21st Jan, 2019

Michelle Keegan kicks off the 15th series of Who Do You Think You Are?

Droitwich Editorial 5th Jun, 2018 Updated: 5th Jun, 2018

THE HUGELY popular and BAFTA award winning Who Do you Think You Are? returns for a 15th series on BBC One on Wednesday, June 6, at 9pm with the leading-role falling to Michelle Keegan.

The actress, best known for her portrayal of Tina McIntyre in Coronation Street (2008 and 2014), is currently starring as all-action girl Georgie Lane in the new series of Our Girl.

Michelle is Mancunian through and through but she knows there’s a Gibraltar link on her grandmother’s side and is curious to find out more.

“I would love to find out: where did we come from before Gibraltar?”

Michelle heads to her mother Jackie’s house to find out more about her Gibraltarian family. They look through photos and discover a photo of Michelle’s Gibraltarian great grandmother Leonor Orfila and her English great grandfather Charles Stuart Wiltshire in front of “The Rock” in Gibraltar with their children. Michelle learns they were very much in love and never went anywhere without each other.  Michelle and Jackie also talk about what it meant to be Gibraltarian, and Jackie says that Leonor and her family would have identified as British.

Michelle heads to Gibraltar to find out more about Leonor and her family before she met Charles. She meets with historian Jennifer Ballantine who shows her the 1911 census. Leonor was then a child.  Her father, Miguel, was listed as a groomsman and the family was Roman Catholic in faith.

Jennifer and Michelle head to a street in the uppermost part of the town to visit Leonor’s childhood home.  Just around the corner is the family’s local church: the Sacred Heart.

“I take it they would have been here every Sunday morning as a family…and the whole community would come here. It’s beautiful… “

Michelle learns that despite the family’s Roman Catholic background, Leonor did not marry Charles at the Sacred Heart. Through their marriage certificate she learns that their marriage was “mixed”, as Charles was Church of England. Given the pressures the pair would have faced, Jennifer suggests must have been very much in love to persist with their relationship.

However, Michelle learns that the young family would have been torn apart by the Second World War and the civilian evacuation of Gibraltar in 1940. Leonor and her three children were among 16,000 women, children, and elderly citizens evacuated, whilst Charles remained. He would have had a role to play in the war effort.

To find out where Leonor and her young children were sent Michelle heads to the Gibraltar national archive. She discovers a passenger list which indicates that Leonor and the children departed on the Ulster Monarch bound for Britain. Michelle watches a contemporary newsreel which depicts the experience of Gibraltar evacuees in London.

“The children don’t speak any English. It must have been very confusing for them and terrifying. They were…seen as foreign people entering the UK, when they saw themselves as British – as British Citizens.”

Michelle looks for her grandmother’s cousin Michael on the passenger lists, who she knows still lives in Gibraltar and would have been a similar age to Leonor when they were brought over. She finds a Jose, Maria, and a ‘Miguel’ – Michael –  on the same street where Leonor and her family lived in Gibraltar. Michelle resolves to go and find Michael and ask him about what the evacuation was like.

Michelle meets up with her great uncle Michael.  Michael recounts the long 16-day journey from Gibraltar to London. They travelled on a cargo ship with only 6 toilets for 300-400 people and were hosed down upon their arrival. Leonor and her children spent 4 years living in London near Lancaster Gate.

Michael shows Michelle a photo of where they lived along with 400 other Gibraltarians in the same building. Michael recalls a happy time with visits to the cinema and toy shops.  But just a month after their arrival the Blitz began. During this time it was commonplace to see and hear bombs fall close by.  From his window, Michael recalls seeing doodlebug heading towards Hyde Park and waking up to find the road in front of them reduced to rubble.

Michelle decides to push back even further into this branch or the family history. She comes to the Garrison Library to meet local researcher Richard Garcia, who takes her through her family tree back to a man named Giacomo Parodi – Michelle’s 7x great grandfather – who it turns out was from Genoa in Italy.

Giacomo came from Genoa to Gibraltar at the age of 13 in search of work, like many others during this period. In the census of 1777 Michelle finds him listed as a seaman, though he also owned a wine shop and was fined in the very same year for selling wine to the local soldiers after hours. Michelle then finds him variously on other lists as a baker and a tobacconist, as well as eventually owning three of his own ships. It appears he accumulated a great deal of wealth over his lifetime.

“So he was a seaman first, selling wine, and then a baker… and a tobacconist. He’s got a finger in every pie! So he was a businessman…and a savvy businessman at that!”

“I’ve got heritage in Italy! Never in a million years would that have crossed my mind.”

Michelle heads for the childhood home of her 7x great grandfather in Northern Italy. She meets researcher Maria Laura Frullini at Giacomo’s family church in Genoa: Santo Stefano. They look through baptism records linked to the family. They find records for Giacomo’s parents all the way through to Michelle’s 10x great grandparents Giovanbattista and Angela Parodi, showing roots that run deep in the local area.

Michelle heads inside Santo Stefano to see the church that was so central to her ancestors’ lives, seeing the font where generations of her family were baptised.

“I’m actually looking through the eyes of my ancestors in this room now. This is very special.”

“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d ever end up somewhere as amazing as this.”

Michelle now returns to Manchester to find out about her grandfather’s side of the family. She visits her great aunt Paula – her grandfather Brian’s younger sister. Paula shows Michelle a picture of her own parents (Michelle’s great grandparents) James and Norah from 1926. They establish that Norah’s parents were Elizabeth and Jack Kirwan and they lived in the Greenheys Manchester. Paula recalls visiting her grandmother Elizabeth there and how she was the matriarch of the local community, always looking after everyone else and very well respected.

Michelle heads across the city to the central library.

“Now that I’m in Manchester…I’m home. I don’t know if it’s the people. I don’t know if it’s the feeling of the city itself. I don’t know if it’s…the culture and the history behind it…I don’t know…but this is where I’m meant to be.”

Keen to find out more about Jack and Elizabeth Kirwan, Michelle heads to Central Manchester Library to meet historian Michala Hulme. She reads Jack and Elizabeth’s marriage certificate from 1901 and finds that upon marrying, Jack and Elizabeth moved to West Gorton – one of the most overcrowded and industrial parts of Manchester where disease was rife. Michelle then discovers that two of Jack and Elizabeth’s children died in their infancy of now curable illnesses.

Michelle then looks at another of their children’s birth certificates –  it’s for her great grandmother Norah. One detail amongst the rest jumps out… the signature of the registrar. It appears the birth was registered by the famous Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst – who was a registrar for the Chilton Upon Medlock district at the time – suggesting that Michelle’s great-great grandmother would have known her in some small way.

Keen to find out if there’s any evidence for her great-great grandmother herself being involved in the movement for women’s suffrage, Michelle heads to the Pankhurst centre to meet social historian Helen Antrobus. There, Helen directs her to the 1911 census. There, in the space for Elizabeth’s occupation, is written ‘suffragist’. Helen explains that the 1911 census was seen by suffragists as an important way to protest their lack of representation in society, many choosing to deface it or to boycott signing it altogether in order to reflect their lack of representation in politics. But it seems Elizabeth found a clever way to stand by her beliefs and yet still operate within the law by listing her occupation as ‘suffragist’. It shows that being a suffragist was an important part of her identity.

The last document Michelle finds is from 7 years later, after women had been granted the vote. She finds Elizabeth and her husband John’s names at the top of a voting list for the district – this being the first time that Elizabeth Kirwan, along with many other women there listed, would have ever had the experience of voting.

“It’s very empowering. I bet a lot of these women would have been fighting for this for years. This day would have meant a lot to them.”

“I’ve always been proud of my heritage…and very, very proud of my family. Always. From my grandma to my mum I’ve always been around strong women, and now looking at my ancestors and my bloodline I totally understand why…And I’m really proud of the fact that these women are actually in me. They’re part of me. And that’s what I’m going to take forward.”

Who Do You Think You Are? Wed 6th June, 9pm, BBC One. This programme will be available to watch via the iPlayer following broadcast.

No dates have yet been confirmed for broadcasting of the remainder of the series.

Special Feature by Neil Gordon.


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