What happens in Jodie Whittaker’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?

The Doctor Who star discovered a First World War hero and an ambitious coal miner when she traced her family tree

Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker on Who Do You Think You Are?

Actor Jodie Whittaker is the first woman to play the lead role in Doctor Who and is looking forward to a Who Do You Think You Are? journey back in time. “I’ve always been fascinated by family history” she explains.

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Jodie meets up with her parents in the West Yorkshire village of Skelmanthorpe in the Junction Inn, where her paternal grandparents were once landlord and landlady.

Looking through photographs, Jodie’s father talks about his mother Greta Verdun Bedford, who gained her distinctive middle name because she was born just after her brother Walter died during the First World War Battle of Verdun.

Greta’s parents were George Henry Bedford and Eliza Clements. Looking them up on the 1911 census, Jodie discovers that George was a grave digger at St Marylebone Cemetery. His wife, Eliza, was born in Eastville, Boston, Lincolnshire. Looking at the names of the children, there is no sign of Walter.

Jodies heads to Eastville in Lincolnshire where she meets social historian Dr Laura Harrison. Looking at the 1881 census, 6-year old Eliza is at home with her family, but by the 1891 census she is a general servant living with a family in Fulham, London. “This is around the age when you could have a child that would fight in the First World War,” Jodie notes, and wonders whether the head of the household had any involvement. Next Jodie is shown the birth certificate of John Walter, born in 1893 in Lincolnshire to Eliza Clements with no mention of a father.

When Walter was four his mother Eliza married George Bedford. In all they had eight children together. The 1901 census shows John W Clements (Walter) aged seven living with his grandparents in Lincolnshire. Eliza, however, has moved in with George Bedford in Finchley, leaving her son Walter behind. “The idea of a little kid being left. It’s slightly heartbreaking. I wonder if she saw him again. It would have been quite a journey to make,” Jodie says.

The idea of a little kid being left. It's slightly heartbreaking.

Next Jodie is shown an article from the Boston Guardian dated Saturday 24 October 1914. It reports that 21-year old Walter Clements has volunteered to work for the Red Cross Netley Hospital in Southampton. Jodie can understand his desire to move somewhere new and forge a new identity, but is sad knowing where this journey will end. To find out more, she follows his trail to the site of Netley Military Hospital in Hampshire.

The writer Philip Hoare meets Jodie and shows her around the site. Unfortunately, the chapel is all that remains of the original hospital, but he shows her an aerial photograph which shows the vast extent of the original complex. The main hospital was a quarter of a mile long, the biggest brick building of its time.

Towards the end of 1915 Walter enlists voluntarily with the Hussars and goes off to France. Jodie visits the archives of the Kings Royal Hussars at the HorsePower museum in Winchester where she meets with military historian Dr David Kenyon. David points out that the Battle of Verdun was fought by the French against the Germans, so Walter couldn’t have died there.

Although disappointed that her grandmother was just given “a trendy name”, Jodie is glad to hear that Walter was still serving and alive at this point in the war. David explains that the 10th Hussars were involved in a significant battle in the spring of 1917, the Battle of Monchy le Preux, where Walter was wounded. He returned to Britain for treatment before going back to the frontline, but was injured again the following year. He died in a military hospital in Manchester on 27 April 1918. Jodie wonders whether his mum in Finchley would have had time to visit him before he died.

She asks where he was buried and is pointed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. There she finds he was buried at St Marylebone Cemetery in East Finchley, the same cemetery where his stepfather George worked as a grave digger. Visiting the grave she realises that, at least in death, Walter had come back to his mother.

Next Jodie wants to explore her maternal side of the family, in particular a photograph of her great grandfather Edwin Auckland with his brothers surrounded by police. The photograph was taken when the Auckland brothers’ mine, the New Inn Colliery in Clayton West, remained open under police protection during the strike of 1921.

Auckland Brothers 1921
The photograph of the Auckland Brothers owned by Jodie’s family
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Jodie’s mother remembers being shunned as an Auckland at school and remembering the strikes of the 1980s, Jodie feels uncomfortable about the connection with ‘scabs’.

At the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, Jodie meets Pete Wordsworth, an ex-miner and tour guide. He shows her a copy of the 1901 census. In it, her great great grandfather Edwin Auckland is described as a ‘hewer’, a miner who worked at the coal face. Next, Jodie is shown an obituary from 1938. It describes how Edwin senior started off working in the pit at just eight years old and worked his way up as a contractor and finally a mine owner.

Aiming to get to the bottom of her family’s involvement in the 1921 strike, Jodie visits the National Union of Mineworkers in Barnsley, where she meets Prof Keith Gildart. He explains how colliery owners slashed pay in 1921 to pre-WW1 levels. Unfortunately, the miners were eventually starved back to work at the reduced pay levels.

Again, in 1926, the miners came out in strike and Jodie discovers that once more the Auckland brothers managed to keep their colliery open and profit from increased coal prices. The will left by her great grandfather Edwin Auckland shows he left an estate worth over £31k or the equivalent of about £1.5m.

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Left to think about her family and what she has discovered Jodie says: “There is a way of looking at this that is just filled with pride. A man bettered himself and his entire family… that is a huge success from an 8-year-old miner. Really that’s all we are wanting to provide, a happy, healthy life for the people around us. The problem is when it comes at a cost. On your doorstep there must have been enough families that you saw that sacrificed so much to try and have their basic rights. I knew that part of my history was there and I feel uncomfortable.”