
There’s no place she records an exact figure of how many people she’s helped. It’s her life’s work, but recorded only as memories. “It’s got to be hundreds,” she says, “hundreds over the years.”
Tracey Bird with her dad
The glaring thing that separates Tracey from the likes of ancestry.com is that she doesn’t charge anything for the search. She asks only for £9.40 here to cover a birth certificate, £4 there to cover postage.
The mum-of-five is motivated by the joy of the reunited family, and the pieces of the puzzle slotting together. “I’m like a dog with a bone,” she says.
The searches are fuel for her outright obsession with genealogy. She could talk about her searches for hours. “Many of them stick in my mind,” she notes.
Once she has the name of the person she’s searching for, she can start trawling through adoption, birth and housing records. Then she can order birth certificates for a small fee.
All the records are publicly available – ‘Search Angels’ like Tracey just possess the skills to find and trace the information.
She describes the way the ‘penny dropped’ when she heard her biological dad’s voice
(Image: My London / Darren Pepe)
She has certain rules she always abides by, including always contacting them by a letter. “Before all the Internet, I just had pen and paper. Used to write letters to people.
“You can ring somebody up and they put the phone down. It’s a shock, isn’t it. But if somebody’s got a letter in front of them, they can read it. And then they can go back and read it again.
“I always say the same thing,” she explains. “I’ll say, ‘I’ve been helping a friend do a search for their family. It could possibly be you. Please call me.’
“Then it’s up to them to get in contact. And then they call me. And we talk it out.”
And after all these years, what keeps her motivated to keep going, without earning any money from the search?
“I don’t know whether it’s because I felt so betrayed,” she says, “I don’t know.
“Is it because I know how that affected me? Not knowing the truth, and then finding out the truth?”
She adds, “A lot of these kids feel rejected. It’s hard to deal with, that rejection.
“Everyone, and I mean everyone, should know where they came from.”