Actress Lisa Hammond traces the moving story of her grandfather’s experiences during the Second World War, and discovers a surprising Welsh connection in her family tree
Actor Lisa Hammond, who plays “gobby” market trader Donna Yates in EastEnders, is proud of her London roots.
“I feel very connected with [the] city… I like anonymity,” she says.
In contrast, she doesn’t much like the idea of rural life. “I hope to discover… that I’m not from the country!” she adds, seemingly only half-joking.
She begins her research by finding out more about her paternal grandfather, known to the family as Harry but whose full name was Henry George Hammond.
Visiting her uncle Chris, Lisa discovers that Harry never spoke about his wartime experiences, but why?
Born in Shoreditch in 1923, Harry was just 16 when war broke out. In 1942, he joined up as part of the 10th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment.
He was sent to Italy, but was reported as missing at Monte Camino while fighting at ‘Barearse’ ridge, so named because of the lack of cover for soldiers.
He spent the rest of the conflict as a prisoner of war at three different camps in Germany.
As Lisa meets a 97-year-old veteran of the campaign, Doug Weyhaupt, and visits the Red Cross Museum and Archives to find out more about conditions in POW camps, she begins to realise how difficult things were for Harry.
“I feel a bit shaky,” she says.
Why did Lisa’s grandfather Harry Hammond never talk about his war experiences?
On his release, Harry went to a Civil Resettlement Unit (CRU) in Northern Ireland, a way to help him make the transition back to civilian life.
Harry’s medical card describes him as suffering “chronic field anxiety” – what we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nevertheless, he remained in the army. He married and had two sons. In 1995, Harry died, aged 72.
At Worthing Crematorium, Lisa pays her respects. A hitherto distant figure has become real to her.
“I have someone in my head and that’s really lovely,” she says.
Next, Lisa turns to her mother’s side of the family.
She expects it to be “fully London stock” and that certainly seems to be the way things are headed as she traces the story of her 3x great grandfather, William Henry Hilditch, a lighterman in charge of a barge that would have been loaded up with goods from ships docked in London.
But it was a precarious way of life and, in 1828, William became a deputy corn meter, a salaried job checking the weights of corn sacks that came into the docks.
Things might have been better still but for a disagreement with a relative, William’s uncle, Joseph Hilditch.
Joseph left an estate worth £5,000 (about £500,000 in today’s money), but bequeathed William, and William’s brother and stepmother, just a shilling each because, his will says, they “behaved in the most rude and unfeeling manner”.
Lisa finds out more about the dispute over Joseph Hilditch’s will
The trio challenged the will, but court documents reveal Joseph was placed in the “Brixton Madhouse” under false pretenses.
The court case also reveals the deeper roots of the Hilditch family – in north Wales.
“I hate the country!” says Lisa, but still heads for her ancestral home in Denbigh, north Wales.
Lisa is shocked to find out her family came from Denbigh, Wales
Here, she learns that her 5x great grandfather, Joseph, was a yeoman farmer.
Go back another two generations and the lineage gets even posher: her 7x great grandfather, William, was classed as a gentleman farmer, someone who didn’t work the land himself and married well.
Nonetheless, having communed with some “huge” cows, Lisa still prefers London.
“This is lovely to visit,” she says, “but it’s not my home.”