When she was young, Davina McCall’s parents separated. “When you’re the child of a divorced family, you’re kind of split in two,” says the Big Brother presenter at the start of her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, “and your family kind of splits in two.” It’s a schism that was accentuated by her parents living in different countries – the UK, where Davina largely grew up, and France, where she spent holidays with her alcoholic mother. Researching her family tree, Davina hopes, will help her reconcile these worlds.
Davina’s research focuses on two key figures. She begins a family rumour that one of her father’s forebears, James Thomas Bedborough (1787-1860), was an illegitimate son of George IV.
Davina heads for The National Archives in Kew. Here, with the help of Charles Mosley, an expert in royal genealogy, she learns that James was apprenticed as a stonemason. James did well. When George IV ascended to the throne in 1820, the infamously profligate monarch began expensive renovations on Windsor Castle. As King George’s master mason, James oversaw much of the work.
An entrepreneur, James saw an opportunity as Windsor, now fashionable because of George’s patronage, grew rapidly. James became a property developer and mayor of Windsor. There may be no proof of a direct royal connection, but Davina is proud to learn she’s related to a man blessed with “the kind of ambition that drives you to do the best that you possibly can”.
But there’s another side to this ambition. When he died, James left a muddled will and mortgages equivalent to more than £2 million in today’s money, cash used to finance his business and the family’s own Upton Park mansion. The stress of sorting out James’s finances led to the suicides of two of his sons.
“He wasn’t evil and it wasn’t done in cruelty, it was a mistake,” says Davina. “And I can’t judge other people by their mistakes because I’ve made so many of my own.”
Law and disorder
Leaving leafy Berkshire, Davina heads for Paris. If England represents stability for Davina, France is excitement and adventure – not necessarily an entirely good thing if your mother was a “big kid” who liked a double Ricard at breakfast.
Davina wants to learn more about her great-grandfather, Célestin Hennion (1862-1915). There’s another royal connection here: Davina has a medal that George V gave to Célestin for organising security during a royal visit to France in 1914.
The son of a farm labourer, Célestin rose through the ranks to become chief of police, helped by the support of France’s two-time prime minister, Georges Clemenceau. More than simply achieving high office, Célestin is credited in France with being “the father of modern policing”. He was also central to one of the key events in 19th-century French history, the Dreyfus Affair.
Alfred Dreyfus was an officer of Jewish descent who was falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement on the notorious Devil’s Island.
When Dreyfus returned to France in 1899 for a second trial, Célestin not only took charge of security, but offered evidence that ultimately helped prove his charge’s innocence. The case caused a crisis in France, symbolic of a wider tension between republicans and conservatives. It also highlighted anti-Semitism in French society.
Learning about the staunchly republican Célestin, a man still widely admired, is “revelatory” for Davina. “He had all the qualities that you would want your perfect man to have,” she says, “loyalty, courage, integrity, ambition, strength of character, good looking.”
Davina finishes her journey by visiting Célestin’s grave. Rather than dwelling on a family split in two, she now prefers to celebrate the similarities between James and Célestin, ambitious yet principled men, ancestors of whom she can be proud.