SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for the episode broadcast Wednesday 11th September on BBC1 9:00pm
Mark Wright, who was born January 20 1987, rose to fame as one of the original reality stars in The Only Way Is Essex. Married to Michelle Keegan, who had her own family history explored by the Who Do You Think You Are? programme in the last series, this year it is his turn to have his ancestors researched.
Although the Wright family now live in Essex, their recent roots are back in the East End of London. Mark is very close to his grandfather Edward Joseph Wright, known as Eddie, and it is his grandad who has always claimed that Mark is a "true cockney" because he was "born under the sound of the Bow Bells." Mark tells the cameras that he "grew up hearing half stories from Grandad, about where he thinks we're from..." - including the rumour that they may have some Italian heritage. Mark wants to see if he can find out the truth about this, not only for his own satisfaction but also for his grandad.
On his paternal line, Mark's great-grandfather died when his grandad had been in his early 20s. This meant that Eddie Wright never had the opportunity to ask many questions about his family heritage while his dad was alive. It comes across in the family history programme that Mark has a great relationship with his grandad. Eddie had once been a British champion boxer who sparred with Henry Cooper: "On the flip side he's just a sweetheart...gentleman." Eddie has a number of newspaper clippings from his time in the ring to show Mark. Eddie brings up the subject of the rumoured Italian links on his mother's side. discussing his family Eddie's own grandfather - Mark's great-great grandfather – was also named Eddie. Eddie Wright Sr had driven a horse and cart, remembered the present day Eddie. He also recalls a family story that at one point Eddie Sr disappeared to America without telling his wife, and stayed in the USA for three years. Eddie Jr believes that the story was that his grandfather was buying horses from the Native Americans and then selling them to the American army.
Mark is keen to find out if there is any truth that his paternal great-grandmother Ann or Annie's family originated in Italy. But before investigating this he sets out to see what can be found out about his colourful great-great-grandfather, Edward "Eddie" Wright. To begin this quest Mark heads into the East End of London where he meets a family history researcher who has obtained the birth certificate for Mark's great-great-grandfather: Edward Wright. The first surprise for Mark is that Edward had actually been born in Barkingside, Ilford. That is closer to Essex than it is to the East End so with this news he re-evaluates his family heritage. "We were Essex boys from the start!" From an examination of Edward's marriage certificate Mark sees that his great-grandparents married in West Ham (which happens to be the football team Mark supports) and then details that Edward's occupation was that of a "carman", in other words a horse and cart driver. The researcher on the Who Do You Think You Are? programme then produces a newspaper article from 1895 that gives Mark the unwelcome news that his ancestor, Edward Wright, had been charged with stealing £2 worth of straw, and sent to jail for the crime. A few years later and Edward was charged with stealing bricks. Mark wants to find out the circumstances that may have led to his ancestor having done such things to get himself in trouble with the law.
The Court and Criminal records on TheGenealogist discovers Edward Wright listed for these offences in the Metropolitan Police: Criminal Record Office: Habitual Criminals Registers and Miscellaneous Papers (MEPO6).
After moving from Essex to the East End of London in 1893, Edward Wright lived and worked around the city's Docklands. The TV programme sees Mark going to the Royal Victoria Dock area with an East End historian and criminologist who has some photographs of the area at the turn of the 19th century. The expert tells Mark that Edward was living at a property in Quadrant Street in Canning Town. This road no longer exists and so by browsing TheGenealogist's Map Explorer we are able to see that it once curved from Bidder Street facing on to the West Ham Outfall Sewage Works. Using the slider control to change the opacity we can see on the modern map that the area is now a business park. Selecting the Hybrid Map shows us how different the area is today.
At the time that Mark's ancestors lived in this area the London Docks were the busiest in the world. More than seven million tonnes of foreign cargo each year was said to come in via the ports at London and included tobacco, alcohol and building materials for the ever-expanding city. The WDYTYA? expert explains to Mark that many people living and working here were involved in pilfering from the docks and so Edward's crimes would have been fairly commonplace. Dock work was casual and not certain – on any given day a man may be lucky and get chosen to do a day's work, a couple of hours of employment, or get no work at all. Over 20,000 people would be turning out at dawn each morning to try and pick up some work – 7,000 or so would get offered nothing and would walk away with no money for their families. Slum neighbourhoods sprung up all around the dock area and this cheap housing, constructed on marshy ground was where Edward Wright lived with his large family and we can trace him moving address in a number of records. By 1911 his family now included nine children and the TV historian shows Mark a note in the records of the Poor Law Board of Guardians that reads "a pair of boots from Workhouse stores be supplied to the four children Wright."
Mark's great-great-grandfather continues to get in trouble with the law as the records show. Mark wonders if the story that his grandad told him about Edward Wright going to America is true. Mark has his suspicions that it may have been a convenient story which Edward told his family when he was in fact doing time inside a prison.
The next place that Mark goes is to the Bishopsgate Institute. With the help of another expert he discovers that there is an element of truth in the family rumour that Edward went to the USA, it is just that the story has got confused. Edward appears on a list of passengers travelling to America in July 1914 when, aged 40 and as a horse groom, he was working for the Atlantic Transport Company. This takes place at the start of the First World War, and the historian thinks that what Edward was doing was helping to bring horses purchased in America for use by the British Army in the war. The facts were that the British Army needed horses at this time for many transportation tasks, including conveying general supplies, hauling artillery guns and pulling ambulances. The British bought more than half a million horses from the United States to enable the Army to carry out operations in the First World War. Taking care of these animals fell to the British Army Veterinary Corps (AVC), which it turns out Edward Wright then joined in 1915. Mark discovers that Edward actually lied about his age to get in – claiming that he was 38 – making himself appear younger than he was so that he could enlist. The AVC treated over 700,000 horses in France alone. Mark is impressed.
"After hearing about his younger years...it's not very heroic. But now I can look at him in a heroic way."
A search of the military records on TheGenealogist returns Edward's medal card for WWI.
Mark's pursuit of his ancestors now turns towards the question of whether his family had roots somewhere other than the UK. He believes these roots will be down his great-grandmother Annie's line. She married George Wright, one of the sons of Edward the Horse Groom/Carman. The TV experts have ordered Mark a copy of her birth certificate and this lists that her parents were Joseph Simons (Mark pronounces it "Simmons") and Annie Smith. Mark, who was looking for clues of foreign ancestry, notes how these are very British-sounding surnames. By going online, Mark traces the branches of her paternal tree further back. The results show that his 3-times-great-grandfather Henry Simons and his wife Rebecca had other children who were called Leah, Welcome and Solomon. Mark realises that Solomon sounds like a Jewish first name and he then sees that Henry Simons's occupation had been listed as a Passover baker.
"It looks like my family could be Jewish."
To go further in this line of research Mark meets up with a Jewish social historian. Mark's family have always pronounced Simons like "Simmons" but the historian explains that originally it would have been pronounced as it is written. It was also certain that someone who was a Passover baker in London in the 19th century would have been Jewish. Henry Simons's wife, Rebecca, was born in 1845 at The Portuguese Jewish Hospital in Stepney. Rebecca was the daughter of Solomon Elboz, a hawker and while they were Jewish the name of the hospital did not mean that Mark's ancestors were Portuguese. At the time in London there were two distinct Jewish communities in the East End: Ashkenazi Jews, who came from Germany and Eastern Europe, and the Sephardi Jews who came from Spain, Portugal and North Africa. Mark's ancestors were Sephardi Jews and so they may have originated from any of these places. The synagogue that Mark's ancestors are thought to have attended was Bevis Marks in Whitechapel and is the oldest surviving synagogue in Britain.
At the synagogue, the beadle and curator explains the history of the Sephardi Jewish community in London. Mark learns that the community can trace itself back to the mid-1600s when Oliver Cromwell invited wealthy Sephardi Jews who'd made their fortunes in Amsterdam to come and help rebuild England after the English Civil War. The beadle shows Mark the 1857 minute-books of the Mahamad – the managing board of the synagogue – in this document there is an entry where his 4-times-great-grandfather Solomon was given the money so that he could obtain his Hawker's license. While Soloman was poor the founders of Bevis Marks were wealthy individuals and so they helped the less fortunate members of their community in this way.
It turns out that many generations of Mark's ancestors appear in the Bevis Marks records and so Mark is shown a family tree that traces a direct line from Mark all the way back to David Antonio de Mendoza, his 9-times-great-grandfather. This gentleman, born in 1660, had been a Maestro de Armas, or master swordsman in Spain. "You do not mess with David Antonio de Mendoza"! The question of why his ancestor had two different first names is explained by the beadle who says that David would have been Mark's ancestor's Jewish name, and Antonio his Spanish name. He had come from Jaen, in Andalucía and by a twist of fate some of Mark's current family now live in Andalucía.
"Southern Spain, right near Marbella! No carbs before Marbs! On the beach, Plaza Beach, cocktail in hand, I can now, when I'm sat there like that, say 'this is home. Straight outta Marbs!"
Having discovered that his family roots trace back to Spain, Mark then flies to the province of Andalucía to continue his investigation into his nine-times-great-grandfather, David Antonio Mendoza. Mark is able to meet with a modern day master of arms who can tell him about the history of swordsmanship. This expert explains that Jaén has had a strong tradition of fencing and that fencing masters like Mark's ancestor Antonio were well-respected not only within the sport but in their community as well. The TV show sees Mark put on a traditional outfit that his ancestor may have worn and then has a fencing lesson in which he impresses the fencing master with his coordination.
The next chapter of his family history story sees Mark heading to Jaén where his 9-times-great-Grandfather was born. In the city centre sits the impressive 17th Century cathedral and it is here that Mark meets a specialist Sephardi family historian: David Mendoza. David tells Mark that it turns out that they are related as he is Mark's 6th cousin twice removed. In a surprise revelation David explains that he has found records of their shared ancestor in the Cathedral archives, to include the record of Antonio Medoza (the name David is not used here) being baptised as a Roman Catholic. Mark is confused as to why the ancestor he previously thought was Jewish would have been baptised into the Catholic Church. David is able to explain that the family would have been "New Christian" – in other words they were Catholics in public, but probably in private Jewish. The history of Spain had seen the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella declare Catholicism the official state religion, one hundred and sixty years before Antonio was baptised. One of the consequences of this was that all of Spain's large Jewish and Muslim populations were forced to convert to Christianity, or else leave the country. It was then that the term was coined for families that had previously been Jewish but who had converted to Catholicism to remain in Spain: New Christians. To be a newly baptised Catholic was not enough, however. If Antonio and his family were suspected of secretly keeping their Jewish faith then they would become targets for the Spanish Inquisition who dominated Spanish life for over 300 years. A part of the Catholic Church, it could arrest, investigate and severely punish anyone whose Christian faith it believed was in doubt. This begged the question, in Mark's mind, as to whether their family was ever caught up with the Inquisition. David has found a document that he produces. It is a confession from Antonio's nephew Miguel made before the Inquisition. Chillingly, Miguel had told the Inquisition that his uncle Antonio de Mendoza was a New Christian, a maestro de armas...and that he lived in Cadiz.
Wanting to discover whether the Inquisition ever turned their attention on to his 9-times-great-grandfather, Mark travels to the province of Cadiz. In Puerto de Santa Maria Mark speaks with a historian who has made a study of the Inquisition files. From these records it was revealed that in 1696 Antonio was arrested, accused of secretly practicing Judaism and also of encouraging others to do the same. The Inquisition had Antonio imprisoned in Seville and his assets frozen – so it is to the feared castle of St. George in Seville that Mark and the historian travel next. The Inquisition had no time limit on how long they could hold prisoners such as Antonio while they gathered evidence against their suspects. The Inquisitors would typically search for any evidence of Jewish practices carried out in the accused person's home, searching for Jewish religious books or objects. Neighbours and family would be questioned in the hope that they might inform against the suspect. Inquisition documents, that the TV research has discovered, show that Antonio was held for over two years and yet he refused to confess. A document dated 1698 – almost two years into Antonio's imprisonment – states that the inquisition were told to delay the definitive sentence until Antonio had been subjected to "tormento ad arbitrium": torture. Inquisitors would use torture on suspects like Antonio when they persisted in maintaining their innocence and one of their methods used was called the interrogatorio mejorado del agua or toca. This was, a medieval forerunner of waterboarding where a rag was placed in the mouth and water was poured into it so that the prisoner felt they were drowning. Despite this treatment Antonio still did not confess and so after more than two years in prison Antonio was taken before the Inquisition for his auto-da-fé: the public reckoning of his crimes. At this appearance he could expect his verdict and punishment to be announced. Antonio would have had to declare his commitment to live as a true Catholic and if he refused to do so he would be burnt at the stake. The research points to the momentous event having unfolded in a nearby church of Santa Ana. Here Mark sees the record of Antonio's auto-da-fé which reveals that Antonio still did not confess; he abjured – in effect, promising from this point on to live as a good Catholic. His punishment was not to be condemned to death at the stake but to lose half of his assets and serve a six month jail sentence.
"...up to this point he's still been tortured, so it's not good, and this is going to leave a lasting terrible memory for him and it's going to scar him forever. But at least he's not dead."
To discover what happened to Antonio next, Mark's next expert is one who specialises in Jewish genealogy. Inquisition records, it turns out, show that Antonio appealed to his jailers to be moved from Seville to another prison for his safety. It seems that he was successful and was moved to a prison that was close to the Portuguese border. The thinking is that Antonio was trying to get himself to a place from which he could more easily flee from Spain. The expert has also found more documents that tell Mark more about what happened to Antonio's nephew Miguel. In 1729, and nearly thirty years after Antonio's trial, Miguel had been arrested by the Inquisition for a second time. Part of their modus operandi was to demand information about a suspect's family and so they quizzed Miguel as to their whereabouts. Mark reads Miguel's statement:
"[Miguel] had spent 16 or 17 years in the City of Amsterdam in the State of Holland where he was with his paternal uncle Dom Antonio de Mendoza, and his wife Anna Maria and their sons Miguel, Pedro and Daniel and daughter of the same called Maria, all practicing Jews."
"So this is it: Antonio's out. He's got his family back, they're in Amsterdam, they're safe."
Amsterdam was where there was an established Sephardi community and therefore a safe haven for refugees like Antonio and his family.
The expert has one final document for Mark – this was a list of people who became victims of the twisted logic of the Inquisition. It included David Antonio Mendoza's nephew Miguel. Miguel's name tragically appears beneath the heading of "Pessoas Relaxadas Em Carne", meaning those people who had been burnt at the stake. It's not clear as to why Miguel had returned to Spain after his time spent in Amsterdam, but whatever the reason he was put to death. Mark's 9x-great-grandfather David Antonio Mendoza, it appears, remained safely in Amsterdam and from there the family moved to London.
"All my life my grandad's told me stories about his childhood...and the fact that I've been able to do this, and I'm going to be able to tell him everything that I now know...before it's too late...it just...it feels good."
Press Information from IJPR on behalf of the programme makers Wall to Wall Media Ltd
Extra research and record images from TheGenealogist.co.uk
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