GRIFF RHYS JONES was brought up believing his maternal great grandparents Daniel and Sarah Price died together in a railway accident.
But while in Wales researching his family tree the TV presenter found that Daniel was a drunk who died in a street brawl in Llanelli, and Sarah was an unfit mother who put three of her four children in the workhouse.
Griff, who said he felt like a “cross between Sherlock Holmes and the Caped Crusader” on his quest, visited Cardiff, Llanelli and Carmarthen in a bid to clarify his roots for his Welsh mother Gwyneth Jones as part of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?
The broadcaster, now 53, embarked on what he has called an “adventure worthy of a Sherlock Holmes casebook” because his mother, a former nurse, wanted to know more about her mother, Louisa’s, heritage.
Griff eventually found the truth was far more colourful than his mother had been led to believe.
“I’ve not got much family history to go on,” he said.
“And I couldn’t believe at the start of the show that I’d find anything very interesting.
“My mother used to dump me on my relatives for holidays and they were so utterly boring it was hard to imagine I’d come from a fascinating background or have interesting ancestors.”
When Griff was growing up, first in Cardiff and then in Sussex, his maternal grandmother lived with his family. He thought her parents died together, leaving the orphaned Louisa to be brought up by other family members.
“It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realised that the people who I was calling my grandparents weren’t really my grandparents, but the Landons, who took Louisa in. All we ever knew was the story about a train crash, as my grannie never talked about the past.
“But I found out there wasn’t a train crash after all. It was something far deeper than that.”
Griff traced his great grandparents to Liverpool, where Daniel worked as a railway driver. Visiting their house in Vineyard Street, he learned that Daniel’s position afforded him some gravitas locally, and the family would have been classed as upper working class.
“So how did they both die together in a rail crash?” he wondered.
“Surely there had to be more to it than this?” he asked himself.
“I met a railway historian in Liverpool and he told me accidents were very common on the line in those days.
“But why would they have died together?
“I assumed, before I started digging further, that perhaps they were on a trip together.
“I looked at documents detailing really big train accidents at the time, but couldn’t find anything about them.
“Then I found out they’d moved house, which was really telling.”
In the census of 1892, Daniel and Sarah, along with their four young children, are listed as living in a less affluent area, houses which weren’t subsidised by the railway line, which led Griff to assume his great grandfather had lost his job.
Daniel’s death certificate, however, proved for certain that his relatives had fallen on hard times. He died in Llanelli in 1897, aged just 38, killed in a drunken street fight by one John Thomas.
Although newspaper reports of the time said Daniel was “brutally maltreated” in the brawl, it took a jury in Carmarthen just seven minutes to find the accused guilty of manslaughter, and not murder.
“It seems astounding that, because of the way he was beaten, Thomas only got away with manslaughter,” said Griff. “But then, when you come to think about it, perhaps he really was an upstanding man.
“I feel like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and the Caped Crusader, finding out all these things about my family none of us ever knew.
“The coroner’s report showed Daniel was a really hard drinker. But what happened to Sarah and her kids after he was killed?”
In Carmarthen Library he is shown a newspaper cutting which states that in 1897, she asks for “relief”, state benefit to keep her out of the workhouse.
“But where were her family?” asked the entertainer.
“It was really sad to hear that she had nobody and she was obviously on her way down.
“Anyway, she eventually loses her children to the workhouses and truant schools, heartbreaking stuff really.
“My grannie was the only one who ended up with a family.”
By the end of his adventure, Griff admits to being left “feeling pretty miserable” about his discoveries, especially since he had to share his news with his mother, exposing the family’s long-held secret.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” says Griff.
“And things may have stayed as they were, us thinking my grandmother’s parents had died together in a railway crash, if I hadn’t found that death certificate in Llanelli.
“It changed everything.”
Who Do You Think You Are? with Griff Rhys Jones is on BBC One on Thursday, September 20.
Page 2 - How Welsh is Rhys Jones?