The heir hunters: the remarkable story of Joyce Amina Hanafy

Cover For Neil Fraser and his team of genealogy detectives, the death of an elderly woman triggered a search that would uncover a curious tale of deception, espionage, tragedy and London's Swinging Sixties scene.

For Neil Fraser and his team of genealogy detectives, the death of an elderly woman triggered a search that would uncover a curious tale of deception, espionage, tragedy and London's Swinging Sixties scene. Alasdair Soussi tells the story of Joyce Amina Hanafy. They are detectives of the genealogical world, a force for good, piecing together fragments of forgotten lives, tracing fractured limbs of family trees and showering riches on the unsuspecting fortunate few. Fraser & Fraser is a London-based beneficiaries firm that has spent 40 years tracking down heirs to unclaimed fortunes. Its work has proved a lucrative link to the past for thousands of people and with branches in Birmingham, Manchester, Paris, Warsaw, Krakow, Rome and Oslo, it has helped place inheritances totalling more than £100 million (Dh550 million) since 1991.

For Fraser & Fraser, the action kicks off each Thursday, when the British government publishes its list of unclaimed estates. More than 300,000 people die each year in the UK without leaving a will and the only thing stopping their worldly goods passing straight to the Crown are the genealogical detectives. Even so, the British Treasury swallows between £10 million and £20 million of these unclaimed assets each year.

As one of the oldest "heir-hunting" firms, Fraser & Fraser has uncovered all sorts of strange and intriguing stories down the years. But one case in particular is etched on to the minds of the staff. It would require many weeks of meticulous research before their efforts would bear fruit, yet, by the time the case was closed, they would not only have earned themselves a tidy commission, but laid bare a life dominated by secrets and lies, the performing arts, the haunting presence of two world wars and even a taste of espionage. The trail would eventually lead to Egypt where they would reveal their findings to some delighted and astonished cousins in Cairo.

It all began with the death of Joyce Amina Hanafy on July 25, 2006. Joyce died in Lynton Hall, a nondescript nursing home in Wandsworth, south-west London. On the face of it, there was little to distinguish her death from those of other elderly residents in a nursing home. Even so, no one at Lynton Hall knew of any family members to claim her estate - a £1 million property - and it was left to the local council to oversee her funeral. But, when Fraser & Fraser was made aware of her death and lack of heirs in April 2007, they soon began to unravel a mystery that, for decades, was known only to her.

"This case with Hanafy was particularly hard, but every little breakthrough helped show us a picture," says Neil Fraser, a partner in the firm who was allocated the case. "And, although she had been living in a care home, she still owned the property, which was the only asset in her estate. But straight away we had problems." The death certificate for Joyce said she was born in 1952, which put her age as considerably younger than she turned out to be. Everyone she knew at the care home and her former neighbours all believed she was born in the 1950s. But when she died, she was in fact 84.

"Joyce had lived a lie, telling people she was born 30 years later than her real date of birth," says Fraser. "To have a huge difference like that was almost unbelievable. I mean, could you mistake an 80-year-old for a 50-year-old? She must have been a good looking woman in her time." One of the first stops for Fraser was Joyce's home in Putney, south-west London, which had been in the Hanafy family for nearly 60 years. Worth an estimated £1 million, the property was nevertheless in a state of terrible disrepair.

"She couldn't afford to keep the house and was living off her state pension and the money which a lodger was paying for a small area of the property," says Fraser. "The property itself had gone to absolute rack and ruin. The ceiling and floors had fallen through and it was covered in dry-rot and from first inspection we knew that it was going to have to be gutted before it became habitable again."

Anxious to research Joyce's family tree, Fraser focused his attentions on England's Birth, Marriage and Death (BMD) records. Having discovered Joyce's birth certificate, the 30-year discrepancy in her age became apparent and he quickly began to realise that the 84-year-old's life was quite unlike anything he had ever seen. He also began to understand why a competing firm, which had initially taken up the case, had given up on the project, regarding it as unfathomable.

"Early on, someone worked the case about six months before we began to work on it and they were unable to solve it," said Fraser. "They had been able to find some of the details on her mother's side in England, but not all of it on her father's side." Aware that they were dealing with something out of the ordinary and realising that the size of Joyce's estate meant that they could not afford to slip up, and risk losing the prospect of a healthy commission, Fraser enlisted the help of his colleagues who began working methodically through the reams of information at their disposal from which they slowly began to piece together the jigsaw of Joyce's life.

"Because we were looking at births, marriages and deaths all at the same time, and for a case of this size, we had the whole office on it," says Fraser. "We had quite a lot of staff researching it and all doing their own little bit." Born on June 1, 1922, - and not 1952 as she had audaciously maintained - in Jarrow, north-east England, Joyce was the daughter of Mohammad Zaky Hanafy, an Egyptian-born doctor, and Agnes May South, the daughter of a gardener. As a doctor, Mohammad Hanafy, who would later go by the name of John Hanafy, was relatively easy to research. In order to practise medicine in Britain, it is a legal requirement that your details are recorded in the medical register. So, once it was established from the BMD that Dr Hanafy was indeed Joyce's father, and that the firm itself was committed to scouring Egypt for beneficiaries, other more fascinating details began to emerge.

Dr Hanafy, it transpired, came to England to study medicine in the early years of the 20th century, qualifying as a doctor in 1914. His reasons for leaving Egypt are unclear, but after some digging it became apparent he was from a privileged background. "Mohammad's father was recorded in 1916 as being a judge, and in 1937 as a landowner," says Fraser. "And certainly before Egypt was made into a republic and all the lands were taken back by the state, I think the Hanafy family was an incredibly rich family. They owned farmland around Egypt and because of the occupation of the grandfather, we managed to trace the family to the Nile Delta, where we pinpointed the location precisely."

Dr Hanafy had just taken his medical exams at the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1914 when the First World War broke out. No sooner had the ink dried on his medical diploma than he was sent to work at the King George Military Hospital on London's South Bank. There he treated victims of the Great War, all of whom were suffering the physical and psychological effects of fighting on the front. A terrifying training ground for a young doctor it may have been, but Hanafy's capacity to cope with his gruelling workload was recognised by the Crown and he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to surgery in 1920, an astonishing accolade for a man who was only 33, and not even British-born.

By then, Dr Hanafy and his wife Agnes had been married for four years, and were already parents to Joyce's brother, John Theodore. But, as Fraser explains, even Dr Hanafy's personal life in England caused some confusion. "Agnes was born in 1883 but died in 1936, so that would have made Joyce only 14 at the time. But, within a year of that death Dr Hanafy married Agnes's sister, Florence." The second marriage in 1937 initially muddied the waters for the investigation. If Joyce had been Florence's daughter, she might well have been born in the 1950s rather than 1922. But, after carefully working out the family tree, the wildly inaccurate date of birth on Joyce's death certificate became apparent. This was reinforced when the findings were presented to relatives in Egypt, who explained that the concept of a gentleman marrying his dead wife's sister was seen as very much the Egyptian way.

So, what of Joyce herself? Well, at the nursing home where Joyce lived out the remaining years of her life, she was seen as something of an enigma, with her many and varied secrets only emerging after her death. "She was a very private lady, and she told us that she did ballet - whether she taught it or danced it we don't know," says Shirley Heaver, one of the carers at Lynton Hall. "She only wanted to tell you what she wanted to and you would try to pump her but she would clam up. We didn't think she had any family. She was a recluse - that's how I would have taken her. She had a lodger, but that was it."

Indeed, researchers at Fraser & Fraser who visited Joyce's neighbourhood in Putney were told of a woman who was an "eccentric", somewhat of a "loner" and altogether "quite strange". But these less than flattering descriptions hid a once glamorous life, that portrayed a quite different lady. Photographs recovered from Joyce's home after her death show a woman deeply involved in "Swinging Sixties" London, where dancing, modelling and working in the nightclubs of Soho dominated much of what was then clearly a full and busy life.

The years during the Second World War were not without their moments either. In 1943, tragedy struck the Hanafy family when Joyce's brother John Theodore was killed in action. A fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, Squadron Leader Hanafy, a graduate of Cambridge University, was only 25 when he was shot down over France. Coming just seven years after the death of her mother Agnes, this must have been a painful blow to Joyce, who was not yet 21.

A year later, Joyce, then training to be a teacher at Durham University, was approached to become a spy. For Fraser, this was yet another startling revelation in an increasingly colourful case. "We found a personnel file with the name Joyce Amina Hanafy from the Second World War from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) - essentially the wartime equivalent of Britain's [foreign intelligence unit] MI6," he says.

The SOE, which trained people for Second World War resistance work behind enemy lines, and which counted Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the great explorer, among its operatives, approached Joyce in 1944 with the intention of training her to be a field agent. "It must have been a personal recommendation that got her in," says Dr Roderick Bailey, an SOE historian at London's Imperial War Museum. "It must have been someone she knew that put her in touch with someone they knew - that's the only way it could have worked. It wasn't like applying for a job - it was never advertised."

Her career as a secret intelligence officer was short-lived, however. Joyce's SOE report, obtained from The National Archives, describes her as "intelligent - precise and not easily flustered" and as possessing "adequate courage". But it also crticised her for being "spoilt, affected, greedy for admiration and vain and superficial". This, together with a fine for a minor offence under the 1939 National Registration Act when Joyce for some reason gave a false name and address when asked to produce her papers, ultimately resulted in her not being recommended for SOE duty, even if they did also remark on her "good French".

"The SOE were pretty hard-nosed about training agents," says Bailey, who is also the author of Forgotten Voices Of The Secret War: An Inside History Of Special Operations In The Second World War. "They couldn't afford to take risks with people. They normally realised who did and who didn't have the right qualities - like Joyce, whom they realised very quickly wouldn't be suitable - But, she obviously had something about her that stood out, and to even be considered was something. Who knows, if she had been picked, she might have settled down and done all right."

Having already found and made contact with Joyce's heirs in Egypt, Fraser flew out to Cairo to tell them what he had uncovered and begin negotiations. Initially, only permitted to meet with the children of the beneficiaries, Fraser spent a tough six days in Egypt's capital before he eventually fixed a meeting with the key people involved the day before he was due to leave. "It was certainly the latest start to a meeting I've ever had - being about 11 at night," says Fraser. "And, it went on until two in the morning. I spent that time trying to explain how the process in England works and how much money was involved. And all this was taking place in a restaurant above a delicatessen and chocolate shop in the middle of Cairo - quite a bizarre place to have a meeting and certainly one of the longest I've ever had."

Unable to be persuaded to speak to The National, the four heirs, who were descended from Amina - Dr Hanafy's sister - and who all eventually received a share of the inheritance, were totally unaware of Dr Hanafy's life, or of Joyce, save for the fact that he had travelled to England to study medicine and never returned. "Just having this one person who had gone off to England, whom they thought of as the black sheep of the family, was something they didn't want to talk about," says Fraser.

"That is until they worked out that their black sheep had lived an incredible life. His receiving an OBE and working with the British Army in the medical corps are all something of which they are now immensely proud." Fraser & Fraser does not establish contact with beneficiaries by e-mail.