Growing up in Birmingham, the actor Martin Shaw’s life was shaped by a family schism. His father Frank’s parents split up and Martin’s grandfather, Edwin, was “kind of persona non grata”, someone absent and not much mentioned. “My father had been damaged by not having a father at a time when he needed one most,” he says.
So what happened to split the family? Martin sets out to learn more about Edwin: “It would be wonderful to find out now who he was.”
Using the starting point of a picture of Edwin in uniform, Martin begins at the Imperial War Museum, where he sees Edwin’s service records. While Edwin was called up to serve in the First World War, the conflict was over before he was called into action. In 1921, he joined the territorial army, perhaps tempted by the prospect of attending a two-week paid training camp every year.
In 1939, Edwin was again called up again. As Martin learns at Birmingham’s library, Edwin served with an anti-aircraft battery defending the Castle Bromwich Spitfire factory.
While Martin now thinks Edwin is “much less of an enigma”, he still wants to know more about his grandfather’s personal history. Legal historian Rebecca Probert helps fill in some of the gaps. Edwin and Martin’s grandmother, Alice, both claimed to be 21 when they married, yet both were underage. It seems likely they lied to the registrar because Alice was pregnant, with Martin’s aunt, Lily. “Maybe they were just forced together,” says Martin.
There’s still more to learn about this rather sad story, but first Martin takes a detour to learn about another ancestor, his great-great-grandfather, Edmund Eaborn. A machinist, Edmund co-founded Eaborn and Robinson, an engineering firm that made steam engines and, it seems, specialised in making equipment for the confectionary business.
Martin even sees his forebear’s former premises, still standing at 10 Clement Street. “Some of old Birmingham has survived the ravages of Hitler and architecture,” he jokes. Sadly, Edmund died of TB when he was just 39, a week before his fifth child and Martin’s great-grandfather was born. At least Martin is able to see a memorial to his clever ancestor at Birmingham’s Key Hill Cemetery, although sadly Edmund’s grave hasn’t survived.
Martin now returns to the story of his grandparents. Edwin and Alice divorced in 1935, and both remarried. In 1937, Edwin and his new wife had a daughter, Gabrielle, who’s still alive and, while she doesn’t want to appear on camera, is happy to get in touch privately. Martin didn’t even know she existed.
A letter from Gabrielle reveals a very different family history to the one Martin learned as a child. While he heard tales of Edwin abandoning the family, Gabrielle says that Alice fell for a neighbour, who subsequently died. While Alice wanted to have another try at making the marriage work in the wake of this setback, it was too late.
“That comes as a huge, huge surprise,” says Martin. He’s tempted to say this couldn’t have been how things happened, that Alice would never have done this. But then again how well do any of us really know even our closest family members?
In the letter is a picture of Edwin dating from the Second World War. “There’s a slight sense of my father,” says Martin.