Joe Lycett - Who Do You Think You Are?

"There are some odd fish in this family! And I'm happy about that."

26th October 2021


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Warning! Article contains spoilers for the programme to be broadcast Tuesday 2nd November 2021.

Joe Harry Lycett is well known to many as a British comedian and television presenter. Joe has appeared on TV shows including Live at the Apollo, Taskmaster, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, 8 Out of 10 Cats, QI, and brought his comic flair to presenting BBC Two's The Great British Sewing Bee and Channel 4's consumer rights show, Joe Lycett's Got Your Back.

In the BBC One programme that will broadcast on Tuesday 2nd November, Joe tells the viewers that he had a warm loving upbringing. He goes on to say that he would be very surprised if he was going anywhere other than Birmingham or Nottingham.

He begins his family history journey by popping around the corner from where he lives to his mum and dad's house in Birmingham. Out in the garden, to comply with Covid 19 regulations at the time of filming, his dad has some photographs to show him. The first one is of a family group that includes Joe with his sister Beth, Grandmother Evelyn Lycett and Douglas Lycett, his grandfather. Joe remembers that Douglas had a dry sense of humour.

(L-R) Joe Lycett, Evelyn Lycett (Joe's grandmother), Beth (Joe's sister) and Douglas Lycett (Joe's grandfather)

On his maternal side his Nan was known as "Curly" though her proper names were Margaret Annie Wilkinson. Joe's mum, and her family were from Nottingham and his mum has a press photograph of her own mother when she was a Darts Champion in Nottingham.

Joe finds out that the name of his great grandfather had been Robert William Wilkinson and that he had been a member of the Buffalos or Buffs in Nottingham and he is shown a picture of Robert dressed up and in his regalia.

Joe Lycett's great grandfather, Robert Wilkinson in Buffalo Regalia - 1966

With this as a lead Joe sets off to Nottingham where he is able to meet Pete Spence, the current Grand Primo of the Buffalos in that city to find out a bit more about the Buffs. It turns out that Joe has come to meet Pete at the actual pub in which his grandfather's lodge would have met and as Pete is wearing the same outfit as Robert wore in his photograph, Joe is able to make a comparison. After being introduced to what the Buffalos were about, and turning down the idea of joining himself, Joe next goes to see his Aunty Jean who still lives in Nottingham. She has been the keeper of the family photographs etcetera since Curly had died and within the keepsakes she had found the marriage certificate of Robert Wilkinson's parents dated 10 July 1888. This reveals that Joe's great grandfather was also named Robert and that he had been a Clothier at the time of his marriage. The groom's father was recorded as Henry Wilkinson whose occupation was noted as being that of a Sweep. The eye-opener for Joe is that it is not Nottingham but in Cambridgeshire that the wedding had taken place. As the marriage to Annie Margaret Stocks took place in Littleport in Cambridgeshire, it is to this county that Joe heads somewhat surprised that his family research is taking him there. He is also fascinated by his 3x great grandfather Henry's line of work as a Chimney Sweep.

Marriage record on TheGenealogist

In St Ives Joe is able to meet with Sarah Russell, who is the Director at The Norris Museum in St Ives. Sarah points Joe towards the birth record for his ancestor dated 1841. This gives Joe the information that Robert is the son of Henry Wilkinson and Susana Wiliinson, formerly Winters. The rank, profession or occupation of the father is not recorded as Sweep, which Joe had expected, but as a Waterman.

Birth record on TheGenealogist for Joe Lycett's 2x great grandfather Robert Wilkinson 1841

Turning next to the 1851 census sheds some light on the size of the family. Henry and his wife plus seven of their children are living at Magpie Alley while Robert is missing from his parent's home. A search of the census records for the area discovers that he can be found in another schedule, this time for the Bell Inn where he is living in his maternal grandparent's home in the pub. The head of the household is Daniel Winters and his wife Hannah. These are Joe's 4x great grandparents and the parents of Susanna Wilkinson. The census records that Daniel's occupation is that of a publican and also a chimney sweep. Robert, aged 10, is listed as a Sweep, presumably employed by his grandfather to go up chimneys.

1851 Census of the Bell Inn St Ives, Cambridgeshire where Joe's chimney sweep ancestors lived

To then find out about the life of a sweep in this period Joe is able to have a talk with Martin Glynn, who is an expert on chimney sweeps. Their meeting takes place at the very grand country house called Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. Joe hears from Martin how boys were chosen because of their size to fit up the chimney and then he gets to see a statement that reveals how harsh the treatment was for the boys. The Master Sweep would harden up their elbows and knees with brine and they would finish their work with knees and elbows bleeding as they learnt their trade. Martin tells Joe that some boys were sold into the trade at 3 to 4 years old but by 1840 the law changed to forbid boys being employed to climb a chimney, but Martin explains that in rural areas people turned a blind eye to the law. Owners of houses believed that children did a better job than a mechanical brush in removing the soot buildup in the flue. The Earl of Hardwick, whose house Wimpole Hall had once been, had voted against the Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act to stop boys going up chimneys and would probably have used local sweeps such as the Winters and the Wilkinsons.

By the time of the next census in 1861 Robert had changed his occupation as at this time he was recorded on HMS London "at sea in the Grecian Archipelago". He is now 19 and a Royal Marine.

1861 census of shipping: HMS London "at sea in the Grecian Archipelago"

Joe speaks to John Bolt, an expert on the Royal Marines, and sees documents that reveal that Robert had enlisted at St Ives on 14 September 1858. He was recruited by a Corporal Elton, who will feature again in this story. Robert is lucky to get in as he is just over the minimum height requirement of 5 foot 6 inches.

To China

Joe is shown a picture of HMS London, the ship on which Robert served for just shy of four years. A search of the Newspapers & Magazine collection on TheGenealogist finds us a picture of the ship later on in her service with the Royal Navy. From HMS London, Robert then transfers to HMS Sylvia for a year and it is at this time that he is deployed with his colleagues to the seas around China.

The Illustrated London News December 17th 1881 from TheGenealogist's Newspapers & Magazine Collection

To understand why the Navy and their Royal Marines were operating so far east Joe is able to meet Prof Yang-Wen Zheng. She explains that Britain and China had two Opium wars in the 1800s and Joe's ancestor, Robert, was serving at the time of the Second Opium War 1856-1860. The background to the conflict was that Britain was growing opium in India which they would then sell to China for tea which Joe sees as immoral. From further search of TheGenealogist's Newspapers & Magazines we are able to find contemporary articles in the Illustrated London News. The first snippet is from August 1857 where the Lord Chancellor, in reply to the Earl of Shaftesbury, said that the law officers of the Crown were unanimously of the opinion that there was nothing illegal in the growth and trade in opium.

The Illustrated London News August 22 1857 from TheGenealogist's Newspapers & Magazine Collection

We are also able to find sketches of unloading opium from a British merchant ship as well as a serie of engravings published in the December 18,1858 edition of the ILN that showed the views of the Chineses themselves as to the evil effects which follow from opium-smoking. Thus it can be seen that not all agreed with the trade that Robert and his fellow marines would be called to defend in the name of British business interests.

ILN July 1857 unloading opium in China from a British ship

December 18,1858 edition of the ILN found on TheGenealogist

China had lost the war against the importation and was forced to accept the British trade in the drug. Local Chinese resistance threatened this lucrative traffic and so ships like HMS Sylvia patrolled the region with Royal Marines like Robert ready to land at a moment's notice. Joe is then given a report on an attack that took place on the boats of HMS Cockchaer. A search of TheGenealogist finds a report of the incident in The Illustrated London News for February 20, 1869 and a follow up on March 6, 1869. The Royal Marines were used to "punish" the natives by killing a great number of the Chinese and destroying their villages.

Illustrated London News Issue No: 1526 February 20, 1869 on TheGenealogist

Villagers punished at Swatow from a search of the Newspapers & Magazines. The Illustrated London News Issue No:1528 March 6 1869

Joe's 2x great grandfather Robert Wilkinson would have seen some terrible things in this time and after another 18 months service his time in the China seas was over and Robert was assigned to HMS Donegal to sail back to England in July 1870.

Information board at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard for HMS Warrior a similar vesel to HMS Donegal

HMS Warrior one of the exhibits open to the public at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and a contemporary of Robert Wilkinson's ship

Joe heads to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard where he goes onboard HMS Warrior for a meeting with historian Dr Catherine Beck. This ship, Joe finds out, is a contemporary vessel of the ship that Robert had sailed home on. The voyage would have been two months with over 900 men on board and it would have been cramped. In September 1870, there was a "Shocking case of stabbing on board the Donegal" reported in the local newspapers.

A sergeant, named Wilkinson, had shown various symptoms of insanity five or six weeks previous and had stabbed a Colour Sergeant named Elton in the Sergent's mess. The initial report indicated that Wilkinson had fixed his bayonet and said some angry words before rushing at Elton stabbing him. The newspaper reported that the men had not been on friendly terms with each other. But in another newspaper Joe is shown a letter from someone who was there at the time and was seeking to contradict the previous reports. They wrote that Wilkinson had just got up from his hammock and, believing that the other sergeants had been talking behind his back, he stabbed his friend. The letter indicates that the two men had been close friends, sharing everything, and of course Elton had been the recruiting corporal when Joe's 2x great grandfather Robert had joined the marines. It would appear that 12 years on from the recruitment they were actually still good friends making the crime all the more out of character. Robert was taken to the Royal Navy Hospital at Gosport for assessment. This we can see from pictures on TheGenealogist is a massive brick built establishment.

The Royal Hospital Haslar in Navy and Army Illustrated February 1918 from TheGenealogist's Newspapers & Magazines collection

Joe crosses the harbour to the Royal Hospital Haslar and there meets historian Eric Birbeck. He is told that there had been an asylum in part of the hospital for what was then termed the lunatics. If his great great grandfather had been classed sane then he would most certainly have faced the death penalty, however an insane verdict would save him. A Courts Martial on October 19, 1870 onboard HMS Duke of Wellington heard from the ship's Doctor that gave an account that pointed to Sgt Wilkinson not being able to handle his drink. It is assumed that his experiences in China had caused him to turn to alcohol. To Joe's relief the Court had found his ancestor insane at the time of the offence and remanded him to Yarmouth Hospital at Her Majesty's Pleasure. Eric provides Joe with a record that then shows that Robert was treated and then discharged after only 6 months.

There is then a gap in the records until in 1888 Robert married Annie Stocks. To see if he can get any further with his look into his 2x great grandfather's life Joe goes back up to Cambridgeshire to meet up with museum director Sarah Russell for the second time.

1881 census that shows Joe's 39 year old ancestor listed as a barman living as a lodger in Greenwich

1901 Robert Wilkinson is now recorded as the Publican at the Swan Inn in Conington

Joe is shown the 1881 census that records his 39 year old ancestor listed as a barman living as a lodger in Greenwich. Another return, this time from 1901, both of which we can follow in the census collection on TheGenealogist, now has Robert Wilkinson recorded as the Publican at the Swan Inn in Conington. In the Who Do You Think You Are TV show he met the historian at The White Swan in Connington. Of course it turns out that The White Swan and the Swan Inn are the same. He has come to the very pub that his great great grandfather had been the landlord of from c1898 to c1906 and which is even recorded on a document hanging in the pub today. Two years after Robert stopped being the landlord, in Bull Lane, St Ives, he died aged 67. His burial is at All Saints, St Ives, Cambridgeshire in a plot close to his parents grave. Using the Map Explorer™ on TheGenealogist and then selecting the Image Archive as the top layer, we are able to see an image of the church which with one click can be expanded.

Joe's family members are buried at All Saints Church, St Ives, Cambridgeshire

All Saints Church, St Ives, Cambridgeshire from TheGenealogist's Image Archive

The television episode has followed the story of Joe Lycett's great great grandfather Robert Wilkinson full circle from St Ives, Cambridge and back again. On the way Joe has learnt of the hard childhood his ancestor had as a chimney sweep, to adventures across the world, some of which would have caused him what we call today post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He learnt of the massacre of Chinese villagers that Robert probably took part in, his 2x great grandfather turning to drink and attacking his long standing friend with a bayonet. Dodging the death penalty on account of having being insane at the time, Robert was able to marry and become a publican back in his home county of Cambridgshire.

We have been able to find marriage records, census records and several newspaper articles on TheGenealogist to follow the TV investigation into Joe Lycett's family story and we have used the Map Explorer and Image Archive to also find the church where Joe's Cambridgeshire family are buried.

Press Information from Multitude Media on behalf of the programme makers Wall to Wall Media Ltd
Extra research and record images from
BBC/Wall to Wall Ltd Images
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard images N.Thorne

26th October 2021


New Diamond Package Offer!

We'd like to offer you our new 4 monthly Diamond subscription  for our introductory price of only £44.95  (saving a third off the standard price of £64.95).  This is the lowest cost Diamond subscription we've ever had!

12 Month subcription to Discover Your Ancestors Online Magazine Along with providing access to Census, BMDs, Non-Conformist Records, Wills and more, the Diamond subscription gives you access to record collections that make it easy to find so much more about your ancestors.

You'll also enjoy a free 12 month subscription to Discover Your Ancestors online magazine worth £24.95,  saving you a total of £44.95!

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