Comedian Sarah Millican has deep roots in South Shields. When she goes to see her parents, she even has a special playlist of Geordie songs for the car. But has her family always lived in the north-east?
A maternal family tree suggests otherwise. Sarah’s 3x great-grandfather, James Hoult (born c1812), was from Kent. It’s not this that really makes his name stand out though, it’s his profession. James was a diver. Sarah heads to Whitstable on the Kent coast to learn more.
James, she discovers, was a salvager, part of a crew that went to the aid of ships in trouble, as well as making a day-to-day living from pulling up lost cargo and abandoned anchors from the seabed. The invention of diving suits in the early-19th century revolutionised this work. James, one of the world’s first professional divers, was able to go down 60 feet below the waves rather than operate solely from a boat. This was tough work, as Sarah discovers when she tries on an old-fashioned diving suit with its lead weights.
In 1843, James worked on the wreck of a passenger steamer, the Pegasus, off the Northumberland coast near Holy Island. Bringing up luggage was “melancholy work”. Even more so was the hunt for bodies at a time when relatives would pay a reward for the recovery of the remains of loved ones. In later life, James took a steady job, working for the Tyne Commissioners on keeping shipping channels clear of obstructions. James married and had five children (Sarah: “I’m 37 and I’ve got a cat…”), and an 1867 obituary recalls him as a man of a “genial and affable disposition”.
Next, Sarah turns her attention to her paternal family tree. Her father thinks there’s a Scottish connection among her forebears and that’s confirmed with Sarah’s discovery that her 4x grandfather, John Malcolm (born 1791) was from Orkney.
Yet it’s not in the islands that John had his greatest adventure, it was in the Canada. In his 20s, John took a job with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which traded furs. In 1817, he headed across the Atlantic and fetched up on Moose Factory Island in northern Ontario, where he was employed as a labourer. Even now this is a remote spot, bitterly cold in the frozen winter, but John was sent hundreds of miles further into the wilderness to a spot called the Gloucester House outpost.
Here, things went badly wrong because James and his colleagues couldn’t forage enough food to survive. John headed back to the comparatively developed settlement of Albany. But he became separated from the rest of his party and would have died had a Cree Native American not found him. Even so, John lost both feet through frostbite. “All I can hear is my heartbeat, there’s nobody here to help you,” says Sarah when she sees first-hand the wilderness where John got lost. Yet despite his ordeal, John made it back to Scotland and raised a family.
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