Actor Alex Kingston currently divides her time between Los Angeles, where her daughter lives, and England. “Because my life is so unstable, finding out about our roots makes me feel as though I’m keeping us held together,” she says. Alex is particularly interested in learning about her father’s family, research that will reveal the life of a truly remarkable woman through the 19th century.
First, though, she heads off to visit her parents, where she sees a picture of her great-grandfather, William Keevil. As a sapper with the Royal Engineers, William served on the Western Front, but in peacetime he was a photographer.
Another family visit, to Alex’s uncle Bernard, reveals more, including the original 1917 notice of William having been killed in action. After this, Mitty took in lodgers to make ends meet. William was the son of a lawyers’ clerk. The 1891 census reveals him as a lantern slide maker. According to Michael Pritchard, photographic historian, William prepared slides, often of local scenes, for static-image shows that were popular in a pre-cinema era. By 1912, William had become a photographer in his own right. So did he use these skills in the First World War?
Contemporary accounts reveal he worked in sound-ranging, where the Royal Engineers used microphones to record soundwaves on film – a little like a heart monitor readout – and thus locate German guns. William’s photography skills would have been valuable. The work involved laying lines across no-man’s land, lines that could easily be damaged. When this happened, teams were sent to make repairs, which is what William was doing when he died at the Battle of Passchendaele.
Next, Alex investigates family rumours of Jewish roots. A name in her family tree, Braham (derived from Abraham), and 19th-century documents prove these stories to be accurate. What’s far less expected is the colourful life of Alex’s widowed 4x great-grandmother, Elizabeth Braham. The 1851 census reveals her to be a lodging house keeper in Westminster.
However, as the historian Catharine Arnold reveals to Alex, this certainly wasn’t a respectable house, it was a place where prostitutes brought clients. “This morning I found my inner Jew and this afternoon I found my inner whore… I was not expecting that!” says Alex.
Coroners’ records reveal how one of the women who used Elizabeth’s rooms, ‘Polka Poll’, brought in a man who committed suicide. Other documents show Elizabeth was charged with keeping a disorderly house as early as 1827. This may seem like a tale heading towards a bad end, but Elizabeth was actually a successful businesswoman. When she died, she left an estate of around £1,500, mostly in property, a considerable sum at this time. Moreover, she put the bulk of the estate in trust for her granddaughter, a way to protect it from falling under the control of any husband.
Widow Elizabeth didn’t just survive, she prospered. Alex is delighted, proud to have met a woman who was an “extraordinary force of nature”.