Born Barbara Ann Deeks in Shoreditch in August 1937, the Carry On… actress starts her search with little knowledge of her family tree beyond her grandparents. A true EastEnder herself, she has always felt slightly distanced from her past as her mother, Rose, was something of a snob, moving the family to Stoke Newington in North London when Barbara was young.
Barbara knows more about her mother’s side of the family than her father’s. Although her parents were second cousins, her mother (née Ellis) always looked down on the Deeks branch of the family, although she did allow herself to be seduced by Barbara’s dad’s barrow-boy charm. However, the marriage didn’t last; they were divorced when Barbara’s father, John Deeks, started becoming violent towards Rose.
Barbara’s maternal grandfather was Charlie Ellis, a docker who liked his drink – “and when he was tipsy, I always knew he was good for a few pennies for a jam doughnut” – but also entertained in the local pubs as a singer. “I loved Grandad Charlie,” Barbara reminisces. “He was a real gent, always well turned out, he never swore, a bit of a local celebrity and I’m sure that’s where I got my entertaining gene from.”
Since was unsure precisely what Charlie’s day job entailed, Barbara seeks the advice of Chris Ellmers, an expert on the London Docks. It emerged that Charlie had started work at the docks as a casual labourer in 1916, becoming a permanent member of staff ten years later. This constituted a move up the social ladder, leaving Barbara keen to discover why her mum still looked down so much on her dad’s side of the family, the Deeks.
Thanks to a story told by her cousin Gerald, Barbara knows that her grandmother, ‘Fat Nan’, had been a chorus-line dancer – a ‘hoofer’ – at Hoxton’s Britannia Theatre when she was 16, just before the First World War broke out. Her husband, Jack Deeks, was a costermonger, selling fruit and vegetables. The precursors of the Pearly Kings and Queens, costermongers wore similar apparel and had their own argot which prefigured Cockney rhyming slang. Intriguingly, Barbara also discovers the existence of a family myth which claims Fat Nan’s mother didn’t want her daughter to marry a Deeks either.
The poverty trap
To follow that line of enquiry, Barbara heads off to meet Gloria, another first cousin once removed. Gloria and Barbara share a great-grandfather, John Deeks. It emerges that although the Deeks men were very handsome and charming, they were rather given to drinking, a fact which didn’t go down well with parents who wanted their daughters to better themselves. From Gloria, Barbara learns that her great-great-grandfather, John Deeks, had a skilled job as a bricklayer. So why did the family still seem caught in a poverty trap?
At the London Metropolitan Archive, economic historian Paul Johnson explains how the East End of London fell into decline during the course of the 19th century. Burgeoning industry led to pollution and cramped living conditions, resulting in bad hygiene, poor health and high mortality. Such overpopulation meant that John Deeks (1834–1909) would have faced fierce competition for work. By 1889 John was in the workhouse, where he spent much of the last twenty years of his life. His ten children found it impossible to help him.
A similar story awaits Barbara when she turns her attention to her mother’s side of the family. She discovers that her great-grandmother, Mary Ann Ellis, was a matchbox-maker, probably employed by the Bryant and May factory in Bow in the early 1880s. She worked from home in Old Nichol Street, on piecework, with her children assisting her. The area was part of one of the worst slums in London and was close to where the Deeks lived. Indeed, the two families probably knew each other.
Mary Ann was likely involved in the matchgirls’ strike of 1888, one of the first significant strikes in English industrial history. 90 per cent of such workers were Irish, and reference to the 1871 census reveals her great-grandmother – whose maiden name was Collins – did indeed hail from Ireland. A trip to Cork reveals Mary Ann’s parents emigrated to London’s East End at some point between 1846 and 1850, a period of mass emigration as a result of the notorious potato famine.
One further surprise is in store. Following the discovery of an even earlier relative, great-great-great-grandfather Golding Deeks, Barbara travels to Bury St Edmunds record office to receive extraordinary news about her distant ancestor’s forename. Archivist Sheila Reid reveals that, following family tradition, Golding Deeks took his unusual moniker from his mother’s maiden name – a trait shared by the father of renowned painter John Constable. It therefore seems probable that Barbara is a distant descendant of the artist, leaving her amused that, once again, wealth remained just out of her ancestors’ reach.