As the 'last of the McKellens', actor and civil rights champion Sir Ian McKellen admits to a degree of melancholy as he delves into his family history.
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'Life's but a walking shadow...
'..a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage...
'..and then is heard no more.'
Sir Ian McKellen has been one of Britain's leading actors
for over 50 years.
Since his breakthrough in the 1960s,
he's enjoyed a glittering career on stage, television and screen,
with roles like the wizard Gandalf
in The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit
bringing him worldwide fame.
I was born in North Lancashire,
and my youth was in Bolton.
My mother died when I was 12 - breast cancer.
Probably got a bit introverted and certainly got shy.
I was a shy child.
But in the 1940s and '50s,
there were three professional theatres
in a town with only 150,000 people.
By the time I was early teens, I was going on my own.
I would stand in the wings,
see the performers getting ready to go on
and then stepping out of the dark into the light onto the stage.
And that seemed to me the most magical thing
I'd ever seen in my life.
Alongside his acting career,
Ian is also one of the UK's leading campaigners
for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.
People say, "When did you first know you were gay?"
And I say, "Well, when did you first know that you weren't?"
But don't forget, at that time, it was a silent territory.
Nobody talked about it.
And by the time I might have plucked up courage to broach it
with my dad, he too was dead.
He died when I was 24.
And my sister Jean died a few years ago
so, now, I am the last of the McKellens.
The last of my line.
I'm not producing any children with my name.
I suppose that's the point to be made.
So I'm just left with some photographs, really.
And there's no-one left for me to ask about the people in them.
I'm intrigued by my paternal grandmother, Alice McKellen.
Known as Mother Mac.
She died two years before I was born.
But when I was growing up,
everyone talked about her as a real star of the family.
Alice was apparently a wonderful singer,
but I don't know where she'd come from.
I don't know, really, anything about her family.
So if I come out of this knowing more about my grandmother,
who clearly made such an impact on everyone she met,
and I didn't meet her,
so perhaps I can now get to meet her a little more.
To find out more about his paternal grandmother, Alice,
Ian is heading north to Cheshire,
where she lived with her husband, William McKellen.
'..ask you to sit back, relax, and enjoy your journey to Manchester Piccadilly. Thank you.'
Born Alice Murray, after her marriage,
Ian's grandmother became known to all as Mother Mac.
When my grandmother died, Mother Mac,
her son - my father, Dennis -
made this. And it is just a collection of letters
that were written to the family and here is a tribute to her.
"Mrs McKellen, Mother Mac,
"had an excellent mezzo-soprano voice."
The story I was told was that my grandad, Mr McKellen,
met his future bride because he had enjoyed her singing.
There's another little bit written by Reverend Will Powicke.
"She is associated in my mind with many happy and serious experiences
"in the old Christian Endeavour Society at Hatherlow."
Mother Mac and her husband William
were both active members of a religious movement
called Christian Endeavour,
which aimed to improve the lives of inner-city workers
during the early 20th century.
They lived just outside Stockport for over 40 years
and worshipped here at Hatherlow Church.
-Hello. How are you?
Religious historian Martin Palmer
has been researching Ian's family history.
-Are we going in?
-Please, come on in.
So, Ian, welcome to what is in a sense your dynastic church.
This is a record going back to 1846
of the baptisms that took place here.
August 20, 1939. Why is my name in here?
-Because you were baptised here.
-I was baptised here?!
And we even have the font at the front there
-that you were baptised in.
Does that mean I'm going to heaven?
-Yes, I'm afraid so.
So this was our family church.
When Mother Mac was here, she was a huge figure
in the Sunday school and the choir - particularly the choir.
Well, the family story is that Grandad McKellen heard her singing.
Well, in 1902, the Christian Endeavour Movement
held a huge gathering in Manchester.
The main event at which your grandmother sang
was at the Free Trade Hall, which held 10,000 people,
and this is the programme
for this event.
Oh! Secretary, Mr WH McKellen.
So this is my grandfather.
-It's a funny feeling, seeing your own name.
Mr McKellen. Because I'm the only Mr McKellen I know! But..
And this is the opening grand ceremonial event.
May 17, 1902, Free Trade Hall.
Well, there's a hymn and then there's a prayer.
Solo, Miss Murray...
-And let's put that in context.
You probably had 1,000 churches sent people to this event.
Each of them would have had a choir, 30 or 40 strong.
Each of them would have had someone who thought that they were
the bees' knees as far as singing.
The fact that your grandmother was chosen to give the solo,
this is Britain's Got Talent circa 1902.
She must have had some notes, mustn't she?
She certainly must've done.
Anything else you know about Alice?
I have found her birth certificate.
Alice Beatrice, yes.
3 Barton Road, Stretford.
-Central Manchester, isn't it?
-Yes, edge of inner-city Manchester.
Her father was William Whyte - with a Y - Murray.
And her mother, also called Alice, was formerly Lowes.
You mentioned the Lowes.
Well, I've found a little bit more about them.
This is the 1871 census.
Here is your great-grandmother, Alice Lowes.
This is Mother Mac's mother.
And just above, her older brother, I suppose, Frank.
-Oh, stop it!
So Mother Mac's uncle Frank...
Was a professional actor.
Oh, stop it!
You're not the first.
Your great-great-uncle beat you to the stage.
Well, that's all right.
It all sort of fits together, doesn't it?
Mother Mac was a performer,
but no-one mentioned to me that she shone so brightly
in the Free Trade Hall.
And then to discover that her Uncle Frank...
..her mother's elder brother Frank Lowes
is down in the census as an actor.
But where was he acting?
What was he acting?
Ian has discovered that his great-great-uncle
was a professional actor
called Frank Lowes.
In the 1860s, Frank had just begun his theatrical career,
and was living with his family in Manchester.
To find out more, Ian's come to the city's central library
to meet theatrical historian Dr Anne Featherstone.
-Hello, love. How are you?
-Lovely to meet you.
The library's theatrical records stretch back over 250 years.
Right, Ian. Here we are
in the bowels of Manchester Central Library.
I'm going to have to climb up this ladder.
-Off you go.
-And I'll help you.
So these are full of programmes, are they?
They're full of posters.
-That's the one.
-Here we go.
-Right. I think you will love this.
So here we have the playbills for the Queen's Theatre in Manchester.
Oh! How beautiful.
And we have here True Steel.
What year are we here?
And a list of characters. Oh!
Ohhh...ever since I heard about him, I've been thinking about him.
Mr Frank Lowe plays Charles Williams.
Let's show you another.
I've only just discovered that there's another actor in the family.
-But a little confusion.
On the census, his name is not Lowe but Lowes, with an S.
-Are we sure we've got the right man?
Yes, absolutely. He has just cut to Frank Lowe.
And then I'm going to turn over again.
Always Ready. "A North Country Story."
That's the important bit, I think.
"With north country actors" like, look here...
Frederik Lauder played by Mr Frank Lowe.
This is a sensational melodrama.
It's about money, it's about morals and virtue and seduction.
And these start to arrive in the 1850s and '60s.
I'm sorry. I've just seen in the next play -
they did two plays on same day - he is playing a leading part.
-The Rev Mr Webb is played by Mr Frank Lowe.
Yes. This is really quite a plum part for him.
He'd be only 30 now.
And he is top of the bill.
What more can you tell me about him? Anything?
Well, we have a review of the play from The Era,
the Bible of the profession.
-Yes, I've heard of that.
Huddersfield Theatre Royal.
Oh. "Arrah-na-Pogue was produced here on Monday
"by the company from the new Queen's Theatre, Manchester,
"and has been favourably received during the week.
"Miss Lillian Harris plays the heroine with great pathos.
"Mr Frank Lowe, however, deserves the laurels
"for his masterly conception of the sneak, Michael Feeny.
"He looks and acts the character to the life."
-You know, you could not have a better review than that.
Frank Lowe's early career coincided with a theatrical boom
in the north of England.
By 1875, Manchester theatres alone
were selling over 15,000 tickets a night.
But acting was still a very precarious way to make a living.
And catching the eye of one of the region's powerful theatre producers
was essential if you wanted to climb up the bill.
So Frank is picking up work regularly.
He's made a name for himself, but in order to move his career on,
he needs a bit of a... He needs a break.
-Don't we all(?)
One of the things I wanted to show you
was an advert, again from The Era, from 1875.
"The two orphans. Mr J Pitney Weston..."
In big letters, "has selected the following artists."
So we've got Frank Lowe...
Oh, wait a minute... "Mrs Frank Lowe."
-That must be Frank Lowe's wife.
But it is the Two Orphans which is the big break.
-Mr Pitney Weston bought the rights to The Two Orphans,
a successful London production,
and was going to produce it across the north.
And of course, we know where Mr Weston is based.
Bolton! He's based in Bolton?
-Where I used to live when I was a teenager.
Theatre and Opera House...
The Two Orphans.
"And Mr Frank Lowe gave an excellent impersonation
"of the Minister of Police."
So Frank lived in Bolton for a time, or stayed in Bolton, in digs,
I suppose. Well, well, well, well, well.
I first came to this street when I was three years old
to see Peter Pan at the Opera House just down there.
But now I know
that the Free Trade Hall was where, in 1902,
my grandmother, Mother Mac, sang.
But just here now I realise...
..the Theatre Royal, Bolton, 1845,
was just the sort of theatre that Mother Mac's uncle,
Frank Lowe, actor, would have performed.
So I'm seeing this street with new eyes.
As a fellow professional, I wonder what life was like for Frank.
Did he do all his acting in the north?
Was he earning enough money, and where did his career lead to?
Well, it certainly took him to Bolton,
which is where I spent my youth, so it's a bit spooky
to think that I didn't know that I had a great-great-uncle,
professionally acting in my hometown.
Ian's family moved to Bolton when he was 11,
and he gave his first performance here as a young amateur actor
in the 1950s.
This is the grandeur of Bolton.
The grandeur of the north of England.
Of course, the streets all look a little bit different.
Market square where the fair used to come twice a year -
I used to love that.
This is where the two theatres were.
The Grand Theatre,
which was a variety theatre,
and then the Theatre Royal, which took in touring companies.
They were beautiful, beautiful, intimate theatres.
Why did they pull them down?
Ian knows that his great-great-uncle Frank Lowes
also performed here in Bolton in 1876.
To find out more about Frank's time here,
he's come to meet theatrical historian Professor James Moran.
-Ian, great to see.
-Very nice to see you.
-Welcome back to your old stomping ground.
-Thank you very much.
In the 1870s, there were three large theatres in Bolton
run by the impresario James Pitney Weston.
Today, The Octagon is the town's only professional theatre.
Frank is in this play which you know about.
-Two Orphans, yeah.
-And James Pitney Weston,
this big character in Bolton's entertainment industry,
acquires the rights to tour it outside London
and recruits Frank to be in that production.
So a job that lasted a long time?
Well, I'll give you a document that gives you some indication of that.
This says "Mr Frank Lowe."
I love it when they call actors "Mr", don't you?
"Mr Frank Lowe as Count De Linieres
"in Two Orphans for the 150th time."
So is this a little ad he's put in the paper?
This is an advert that Frank himself has put into a theatrical newspaper.
Most of the actors at this time are touting for business.
This may been a very canny way of him telling theatre managers
that he's had this lovely run of 150 performances.
-The play itself, The Two Orphans, is a melodrama,
so it's a drama of heightened emotion.
Yeah. Has anyone ever read it?
-Does it exist?
-I have a copy here, would you like to...?
Of course I would. Of course I would!
In fact, would you like to try it on the stage?
-All right. First read-through.
So what is Frank's part?
Frank's playing the French nobleman,
and the count suspects that his wife has this terrible secret,
and I will read in the part of your nephew,
who is a noble young man who wants to prevent you from
ruining yourself and your family. OK.
Now, Chevalier, speak out.
What did the Countess say?
I desire to know all.
-I beg of you.
-I have really nothing to say, monsieur.
Very well, monsieur.
Twice in this one day have you opposed my orders, my entreaties.
Nevertheless, I shall discover the mystery
which you refuse to unveil.
Monsieur, you shall read no further.
-Who will hinder me?
-Count, I will.
So there you go.
You are reading the lines that Frank read here in Bolton...
-Oh, stop it.
-..over 140 years ago.
Wow. Why did nobody in my family ever tell me
that we had an actor in the family?
Either they didn't know or they weren't very pleased about it.
So I think The Two Orphans is
probably a great gig for Frank to get.
Because it's a steady income
and he's been engaged by James Pitney Weston.
The problem is, Weston is very, very ambitious
and emigrates to the USA, so that's potentially a real blow
for Frank, who has lost someone who's been supporting his career.
Yes. So when Weston went off to States...
Frank is out of work, or... What happens to him?
I've got a record that I found from 1884 in Coventry.
Coventry, it's where I had my first job acting
for the first time professionally.
"Theatre Royal. Somewhat meagre attendances this week
"but notwithstanding the depressing effect of small audiences,
"the artists play with considerable spirit.
"Mr Frank Lowe plays Bob Garfield, the village blacksmith,
So I think he's struggling with a pretty terrible part
in a fairly fourth-rate play.
I afraid that is probably the case.
By now he is late 30s,
so he's been in the business for quite a while
and the records that we do have from the 1880s
show him in productions of what we might say was
really very variable quality.
So obviously, pickings are rather thin, but do you know anything else?
He's married. He might have had children by this time.
Well, I do have a census return from 1891
which gives some information about Frank and his wife
and their domestic circumstances.
This is from Wavertree. that's Liverpool, isn't it?
-Frank Lowe, head of the household by this time.
Ellen Lowe, wife.
So his wife is called Ellen.
Doesn't give her an occupation.
So it looks as though Frank and Ellen don't have children.
No. And they're living in Liverpool.
This is Ellen's hometown
and I think she's probably living with Frank and her extended family.
And Frank goes missing from the archive entirely
between 1886 and 1889. I couldn't find anything about him.
So I think it might be a good idea perhaps to go to Liverpool
and see what you can find there.
-Well, thank you very much. I will.
-You're very welcome.
However successful or unsuccessful Frank was,
I do like the idea that he contributed to
the gaiety of things by being in a show.
You know? And touring round, bringing entertainment to people.
That's what my mother apparently said.
"If Ian decides to be an actor,
"it's a good job because it brings pleasure to people."
And my sister, who was an amateur actor to the day she died,
would have loved to know this about Frank Lowe.
As much as I do. But I feel I'm sort of on my own,
a bit of an orphan.
So there is a bit of melancholy going on...
..in the midst of the thrill of discovery.
Ian has travelled to Liverpool,
where his great-great-uncle Frank Lowes
lived with his wife Ellen in the 1890s.
To discover what happened to Frank's career as an actor,
he has come to the city's Central Library
to meet theatrical historian Dr Caroline Radcliffe.
In the census of 1891, Frank Lowe is down as living here in Liverpool.
Anything you know...
Well, I've got this document. It's very small, so...
-The amusements in Liverpool.
We're looking at 1892.
And now the Paddington Palace Of Varieties.
"Here as usual, tempting fare
"has been fully appreciated by large audiences.
"Mr Frank Lowe, with company."
Oh, can you explain this? The Palace Of Varieties.
Variety was just a posh name for music hall,
-and it was trying to compete with the legitimate theatres.
But for a professional actor like Frank Lowe,
it was a real drop down -
to be in a music hall was something
which he probably wouldn't have chosen.
He is at the bottom of the bill now in a musical hall,
in a rather rough area of Liverpool.
By the 1890s, the new variety palaces
had started to replace the more traditional music halls
and were competing with the dramatic theatre for audiences.
To gain respectability, they added plush theatre-style seating,
banned alcohol and smoking
and employed actors like Frank Lowes
to perform short dramatic sketches
alongside more traditional music-hall acts.
Now we know that Frank was performing drama
because he is listed with a company,
but they could only perform a short scene.
-So these would be extracts?
Yes, you had Shakespeare
or you had the latest big production from London.
And then that would be interspersed with people singing?
That would be mixed with musicians, and conjurers, dog orchestras.
Now, the Palace Of Varieties where he was performing,
would this be a season?
No, a music hall ran a week of entertainment.
And then the company would...
They'd move off and they'd have to find some other engagement.
It was extremely unreliable and precarious.
So he's not quite on his uppers even when he is in employment.
Actually, this is the last record that we found of him
performing on stage - on any type of stage.
Oh, do you know anything more?
What he did instead?
Well, we do have another document.
What is this book?
This is the admissions book to the Liverpool workhouse.
No! Dear, oh, dear.
And this is in 1893
which is the year just after the Paddington Palace Of Varieties.
he's down as an actor, not as a performer or a comic or anything.
Married. And he was admitted by his wife Ellen.
It's odd. Ellen's address is given here in pencil - 4 Mill Row.
Where he slept last night was at 8 Moore Place.
Well, what we see is that Ellen at this time
was living at a different address,
and he had spent the night obviously somewhere else.
We don't know how long they had been separated for.
All we know is that they were separated, at that time.
And in the last column,
it gives us an indication of what was wrong with him.
So he had bronchial problems.
Well, at that time, there was no hospitals, no insurance.
So if you were an actor on very little money,
the workhouse was the last resort to get help.
And do we know how long he stayed?
This is the death certificate.
"Frank Lowe, 47 years,
"actor", and he died on January 2, 1894.
At the Liverpool workhouse.
The cause of death...phthisis?
It's another word for TB or tuberculosis.
But he would have been pleased, I suppose,
that he was defined by that occupation, actor.
I don't know many actors - and I wasn't one of them -
who thought, "Oh, I'm going to become an actor
"because I'm going to be rich and famous."
And you know, so many of my own friends,
and so many actors I've admired...
-..didn't have very easy lives.
Didn't make a lot of money.
And that is the fact about being an actor, that...
..the few of us who are lucky enough to be in work constantly
and rewarding work and varied work, I mean, we are the exceptions.
But I would like to know what the Lowe family thought.
Maybe they just said, when they heard over in Manchester
that he'd died in the workhouse in Liverpool, separated from his wife,
"Well, there you go.
"That's what happens when you go into the theatre."
Ian knows that, as a young man,
Frank lived with his family in Manchester,
and that his father was a clerk called Robert Lowes,
To find out more about Robert, Ian is heading back to Manchester.
Professor Martin Hewitt has been looking into
Robert Lowes' life in the city,
And has asked Ian to meet him at Salford Old Town Hall.
Ian, good to meet you, Martin.
-Very nice to see you.
-Welcome to Salford.
I hear that you're interested in finding out
-something more about Robert Lowes.
I found him in the census in 1841.
-He was working as a clerk,
but he had quite strong connections with this building here,
-which is the Salford Town Hall.
So this is from the Manchester Times in 1843.
"The first and second of a course of lectures
"on humour and pathos by Mr RJ Lowes."
So this is our Robert?
Absolutely. And that lecture was given here in this building,
-the Salford Town Hall.
-I don't know what year this is.
So Robert would have been 27 - he's still a young man.
"Each lecture was concluded with a dramatic illustration,
"the characters in which were creditably sustained
"by amateurs and members
"connected with the classes of the institution."
Now, what institution?
That would be the Salford Lyceum.
And Lyceum, is that from the same root as "lycee" in French?
It means teaching of some sort.
The Lyceums were all about making more of yourself,
building your education, reading, writing.
Perhaps literary classes.
-Getting on and improving yourself.
It was that classic Victorian thing, rational recreation,
which is obviously about enjoying your leisure time,
but to make sure that it's done in a way which is improving.
Robert worked as a clerk,
but he was one of the directors of the Lyceum
and would have been very much involved
in the government of the institution.
Wow. Who would come to these lectures?
Middle classes? Lower-middle, working classes?
Working class or very lower-middle class.
So after a heavy day in the factory you'd come along here?
And that's the big challenge.
You've got to try and fit this education and this leisure
into a week which is already full of very long days.
Six days a week, or...?
They would at this stage have been working six days a week
and that was also a challenge that Robert decided
that he was going to have to take on.
By the 1840s,
Manchester was the largest industrial city in the world.
The textiles produced by its mills and factories
were housed in hundreds of giant warehouses.
Thousands of warehousemen
were employed across the city to move stock in and out.
And warehouse clerks like Robert Lowes
kept records of business.
With no trade unions, a working day in the warehouse could last up to
15 hours, 6 days a week.
This is from the Manchester Courier,
from the start of September 1843.
"A public meeting of salesmen, clerks..." Which Robert was.
"..warehousemen and others at which upwards of 1,000 persons attended.
"Mr RJ Lowes."
Robert. "..honorary secretary,
"having read an address to the employers
"praying their consent to the closing of warehouses
"on Friday afternoons."
-So what is this about?
-It's about a half holiday.
-They want a half holiday.
-Yes. One half day a week.
The suggestion here I think is that it should be Friday.
What Robert is trying to do is to persuade 300 or 400
of the leading merchant princes of Manchester to allow the clerks
and warehouseman to have a half holiday
without any reduction in pay.
The kind of thing that no other workers at this time would have had.
So this is something quite new, really, quite radical.
Did this sort of pressure...
Recreation is a really controversial question in this period.
This kind of activity could very easily be associated with some of
the more dangerous radical movements,
which could backfire on him personally.
-It's going to take a slick operator to pull this off.
By 1843, driven in part by the city's appalling working conditions,
Manchester had become a hotbed of political radicalism.
And those pressing for social reform were often viewed with suspicion by
But Robert Lowes and his committee of clerks and warehouseman
pressed ahead with their campaign to persuade their employers
to grant them half a day off every week,
changing their initial request from a Friday
to a Saturday half day holiday.
Professor Hewitt has brought Ian to the chief librarian's office
at Manchester Central Library.
-Ian, come in.
-I've brought you here because I got a document here
that I think you are going to be very interested in.
Take this out.
It's a little bit fragile.
-Oh, I see.
-You unroll it and I will weigh it down.
It's, as you can see, a scroll.
And you can begin to see...
"Names of the committee,
"for obtaining the half holiday.
"Robert J Lowes."
-What does that say?
-It says honorary secretary.
-And here are the bosses.
"We the undersigned bankers, merchants,
"manufacturers and calico printers of Manchester at the respectful
"solicitation of those in our employment agreed to close
"our places of business at one o'clock every Saturday afternoon
"and to allow our servants to leave for the day."
-These are the Merchant Princes of Manchester.
Between 300 and 400, all individually signed.
These are the people they are petitioning.
These are all the people who have agreed...
..to grant the half holiday that Robert Lowes asked for.
So the first Saturday half holiday
anywhere in Britain to which these 400 merchants agreed to grant,
was given the 10th of November 1843.
Well, I can't...
-And it is achieved by Robert Lowe.
I'm very, very impressed with what Robert did.
This guy is in public life.
He talks in public.
The world changes because somebody has an argument with somebody,
and a discussion, and then an agreement,
and you get people on your side.
And I know that from being involved in my activism.
One initiative like this doesn't change the world,
but it certainly helps.
Robert Lowes and his committee's success in cutting the working week
for Manchester's clerks and warehouseman
from 6 to 5½ days
was a significant breakthrough.
But they were only a small percentage
of Manchester's vast industrial workforce, who were otherwise
still excluded from the new half-holiday agreement.
To find out what happened next to his great-great-grandfather,
Robert Lowes, Ian has come to meet social historian
Dr Amanda Wilkinson.
-Hello, Ian. Amanda.
-Nice to see you.
Welcome to Manchester's famous 19th-century retail area.
-Shall we go and get a cup of tea?
So after the success of Robert's half-holiday campaign, what next?
Can you fill in the blanks?
In 1845, Robert gives up his job as a clerk and he sets himself up
as a publisher and a printer.
He runs it as a business but he also begins to print this -
the Lancashire Witches Holiday Herald.
This is his means to expand campaigning for the half holiday
Yes. It's a collection of stories, political articles, poems,
campaigning for the half holiday to be extended to the needlewomen.
OK. So these women are...
Needlewomen in the 1840s
are amongst the most exploited and put-upon workers in Britain.
These girls worked in the most horrific conditions in rooms
often in the back of shops, poorly lit, very little ventilation.
They're preparing all these beautiful, beautiful gowns.
These amazing hats, for the shops at the front,
for the rich women to buy.
And they're working up to 19 hours a day.
-Even really quite young children.
There are reports of them working up to 19 hours a day with nothing
but a bucket in the corner for their toilet.
They work every day.
And they get paid a pittance.
These are the women that Robert is now campaigning for
to try and get them some holidays, to try get them a break,
to get them out in the fresh air,
to give them a chance to better themselves.
Tell me that Robert Lowes made a difference.
This is the Manchester Times in 1845,
and here is a speech by Robert Lowes.
Ah. "To the principals in the retail millinery,
"dress and straw bonnet-making establishments of Manchester.
"Ladies and gentlemen,
"we call upon the whole body of employers to listen to the painful
"outcry of human suffering, to respect the sympathy of the public
"and to agree upon such steps as would check the growth of these
"destructive evils and yield to those who suffer by them
"a brief period of healthful breathing time and rest."
Oh, I can hear him saying this.
"No! Justice to our own consciences,
"to the laws of God and to the established uses of society,
"demand its discontinuance!"
And it is signed by RJ Lowe, chairman.
Now, he was secretary of the previous initiative.
-Now he is chairman.
-Running this outfit.
He is, at 29.
So what success did he have with speeches like this?
Well, a month after the speech was given there was a response here
in the Manchester Courier.
"The result has been that 160 establishments signed an agreement
"to close on the Saturday afternoon.
"This noble example has been followed
"by the wine and spirit merchants,
"saddlers, the Crown plate-glass company,
"the ironmongers have nearly agreed
"and the tailors have already gained their holiday."
This is a staggering result.
The news of the half holiday spreads like wildfire across the country.
We have cities like Bradford and Norwich
very rapidly commencing their own half holidays
based on the principles of Robert Lowes and his committee.
By the 1870s, the needlewomen in London have their half holiday.
And we start to see the evolution of the weekend as we understand it now.
So we can say that not only is Robert Lowes your great-great-grandfather,
but he can also be viewed as the grandfather of the modern weekend.
Well, the negative side of that is that actors
have to work at the weekend, because everybody else is not.
Thank you, Robert. But anyway, look, that's wonderful news.
-Does that mean it's the end of the campaigning?
Robert and his committee carried on campaigning
right the way through the 1850s, 1860s.
The original campaign fund that was set up for the warehousemen and clerks keeps going.
But Robert and his committee are making charitable donations
to all sorts of other worthy causes.
And they make their final donation in the year of 1868.
"..£4,000, which has been raised in aid of the building fund of the
"Manchester District Warehousemen And Clerks' Orphans' School
"at Cheadle Hulme."
Amanda, I know that school!
Because my grandfather,
William H McKellen, went to this school.
I'd always known that my grandfather, WH McKellen,
had been to a school for orphans in Cheadle Hulme,
and now I discover that this school was founded through the efforts of
Robert, the grandfather of the woman he was going to marry, Mother Mac.
Ian is the first person in his family
to discover this extraordinary coincidence -
that in 1868,
Robert Lowes and his committee
helped to fund the building of the school that Ian's grandfather,
William McKellen, later attended as a pupil.
William never knew Robert,
but later met and married Robert's granddaughter, Alice.
Joining the Lowes and McKellen families.
148 years later, Cheadle Hulme School, as it's now known,
is still going strong.
Last year, Ian was invited to speak to students here on behalf of Stonewall -
the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights pressure group
which he helped to set up in 1989.
-Well, I didn't think I'd be back so soon.
School librarian Kay Smith has been looking into the school's link
with Ian's great-great-grandfather, Robert Lowes.
As you now know, Robert Lowes contributed £4,000
to the school's building fund.
And just to put that in some sort of context,
the original estimate for this building was £7,603,
16 shillings and tuppence.
It made it possible for the school to go on and prosper.
Did you have to be an orphan to come here?
Orphan in our sense meant the loss of one parent.
-And to come here on a free place as an orphan
you would have to have had somebody in the family paying a subscription to the school.
I've got the annual reports for 1869 and in it,
there is a list of all the people who were actually subscribing
to the school at that time.
-Robert Lowes, that's him.
-Yeah. That's him.
And he's contributed a guinea.
And that was the standard subscription at the time,
which would enable his children - should he or his wife die
or become incapacitated - to have a guaranteed place at the school.
There may well be a very specific reason why Robert decided
to subscribe to the school in the first place.
Well, this is a death certificate.
So that's around the time of the donation.
..aged 48, wife of Robert Lowes.
Robert was now a widower,
and he would have been left with seven children to look after.
Seven children, wow.
So possibly this event concentrated Robert's mind that he might
need to make provision for his younger children,
should anything happen to him.
Yes, yes. So do we know if any of his children came here as students?
They didn't, actually.
He only subscribed until the following year, 1870.
And then suddenly stopped.
There could been a number of reasons for this.
Possibly financial hardship.
He may not have been well himself.
Oh, tell me more.
If you would like to perhaps take a look at that document.
-Oh. Well, this is his death certificate.
Robert Jack Lowes,
Cause of death, emphysema.
You might find a little bit more about Robert's death here.
That's his obituary.
"Manchester City News lately recorded the death of Mr RJ Lowes" -
that's our man - "of Hulme, age 56."
"He was a native of Carlisle," up north,
"and a son of Mr James Lowes, the engraver of Hutchinson's History Of Cumberland.
"Mr Lowes' eventful and active life closed on the 17th of last month.
"It is gratifying to add that his last moments were observed
"by the kind benevolence of many old friends."
Robert obviously died in strident circumstances,
but what he did achieve throughout his life,
and through the half holiday committee,
had made an immense difference.
And, in fact, just five years after Robert died,
your own grandfather was elected to the school as a pupil.
-Just five years later?
-Five years later.
See how these things all fit together.
Yeah. Amazing coincidence.
You have to admire Robert's achievements.
If this school hadn't been endowed by my great-great-grandfather,
my grandfather, WH McKellen, wouldn't have had an education.
Probably at all.
What I'd always hoped was true about
the McKellens, and people they married,
was an attitude to life.
Doing good and helping other people.
And this bright, radical-thinking clerk
stood up and changed the world.
I am... That is the word, proud.
Ian has decided to explore one last story in his family tree.
He now knows from Robert Lowes' obituary that Robert's father
was an engraver called James Lowes,
and that during the late 18th-century,
the Lowes family were based in Carlisle
in the County of Cumberland, now called Cumbria.
Ian's travelling north to Cumbria to find out more about James,
It's an area that he knows well from his childhood.
I came to the Lake District before I can remember.
My family was typical of many Lancastrian families.
We went to it often.
My dad was a climber with ropes and special boots,
going up the mountains that way.
I've only ever scrambled up them, sometimes on all fours.
There is a close relationship for Lancastrians
between the dark Satanic mills
and the utter beauty of the hills and the fells of the Lake District.
Ian's come to Carlisle, where James Lowes lived and worked in the 1790s.
He's arranged to meet curator Melanie Gardner
at the city's Tullie House Museum,
to find out more about James.
-Pleased to meet you, Ian.
-Very nice to see you.
Lovely to welcome you to Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery.
-Thank you very much indeed. All right. What a day!
-Is it always like this in Carlisle?
Tullie House holds an original copy of Hutchinson's History Of Cumberland,
which James Lowes helped to illustrate.
This is the History Of Cumberland.
It's in two volumes.
And if we open up... the frontispiece.
"The History of the County of Cumberland, and some places adjacent."
The book was published here in Carlisle in 1794.
-It's the standard history of the county.
It's a very important book.
And James Lowes produced many of the engravings in this book,
and they really are the crowning achievement.
Oh, I say, look at that.
And I love the details of the weather, the clouds.
These images were important, of course.
If you think, it's the late 18th century,
the Lake District had been discovered, tourists were visiting,
looking at the picturesque scenery.
And this book was so important that it was distributed in London,
so that it was widely available to the middle classes
as a very attractive book to purchase.
It would almost be like a coffee-table book.
And here is the illustration of Bassenthwaite.
Oh, but hang on! It says,
"J Lowes sculpt."
-Sculped it, or...?
-Yes, he engraved it.
He was a young man at this time,
developing his skills as an engraver.
-Beautiful, aren't they?
-Oh, look. Druid Monument.
So do you think he would necessarily have to have actually been
to a scene like that before he engraved it?
Because he could've been copying another artist's work.
But if we look at this one...
Oh, I say. How beautiful.
"The west view of Lanercost Priory."
And what does it say after that? "DD"?
And over here it says "and sculpted".
Yes, he not only engraved this west view of Lanercost Priory,
but he drew it.
So he was there. He was on the spot.
At that time, sort of late 18th century,
artists are exploring the landscape for the first time,
and Cumbria was in a very important place for that
because of the beauty of the Lake District.
Ian has decided to head into the Lake District to Bassenthwaite Lake,
which his great-great-great-grandfather -
the artist James Lowes -
depicted in the 1790s.
He is meeting up with Professor Keith Hanley,
an expert on the history of the Lake District.
Keith, you look like the hermit of Bassenthwaite.
-Hello, nice to meet you.
-Are you well?
-Welcome to Bassenthwaite Lake.
-I've never been.
Well, here you are in the footsteps
of your great-great-great-grandfather,
James Lowes, who stood in 1794 on this spot
when he drew the lake.
-And it's not changed, has it?
-Hardly at all.
-Look at his engraving of it.
You can see all the main features exactly as they were.
He slightly exaggerated the reality,
because this rather exciting mountain is there a rather domestic hill.
-..what it feels like to be here.
So what he's got is the feeling.
-And that's being an artist, isn't it?
-It is an artist, that's right.
he had a modest role in a major drama,
whereby this whole region was developed from being
a relatively neglected provincial backwater,
to becoming what it is today,
which is really one of the leading cultural landscapes in the world.
Wordsworth, of course, who was born at Cockermouth just five miles from
here, wrote about it being for everyone
with an eye to see and a heart to feel.
And he didn't much approve the railways coming here?
He didn't. Very much later he was very much against it.
They should get out of their carriages and bloody well walk!
When we come to the romantics, of course, and especially Wordsworth,
they are much more interested in real experience,
the real encounter with nature.
Would James Lowes have been aware of Wordsworth's views
and perhaps shared them?
We actually know he did,
because he took out an advert in the Carlisle Journal in 1802
explaining his principles.
How old would he be now?
"September 25, drawing school at Mr Jollie's.
"J Lowes, teacher of drawing."
-By this date, he's been engraving for nine years...
..and he's now advertised his services as a drawing master.
"To delineate faithfully
"and elegantly the tints and proportions of nature,
"to catch her veiled forms as they are found to strike the eye
"is the object of landscape.
"But how is this to be done?
"Not surely by shutting ourselves up and copying after a copy
"but by observing nature's self and seeing her living features.
Get out the house, put your boots on,
take your brushes or your pencil.
-And be inside nature.
But, you know, there's another side to the romantic north.
This is only part of the story, the picturesque landscape, and so on.
There's also the dark north,
there are a lot of Druid circles,
and particularly the one that he depicted here,
which is the Druid's Monument at Keswick.
It's wizard country, this.
It's something that should really interest you.
Yes. Well, I'm going to romance.
This man - he's got a hat on, and a pair of britches,
-and he's got a staff.
I think it's a little self-portrait that James has popped in.
That could be. Yes, that could be James.
-Yes, why not.
-But it could be you, too.
To end his journey,
Ian has decided to retrace his great-great-great-grandfather's footsteps,
to the ancient stone circle near Keswick,
which James Lowes engraved 220 years ago.
"October 5, walked up the Penrith Road two miles or more
"and, turning into a cornfield to the right, called Castlerigg,
"saw a large Druid circle of stones."
"They are 50 in number.
"Most of them stood erect.
"The biggest not eight feet high.
"It is not improbable that the head Druid, with his colleagues,
"did inform their rites, their divinations, in these places."
"Know that thou standst on consecrated ground."
"The mighty pile of magic planted rock.
"Thus ringed in mystic order,
"marks the place where but at times of holiest festival,
"the Druid leads this trail."
Sort of inevitable, isn't it,
that James should have loved places like this and recorded them,
and encouraged other people to come.
I wonder if James' son, the radical Robert, came up here.
And I do feel that I can almost touch these people.
I feel happy in their company.
They've done remarkable things, and they're talented.
And part of the world, not...
It doesn't matter, really, to me, that I'm the last of the McKellens.
That's all right.
But I do feel just a little bit more secure as a person.
Yes, I think, probably I'll never be quite the same.
But in a good way!
As the 'last of the McKellens', Sir Ian admits to a degree of melancholy as he delves into his family history. But the results pay off richly for one of Britain's greatest actors and civil rights champions. Ian's journey uncovers a theatrical ancestor, a Victorian political activist and a link to an ancient druidical landmark in the Lake District.