When he was just 10 years old, Martin Freeman’s father died of a heart attack. As a child, the actor tried to show people that he was a “brave little four-foot thunderball”. “I’ve only realised how tough it is as I’ve got older,” he says at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are? The early loss of his father had another effect: Martin knows “embarrassingly little” about his dad’s side of the family.
To fill in the gaps, Martin begins by researching the life of his grandfather, Leonard. When the Second World War began, Leonard headed to France as part of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force. It was a chaotic time and military records show that Leonard, a medic, was killed a couple of days before the evacuation from Dunkirk began.
At the Imperial War Museum, Martin sees the war diary of the 150th Field Ambulance, Leonard’s unit. It says that two men died as the result of a Luftwaffe attack on 24 May 1940, but gives no names. Martin next heads for Wenlock Barracks in Hull. Here, he at last gets confirmation that Leonard died in an air raid. He also sees a memorial to his grandfather.
Going back a generation, Martin also wants to know more about his great grandfather, Richard William Freeman, who was born in 1853. The 1871 census records deliver a surprise: Richard was blind and is listed as living in a special school in Hampstead. The school, now run by the Royal London Society for the Blind, has moved to Kent, but its archives are intact. Martin learns that, at a time when education reformers were recognising that blind people could lead independent lives, Richard was trained as a musician.
By the 1880s, Richard was living in Worthing, Sussex. He was organist at St Andrew’s Church, West Tarring and lived in a generously proportioned house. Despite his blindness, Richard had joined the middle classes. He was married and had a large family.
In 1891, Richard’s first wife, Fanny, died. While Richard remarried, his life was starting to unravel. An 1894 entry in the parish magazine reads: “The circumstances under which the post of organist at Tarring became vacant are well known to our readers.” However, there’s little hint as to exactly what scandal might have occurred. The 1901 census shows Richard’s family scattered. There’s no death certificate for Richard’s second wife, Emily.
By the time of the 1901 census, Richard had begun to build a new life for himself, as a music teacher in Hull. He was married to Aida, Leonard’s mother. In Humberside, Martin meets one of Aida’s grandchildren and sees a picture of her. She too was blind. Martin also learns that the couple, while they had a large family, lost six children.
Via visits to Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Royal Society of Medicine, Martin realises that Aida probably had syphilis. There are two main clues. Firstly, her brother died of the disease. Secondly, there’s a distinctive pattern to the loss of her children, which suggests she probably contracted the disease a second time, from Richard.
We shouldn’t be too surprised by this, says Dr Peter Greenhouse, an expert in sexual health. A century ago, 10 per cent of the population had syphilis, so a huge percentage of people tracing their family tree can expect to encounter the disease.
But despite the tragedies that beset her, Aida raised a family, lived to her 90s and married again – twice. And the lesson of Aida’s eventful life? “You kind of wonder how many extraordinary characters everyone has got in their family,” concludes Martin, “that we’re all made up of these extraordinary people.”