One of Britain’s leading actors on stage, TV and the silver screen, Sir Ian McKellen is also a leading campaigner for LGBT rights. As “the last of his line”, he sets out to know more about his roots when he appears on Who Do You Think You Are?
Ian initially decides he would like to find out more about his paternal grandmother, Alice McKellen, who he never met, and was apparently something of a performer herself.
To begin his journey, Ian heads to Cheshire, where she lived with her husband and became known as ‘Mother Mac’. She evidently had a great singing voice and was a member of Christian Endeavour – a religious group that engaged in social activism.
When visiting his grandparents’ local church near Stockport, Ian is surprised to find himself in the place of his own baptism. Mother Mac was a leading figure in the choir and sang solo in front of 10,000 people at a Christian Endeavour welcome meeting in 1902.
Surprisingly, the 1871 census records that Alice’s uncle, Frank Lowes (Ian’s great great uncle), was also a professional actor living in Stretford, Manchester. Ian browses the theatrical records at Manchester Central Library and discovers that Frank performed in the city’s top theatres, sometimes topping the bill.
However, Frank got his biggest break when The Two Orphans, a successful London production, came to Bolton – the town where Ian spent his teenage years. Heading to the Octagon Theatre, Ian meets theatre historian Dr James Moran to find out more and even gets to read the lines Frank would have spoken himself.
But sadly, Frank’s work dried up when his agent moved to the US. He was forced to take lesser jobs, spending a lot of his time performing in cheap music halls across Liverpool.
Frank’s marriage to his wife Ellen also deteriorated and he was admitted to Liverpool workhouse with ill health in 1893, eventually dying of tuberculosis at the age of 47. Although Ian is disappointed to hear about his relative’s sad demise, he is delighted to have found a fellow actor in his family tree.
For the next part of his Who Do You Think You Are? journey, Ian decides to learn more about Frank’s father Robert – his great great grandfather.
Returning to Manchester, Ian meets up with historian Professor Martin Hewitt, who reveals that Robert was a warehouse clerk and a director of the Salford Lyceum, a society that offered lectures for local workers hoping to enhance their education.
Crucially, however, Robert was also behind a major campaign for better working conditions across Manchester. At a time when most people worked six days a week, Robert wanted employers to grant their warehousemen a ‘half-day holiday’ on Saturdays. By 1843 the city was a hotbed of radical activity, so it could have been a dangerous campaign.
However, at Manchester Central Library, Ian discovers that Robert’s crusade was ultimately successful. On a large scroll, he sees his ancestor’s signature alongside those from over 400 ‘merchant princes’ who agreed to grant the new half-day holiday.
Robert continued his political activities, spreading his messages as a publisher and a printer. In The Lancashire Witches’ Holiday Herald, Robert focused his attentions on the plight of Manchester’s needlewomen, some of the most exploited workers in Britain, who were working up to 19 hours a day for a pittance.
News of the half-day holiday spread like wildfire across the country, paving the way for a modern two-day weekend for all workers. Sir Ian is delighted to learn that the passion for activism and the desire to make change obviously runs deep in the family.
Robert’s campaigning continued right up until his death at the age of 56, helping to contribute to a number of charitable causes. This included raising funds for the construction of Cheadle Hulme School which, in an extraordinary coincidence, Ian’s paternal grandfather attended, and where Ian himself recently gave a speech about LGBT rights.
One last ancestor Ian wants to investigate is Robert’s father, James, who was an engraver from Cumbria. It’s a pleasant discovery for the actor, who spent many happy holidays in the Lake District with his family as a child.
Heading to Carlisle, Ian meets up with curator Melanie Gardner at the city’s Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery, where she shows him a copy of A History of Cumberland. Published in the late 1700s, the book features a number of James’s illustrations, depicting some of the region’s breathtaking scenery.
Ian decides to search for some of the landmarks that James engraved, seeing exactly where his 3x great grandfather would have sat as he created his artwork. Appropriately, the actor’s journey ends at the Druid’s Circle near Castlerigg – right in the heart of wizard country.