Esther Rantzen’s recent family history is the picture of middle-class respectability but, she admits, “there are some pretty big gaps… and it’s the gaps that I’m fascinated by”. One oft-told tale of a disgraced relative who fled to America particularly intrigues her.
Montague Leverson, Esther’s great grandfather, was the family’s ‘black sheep’. Born into a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family, he worked as a solicitor in London from the early 1850s, but when his clients’ money “disappeared”, so did he. A Times article dated 27 March 1867 reveals that Montague was charged with fraud but absconded from the police. “This is terrible!” says an appalled Esther. “My family is not going to be pleased.”
When he scarpered, Montague left behind a wife and four children, including Esther’s grandfather. But was there a new family in America, perhaps a bigamous marriage? The Californian census for 1880 shows Montague living with a widowed woman, but no marriage record survives. Later documents reveal there was indeed a second marriage – back in England, 20 years after his first wife had died, Montague wed a woman half his age. “That wonderful, crazy old man!” says Esther. “Married at 82! Definitely a maverick.”
Returning to the UK meant risking capture by the police, but it seems Montague’s gamble paid off. He is described as “of good character and respectability” in a police report dated 1922, part of an application to regain his British citizenship. “It looks as if he got away with it,” says Esther, “and I hate to say it, but I’m rather pleased he did.”
Further research reveals that fraud was not Montague’s only misdemeanour. In 1848, aged 18, he shot and fatally wounded his father’s servant in a tragic accident. “It’s a desperate story,” says Esther. “He broke the mould, the respectability – the almost claustrophobic respectability that I thought my family was bound by.”
Esther now turns to another family mystery – the origins of her unusual surname. Her grandfather Hyam Henry Rantzen was a wealthy stockbroker with a suitably salubrious address, but his start in life was much more humble. The son of Jewish immigrants, he was born in Spitalfields in 1873, then one of the poorest parts of London. How to explain the Rantzen’s rapid social rise?
A forgotten will reveals that a generous inheritance lifted the family out of poverty. Diamond magnate Barney Barnato, who rose from the slums to become one of 19th century’s richest men, was Esther’s 2x great uncle, and remembered the Rantzens in his will. When he died in 1897, his estate was worth the equivalent of £80 million.
Rewind four decades to the 1850s and the Rantzens were in a very different position, having just arrived in the UK from Warsaw. Wanting to know why they left their country decades before other Jews were driven out by persecution, Esther heads to Poland. There she discoveries a string of family tragedies, and traces the origins of the Rantzen name all the way back to 1769.
Esther also learns about the fate of those who stayed. She visits the area where her ancestors once lived, a neighbourhood devastated by the Nazis during the Jewish uprising of 1943. “I’ve had a completely different life… because my great great grandfather took courage in both hands and made that great leap to the slums of London,” says Esther, in tears. “And meanwhile the others – just as deserving, hoping for just as much for their children and grandchildren – are all gone.”