“What do I know about my family ancestry?” says ballroom champion and Strictly Come Dancing head judge Shirley Ballas at the start of her episode of Who Do You Think You Are? “Not a lot.” Nevertheless, she knows enough about two family stories to want to find out more. Did her great grandmother, Clara, abandon her family to go to live in the US? And does Shirley have black ancestry?
She begins by tracing the life of her maternal great grandmother, Clara. The version of Clara’s life that’s been passed down is of a party girl whose husband George, Shirley’s great grandfather, died of a broken heart. The truth is more complex. In fact, George moved out of the family home before Clara left for the US and he died of cancer. In his will, he left everything to his mother, who raised the couple’s children.
Sadly, Clara’s move to the US didn’t offer a bright new beginning. She divorced her second husband because he was violent and died in 1947 after spending 17 years in hospital, the result of progressive dementia caused by syphilis. It’s a story that sheds a whole different light on Clara’s life.
Next, Shirley turns her attention to her father’s side of the family. With information supplied by her aunt, Barbara, she discovers that her great grandfather, George Rich, was born in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s time for Shirley to head south. In Cape Town, she sees a death record that reveals George’s sister was of mixed race.
Going back another two generations, Shirley’s 3x great grandmother, Caroline Otto, and her children were all baptised as Anglicans at around the same time. How to explain this? The answer is that Caroline’s parents were “Malay”. In the 19th century, this was a term used to describe Muslims who were not European in heritage, and may have had roots in either Asia or Africa, so the family were converts to Christianity.
Shirley heads for the neighbourhood of Bo-Kaap, which in the middle of the 19th century was known as the Malay Quarter. It would have been a poor area of the city, populated by former slaves brought to the Cape from territories around the Indian Ocean – including Madagascar, which was the birthplace of Caroline’s mother, also called Caroline, a washerwoman who died in 1848 aged between 50 and 60. The lack of precision strongly hints Caroline senior spent part of her life as a slave, her name probably given to her by a slaveholding family.
Shirley’s discoveries have confirmed those family stories of a heritage that extends far beyond Shirley’s native Merseyside. “I’ll never forget this journey,” she says “and I’ll take a piece of these great great great great grandmothers. Now I’ll carry that with me until the day I die.”