A major life event that inpires many to start tracing their family history is having a baby, as was the case for eight-month pregnant English actress Emilia Fox. Knowing she came from a a family of actors, Emilia’s journey starts out on the trail of her paternal grandfather Robin Fox, a successful theatre agent, who died before she was born.
From talking with her father Emilia soon discovers Robin’s mother, her great-grandmother Hilda and great-aunt Lilly, were also actresses and travels to the Victoria & Albert museum Theatre & Performance Archives to find out more. There she discovers a wonderfully rich collection of old programmes and posters featuring the two sisters, which really help bring their lives on stage to life, plus a distant connection to Ellen Terry – the leading Shakespearean actress of her time! From the glamour of the stage to family tragedy, the story takes an emotional turn when she finds that Lilly died in childbirth along with her baby and Hilda also lost a child, sadly too common at a time when three in ten children died before their first birthday – an almost unthinkable statistic today.
A wonderful moment during the episode is when Emilia travels to Cornwall to meet her great aunts Pam and Mary – Hilda’s remaining living children. What fantastic characters they were! They inform Emilia in no uncertain terms about their feelings for their “silly old fool” of a father William Fox, who left Hilda and “ran off with an American tart”. Discovering that ‘Willy’ was extremely wealthy by inheritance Emilia went on to discover the story of rags to riches of Willy’s father, Samson Fox.
Starting out as a child factory worker in Leeds, Samson quickly rose through the ranks from Apprentice Engineer to skilled worker with parts for steam engines. If you have knowledge of an ancestor who worked as an apprentice or with the railways, you might well find them in our recently added Occupations records. Samson went on to set up the Leeds Forge Company, who were leading metalwork innovators in designing parts for the rail and shipping industries.
After initial success with his corregated boiler flue invention, Samson was to have less joy with later inventions, and his reputation fell in to disrepute when his belief in his invention of water-gas fell short of shareholder expectations and ended in scandal. However as a wealthy man Samson’s love of the cultural arts meant his philandrophy played a major part in the construction of the Royal College of Music in South Kensington, bringing Emilia’s journey back round full circle to the performing arts!
All in all I thought it was a wonderful episode, for both the intriguing insight to Victorian Britain and Emilia’s endearing personality. Perhaps you have links to a glamourous acting dynasty in your family history, or ancestors who played a pivotal role in engineering or inventions in general? We would love to hear your stories!
Kelly Godfrey is Senior Manager, Digital Marketing for Ancestry.co.uk. Based in Ancestry's London office in Hammersmith, Kelly regularly tweets and posts on Ancestry's Facebook page as well as here on the blog.