Not all family legends are reliable, as actor John Hurt discovers on an emotional journey that uncovers subterfuge, secrets and long-forgotten family scandals.

Central to the journey is John’s love of Ireland. “The moment I set one foot in Dublin, I said ‘home’,” he recalls of his first visit to the Emerald Isle. “It was quite anarchic and I enjoyed every moment of it.” No wonder he’s so enamoured with a “deeply beguiling” legend that suggests his great-grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of an Irish nobleman, the Marquess of Sligo.

Is this really true? Endeavouring to discover more, John goes in search of clues about his great-grandmother Emma Stafford at Westport House in Co Mayo. He’s accompanied on his initial travels by his brother Michael, a monk. At Westport, the duo meet the current marquess. They also establish that, were Emma illegitimate, she might have been the daughter of the second marquess, the roguish Howe Peter Browne.

John’s efforts to discover more, though, are hampered by the secrecy that surrounds Emma. Growing up, she was a ward in chancery, her wellbeing ultimately overseen by the court system. However, this structure was designed to help nobles provide for illegitimate children without the public embarrassment of acknowledging them.

Attempting to sift through court documentation would at best lead to frustration. Instead, John heads for Emma’s former home, Grimsby. The actor, son of a clergyman, was raised in the fishing port, attending the local art college before heading to RADA. It’s here he sees Emma’s marriage certificate for the first time. Confusingly, it lists Emma’s father as Edward Stafford and says Emma was from Croydon.

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Shady figures

In the London suburb, John views Emma’s baptism record and visits the site of the school she attended, the grandly named Miss Thomson’s Establishment for Young Ladies. However, there’s no evidence of an Irish connection. But perhaps that’s no surprise. According to John’s cousin Joyce, it’s not Emma who’s the descendent of Irish nobility but her husband, Walter Lord Browne. John also learns that Emma and Walter may have been first cousins.

Schoolmaster Browne was head of his own school in Grimsby, tantalisingly named Westport House. A prospectus shows Walter, a pompous-looking figure, sitting amongst his charges. The school offered practical classes such as maths and land surveying, tailored to appeal to Grimsby’s rising middle class. Walter, says the prospectus, was previously “mathematical master” at Cranbrook in Kent, although there seem to be no records of him at the well-regarded grammar school.

Then again, he had good reason to be something of a shadowy figure. Plenty of records exist for Walter’s father, William Browne, whom his son claimed was head of the bond office at HM Customs in London. Nothing so grand. As a ‘cocket writer’, William was responsible for assessing the duty to be paid by ships docking at the Port of London. He was also on the make, pocketing perhaps an extra £1,000 a year on top of his salary. But when his post was abolished and William’s income plummeted, he landed in debtor’s prison.

Walter, it seems, had much to hide, which doesn’t of course preclude him from being related to nobility, except absolutely no evidence of any links exist despite his sharing a surname with the Marquess of Sligo.

John is visibly upset by this final revelation. “I’m not who I believed I was,” he says, adding that his discoveries alter his sense of identity. “I’ll probably laugh about it before I know where I am,” he mournfully concludes, “but I don’t feel like laughing now.”