For broadcaster Marvin Humes, family is “everything”. The son of mixed-race parents – “In the ’70s that would have been really tough for them” – he now has two children of his own with his TV presenter wife, Rochelle. “It would just be good for everybody to know really where we’re from,” he says.
He begins with his father’s side of the family. After visiting his parents in Essex to gather information, Marvin heads for Jamaica, the island his grandfather Robert, known as Randall, left in 1955. Randall was raised by his uncle, John Williams, but why?
At Crawl Farm in the Jamaican countryside, Marvin meets Randall’s cousin, John’s son Dockary Williams. Randall’s father, Marvin learns, had an affair and his mother, Mabel, died in a Kingston mental hospital in 1940. “It seems like Mabel never had [support when she became ill], which is really, really sad,” says Marvin.
Next, Marvin traces the Williams line further back. His great great grandfather, Solomon Williams, was born in 1862 at a place called Comfort Hall, where the family owned 20 acres. There’s another twist in the tale. A document from the 1830s reveals that Solomon’s father, John, was a slave owner. “I didn’t even know that black people had slaves,” says a shocked Marvin. As for John’s parents, documents confirm that Marvin 5x great grandfather, Edward Brown, was himself a slave, until a mystery woman of colour called Sarah Davis purchased his freedom.
Back in the UK, Marvin turns his attention to his mother Sharon’s side of the family. It’s research that coalesces around Sharon’s grandfather, Frederick Buckingham, known as Old Man Buckingham because of his grumpiness. He endured a tough start in life. As a child Fred spent time in the workhouse at Chelsea before being transferred to the Metropolitan Infirmary in Margate. This was because he had scrofula, a form of tuberculosis for which the sea was thought to be therapeutic.
When he was nine, Fred’s family deserted him and he was sent at North Hyde School, a school for orphans. Fred joined the merchant navy. As a young man, he often found himself on the wrong side of the law, including being charged for assaulting his mother. Yet this isn’t just a tale of hardship and anger. In 1940, Fred was a stoker aboard the King Orry, one of the ships sent to evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk. When the Germans attacked the ship, Fred had to dive overboard and was picked up still smiling. It wasn’t the only time he was aboard a ship that sank during the conflict. Old Man Buckingham, it turns out, was a “hero” and nobody in the family knew.