Kate Humble has an unusual worry as she sets out to trace her family history. “The thing that kind of concerns me most is that I’ll discover that I’ve had an ancestor that’s done something really extraordinary,” she says. To find such forebears, she fears, would leave her feeling she’d somehow let them down.
The first person Kate wants to know more about is her paternal grandfather, Bill Humble, a pilot. She remembers him as “someone who bordered on the glamorous” yet was somehow slightly “disreputable”. It’s an impression confirmed by Kate’s father, who shows his daughter an obituary of Bill – and a picture that vaguely brings to mind Dick Dastardly.
There was more to Bill, though, than these initial impressions might suggest. At the Royal Air Force Museum, Kate meets Captain Eric Brown, a former test pilot who knew Bill. According to Eric, Kate’s grandfather was a true “natural” when behind the controls of an aeroplane.
Bill turns out to be hugely admired by those who study aviation history. Not only was he a celebrity stunt pilot who entertained crowds at air shows, but he was a key figure in the development of the Hawker Tempest. The Second World War fighter was so fast and manoeuvrable that the RAF used it against ‘doodlebugs’, the V-I flying bombs that terrorised London in the Blitz.
Bill isn’t the only Humble with a remarkable story. While Kate knew her family had connections to the mining industry, she didn’t know how strong they were or how far they went back. Her great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Humble, was a colliery ‘viewer’ in Northumberland, one of those in charge of Hartley pit. He was also a central figure in a horrific accident at the colliery.
In 1862, the main beam of the pit’s pumping engine broke in two, blocking the only shaft and trapping 204 men and boys underground. As a manager, it was Joseph’s duty to descend through terrible conditions – he was almost overcome by gas – and witness the horror. Kate can’t suppress a “nagging feeling” that Joseph might have been able to prevent the tragedy. Instead, she learns the viewers were praised for their “heroic courage” in trying to rescue the doomed miners. Joseph, though, was done with the mining industry. He became a grocer and draper.
The cost of freedom
Kate now turns her attention to her maternal grandfather, Stan Carter. An airman during World War Two, he was shot down on a bombing raid. Eventually, he was sent to Stalag Luft III in Poland, the scene of the Great Escape.
On 24 March, 1944, 76 airmen made it through a 300ft-long tunnel to the outside world. Only three made it home; 23 of the escapees were returned to captivity and 50 were executed on Hitler’s orders. Others didn’t make it out of the camp at all. Attached to the escape committee, it’s distinctly possible Stan was waiting his turn to get through the tunnel, known as ‘Harry’, when the Germans realised what was happening.
Instead, it would be 1945 until Stan tasted freedom. First, he had to endure ‘The Long March’ as the Nazis force-marched prisoners of war through freezing conditions ahead of the advancing Soviet army. Finally, Stan reached Lübeck on the Baltic coast. The British took the town without a fight as the war drew to a close. Stan was repatriated to meet his daughter, Kate’s mother Diana, for the first time.
Having worried that she would feel unworthy in comparison to her forebears, Kate is instead proud of their courage. If she’s ever tested, she says, even a shred of their loyalty and decency will see her right.