The actor Anne Reid is the youngest of four siblings. “All I remember of the Reids being together was laughs and music and dancing,” she says. The star of Last Tango In Halifax doesn’t recalls too many serious moments when she was a child and doesn’t think she’s “going to get terribly weepy” when she explores her family history.
Or, more accurately, when she traces the life of one particular ancestor, her great-great grandfather John Reid, who lived in Fife. Family stories suggest Anne is descended from clergymen, but that’s not what she discovers when she visits a former family home, Easter Forret, which once belonged to her 3x great grandfather, John’s father-in-law, David Husband.
Instead, she discovers that John’s children lived with their grandfather. According to church records, the children’s mother, Isabella, died in 1849, yet there are no local records of John’s death. Why not?
Other church documents offer clues. John was a teacher in the local school and its officials, or Kirk elders, kept a close eye on him. There are notes that refer to him doing other work when he should have been in the classroom, and being “grossly intoxicated”. Anne is reduced to helpless giggles as she reads about John’s escapades. “Oh dear, he really was wild, wasn’t he?” she says.
Historian Dr Trudy Cowley told Anne about John’s journey on board a convict ship to Tasmania
But things soon turn more serious. By the 1840s, John was in financial trouble. It seems he tried to escape his money woes by forging a bill of exchange, essentially a sophisticated IOU that was countersigned by people who would be liable for the debt. It was regarded as a serious crime to fake a signature.
Yet that’s what John did, signing his well-to-do father-in-law’s name. In Edinburgh, in the very court where John was tried, Anne learns he was transported to Tasmania. Anne, who’s grown to identify with John’s rebelliousness, is angry at what she sees as a disproportionate punishment: “I want revenge.”
John was sent to Australia aboard the ship Earl Grey. Remarkably, it turns out there’s an account of the voyage, which was written by surgeon-superintendent Colin Arrott Browning, the man in charge of the convicts. Over the three months and more it took to travel south, John taught illiterate prisoners how to read. He wasn’t initially rewarded for this service, as Anne learns when she visits Australia. Under the so-called probation system, he was sent to work on a road gang, a brutal life of hard labour.
Anne was accompanied by her niece for the final step of the family history jouney
Yet even though he was a middle-aged man, John survived the experience. Afterwards, he went to work for another settler and, by 1849, records show him as a “free” man. He became a trader, an entrepreneur, and could probably have afforded the fare home, which at £30-£40 was the equivalent of a labourer’s annual salary.
But he never returned to Britain. Perhaps, muses Anne, he wanted “a different life” and found it in Australia. “I’m enormously proud [of being his descendant],” says Anne, who has become far more involved in John’s story than she ever thought possible.
There’s one final detail. An 1864 marriage certificate shows John’s son, Thomas, describing his father, for reasons we can only guess at, as a “clergyman (deceased)”. Here, it seems, lie the roots of those family stories about forebears called to serve in the church.