Greengrocer-turned-TV personality Gregg Wallace describes himself as a “grafter”. He’s therefore not too impressed by stories of his great-grandfather, Henry Springett, said to have abandoned his wife and children. However, as Gregg researches his family tree, an altogether different narrative emerges.
It’s on a visit to his mother, Mary, that Gregg hears stories of Henry, who served as a stoker in the navy. He also sees a picture of his great-great-grandmother, a woman whose name he doesn’t even know. “I think she looks like me,” says Gregg. “If you take the hair off, look, she’s got my nose and mouth.”
Gregg first checks Henry’s naval records, which reveal his great-grandfather wasn’t a deserter from the military as family legend suggests. He’s also delighted to learn that Henry was a greengrocer before he went to sea. In Devonport Naval Base, Gregg discovers more. Henry served during the First World War, including time on a Q-ship, a military vessel disguised as a defenceless merchant ship in order to lure U-boats into making surface attacks.
He also learns that his grandfather, Wilfred, had two siblings, Vera and Harold. However, their dates of birth show they can’t have been Henry’s children because they were conceived at a time when he was abroad. Henry’s wife, Emily, had an affair. Gregg learns more about Emily’s life too. Not only did she lose a first daughter, who died in horrific circumstances from burns caused by a paraffin lamp, but Harold died young. Suddenly, it’s difficult to think so badly of Emily. Her story gets more tragic as Gregg travels to north Devon to find out more about Emily’s mother, now identified as Selina Leythorn. She was a member of a Methodist denomination, the Bible Christians, and a glove-maker. Initially, Gregg’s research suggests a relatively successful life, yet Selina died in an asylum.
Meeting medical historian Professor Bill Forsythe, Wallace learns that Selina was twice incarcerated, telling her doctors she was damned to hell. The first time she was incarcerated, Selina was discharged from hospital after three years. Could it be the photograph handed down the family was taken at this time? The picture certainly has similarities to other photographs of ex-patients from the era.
His great-grandmother’s apparent insecurity, Gregg now realises, may be related to her mother being committed when Emily was a teenager.
There’s yet more tragedy when Gregg tracks down Henry’s grandson, Geoffrey Higginson, from a second relationship. Geoffrey reveals that Henry, who eventually became a caretaker in Slough, lived with another woman named Emily, a ballet and piano teacher, in Northern Ireland. The two, who didn’t marry because Henry never got divorced, had two daughters together. Tragically, Emily died young in 1923 after being hit by a car, an accident Henry witnessed. Having previously abandoned efforts to gain custody of Wilfred, he was forced to give up his daughters for fostering.
“I like Henry Springett, I really do,” says Gregg at the end of a journey that’s involved many tears. “I admire him, I admired my grandfather, his son, it’s a shame that the two of them didn’t know each other.”