At the start of her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, actor Samantha Womack knows little about her family history. In part because her own childhood was “fractured” as the result of her parents separating when she was six, she’s keen to correct this.“I want to have a history, I want my children to have a history,” she says.
The former EastEnders star also wants to find forebears that her musician father, Noel Janus, who sadly committed suicide two years ago, might have appreciated knowing about.
Samantha begins by visiting her grandmother, Dolly Ryan. She learns that her great grandfather, Alexander Cunningham Ryan, was injured in the First World War, possibly as the result of a gas attack. A visit to Wellington Barracks in London, home of the Scots Guards, reveals a slightly different story: Alexander was shot in the lung, which left him with breathing difficulties. The regiment’s archives also reveal that Alexander re-enlisted when war broke out, having earlier served with the Highland Light Infantry.
In an era when child recruits were schooled by the military, Alexander first signed up for military life in July 1895 as a 14-year-old and was trained as a musician. Later, he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery, where his military career fell apart when he was caught pawning musical instruments: a euphonium and a cornet. Alexander was given a dishonourable discharge and jailed, something he hid when he re-enlisted.
Following the “bittersweet experience” of finding out about Alexander’s life – a life tinged with disgrace and yet which helps explain her father’s love of music – Samantha next turns her attention to his wife, Beatrice Garraud. Here, the search for information is complicated by inconsistencies in the spelling of Beatrice’s name, but it emerges that Beatrice and her elder brother, Anthony, both lived in orphanages.
Worse, Anthony died aged just six years old when his nightclothes caught fire. Old newspaper reports on the inquest into his death reveal that Anthony’s father predeceased him. His mother, Jessie Ryder, was said to be abroad in the US. After a visit to the Hammersmith orphanage, Nazareth House, where Beatrice lived from the age of two until she was taken by her grandparents when she was eight years old, Samantha heads to New York. She wants to learn more about her 2x great grandmother, actor Jessie, who first visited the city in 1891.
Local searches reveal that Jessie had a daughter, Annie Gertrude Finkle, in August 1899, a few months after Anthony’s death. “There’s just such a long line of damage,” says Samantha, who sees Jessie as a “villain”. It’s an impression only reinforced by a newspaper picture alongside a story about Jessie’s theatre work. For all that she was a “talented comedienne”, Jessie was a stern-faced woman who put her own daughter, young Annie Gertrude, on the stage.
But there’s a twist in the tale. In 1907, the Finkle family headed to the UK and took Beatrice to Jersey City to live with them. Samantha even goes to see the house where they lived. Back in England, Samantha considers what she’s learned. She has “a real sense of pride” in being descended from performers and a new sense of belonging. “It’s been truly, truly healing,” she concludes.