As he begins researching his family history on Who Do You Think You Are?, comedian, TV presenter and consumer rights champion Joe Lycett reflects: “The bits that I’d be fascinated to find out about are if there’s anyone else slightly anti-establishment or a bit anarchist. But also any queer stories would be fascinating to me.”


Meeting his parents, Joe learns that his mother’s grandfather Robert William Wilkinson, from Nottingham, was a member of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes.

Joe heads to Nottingham to find out more and meets Pete Spence, the Grand Primo of the Order of the Buffaloes. Pete explains that the Buffaloes were founded in 1822 by Joseph Lyle and William Sinnett, an actor and a comedian. The organisation has lodges around the country and is based on “fundraising, friendship and fun”. Joe is fascinated to find out more about Robert, but politely declines Pete’s invitation to join the Buffaloes himself.

Next, Joe meets his aunt Jean, who shows him the marriage certificate for Robert’s parents. Their names were Robert Wilkinson and Annie Stocks and they married in Littleport, Cambridgeshire. Robert’s father was a chimney sweep called Henry Wilkinson.

Joe goes to St Ives in Cambridgeshire, where he meets museum director Sarah Russell. She shows him the older Robert Wilkinson’s birth record from 1841, which gives his parents’ names as Henry Wilkinson and his wife Susannah, formerly Winters. The 1851 census records show that Henry and Susannah had seven children beside Robert, who was living with his maternal grandfather Daniel Winters, landlord of the Bell Inn, and already working as a chimney sweep.

Joe wants to find out more about Robert’s life as a chimney sweep, so he heads to nearby stately home Wimpole Hall to meet chimney sweep expert Martin Glynn. Martin tells him that boys working as chimney sweeps had been outlawed in 1840 because of the dangerous and abusive conditions. However, in rural areas boys like Robert still worked as sweeps illegally. Wimpole Hall was the home of the Earl of Hardwicke, who voted against the legislation outlawing child chimney sweeps. Robert could well have cleaned the chimneys of this house.

Fortunately, Robert was able to escape the life of the chimney sweep. The 1861 census shows him serving with the Royal Marines on board a ship in the Greek islands. Joe meets naval historian John Bolt, who shows him Robert’s service records. He was recruited into the Marines in 1858 by Corporal William Elton. His service took him as far as China.

Historian Yangwen Zheng then tells Joe more about the role of the Royal Marines in China. Following the Opium Wars, Britain forced China to allow it to sell the addictive drug to the Chinese people. Marines like Robert put down the resistance to the opium trade, including by burning whole villages.

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Joe is shocked by this side of his ancestor’s legacy: “I can’t get round the fact that he was part of the Marines who did these really atrocious things… I was all for him before and now I don’t know what to think.”

On board HMS Warrior, a historic ship at Portsmouth, Joe meets historian Catherine Beck. She shows him an old newspaper report dating from 1870, which reports that Robert Wilkinson stabbed Colour-Sergeant William Elton – the same man who recruited him – with a bayonet. Another newspaper report says of Wilkinson and Elton that “two men were never so much attached to each other as they were”.

Joe wonders if Wilkinson and Elton could have had a romantic relationship. Catherine says that it’s hard to say, as homosexual relationships in this time period left little historic evidence.

William Elton survived the attack and both he and Robert were taken to the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar. Joe visits the hospital building and meets historian Erick Birbeck. Eric says that Robert could have faced the death penalty for his crime, and the only way to escape was to be found insane.

A newspaper article about Robert’s court martial says that the ship’s surgeon reported that Robert’s behaviour was due to “over-indulgence in alcoholic drinks”. Robert was found to be insane and committed to Yarmouth Hospital. There, he would have been treated with chloral hydrate dissolved in alcohol. Six months later, he was discharged from the hospital.

To find out what Robert did next, Joe returns to Cambridgeshire to see Sarah Russell. She tells him that Robert ultimately married, had children and became the landlord of the Swan Inn in Conington. Robert died in 1908, with his death certificate noting his cause of death as softening of the brain – possibly linked to alcoholism – and cardiac failure.

Finally, Joe goes to see where Robert is buried, at All Saints Parish Church in St Ives. His unmarked burial place is opposite from his parents’ grave.

“It’s sort of created this deeper connection between the two of us across the years, that I know so much of his story,” Joe says. “I don’t judge him for it. There is a quirkiness to my family, and I’m happy about that.”


Rosemary Collins is the staff writer of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine