The Paralympian Jonnie Peacock, who lost a leg as a child because of meningitis, sprinted to fame by winning gold in the 100m in the 2021 London Paralympics. He was just 19 years old.
But it wasn’t athletics that captured his imagination as a child, but football. He’s therefore always been intrigued by stories of his maternal grandfather, Johnnie Roberts, who was a keen amateur player. How good was Johnnie?
Old newspaper clippings tell of a boy who scored goals for fun, so much so that a scout from Leeds United came calling, only to be turned away by Johnnie’s father, Edward, who thought his son should learn a trade as an apprentice.
After meeting local football expert Barry Lenton in the north-west, Jonnie learns that his grandfather did have a trial for Leeds, but as an adult. No record exists of the result, but it may be that, in an era when footballers weren’t paid anywhere near as much as today, he opted for the certainties of a painter and decorator’s salary, and preferred to play for a non-league side, Burscough FC. “He could have been the Jamie Vardy [of his time],” laughs Jonnie.
As to why Johnnie’s father denied his son the potential chance of a football career, it may be that Edward was cautious because he himself had such a tough life. Not only did Edward lose five siblings to diseases linked to poverty – gastroenteritis, typhoid, tuberculosis and bronchitis – but his docker father, Isaac, died from anthrax, contracted while unloading a ship in Liverpool. “I think he wanted the best for his family,” says Jonnie of Edward as he reflects on what he’s learnt.
Next, Jonnie researches his father’s side of the family. In the course of this research, his 4x great grandmother, Louisa Voss, emerges as a fascinating figure. However, things don’t start promisingly when Jonnie discovers documents related to a pub in Warboys, Cambridgeshire having its licence revoked. Louisa is described as one of the village’s “bad characters” and there are hints the pub may have doubled as a brothel.
Subsequently, Louisa would have found it difficult to get work and ended up working as part of an agricultural gang. So bad were the conditions for women and children employed in this way that they were described as “white slaves”. Later, she was convicted for stealing from her boss and, in 1853, Louisa was briefly forced into the workhouse.
And yet this is by no means the whole story. Louisa was tough, and took her former boss to court. She had four illegitimate children and one of them, Millicent, was so proud of her mother that she proclaimed herself as “illegitimate” on her wedding certificate – this at a time when most women would have made up a father’s name for fear of being shamed.
In later life, Millicent, whose carter husband did well in business, offered £100 to her daughter and son-in-law £100 for each grandchild they gave the name Voss, another mark of her pride in Louisa.
“She wasn’t afraid of getting in men’s faces,” says Jonnie of Louisa. “She was before her time really.”