Liz Carr

Liz Carr

"There is a rumour of an altercation in the family...some kind of, I don't know, assault. Maybe worse."

Nick Thorne, Writer at TheGenealogist

Nick Thorne

Writer at TheGenealogist

Silent Witness actor Liz Carr is best known for her role in the crime drama as the forensic scientist Clarissa Mullery. In real life Liz now lives in London with her wife Jo, but she grew up on The Wirral as one of two children. She is unable to talk to her father about his family as she has lost him fairly recently.

Peter Carr, Liz Carr's father - 1967
Peter Carr, Liz Carr's father - 1967

A very strong man and a very smart man. There was just a presence about him…he was quite intimidating but massively respected.

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Liz Carr with her mother, Pat Carr
Liz Carr with her mother, Pat Carr

Liz has a close relationship with her mum, Pat, with whom she spent a lot of time as a child.

I became a disabled person at the age of seven with a really rare condition…I wasn’t able to go to school on and off throughout my childhood…so I spent a lot of time with Mum.

The only thing that Liz knows about her paternal side of the family is that they had come from Ireland. On her maternal line Liz knows that her mother’s father died when her mum was just seven or eight. This means that she has no sense of who her grandfather was. Liz feels that she has “a bit of the wanderlust” and so she is hoping to find out if there were adventurers amongst her ancestors. And as Liz is an activist she wonders if any of her forebears had the same passion to fight injustice. The Who Do You Think You Are? TV series is, therefore, an ideal way for Liz to explore her past family.

I have heard a rumour in the family that there was maybe an assault or an altercation…And I don’t know that this is a good reaction, but I went: ‘That’s exciting!’

Jo Carr and Margaret Ryan - Liz Carr's paternal grandfather and grandmother, 1926
Jo Carr and Margaret Ryan - Liz Carr's paternal grandfather and grandmother, 1926

Liz’s episode of the popular BBC genealogical programme sees her head first to the Wirral to visit her mum Pat. They begin by talking about Liz’s dad’s side. Pat knows some of the information that Liz wanted to find out, such as that Liz’s paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Margaret Ryan, and that the Ryan family came from Dromintee in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. But on her own side, Pat knows scarcely anything including little about her own father, John Hughes, who had died before Pat had turned eight.

John Joseph Hughes (Liz Carr's maternal grandfather), with Pat Carr nee Hughes (Liz Carr's mother) - 1947
John Joseph Hughes (Liz Carr's maternal grandfather), with Pat Carr nee Hughes (Liz Carr's mother) - 1947

Pat does know that her dad had been adopted and that by the time that he had reached the age of 11 in 1911 that he was living with Margaret and Robert Stokes. This information is provided by a copy of the 1911 census that is shown on the screen and which we are also able to find by searching on TheGenealogist. Liz is fascinated by the fact that as with her mother, her grandfather had also lost parents when he was just a young child. Liz is very keen to discover more about him.

1911 census on TheGenealogist reveals that John Hughes Jr adopted by Margaret Stokes
1911 census on TheGenealogist reveals that John Hughes Jr adopted by Margaret Stokes

Travelling, with the TV cameras, Liz then goes to visit Birkenhead and meets up with historian Julie-Marie Strange to find out how her grandfather came to be adopted. On another census, this time for 1901, she finds her grandfather in the household of his birth-parents in that year. They are John Hughes Sr., who is listed as a blacksmith’s labourer, and his wife Alice. The family, along with John Jr’s sister Emily, were at this time living in a rented room in a boarding house that was run by a Margaret Stokes the woman that would eventually adopt Liz’s grandfather.

The Stokes family and the Hughes living at the same address in 1901 Birkenhead census on TheGenealogist
The Stokes family and the Hughes living at the same address in 1901 Birkenhead census on TheGenealogist

Wanting to fill in the years between 1901 and 1911 Liz is shown another document. By 1907, it transpired, Liz’s great grandfather John Hughes Sr. was now to be found recorded in the creed register of a workhouse. This strongly suggests that he was unemployed or unwell and unable to earn a living. The next record that Liz is shown reveals that, at the young age of 44, he died in the workhouse of tuberculosis and “exhaustion.” Just a few years later, in 1910, Liz’s great grandmother Alice Hughes died of inoperable cancer. This sad state of affairs left behind two orphaned children John Jr. and his older sister Emily. The programme researchers believe that it is likely that Emily would have gone to work as a domestic servant. Meanwhile, John Jr. was taken in by Margaret Stokes, the woman with whom his family had been found to be boarding with in the 1901 census. Liz ponders on how her grandfather’s life unfolded after this. Given his age mid-teens when the First World War broke out in 1914, she realises that he probably went into the military to serve his country.

Liz searches online and is able to discover that her grandfather John Hughes (Jr.) had joined the Royal Navy during World War One. She is aware that he came through the war, but needs help deciphering his military record so she then meets up with naval historian Dr Simon Wills. The record and also a photo of her grandfather in his naval uniform, points to him serving on a ship called H.M.S. Kildonan Castle. In the War, this ship was part of the Royal Navy’s Northern Patrol that tried to cut off German ports and to prevent vital supplies like ammunition and food from getting through to the enemy. The Germans began to use U-boats to attack British ships and the Kildonan Castle with Liz’s grandfather on board was attacked by one of these submarines The torpedo, however, missed its mark and they survived.

Could have been the end of our line of the family there!

Launch of the Kildonan Castle from The Illustrated London News Sept 1899 on TheGenealogist
Launch of the Kildonan Castle from The Illustrated London News Sept 1899 on TheGenealogist

Liz’s grandfather served throughout the war in the Royal Navy, but by 1922, while he was still working at sea, he was now employed in the Merchant Navy, as a fireman and trimmer. This meant that he was a stoker in the engine room of a merchant ship, shovelling coal into the ship’s boilers to power the engines. The record of her grandfather’s employment describes his two tattoos: Buffalo Bill Heart and Cross on one arm, and the Sailor’s Grave on the other. Liz is delighted with this detail and also that the records of the ships on which her grandfather worked reveal that he travelled the world to ports like Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Colombo, Suez, New York and more. John Hughes sailed the high seas in the Merchant Navy until April 1927, when he disembarked at Victoria Docks. Ten days later he married Liz’s grandmother Annie.

There you have a man who travelled the world…I think he probably had itchy feet…so…I feel an absolute connection to my granddad and I didn’t realise that was there.

Liz’s paternal line

It is to Northern Ireland that Liz and the cameras travel next in order to explore her father’s side of the family. Liz visits County Armagh and the village of Dromintee where the Ryans on her grandmother’s line lived.

There is a rumour of an altercation in the family…some kind of, I don’t know, assault. Maybe worse.

Meeting historian Dr Heather Laird at Killeavy Castle, a large house in the area, she is shown a document from 1864 in which a Bernard, or Barney, Ryan is listed. Liz is told that he would have been her great-great-great grandfather, and that in 1864 he was recorded as leasing a home and four acres of land from a landlord called John Foxall. Killeavy Castle, where they are sitting, had been Foxall’s house at the time. Another local landlord was named Meredith Chambre and in common with many wealthy landlords in Ireland, he was of English descent. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the British Crown had confiscated farmland and given it to Protestant settlers from England and Scotland and both landlords were descended from one of these settlers. Meanwhile, the majority of the native Catholic population were tenants of the Protestant landlords and they lived in wretched conditions as detailed in the programme by a contemporary newspaper report.

Bernard Ryan in the Griffith's Valuation of Ireland 1864 from TheGenealogist's records
Bernard Ryan in the Griffith's Valuation of Ireland 1864 from TheGenealogist's records
Valuation of Tenements from the Griffith's Valuation of Ireland 1864 on TheGenealogist
Valuation of Tenements from the Griffith's Valuation of Ireland 1864 on TheGenealogist

What is intriguing is that Liz’s 3x great grandfather, Barney Ryan, had at first been farming a holding on Meredith Chambre’s estate before then moving to rent different land from Foxall. This was a very unusual state of affairs as it was rare for a small tenant farmer to move from landlord to landlord at this time. The programme follows Liz and Heather as they head to the Chambre estate and visit the remains of Meredith Chambre’s once impressive house. This would have been where Barney Ryan would have come about twice yearly to pay his rent. Meredith Chambre was not only a landlord but was also a magistrate which was not unusual at the time as being a landlord was a basis for attaining such a position. What this did was to make many tenant farmers believe that the law favoured the landlords.

We can see Meredith Chambre’s family were listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry 1914 part1 by searching TheGenealogist’s Peerage, Gentry & Royalty records. A search of TheGenealogist’s landowner records also finds Mr Chambre was a substantial property owner in the Landowners in Ireland 1876 records where he held over 1280 acres of land in Newry.

Chambre of Hawthorn Hill family were listed in Burke's Landed Gentry 1914 pt1 found in TheGenealogist's records
Chambre of Hawthorn Hill family were listed in Burke's Landed Gentry 1914 pt1 found in TheGenealogist's records
Chambre in The Landowners in Ireland 1876 records on TheGenealogist
Chambre in The Landowners in Ireland 1876 records on TheGenealogist

At the time that Barney Ryan was living on the Chambre estate, Ireland was still emerging from the 1845-49 disaster known as the Great Famine. A million people had died after a failure in the potato crop and a further million had fled the country. Some of the less scrupable landlords saw the Famine as an opportunity for them to rid themselves of tenants who were failing to pay rent. Landowners engaged in a campaign of mass evictions sometimes even burning houses. Liz reads a newspaper account which tells of poor living conditions for tenants on Chambre’s estate in 1852:

‘With the people in such a condition, the payment of rent must be the last consideration. And they who extract it leaving them with or sometimes without the barest subsistence must appear tyrants.’ That’s a strong word, a tyrant.

Heather explains that various poor tenant farmers formed a number of societies to argue for their interests at this time. It was then quite common for such groups to write threatening letters to the landlords. Meredith Chambre received such a letter in December 1851, and this was at the time that Liz’s 3x great grandfather was a tenant on the estate. Liz reads the letter:

‘To all this concerns and beware of General Avenger. I am not fools, I am giving you timely warning all tyrants and oppressors of the poor…And there is Mr Chambre, a beggarman; he had better keep close, for if he does not, he may have his coffin ready…’ Signed: ‘I am General Vengeance.’ The language is, is so extreme… This isn’t a joke, this is serious business, isn’t it?!

Liz is keen to now find out if her 3x great grandfather Barney Ryan was somehow involved in issuing these threats. To find out more she meets up with Dr Kyle Hughes to discover if the threatening letter had any effect on Meredith Chambre. Contemporary press reports, referred to in the TV programme, reveal that in January 1852, somebody tried to kill him. It was not long after the letter had been sent to Chambre that he was returning from sitting as a magistrate at the Petty Sessions when a person lying in wait for him on the road fired a blunderbuss at his carriage. One shot struck Chambre’s hat and another caught his head. Dr Hughes assumes that from this attack Chambre had not paid any heed to the threats in the letter and had not lowered his rents. Barny Ryan’s landlord wasn’t killed in the ambush, but he was badly injured.

Liz learns next that in the course of the police investigation the authorities found a “ribbon ticket” and “several ribbon papers”. This refers to papers and perhaps passwords of a group called ‘the Ribbon Society’, whose members were known as Ribbonmen. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Ribbon Society was a secret Irish Catholic movement. The members aimed to pressure their landlords into treating rural tenants fairly by abiding by an unwritten code. A landlord, the likes of Chambre, who was felt by the Ribbonmen to be treating his tenants unfairly, was seen as having violated the code. On learning about these people Liz characterises the Ribbon Society as:

Like a mix of like a union in a way, and vigilantes.

Liz then wants to know if her ancestor had been a member. Unfortunately, as it was a secret society, there are no lists of the membership and so it is not possible to say for certain. However, Barney Ryan’s name did appear on a police list of suspects and witnesses and he was certainly arrested as a suspect.

How exciting! I love crime, of course.

Barney’s deposition gives his alibi as being at Meredith Chambre’s house at the time of the shooting, having been waiting there almost all day to pay his rent. He told the authorities that when he returned to his own home that he met a number of other men including one called Francis Berry. This young man, Barney Ryan said, could support his alibi. On the strength of this Liz doubts that her 3x times great grandfather could have been there at the actual ambush, however she does suspect that he was one of the Ribbonmen. She next heads to the city of Armagh, as this had been where the court proceedings surrounding the Chambre shooting had taken place. In Armagh she meets historian Dr Eamonn Gardiner at Armagh Gaol.

Liz finds out that the magistrates accept that there was a case to be heard against Barney Ryan’s 22 year old associate, Francis Berry. Similar to Barney Ryan, Berry is also a smallholder on Chambre’s land. The evidence presented against Berry consisted of a piece of old newspaper in which Berry’s sister had wrapped some cold beef that she brought to him as sustenance. The paper was a match for some wadding used in the shotgun and which had been discovered at the scene from where the shots had been fired at Chambre.

Wow. I mean to be fair, we’ve got people on Silent Witness for less…

Francis Berry was charged with having conspired with others to murder Meredith Chambre. Berry made a confession of guilt and in his statement he stated that he acted as a scout for assassins. He indicated that they were not local men from the Dromintee area but had been brought in from elsewhere. The accused said that he had run away once they heard Chambre’s car approaching. He explained that he was already two fields away when he heard the shots. Because of this he didn’t know whether Chambre had been killed or not. Liz reads some more from Francis Berry’s statement:

‘I went down the road to a neighbouring house, Barney Ryan’s …’ This is my great-great-great granddad’s house!

Francis Berry’s account claimed that Barney Ryan returned home from having been at Chambre’s house, where he’d been waiting to settle his rent, bringing with him the news that Chambre had been hit. Francis Berry went on to state that one of Chambre’s employees had accused Barney, saying that “it was you and your party that done this.”

There’s a whole paragraph here in Berry’s statement about Barney Ryan! More than just a name on a list to be questioned now. He’s here. He’s involved in this. It looks that way…This is kind of big stuff now. This is him right at the centre here!

Berry’s account of the affair continues: “Ryan told every man to be off out and for every man to go to his own house” indicating that Barney Ryan had taken control of the situation.

In the end only Francis Berry was convicted of conspiracy to murder despite, the suspicion of a wider number of conspirtors. His unfortunate fate was to receive the death sentence and that was carried out in front of Armagh Gaol.

I’m quite rarely speechless but I’m almost speechless. It’s pretty serious business this, isn’t it?

Still hoping that she might find more evidence that her 3x great grandfather had partaken in the conspiracy, Liz meets local historian Seamus Murphy in Killeavy. He has found that a collector of folklore had gathered some oral history from a local woman who recounted the story as it was known amongst the community of tenant farmers. Liz reads from a transcript:

‘It was Barney Ryan was in it and indeed he was at the plotting.’

The account tells how before the attempt on Meredith Chambre’s life, Barney Ryan had been seen hiding in a potato field by Chambre. Chambre had noticed that Barney had a good crop and so he raised Barney’s rent as a result of having seen the potential harvest that Barney may expect. Because Barney knew that he would be a suspect in any attack on Chambre, as he would be expected to have some resentment against his landlord, Barney made sure that he didn’t get his hands dirty and wasn’t at the shooting waiting instead at his landlord’s house to pay his rent. Notwithstanding this, the locals knew that Barney Ryan had really been behind the organisation of the attack.

The mystery as to why Barney Ryan was found to have moved from Chambre’s estate to farm as a tenant of another landowner, was then revealed in the programme. After Francis Berry was hanged, Chambre then evicted any of his tenants who had attended Berry’s funeral. Many of them, like Barney Ryan, were now ejected from their farms and were lucky to move to the neighbouring Foxall property. To the local people, Barney would have been seen as the leader of a resistance movement rather than as a criminal that had attempted to murder his landlord and this resonates with Liz Carr.

As someone’s who’s a campaigner and hates injustice, the fact of standing up for yourself…saying: ‘This isn’t okay’…I never expected that that would be in my lineage.

I am not at all going, ‘yeah absolutely, whatever it takes!’ But I understand why people did what they did. And it doesn’t make me any less proud to be his great-great-great granddaughter.

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