Tracey Emin’s artworks often refer to her own past. Because of this, she’d like to know how her own family’s story shaped her life. However, Tracey has one big worry as she starts to research her family tree: she doesn’t want to discover she’s from an ordinary, suburban family. This would, she says, “just drive me insane”.
There’s little danger of such conventional roots on her father’s side. Tracey’s dad, Enver, was a Turkish Cypriot, whose own grandfather was Sudanese and a slave in the Ottoman Empire.
However, Tracey knows little about her mother’s side of the family. Her journey into the past begins with a visit from her mother, who helps as best she can to fill in the gaps. Tracey’s great-grandfather, Henry ‘Harry’ Hodgkins, lived in East Ham, not far from the artist’s home in Spitalfields. He was born in 1877 and worked in Beckton’s gasworks.
“My fear is that I’m opening up a can of worms,” says Tracey as she heads off to meet archivist Malcolm Barr-Hamilton at Tower Hamlets Local History Library. Tracey’s expecting “hard, gritty, 19th-century poverty” in her East End background, but is there possibly a dark secret too?
Perhaps. The 1891 census shows Henry as an “inmate” of Kerrison Reformatory School in Suffolk. Tracey heads to East Anglia to find out more. She discovers that Henry, who was perhaps unsettled because his mother had recently died, was caught stealing two brass taps. After a short spell in an adult jail, he was sent to Kerrison for rehabilitation.
Reformatory schools were known as 'moral hospitals'. Henry would have received three hours of formal schooling every day and he was also taught about agriculture. While he was sent to Kerrison as a punishment, this was also an opportunity. Many graduates of such schools went to Canada, where their farming expertise was valued in the so-called prairie provinces.
Henry, it appears, planned to cross the Atlantic too but instead returned to London and was promptly arrested again, this time for burglary. He was sentenced to hard labour in an era when this meant spending hours on an exhausting treadmill – imagine a giant hamster’s wheel – or breaking rocks.
“The disappointment in Henry that I’m feeling is quite devastating,” says a clearly upset Tracey.
At least Henry never offended again. It also turns out that he wasn’t the first thief in the family line. Henry’s father, Joseph, a figure she’s been instinctively suspicious about, spent a year in jail for theft. The 1881 census also reveals something else about Joseph: he was born in Warwickshire. It’s time to head to the Midlands, where church baptism records show that Joseph’s father, also named Joseph, made besoms, twig brooms of the kind traditionally associated with witches.
A meeting with social historian Simon Evans reveals more about the Hodgkins’ lives. They were 'trampers', gypsies who lived in tents in woodland as they travelled around the local area in a circuit, selling the wares they created as they went. As someone who works with her hands, Tracey’s delighted by this discovery.
A further meeting, with gypsy genealogy specialist Eric Trudgill, reveals the Hodgkins were related to influential gypsy families and Tracey is able to unfurl a beautiful family tree showing this genealogy. One mystery remains though, probably never to be answered: why Joseph left his clan to live in smoggy London.
In the still of the English countryside on a summer’s day, Tracey considers what she’s learnt. Others, she supposes, might want to discover they’re related to King Arthur. Not Tracey, who certainly hasn’t found the suburban conventionality she dreaded. “I’m really, really happy to be related to that massive Hodgkins gypsy clan,” she says happily.