Victorian ancestors from both sides of the law were unearthed as Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker became the latest celebrity to go through the BBC1 TV family tree experience, writes John Corser.
The former England striker was at first amused and then later genuinely moved by the exploits of poaching great-great-great grandfather James Pratt from Hinckley.
“I thought I was the first poacher in our family,” joked the retired footballer who scored 48 goals in his international career.
In the case of four times great-grandfather Thomas Billingham, a Dickensian style story emerged of a poor gardener’s son given the education to become a law writer thanks to the benevolence of an eccentric childless author.
Since Who Do You Think You Are? made its debut in 2004 more than 80 celebrities have featured in 10 series and their stories have inspired many viewers to begin their own family history research.
The hobby of genealogy is currently being spoofed in the great new BBC2 comedy series Family Tree, starring Chris O’Dowd, which has been written by This is Spinal Tap creator Christopher Guest.
Gary’s illiterate inept poacher forefather James Pratt, who was constantly being caught by the local constables and jailed, might easily have been one of the bizarre ancestors created for that show.
Research into his real life took Gary, a freeman of Leicester for his goalscoring exploits for Leicester City over eight years, to Leicester Prison where he discovered that some of the cells from his ancestor’s time still survive.
The face of the Walkers crisps ads was shocked by the tiny size of the cells and the heavy shackles that were used on the Victorian prisoners.
“This – just for shooting a few rabbits,” he remarked.
From finding James an object of fun from his initial study of court records and old newspapers, Gary now wanted to find out what led him to be incarcerated so often for his poaching.
In St Mary’s Church in Leicester, where James – originally a stocking maker, was married, he discovered the reality of life in Victorian Hinckley when the hosiery work dried up and he was left desperately trying to provide for and feed his family losing his first two children to disease.
Despite the tough times the poacher managed to raise eight children and lived to the age of 83 before dying in 1901.
Gary was seen carrying out his initial research into Thomas Billingham in the Match of the Day studio and engaging in behind the scenes banter with his football buddies.
He discovered from the 1841 Census that Thomas’s original profession was stationer and at Stationer’s Hall in London found the original indenture document of his seven-year apprenticeship to a firm preparing documents for the law courts.
Thomas’s story took him on to the charity school Christ’s Hospital where he was educated, now an independent school whose pupils still wear the uniform that Gary’s great-great-great granddad would have worn. The visit gave him the chance to see the writing style his ancestor was taught and the opportunity to shows off his footballing skills to today’s pupils.
Gary found that the firm for which Thomas worked still survives in Tottenham and even has an archived original document that he worked on in 1822.
“He was given a break and he made the most of it. He was a skilful man,” Gary said proudly of Thomas who died in 1849 aged 59.
Gary said he had found the experience of researching his family tree fascinating and his two ancestors like characters lifted from the pages of Great Expectations.
“I would be lying if I said I had not become emotionally attached to both of them,” he confessed.