As a child, actress Amanda Redman was acutely aware that her family had secrets. “When we were children, there were things that we didn’t need to know,” she says. Even as an adult, as she goes to meet her mother to discuss the past, she’s “terrified” of what she might discover.
Her mother, Joan, is “the rock of the whole family”, one of five children. However, Joan has rarely spoken of her own father, William Herrington, who for two decades served in the Indian Army. Joan’s reluctance to speak about William, it turns out, is because of dark memories. He was an alcoholic who beat his children and the family dreaded the all-too-frequent times when he came home drunk. “I hated him,” says a clearly emotional Joan, adding that she speaks for her siblings too.
The army offered his wife, Agnes, the chance to take her family back to the UK, but she refused. According to social historian Catherine Hall, in the heavy-drinking culture of the military during the last days of the Raj, a time when Europeans stuck together if only for mutual protection, William’s behaviour would have had to be particularly notorious for such an offer to be extended.
William’s antics caused real schisms in the family and Amanda discovers she has a ‘lost’ uncle, Cyril. In order to find out more about Cyril, Amanda heads for Falmouth where she meets a second cousin, the rather jolly and charming Desmond St Ledger.
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Gradually, Cyril’s story starts to emerge. He wasn’t William’s son, but an illegitimate, born before William and Agnes married. Nobody knows who his father was. Evidently, Cyril was something of a tearaway, a reform school boy. A childhood friend, Frank, remembers that Cyril once stole a train! Like so many misfits before and after, Cyril became a merchant seaman. But the story doesn’t end there. Cyril had a son, Derek. Amanda meets Derek’s mother, Hilda, but sadly it turns out that Derek died in his 40s of emphysema.
A Cornish connection
But how does Amanda come to have so many relatives on her mother’s side of the family in Cornwall? The answer to this question actually lies in Ireland. Amanda’s great-great grandfather, James, came to England in the 1850s. Amanda’s keen to know if he might be related to the St Ledgers who founded the famous horse race and lived in magnificent Doneraile Court in County Cork.
In Eire, Amanda doesn’t find noble connections, but she does uncover the remarkable story of her great-great-great grandfather, John. Born a Catholic, he converted because he was sent to a Protestant charity school. Working as a steward on an ‘emigrant ship’ during the time of the potato famine, John eventually decided to emigrate himself. In Ireland, Amanda sees the adjacent houses where her extended family once lived, considerably less grand than Doneraile Court but just as evocative in their way.
It’s been a difficult, emotional journey, yet there’s one final revelation. Cyril, it turns out, lived a double life and had another child, Karen. Amanda heads to Liverpool to meet her cousin for the first time. The family resemblance is striking. But it’s also a mournful meeting. Amanda tells Karen about the death of Derek, a half-brother she never met. Amanda also learns that any photographs of Cyril were lost during a break-in.
At a huge party at Joan’s Brighton home, the newly extended family – the St Ledgers from Falmouth and the Liverpool relatives – are at last united. Amanda never discovers who Cyril’s father was, but she does at last catch a glimpse of the man himself, in a blurry, photocopied picture from his naval records.