At the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, former shadow chancellor Ed Balls talks to his mother Carolyn over video call. Carolyn suffers from dementia and now lives in a nursing home. “Maybe this will be a chance to tell her some things she didn’t know and to maybe to make some connections which will still make sense to her today,” Ed says.


Ed starts his journey by meeting his father Mike and uncle John. Ed grew up in Norfolk and always assumed he came from “farming stock”, so he’s surprised to hear that the Balls family were quite middle-class. Indeed, Mike tells him that there’s a family story that one of their ancestors was a surgeon on Lord Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory. He also shows Ed an old photograph of his great grandparents, Frank and Jessie Balls, née Dunbar.

Ordering their marriage record, Ed discovers that Jessie’s father was Henry Douglas Dunbar, a painter from Kent. Henry’s baptism record shows that he was born in 1832 and was the son of William Dunbar, an assistant surgeon aboard the Royal Navy ship Scarborough.

To find out more, Ed goes to Portsmouth, where he’s awed to see the Victory still preserved at the city’s docks. He meets naval historian Simon Wills, who tells him that William Dunbar did indeed serve on the Victory, but not until 1826, long after Lord Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar. Simon shows Ed the brutal-looking tools William would have used to operate on injured sailors. He was also infected with yellow fever while serving in the Caribbean.

There’s a gap in William’s service record between 1834 and 1843. The 1841 census records show him living with his wife and eight children in Herne, Kent. Ed wants to find out what his ancestor was doing at that time.

Old newspaper articles show that William was the surgeon at Blean Union workhouse. Along with the master of the workhouse, William faced manslaughter charges for his role in the deaths of two paupers due to neglect. However, both men were found not guilty.

“It’s really hard in the space of a few hours to go from celebrating the public service of William Dunbar,” Ed says, “to read these accounts of the poorest and the most vulnerable being mistreated cruelly and to read that he might have been part of that… I don’t want to be ashamed.”

Ed meets historian Professor Alannah Tompkins, who tells him that William would have been under a lot of pressure because of the high number of patients he was seeing, and that he might have warned the workhouse master that the paupers needed help, only to be ignored.

However, worse is to follow. The Blean Union minutes from 1843 show that William ultimately resigned his post after admitting to taking “improper liberties” with the 16-year-old daughter of the workhouse governor.

Ed is very disturbed by what he’s uncovered: “We live in a time where powerful men have taken advantage of often younger women. My youngest daughter’s 16. I don’t want 48-year-old men with eight kids kissing her… In the end, he’s my ancestor and it’s nearly 200 years ago and it’s for the historians to say it’s a different time, it’s a different context. Emotionally for me, seeing that, I reacted as me today... He was wrong.”

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Next, Ed turns his attention to his mother’s family, who have lived in Norfolk for generations. He meets genealogist Celia Heritage, who shows him a newspaper cutting revealing that his 4x great grandfather Christopher Green was sentenced to a year in prison for destroying a threshing machine. In this period, many impoverished agricultural labourers in Norfolk smashed machinery, which they saw as a threat to their jobs.

Ed visits Walsingham Bridewell prison to find out more about conditions in the 1820s. He meets historian Dr Rosa Wallis. He’s shocked to see the dark, cramped cells the prisoners were held in, and to hear about the labour they were required to undergo on the treadmill.

“If Christopher had committed a murder or an act of violence I’d feel differently,” he says, "but he was actually trying to defend his family, his way of life… If I’d been there with Christopher I’d probably have been breaking the machines with him.”

However, Rosa shows him another newspaper cutting from 1832, which reveals that Christopher was arrested for setting fire to buildings at a farm that wasn’t paying its labourers enough, resulting in the deaths of several calves. Ed is conflicted – he doesn’t support arson but, as Rosa explains, workers at the time had no legitimate means of demanding better treatment.

Trial records show that the arson case was thrown out, but Christopher was charged with stealing a sheep, which carried the death penalty. Fortunately, he was found not guilty. He died at the age of 80 in the workhouse, still living in poverty.

Ed says he’s proud of his ancestor: “He was an activist, he was a campaigner. My Mum wouldn’t probably kind of understand all the detail of this now but I think she’d be proud to know that he was a good man.”


Rosemary Collins is the staff writer of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine