Supermodel Jodie Kidd is the great granddaughter of legendary newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, who served in the British cabinet during both world wars. This illustrious ancestor has always taken centre stage in stories of her genetic heritage, but Jodie has long suspected a skeleton in the Kidd family closet.
“I was always brought up with people saying ‘In all families you have good people and you have bad people,’” Jodie remembers. “This has always intrigued me. What has happened in my family for me to remember that saying?”
Superficially Jodie seems of distinguished stock. Beaverbrook wasn’t her only titled forebear – her great-grandfather on her mother’s side, shipbuilder Rowland Hodge, also made it on to the honours list. Determined to find out more about this mysterious self-made man, Jodie heads to his hometown of Newcastle, where she charts his rise from humble clerk to the owner of a prosperous Tyneside shipyard.
Rowland made a fortune building ships during the First World War, work which earned him a visit from King George V in 1917. But in 1918, with war still raging, Rowland left behind a booming business and the grand mansion it had paid for and moved to Kent. In contemporary local newspapers Jodie discovers the reason for his sudden relocation – a conviction for food hoarding. “Greedy buggers,” she says, clearly shocked. “And for someone who was so conscious of…being a patriot. What an odd thing to do – to take from everyone else during the war…[when] people were living on so little.”
Despite the scandal, a few years later the government granted Rowland Hodge a title. But why? At the Houses of Parliament archives Jodie unearths two incredible letters, one from Sir Winston Churchill and the other from King George V, which reveal that Rowland was embroiled in the original ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal. Her ancestor (a man who the King described as of “unattractive – to say the least of it – character”) paid for his baronetcy.
Hoping for more positive news along her paternal line, Jodie turns her attention to Canada-born Lord Beaverbrook, Max Aitken, and his antecedents among one of the country’s oldest families, the Drurys. At the family’s burial plot in Saint John, New Brunswick, she finds evidence of two further Drury generations, as well as an ominous date which suggests another dark episode in the family’s history.
A historic local newspaper tells the sorry tale in full. On 29 May 1880, John Drury – apparently murderous with envy – shot at both his brothers, killing one, before starting a fire that devastated the family home. Finally, he turned the gun on himself. “Jealousy is such a strong emotion,” says Jodie, visibly moved, “that can drive people to do terrible things.”
The newspaper article also offers another clue, taking Jodie even further back in time and eventually over the border to Massachusetts, USA. In Rowley, one of New England’s first settlements, she finds her forebears among a list of the families who founded the community in 1639. Thomas and Jane Grant arrived in America less than two decades after the Mayflower brought the Pilgrim Fathers to its shores.
“After everything I’d found out – that my family were food-hoarding, suicidal murderers – I was a little bit concerned where this line was going to take us,” says Jodie, somewhat relieved. “But it seems there is a little bit of light, and we do come from semi-decent people!”