Richard Osman on Who Do You Think You Are?: Everything you need to know
The game show presenter and Thursday Murder Club author discovered his ancestor's role in solving a 19th century murder on Who Do You Think You Are?
Quiz show presenter and bestselling crime novelist Richard Osman was born on 28 November 1970. At the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, he says he doesn’t know his family history very far back.
“I’m a bit nervous and very excited,” he says. “I’d rather find a pirate than a duke, that’s for sure, and of course I’m very interested in crime and the underbelly of the world as well. But I guess we’re not in charge of who our ancestors are, are we?”
First, Richard goes to visit his mother in the retirement community where she lives, which inspired his novel The Thursday Murder Club. They reminisce about Richard’s grandfather, Thomas ‘Fred’ Wright, who joined the army to escape an impoverished upbringing in Brighton. His military record says he was a signaller in the Royal Artillery. Richard is pleased to note that his conduct is described as “very good”.
At the Royal Signals Museum, Richard meets military expert Frank Baldwin. Frank shows him an old newspaper article from 1936 reporting that Thomas Wright was charged with the theft of a bicycle as a young man. The magistrate dismissed the case but advised Thomas to talk to the probation officer about how to get a job. This led to Thomas joining the army. Frank also explains that “very good” in a military record isn’t actually a “very good” ranking – that would be “exemplary”. Thomas was probably marked down because he didn’t display the obedient temperament needed of a soldier.
Thomas was in the army from 1936 to early 1939, then, as a reservist, was recalled to service at the start of the Second World War. His records show that he was posted in Shrivenham, Wiltshire, where he was responsible for training officer cadets.
At the UK Defence Academy in Shrivenham, Richard meets Professor Daniel Todman. He shows Richard that after his posting in Shrivenham, Thomas was sent to India, where he was promoted to regimental sergeant major, supervising up to 1000 men in his unit. His final military record describes him as “exemplary”.
Reflecting on what he’s learned about his grandfather, Richard says: “I carry him with me always, his wisdom and his strength and his kindness… So much of who I am, I owe to him.”
Next, Richard wants to take his family tree further back. In Brighton, near where he grew up, he visits St Nicholas parish church, where his 4x great grandparents Gabriel Gillam and Mary Shrivell were married and their children were baptised. The records say that Gabriel worked as a fisherman.
Gabriel lived in a time of change in Brighton, when the city was increasingly popular as a holiday destination for the wealthy, while local fishing communities lived in poverty. In 1852, Gabriel was fined for smuggling. Four of Gabriel and Mary’s eight children died in infancy.
Local historian Geoffrey Mead shows Richard newspaper cuttings from 1831, which tell how Gabriel Gillam was involved in the discovery of a body. Gabriel and another man, David Mascall, became suspicious when they dug up the ground and saw what looked like a woman’s dress. They went away, but when Gabriel discussed the matter with his wife and mother, they went back. They dug up more of the dress and called a local constable, who helped them dig up the body of a woman.
“I find it extraordinary,” Richard says, noting the similarities between his ancestors and the characters in The Thursday Murder Club, another group who get together to investigate murders.
The dead woman was Celia Holloway, a servant known to have been abused by her husband John Holloway. John and his mistress Ann Kennett were arrested and charged with murder. John acted as his own defence lawyer and cross-examined Gabriel, the key witness, even accusing Gabriel of having buried Celia’s body himself. However, John was found guilty and sentenced to execution, while Ann was acquitted due to lack of evidence. The case attracted huge amounts of press attention and Gabriel’s role in it was even commemorated in broadsides, sheets printed with ballads about the gruesome crime.
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However, despite a lifetime of hard work, Gabriel’s own story ended sadly, as he died in Brighton Workhouse at the age of 80.
Reflecting on what he’s learned, Richard says: “It’s genuinely been beyond a privilege for me to be able to tell Gabriel’s story and to get it out there, because I know it’s the story of so many people.”
Rosemary Collins is the features editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine