At the Richmond home of newsreader Sophie Raworth’s parents, there’s a kitchen wall covered in evocative family photographs. In truth, nobody is too sure who some of these people might be.
Sophie has long wanted to know more about them, but she’s never really done much serious genealogical research. Visiting her parents, that’s about to change as Sophie sets out to trace ancestors on her father’s side of the family. “My instinct is always to be prepared for what’s ahead,” she says, “and for the first time in my life I think I’m not.”
The truth of this remark becomes clear in Brighton where, having expected to hear tales of an illustrious ancestor, a piano maker and entrepreneur who mingled with royalty, Isaac Henry Mott, she instead finds there’s been a case of mistaken identity.
A trip to Birmingham revealed that a branch of Sophie’s family tree became members of the New Jerusalem Church
In truth, she’s descended from black sheep Samuel Mott, who was fired from the family piano business. Family letters from the era reveal a man who was often in financial trouble, “a mule of a chap”.
A story of an unhappy life, which ended with suicide in Jersey in 1838 unfolds. According to a newspaper report, Samuel’s wife, Ann, found him “in a pool of his own blood”. But why might Samuel’s life have gone so disastrously wrong, especially as other members of his family, including brother Julius, were so successful?
In Birmingham, Sophie learns how Samuel’s parents, her 5x great-grandparents, William and Martha, belonged to a dissenting religious community, the New Jerusalem Church in Birmingham.
Brett Palfreyman told Sophie about the Mott family’s brief spell in 18th-century New York
In 1791, the city erupted in religious violence, the Priestley riots, when mobs targeted nonconformists. William and Martha reacted by emigrating to “the New City”, New York, where the First Amendment guaranteed religious freedom.
In Manhattan, Sophie learns how the couple became storekeepers. But then tragedy struck and the couple died during a yellow fever epidemic. Orphaned Samuel, just 11 years old, returned to England and was sent to live with a bankrupt, separated from his siblings.
“I understand what happened to Samuel,” Sophie reflects. “He really did draw the short straw.” Nonetheless, she’s “in awe” of the Motts and “the risks they took”.
Sophie’s journey came to an end at Tatton Park, Cheshire, where she learned how to grow pineapples like her 5x great grandfather
There’s a happier story when Sophie next turns her attention to the life of Edgar Cussons Crowder, her great grandfather. He trained at Kew Gardens, exciting for someone from a family for whom “gardens… are everything”. At Kew, she sees a picture of Edgar as a student gardener. Part of the class of 1892, he seems to have drifted away from the profession.
But he’s by no means the only gardener in Sophie’s family history. Her 5x great-grandfather, Abraham Crowder (1734-1831), was head gardener at Cusworth Hall, near Doncaster. He was also a nurseryman, who grew plants for sale. Records show him selling 18 pineapple plants, then so much of a luxury that you could rent pineapples at a guinea a go – a guinea extra if you ate the fruit.
But how do you grow pineapples in Doncaster? The answer is in a specially heated building known as a ‘pinery vinery’. Abraham led, according to a newspaper obituary, “a long, kind and simple life” and died aged 98. “Every time I see a pineapple now, I just smile,” says Sophie.