Now in his mid-50s, Richard Madeley thinks he’s at a turning point following the ending of his onscreen double act with wife Judy Finnigan. “I do feel in a very new place in my life, professionally and personally,” he says when he appears on Who Do You Think You Are? Lately, Richard adds, he’s been pondering “why I am the way I am”.
Richard can already trace his father’s family back to the Victorian era, but his knowledge of his Canadian mother Mary Claire’s forebears is “pretty patchy”, so it’s here that he wants to concentrate his research. He begins by heading to Norfolk to visit his mother, who says that Richard’s grandfather, Hector MacEwan, was a logger and farm worker who emigrated to Canada from Scotland. In the prairie province, Saskatchewan, Hector met and married Barbara Bailey.
Mary Claire has warm memories of Barbara’s mother, Mary Alvenia Murdock (born circa 1868), and it’s with his great grandmother that Richard begins his research. The 1871 Canadian census shows her living in Nova Scotia, a province on the east coast, and Richard heads across the Atlantic in search of more information.
In snowy Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, he investigates an apparent discrepancy. Mary Alvenia’s father, John Murdock, is described in different documents as a “farmer” and a “gentleman”. Which description is true? It turns out that John was a well-connected man, a friend of Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden (1854-1937). Moreover, John was descended from John Hicks, who came to Nova Scotia with his family in 1760.
A visit to a distant cousin reveals more. John was an American, who sailed 400 miles north from New England at a time when the west had yet to open up for settlers. At the time, Britain had only recently wrested control of Nova Scotia from the French and the province was a dangerous wilderness. John Hicks was a pioneer who risked everything to build a new life. “I’m just so full of admiration,” says Richard.
In order to learn more, Richard has to head south to the US, where he wants to discover more about the family of John Hicks’ daughter-in-law, Sarah Chute. In Boston, he meets historian and genealogist Diane Rapaport, who shows him a petition from 1650, one of the first collective political actions of US women. Richard’s forebear, Ann Woodward, is one of the signatories to a document in support of a midwife, Alice Tilly, who was accused of malpractice.
He also sees another document, written by Ann’s husband, Ezekiel Woodward, relating to his service in King Philip’s War, a conflict between settlers and Native Americans that broke out in 1675. Ezekiel was a sergeant and took part in the Great Swamp Fight, when the colonial militia attacked a fort on Rhode Island occupied by the Narragansett people.
But is this something to be proud about? The Narragansett use the term Great Swamp Massacre to describe events, claiming that women, children and elderly people, not warriors, perished that day. Meeting Native American historian John Brown at a memorial to what happened, Richard says he feels a sense of “visceral guilt”. “You’re not a bad person and you cannot change what was done back then,” Brown reassures him.
Back in Boston, Richard goes back one further generation. Ann’s father, William Beamsley, came to the new world in the 1630s to join the nascent Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was led by wealthy puritan John Winthrop. William was probably in search of both religious freedom and a better life.
Richard has discovered another pioneer. “They tried and they did it, they succeeded,” Richard says of his ancestors. He hopes he has at least something of their spirit.