Olivia Colman

Olivia Colman

Uncovering East Anglian and French Ancestors...

Nick Thorne, Writer at TheGenealogist

Nick Thorne

Writer at TheGenealogist

The award-winning actor Olivia Colman grew up in Norfolk. She already knows her paternal line goes back several generations in the East Anglian county. What she doesn’t know so much about is her mother’s side of the family. Olivia’s mum had once said that she believed that there was a French woman among their ancestors, but that she knew little more about her.

For me it’s very exciting that there’s someone who’s not from Norfolk.

Olivia explained why she wanted to explore her family history.

I’m interested in …well, in the people that have gone before. There’s a fragility to life. And also, when you go…will you be forgotten? I don’t know what’s happened in my family, I don’t know who’s been forgotten. And it might be quite nice to remember them again.

If there’s any adventurers in my family…they’d be so disappointed. Because I think I’m currently probably the least adventurous person I know.

Olivia lives in London with her husband and children so to begin her family history quest she headed over to Norfolk to see her parents, who still live there.

I feel like it’s in my bones and blood, being here.

Olivia’s father acknowledges that his side of the family is Norfolk to their very core. But on her mother’s side, Olivia’s uncle Richard has done his own research and put together a family tree that traces their family roots back to 1766 and Olivia’s 4 x great grandparents Richard Campbell Bazett and Sarah Bazett. Richard Campbell Bazett was born far away from England on the Island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Later he would work in London for the East India Company.

But that’s so exotic, isn’t it? St. Helena, East India Company…isn’t it weird that you end up just not knowing?

Richard Campbell Bazett in East India register and Directory 1805 from International records on TheGenealogist
Richard Campbell Bazett in East India register and Directory 1805 from International records on TheGenealogist

Olivia’s 4 x great-grandfather Richard Campbell Bazett was working in London in the early 1800s, as we can see from his listing in the East India Register from the International records on TheGenealogist. The Who Do You Think You Are? programme allowed Olivia to meet the historian Rebecca Probert who was able to show her Richard’s account book. This document reveals that in his work with the East India Company Richard dealt with large sums of money. It shows that he spent time both in London and in Calcutta (now renamed Kolkata). Rebecca is able to reveal to Olivia that Richard had got married to a woman called Margaret Ann Hampton. This revelation surprises Olivia who asks:

What? I thought she was Sarah? Who’s Margaret? I thought he was married to Sarah.

It turns out that Richard had been married previously and that Margaret was his first wife he then married Olivia’s 4 x great-grandmother Sarah later. Research into Olivia’s ancestor discovered a church court manuscript that recorded the case of Bazett v. Bazett it was not a divorce case, instead it was a petition for a separation. It emerges that Richard accused his first wife Margaret of having an affair with a harpist by the name of Frederick Dizi whom she had met at her sister’s house. The result of this case was that Richard was granted a legal separation from Margaret but it came with a clause that neither of the parties would be allowed to remarry. In order to get married again they would need to be granted a divorce, which was a complicated and expensive process at this time that required a private act of parliament.

Left: Richard Campbell Bazett - Maternal 4x Great-Grandfather. Right: Sarah Bazett - Maternal 4x Great-Grandmother.Left: Richard Campbell Bazett - Maternal 4x Great-Grandfather. Right: Sarah Bazett - Maternal 4x Great-Grandmother.
Left: Richard Campbell Bazett - Maternal 4x Great-Grandfather. Right: Sarah Bazett - Maternal 4x Great-Grandmother.

To discover if her ancestor went down that route Olivia visits the parliamentary archives at Westminster to see if the records there will reveal if Richard petitioned for a divorce. A family law expert, Joanne Begiato, is able to help her find an original act of parliament which shows that Richard did indeed successfully appeal for and obtain a divorce. The basis for this was because of Margaret’s ‘open adultery’ in 1809. The act specifically included a clause to allow for the parties to remarry.

So hopefully he now goes on to find Sarah?

Richard’s will is able to tell Olivia that not only did Sarah and Richard marry each other, but they produced five sons together one of whom was Olivia’s great-great-great-grandfather Charles Young Bazett. Joanne has found Charles’ cadet papers and this shows that he was a member of the army and it states that the year of his birth is 1807. This raises an interesting question.

1807? Hang on a minute?… No!

Olivia realises that Sarah was already giving birth to Richard’s children even before he had obtained the act of parliament that granted him the divorce from his first wife Margaret. Richard and Sarah’s eldest child William was baptised in the summer of 1806 and this was the summer before Margaret had even been accused of her unfaithfulness with Frederick Dizi. This fact changes Olivia’s view of her ancestor.

I liked him a little while ago but now… what a hypocrite.

Olivia then concentrates her interest on Richard’s son, Charles Young Bazett. A search of the International records on TheGenealogist allows us to find Lt. Col. Bazett in the Indian Army and Civil Service List Jan 1865 where he is listed on a page of retired officers of the Bengal Army.

Charles Young Blazett & Harriot Slessor - Maternal 3 x Great-Grandparents
Charles Young Blazett & Harriot Slessor - Maternal 3 x Great-Grandparents
Indian Army and Civil Service List Jan 1865 on TheGenealogist
Indian Army and Civil Service List Jan 1865 on TheGenealogist

Olivia’s 3x great-grandfather, Charles, can also be found in the 1871 census on TheGenealogist as a man in his sixties living in Reading with his wife Harriot. He has been enumerated as a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Indian Army. Examining Harriot’s place of birth, it is noticeable that she had been born in Kishanganj a remote town in the north east of India. The TV programme sees Olivia visit the region in the north east of India to find out more about her three times great grandmother.

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Berkshire 1871 census on TheGenealogist - Charles Young Bazett and his wife Harriot
Berkshire 1871 census on TheGenealogist - Charles Young Bazett and his wife Harriot

The thought that members of my family have lived here is amazing. It’s such a long way to come!

Olivia pays a visit to what had formerly been the British club in Kishanganj where she meets historian Anuradha Chatterji. Having found Harriot’s marriage certificate this allows Olivia to see that her 3x great-grandmother’s maiden name had been Slessor and that Harriot was the daughter of William Slessor. With the help of the historian they are able to find that in 1804 William Slessor had become a captain in the East India Company army and travelled widely. When it came to locating a marriage, however, nothing was unearthed. Also, despite his daughter Harriot being born in Kishanganj, there is no sign of a birth certificate for Harriot. This all points strongly to the possibility that Harriot’s mother wasn’t British and more probably a local Indian woman. Considering the era that was being looked at it is thought that it would have been very unusual for a British woman to be living so far into the interior of India at this time. When added to the lack of records for Harriot’s mother and no trace of a marriage for her father the balance of probabilities is that Olivia’s 4 x great grandmother was Indian.

Oh this is so exciting! I’m so much more interesting than I thought I was!

To build a picture of William’s life in Kishanganj Olivia uses an administrative list of his possessions. It records everything from ink powder, to a Hooka pipe, to pantaloons, to an actual elephant!

But Olivia is then saddened to discover an article from 1810 reporting on a tragic accident that occured to Harriot’s father. William had been out on a shoot when his gun misfired and shot him straight through the head and resulting in his instant death. His daughter, Harriot, would only have been around three years old at the time and while there is nothing to say what may have happened to her mother, a letter from a lawyer reveals that Harriot was brought to England. The long voyage was paid for by her English grandmother, also named Harriot, so that her little granddaughter would be cared for in England.

She’s so little… Going to the other side of the world. Wondering where daddy has gone…and without mummy.

Olivia is told that even before setting sail for England, Harriot would have had to first travel 500km (approximately 311 miles) to the city then known as Calcutta.

Olivia travels in Harriot’s footsteps to present day Kolkata so that she can discover more about her ancestor’s journey to England as a very young child. On the banks of the Hooghley river the actress is able to meet Dr Sudip Bhattacharya. The records that he has of the ship that Harriot travelled on reveals that the child travelled all alone! And this was on a journey that would have taken 6 months to complete.

This little person… Without her, I wouldn’t be here. I feel quite invested in finding out about what happened to her.

Olivia is then given some more information on her ancestor when she meets Professor Rudrangshu Muckherjee. Olivia’s attention is drawn to the will of a woman named Louisa Girardot in 1824. This is the first mention of Harriot in England and the will is for Harriot’s great aunt Louisa who had left Harriot £300 when she had died. This is taken as evidence that Harriot had been welcomed into the family and Louisa actually goes on to bequeath Harriot an additional £500 four years later. By using the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) will records on TheGenealogist we can find the probate for Louisa Girardot.

Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) will records on TheGenealogist for Louisa Girardot.
Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) will records on TheGenealogist for Louisa Girardot.

Oh her luck has changed… She’s about 21 now and has her own money.

With some money of her own behind her Harriot then invests part of her inheritance to voyage back to Calcutta. This is a significant chapter of her life as in 1832 the research finds that she married a man named William Trigge Garrett. Olivia is confused by this:

I thought my great-great-great-grandfather was Charles Bazett?

This, of course, was correct. William had been Harriot’s first husband before she married Charles. Harriot had met William on the very ship that she had sailed back to Calcutta onboard unfortunately, after just one year of marriage, Harriot lost William when he died aged just 29.

Olivia pays a visit to St John’s Church in Calcutta to meet Professor Rochana Chakraborty to see if she can discover more about what happened to Harriot next. Rochana is able to show Olivia a letter that had been written by Olivia’s three times great-grandfather, Charles Young Bazett. It was addressed to his brother Richard and tells of how he first met Harriot in India and fell in love with her there but that Harriot had turned him down at that time. Four years passed before they met once again. This time it was in England and at the house of her first husband’s brother. The document revels in loving detail their courtship and explains how Harriot eventually returned her suitor’s feelings.

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I love it that he’s telling his brother everything! ‘I took her hand again and allowed mine to remain touching it for some time…and I did fancy that once or twice there was a little motion which might have said “I am not indifferent to you.’"

Olivia is excited when Rochana is able to show her a photograph of the couple and confirm that they married.

On screen we are able to watch as Rochana and Olivia take a boat to sail up river from Kolkata and we see another letter sent by Charles to his brother that had been written in 1839. This note describes how Harriot is expecting their child and at the end of the letter, Harriot herself had even written a few lines. The research shows that the baby was delivered safely and three more children followed, all of whom were born in India.

She’d been on her own all this time and now she’s found someone she loves who loves her back, a big family, lots of children… What an amazing life Harriot ended up having.

Olivia is intrigued to discover more about the woman without whom this would not have been possible and that is Harriot’s grandmother, Harriot Elizabeth Slessor. Olivia is able to read her 5 x great-grandmother’s will and Olivia sees that Harriot senior affectionately referred to her granddaughter as ‘India Harriot’ in the document. We can also see this clearly in the image of the will on TheGenealogist under PCC wills. In the Who Do You Think You Are? programme Olivia is able to research the background of the Slessor family by looking at a book about them that had been based on original documents which had once belonged to some distant descendants of the family in Scotland.

I was very surprised at how much I ended up caring for her (Harriot)…to find out that her mum was local was the most exciting…When I realise it’s tangible – her grandson is my mum’s grandad, which means we’ve all touched each other’s hands throughout time…that really brings it home that she was real.

Harriot E Slessor - Maternal 5 x Great-Grandmother
Harriot E Slessor - Maternal 5 x Great-Grandmother
'India Harriot' mentioned in her grandmother's will as we can see in the PCC wills on TheGenealogist
'India Harriot' mentioned in her grandmother's will as we can see in the PCC wills on TheGenealogist

Olivia’s next destination, in the search for her ancestors, is a visit to the Scottish Highlands where she meets Geordie Burnett another present day descendant of Harriot Elizabeth Slessor. Harriot Elizabeth, it turns out, lived in Portugal for most of her life as this was where her husband had been stationed while serving in the army. Geordie has a portrait of Elizabeth, as well as a series of her diaries and letters from the late 18th century.

The diaries describe Olivia’s 5 times great-grandmother Harriot Elizabeth’s deep love and reveal she was devoted to her children, as well as recording the close ties existing within her family. The papers include a mention of Harriot Elizabeth’s sister, Louisa Girardot; the very same woman who would leave a fortune to the younger Harriot, and who it seems also took an active interest in her nieces and nephews. Some of the letters recount various sad partings showing the affection the writer had for her family.

You always assume that people were told to ‘pull yourself together…chin up…stiff upper lip’, but it’s so nice to see…they obviously suffered the same pain as we did and they didn’t always keep their mouths shut.

There is a heartfelt description of Harriot Elizabeth’s goodbye to her own mother, at which point in the broadcast Geordie shows Olivia a series of portraits of his ancestors including one at the top of the stairs of this very woman: Harriot Elizabeth’s mother Anne Judith Bristow. She sits on the wall next to a portrait of her husband John Bristow, and he turned out to have been the MP for Norfolk Olivia’s home county.

Left: John Bristow - Maternal 6 x Great Grandfather. Right: Anne Judith Bristow - Maternal 6x Great-GrandmotherLeft: John Bristow - Maternal 6 x Great Grandfather. Right: Anne Judith Bristow - Maternal 6x Great-Grandmother
Left: John Bristow - Maternal 6 x Great Grandfather. Right: Anne Judith Bristow - Maternal 6x Great-Grandmother

Geordie then reveals something more about their ancestor that takes Olivia by surprise. It turns out that her 6 times great-grandmother Anne was not British by birth. Geordie has Anne’s naturalisation document that shows that she had been born in Paris and her father had been named Paul Foissin. The evidence points to her and her family being French Huguenots and, like many others at this time, they had come over to England as refugees.

French! She’s the French woman! Oh my god.

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

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