By his own estimation, actor Rupert Everett was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. “My background is very colonial, very conservative,” he says when he appears on Who Do You Think You Are? “My whole life has been a rebellion against it.”
But as Rupert learns when he researches his genealogy, a personal journey partly keyed off by the death of his stockbroker and ex-military father in 2009, the history of his upper middle class family is by no means as conventional as it first appears.
Rupert first wants to know more about his paternal grandfather, Cyril Everett, who spent most of his working life in Nigeria. Following a visit to his mother to see old photographs and documents, Rupert meets Dr Ruth Watson, an expert in Nigerian history. Cyril, he learns, rose through the ranks in the colonial service to become assistant comptroller of customs, which meant he was in day-to-day control of the thriving port at Lagos. His wife and children remained in the UK, by no means an unusual arrangement during this era.
Far more unusual was Cyril’s childhood. Although Rupert has been told that a pair of aunts raised Cyril in Hammersmith, census records from 1891 a different story. It lists Cyril as an “inmate” at the Farningham Homes for Little Boys in Kent, a centre for destitute boys founded by a trio of Victorian philanthropists.
Records show how he came to be sent to Kent. Cyril’s father, Frederick, a sailor, “deserted” his family. Suddenly, stories that Cyril’s father was a successful stockbroker who lived on Piccadilly seem no more than “a child’s fantasy”. His own father, thinks Rupert, may have been so correct because he knew about Cyril’s story and as a result was “all the more eager to be an upstanding, well-connected member of society”.
At the National Maritime Museum, Rupert discovers more about Frederick by looking at his Merchant Navy records, including the fact that he had tattoos. Frederick sailed the world, visiting New York, South America and Australia, and took his captaincy examinations in Hong Kong in 1899, where he married for a second time. Frederick, it seems, was an adventure-loving rogue, a romantic figure who appeals to Rupert’s rebellious nature. This impression is confirmed by Frederick’s will, which shows that he left his money not to his son, Cyril, but to Rose Marie Bawtree of Balham, a former actress and the old tar’s companion in later years.
The story of Frederick’s dalliances doesn’t end there. It turns out he married for a third time and had a second son. Rupert heads to meet his great aunt by marriage, Marguerite. According to Marguerite, Frederick was a “naughty boy” who came from an aristocratic family but ran away. “I like naughty boys,” she says. “I like naughty boys too,” replies her grand-nephew, who’s understandably concerned that his research is “fast deteriorating into an Ealing comedy”.
Astonishingly, it seems family tales of the Everetts living on Piccadilly may be true. Frederick’s birth record confirms this: he was born at 115 Piccadilly, now the site of the Park Lane Hotel. So what exactly happened? Archives at the British Library reveal that Frederick’s father, Frederick senior, was a stockbroker who was accused of fraud. He was found innocent, but the case ruined his career and fortunes. He died of tuberculosis in 1878, leaving just £200 to his wife and six children.
The ripples of the scandal that engulfed Frederick senior, thinks Rupert, are still having an influence, resulting in “unsettled” generations following on. “All these broken relationships are terribly touching – and marvellous in a way, that people get through all these things,” says Rupert. “It’s extraordinary the resilience people have.” Looking at his ancestors, Rupert says, he understands his father better, and therefore perhaps himself too.