In Ch4’s new family history show, My Family Secrets Revealed, historian, Tessa Dunlop, had the pleasure of solving some of Britain’s trickiest family history mysteries through the power of AncestryDNA and traditional family history research. We caught up with Tessa to find out what drew her to working on the show and some of the remarkable stories she can’t wait for the public to see when My Family Secrets Revealed airs on December 3rd.
What is My Family Secrets Revealed about?
I think of it as an emotional version of the Antiques Roadshow, but without the bric-a-brac and valuables. My Family Secrets Revealed is all about relationships! Instead of teapots and vases, people came to us with ancestors’ birth certificates and fragments of family stories and – hey presto! – suddenly you are in the middle of an epic family drama dating back centuries. Tears flowed, families were reunited, people were stunned, and sometimes even disappointed. We were on a hunt for the truth even if the truth sometimes hurts.
What kind of stories were you involved in telling and revealing on My Family Secrets Revealed?
I was personally struck by how many WWI stories there were, having just passed the 100th anniversary of WWI. Several people had medals of ancestors who had fallen in that last year of the war when the great German Spring Offensive pushed further west than had been managed since 1914 – for both sides the losses were horrific. It struck me how emotional Armistice must have been if your son, father, or brother had survived the whole war only to die in the spring of 1918.
On the female side, there were several cases of women who were domestic servants and had illegitimate children. It was a stark reminder of just how vulnerable so many women were to the ways of entitled powerful men. Domestic servants had no protection of any sort, financial or otherwise, so if they got pregnant, it was up to the master of the house if that was the end of their job or accommodation.
What was the experience like of working on the set of My Family Secret Revealed and revealing these meaningful discoveries to people?
I was actually eight weeks pregnant at the time, so feeling pretty emotional (and sick!). I found I reacted more to a particular story if it resonated with something in my own life. This is reflective of how we each approach history – men tend to study military history because they can imagine themselves being there, and similarly, women study women’s history because we can relate to the struggles of the Suffragettes, for instance. With very high infant mortality over 100 years ago, I found it particularly emotional uncovering child loss in people’s stories.
There were some really upbeat moments too – people being told of siblings they didn’t even know existed or discovering they were actually related to a famous person. Love to confirm things are fact, not fantasy!
In terms of being on set, I have a total girl crush on Sian Williams. She was such a great anchor for the show, a consummate professional and has become a wonderful friend.
What was your favourite storyline from the series?
There was a delightful man, Peter, originally from Liverpool. He wanted to find out more about his father who he had lost contact with before he died and had never found out why he was the recipient of a British Empire Medal. The story that unfolded was immense.
Tell us about one story from the series viewers should definitely not miss.
There was a lovely woman called Tiffany who wanted to know if Reginald Kenneth Dwight (aka Elton John, for those of you scratching your heads) is a direct relation. Another Londoner, June, suspected she could be related to Charles Craig, one of Britain’s biggest and best opera singers of the 20th Century. You’ll have to watch the episodes to find out the truth!
Why do you think understanding the lives and stories of our ancestors is important?
Everyone loves a good story! I think often understanding our past helps us make sense of ourselves. So much of our development is established early by our parents and the same for them, so finding out what went on in preceding generations can shed light on personality traits and family affectations. For some people, a sense of belonging is really important…finding a root, be it geographical, national, or genetic, can help us anchor our identity, and therefore ourselves.
What would you say to someone who might be curious about exploring their family history?
Time, persistence, nous, and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. It is all out there – we are so lucky in Britain as the Victorians were great bookkeepers and today we have amazing organisations, archives, and libraries on hand to help. It can feel overwhelming at times, but that’s why companies like Ancestry are invaluable.
My Family Secrets Revealed will air daily at 1.05pm on Ch4, from December 3 – 21st 2018.