Sometimes, researching a family history becomes difficult because of a long-forgotten scandal. That’s the experience of TV presenter and comedian Griff Rhys Jones, who painstakingly pieces together the life story of his maternal grandmother to discover a dark tale of drunkenness, a street brawl death and tragic family disintegration.
It’s a journey that begins with a visit to his mother, former nurse Gwynneth Jones. Gwynneth lived with her mother, Louisa Price, for 30 years and has a picture of her wedding day. Aside from Louisa’s brother William, who later emigrated to America, her immediate family are absent from the photograph. Louisa, Griff is told, was adopted by cousins after her own parents died in a railway accident.
Griff’s first research seems consistent with this idea. His great-grandfather, Daniel Price, was a goods train driver for the London and North Western Railway. Living in a company cottage in Garston, he would have been upper working-class, well paid and respectable. Perhaps Daniel and his wife Sarah died while travelling together, taking advantage of the lower fares enjoyed by railway staff.
At Liverpool Record Office, though, this mystery begins to unravel. A year after the 1891 census shows Daniel and Sarah living on comparatively posh Vineyard Street, they’re paying rates on a property at the considerably less salubrious Window Lane. Why? Furthermore, there are no newspaper accounts of the couple having died. Even allowing for the railways’ appalling safety record – 1,011 souls perished in accidents in 1892 – surely their deaths wouldn’t have gone unreported?
Having begun his search by declaring he’s not “enormously into family history”, Griff is suddenly enthused by the chance to play detective. But before looking for more clues about Daniel and Sarah’s lives, Griff learns more about his maternal grandfather’s family. His great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Evans, worked at Merthyr Tydfil’s Cyfarthfa Ironworks, once the biggest in the world, as a “tip girl” – someone who disposed of cinders and slag waste.
Elizabeth’s was a hard life, but not as tough as that of her father and Griff’s namesake, miner Griffith Evans. Sadly, he died young in a pit explosion – just one of many who perished in the Victorian era’s “industrial carnage”.
Back on the trail of Daniel and Sarah, Griff has ordered four death certificates that may refer to his forebears. Curiously, two reveal suicides. Another contains a terrible revelation: Daniel’s death was apparently the result of manslaughter.
In Llanelli, where the death occurred, Griff finds out more. Daniel was killed by one John Thomas in a street brawl, cracking his head on the kerb after being repeatedly punched. Sarah was with him at the time of the fight. Feeling, he says, like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and the Caped Crusader, Griff visits the court where Thomas stood trial to discovers more. Daniel’s post mortem revealed him as a hard drinker. Worse is to follow: the jury took just seven minutes to find Thomas not guilty.
A tale of a family on the slide is unfolding. A July 1897 newspaper article shows Sarah applying for relief. Such was the horror of workhouses during this period that only the destitute and desperate would do this. And what of Sarah’s children? William and Louisa had two siblings, Jane and Thomas. They were sent to industrial schools – harsh institutions designed to turn around disruptive kids. “We’re coming to the human cost now,” says Griff. “All the children are dispersed, sent away.”
Still angry on his ancestors’ behalf, Griff is forced to consider another possibility by educational historian Dr Russell Grig – what if his great-grandmother was “a waster”? It would certainly explain why his grandmother didn’t talk much about her past. Yet for all that he uncovered, a “murky secret”, Griff has no regrets about tracing his past. Back home in Suffolk at the end of an “extraordinary journey”, he concludes: “This whole experience was totally engrossing.”