While Sharon Osbourne knows a great deal about the family story of her father, the music agent Don Arden, in Manchester’s Jewish community, she knows little about her dancer mother Hope’s side of the family.
What the media personality does know is that her maternal grandmother, Doris, aka Dolly, was a choreographer/dancer who worked in vaudeville.
Dolly, Sharon says at the start of her episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, was a little frightening because of her white hair and a penchant for bright red lipstick.
“Probably I come from a load of old witches that were burnt at the stake or something, that would be fabulous!” she jokes.
She begins her research by meeting with her niece, Gina, who has always been interested in the family’s history.
Gina has a picture of Dolly with Sharon’s grandfather, Arthur James Shaw, known as James.
It’s the first time Sharon has even known his name.
Also in the picture is Dolly’s sister, Ira.
Together, the three made up The Hewson Trio.
She also learns that James and Dolly married in 1915.
First World War records reveal that “music hall artist” James joined up in October 1915.
He was 27 years old and had been married to Dolly just a few months.
A month before Hope was born, James was sent to Egypt.
He was away for three years, until 1919. Dolly and Ira kept on working, as part of The Phil Ascot Four.
At the immaculately preserved Opera House in Tunbridge Wells, now a pub but formerly a variety theatre where Dolly once performed, Sharon hears how their act revolved around a risqué novelty dance, the high-stepping English pony trot.
Tragedy was just around the corner. In 1918, Ira died of tuberculosis. Dolly was at home with her 18-year-old sister in Brixton, London when she died.
Further troubles followed. James and Dolly split up.
Unemployed Dolly (going by the name Mabel) and 12-year-old Hope were arrested in 1929 after stealing two pairs of stockings and “other articles”.
An old newspaper report quotes Hope as saying, “I will take all the blame if you will let Mummy go,” when they were caught.
Sharon’s visit to the old site of Lambeth Police Court, now a Buddhist meditation centre, offers a sense of how traumatic this must have been.
A decade later, records show Dolly was a “widow” and “a petrol can filler”, yet James has disappeared from the records, perhaps because he changed his name.
However, Sharon is able to trace his forebears. The 1891 census shows that his mother, Annie, was American, from Fall River in Massachusetts.
It’s time to head to the USA, where Sharon spends much of her time with her husband, Ozzy.
Here, she learns that Annie’s English mother, Catherine, and her Irish husband, Thomas O’Donnell, were immigrants, tempted to Fall River by glowing promotional literature that promised a better life.
The reality was poorly paid factory work in the textiles industry, a stinking company apartment and ill-health.
Thomas and Catherine had six children. Only the eldest child Annie, initially known as Hannah and born in 1868, survived past early childhood.
In 1880, Catherine died of tuberculosis. She was 35 years old.
“All these women in the family… suffered terribly,” says Sharon.
“But they didn’t give up. And I don’t, really I must have inherited that from Annie.”