An intrepid Mirror reporter has gone back through his family tree and discovered heroes, tragedy and his great-great-great grandfather’s violent criminal act
After the death of my grandfather I decided to discover more about my history – and uncovered a dark family secret.
I didn’t know much about the Irish side of my family, so got a surprise when I discovered a journey from poverty and violence to faith and bravery.
Over a quarter of Brits claim that TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? have inspired them to start discovering their family history, so with help from the experts at Ancestry I delved deep into the darkest depths of my family tree.
What they found were three generations of my ancestors with exactly the same name, Bartholomew O’Brien, but each had very distinct lives.
The name journeyed from prison rolls to commemorative plaques – starting with my great-great-great grandfather who committed a scandalous crime involving a dog, beer and a choking.
Way back in 1864, Bartholomew approached a boat captain near the docks of the River Thames and tried to sell him a dog in exchange for a pint of beer.
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After going to a nearby pub for a pint of beer and gin, my great-great-great grandfather Bart started choking the boat captain while another man pickpocketed him and ran off.
Speaking at the Old Bailey trial, victim Richard Stour said: “I was sitting alongside the table, and O’Brien was sitting near the two coal heavers, and when I got up to go aboard my ship he caught hold of me and choked me.
“I had paid for the gin and beer—I took the money out of my waistcoat-pocket—I had not said a word about having money—one of the others took the money out of my pocket, and they cut away and ran out of one door, and one out of the other.
“It was done in an instant—I hung by O’Brien, till I gave him in charge—I could not swear to the other two.”
Bartholomew, who had a wife and two daughters under the age of five at the time, was arrested for “Violent Theft” and imprisoned for 18 months.
His motive for the theft and violence was not explained, but his life seemed haunted by poverty; working as a labourer and dock porter to support eight children before spending some of his final days in a London workhouse.
This painted a pretty grim picture of my family, but thankfully there were better things to come.
My great-great-grandfather, who was also called Bartholomew O’Brien, was no doubt looking to escape his father’s poverty and criminal past.
Born in 1868, he successfully climbed the ladder of the London tea-business, starting out as a liftman (elevator operator) before transitioning to a tea warehouseman.
Then he became a tea sampler, with the role of tasting and inspecting the quality of teas on behalf of his company.
This career enabled him to afford a better life for his family, with his children employed as school teachers, clerks, and typists, including my great-grandmother Margaret Mary O’Brien.
But there was another mystery lying in the 1911 English Census, which revealed that my great-great grandmother had 10 children – but only nine were still alive at the time.
This led to the discovery of the heroic brother of my great-grandmother, making him my great-granduncle, who died on the battlefield.
Bartholomew O’Brien (yes there is yet another one), eagerly joined the London Regiment just days after Great Britain started recruitment for the First World War in August 1914.
At the time, Bartholomew was 23 years old and newly married, so it was a courageous decision to head off to battle.
Working as a private, rifleman, and signaler (providing signal communications for the troops), he served in the 21st and 23rd Battalions which took him to France, Greece, and the Middle East, where his battalion was stationed in Palestine.
Tragically, Bart died from wounds wounds in Egypt just nine months before the end of the War.
With access the British Army Service Records, I discovered that he had three rosaries and three crucifixes among his possessions when he died.
The British Army prepared a Plaque and Scroll to deliver to Bartholomew’s young widow—a commemoration of Bartholomew’s service and death for his country.
What I initially feared most was having a boring past, so what amazed me was just how diverse, colourful and intriguing my family tree is.
Research from Ancestry reveals that 67% of Brits believe family stories are an important way of finding out how our ancestors once lived, with a further 59% wanting to discover more family history stories.
“Understanding who our ancestors were and the way they once lived can allow us to feel connected to our family’s legacy and root us in a deeper, meaningful understanding of where we all come from,” says Simon Pearce, family history expert and spokesperson for Ancestry. ‘
“Watching a celebrity’s family history journey on shows like Who Do You Think You Are? can inspire us to discover the stories in our own family trees – and there’s no better time to start than during Family History Month.”
For more information on starting your family history research, visit ancestry.co.uk where you can also sign up to a 14-day free trial.
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