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Esther Rantzen

Esther Rantzen - how we did it

Esther's Father, Henry Barnato Rantzen
Esther's Father, Henry Barnato Rantzen

Esther now turned her attention to the paternal side of her family and the mystery of the origin of her surname, Rantzen. The only Rantzens she had ever met were related to her, yet she didn't know where their name came from. She was also intrigued to find out why her father was given such an unusual middle name: Barnato. Esther wondered whether his godfather might have been Barney Barnato, who was a famous diamond king in the 19th century. Esther's father had never talked about his own father, Hyam Henry Rantzen, who was a successful, wealthy stockbroker. At some point they had mysteriously fallen out.

Grandfather - Hyam Henry Rantzen

Step 1 - Family members

Esther met up with her sister Scilla to see whether she knew any more information. Scilla revealed that she remembered some story about their grandfather, Hyam, having committed an indiscretion with a parlour maid on the billiard table, and that this was the reason he and their grandmother had parted.

This was news to Esther, who hadn't really been aware that their grandparents had separated. Scilla and Esther also remembered how Hyam was regarded as 'a bit of a waster' who smoked and drank.

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Esther meets up with her sister Scilla to learn more about their grandfather, Hyam

The sisters concluded that these must have been the reasons why their father never talked about his family further back. Esther was very keen to investigate the Rantzen family line beyond her grandfather, Hyam Henry Rantzen.

Great-grandfather - Abraham Rantzen

Step 2 - Birth certificate

Birth certificates are a great way of tracing back from a known relative to the generations before. They include the individual's place and date of birth, his or her parents' names and the occupation of the father. If the individual was born in the UK after 1837, these certificates can be searched for and ordered online (see Related Links).

Esther’s grandfather's birth certificate revealed that his father was Abraham Rantzen, who was a cap maker. She also discovered that Hyam was born in Spitalfields, which she assumed might have been 'a bit of a slum' at the time.

Esther found it difficult to understand the leap between Abraham's life as a poor cap maker and his son Hyam's life as a wealthy stockbroker just one generation later.

Step 3 - Local expert

In order to get a sense of the area in which Abraham and his family lived, Esther arranged to meet an expert on the Jewish East End, Anne Kershen. They met at the site of the address given on Hyam's birth certificate, 7 Middlesex Street.

When investigating the origins and roots of ancestors it can be useful to get in touch with people who have specific knowledge about a local area or period of history. Local history centres and libraries are good starting points for finding contacts.

Anne explained that the home in which Hyam was born to Abraham and his wife Sarah would have been a multi-occupancy home. She told Esther that in the house there were two families, one of which was Irish. The community therefore seemed to be well integrated at the time, with the Rantzens and the O'Donovans living in the same house.

Anne described how the East End had become home to generations of refugees over the centuries. In the 1800s Jewish settlers followed French Huguenots and Irish people who had all fled trouble of one kind or another in their home countries. In the East End there was no proper sanitation or running water for immigrants, and impoverished Jewish refugees were often assisted by charities run by wealthy British Jews.

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Esther visits the area where Abraham and Sarah lived

Today there's hardly anything left of the original closely knit Jewish community that Abraham and his wife Sarah might have known. But Anne took Esther to the tiny local synagogue that still survives from the time the Rantzens lived in the area. Within it Esther began to feel a real connection with Abraham and Sarah, and with the common beliefs and values that they would have shared with their ancestors.

Step 4 - Census records

We still had no idea how or why the Rantzens ended up living in the East End of London, or how they eventually managed to move away.

However, Anne had been doing some digging and showed Esther what she had discovered in online censuses.

Censuses are extremely useful tools in plotting the movements and makeup of cohabiting groups of family members through the generations. The 10-yearly censuses from 1841-1901 for England and Wales are available online.

In our case, Anne found that the Rantzen name first appeared in 1861. Abraham was an 18-year-old cap maker living in 7 Middlesex Street with his father, Manass, who was also a cap maker. They also lived with Manass's wife, Tamar, and their daughter, Abraham's sister, Bayty.

One of our most significant discoveries from the census was that the family had originally come from Warsaw. Anne worked out that the Rantzens must have come over at some time in the 1850s because they don’t appear in the 1851 census.

We soon realised that their arrival was unusually early in terms of general eastern European migration to the UK. When Abraham and his parents, Manass and Tamar, arrived from Poland in the 1850s, there were less than 40,000 Jews in the whole of Britain. Only 30 years later, Britain’s Jewish population quadrupled as a result of the huge wave of Russian Jews who fled persecution in their homeland. But as our examination of the censuses revealed, by the time the large influx of Russian refugees arrived in the East End, the Rantzens were already leaving the area.

By 1881 we found that Abraham had moved to Newington in Lambeth, a much less impoverished area than Spitalfields. And by 1891, only 10 years later, he was living in well-to-do Paddington in a large house with two servants.

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Esther and Anne examine the online census records

Within a very short period of time, it appeared that Abraham had moved exceedingly swiftly up the social ladder, a rare achievement for immigrants at that time. So what had prompted this rapid social rise?

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