Actor Kevin Whately has found fame playing decent but slightly downtrodden working class Geordies: Neville Hope in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Morse’s sidekick, Lewis. His public persona, it turns out, certainly isn’t reflected in his illustrious family history. Not that Kevin realises this as he begins his research. “It’s pathetic how little I know,” he says, something that’s nagging at him now he’s a grandfather.
First, Kevin wants to learn more about is his maternal grandmother, Doris Phillips. She trained at the Royal College of Music and later performed with her brothers in a family music hall troupe that staged shows for charity, the Jesmond Jesters, but did she ever earn her living from her craft?
Yes, learns Kevin, when he meets Eric Cross, the conductor of the long-established Bach Choir. In the 1930s, Doris was a highly regarded soprano who sang in BBC radio broadcasts. She also performed at Newcastle City Hall, a venue that’s dear to Kevin from his days as a folk singer. “I really feel like I’m in contact with her through this,” says Kevin as he sits in the theatre’s auditorium.
Doris’s father, Frederick, was a dynamic entrepreneur. Starting with a single fish shop, Frederick capitalised on a boom in herring to build up a thriving business and left the equivalent of £2 million in today’s money in his will.
Turning to his father’s relatives, Kevin begins in a city he knows well, Oxford. It’s here that his great great grandfather, Archbishop Richard Whately, was a prominent academic in the early 19th century. Kevin’s brother, Frank, has a family tree compiled by Kevin’s father, naval commander Richard. It largely shows generations of clergymen, but one name stands out – who was Thomas Whately, a ‘turkey merchant’ and Archbishop Richard’s grandfather?
He was a considerable figure. At the Mercers’ Hall in the City of London, Kevin learns that Thomas didn’t deal in poultry but was apprenticed to the Levant Company, which traded in Turkey, Syria and Palestine. He did so well that, in the middle of the 18th century, he became a director of the Bank of England.
Thomas was married to Mary Thompson and it’s through her family that Kevin traces his family back even further. Mary was descended from Robert Thompson, one of four puritan brothers who rose to prominence during the Commonwealth in the 17th century, when England was briefly a republic.
The Thompsons made their money in the New World. Kevin’s direct ancestor, Robert Thompson, was the brother of Maurice, who in 1632 shared a monopoly on the lucrative tobacco trade from Virginia. To Kevin’s discomfort, he also learns the Thompsons were heavily involved in the slave trade.
When the Civil War broke out, Robert became a Major in the Army of the Eastern Association. His commanding officer was Oliver Cromwell and the families were close. After the war, Robert played a key role in building up the fleet as a Navy Commissioner. Samuel Pepys mentions Robert in his famous diary.
It’s the end of Kevin’s research. He’s both staggered to have found such famous ancestors and quietly relieved not to have inherited a stately home purchased with the proceeds of the slave trade. “It’s been really overwhelming,” he concludes. “It’s a very strange, surreal feeling knowing that you’re connected by blood to these people.”