Posted by on 13 October 2011 in General, Record Collections

Tracey Emin, the 48-year-old British artist has always courted controversy and, in her own words, was anxious that she might come from “the most loving, simple, ordinary, lovely suburban family that anyone could ever want to come from”. If we’re honest this was always going to be unlikely.

Already armed with a good knowledge of her paternal ancestry – which features a Sudanese grandfather with first-hand experience of slavery under the Ottoman empire – she turned to the East End of London and her maternal line.

A photograph of her great-grandfather, Harry (Henry) Hodgkins, was the starting point of her search. The images and sentiment of her mother suggested he was a lovely man of a quiet disposition who was born in Bow in 1877.

Tracy searched for Henry in the 1881 census on but struggled to find him.  However, by adjusting the search to include a wildcard she found him listed as Henry Hotchkins, highlighting the need to allow for alternative spellings in your searches. Find out more about wildcards.

We learned that Henry’s mother died and his father was imprisoned. Things got no better either, in 1891 Henry became an inmate in a reformatory school after having been arrested for stealing brass taps.

This sad revelation is fairly reflective of East End Victorian London. The area was notorious for child crime and there was no differentiation between the child and adult penal system until the late 1840s.

A decent number of lads in similar situations eventually ended up migrating to Canada to satisfy the desire to settle potentially rich farmlands there. Although given this chance, Henry was dissuaded by friends and returned to London.

By 1894 he was living in East Ham. He was arrested again and sentenced to three months hard labour in Chelmsford Prison. This spell included the infamous treadmill and isolation – hardships that broke many prisoners.

The final turn in Tracey’s story was no less dramatic but certainly much happier in nature. Her 2x great-grandfather wasn’t originally from London as previously though. He had, to her surprise, travelled from Warwickshire.

This part of the family were travellers who moved across the county selling their wares. They also had significant stature within the gypsy community, marrying into some of the most notable Romany families.

This twist and conclusion of her story resonated with Tracey and her own craft. It was clear that she felt a great affinity with both these ancestors and the countryside that they would have been so familiar with. It’s a bittersweet story that somehow all comes together to make sense.