TV presenter and former The Only Way Is Essex cast member Mark Wright is a cockney “born under the sound of the Bow Bells”, he says at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are? Yet his family has long told stories of European heritage.
Mark’s particularly keen to learn more so that he can share what he finds with his paternal grandad, Eddie, who’s interested in genealogy but whose own father died without sharing very much about the family’s history.
Mark begins his research by visiting Eddie, a former champion boxer who’s tough but “on the flip side… a sweetheart”, someone to whom Mark is close.
Mark learns that Eddie’s grandfather, Mark’s 2x great grandfather, was also called Edward.
Family stories suggest he spent time in the US trading horses with Native Americans – can this be true?
The first surprise is that Edward was born in Barkingside, Ilford, closer to Essex than the East End.
“We were Essex boys from the start!” laughs Mark.
Edward’s marriage certificate places him in West Ham and lists his profession as ‘carman’, someone who drove a horse and cart for a living.
However, old newspaper reports reveal he was a petty thief, who served time in jail – no wonder, perhaps, considering he had nine children and his work ferrying goods from London’s docks was at best insecure.
Mark is beginning to suspect the US story was a cover for time in prison.
Instead, he learns that Edward helped bring horses back from America during the First World War as a groom with the British Army, his equine skills valued by a horse-powered military.
Edward even lied about his age when he enlisted because otherwise he would have been turned away as too old.
“Now I can look at him in a heroic way,” says Mark.
Next, Mark turns his attention to the family history of his paternal great grandmother, Annie.
Through this research, Mark learns that his 3x great grandfather, Henry Simons, was “a Passover baker”.
Mark is partly descended from Sephardic Jews, a community that settled in London, but had roots in Spain, Portugal and North Africa.
At Bevis Marks in Whitechapel, Britain’s oldest surviving synagogue, records enable Mark to trace his family tree back to David Antonio de Mendoza, his 9x great grandfather, born c1660 and a Maestro de Armas, or master swordsman. David was from Jaen, in Andalucía.
Mark heads to Spain. After crossing swords with a modern-day fencing master, he learns that Antonio Mendoza (David was his Jewish name) was baptised at Jaen’s cathedral.
It’s a reflection of the times in which David lived in that Jews – and Muslims – were forced to convert as Catholicism became the state religion.
Despite this, David’s Jewish background meant he was in huge danger.
In 1696, he was arrested, accused of practising Judaism and imprisoned by the Inquisition.
In custody, he was tortured, yet never confessed to any ‘crimes’ and abjured, agreed to live as a Catholic.
Ultimately, though, he and his family escaped Spain for Amsterdam, where they were able to practice the Jewish faith.
A far different – and terrible – fate awaited David Antonio’s nephew, Miguel, who returned to Spain where he was burnt at the stake.
A clearly emotional Mark has lots of stories to share with Eddie, whose own tales of childhood have long enchanted his grandson. “It feels good.”