Noel Clarke - Who Do You Think You Are?

"There's me shouting Trini, Trini for all my life and actually I'm waving the wrong flag."


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The actor, screenwriter, director and writer Noel Anthony Clarke was born on 6th December 1975 in West London. Best known for playing the parts of Wyman Norris in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Mickey Smith in Doctor Who, he was brought up by his mother.

"I have not grown up with a family, so I guess I'm always looking for that in a weird way."

"I grew up just alone with my mother...it's always been just myself and her."

While Noel knows his father, he has little knowledge about his dad's ancestry other than, like his mother, he had originally come from Trinidad in the Caribbean.

"I don't have a lot of connections and roots, so I definitely feel like there's something missing. I want my kids to know about their bloodline."

Noel starts his family quest on the Who Do You Think You Are? episode with a visit to his mother, Gemma, who still lives in the same flat that Noel grew up in. Getting her to open up about her childhood in Trinidad, Noel discovers that his mother had been raised for the first eleven years of her life by her grandmother, Elizabeth Adina Clarke - only after that did her own mother Edna Naomi take over her upbringing.

Noel Clarke with his mother, Gemma Clarke - circa 1980s

Noel travels to Trinidad so that he can find out more about his great grandmother and her branch of his family. On the island he meets up with a local historian called Judy Raymond. Together with her, Noel visits the road where his great grandmother Elizabeth Adina and great grandfather William Woods Clarke had once lived in the early part of the 20th century - but there is only one house left now that dates to this period. At the time of the First World War Trinidad experienced a boom, in part because of the demand for cocoa and sugar needed to provide chocolate for the troops fighting the war. Noel learns that this boom drew people into Trinidad from some of the other caribbean islands. He is surprised to find out that Elizabeth Adina and William had actually emigrated to Trinidad together from St. Vincent in 1917. Elizabeth Adina came to work as a seamstress and William as a mason – skilled masons being in demand for the maintenance of buildings for the local sugar estates. This revelation, that his great grandparents were Vincentians and not Trinidadians, comes as quite a shock to Noel.

"There's me shouting Trini, Trini for all my life and actually I'm waving the wrong flag."

Judy disagrees with Noel's reasoning, explaining that there are plenty of first and second generation Trinidadians who are still "Trini to the bone." Noel discovers that Elizabeth Adina and William had 4 children together in Trinidad with Noel's grandmother Edna Naomi, born in 1921, being the youngest.

Noel Clarke's Maternal Grandmother, Edna Naomi

Judy has found a ship's passenger list from 1923 for a voyage from Trinidad to New York City which shows Noel that his great grandmother Elizabeth Adina had sailed to the U.S. The document shows that, at this time, she was a widow and Noel realises that his grandmother would have been just two years old when her mother left. William Woods Clarke had died by this time and it appears that Elizabeth had gone to stay with her sister in Brooklyn. Noel wonders why it was that Elizabeth would have left her small children behind in Trinidad.

"I can't imagine that she would just leave four children."

To find out more Noel is able to consult Dianne Prashad, an expert on the history of Caribbean migration. From her Noel learns that his great grandmother was part of an "exodus" of women from Trinidad. Researching in the pages of a contemporary Trinidadian newspaper reveals a report that tells of a disproportionate number of emigrants from Trinidad being women. The article suggests that, after an economic downturn caused by crop failures, there was little work for females in Trinidad apart from turning to prostitution. In order to earn a living these women had to leave the island. For a widow with four daughters, the most sensible decision for Elizabeth Adina was to go to New York, where she could find work in domestic service. Elizabeth's time working in New York lasted until 1937 which caused her to miss a large portion of her daughters' childhoods who she would have left in Trinidad – possibly in the care of her father.

"On the surface it seems like she left them but, actually, she had so much love for them that she had to leave...Heartbreaking."

Noel's paternal family

Noel Clarke's dad Alphaeus Baptiste circa 70s

Noel's father Alphaeus Clarke emigrated to Britain from Trinidad - but Noel knows even less about the paternal side of his family tree, not having been brought up by him. What Noel does have is a few memories of his paternal grandmother, Menelvia.

"A strong, strong, tough woman."

To do some research Noel visits Fyzabad in the oil-producing south of the island as this was where Menelvia lived. In the TV programme Noel is able to meet up with a local politician, Arthur Sanderson, who knew Menelvia and from this meeting Noel discovers that she had originally come from Grenada - which further undermines Noel's sense of his Trinidadian roots. He discovers that many Caribbean men and women were drawn to the island to work in its oil industry. In the 1940s there had been a boom in oil which had accounted for the influx of people like Noel's grandmother. Arthur Sanderson recalls that Menelvia had been a formidable woman who had lived in Trinidad at a time when there was segregation and disparity of wealth. She had become very involved in grassroots community politics and the call for Trinidad's independence from Britain.

Noel Clarke's Paternal Grandmother, Menelvia - circa 1950s-60s

Menelvia was also a member of the Spiritual Baptist church in Trinidad, a religion associated with African spirituality and which had been banned by the British authorities until 1951. The pastor and ladies of the congregation remember Menelvia as being a highly respected member of the community. In the programme Noel is presented with a photograph by them that includes his grandmother. The picture is of the members of the local branch of the PNM – the People's National Movement - one of the first political parties in Trinidad to give black people a political voice. Noel's grandmother held an important position in the party as the Lady Vice Chair. In the 1956 general election the PNM won and its leader Eric Williams was to become the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago when the territory eventually gained its full independence from Britain in 1962.

Having discovered that his roots stretched out from Trinidad to other Caribbean Islands, the Who Do You Think You Are? episode next follows Noel to Grenada – where his grandmother Menelvia was from and where her son, his uncle Telfour, lives today. This was Noel's first ever meeting with his uncle who reveals to Noel that Menelvia's maiden name was Bedeau. Telfour is able to trace the Bedeau family back a further 3 generations and it turns out that the Bedeaus are from the small island of Carriacou off Grenada. On a clear day this smaller island is visible to the North East from the main island of Grenada.

"It turns out I'm from every other island except Trinidad, really!"

Noel travels to Carriacou to learn more about his Bedeau ancestry from historian Nicole Phillip-Dowe. She has found a document that enables Noel to trace his ancestors back even further down the Bedeau line, to Noel's 4 x great-grandparents Mary and Glasgow Bedeau. Noel is shown the Annual Return of the Increase and Decrease of Slaves on an estate - it reveals that his ancestor, Glasgow, had been born into slavery in 1821.

"You know the thing is...being black I thought this might end up here at some point. But it's still crazy to see it, you know?"

The history of Carriacou, part of the British Empire from 1763, is one of white owned plantations worked by slaves that had been transported there from Africa. The Annual Return lists Glasgow's mother to be "2nd Genevieve", there already being another slave woman called Genevieve on the plantation at the time.

"So they just called her Genevieve 2. Wow."

Nicole explains that slaves would have had no say in what their child would be named, so Glasgow may well have been given his name by John Dallas, the Scottish agent who ran the plantation for its owners. As the records do not record the fathers of slave children, this is as far back as the documentation can take Noel in his quest. The estate on which his ancestors had toiled, had been owned by absentee planters who lived across the Atlantic in Brunswick Square, back in London.

"Brunswick Square in London. Just north of Soho...I'm around that area all the time...I might go look for them."

The agent, John Dallas, had reputedly been particularly brutal - even down to beating pregnant women. Searching for further records Nicole is only able to find one more document of Noel's 5 x great-grandmother Genevieve. This is on the estate's notice of "decrease" – a stock-taking term, that could have meant she had been sold. In Genevieve's case, however, it recorded her death in 1824 from inflammation of the stomach and bowels aged 31. Her child, Glasgow, would have been 2 and would have been taken in by other women on the estate.

"To know that five generations back my immediate, direct-line family were slaves...it's a lot to take in, really; a lot to process."

Curtis Jacobs, a local researcher, shows Noel another record that, at first looks like it might be another record of ownership - possibly of slaves. It's dated 1844, however, by which time slavery had been abolished on Carriacou. Curtis explains that it's actually a record of land purchase. The buyers were Glasgow himself, along with his in-laws, and the land in question was adjacent to the Harvey Vale Estate where he had been previously enslaved – an amazing achievement for someone who had been born into slavery. On screen Curtis reveals to Noel that they are on the very land that Glasgow and his family had bought back in 1844.

"That is something. Were these trees here? Did he sit under these trees for shade?...You know, it suddenly becomes very real."

Curtis is able to point out Glasgow Bedeau's grave – marked with a large tombstone. Noel thinks about his ancestors including his 4 x great-grandfather Glasgow, his mother Genevieve.

"...and the countless lines before that...that we can't trace because they were treated like cattle."

Having traced the Bedeau line Noel is able to meet several islanders who are his distant cousins – also descendants of Glasgow Bedeau. Cousin Elizabeth Bedeau explains that they are a "big family...united."

In the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? we get to see Noel attending the Big Drum: the traditional musical and dance ritual of Carriacou. The performance honours ancestors and, performed on Glasgow's land in this instance, welcomes Noel to the large Bedeau family.

Historian Nicole Phillip-Dowe explains that with this music Noel can trace his African origins. It had been sung by the first enslaved Africans on the island and passed down through the generations and was free from outside influence for generations. This is evidence that, through his Bedeau family, Noel is a descendant of the Akan people of present-day Ghana.

"This song, through a family line goes all the way back to Ghana, before they were enslaved. Glasgow...Glasgow Bedeau...Genevieve...they would have sung that song...and then 200 years later these guys are singing it for me. It's like the universe has kind of gone 'oh, you didn't have anything or anyone from that family; here you go.' You know, 'there's everything you missed for all your life.' It's just amazing, really."

Sources:
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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