Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker has just a few photographs of his family and can only trace his forebears back a couple of generations. But he wants to know more and he’s employed a professional genealogist, Anthony Adolph, to trace his ancestors…
Two names jump out at the former England striker, both on his grandmother’s side of the family. There’s his 3 x great grandfather, James Pratt, if only for the name, although actually Pratt means cunning or clever; and, another generation back, law writer Thomas Billingham. Gary’s research into these two lives will reveal two very different Victorian-era stories.
He begins with James Pratt, who was from Leicester, both Gary’s hometown and the place where he began his career in football. In 1848, James was imprisoned, but why? Newspaper records reveal that he stole six chickens, four of which were found to be “in the pot over the fire” when the authorities called.
Gary heads for Leicester Prison to meet a criminology expert, Professor Barry Godfrey. It soon becomes clear the theft of the chickens wasn’t an isolated crime. As Godfrey notes: “He’s not a goal poacher, he’s a proper one.” Gary also sees an artist’s impression of James based solely on Victorian records. There’s definitely a family resemblance.
But why did James turn to crime? Visiting James’s former home, Hinckley, Gary sees a record of James’s marriage, on Christmas Eve, 1843. He was a stocking maker, uneducated and illiterate at a time when the economy was in dire straits. Seeing the death certificates for James’s first two daughters as babies, it seems likely he turned to crime for perfectly understandable reasons.
Having begun by laughing at James’s escapades, Gary now empathises with him, “Most of us would do anything for our children, to keep them well, to keep them fed, and I think that’s what James was doing.” More happily, James had eight more children and lived to be 83.
Next, Gary researches the life of Thomas Billingham. A gardener’s son, he became a law writer, someone with fine calligraphy skills who literally wrote legal documents. How did he get this job, which involved serving an apprenticeship? A key figure in Thomas’s life was his father’s employer, Edward King, a lawyer and author. King helped Thomas attend Christ’s Hospital.
This wasn’t a medical establishment, but a school. Back then, it was located in the City of London but today it’s a fee-paying, selective establishment in Horsham. Gary pays a visit, where he sees prize-winning calligraphy written by an exact contemporary of Thomas, George Robinson. He also plays five-a-side with some of the pupils and duly scores a goal – “Yes, you never lose it!” From here, Gary visits the company, Witherby, where his forebear once worked. There, he sees a document copied and signed by Thomas.
At the end of his journey into the past, Gary is surprised by how emotionally involved he’s become in the lives of his ancestors and their “Dickensian” stories, one of hardship, one of getting a lucky break. “Different lives, different issues, big problems, good moments. I’m proud of them both,” he concludes.
Watch this episode on the BBC iPlayer now