Celebrity genealogy series. Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman investigates his mother's family, and looks into the mystery of an ancestor's descent into poverty.
Browse content similar to Len Goodman. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
After four. One,
two, one, two,
Back step, toe, heel, wait...
Toe, heel, four.
Quick, two, three...
Dancer Len Goodman is known to millions as the lead judge
on the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing.
Now we point. Go.
'There's more tension'
in this room than there was in my nan's knicker elastic.
It's absolutely incredible.
'I left school when I was 15 and in those days,'
you had to have a trade.
So I was a welder and I was terrible.
A mate of mine used to go ballroom dancing.
I used to take the mickey rotten.
He said, "Len, come up there. It's full of girls
"and virtually no boys. It's heaven."
So up I went. And I loved it.
Len found fame late in life after a successful 30-year career
running his own dance school.
What is fascinating about looking back on your personal history
is the fact that I know nothing about anything, really.
'When you're young, when you're 20, who gives a monkey's armpit about it?
'If I'd been worried, I'd have asked my grandad,
'who his grandad was and so on. But you don't
'because it's of no consequence.
'It's as you get older and there's not too much future
'that you want to know more about your past.'
Before I pop me clogs, I'm 66 years old, I want to know a little bit.
We go right down Roman Road and then we do a left
and go up past Victoria Park.
Len Goodman has fond memories of his early childhood
in Bethnal Green in the East End of London.
This is typical of where I grew up. Just one huge row of terraced houses.
All the kids were playing in every other kid's house.
Doors were never locked. It was lovely, a true community.
After his parents separated when he was a child,
Len and his mother spent much of their time with her parents,
Albert and Louisa Eldridge.
So originally my grandad had a shop just here
and he used to have a barrow and he used to wheel it
to Spitalfields, a mile and a half, maybe even two miles,
load up, I used to sit on the barrow,
I was just a little nipper.
And he'd be pulling this barrow full of blooming vegetables
and we'd get to here and he'd say, "Come on, son. Let's stop."
And we'd go into Pellicci's and have a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea.
Me and me old grandad.
This is where all my family lived, worked, died.
This is my area.
This is home to me.
Both Len's parents have passed away
and his only remaining connection to his Bethnal Green past
is his stepmother, Irene.
'Renie's 93 and she's still got all her marbles
'and my son's going to be there, James,
'so we've got my link with the past and my link with the future.'
-Here I am.
-Len! How are you?
-Lovely to see you. James is in here.
-Come and see him.
-Come on then.
We've got these first few pictures which I know are of you, Dad.
-I'm with my mum.
-So I'd be about nine months old there, I suppose.
-Yes, you would.
So that would be just before the end of the war.
-Little shoes on, look.
-Yeah, little ankle straps.
Look at me old mum. Bless her heart.
Len's mother was Louisa Eldridge.
She was one of five children who were all born in Bethnal Green.
-I have no idea what this is.
-Show us. I'll probably...
-A market man.
That's my Grandad Eldridge! That's Albert!
Look at him, young, with his cheese cutter hat on, come on!
It's a beauty.
On his stall, just serving. Look at that.
So this was before they had a shop.
He was the one who used to take me down to Spitalfields on the barrow.
That's great, innit? Look at him, young.
-They're lovely, those old photos.
-Whole life ahead of him.
-Look how good-looking he is there.
-Yeah, he is a good-looking bloke.
They were quite a good-looking family, wasn't they?
That's where I get it from I suppose. It's got to come from somewhere.
Right, now we've got this picture.
And that's me nan!
-That's Nanny Eldridge.
-Is it really?!
Well, I've never seen... I'm pretty sure that's Nanny Eldridge.
It's got writing on the back, Len.
That's the only photo I've ever seen of Nanny Eldridge.
-I can imagine.
-Because she died very young.
-And she's not that kind of a woman to have photos taken.
I don't know how Granddad Eldridge met me grandma.
I don't know how they met or where they could have met.
-They both come from Bethnal Green I should imagine.
-We've got something else as well here.
-Now, what's this?
It's a certificate of marriage.
Yeah, but who between?
This is a certificate of marriage...
dated August 1909...
Well, I never.
..between Albert Eldridge, me grandad and Louisa Sosnowski, me grandma.
How old were they then?
Albert was 27 and Louisa was 23.
And he was a greengrocer
and Nanny Lou was a fancy box maker.
Well I never!
There you are.
Father's name... Here we go. Now this is even better.
Albert Eldridge, my grandfather, his father...Thomas Eldridge.
-Now, have you ever heard of him?
-Have you, Len?
-Neither have I.
So really, what we've got to do now is find out
a little bit if we can about Thomas Eldridge.
-And, James, I want you on the old machine there.
You can sort this out for us. That's our next job.
Find out who Thomas Eldridge was.
Len has traced his mother's side back three generations
to his great grandfather, Thomas Eldridge.
To try to go back further,
Len and James need to search through the census records.
First off, in here, we'd need to put...
See, now, if I'd been doing this, it would have taken 20 minutes.
I know. But you knew where the shift key was.
-I know where the shift is.
Come on, machine!
Here we go.
There is Thomas.
-Now that's my great grandfather.
OK. So we've found Thomas Eldridge.
And he was a bricklayer.
-His wife was Jane and then the kids...
-William, Albert, that's my grandad.
-Henry, another son.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
They had eight kids. This is what you got when there was no TV or radio!
-Now, they're living... Ames Street, I suppose in Bethnal Green.
To continue their search,
they've ordered up the marriage certificate of Thomas Eldridge.
Thomas Eldridge and Jane.
Father's name, James Eldridge.
-And he was a bricklayer.
-He was a bricklayer.
So we want to look up James now.
Yeah. So we're going now to 1861.
And here we go. Bethnal Green.
That's the one we're after.
So we're looking for James...
James Eldridge! Here we go.
So this would be my great-great-grandfather.
Again from Bethnal Green.
They lived on Camden Street
and his wife here, Sarah, then there's one,
two, three, four, five, six, seven eight, nine, ten...
That's incredible! The amount of kids!
11 kids, born virtually one every year.
-All the kids had to...
-Mind you, they all had to work.
He's 17, he's a bricklayer.
16, he's a bricklayer. 15... Look, the 14-year-old.
The 13-year-old is a shop boy.
Even the nine-year-old.
The only one who's not is the seven and under.
The rest of them are all in work, from nine years old.
So it's obvious that the Eldridge clan...
for the last 150 years at least...
-..in Bethnal Green.
Len now wants to find out what life was like
for his great-great-grandfather James and his 11 children.
He's come to the London School of Economics in central London.
He's meeting archivist Sue Donnelly
who looks after the Charles Booth Collection.
Hi, nice to meet you.
It's an archive that records living conditions in the capital
in the late 19th century,
when James Eldridge was living in Bethnal Green.
-Tell me who Charles Booth was exactly and what he did.
I've heard of him but I always get him confused with the Salvation Army Booth.
You're not the only one. Charles Booth was a 19th century businessman
who got very interested in why there was so much poverty in London,
in effectively the richest city in the world.
So he went out and he collected lots of information about rents,
about wages, about sizes of families.
And he then created these colour-coded maps
looking at each street
and working out the levels of poverty and wealth in different areas,
what he called the social condition of an area.
So what we have here is the Bethnal Green area in the late 19th century.
And the thing to note from this coding at the bottom
is that red and pink are fairly affluent areas.
And as you move into blues and dark blues and eventually black,
the area and the street becomes poorer.
And at this time, Bethnal Green was officially the poorest area.
-It was the poorest area.
It had the densest population, both in terms of the numbers of people
who were crammed into individual houses
and the number of houses that were crammed onto the space available.
Bethnal Green lies about two miles northeast of the City of London.
It was once a rural retreat for wealthy Londoners
and was seen as an attractive escape
from the hustle and bustle of the city.
But as London expanded in the 18th century,
Bethnal Green's open spaces were swallowed up
by industry and housing.
The construction of the railways in the 1840s
led to the demolition of thousands of houses,
causing acute overcrowding.
By the time James was living there,
it was one of the most densely populated areas of Britain.
It was not uncommon to have more than ten people living in one house.
So my great-great-grandfather was in Camden Street.
Right, OK. So we've got Bethnal Green Road.
I can see it here. Look, clear as a bell.
And that's blue which according to your scale of poverty is pretty low.
Yeah, Booth described it as being an area in a street
that was in chronic want.
Chronic want. Well, that sums it all up, doesn't it?
Not only are we in one of the poorest areas in London,
we are in one of the most run-down and poorest streets
in the poorest area of London.
Yes, absolutely. This is pretty much the bottom of the pile.
Actually, we have got some photographs of the area
from about the same period.
And when you look at the conditions that these people lived in
and you think of my great-great grandfather James with 11 children
and they're stuck in one of these tiny little houses,
it's just amazing that anyone almost survived.
-Life expectancy was very low.
Particularly for children and older people.
At the time James was living in Bethnal Green,
life there was a struggle.
One in every five babies died before they reached their first birthday.
And for many of those that did survive, conditions were hard.
Almost half of the population in Bethnal Green
lived below the subsistence level.
Outbreaks of diseases like cholera
and smallpox added to the mounting difficulties faced by the locals.
We have another piece of research that relates
to your family's history from one of the local newspapers.
This is the Eastern Argus and Borough of Hackney Times,
Saturday September 14th, 1889.
"Suicide in Bethnal Green Road. Between death and the workhouse.
"Week in, week out, we have the melancholy duty
"to record sudden surprises of suicide mania in our very midst.
"And a case took place in Bethnal Green Road this week.
"On Sunday morning, Police Constable Garrard
"proceeded to number two Camden Street
"where he found a man hanging by the neck
"from the lintel of the door of the WC."
I can't read that.
"The body was identified as that of James Eldridge, aged 69,
"a widower, who had been well known in the parish
"where formerly he carried on business as a builder.
"Competition and business reverses, however, appears
"to have reduced him to such a low ebb
"that it is alleged he was shortly to have become an inmate
"in the Bethnal Green workhouse."
It's bloody hopeless, innit?
"And the fear of this step is thought to be the reason for his sacrificing his own life.
"The jury ultimately returned a verdict of suicide by hanging
"while in a state of temporary insanity."
So that was my great-great grandfather.
So I suppose his wife had passed away, my great-great-grandmother.
He was living alone.
His children are now married and struggling to keep their own families together.
-There's no pension.
-He's worried about paying the rent.
And he doesn't want to go into the workhouse.
Which is the only other option.
And there he is, virtually 70 years old and the only escape
is to tie a rope around the blooming outside toilet
and stand on a chair and...
You know, it's beyond sad.
It's so sad.
My overriding feeling is one of sadness.
The fact that Bethnal Green was the poorest area of London.
There was no quality of life.
They were just struggling day in, day out just to put food on the table and feed their families.
And to realise that James Eldridge would prefer to commit suicide than go into a workhouse
makes me wonder how bad these workhouses were.
And really, that's what I would like to find out now.
Exactly what a workhouse was and why everyone was so petrified to have to enter them.
Len has come to the Bishopsgate Institute in the East End of London
to see their archives on the history of workhouses.
Helping Len is historian and geographer, David Green.
Well, David, my great-great grandfather, James Eldridge, committed suicide
because of his fear of the workhouse.
And I really want to know, what was the stigma about going into the workhouse?
You know, was it the shame of having to go, or was it the conditions in the workhouse?
Well it was both, really.
If you were a respectable worker, making your own way in life, you would try to be independent
and you would not want to fall into the workhouse.
I mean, many elderly people, perhaps as many as a third of elderly people,
ended up at some point in the workhouse.
So it was the point where you could no longer work, there was nothing else for you outside,
your children might have died, or moved away, or themselves been poor.
That was what you had.
Victorian workhouses were set up by the Government and paid for by local ratepayers.
They provided somewhere to live for those who had no other means of support.
The paupers who ended up there were made to do hard physical labour, like breaking up rocks
for up to ten hours a day.
The Government was determined that the workhouse should not be seen as an easy option.
It was designed to be a last resort.
Although inmates were free to leave, most stayed because they had nowhere else to go.
So James Eldridge committed suicide because he was frightened of the workhouse.
Do you know if there was anybody in the family that had actually been in the workhouse?
No, but I do know the whole family had this morbid fear - the workhouse.
There was always that threat, even when I was a young lad, if I did something, my mum would say,
"We'll all end up in the workhouse."
I can understand it, because you can trace through various documents that there is in fact a link.
Let me show you this,
this is the marriage certificate of James Eldridge and Sarah Cecil.
And her father, John Cecil, was a weaver.
He would almost certainly have been a silk weaver in this district,
Bethnal Green was the centre of the silk weaving industry in London.
And this is the death certificate of John Cecil.
You can see his name there.
So he would have been James Eldridge's father-in-law.
That's right, and he died in 1866 and he died of asthma.
-In the workhouse.
Now that was a really awful fate.
So James Eldridge's father-in-law had been in the workhouse and he may
have visited him there during the course of that time.
And his fear might have been that he was going to do down the same road as John Cecil, end up dying
in the workhouse, and that must have been a terrible fear for him.
James Eldridge committed suicide 23 years after John Cecil died in the Bethnal Green workhouse.
Throughout that time, the fear of the workhouse loomed large for the people of London.
Conditions in most workhouses hadn't improved.
Bethnal Green workhouse was regarded as one of the worst in London.
Conditions there were so bad that they prompted several investigations by health inspectors.
In 1866, the Lancet a medical journal, carried out a series of investigations
into London workhouses, and one of their reports was on Bethnal Green.
You can read what conditions were like when John Cecil died there in that year.
It says, "The patient was covered with filth and excoriated
"and the stench was masked by strewing dry chloride of lime on the floor under the bed.
"A spectacle more saddening or more discreditable cannot be imagined."
So this is 1866,
and that's exactly when John Cecil was in Bethnal Green workhouse.
So the chances are he's dying of asthma in exactly the same condition
as these poor people that they're writing about.
Exactly. You can now understand James Eldridge,
the fear that drove him to commit suicide
and must have impacted on his entire family around him.
That image must have been common to all the children.
And this was the trouble.
Nowadays, if as you get older, your children tend to look after you
and get you into a nursing home or whatever.
In those days, the children were so poor that they had no means of looking after their parents.
I can well understand why my great-great-grandfather, at the age of 69, chose suicide
to the humiliation of having to go into a workhouse at his age.
And the thought that the connection with the workhouse caused the death of two of my relatives
makes it even more poignant and sad.
Len has discovered his family's connection to Bethnal Green goes back
to his great-great-great grandfather, John Cecil.
Although many of his family were employed in manual labour,
he has discovered that John was a silk weaver.
The thing that pleased me was the thought that my great-great-great-grandfather,
John Cecil, he started off as a weaver.
You know, I never imagined that in Bethnal Green -
in one of the dirtiest and most deprived areas of London -
that such an art would be going on.
For me, to be able to weave silk is truly an art.
To find out more about John Cecil's life as a silk weaver,
Len has come to the Guildhall in the City of London.
-Mr Goodman, I presume?
-It is indeed.
He's here to meet the Clerk of the Chamberlain's Court, Murray Craig.
Well, I have found out that one of my ancestors, John Cecil, was a weaver.
And I had no idea that weaving went on in London particularly, especially in Bethnal Green.
So I'm hoping you can shed a little bit of light, maybe on John Cecil and the Guild of Weavers.
You've certainly come to the right place, Len, because we have been able to delve into our archives
and our records and discover a couple of interesting things about John Cecil.
Now, what would happen is, John would have got the freedom of the Weavers' Company
and then he would come across to Guildhall to receive the freedom of the city.
Because of course, if you wanted to carry out your trade or your craft in the City of London,
you would have to be a member of the guild and a Freeman of the city.
And here we have the minute book of the Worshipful Company of Weavers,
from 1st December 1818 and, look, there is John Cecil.
"John Cecil of 153 Brick Lane, Bethnal Green.
"Son of Daniel Cecil of 40 St John's Street, Bethnal Green,
"citizen and weaver, made free by..."
Patrimony. That's very important.
Because he was actually made free by patrimony,
which means his father was a Freeman of the city and a weaver.
And, of course, in those days the son would follow the father's trade or occupation.
I imagine the father would teach the son the skills
and the mysteries of the ancient art of weaving.
So why was it so important to become a Freeman of the city?
Well, the freedom in essence, really, was the right to trade in the city.
And potentially it was very lucrative, because you were being given trading rights
within the richest part of the kingdom, the City of London.
But you also had to guarantee standards of excellence and quality
in the goods produced and the services provided.
So members of the Bakers Company wouldn't give you stale bread,
and the Vintners Company wouldn't give you sour wine,
-the Weavers wouldn't give you cloth with holes in.
-Kept the cowboys out!
-Victorian Trading Standards, or quality control.
-Yes. Keeping the cowboys out!
When John Cecil became a Freeman of the City,
and a Member of the Guild of Weavers at the age of 21,
he was joining what had been a respected and lucrative profession.
The Worshipful Company of Weavers is the oldest guild in the City.
It was established in 1155.
The guilds were like early trade unions,
set up to protect their members.
It was a way of regulating working hours, conditions, and wages.
At Guildhall, there would be a ceremony.
An oath would be made and the young weavers, John included,
would have said "I so declare".
And at the ceremony, John would have received his Copy of Freedom,
which looks like this. This is a parchment neatly rolled up
and this one is almost contemporaneous with John.
They're the same today - the Freedom certificate barely changed.
The coat of arms of the City,
we have the Seal of the Chamberlain, which is faded.
-The name of the king, the date, and these key details.
Now, in all probability,
it would have been kept like this in a little pouch.
As you can see - Copy of Freedom, City of London.
-And the key thing, really, was it was portable.
You carry it about like a driving licence or passport, to prove your status as a Freeman.
-So if somebody said, "What's going on here?"
-"Prove that you're a Freeman."
-Old John would have got it out, "Have a look at this, sunshine."
So for somebody like John Cecil, who was plying his trade
in Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, to come up here and to enter
this lavish room... It must have been the most nerve-wracking experience,
-I would imagine.
-I'm sure it would have been, yes. Yes.
I can imagine, there's John and his father, Daniel,
who's passed on all his knowledge to his son as a weaver,
up they've come from Brick Lane in Bethnal Green, up into the City.
And into the Guildhall and to become a Freeman of the City of London.
How proud he must have been, not only John, but his dad.
And what a thrill that all must have been.
But what I would really like to find out, if it's possible,
is how did John Cecil come from a 21-year-old
with his future ahead of him, his heart soaring with excitement,
to end up in absolute destitution, stuck in Bethnal Green workhouse.
One of few places left in the country
where the tradition of silk weaving still exists is Sudbury in Suffolk.
To try to finally unravel how John Cecil ended up in the workhouse,
Len has come to Sudbury to meet Richard Humphries,
a modern-day silk weaver
and an expert on the history of silk weaving.
My ancestor, John Cecil, he's a weaver, he's 21 years old,
he's just been up to the Guildhall and got his Freedom of the City and so on.
And within a relative short time, 30 or 40 years,
he's gone from being a weaver to being in the workhouse.
You know, can you shed any light on that?
I can indeed, yes. This is the will of John Cecil's father, Daniel.
This is Daniel Cecil's will.
Now, he has a good innings - he lives until he's 83.
He was a man of some wealth.
Interestingly enough, he leaves two properties to John Cecil.
In Bethnal Green. Which really ensures that John Cecil's got a good future ahead of him.
So there he is, Daniel Cecil passes away, his son, John,
takes over the business, basically.
He does. He's a Freeman of the City.
He actually can afford to take on weaving jobs
and you would have thought that things...
-Yeah, couldn't be rosier.
-..would be good.
Unfortunately, the trade is in decline.
And slowly but surely, the trade moves away from Spitalfields
and journeyman weavers, which is what John Cecil was,
would have been finding it more and more difficult to actually get work.
By the time John Cecil turned 50 in 1847,
he'd been carrying on a successful career in silk for 30 years.
But the industry in east London was suffering from the effects
of a range of laws, called the Spitalfields Acts.
These were designed to regulate the wages and working conditions
of weavers living within a 40-mile radius of London.
In face, their effect was to paralyse the industry.
To avoid this, weavers began to move out of London,
to nearby towns, where they wouldn't be restricted by the Acts.
The laws had brought about a steady decline of the silk-weaving industry in Bethnal Green.
So old John Cecil has got two properties that his dad has left him.
-That were set up to be weaving cottages.
We assume that he'd got weavers in those cottages,
that he could no longer offer any work to.
So they couldn't actually pay him any rent.
And really, it's a poisoned chalice that he's got,
because we see in this particular document that by 1855,
John Cecil is forced to sell his properties.
He no longer can sustain them.
He's not able to actually find even a job for himself.
-And he's a Fellowship Porter.
-He becomes a labourer on the docks?
-He's a labourer on the docks.
And he can't get enough work at this time to be a weaver.
In 1860, just a few years after becoming a docker,
John Cecil's chances of returning to the silk trade were dashed.
A treaty was introduced between the French and British governments
to remove import and export taxes on a wide range of goods.
For the silk industry,
this meant the import of cheap material from France.
A move which had a devastating effect on silk weaving in Britain.
For John Cecil, worse is to come, because our 1861 census record
records that he's one of ten people here in a lodging house.
So he's lost all his property, he's on his own. None of his family here.
And he really is in a dosshouse, basically.
And just to give you an indication,
this is what the lodging houses looked like of the day.
This is an actual etching of the period of a lodging house interior.
This is the conditions that John Cecil would have found himself in.
You know, absolutely deplorable conditions.
All strangers, all sleeping together.
-Ten of them, probably in just one room.
-No sanitation whatsoever.
It's just incredible.
Especially when you think that it wasn't far back
that he owned two homes and was working away...
He was a Freeman of the City and doing very well.
And he comes down to this degraded situation, yes.
-And it wasn't long after this that he went from here, into the workhouse, and death.
And when you think his father lived to be 84, and he died in his 60s.
-No wonder, when you look at the conditions that they had to live in.
Well, who'd have imagined that just going to find out a little bit
about my grandfather, Albert Eldridge, the greengrocer in Bethnal Green,
we would be led along a path where we came to James Eldridge,
who committed suicide because he would rather kill himself than go into the workhouse.
And then on to John Cecil and his story.
How he was a weaver and how he gradually,
through circumstances not of his own making, ended up in a workhouse.
You know, it's tinged with sadness and in a way, pride as well.
That they worked so hard and struggled on.
It's just a wonderful story. It's just been marvellous.
Having explored grandfather Albert Eldridge's side of the family,
Len now wants to investigate his grandmother Louisa's line.
Well, I do know that my great-great grandfather, I think, was from Poland.
Sosnowski. And I want to find out a little bit about that.
How this Polish person came to England and London, and what made him come over.
Len was recently contacted by a distant relative
who has given him some information about the Polish side of his family.
It takes Len first to Portsmouth.
Well, a nice chap from Yorkshire, Gordon,
kindly sent me some information
regarding my ancestors, which we have here.
Now, he sent me a very interesting letter.
And in it he writes, "Our ancestor, Josef Sosnowski,
"had probably been exiled from Poland
and there is a memorial in Kingston Cemetery, Portsmouth,
listing all 212 Polish soldiers
aboard the Marianne, including Josef Sosnowski.
So I'm going to have a look round
and hopefully shed a little bit more light is on the Sosnowskis.
"Polish soldiers who arrived in Portsmouth from Gdansk
"aboard the battleship Marianne in 1834."
And here they're listed. Now, let's have a look down here...
And here he is.
But then it says "Jazda Krakowska". I don't know.
Is that the regiment? I don't know.
Now what were they doing coming here from Gdansk in 1834?
But there's a further plaque here...
..which reads, "Lest we forget the kindness shown and the help given
"by the people of Britain's premier naval port, Portsmouth,
"to 212 Polish soldiers, members of the first Polish community in Britain,
"who arrived in Portsmouth in February 1834
"after having taken part in the November Uprising against Czarist Russian oppression,
"which took place in Warsaw in 1830 and 1831."
Well. The plot thickens and the mystery continues.
We've got these 212 Polish soldiers suddenly landing in Portsmouth,
because of some uprising that occurred in Warsaw.
Now, what the uprising is about, I haven't a clue. So I am going off
to jolly old Poland and I'm going to find out.
Len now wants to know more about Josef's life in Poland
and his apparent involvement in a struggle against Russia.
He's come to Warsaw, the capital of Poland,
and the site of the uprising mentioned on the monument in Portsmouth.
Helping him is historian Hubert Zubowski.
Now, I've learned a little bit about my great-great-grandfather, Josef Sosnowski.
But I'm hoping you can reveal a little bit more about him, give me a bit of insight
into what he got up to.
Now, I have...
Josef's marriage certificate here.
So here he is,
but this is another strange thing, of course.
I know him as Josef, but here he's Wincenty.
Clearly it was the case was that he had two names.
He was with baptised Josef and Wincenty.
And, obviously, used one in one context and one in another
-and that would explain a lot and make sense of what happened.
-Now, was Josef born in Warsaw?
Do you know which part of Poland he came from?
Indeed, I have this document here.
Um, which has his name...
Sosnowski Wincenty. Born in 1804.
-The year before the Battle of Trafalgar.
-That's right. 1804, yes.
At a village in the Mirkow area.
-Which is Mirkow?
-Yes. Mirkow is just north of Krakow in the south of Poland.
It's in this part here.
And this is where he was born in 1804.
Now, he was born in a very interesting and turbulent period
of European history and Polish history.
When Josef was growing up in the early years of the 19th century,
most of Poland was under Russian rule.
The Poles under Russian domination were allowed a degree of autonomy
and were even allowed their own army.
But discontent with the Russian occupation was growing.
In November 1830,
a group of Polish officers took up arms against the Russians in Warsaw,
while the local population stormed the city's arsenal.
It marked the start of a ten-month period of fighting
known as the November Uprising.
Now, on the memorial back in Portsmouth,
against Josef Sosnowski's name, there is this other word,
Now, is that a person or a place? What is that?
That in fact means the Krakow horsemen, riders.
-the Krakow cavalry.
-He was a cavalryman?
-He was a cavalryman.
Yes, and this is what he would have looked like. They wore these white tunics.
They were light cavalry. They had a lance, pistols
and a sword and, what is important to bear in mind about Josef,
is that this was a very special unit.
And, most probably, he volunteered for this force.
-These were not conscripted infantrymen.
Um, they were one of the best Polish units. They were cavalry,
committed to the cause of Polish independence,
very formidable fighters and they were used for very serious work.
At one point, they provide the personal guard for the Polish Commander-in-Chief.
-They were used for special missions.
They were, they were and even Russian scholars recognised them
as having been one of the best Polish units.
So they were very impressive.
I'd no doubt that somewhere in my forefathers
there was someone brave and we've come to him at long last.
In May 1831, when Josef was 26,
he took part in the biggest Polish offensive of the November Uprising.
His cavalry unit was part of a 50,000-strong Polish force
that attacked an elite division of the Russian army.
It was a campaign in which Josef excelled.
This is a list of those Polish soldiers who received
the military cross, Virtuti Militari, which was Poland's highest military cross.
And it has different categories.
-There is a gold cross for higher officers and silver and there was an iron cross.
Normally, ordinary troopers, if they were brave, they got the iron equivalent,
but Josef received the silver.
-And he features here, Sosnowski, Wincenty, trooper,
under the list of srebrny, which is silver.
For a trooper to be decorated with a silver cross was something very special.
And, in fact, here is...
..an example from that period of the Virtuti Militari which he would have received.
Oh, this is fantastic.
You know, what makes me feel great is that my great-great-grandfather
was there at this skirmish and he was only a young man
and there he is receiving one of the highest decorations you could yet.
How proud he must've been.
It's just marvellous. Just to think about it makes me feel proud.
The action for which Josef won his silver medal was a victory
for the Polish Army, but, ten days later, their fortunes were to change.
On the 26 May, 1831, one of the bloodiest battles of the uprising
took place near the town of Ostralenka.
Fighting over a bridge on the river, the Polish forces battled for control throughout the day.
But faced with constant Russian reinforcements, Josef and the other Polish cavalry couldn't hold out
and were forced to retreat to neighbouring Prussia.
The November Uprising had failed.
The question for Josef and the other Polish soldiers, what do you do?
-Do you surrender to the Russians? They felt that was dishonourable.
The alternative was to cross the border into Prussia.
And what would their fate have been had they surrendered?
They would have been at the mercy of the Czar and those soldiers
who did go back were put into the Russian army for 15 years.
-Some were put in for 25 years and then sent off to wherever the Russian army was fighting.
So it was not a pretty fate, not something that they wanted to accept.
And the Prussians offered an alternative.
The Polish commander was in touch with a Prussian general
who, in the name of the King of Prussia, offered shelter
to the Polish Army, which by then numbered 20,000 men.
And here we have the original documents from the 4th of October 1831,
issued by the Polish Commander-in-Chief to the Polish soldiers
-and this is the message which Josef and his comrades would have heard.
We have here the English version of this text.
So here we have it.
It's October 4th 1831, and he says "Tomorrow, we leave our homeland
"and will enter Prussia, that offers us a friendly shelter.
"In the circumstances so sad, I speak once more to you, dear brothers-in-arms.
"Let us be worthy of ourselves. Let's leave with dignity
"and accept the cruel fate that we all share."
So he's saying don't go out with your tail between your legs, feeling defeated.
-Let's walk out proudly, and in a soldierly manner.
That's what they did, with the standards, with all the arms, the drums playing.
It was not an army in disarray.
They left with pride.
-Indeed. That was their role.
-Now, there's Josef,
a proud fighting man, and he's had to leave Poland, his homeland,
and move into Prussia.
What does he do?
The one thing we have to do now of course is to follow him
into what had been Prussia, to go where he in fact was in Prussia.
Hubert is now taking Len to a town four hours' drive north of Warsaw
called Grudziadz, in former Prussia,
now in modern-day Poland.
-It is interesting, yes.
-Well, Hubert, this is a place you've brought me to!
It's a pretty bleak place, I must be honest.
-It's pretty grim, isn't it?
-Absolutely grim. This is fortress of Grudziadz,
and in November 1831,
the Russians Czar issued an amnesty, saying that those soldiers
-who are here in Prussia, the Polish soldiers, can return home.
And the Prussians viewed that as an opportunity to get rid of the Polish soldiers.
They'd outstayed their welcome and this is the perfect opportunity to get rid of them.
Yeah, they can go back, and so on. And many of them do, most of them eventually go,
but there was a hard core of those most defiant men,
like Josef and his unit, the Krakowska regiment,
the men from that unit, who refused to do that.
By then, there were only about 1,000 left.
So we've gone from the best part of 50,000 down to 20,000 crossing the border.
-Now we've got about 1,000.
-About 1,000 left.
And the Prussians put all kinds of pressure on them.
Now that the Russian Czar had offered the Poles an amnesty,
allowing them to return to their homeland,
the Prussian government decided all the Polish soldiers should go back.
There was a very unpleasant incident which happened at Fischau, not far from here.
And I've got a picture here which gives you some idea of what happened at Fischau.
-This is serious stuff.
-It is. Yes. It's a French illustration.
-The text is "the massacre of the Poles at Fischau".
-And what you can see here are Prussian soldiers firing on the Polish.
-And they're unarmed.
They had to give up all their weapons when they entered Prussia.
Indeed, so they are unarmed. They were fired on,
there were many casualties, deaths and many people were wounded.
Others were beaten with rifle butts,
and I have here a very interesting document written by a Polish officer several years later,
who knew Josef,
and he wrote an account about what happened to Josef in Fischau.
-Here is an English translation of the first part.
This is fascinating stuff.
"He headed for Prussia with the Commander-in-Chief Robinski,
"where he was..." Oh, here we are.
"..where he was cruelly beaten up with rifle butts
"by Prussian soldiers, next to the village of Fischau.
"After that, he was dangerously ill, and had a long stay in..."
So, he's bashed up and he's brought here to this fort.
And were they virtual prisoners here, or...?
Yes, they were prisoners here, and they had to do hard labour.
Of course, once Josef has recovered from his injuries,
-but I want to show you where they lived.
-Oh, I'd like to see that.
Josef was held captive with 500 other Polish soldiers here in the fortress of Grudziadz
for almost 18 months, from July 1832 to November 1833.
Conditions in the winter-time could be particularly brutal.
It was not uncommon for temperatures to plummet to minus 20 degrees.
-Len, this is the chamber where 100 men were kept.
And there used to be a floor.
50 men slept upstairs, 50 men slept downstairs.
There were animals to be kept here. There were chickens and pigs as well.
It's here that Josef lived for over a year.
This is where he slept, he ate, you know? This was his home.
You know, to think that my great-great-grandfather was actually here, living here,
throughout the winter, freezing cold, it is absolutely incredible.
But, in a way, it's lovely that I've got this sort of connection,
that I'm actually in a place where my great-great-grandfather
had to put up with all these terrible conditions,
and having to go through all this rather than bow to the will of other people.
And it somehow brings you a little bit closer to him.
Eventually, though, the Prussians got fed up with keeping all these men
and they decided to get rid of them.
-And they were put on a ship in Gdansk,
and they were going to be sent as far away as possible.
-That's what YOU think.
-But the destination was North America.
-That is where the ship started to go to.
-No! North America?
-So they were being deported to America.
Well, what happened? How did they get into Portsmouth?
This is one of those little quirks of fate.
There was a storm, and the ship had to seek shelter.
-The nearest port was Portsmouth.
-Well, I never did!
What is amazing is how history turns on a little bit of fate, you know?
There's my great-great-grandfather, he's on this ship,
the Marianne, and he's heading off to North America, and he tops up in Portsmouth,
and I suppose, eventually, he meets my great-great-grandmother,
and because of that, here I am, and if that hasn't happened,
he'd have been gone and everything would have been totally different.
He was one of 212 men who were on that ship,
and the documents which will reveal what happens to him after Portsmouth
are to be found in Paris.
-Yes, in Paris.
Paris became the centre of the Polish immigration at that period,
-and that is where the documents are.
-Thank you so much.
It's just been incredible.
Len has come to Paris on the final stage of his journey,
to uncover what happened to Josef Sosnowski after he arrived in Portsmouth in 1834.
It's here that the detailed records of the Poles who emigrated after the uprising are kept.
Len is here to meet an expert on Polish emigration, Dr Christophe Marklowitz.
So my great-great-grandfather, Josef Sosnowski, he's landed in Portsmouth.
There he is. But I know nothing from there on.
-That's where the trail goes cold.
-You have learned so far that Josef Sosnowski was a very brave man.
He was also very, very active in political terms,
and all of this started in Portsmouth in 1835.
He became a member of Polish Democratic Society.
-That's the membership list from March 1835.
And it was one of the most important organisations
of the great emigration after the November uprising.
The Polish Democratic Society in Portsmouth was formed by Josef
and the other soldiers who'd arrived on the ship, the Marianne.
The society campaigned to persuade Britain and other European nations
to back military action to reinstate an independent Poland.
So, it would appear that he's really proud to be Polish,
and he wants Poland back,
and whether it's through fighting or through a political end,
-that's what he wants to do.
Then we have a small gap in the documents.
-He's certainly moved to London.
To eastern London, to be more precise.
That was the part of London where usually immigrants settled in the 19th century.
-He married in London...
So this is a period in his biography when he's less politically active.
-Well, he's got married.
-Children. That's right.
-Kids coming along.
Have we any idea how many children?
Well, we know that he had a big family,
and he had at least nine children.
Oh, right! So, blimey,
no wonder he had to stop his political workings for a while, to bring them up!
But he revived his activity.
In the 1860s, he became a member of the Federation of Polish Immigration,
-and you can see his name on the list of members.
-There he is.
The Federation of Polish Immigration was a group of exiled Poles living in London.
Joseph joined the group in the 1860s, and their main goal
was to bring about an independent Poland.
Although there was sympathy for the group among ordinary citizens,
governments across Europe gave them little support.
The London branch that Josef belonged to became affiliated to Communist organisations in the city.
What is interesting is the fact that the London branch
of the Federation of Polish Immigration was affiliated to the First International,
in which Karl Marx played a pivotal role.
So Karl Marx was a part of this organisation that Josef was in?
-That's right. And Josef Sosnowski knew Marx personally at that time.
Well, you've got to say, Josef Sosnowski,
my great-great-grandfather, did have a fantastic life, eh?
You know, from probably being a farmer and joining the army,
and chucked into Prussia, moved into Portsmouth
-and then onto London, it's just an incredible, incredible story.
And the underlying thing is, he was so supportive of Poland,
whether it was fighting for the country physically
or politically, he was going to try and see that Poland was restored.
-He was a patriot, that's for sure.
Josef Sosnowski died in 1895 at the age of 91.
He never went back to Poland,
and passed away before it was able to regain its independence in 1918.
Len has now returned to Bethnal Green,
where his grandparents Albert and Louisa lived their whole lives.
I feel no different, I look no different, I am no different,
and yet, I'm not what I thought I was.
I thought I was truly an Anglo-Saxon, English through and through,
part of the East End for generations and generations, but no. I'm a hotchpotch.
A bit of this, a bit of that,
and it's incredible how quickly the blood of your forefathers dilutes.
My gateway into my past is via my grandparents,
Albert Eldridge, and Louisa Sosnowski.
My nan and my grandad.
And if ever there was an East End family, a Cockney family, it's them.
They were typical,
and I just wish they were both still alive
so I could tell my nan about Josef Sosnowski,
and my grandad about the weavers and the great forebears that he had.
I don't know if I've inherited any traits from my ancestors.
I hope somewhere in me is a little bit of the braveness of Josef Sosnowski,
and I hope there's a little bit of the hard work from the Eldridges,
but I know that when it's my turn to go and I pass the baton on to my son James,
I hope he's proud, as I am, of his forefathers.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Known to millions as the lead judge on the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing, Len Goodman nearly became a welder until a friend told him to try out ballroom dancing because it is 'full of girls and virtually no boys'. Now Len feels it is time to find out about his ancestors.
He spent much of his childhood with his mother's parents in Bethnal Green, and it is this side of the family that Len wants to investigate. Len discovers how the shadow of the workhouse loomed large over his family and led to tragic consequences. He also uncovers a connection to silk weaving and sets out to solve the mystery of an ancestor's descent into poverty.
Len also follows the trail of his Polish great-great-grandfather, Joseph Sosnowski. He wants to know how Joseph ended up in Portsmouth in 1834. As Len follows in his footsteps, he discovers the dramatic part Joseph played in the struggle for Polish independence.