Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Brookes historians help two more celebrities trace their roots

Monday, 15 September 2014


Two lecturers from the Department of History, Philosophy and Religion have been helping celebrities understand their family histories in the BBC1 series Who Do You Think You Are. Dr Alysa Levene, Reader in History, met Brian Blessed in Covent Garden market to explain what his great-great-grandfather Jabez Blessed might have got up to when he ran away from the workhouse in St Martin in the Fields in the mid-nineteenth century, aged just eleven. Brian was delighted to hear that although Jabez was returned to the workhouse after only a few weeks he went on to marry and produce fourteen children – a discovery which provoked one of the quotes of the series: ‘he was a randy so and so!’).
Brian Blessed was charming and just as loud as you might expect - and he also had endless patience with the people who came up to him to shake his hand and say hello. As viewers of the episode will know, he was very engaged with his family history and it was very nice to be the first one to give him some good news about his ancestor after a series of sad and premature deaths. Alysa Levene
Professor Joanne Bailey broke the news to 1960s fashion icon Twiggy that her great-grandfather was not an ideal husband and father having abandoned his family in the workhouse in the 1890s.
It was quite difficult at times not to be star-struck by Twiggy. But explaining the painful history of how her family was pulled apart by poverty and illness in the late nineteenth-century soon brought me down to earth. Twiggy was moved by their plight, and even extended her understanding to her great-grandfather who deserted his family as we talked about the way such men were harshly punished in prison for the offence. Joanne Bailey
Who Do You Think You Are is broadcast on BBC1, Thursdays at 9pm until 9 October.