Actor Sheila Hancock says she has a “passion for London”. It’s a passion that dates back to a childhood spent partly in a King’s Cross pub with an Italian father who “cried at the drop of a hat”. But how deep are Sheila’s roots in the capital?

As a precious family picture, which shows an exotic, confident-looking woman, will eventually help prove, Sheila’s London connections go back generations. But who is the woman in the sepia image handed down to Sheila by her mother?

In order to find out, Sheila first learns more about her grandmothers. The two were a chalk-and-cheese pairing who in later life shared a room in the family’s Bexleyheath home where, recalls Sheila, they used “to row like mad”.

Emma Hancock, in particular, emerges as a colourful character. Sheila remembers her “as a rather weird old lady in a moth-eaten tippet [a scarf-like wrap]” whose “airs and graces” annoyed Sheila’s other grandmother, Louisa Woodward.

But perhaps Emma’s aloofness wasn’t entirely an affectation. Sheila learns that her grandfather, George Hancock, was an agent for Thomas Cook in Milan at a time when there was a growth in tourism to Italy’s lakes. He would have had to know in detail about the city’s art and culture. Emma’s father, Benjamin Croft, was also a figure of substance, the superintendent of a pumping station – and if that doesn’t sound too cultured, try imagining civilisation without indoor plumbing.

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In contrast to Emma, Sheila remembers Louisa Woodward as a “very solid little woman” who worked all the time. This hardly conjures up the most inspiring picture and yet Louisa’s family history proves to be every bit as intriguing as that of Emma.

Her father, James, was married to the gloriously monikered Louisa Octavia Zurhorst. Going back another generation, Sheila’s great, great-grandfather was Hamnet Zurhorst. A metalworker with a company that manufactured steam engines for ships, Hamnet evidently fell on hard times because he ended up living in an almshouse.

Material wealth

For Sheila, still trying to identify the woman in her mother’s picture, it’s proof that she needs to go back further in time. This is confirmed by a visit to an expert on clothes and costumes at Sotheby’s, who says the image probably dates from the 1830s. Could she be Hamnet’s mother?

Success. With the help of the International Genealogical Index, Sheila learns that Hamnet’s mother was called Ann-Judith Williams. The portrait shows someone who is nouveau riche, holding a book to demonstrate her learning. It’s soon clear that it’s Ann-Judith. Sheila also learns that Ann-Judith and her husband, Frederick, had a big family.

The trade directories at the London Metropolitan Archives reveal a family success story. Growing steadily wealthier through the shipping business, Frederick became a freeman of London. As for the unusual name, the archives also reveal that Frederick’s father, Herman, lived in Rotterdam before emigrating to Ireland and then London. Ann-Judith too was in business. At a time when London was buzzing with an entrepreneurial spirit, she dealt in “ready-made linen”.

Sheila, who lives in Hammersmith, is delighted by what she’s found. “It’s reinforcing why I feel so essentially a Londoner,” she says. “I love this city and I love this river [the Thames]. The feeling of the power of this river runs through the story. My relatives have lived on or near the river and I’ve ended up living on the river.”

But what became of Frederick and Ann-Judith? The couple were able to retire to St Peter Port in Guernsey, a tax haven. On the island, Sheila visits Ann-Judith’s grave. “My mind is peopled with ancestors,” says the actress, “I’ve filled in a picture of these people that is so vivid.”