As he sets out on his journey to research his family tree, actor Brian Blessed says he’s not interested in finding royal ancestry. “I’m looking for humanity!” booms Brian at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are? He’s not disappointed. As his research unfolds, Brian finds the story of a life lived to the full in the case of his great grandfather, workhouse orphan Jabez Blessed.
First though, Brian focuses on a generation further back. Barnabas Blessed was a bookbinder and stationer who had premises in Bull Inn Court, just off The Strand. This was a time when books were sold unbound, and the location was handily close both to the publishing industry and well-to-do customers.
However, Barnabas didn’t remain in the capital. A baptism record from 1814 shows the family living in Portsmouth, then a boomtown because of the Napoleonic Wars, which had dragged on for 20 years. Barnabas would likely have provided services for the Royal Navy.
Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in 1815, while good news for the nation, was bad news for the Blessed family. As workers dependent on the military were laid off and ships laid up, Barnabas appears to have faced a crisis. By 1820, records show him as a pauper. In 1822, Barnabas and his wife, Elizabeth, both died. Hearing about this deeply affects Brian. “It’s the first time I’ve ever felt close to my roots,” he says.
What of the couple’s four children? Brian learns the quartet were sent back to London, and the notorious workhouse at St Martin in the Field, a vast institution where the central courtyard doubled as a graveyard. Martha Blessed, who probably had learning difficulties, and toddler Elizabeth Blessed died soon after reaching London, leaving two brothers, Charles and Jabez, to soldier on alone. The boys were split up, with Jabez sent to an institution in the country. By the time he was returned to the capital, Charles had been apprenticed to a shoemaker.
Under such circumstances, it’s perhaps no wonder that in July 1827, Jabez briefly ran away from the workhouse. He left permanently when he was apprenticed to a master mariner, David Davies, the skipper of a coal ship, in 1828. “The boy intrigues me, I’m dying to know what happens to him,” says Brian, an adventurer who finds the idea of working at sea romantic.
In fact, the trail goes cold until 1851, when Jabez shows up on the census in Brigg in Lincolnshire, just 50 miles from where miner’s son Brian was raised. Jabez, who worked as a glass and china dealer, would go on to father 13 children. “Well, he was a randy lad, wasn’t he? And a healthy one,” laughs a clearly delighted Brian.
As Brian sees where Jabez once lived, there’s a final twist in the tale. In 1876, widower Jabez married for a second time. The ceremony took place in London and Charles Blessed was the best man. The brothers had somehow kept in touch. “I wanted to find guts and courage and imagination, and I’ve found it. This is what life’s about,” says Brian.
Finally, Brian goes to visit his forebear’s grave. “I feel a great affinity with you, Jabez, same kind of spirit,” he says. And although Brian has “never cried in my life”, he sheds some tears before concluding, “I had a really great great grandfather.”