Setting out, at the age of 84, to trace her family history, actor June Brown doesn’t expect to find any blue-blooded forebears. “Who cares?,” she says defiantly. “We’re all people.” But the oldest person ever to be the subject of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? certainly does expect to find both a Jewish heritage and East End roots to rival those of the character now forever associated with her, Dot Cotton.
Following a big family send-off – June and her late husband, actor Robert Arnold, had six children together – she begins her journey into the past by learning more about a well-known ancestor. Through her mother, a real-life Eastender, June knows that she’s related to Isaac Bitton (1779-1839).
In his pomp in the early 19th century, June’s great-great-great grandfather was a “fat but agile” bare-knuckle pugilist with a fearsome reputation. He retired undefeated and his fights included one famous bout that lasted a brutal 74 rounds.
Although the sport was illegal, this was a time when there was a craze for boxing among the rich and huge sums were wagered on bouts. However, as a fighter it’s unlikely that Isaac made anywhere near as much money as the bookies. Indeed, records kept at East London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue show that in later life he received ‘tzedakah’, charity, from the Sephardic (Spanish) Jewish community to which he belonged.
Records held at the synagogue reveal that Isaac’s father, Abraham, also received financial help. Yet why did Abraham need assistance? As June learns when she travels to Amsterdam’s Municipal Archives, it was probably in great part because he was an economic migrant.
With the help of expert Harmen Snel, June sees documents that show Abraham was once probably once a well-to-do street trader in a city that had the most liberal attitudes towards Jews in Europe. But then war with Britain ruined the Dutch economy. Hoping for a new start, Abraham and Isaac left for London. Abraham left behind his wife, Rachel, and the rest of his children, probably hoping they’d follow later. However, following France’s invasion of the Netherlands during the French Revolutionary Wars and a naval blockade of the Channel, the couple never saw each other again.
In 1812, Rachel died. As June discovers at Amsterdam’s Sephardic cemetery, all her children, save Isaac who was in England, pre-deceased her. Having twice been widowed and lost a prematurely born child young, June identifies strongly with Rachel. “I’m quite sure she gave up,” she says after paying tribute at the site of Rachel’s unmarked grave, “I should think she’d had enough.”
Having seen a document in Amsterdam revealing that Abraham had roots in Oran, a town that’s now in Algeria but was once under Spanish control, June’s next stop is Madrid. She wants to know more about Abraham’s grandfather, Isaque Bitton. This was the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews usually had three choices if they found themselves in Spanish territory: leave, convert to Christianity or be killed.
Despite this, the Jews of Oran were tolerated because they were useful, brokering deals between Berber farmers and Spanish traders. A document from 1637, which June sees in the Spanish royal archives, shows Isaque and his father Abraham requesting the right to trade in Spain, a request politically sensitive enough to make its way right the way up to the king.
In 1667, though, this comparative tolerance came to an abrupt end when the Marqués de los Velez, then governor of the Spanish province of Oran, expelled its Jewish population. Given just eight days to sort their affairs, most of the 466 souls who were shipped out ended up in Livorno, Italy.
June has reached the end of her research. Could it be, she muses, that her own fear of being unsettled is in some way linked to her family history? Whatever the answer to this question, she’s glad she’s traced her roots: “I feel more connected, a consolidation I think of my Jewishness, like being a member of a family.”