Jack and Michael Whitehall - Who Do You Think You Are?

"It was a lot of money then and it's a lot of money now!"

31st July 2019


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The unique double-act of father and son, Jack and Michael Whitehall, are instantly recognizable as the chalk-and-cheese comedy act seen recently in Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father. Now, in a first for Who Do You Think You Are? father and son join forces to delve into their shared family history on Monday 5 August.

Michael, one time producer, talent agent, author and television personality draws attention to the fact that he's getting on in years. He feels it's time Jack knew about his family history.

MW: "...because, you know, I'm going to be 'phwuitt' [gestures like a blade across his own neck] in ten years' time."
JW turns this into a joke, asking: "What, executed?"

(L-R) Jennefer Laidlaw (Michael's cousin), Barry Whitehall (Michael's brother), Nora Whitehall (Michael's mother), Michael Whitehall and Jack Whitehall Snr. (Michael's father) - Circa 1955. Image credit: BBC/Wall to Wall Media Ltd/Jennefer Laidlaw

The BBC genealogy programme sees Jack, his dad and his mum, Hilary, sit down to look through some old school photographs. Jack's photos are from the time he spent as a boarder at Marlborough College while Michael's are from the Catholic boarding school, Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire. Jack is interested at how his grandfather could have afforded to have sent Michael to a Public School. In their discussion Michael says that he doesn't believe that his own father would have had the means to have done this on his own; the fees he understood were paid for by his wealthy grandfather (Jack's great grandfather) Richard Earnest Baxter Whitehall, known in the family as "REB." This is the first mystery that the Whitehall's episode of WDYTYA? sets out to explore: Where did REB's money come from?

R E B Whitehall's birth in Birmingham 1870 from the Birth Civil Registration records on TheGenealogist

Michael and Jack first of all pay a visit to see Michael's older cousin Jennefer – also a grandchild of REB's. They look at some photographs of the comfortable suburban house where REB lived, and then at his birth certificate. This shows that REB was born in 1870. His father, Richard Whitehall, had been a Commercial Traveller and REB's mother was called Caroline Baxter. Jennefer recalls thats the family story was that REB's father had died in a pony and trap accident, and then his mother died of grief shortly after him. REB was said to have then been adopted by a wealthy businessman called Charlie Worsey, but neither Jennefer nor Michael recall their grandfather ever talking about his childhood. This blank in their recent family history requires investigation.

(L-R) Unknown, Unknown, Richard Ernest Baxter Whitehall (Michael's grandfather), Edith Whitehall (sitting down, Michael's grandmother) - Circa 1930s The rest of the family in the photograph are unknown. Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall Media Ltd/Hillary Whitehall

Richard Ernest Baxter Whitehall (Michael's grandfather) - Circa 1950s. Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall Media Ltd/Hillary Whitehall

A boarding school for commercial travellers

To discover what they can about their close ancestor's story after he had been orphaned, Jack and Michael make a search the census from 1881, when REB would have been 11. They find him listed as a scholar at a "Com Trav School."

MW: "a boarding school for commercial travellers...that's very, very peculiar."

REB (recorded as Ernest R Whitehall) was found in the 1881 census of the Commercial Travellers School in Pinner

They conclude that REB was at this point all alone in the world and they presume his parents had died and he'd gone to this school in Pinner, Middlesex. By using the Map Explorer on TheGenealogist we can identify that the school is at Hatch End, a short distance from Pinner Station on the London North Western Railway line (Now Hatch End station on the West Coast Main Line).

TheGenealogist's Map Explorer using the historic map reveals the Commercial Travellers Schools

The two pay a visit to the site of the school. With the aid of TheGenealogist's Map Explorer, by sliding the Opacity control to reveal a modern map below we can see that the site has made way for a large supermarket and an arts centre.

TheGenealogist's Map Explorer showing the site of a modern supermarket where the Commercial Travellers Schools once stood

Viewers of the show see the Whitehall's head into the chapel to meet a historian there. Confused as to why an institution would be set up to train commercial travelers Jack and Michael question the expert.

MW: "But would a child of that age know he wanted to be a commercial traveller? I don't quite understand?"

The reality was that the school was in fact set up to cater for the children of commercial travellers. As a charity it took in the orphaned offspring of commercial travelers, as well as those whose families had fallen on hard times. Fathers who were commercial travellers had a precarious occupation spending much of their time on the road and away from their families. If a commercial traveller tragically died young then he might leave his family impoverished with no means to pay for the education of his children, this was the purpose of the school. The famous author, Charles Dickens, was the honorary chair of the Commercial Travellers School. In the TV episode we see Jack reading from a speech that Dickens had made in the 1850s in which he described the life of commercial travellers:
"'I have no doubt we could all be very eloquent on the comforts of our favourite hotel, its beds, its stables, its excellent cheese, its pigeon pies, or its 1820 port. Or possibly we could recall our chaste and innocent admiration of its landlady, or our fraternal regard for its handsome chambermaid.'"

Commercial travellers, by the nature of their jobs representing businesses by going up and down their patch to sell their employers' products, were regarded as suspect because their job put them in the way of temptation when they had to stay away from home.

MW: "My father was a commercial traveller, but, I mean, he was a very well-behaved one."
JW: "You don't know that."

The school's record of REB's arrival is a surprise for the pair as it contradicts Jack's and Michael's assumptions about his situation. The records suggest that his mother was in fact alive, but in "delicate health." They now realise that REB wasn't an orphan. But they then have to deal with the news that REB's mother Caroline was in fact living in an asylum and listed, in the language of the time, as a "lunatic." The census is used in the programme to reveal that Caroline Baxter Whitehall was in St. Andrew's Hospital, Northampton and from the 1881 census of the hospital the patients are only identified by initials, but it does include their age and place of birth. This is still a psychiatric hospital today and Jack and Michael head there to find out what became of her.

Caroline identified only as CW born in Whiston in the St Andrew's Hospital, Northampton in 1881 census

Meeting up with a historian, Jack and Michael are shown Caroline's hospital records. Jack reads from the casebook: "'Whitehall, Caroline, admitted April 8th 1880, aged 50. She has fixed delusions on the subject of her position, believes herself married to a Mr Jackson who has no existence. Her sister states that she is changed in her disposition and has on occasion said that she would cut her throat.' Wow."

Michael reads a later entry: "'Has all the appearance of a general paralytic, affected with mania.'"

The historian explains that this diagnosis refers to symptoms that can occur in late-stage syphilis, when the brain is affected by the disease. Michael says that he is lost for words by this revelation. It transpires that in all probability Caroline's husband Richard Whitehall had given her syphilis, as 'cerebral softening' – listed as the cause of death on his own death certificate – is also consistent with the disease. By 1882 Caroline had deteriorated, suffering from dementia and being described as violent and dirty, using bad language and grinding her teeth. She endured three years in the asylum before succumbing to death in 1883, as there was no cure. Jack speculates that the pony and trap story was circulated in their family because the actual truth was so grim.

They discover that with the death of his mother, REB was then taken in by Caroline's sister, his aunt Sarah and her husband Alfred Bromwich. Jack and Michael then pay a visit to where REB's aunt and uncle lived at Blakesley Hall outside Birmingham to find out what happened to REB later on in his life. Blakesley Hall is an attractive Tudor hall on Blakesley Road in Yardley, Birmingham, England and having been built in 1590 is one of the oldest buildings in Birmingham. At the time that REB's family lived there, however, it had become home to tenant farmer Alfred Bromwich.

1891 census for Blakesley Hall, Warwickshire reveals REB under his aunt and uncle's roof

It's now that they understand REB's connection to his benefactor Charlie Worsey. REB's mother and his aunt Sarah Bromwich shared the maiden name Baxter and it was also what the B stood for in his middle names. If we turn to the Trade, Residential and Telephone Directories on TheGenealogist we can find a Birmingham business listed in Slater's 1850 edition that includes a firm called Worsey and Baxter – they were high-end woollen merchants. Michael and Jack learn that the two families were connected by marriage as well as in business. Despite Michael thinking that Charlie Worsey had been a much older man, and benefactor to his grandfather, it turns out that Charlie was in fact REB's first cousin, and only ten years his senior. Charlie Worsey never married, and Jack and Michael read that on his death aged 70 he left the rough equivalent to £10 million in today's money to REB in his will.

Trade, Residential and Telephone Directories on TheGenealogist finds the Birmingham business of Worsey and Baxter listed in Slater's 1850 edition

MW: "It was a lot of money then and it's a lot of money now!"

Charlie Worsey died in 1938, just two years before Michael was born and when REB was aged 60. This reveals that REB's life had been a struggle for longer than Michael had realised. It was only in his later life that his great fortune came to him.

MW: "What happened to all those millions of pounds? They definitely didn't come our way. I'm surprised by the amount of money that seems to have been part of his life."
JW: "If anyone deserved it, it was him."

The True Blue Welsh Solicitor

Michael and Jack now pursue REB's wife's side of the family. Edith, Michael's grandmother died when he was about five. They learn that Michael's 3- and Jack's 4-times great grandfather was Thomas Jones Phillips – a solicitor practising in Monmouthshire, Wales, in the 1820s and 1830s. Using the New Clarke's Law List in TheGenealogist's Occupational records the Clarke's New Law List from 1826 allows us to find him listed as an Attorney, the previous name for a Solicitor in England and Wales.

In the programme a newspaper from 1833 identifies him as Vice-Chair of the Newport True Blue Benefit Society – this makes him a Tory. Thomas, therefore, like his 3-times great grandson Michael, who is well known for his Conservative views, supported the Tories – much to the chagrin of Jack.

JW: "So it's in your blood."

Thomas Jones Phillips in TheGenealogist's Occupational Records – 1826 Clarke's New Law List

At the Conservative club in Monmouth, Jack and Michael are met by a Parliamentary historian.

JW: "So I'm not gonna lie when I found out that we were going to Wales, I was excited maybe that there would be a revelation in my family history like, I don't know, one of my ancestors was a Welsh miner or something like that. But no. Turns out: massive Tory."

They learn that Thomas Jones Phillips was an important figure in local politics, and that at the time in 1832 the Great Reform Act had just passed. This Act lowered the property qualification for men to vote to those owners of land in copyhold worth £10 and holders of long-term leases of more than 60 years on land worth £10. The effect was to newly enfranchise a group of middle-class (male) voters, but still denying most working-class men (and all women) a vote. Tories and Whigs fought hard over the new £10 voters and so Thomas Jones Phillips was tasked with finding objections to those who were likely to vote for the other side's candidate. Jack and Michael read Thomas Jones Phillips's account of how, acting for the Tories, he found technical, legal reasons (like unpaid rents, misspelled names, incorrect addresses) to prevent those expected to vote Whig from exercising their vote.

JW: "Why are you nodding? Like that's a decent thing to do?"
MW: "Well he's doing a good job for the Tories."
JW jokes: "And then in this final paragraph he suggests employing a company called Cambridge Analytica."

The Whitehalls learn that what Thomas Jones Phillips was doing was of course entirely legal and it would then become standard practice in British politics. It would, however, have made him unpopular with some of his neighbours and his ancestor, Jack.

JW: "I think I'd rather he had syphilis."

One of those neighbours that would have been in conflict with Thomas was John Frost – who believed the Great Reform Act hadn't gone far enough.

Michael and Jack then meet up with a historian at the Newport school named after John Frost to find out how their 3-/4-times great grandfather Thomas Jones Phillips was regarded in his area. After a stirring performance by the school choir, they learn more about the political scene in Newport in the 1830s. John Frost was a leader of the Chartist movement. The Chartists position was that all working men should have the vote – without any property qualification being required. In 1839 they put their demands to Parliament in the People's Charter. At this time, their arguments were seen as radical, even seditious demands – but their ideas were very popular with working men in the Welsh Valleys. Michael and Jack are shown a newspaper account detailing how, when the news broke in May 1839 that the Chartist leader, Henry Vincent, had been arrested in London and would be brought up in front of the magistrates in Newport, riots had broken out on the streets of Newport. A rumour began to do the rounds that colliers from the valleys were planning to head to Newport and try to rescue Vincent. Michael and Jack visit the valleys in the programme to get an understanding of the deep political divisions in the area and to find out more about their ancestor Thomas Jones Phillips' role.

JW: "Every story needs a villain and it just happens to be that our ancestor is probably going to be the villain."

At Nantygo Iron Works, the heritage officer shows Jack and Michael round the site, where company owners built fortifications to protect themselves from their workers. The workers were paid truck wages, tokens that had to be spent in the company's shop. This raised resentment among the employees who built up debts in the company's truck shop waiting for their wages which may not cover their expenditure since their last payment. Making the argument for extending the vote to all working men in such a divided society threatened the conservative establishment. Against this backdrop, Chartist leader Henry Vincent was detained under arrest in Newport; meanwhile the discontent workingmen from the valleys were being invited to attend meetings where speakers like the local Chartist leader John Frost would talk. Michael's and Jack's 3-/4-times great grandfather Thomas Jones Phillips, as clerk to the magistrates and on the other side of the political divide, was busy gathering all the evidence that he could against the Chartists.

On the 3rd of November of 1839, Jack and Michael read that Thomas Jones Phillips was summoned to Tredegar ironworks in the valleys. Here he had heard that a crowd was reported to be gathering intent on heading in to Newport. The next day, the 4th of November, Thomas Jones Phillips took the Tredegar Coach himself back to Newport.

JW: "So all over the Valleys the miners and the ironworkers are angry, they're up in arms, they're forming mobs and they're heading down towards Newport. And our ancestor is trailing them in his first class coach."

The TV programme attempts to reproduce their ancestor's journey on modern public transport and so we see Jack and Michael get on a coach headed for Newport. They read part of their ancestor's account of the same journey, including the outrage he expressed about people who were able to get on the coach without paying a fare.

JW: "He's a perennial snitch."

Michael and Jack arrive in Newport where they meet a historian at the site in front of the hotel where the tragic consequences of the situation had played out just before Thomas Jones Phillips's coach arrived – a conflict that became known as the Newport Rising. Around 5,000 Chartist supporters had marched on the Westgate Hotel where a group of Chartists were being held prisoner. Five hundred special constables and soldiers were positioned on guard in front of the building and they opened fire on the Chartists, killing twenty two of them and injuring another fifty. This went down in history as the biggest loss of civilian life inflicted by the army on British soil in the 19th century.

Michael and Jack are shocked and saddened by what had happened. Warrants for the arrest of anyone who took part in the rising were issued by the Justices – and a large reward was put up for anyone who apprehended John Frost.

JW: "Oh God! Thomas Jones Phillips isn't the guy that finds him and turns him in, is he?"

To discover the next chapter of the story the two head to Monmouth, where the remaining Chartists stood trial. They soon learn that Thomas Jones Phillips was indeed the man who tracked down the Chartist leader, John Frost. They are shown a document in which Thomas Jones Phillips explains how he came across the fugitive, but goes on to make the point that he was unaware of the reward. Jack doesn't seem convinced.

JW: "So our ancestor is directly responsible for the arrest of the great Welsh hero of the Chartist Movement?"

Frost and his comrades were found guilty of high treason in December 1839 and so received the most terrible sentence that the law could hand down: to be hanged, drawn and quartered – the last defendants in Britain to ever to receive this sentence. Much to Jack and Michael's relief the punishment was eventually commuted to transportation for life.

By using TheGenealogist's Court and Criminal records we are able to find the convicted Chartist in the register of prisoners awaiting transportation on a hulk called the York moored at Gosport in March 1840. Further criminal records on TheGenealogist show that he was transported on the ship Mandarin to Van Diemen's Land that year. We can also see his Ticket of Leave from 1845-1846.

John Frost in TheGenealogist's Court and Criminal records register of prisoners awaiting transportation on a hulk 1840

Only three years after Frost's conviction, Thomas Jones Phillips died. The Whitehalls head to the church where they had been told there is a plaque commemorating their ancestor. The two of them hunt for it high and low.

MW: "My problem is I can't read a lot of them."

Eventually they spot it in an out of the way place...above the stairs and close to the toilet.

Image credit: BBC/Wall to Wall Media Ltd/Stephen Perry

JW: "I think going forward, I'm going to have to sever ties with you and focus on Mummy."
MW: "Why, because I'm Welsh you mean?"
JW: "No, not because you're Welsh, because all your ancestors were wrong 'uns. I'm sure Mummy has really nice ancestors."

Press Information from IJPR on behalf of the programme makers Wall to Wall Media Ltd
Extra research and record images from TheGenealogist.co.uk
BBC/Wall to Wall Ltd Images

31st July 2019


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