Jeremy Paxman says he doesn’t believe in looking backwards and has no interest in knowing who his ancestors were. All of which begs an obvious question: why has he agreed to trace his forebears on Who Do You Think You Are? In an era when “most television” is “rubbish”, Paxman says, the chance to explore some “social history” might make the programme a worthwhile exercise.
It’s hardly the most ringing endorsement, but as things turn out, the famously tough Newsnight presenter, who grew up in middle class prosperity, is frequently visibly moved – and sometimes angered – when he learns of the hardships endured by those who came before him. He begins by visiting his mother, Joan. There he sees pictures of Mabel, his grandmother. A young woman dressed in a Salvation Army uniform, she looks “scared to death”.
To learn more, Jeremy heads for Glasgow in Scotland, where Mabel grew up. Her father, John McKay, began his working life as a gunner with the Royal Artillery, rising to become a sergeant. While he had a military pension following his discharge from the army, it wasn’t enough to support his growing family and he found work as a school janitor.
In 1894, John died, leaving his widow, Mary, with nine children to support and no income. She was forced to apply for poor relief, but her money was stopped for “misconduct” when she gave birth to an illegitimate child. Despite this setback, Mary somehow kept her family together, living in one room of a Glasgow slum tenement.
The effects of such a life are visible in a picture of Mary. “Strong, that’s definitely a word you could use,” says Jeremy of the indomitable woman who stares out from the past, “frightening might be another.” But despite the privations she endured, there’s a happy ending to Mary’s story. With the help of the Salvation Army, she emigrated to Canada and built a new life. Six of her 11 children joined her in the new world.
Rags to riches
There’s little respite in the tales of tough times when Jeremy turns his attention to his father’s side of the family. While his grandfather, Arthur Paxman, became a successful salesman in the textiles trade and was able to send Jeremy’s father, Keith, to a public school, it’s a tale of triumph against the odds.
Aged just 10, Arthur was orphaned. At 12, he worked as a worsted spinner. In Bradford registry office, Jeremy discovers how Arthur came to be in such desperate straits. Arthur’s parents both died of tuberculosis. “Hundreds of thousands” of people lived similarly tough lives, Jeremy says, yet that doesn’t mean he’s any less shaken to learn the fate of his forebears. “I’m connected to them and it’s that possessive thing, my great grandparents,” he says. “God, we have it easy.”
But how did the Paxmans come to be in Bradford at all? While Jeremy has always thought of himself as a Yorkshireman, the surname originated in Suffolk. It turns out his family headed north because there was no work in their home parish of Framlingham. They resettled with the help of a little-known Poor Law Authority scheme that sent unemployed workers north.
A further revelation follows. Historian Andrew Philips explains that the Paxman family name derives from Roger Paxman, who was made a freeman of King’s Lynn in 1367 and probably chose the surname as a pun – ‘pax’ being the Latin for ‘peace’. Roger was a politician. “I didn’t think I could go any lower,” says Jeremy, “but we’re doing well so far.”
Later, preparing for an edition of Newsnight, Jeremy muses on what he’s learnt. Today, he says, we have “an abundance” of choices. His ancestors weren’t so fortunate. “I think if you are living in extreme poverty, in the conditions in which either side of that family lived, you didn’t have many choices.”