Who do you think you are?
Esther Rantzen

Esther Rantzen - how we did it

Having grown up in Hampstead like her mother and grandmother before her, Esther had always thought of herself as part of a respectable, privileged north London family. But she also felt that there were many gaps in her understanding of her family's background.

Throughout her life Esther has been asked about the origins of her unusual surname. Due to her Jewish heritage she assumed that at some point her ancestors would have been asylum seekers, but didn't know when or from what they had fled.

Esther had also grown up surrounded by several unconfirmed family rumours. One of them involved a mysterious murderer. She had also heard that there was a black sheep in the family, and that someone had absconded to America and become a bigamist. Esther was very keen to fill in as many gaps as she could.

Great-grandfather - Montague Richard Leverson

We started our investigation by hunting for the black sheep of the family. Esther had heard that someone on her maternal grandfather Louis Leverson's side had been an embarrassment to the family. Her cousin, David Green, shared Louis Leverson as a grandfather and had developed a keen interest in family history. Esther paid David a visit to find out what he knew.

Step 1 - Family members

Family members are often the best source of initial details about ancestors' lives. Some relatives spend more time with older generations than others, and everyone remembers the same events differently. Seemingly small pieces of information gathered from various people can provide vital clues about the past. This was the case with David.

David and Esther's grandmother, Millie Leverson, had told David that her father-in-law and Esther's great-grandfather, Montague Richard Leverson, was a solicitor in the City of London. David told us that Montague was alleged to have lost some of his clients' money and had then fled to America when his son, Louis P Leverson, was a child. The family had never spoken about him again.

Bearded Montague Leverson
Bearded Montague Leverson

Esther suspected that this must be the black sheep, but wasn’t sure whether the loss of Montague's clients' money was intentional or accidental. She was keen to discover some hard evidence one way or the other.

Step 2 - Museums

We didn't have many details about Montague's alleged crime, but if the situation had been serious enough to cause him to flee the country, there was a good chance that some record of Montague may have survived. So we approached the Museum of the City of London Police to see whether they could help (see Related Links). Esther set off to meet the curator of the museum, Roger Appleby.

Roger had checked his museum's police records but unfortunately found no official account of Montague's alleged crime. He explained that this meant either that the allegations were false, or that Montague's file may have been one of the files that were destroyed during the Blitz in the Second World War.

Step 3 - Newspapers

After some additional searching, however, Roger had come across Montague in a copy of The Times issued on 27 March 1867.

Unless a criminal ancestor's activities are known in detail (including specific dates and locations), one likely source of information can be a newspaper report of the incident, or an appeal for information about a particular character or event.

A good starting point is to search the online archives of national newspapers, such as The Times, which offers a searchable online archive of their publications between 1785 and 1985. Online search facilities like this do allow less specific date and location searches. You can also look at newspapers stored in the archives at British Library Newspapers in Colindale, which holds a huge collection of original, microfilmed and digitally copied British and overseas newspapers (see Related Links). For newspaper searches that are not conducted online, you will need an exact date and location in order to find the relevant paper.

Information from a national paper can enable a subsequent search of regional and local papers, which often follow stories more closely, particularly less high-profile incidents and those occurring outside London. Local papers are held at local libraries and at Colindale.

The small notice that Roger showed Esther in The Times stated that a £100 reward had been issued for ‘Montague Leverson, solicitor… of Jewish persuasion'. It said that Esther’s great-grandfather had been charged with fraud but had absconded, and was being sought by the City of London Police!

Roger explained that the reward money was likely to represent 2-10 per cent of the total amount 'stolen'. Based on typical fraud cases of the 1860s, this meant that Montague was accused of stealing the equivalent of a quarter of a million pounds in today's money.

We were then led to another notice in The Times that had appeared nine months later, in December 1867. It was still appealing for information about Montague's whereabouts. This time the appeal traced his last known movements as far as Paris. But there was no further detail about what happened to him next. All we could see for certain was that Montague had been charged with fraud, and had absconded.

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Esther finds out about her great-grandfather's flight from the law in the 1860s

We discovered that if a person had money, committing a crime and fleeing the country was not very difficult in the 1860s. Investigative police work had only been taking place for 20 years, and it was not yet compulsory to carry a passport. So a fugitive from the law could easily slip in and out of the country.

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