WDYTYA? episode summary: Fearne Cotton

By Guest, 24 August 2017 - 12:29pm

TV presenter and DJ Fearne Cotton discovered dramatic stories of conscientious objectors and workhouse staff in her journey into her family’s past

Fearne finds out more about her conscientious objector great grandfather's time in prison

TV presenter, DJ and writer Fearne Cotton has a fierce work ethic.

“I’ve got this drive and it’s a burning drive inside, and I know that comes from my ancestry,” she says.

Accordingly, as she sets out on her research, she’s keen to find remarkable forebears, relatives whose stories she can pass on to her own children.

Fearne focuses on two characters who certainly lived eventful lives: her paternal great grandfather, Evan Meredith, and her 4x maternal great grandfather, William Gilmour.

After a visit to her parents, Mick and Linda, Fearne begins by tracing Evan Meredith’s life.

Evan was a coal miner in South Wales when the First World War broke out.

Because coal was so crucial to the war effort, this meant he was in a reserved occupation and initially wasn’t sent to the front.

However, as the war dragged on, the government took the decision to “comb out” 50,000 single men from the collieries and conscript them.

But as Fearne sees a newspaper report from July 1918, she realises Evan didn’t go to the front. That’s because Evan was a conscientious objector. 


A newspaper cutting reveals Evan Meredith was a conscientious objector

At Brecon Barracks, she learns he was categorised as a ‘category B’ conscientious objector – someone who opposed the war on political rather than religious grounds, probably seeing it as a capitalist war that had little to do with the working classes.

Evan was sentenced to six months in jail and initially sent to Wormwood Scrubs.

As late as the spring of 1919, he was still a prisoner and organised a hunger strike in Carmarthen Prison at one point before being released under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which allowed for the early release of prisoners deemed to weakened by not eating. At this point, he was probably free to return home.

Concluding her research into Evan’s life, Fearne meets her great uncle, Evan’s son Haydn. Evan, she learns, “dug himself” out of mining to become a pharmacist, a Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society.

Fearne is “completely bursting with pride” at what she’s discovered about her principled, determined forebear’s journey through life.


Fearne's great uncle remembers his father

Next, Fearne turns her attention to William Gilmour. Born in 1821 in Garvagh in what’s now Northern Ireland, he moved to Liverpool, where he worked as an apothecary.

Later, by now married with a young family, he returned to Ireland, where he went into private practice as a doctor.

His next move takes Fearne completely by surprise. William served as medical superintendent on the SS Great Britain when Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s passenger liner was used as a troop carrier during the Crimean war (1853-56).

It seems he hugely exaggerated his qualifications to get the job, yet performed well enough to be invited to dine aboard the Royal Yacht after Victoria visited the Great Britain.


Fearne visits SS Great Britain to find out more about her 4x great grandfather

But this would be the peak of William’s career. After a further stint at sea, he set up in private practice in Aylesbury, but went bankrupt.

Later, he worked as district medical officer for the Ongar Poor Law Union in Essex, but William left the job after facing a charge of neglect related to the death of a child he failed to visit.

On the slide, his final job was at Bethnal Green Workhouse. In 1881, he died of bronchitis.

Despite William’s sad demise, Fearne is proud of William’s combination of grit and chutzpah.

Fearne has found her own work ethic reflected in her forebears. “I really want my kids to understand these brilliant stories when they get older,” she says, “and see the determination and the grit and the passion there”.

 

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WDYTYA? location guide: Fearne Cotton
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Past in pictures: When children helped keep Britain fed
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WDYTYA? location guide: Fearne Cotton
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