Setting out on his family research, actor Warwick Davis hopes to find forebears who are “a little bit maverick, a little bit ducking and diving, wheeling and dealing, perhaps”. He’s also clearly looking forward to exploring the past. “Bring it on, let’s have an adventure,” he says.
The first relative whose life Warwick investigates is his maternal great-great grandfather, Frederick Durban. Documents relating to Frederick throw up some intriguing questions. Were his parents, Frederick senior and Sarah, married? Why are there two census entries in 1861 for Frederick senior?
It’s a tale of bigamy. Frederick senior had two families, one in Croydon and one in Deptford. “He must have been stressed out,” jokes Warwick. More seriously, it seems Frederick supported and acknowledged both families.
This was an age when it was almost impossible for ordinary people to obtain a divorce and Warwick decides not to judge Frederick too harshly. Frederick wasn’t a “scallywag”, he concludes.
Warwick paid a visit to his father Ashley to learn more about the paternal side of the family tree
Next, Warwick investigates his father’s side of the family. In particular, he’s interested in the life of his great grandfather, Dennis John Manning, a man about whom the family knows little.
After first hearing how Dennis lost an infant son – as did Warwick himself, “I do feel a connection with him now” – Warwick learns that Dennis was a munitions worker at Woolwich during the first world war.
Dennis died at Croydon Mental Hospital in 1918, afflicted by “general paralysis”. Could this have had something to do with the chemicals he handled during his work?
In fact, he had syphilis. While he’d been treated for the condition as a younger man and delayed getting married, the disease lurked in his system. The death in an asylum also probably explains why the family didn’t talk about Dennis, as this was an age when there was stigma attached to mental illness.
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Rob Howard from the Bethlem Museum of the Mind revealed that Warwick’s great grandfather suffered from syphilis
Finally, Warwick researches an Irish connection. His 3x great grandparents, Owen and Margaret Manning, moved to London from Ireland at a time when many were emigrating because of famine and also because there were more opportunities in England.
Warwick’s research focuses on one of their children, Dennis Manning (Dennis John Manning’s father). He was a professional musician, certainly not a profession Warwick expected to come across in his research. More specifically, Warwick is shown a newspaper clipping that reveals Dennis was the violinist with Pell’s American Opera Troupe.
Warwick ended his journey at The Athenaeum in Bury St Edmunds, where his ancestor Dennis Manning performed with Pell’s American Opera Troupe
The troupe, it turns out, was a minstrel group, who performed in blacked-up faces. “I don’t really know quite how to feel about it,” says Warwick. “On one hand, it kind of amuses me… But on the other hand, I’m slightly horrified by it.” Dennis enjoyed considerable success, rising to become the troupe’s musical director, as well its “sentimental vocalist” and guitarist.
Sadly, though, he was on his uppers in later life, resident at a cheap boarding house in Covent Garden when he died. (Warwick on the insecurity of a performer’s life: “Dennis, I think, didn’t have a plan B…”)
At a ballroom where Dennis once performed, Warwick reflects on what he’s learned. “The thing that strikes me about [my forebears’] stories is there was always struggle,” he says, proud to share his ancestors’ “determination”.