Emma Willis - Who Do You Think You Are?

Birmingham relatives, Irish roots, and a notorious ancestor...


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TV presenter Emma Louise Willis (née Griffiths) was born on 18th March 1976 and grew up in Birmingham with her mum, dad and two sisters. Her birth was registered in the first quarter of 1976, as we can find in the indexes accessed on TheGenealogist.

Having been brought up in the second city, Emma recalls her childhood memories:

"There were always family members round the corner, in the garden, down the street. It was that typical, old fashioned, working class…everybody mucks in, everybody helps raise you."

Edna, Emma's grandmother on her father's side, had done some work on the family tree some time ago; unfortunately Emma never knew what Edna had discovered. Until the Who Do You Think You Are? programme, Emma's knowledge of her family only went as far back as her grandparents on both sides. Like many people who are attracted to researching their family history, she's reached that stage in her life where she wants to find out more.

"I don't know what's about to unfold and I don't know what's about to happen. Hopefully it's a positive outcome. I mean, we all want to have a nice story, right?"

Birmingham Bull Ring Market from the Image archive on TheGenealogist

To start her research, Emma heads home to Birmingham in order to talk to her parents. She still has a bedroom in their house and is really hoping that she has deep roots in Birmingham. Meeting up with her mum and dad at the family home, they are able to reminisce about Emma's paternal grandparents whom she was very close to when they were alive. Her father is able to find some family photographs and Emma gets to see a photo of her Nan Edna's parents, and also one of her great-great-grandmother Alice Gretton. Taking the research back another generation Emma discovers that Alice's father – Emma's 3 x great-grandfather – was named James Gretton.

By using the census collection on TheGenealogist, we can find James in the 1861 census of Lower Trinity Street Aston, Birmingham showing him with his wife Mary Ann. James Gretton worked as a "horn and hair merchant" and part of his job in the 1850s involved "sizing". To find out what this term means, Emma is able to go and see a Birmingham historian near to where her 3 x great-grandfather lived at Lower Trinity Street. James's work was to manufacture brushes from horn and hair, as well as making glue – or sizing – from dead animal waste. What her ancestor did was a good example of what made Victorian Birmingham the enterprising place that it was at that time. The large number of small scale workshops set up by entrepreneurs, such as Emma's 3 x great-grandfather, would lead to Birmingham being referred to as the "city of a thousand trades."

1861 census of Lower Trinity Street Aston, Birmingham showing James with wife Mary Ann

But business wasn't simple for James Gretton, as in Victorian times the cities began to appoint "nuisance inspectors" to clean up their dirty environment. James, the researchers found out, had been charged with "creating a nuisance". This suggested that, as well as it creating noxious smells, his business may have been considered as a danger to the health of his neighbours in the area.

James Gretton circa 1870s (left) and Mary Ann Gretton circa 1870s (right)

In Birmingham the National Trust has preserved some of the last surviving back-to-back houses from the time. Emma learns that her 3 x great-grandfather James, his wife (Emma's 3 x great-grandmother) Mary Ann, and their family would have lived in this type of accommodation with their workshop in the yard. The Victorian authorities were concerned that these premises may have been a potential breeding ground for diseases such as anthrax.

We have found that James and Mary Ann's youngest daughter, Alice, (Emma's great-great-grandmother) is not present in the census and so it is assumed that she was living in the care of another couple – probably to keep her safe from exposure to dangers from the workshop. We can see that Mary Ann's father, John Yerl, is living with them. Bizarrely he is given the relationship to the head of the household as 'Assistant' when he was actually his father-in-law.

Emma is keen in the TV programme to find out if Alice ever lived with her parents. As we are able to see from looking at the 1871 census on TheGenealogist, by the time that this was taken Alice was now living with her father James and all of her brothers and sisters. James Gretton now seems to have a different "wife" called Helena, with whom he had a further daughter.

1871 census and James and his new wife Helena

Unhappily the research points to Emma's 3 x great-grandfather, James Gretton, eventually ending his days in a workhouse infirmary with his son in attendance. While sad as his end was, Emma' gratified to have discovered that she comes from a line of true Brummies.

"The one thing that I wanted to find within this was that we had solid, authentic roots in this brilliant city that I absolutely love. And James Gretton has given me that."

Emma's Irish line

By talking to her father Emma is surprised to find out that he has discovered, on his maternal line, that his grandmother Margaret Kirwan (Emma's great-great-grandmother) had been born in Ireland to Michael Kirwan and Harriet Fowler. Emma wasn't aware that she had any Irish ancestry on her father's side and so the TV programme sees her head over to Ireland to continue the research.

At the Registry of Deeds in Dublin, Emma uncovers the fact that her 3 x great-grandparents Michael Kirwan's and Harriet Fowler's marriage in 1861 was a mixed denomination marriage. Michael Kirwan was a Catholic, while Harriet Fowler was a Protestant. There was also a difference in the social station of the couple's fathers. Michael Kirwan's father, also named Michael Kirwan, had the occupation of marble mason. Harriet's father, on the other hand, was Richard Fowler who was recorded on the marriage certificate as a gentleman.

"I'm really surprised that someone's a gentleman in my family…not because they're not; all the men in my family are gentlemen! But a gentleman of old times, an esquire…someone who had land."

Research into Emma's 4 x great-grandfather Richard Fowler finds that he was from Dunlavin in County Wicklow. By searching TheGenealogist's Tithe and Landowners collection we can find, in the Griffith's Valuation of Ireland, the father of Richard Fowler. This is Emma's 5 x great-grandfather and in 1790 he was a protestant landholder in Dunlavin. The area was a Protestant enclave at a time of sectarian tension in that country.

Griffith's Valuation of Ireland on TheGenealogist

Emma visits Dunlavin to do more research on Richard Fowler Sr. and she unearths a 1797 article published in a newspaper that referred to her 5 x great-grandfather as a notorious informer and a murderous Orangeman. Another newspaper from the same year, tells a disturbing description of how Richard Fowler and others had raided the house of a Catholic man, the local blacksmith, and dragged him and his son from their beds, before stabbing, beating and torturing them. Emma is shocked to find out.

"That's horrific."

In 1797 the British ruled Ireland and they feared a rebellion by the United Irishmen who were a group that had been inspired by the revolutionaries of America and France. Their aim was to break Ireland away from the United Kingdom and establish an independent Irish Republic. In those times people who were suspected of being United Irishmen were targeted by the loyalists. Emma is appalled by her ancestor's actions.

"How can you defend doing that to somebody? That was exactly what I didn't want to find out."

While being sickened by this discovery about her ancestor, Emma takes some comfort that two generations later Richard Fowler's granddaughter Harriet (Emma's 3 x great-grandmother) fell in love with and got married to the Catholic Michael Kirwan. She is now keen to see what can be found out about Michael Kirwan's father. He also went by the name Michael and Emma finds that her 4 x great-grandfather had made a living as a marble mason. One of his pieces was the altar in the Franciscan Church in Limerick which is no longer there and so Who Do You Think You Are? took her to see a beautiful example that has survived in another church.

"It's overwhelming to walk into such a gorgeous building and to then know that the centerpiece of that building...was made by your 4x great grandfather...he crafted and touched it with his own hands."

Emma finds out that what he had created was considered to be a very new kind of work for an Irish Catholic craftsman. Up until the early 19th century Catholics were prohibited from practicing their religion in public. After a series of reforms were passed which permitted them to worship openly, a revival in Catholic church building took place. From information that Emma is provided with she is delighted to read that Michael Kirwan was held in high regard. The altarpieces that he crafted were judged by his contemporaries to be up to the quality of marble work to be found in Catholic churches on the Continent.

"Are they calling him a genius? An Irish genius?"

When Emma returns to Dublin, where her 4 x great-grandfather had once had his workshop, she finds out that he became both a champion of Irish home rule and also of the rights of workers. From the Dublin Almanac and General Register of Ireland 1846 on TheGenealogist we can see that he was a well established Dubliner.

Michael and Andrew Kirwan Dublin Almanac and General Register of Ireland 1846 on TheGenealogist

Dublin from the Image Archives on TheGenealogist

Emma's quest to find her roots confirmed that she has a longstanding link to her home city of Birmingham. What surprised her was that she also had Irish roots, some of whom she was happy to celebrate - while one she was extremely uncomfortable with.

Press Information from IJPR on behalf of the programme makers Wall to Wall Media
Extra research and record images from TheGenealogist.co.uk
BBC Images


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