Supermodel Twiggy grew up in Neasden, north London. It was a happy childhood, but her mother, Nellie Hornby, was prone to bouts of depression and didn’t speak about her family. “It’s a total blank space,” says Twiggy, who thinks it will be “an awfully big adventure” to learn more.
Twiggy, whose real name is Lesley Hornby, begins by going to visit her sister, Shirley, who has a few precious family photographs. Among these images is a picture of their maternal grandmother, Alice Meadows.
Genealogist Laura Berry is able to tell Twiggy a little about Alice’s life. The 1891 census shows Alice living with her family, father William, mother Elizabeth and six siblings, in two rooms in a house in Willesden, north London. But there’s no sign of the family in the 1901 census. It gradually becomes clear that one of the children, Henry, was sent to live in a Kent children’s home because he had nowhere to stay.
A story of family breakdown emerges as Twiggy also discovers that four of the children spent time in Hampstead’s workhouse. In 1894, their mother joined them at the institution, perhaps because her youngest child, Frederick, was sick with a fever that would soon claim his life. In 1898, Elizabeth, Twiggy’s great-grandmother, also died.
So where was William as things went so catastrophically wrong for the family? In 1892, a reward of 40 shillings was offered for anyone who located him. It seems William, a slater, deserted his family. In 1893, he was imprisoned for a month. In 1898, when he was labeled as “a rogue and a vagabond”, he was sentenced to three months in jail.
“Maybe [the] shame stopped the next generation talking about it,” says Twiggy. But how harshly should we think of William? In 1905, he died in the workhouse of a strangulated hernia. Could it be he was too sick to work and support his family?
Researching Alice, William and Elizabeth, Twiggy has learnt enough to go back another generation. William’s mother Grace, it turns out, lived a colourful life. In 1862, she was convicted of “uttering” (passing) counterfeit coins, then a commonplace but comparatively minor crime. “She was just trying to earn a crust, bless her,” says Twiggy.
A more serious offence followed. In 1874, Grace and her daughter, 14-year-old Lucy, were accused of stealing money, including a £20 banknote, and gold from Lucy’s employer. Grace, who said her daughter had nothing to do with the crime, was sentenced to two years of hard labour.
It’s all shaping up to be a rather sad story, except there’s a chink of light when Twiggy meets historian and crime specialist Professor Clive Emsley. He has a copy of an 1881 census entry that shows Grace living in Hackney, a respectable landlady with a policeman for a lodger. “She’s clearly going straight,” laughs a delighted Twiggy.
The 1891 census shows Grace still living in Hackney and also reveals that her daughter married the family’s officer lodger. In 1897, rather bizarrely, Grace was killed in a crush at a bargain sale and Twiggy goes to see where her forebear died, now a supermarket.
While she’s found plenty of relatives who endured hard times and perhaps found evidence of why her mother was reluctant to discuss her past too, Twiggy is still happy to have found out so much about her forebears. “The women in my family are incredibly strong,” she says, proudly.