Although she’s eight months pregnant as she begins filming her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, Silent Witness star Emilia Fox thinks it’s an ideal time to be researching her family tree. She can’t think of a “better present” for the baby than “to find out who they are”.
Besides, partner Jeremy Gilley is busy overseeing noisy and messy renovations of the couple’s home, so what better time to escape? Emilia’s father is the actor Edward Fox and he’s able to share memories of his own father, Robin Fox, who was a successful agent, representing such stars as Robert Morley, Dirk Bogarde and Vanessa Redgrave. Going back another generation, Robin’s mother, Hilda Hanbury, herself walked the boards in the late Victorian era.
To learn more about Hilda, Emilia heads to the Victoria & Albert Museum and its theatre archives. In 1891, a teenage Hilda made her West End debut as an “agreeable” Nancy Ditch in a play called Miss Tomboy. She followed her sister, Lily Hanbury, one of the most famous actresses of the era, onto the stage.
But did Hilda get out from under her sister’s shadow? That’s certainly the suggestion of an 1894 programme that shows Hilda was part of the renowned leading man Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company. A visit to Bristol University’s theatre archives, though, reveals that Hilda never progressed beyond small parts.
Instead, she quit acting and in 1905 married Arthur William Fox, a man of “of independent means” according to the wedding certificate. Lily too left the theatre in 1905, but here the parallels between the sisters’ lives grow sombre. In 1908, Lily died two days after the death of her child. Hilda also lost a child, family tragedies that Emilia identifies strongly with, having once had a miscarriage.
More happily, two of Hilda’s children are still alive, Pam (90) and Mary (104), who live in Cornwall after moving to the county as members of the Women’s Land Army. Visiting her great-aunts, Emilia discovers that Hilda’s marriage wasn’t a success because, to quote Mary, ‘Willy’ “ran orf with an American tart”. For the sisters, a gilded upbringing came to an abrupt end with their parents’ divorce.
Yet there was still happiness to come. In her later years, Hilda lived with her daughters and a photograph shows her content and smiling. As for Willy, he left just £889 in his will.
But where did Willy’s squandered riches come from? A first clue is to be found at the Royal College of Music. Willy’s father, Samson Fox, paid outright for its construction with donations of £45,000 (equivalent to £2.5 million today) and his bust sits in the entrance hall. “I am gobsmacked that anyone in our family had made that sort of money,” says Emilia.
As to how he made his cash, Emilia learns more on a trip north. A child labourer, Samson became an apprentice in an engineering works. An ingenious inventor, the seriously bearded Samson became seriously rich with his invention of the corrugated boiler flue, made by his own Leeds Forge Company, which enabled steam engines to produce more power.
But why didn’t such an obviously eminent man and philanthropist receive a knighthood? In Harrogate, where Samson eventually made his home, Emilia solves this puzzle. Samson researched and heavily promoted water gas, an alternative to the coal gas once used to light Britain’s homes and streets. This led him into a financial scandal. While Samson later proved his innocence in court, his reputation in London society was tarnished forever.
Still, Emilia hopes that some of Samson’s enthusiasm, inventiveness and his “little touch of genius” might be passed to her baby. Rose Fox was born shortly after filming wrapped.