A right royal surprise

Saskia Murphy talks to two women who discovered tales of riches to rags and uses the latest DNA technology to answer questions of her own identity

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When Tina Price-Johnson started researching her family tree, she never imagined it would lead her to the 14th century king of Scots Robert the Bruce.

Although Price-Johnson knew her grandparents came from Scotland, there was no talk of a royal line. Her maternal grandmother had been a servant while her grandfather worked on the land, so the realisation that her family descended from one of the most famous monarchs in Scottish history came as a surprise.

“I soon realised that our ancestors were the landlords and nobles of the Orkneys.”

“My grandparents and my parents are all so working class,” she says. “They were crofters and my gran was actually a servant – she went from the lowest type of servant to a cook before moving down south. My grandfather had always worked on the land and that’s where they met. I had no idea that my gran’s line was going to be so illustrious.”

In the last decade interest in family history has seen an unprecedented boom. Partly thanks to TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are and Long Lost Family, people are fascinated with uncovering family secrets and learning more about their ancestors.

Genealogy is the second biggest hobby in the US after gardening, and with subscription services such as Ancestry.co.uk charging up to £14.99 a month, the family history business is booming. American firm Ancestry.com, the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world, reported revenues of $683.1 million (£505 million) in 2015 and employs 1,400 staff worldwide.

Price-Johnson’s interest in tracing her family tree was sparked after she and her twin sister discovered they had an older brother who wanted to learn more about his roots. Before long, she was hooked.

“First of all, I found relatives traced to the Orkney Islands and it turned out that it wasn’t what I expected,” she says. “I soon realised that our ancestors were the landlords and nobles of the Orkneys. And once you find one they tend not to marry out – they tend to marry in.”

As Price-Johnson’s research continued, more famous names started making an appearance in her bloodline. According to records, King Henry VII is Price-Johnson’s great-grandfather, 15 times removed. And the ninth century King of Wessex Alfred the Great is also a relative, as is the French King Charles VI, more commonly known as Charles the Mad. Sir Owen Tudor, a Welsh courtier who famously married Henry V’s widow Catherine of Valois, is another member of the distant family circle.

“I’ve always been into history, especially the Tudors, so when I saw Owen Tudor’s name on there it was just a little bit silly,” says Price-Johnson. “It is so strange to think that these people are so integral to the history of the country and international history, but without any one of them I wouldn’t be here. It is an odd thought, but I suppose there will be so many people who are descended from them. My mum finds it hard to believe. She thinks it’s hilarious.”

Despite her family’s colourful history, Price-Johnson admits she wishes she knew more about the ancestors who do not feature in school textbooks.

“The ones that I find interesting are the ones I don’t know much about, which are basically the poor people. I can see a span of 1,000 years and you can see the fortunes fading with the passage of time. A lot of my ancestors died in several battles. I have about five or six who died in the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547.

“As it goes down there are still a few lords and ladies, and you can see sons having to marry and people going into the army. By the time it gets to my great-great-grandparents there wasn’t enough money so they were having to go into service.”

Above: Tina Price-Johnson’s family tree led her to the 14th century king of Scots Robert the Bruce. Main image: Jane Dowle thought her past was untraceable until she was approached by a third cousin

Like Price-Johnson, Jayne Dowle was oblivious to the truth about her ancestors. Her great-grandfather Edward had always told his family he was a foundling. But when Dowle’s daughter started school in Barnsley, another parent approached Dowle in the playground to tell her they shared the same surname.

“We got talking and it transpired that my great-grandfather Edward was not a foundling at all. He had lots of brothers and sisters and they all moved from Gloucestershire to Barnsley together. This lady’s great-grandad was his brother. It got me really curious and I thought there’s more to this story than the one we’ve all grown up with, which is often the case with family trees.”

Dowle, a journalist who has edited eight local history books, started looking into her family tree. “My great-grandfather was indeed one of many children, but his wife, who was a lady called Mary Ann Hewitt, was much more interesting than him.

“I traced her back, and the line kept getting posher and posher. It was surprising because my family are proper working-class Barnsley. Everybody in the family was a miner until my dad, who worked at the steelworks.

“It turned out that Mary Ann was descended from a family called Burdett. The Burdetts were gentry in Yorkshire and they have a very interesting history. One of the original Burdetts came over with William the Conqueror and he is on the Bayeux Tapestry as Hugo de Bourdet.”

Dowle discovered that Mary Ann’s father, Dally River Hewitt, died in Barnsley’s Union Workhouse, as did his father, in around 1900.

“They were really poor,” says Dowle. “The great irony in all this is that they lived in the worst part of the village where I now live. They were miners,
they lived in tenements and they died in the workhouse.

“But the name Dally River comes from a rather grand family called De La River. They lived in North Yorkshire near Castle Howard.”

Dowle believes Quakerism may have contributed to her family’s descent from Yorkshire gentry to poverty.

“The Burdett family were the nobles of the last kingdom, like Game of Thrones, galloping around making alliances and stealing land – that’s what they were about. Quakerism came to Barnsley around that time with the linen industry and they kind of shunned their wealth and turned to Quakerism. But it didn’t work because they lived in the rural west of Barnsley and by 1850 they’d moved to Worsbrough and they were miners.

“My feeling is that they frittered their wealth away through one thing and another – probably gambling, bad decisions, bad investments, flirted with Quakerism for a while and decided it wasn’t happening for them.

“Their story really wasn’t uncommon in those times, because if you couldn’t make it in a rural community you’d move to somewhere where a massive industry was kicking off, and the coal industry in Barnsley was huge. The great thing about the family was that they had a lot of boys.

“But they had a lot of children. There were more than 20 children in a tenement. It was just grinding, horrible poverty, and very few of those children survived to adulthood – my great-grandmother being one of them.”

Dowle drives past the area where her family lived nearly every day and regularly thinks about the lives they lived.

“I feel really proud. They weren’t kings or queens, they weren’t emperors, but they were a really interesting class of people and their story charts a bigger picture of history – from invasion, through medieval times, through to yeoman farming and then losing it bit by bit to the point where their only hope is Quakerism.

“If I had a time machine I would love to go back and ask Mary Ann what she knew about her family, because I think she knew there was something special. She called one of her sons, who was born in the 1900s, Alma, and that name went back in her family for 700 years.”

Home truths

The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election show nationalism is worryingly in vogue, but in a world that wants to build walls, take back control and stop immigration, what truly makes a country ours?

In his documentary Angry, White and American, British journalist Gary Younge explores the tensions and anxieties that have led to the emboldened far-right gaining momentum across white America. In the film, Younge interviews Richard Spencer, an influential figure in the alt-right movement.

Spencer tells Younge he will “never be an Englishman” because he is black. He also advises Younge to “go home”, telling Younge that despite the fact he was born in England, the UK will never be his true home because his ancestors didn’t build it.

Spencer’s argument is, of course, beyond ridiculous but he is not alone in his views. The violence of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, US, in August is just one sad example last year proving that for some people, national identity is something worth fighting for. But it’s not all it seems.

As part of my research for this piece, I did an ancestry DNA test to analyse my own genetic makeup. Born and bred in the UK, I consider myself to be British. My mother was born in Liverpool, as was my maternal grandmother and grandfather and their parents. English is my only language, I
drink a lot of tea and apologise if someone bumps into me – surely I’m as British as they come?

Apparently not. After sending a sample of my saliva to Ancestry.co.uk’s labs, I learned I am actually not British at all, if genetics are anything to go by. My biological father is from Saudi Arabia, so learning my DNA is 34 per cent Middle Eastern/Caucasus didn’t come as a surprise, but according to my results, I am 38 per cent Irish, 17 per cent Southern European and 3 per cent Scandinavian, plus a mixture of minor traces of European Jewish, North African and Western European. Science tells me I don’t have a British molecule in my body, but that doesn’t make me less British. Since the dawn of time humans have migrated, settled, contributed and changed the face of their new home countries. Immigration is nothing new.

For those who are interested in researching their own heritage, an ancestry DNA test is a helpful place to start. The test has linked me up with 58 of my distant cousins, and I have been able to access their research into their own family trees.

In a world that seems hellbent on division, it is worthwhile to take a step back and think about what national identity really means.


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