Who do you think you are?
John Hurt

John Hurt

From the moment John Hurt first set foot in Ireland, he felt a strong affinity to it - he felt that it was his home. Equipped with a family tale that his great grandmother, Emma Stafford, was the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Sligo, John sets out on the trail of his Irish roots - and to see if this story is true.

John visits his brother, Michael, who has a photograph of Emma Stafford, and reveals that she was a Ward in Chancery - a means by which wealthy fathers commonly provided for illegitimate children. Emma later married Walter Lord Browne, who built Westport House School in Grimsby.

John also discovers that Westport House in Co. Mayo is the seat of the Marquis of Sligo. These finds are highly suggestive. During a visit to the current Marquis of Sligo, John learns that the only Marquis who would have been the right age to have fathered Emma was the 2nd Marquis, Howe Peter Browne.

But the plot quickly thickens. No chancery document mentions Howe Peter Browne, although it was common for such documents to conceal the identities of their subjects. More intriguingly, Emma's marriage certificate of 1857 lists her father as Edward Stafford - and so does her Croydon baptism record of 1827.

It seems that Emma was a legitimate daughter of Edward. If a cover-up has taken place, someone has done a very good job! However, there is no evidence of Emma's parents living in Croydon, and census returns of 1841 and 1851 show Emma living at the same school - in 1841 as a pupil and in 1851 as a teacher. What a good repository for an illegitimate child.

Confused, but still on the chase, John visits his cousin Joyce, who reveals that although Emma was illegitimate, it was her husband, Walter Lord Browne, who was descended from the Marquis of Sligo. Startled by this development, and despairing of Emma having any Irish roots, John begins to follow the trail of Walter Lord Browne.

Walter owned houses in Grimsby, to which he gave Irish names connected to the Marquis of Sligo. He also built his own school, which John visits, and finds Walter's picture in the prospectus, along with a claim that he had previously taught at the prestigious Cranbrook Grammar School in Kent. However, there is no evidence at Cranbrook School to bear this out.

More interestingly still, a newspaper article announcing Walter and Emma's marriage claims that Walter's father, William Richard Browne, was the head of the Bond Office in London. So off John goes to Custom House, to uncover a very different truth: the records there show that William was a mere clerk, who ended up in a debtors' court and eventually in a debtors' prison.

John is now convinced that Walter Lord Browne was a storyteller, creating a prestigious - and false - background for himself. Genealogists cannot prove any link between John's family and the Marquis of Sligo - nor can they find any ancestry in Ireland. Disappointed, John explains that his feelings about Ireland as his homeland have altered.

But it has been a fascinating journey, chasing the family rumours until they disappeared into the smoke. And John may feel, when the dust has settled, that he doesn't need a genealogical proof to feel such an affinity to Ireland. In his heart, it can still be his home.

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.