When she has been away filming, actor Michelle Keegan always breathes a sigh of relief when she arrives in Manchester. Nonetheless, as she begins research that will end with a remarkable discovery close to “home”, the star of Our Girl knows that she will first be heading to Gibraltar, where there are strong family ties.
In a Mediterranean territory that has been under British control since the 18th century, she meets historian Jennifer Ballantine, who shows her the 1911 census, taken when Michelle’s great grandmother, Leonor Orfila, was a child. Leonor’s father, Miguel, was a “groomsman”.
Michelle visits the family home, a modest rented apartment, around the corner from the local Catholic church, the Sacred Heart. Yet Leonor did not marry her English husband, Charles Stuart Wiltshire, here. That’s because Charles was an Anglican. The couple had a “mixed” marriage, suggesting it was very much a love match.
In 1940, Leonor and her children were among 16,000 women, children and elderly citizens evacuated from Gibraltar, while Charles, an electrician, remained.
Meeting her grandmother’s cousin, Michael, Michelle learns more. Leonor and the children travelled on a cargo ship with just six toilets for 300-400 people. They were hosed down on arrival, and spent the rest of the war living in Lancaster Gate, London. It was a happy time, says Michael, also an evacuee, but he also recalls a narrow escape when a doodlebug came down close to the flats where they lived.
Michelle’s great grandparents Leonor Orfila and Charles Stuart Wiltshire
Going further back, Michelle traces her family to Genoa, Italy, home to her 7x great grandfather, seaman Giacomo Parodi, who emigrated to Gibraltar as a teenager. To judge by his conviction for selling grog afterhours when he owned a wine shop, he was an enterprising man. Seeing the home church of Giacomo’s family in Italy, says Michelle, is “overwhelming”.
Back in Manchester, “where I’m meant to be”, Michelle researches her grandfather’s family. From her great aunt, Paula, she learns about the family matriarch, Elizabeth Kirwan, who lived with her husband, Jack, in the working-class district of Greenheys. In Manchester Central Library, Michelle learns that the couple lost two children to diseases that would now be curable. She also sees the birth certificate of her great grandmother, Norah. The famous suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, then registrar for the Chorlton Upon Medlock district, recorded the birth.
Another revelation awaits. When the 1911 census was taken, many women chose to deface their papers or boycott the census, a way to make a point about their lack of representation. Elizabeth Kirwan took another approach: she gave her occupation as “suffragist”.
“From my grandma to my mum I’ve always been around strong women,” Michelle says, “and now looking at my ancestors and my bloodline I totally understand why.”