When Countdown presenter Carol Vorderman was aged just three weeks old, her parents separated. She didn’t see her Dutch father again until 2002. Because of this long estrangement, Carol knows little about his side of the family but she’s curious to know more: will she find an ancestor who might share her love of maths and science?
Carol’s journey into the past begins not in Holland, though, but in Prestatyn in Wales. It was here that Carol was raised by her mother, Jean, in one of four houses handed down through the family from Carol’s great-grandfather, Daniel Davies. Daniel’s investment was a home in a time of need.
Daniel was a well-to-do butcher or, as an advert from a tourist guide in 1913 puts it, a “purveyor of meat and poulterer”. How did he come to be so wealthy? And is that really a picture of Daniel in a group shot with Queen Victoria?
The answer to the first question lies with the railways and an increase in leisure time at the end of the Victorian era: seaside Prestatyn was a ‘boom town’. Daniel was canny enough to take full advantage and also made money taking meat by boat to nearby Liverpool. As for the picture of ‘Victoria’, it’s actually Agnes Pochin, a Liberal MP’s wife and one of the first suffragettes. The picture was taken at Bodnant Hall, twenty miles from Prestatyn.
Going in search of her father’s past opens up darker memories. “I felt quite rejected when I was young.” Carol says of the family split.
With her father 87 and in poor health, Carol’s unable to ask Tony for help. However, she has information about an illustrious ancestor, her great-grandfather Dr Adolphe Vorderman. Family legend has it that he would have won a Nobel Prize for Medicine had he not taken an Indonesian wife.
Although Adolphe was actually married to a Dutch lady, there’s a dollop of truth in the story. As chief medical officer in the Dutch East Indies, Adolphe made a crucial breakthrough. He studied beriberi, which causes muscle wasting, paralysis and ultimately heart failure in prisoners. Those who were given white rice, Adolphe noticed, got the disease. Those who ate brown rice didn’t. The reason? Today, we know the vitamin B1, found in the husk of unpolished rice, protects against beriberi.
Adolphe was a colleague of Christiaan Eijkman, who in 1929 took the Nobel Prize for his work in the discovery of vitamins. The director of the Eijkman Institute tells Carol that Adolphe’s work merited a share in the award. As she hoped, Carol has found an ancestor who shares her passion for science.
It proves more difficult to find information about Adolphe’s grandson, Carol’s father Tony. What did he do during the Second World War? Was he a member of the Resistance? Gradually, Carol begins to gather information. Tony was a ‘radio man’ around Tegelen on the border of Germany and Holland at a time when the Nazis had outlawed owning radios, a ban that was brutally enforced. Most likely, he would have published news taken from Allied broadcasts in pamphlets. Through a cousin, Peter, Carol learns that Tony rescued his brother from a Nazi labour camp.
As the war drew to a close, Tony was among thirteen who tried to escape across the river Maas into territory controlled by the Allies. The escape ended badly. Tony triggered a landmine and injured his arm. Two died. Sadly, Carol will never be able to ask her father more about that night. As filming draws to a close, Tony suffers a stroke and dies soon after.
“I’m glad I have been in touch with him,” Carol says sadly, “because that’s closing a circle.” Her Welsh side, Carol says, is her “nurtured side”; her Dutch side is “my nature”.