Growing up in Birmingham with her mum, dad and two sisters, Big Brother presenter Emma Willis expected to find a long line of Brummie ancestors. “I would really love it if we had deep-rooted ancestry in Birmingham,” she says.
Emma starts by meeting her parents at their home in the city. They show her a selection of old photographs, and after looking at the marriage certificate of Alice Maude Gretton and Martin Gebhard, she also finds out the name of her 3x great grandfather, James Gretton, a horn and hair merchant.
Eager to find out more about him, Emma meets historian Dr Carl Chinn, who shows her a picture of James. James lived and worked in the back streets of Birmingham, making horn and hair hairbrushes and glue from the boiled down animal waste, such as skin, ears and tendons.
Almost unsurprisingly, considering the gruesome nature of James’ profession, Emma then finds out from an article in the Birmingham Daily Post that he was taken to court for causing a nuisance and spreading disease, something evidently quite serious in the 19th century.
Dr Carl Chinn shows Emma a picture of her 3x great grandfather James Gretton
Emma moves on to find out more about James’ daughter, her great great grandmother Alice Maude Gretton. Census records reveal that Alice was actually living with Abraham and Hannah Reading at the age of one.
From this, Emma and Carl conclude that Mary Gretton didn’t want her newborn child to be exposed to the foul smells and dirt that came with James’ occupation.
At the Library of Birmingham, Emma meets with genealogist Olivia Robinson. Another census record from 1871, ten years later, reveals that Alice Gretton had moved back with her father, but Robinson also reveals that James and Mary had separated and had illegitimate children with other people. Emma discovers two new family members – Lily Gretton and Mary Ann Kilby.
Despite this unexpected turn of events, Emma is pleased to have learned about the life of her 3x great grandfather. “Even though I don’t physically know James Gretton, I’ve become really attached to him in a really short period of time,” Emma says.
Emma finds out more about her Brummie ancestors at the Birmingham Back to Backs, owned by the National Trust
However, not all Emma’s roots are in Birmingham. Halfway through her journey, Emma’s father sends her a baptism record revealing that her great great grandmother Margaret Kirwan was born in Dublin.
Emma heads to the Irish capital, where she visits the Registry of Deeds and finds out that Margaret’s parents were Michael Kirwan, a Catholic, and Harriet Fowler, daughter of Protestant gentleman Richard Fowler.
A marriage settlement from 1790, much to Emma’s excitement, then reveals the identity of her 5x great grandparents Richard Fowler Sr and Abigail Fowler.
In Dunlavin, Emma meets genealogist Nicola Morris to find more about the elder Richard, who was a Protestant and a Loyalist at a time of immense sectarian tension in Ireland.
In a shocking twist, Emma learns from a 1797 newspaper article that Richard was involved in the ‘unmerciful’ beating and stabbing of Catholic blacksmith father and son Michael and Thomas Egan.
“I felt quite sick when I was reading it because it’s so detailed…the polar opposite to what I expected,” she says.
Emma discovers the dark truth about her 5x great grandfather Richard Fowler Sr
Choosing to focus more on the happier strands of her family tree, Emma conducts more research on Michael Kirwan’s father.
Michael Kirwan Sr was a stonecutter and marble mason whose altar for the Franciscan Church in Henry Street, Limerick, was described in the Catholic Directory of 1848 as “one of the most splendid pieces of Irish manufacture”.
Emma visits St Saviour’s church, where her ancestor’s work still stands today, to meet Dr Caroline McGee. After reading a highly complimentary article on Kirwan’s craftsmanship in the Freeman’s Journal, asks: “Are they calling him a genius, an Irish genius?”
In addition, Emma also learns that Michael Kirwan was deemed “as good as any foreign artist” and was very important to the Irish Manufacture Movement as a promoter of Irish goods at a time when the church furnishing industry was dominated by foreign suppliers.
“He seemed dedicated to his craft and dedicated to his country and kind of wanted to show Ireland in the best light possible, and that to me seems like a good man. And I needed to find a good man,” Emma says, admiring the altar her ancestor made.
Dr Caroline McGee shows Emma the Franciscan Church in Limerick where her Michael Kirwan Sr’s craftsmanship is displayed
Nearing the conclusion of her hunt to find out more about her ancestors, Emma consults historian Patrick Geoghegan.
He reveals that Michael Kirwan was not only an amazing craftsman but also a leader of the trade union movement and an acquaintance of Daniel O’Connell, known in Ireland as ‘the liberator’, although they disagreed over the role of trade unions.
Emma sheds a proud tear whilst reading a report of Michael’s death in 1867 in the Evening Freeman. It describes him as “respected for his skill and integrity in his profession, and by the general community, who esteemed him for his virtues and patriotism”.