Comedian Vic Reeves has long been fascinated with his maternal grandfather, Simeon Leigh, an aloof man around whom family stories coalesced. “I suppose what everyone wants is a bit of scandal,” he says. “It would be nice if there was a murderer somewhere down the line or someone very grand.”
Vic, whose real name is Jim Moir, certainly finds scandal as he researches his forebears. He also finds a branch of his family that he didn’t even know existed.
The key to these revelations lies in Simeon’s chequered life. Family pictures show a dapper, tanned man in spats. Stories suggest he was married twice. But what was Simeon, who died in 1949, like? Vic’s mother Audrey, who lives in Darlington, has little to relate about her father. “He wasn’t an affectionate person,” she says.
To find out more about Simeon, Vic heads to Bempton on the Yorkshire coast. It’s a remote spot where Simeon worked as a verger in the local church, a job that would have paid a pittance. Did he, as family legend has it, live partly on a pay-off? Was he on the run? “He could have been a genius writer or a spy,” speculates Vic.
The story that gradually emerges is far less romantic, and even tragic in its way. Genealogist Nick Barrett meets Vic in Hull to discuss what he’s found. Simeon was definitely married twice, the first time to Mary Jayne Payne, and then to Lillian, Vic’s grandmother, in 1926. There are no records of a divorce or of Mary dying before Simeon’s second wedding.
Bigamy wasn’t uncommon during this era, a time when it was nearly impossible for ordinary people to get divorced. In 1926, more than 100 bigamists were prosecuted. It follows that many must have had two families. That’s true of Simeon, who had three sons during his first marriage: Eric, Stanley and Clarence, born in 1901, 1903 and 1905 respectively.
Vic goes to see the Hull house where Simeon once lived. The idea of Simeon as a potentially romantic figure has given way to the reality of a man who never saw his own children. There are happier family memories during a detour to Scarborough, where Vic recalls the influence of his paternal grandfather’s surreal humour. “You earn money for doing the silly things that my dad used to do,” says Vic’s aunt.
But what of Simeon? Trying to find out more about him, Vic heads for Dennington in Suffolk, where he views records from the local school. Former pupil Simeon, it turns out, was once run over by a horse and cart, an accident that nearly killed him! He was named for his own father, who was a butler, despite a marriage certificate that suggests he was an estate agent, then a job description that referred to someone who managed a grand country home and its land.
Vic also learns that his great-great grandfather, Edmund, was a gamekeeper. He’s a figure who Vic identifies strongly with. “I like striding purposefully across woodland and across fields,” he says, only half-joking.
Vic’s final stop is in Liverpool. With his mother, he visits Susan, the daughter of Simeon’s second son, Stanley. Vic’s cousin, though, can’t shed any light on what might have caused her grandfather’s marriage to end. “You just accept things, don’t you?” she says, revealing that Mary was known as Granny Leigh and was never divorced or remarried.
But at least the family is reunited, even if Susan, obviously not a fan of alternative comedy, isn’t quite sure why Vic warrants being followed by a camera crew. “Sorry, should I know you?” she asks politely, much to Vic’s amusement.