Chatty Man Alan Carr says he’s always been intrigued by genealogy. Well, he adds, so long as genealogy means family history rather than the study of rocks. “I’d like to see where I come from,” says the comedian, “cos I don’t know where I’m going!”
First up, this means heading north to meet his father at St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United, where Graham Carr is the chief scout. “Did you think I’d ever come out of this tunnel?” jokes Alan as he walks out towards the pitch.
Graham played professionally and went on to become a manager, but he wasn’t the first footballer in the family. Wilf Carr, Alan’s grandfather, also made his living from the game. Clippings from the 1920s suggest a promising striker who was knocking goals in for Newcastle’s reserves before injury ended his playing career.
It’s a picture far removed from the man Alan knew in later life. “You’ve got to understand, the granddad I knew was this man with a gammy leg and a stick,” he says. Instead of finding fame and fortune, Wilf spent the majority of his working life as a coal miner.
Next, Alan wants to know more about his mother’s side of the family, the Carters. It’s a quest complicated by confusion over his great-grandparents’ names. “I love a mystery,” says Alan. “I smell a rat with the Carter family in the best possible sense.”
Alan’s great-grandfather, Henry Carter, was also known as Edward Mercer. Why? Could it have something to do with his relationship with Maria Annie Wayman, mother of his 12 children? In 1905, prior to setting up home with Henry, Maria was married to a Thomas Laing. A Carter family reunion, where Alan meets his great-aunt, Doreen, provides more information, but also raises more questions about the lives of the couple, who were both Londoners.
Alan goes to meet historian June Balshaw, who’s been trawling through official records. Marie, it turns out, had two children with Laing, but by 1911 was living as Henry’s ‘lodger’. By 1916, the couple had moved to Crayford, Kent. In 1938, they finally married with Annie, as she was known, declaring herself to be a widow.
It’s still a confusing story, but a meeting with historian Nigel Steel helps to clarify matters. Henry Carter was a deserter, who joined a Camberwell ‘pals’ battalion’ in 1915, but obviously thought better of his decision. Had the authorities caught him, Henry would have faced two years of hard labour as a ‘domestic deserter’. Instead, he adopted a new identity, Edward Mercer.
Yet Alan still isn’t entirely convinced. Why is Henry Carter listed as the father on his children’s birth certificates rather than Edward Mercer? At the Centre for Kentish Studies, historian Sandra Dunster explains that police would have been far more likely to look at electoral records than birth certificates when hunting for deserters.
Alan has addresses for his great-grandfather so he checks these against the electoral register. The name Edward Mercer appears here. In other words, working as a labourer at Crayford’s huge Vickers armaments factory, Henry Carter was hiding in plain sight, perhaps pretending to be someone declared unfit to fight.
There’s one final twist: Henry’s first home in Crayford was just a few doors from where Alan lived as a child. Alan’s come to terms with the fact that his forebear was a deserter. “I think he protected [Annie],” he says. “It sounds cheesy, but he chose love over war. He was a lover not a fighter.”