Ralf Little on Who Do You Think You Are?: Everything you need to know
Ralf Little discovered a Second World War sailor and a football player in his family tree when he appeared on Who Do You Think You Are?
Actor Ralf Little was born in Bury in Greater Manchester on 8 February 1980. He attended Bolton School (Boys' Division) and studied at the University of Manchester medical school before dropping out to become an actor. He is best known for playing Anthony Royle in The Royle Family and Jonny Keogh in the first six series of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. In 2020 he was cast as DI Neville Parker, the new lead of BBC One drama Death in Paradise. In 2022 he traced his family history on Who Do You Think You Are?
As he gets older, Ralf says at the start of his episode, “It suddenly seems to matter a lot more where I came from… Who do I think I am, in fact?’
Ralf goes to visit his uncle Alan, who tells him about his grandfather, Arthur Bailey. The 1939 Register shows Arthur working at Prestwich Hospital, where he got a job as a mental health nurse after initially applying to work as the hospital’s butcher.
At the hospital, Ralf meets historian Vicky Long. She tells him that being a mental health nurse was hard, sometimes dangerous work. She also says that his grandmother, Annie Lockley, also worked at the hospital as a laundry maid, and shows him old photographs of both his grandparents among the hospital staff.
However, in 1940 Arthur joined the Royal Navy. He was stationed at HMS Proserpine, a base in the Orkney islands. Ralf travels to the Orkneys to visit Scapa Flow Museum on the site of HMS Proserpine and find out more. Arthur began working as a sickbay assistant, married Annie while home on leave, and became an air mechanic. He would have been responsible for repairing the guns on aircraft. Arthur left the Orkneys to serve in the Pacific. He was on board HMS Indefatigable, an aircraft carrier which served in the Battle of Okinawa. It became the first British vessel to be attacked by a kamikaze – a Japanese plane flying a suicide mission to crash into the ship while carrying a bomb. 21 men were killed and 27 wounded but incredibly, the ship’s crew managed to repair the damage and she was back in action just 45 minutes later. Despite his ordeal, it would be months before Arthur was able to come home to Annie and their daughter, Ralf’s mother.
Ralf is amazed at what he’s learned about his grandfather: “He faced hardship a lot and just took it and did it for the greater good. I wish I’d asked him about it. I wish I’d got to know him better.”
Next, Ralf goes to Wales, where Annie was from, to find out more about her roots and investigate a rumour of a football player in the family. The 1891 census shows Annie’s father Albert Lockley, aged 17, working as a general labourer in a coal mine. It was dangerous work – an old newspaper article reports that Albert was caught up in an accident where he was injured by falling coal.
However, it wasn’t all bad. At Chirk Football Club, known as the Colliers because of its connection to a mining area, Ralf meets sports historian Martin Johns, who shows him a newspaper cutting revealing that Albert did play for Chirk and even scored a goal when they won the 1894 Wales and Border Counties Cup Final. Ralf, who was himself a semi-professional footballer in his twenties, is delighted, especially when Martin shows him the original trophy his great grandfather won. Albert went on to play for the Welsh football team. However, a newspaper article from 1904 says he “foreswor[e] football through being converted” to the Welsh religious revival.
“He gave up football for religion?” Ralf jokes. “I can’t begin to tell you, as an atheist, how upsetting that is to me.”
The religious revival of 1904-5 spread across Wales and saw thousands of people become fervent Christians. It was so intense that young men burned their football clothes as they renounced the sport, and police stations went days without a crime being reported. However, the revival had died out by 1905, and a newspaper cutting from that year reports on Albert winning a penalty competition, so he may have gone back to football at a later date.
Next, Ralf returns to his hometown of Manchester to look into his father’s side of the family and explore a rumour that he has ‘posh’ ancestors. He meets genealogist Michala Hulme, who tells him that his 4x great grandfather John Woollam was a successful cotton merchant during the city’s industrial boom. He was also a property owner, a constable and then a borough reeve – the equivalent of the mayor at the time. He was later elected as a Conservative councillor and sat on a Sanitary Committee to improve public health in the town. While Ralf doesn’t agree with John’s political persuasion, he’s pleased that his ancestor was involved in shaping the city he loves and making it what it is today.
He also discovers that John’s daughter Lucy Woollam married William Nall of Hoveringham Hall, Nottinghamshire. Their grandson became a baronet and the Nall family still live in the Hall today.
Ralf goes to visit them, where he meets the current residents of the hall, his fourth cousins once removed. They show him a portrait of John Woollam.
Ralf reflects on the range of ancestor he’s uncovered: “A war hero, an international footballer and one of the founders of Manchester… I think what connects them all is a sense of sacrifice and responsibility.”
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Rosemary Collins is the features editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine