Who do you think you are?
Bill Oddie

Bill Oddie

"Dark satanic mills"

The family roots of Bill Oddie - recorded as William Edgar Oddie on his birth certificate of 1941 - shed an interesting new light on an intriguing era in working class history. For Bill's 19th-century ancestors worked and weaved in the 'dark satanic mills' of Rochdale, toiling in harsh conditions in an environment that seems as distant to us now as the moon.

Oddie grew up in Birmingham, the only surviving child of Lilian - said to be mentally ill - and Harry, his distant father. He was brought up by his grandmother, Emily. His mother's illness cast a shadow over the family, as did the deaths of the two previous children of the family. One of them was stillborn, the other choked to death within months of being born.

Whether these tragedies were a factor in triggering his mother's illness is a subject of debate, though surviving members of Oddie's family, such as his Aunt Margery, cast doubt on Lilian's diagnosis. Marjorie remembers one doctor saying Lilian should never have been committed to a mental institution in the first place.


Bill questioned several people in the hunt to find the truth about his mother's illness - was she really schizophrenic, or a manic depressive? - but the information he received was inconclusive. Bill remembers how he visited her in hospital as a young boy, and how she didn't recognise him at all. He now thinks this visit might have been used by doctors as a way of testing her sanity, and that her memory loss might have led her to being institutionalised for ten years.

That memory loss, however, may not have been caused by her illness - it may have been caused by her treatment. It was commonplace in the 1940s for those with mental illness to be treated by electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and memory loss is a well-known side effect of this treatment.

Given the tragedy of the deaths of his siblings, and the problem of his mother's illness, the defining character of Bill's childhood was his grandmother. Bill has little positive to say about her, though - other than that she fostered in him a love of birds - and blames her for preventing him becoming close to his father, who was cowed and dominated by her. Research into her past, however, did illustrate for Bill the tough life that Emily Oddie had endured.


Emily's husband was Wilkinson Oddie, a cotton loom weaver in the mills of Rochdale. According to the 1901 census, Wilkinson was a widower at the age of 36, and his eldest daughter Betsy was already working as a cotton weaver at the age of 12. This was a family that knew hardship, and for a prolonged period.

The other side

Like that of his father, the story of Bill's family on his mother's side is one of struggling to forge a living in the industrial north of England. His great grandfather, Henry Bruckshaw, was a foreman in a Manchester matchmaking factory. This would have been like one of those described by Karl Marx, in Das Kapital, as places where 'only the most miserable part of the labouring class, half-starved widows and so forth, deliver their children'.

These children worked in appalling conditions. By the age of 15 many of them were bald, because of the heavy boxes they were required to carry on their heads. Cancer of the jawbone, known as 'phossy jaw', was a common illness among the workers.

Henry was to meet a grisly end. While working as a semi-retired night watchman in his late 60s - back then a comfortable retirement was a luxury not extended to the working class - he died after tripping into a vat of boiling brine.

Bill's journey into his past was an emotional, often traumatic one. Yet at the end of it he had come a long way in discovering the roots of recent bouts of depression. He also understood more about his mother, and the truth behind her absence, as well as an insight into the life and times of the grandmother who so dominated his early life.

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