Family fame

Laura Trevelyan Laura Trevelyan says her job as a journalist is not unlike chronicling history

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As fate would have it, Laura Trevelyan's job took her to Northern Ireland. The direct descendant of Sir Charles Trevelyan hadn't considered how her family history might be a curiosity to people in Ireland. It turned out to be a source of great amusement to the likes of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Sir Charles is credited with reforming the British civil service, requiring people to sit exams for entrance instead of being handed jobs because of their birth.

But he's better known for his role in the Irish potato famine. As the English official in charge of administering famine relief, he's reviled in Ireland for his failure to intervene in the crisis and unfavourably immortalised in folk ballads such as The Fields of Athenry and Celtic football songs.

Laura - his great-great-great granddaughter - was unaware of his historical importance until she covered the peace process in the 1990s. 'People would be appalled or they would show me around like I was a piece of living history,' the former Northern Ireland reporter recalls.

A Very British Family dust jacket Laura Trevelyan's family inspired her to write a book

The journalist discovered that she didn't know enough about her own family to rebuff people's assumptions or agree with their assessment.

The unusual circumstances led her to write a book in 2006 called A Very British Family, in which she researches her family's past and the influence they had on Great Britain.

For her father, the past cast a longer shadow in his life. He was named after his grandfather Sir George Macauley (G M Trevelyan), who was a distinguished early 20th-century historian and a master at Trinity College, Cambridge.

He was also a bestselling author with numerous titles to his credit, including the influential History of England published in 1926.

Laura says he was a 'wonderful storyteller' whose stories jump off the page. She believes to have inherited this gift to some extent. The presenter of World News America says there is a link between her career in journalism and her family's fame as chroniclers of history.

She quotes Washington Post president Philip Graham, widely credited with coining the phrase that 'journalism is the first rough draft of history'.

But it's not the only legacy she's inherited. Many of her family members believed a long walk could cure all manner of ills. Apart from his illustrious career, G M Trevelyan donated much of the land in the Langdale Valley to the National Trust as one of its first donors.

'To me, that's hugely important,' the presenter says, 'because I love the Lake District and we're a really outdoors family.'

What's in a name? Other famous family members…

Katy Wright: Charles Babbage, inventor of the early computer

Katy Wright's first job was as a community journalist on the computer buses. One of Greg Dyke's bright ideas, the buses at local radio stations were meant to teach people basic computer skills.

Katy Wright Katy Wright did not inherit the downturned mouth

The job had more than a touch of irony about it. Her ancestor Charles Babbage is credited with inventing a mechanical computer that later became more sophisticated.

'It was interesting that my ancestor invented the first computer and there I was teaching people how to use them,' the Radio York producer says.

But Katy willingly admits that she has not inherited any of Babbage's IT skills, which she believes wouldn't have gone amiss. In fact, there isn't even a single engineer on the Babbage side of the family.

The resemblance to the inventor appears to be entirely physical - with Katy's grandfather, mother and sister all getting his distinctive downturned mouth. 'Nobody has ever been able to trace exactly how we are related, but our family come from the same part of Devon that Charles Babbage did. The family name is Babbage and there's this uncanny facial resemblance.

'Thankfully, I seem to have got away without it. He was apparently quite a miserable old sod, so I'm not fussed about not getting the downturned mouth,' she laughs.

Emily Knight: William the Conqueror

The only person who isn't impressed with Emily Knight's ancient link to William the Conqueror is her father, who can't trace his past that far back. 'He pointed out that you have something like a thousand million great grandparents at that level,' she says.

Emily Knight Emily Knight is more interested in recent relatives

The production coordinator studied history at university and has an interest in her family's past, but it's her uncle that uncovered the lineage after doing a bit of research through a website. He'd set out to trace his 32 great-great-great grandparents.

The line goes directly through the Boydell family, who were aristocratic and well documented. 'You can trace the Boydell family right the way through history and they are eventually related to William the Conqueror, so he didn't have to do that much digging,' says Emily.

The history of William the Conqueror is certainly dramatic - he was an illegitimate child born to the Duke of Normandy and his mistress, who most likely came from a family of lowly tanners.

But it's the more recent past which fascinates Emily - there have been shotgun weddings and disownments.

'I find these family members more interesting because there are more documents about them than there is about William the Conqueror. You can't really claim to have anything in common with him.'

Emily's family can claim to possess one of the first marriage certificates to be issued in England. One of her ancestors was married on 16 July 1837 in Wigan. Neither the bride nor the groom could write, so they signed their names with an 'X'.

Only two weeks earlier, on July 1, the country introduced the registration of births, marriages and deaths that we still use to this day in almost the exact form.

Sam Ryall: Roger de Courcil, Norman gentry

Cardiff researcher Sam Ryall has his uncle to thank for tracing the family back about ten generations. Once an employee of the intelligence service during the Second World War, Sam's uncle had a knack for information gathering and did most of the family research before the internet.

Not much is known about de Courcil, but he was alive around the time of William the Conqueror and settled in Britain during or after the Battle of Hastings.

Details about the family's ancestry are now languishing at the bottom of an old storage box, entrusted to him. 'I remember he gave me reams and reams of dot matrix paper. He had compiled the family tree using quite a basic computer programme.'

The researcher is proud of his past. 'One tiny atom of me might be Norman. I rather like that,' he says.

Mark Smith: Sir Henry Raeburn, painter

A programme manager for the Olympics, Mark Smith talks about his kinsman while holding postcards of some of his most famous paintings, two of which became stamps. His middle name is also 'Raeburn', a name which he shares with the painter.

Skating Minister by Henry Raeburn The Skating Minister became a Post Office stamp

The accomplished portrait artist was born in Stockbridge and lost both his parents as a boy. It's assumed he was brought up by his much older brother and later apprenticed to a jeweller. This early training probably helped to develop his formidable artistic skills.

By the 1790s Raeburn had established himself as a leading painter in Edinburgh. Arguably his most famous work - and there is a recent dispute about its provenance - is that of the Reverend Robert Walker ice skating on Duddingston loch, known as The Skating Minister.

It's also a favourite of Mark's. 'I like the combination of the sea and the sky and also the Turner-esque quality of it.' He also enjoys Raeburn's imposing self-portrait, which along with The Skating Minister became a Post Office stamp.

The programme manager has not uncovered a hidden talent for drawing or painting, but he does explain that his father is good at carpentry and once made a stained-glass window. 'It's not what you would consider fine art,' he admits with a rueful smile.

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