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Ben Miller is best loved for his comedy sketch shows with
partner Alexander Armstrong,
and performances in detective series Death in Paradise
and the hit movie Johnny English have made him a household name.
Now, Ben is here in Wales to research his Welsh ancestry.
Although Ben grew up in London, his mother is Welsh
and it's her family he's keen to discover more about.
We always came on holiday to Wales
and, of course, my mother talks about it a lot.
So, I of course learnt a lot about Wales from my mother.
It's time for Ben to play detective once more in greener surroundings.
If you don't find out now, when are you going to find out?
Ben Miller is coming home.
On this journey, Ben discovers
he's not the only famous face in the family.
-We'll have to...
-What do I think?
-What do you think of it?
That's just extraordinary.
He's overcome with emotion
after learning of a decorated World War I hero.
I always find that war very, very moving,
but to feel a closer connection is very profound.
And is Ben's ancestor quite the artist he's claimed to be?
This is brilliant. "It's not really like a modern lion.
"It has a bear's head, a poodle's neck and the legs of a lion."
Ben has travelled to Neath in South Wales,
a place where generations of his family lived and worked.
And it's here at St Thomas's Church, in the heart of Neath,
that Ben has arranged to meet with genealogist
Mike Churchill-Jones for the reading of his family tree.
Hi, Ben. We've been researching your Welsh ancestry and this,
-this is what we've come up with.
It's enormous. Wow.
Ben can see he has ancestry in Glamorganshire
dating back to the early 1700s.
And even further back in Montgomeryshire and Breconshire.
On your mother's maternal side, the Thomas line,
you come from deep farming stock in Breconshire, which you expected?
I kind of hoped, yes. I was sort of hoping.
I feel that farming is in my blood, so, yes, I'm pleased about that.
They were from the village of Llangammarch
and a guy called Thomas Thomas, your second great-grandfather,
he was a farmer and a sheep dealer there.
-I can go hill walking in Breconshire now.
Generations of Ben's family worked in the timber industry.
But things changed with his great-great-grandfather,
He went to work for the railways as a railway porter.
And, as I say, his family trade was as a sawyer.
What do you know about being a sawyer?
I'm thinking they wouldn't have had huge mechanical saws then,
so quite hard work, I would imagine.
Finally Ben's journey of discovery will be monopolised by
a family name handed down generation after generation.
Samuel Peploe Mellin.
-That's a great name.
-Samuel Peploe Mellin.
You couldn't have a better 19th-century name.
What a fantastic name. But he worked as a painter.
-He'd have to be a painter with a name like Samuel Peploe Mellin, wouldn't you?
If there... Was ever anyone born to his trade?
Maybe we'll be finding his watercolours. I don't know.
Ben has no idea how true this statement will become.
In the church cemetery where generations of Peploe Mellins
are buried, Mike can reveal the obituary of Samuel, who died in 1928.
A document which reveals a man of many talents,
or a man of very tall tales.
"Mr Mellin at one time owned one of the largest painting
"and decorating businesses in the town.
"He had painted a large number of local scenes that showed
"outstanding facility with the brush." This is brilliant.
-We've just started.
So I would say more than a painter and decorator, thank you very much.
"About 45 years ago, he was commissioned to paint a portrait
"of Albert, the Prince Consort, from a copy." A Royal commission.
Here we go. Wait. This is brilliant.
"He was a clever musician
"and would play almost any instrument."
-I was waiting for somebody to be a musician.
-You've found him.
"He was an all-round athlete, being a good cricketer
"and a champion of the ice.
"He played cricket for the old Cadoxton Club
"and remembered the late WG Grace playing cricket
"on the ground which is now the Victoria Gardens."
He's just a sort of...
It's just like a character from a Boy's Own manual, isn't it?
"Mr Mellin was one of the finest figure skaters in Wales
"and won the Neath Championship.
"He was also a first-class shot."
He'd been up in a balloon and had the exciting experience
of being shipwrecked while painting the cabin of a ship.
What do you think of all these claims about this man?
Well, I think they're true.
I don't think any of this is exaggeration.
I think this is probably
a pale imitation of this extraordinary character.
Would you like to try and delve into this man's life a bit more?
I would. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to find out more...
-Let's see if we can help.
-..about local artist Mr SP Mellin.
I think he's a tremendous character.
I have to say it has a slight air, to me, of...
another unmentioned talent which is storytelling. But let's see.
I would love to know if any of that is true.
But first, Ben is going to learn more about something
he feels is in his blood.
Ben was thrilled to hear of his deep farming heritage.
But what Ben doesn't know is that his great-great-grandfather,
Thomas Thomas, made a life-changing decision
during a difficult period in Welsh farming history.
He's visiting St Fagan's National History Museum to learn more
and is met by a farming historian.
1882, that was the year your great-great grandfather
took an important decision, important for him, for the family,
-and indeed for you ultimately.
He decided actually he was going to move his family.
-He was 63 years old. He had a much younger wife.
-He had seven children all under the age of 12.
-All under the age of 12. So he's been a busy boy.
But he decided to take a momentous decision and move his family from,
what to us would be this idyllic rural landscape, and move them,
again to what we have characterised, I guess, as the industrial hell
of Dowlais near Merthyr Tydfil.
-And it begs the obvious question, why did he do it?
Actually, the Welsh countryside in the mid-19th century was
falling apart, essentially.
Landlords weren't investing as they should have been.
Thomas was a tenant farmer. He had no security of tenure.
And equally, this was the period when food imports start
-coming to Britain for the first time in large quantities.
So, not only was wheat coming from the Canadian prairies, for example,
-but things like frozen lamb...
-..was starting to come in as well...
-..and the consequence was inevitable.
He had gambled everything on moving his family and the rest is history.
Thomas worked as a platelayer on the railways at the heart
of the Industrial Revolution, until his death in 1895.
His family never returned to their farming roots and stayed
in Merthyr Tydfil, working in the coal mines for generations to come.
Whilst conducting his research, genealogist Mike Churchill-Jones
decided to have a look at Ben's father's side of the family.
He spotted the unusual last name of Ben's great-grandmother
and found something quite extraordinary.
-Well, her full name was Rose Elizabeth Lincoln.
-Do you know anybody else called Lincoln?
-Andy Lincoln the actor.
-Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States.
-You are related.
-That's him there. We're not?
You can't be serious.
You cannot be serious. Oh, my goodness!
-There she is.
-Look at that.
-Rose Elizabeth Lincoln.
Rose Elizabeth Lincoln.
And we go back through the Lincolns, we go...
The whole line.
-The whole line back to...
-It goes all the way back to early 1500s.
What do you think?
-Will that do?
-What do I think?
What do you think I think? That's just extraordinary!
That's absolutely incredible.
A picture of your cousin.
It's my cousin Abraham Lincoln.
Well, I mean, I knew we were... Obviously, I knew we were
a distinguished family of, er...
-of many generations.
-There's a bit of you there, isn't there?
-There is literally a bit of me there.
-Shape of the nose.
Shape of the nose. There is literally a bit of me there.
Yeah, there literally is.
-Do I get to keep to keep the 5?
-I think so, yeah.
Earlier, Ben read the colourful obituary of Samuel Peploe Mellin,
a document which made many claims, including that
of a talented musician, sportsman and figure skater.
Ben is visiting Neath's Historical Society to meet with Hedd Ladd-Lewis,
who has been looking into the claim
that Samuel played for the local Cadoxton cricket team.
And he's discovered the club's original records.
It is possible that, even though he didn't play for the First XI,
-that he played for the Second XI.
And whilst we were going through the file,
we did come across a photograph...
-..of the Second XI.
I don't know if you can have a closer look and see
whether you can recognise him maybe. We're not sure which one he is.
I'll tell you straightaway which one I think he is.
He'd be the one that looks exactly like me.
I mean, that's like me with a moustache, isn't it?
-And a stripy cricket cap on.
-Yes, very similar.
-And, of course, he would've been 41 years of age at the time.
This...I honestly think, if you...
If we got some costumes and mocked up,
and you put a moustache on me and got me in that outfit,
I don't think you'd be able to tell us apart.
Very similar. There is a similarity, isn't there?
The obituary also claims that Samuel witnessed the world-famous cricketer
WG Grace play right here in Neath.
Hedd's discovered some vital evidence in the form of a painting from 1868.
This is wonderful, because the actual club didn't know
about the existence of this particular painting
-in its original form.
And, of course, there's evidence here
that Grace was actually playing in the game.
Is that Grace there behind the wicket? With his long beard?
-With his long beard.
-And his rather...portly frame.
Very portly, isn't it?
So, based on the research we've done,
we can now legitimise the fact that WG Grace did play here in Neath.
-That's satisfying, isn't it?
-We've been able to prove it without doubt.
And, you know, this was a piece of the history of the club
that they weren't aware of.
-Isn't that great?
So, Samuel's obituary claim
to have seen WG Grace play cricket in Neath is in fact true.
Well, I'm just thrilled.
That's as much confirmation as we could hope for.
If I'm learning anything,
it's that these stories that get passed down through families,
and in that case told to a newspaper,
but it was obviously a sort of family story,
so often they turn out to have more than a grain of truth,
they turn out to be, you know, absolutely copper-bottomed truth.
You know, it's wonderful.
Next, Ben is going to learn about Samuel's grandson.
Another Samuel Peploe Mellin.
Born in Neath in 1893.
Samuel was a soldier in the First World War
and fought in the Battle of the Somme.
But this was just the beginning,
as historian Dr Jonathan Hicks can explain.
His biggest test came in November 1917,
when the Battle of Cambrai began.
I don't know about that battle. What was that?
That was the battle that followed the Battle of Passchendaele.
And the ground over which he fought was absolutely appalling,
as you can imagine. And this photograph gives you an example.
-It was just mud, wasn't it?
And you can see the men here living like rats in the ground.
It's horrendous, isn't it?
They call it no-man's land, don't they?
-That's exactly what that looks like out there, isn't it?
And Samuel's officer, Captain Smith, left an account of what it was like.
-I'd like you to read that for us, please.
"The sunken roads leading from the trenches are littered with
"dead men and dead mules,
"wrecked General Service Wagons and limbers.
"The night's worse than the day as the hellish shelling continues.
"By the flashes of the bursting shells,
"one gets strange momentary pictures.
"The tired, strained faces of nerve-wracked men
"and the wet shining of steel helmets
"and the waterproof ground sheets
"which most of the men have round their shoulders."
The First World War, for some reason, and I think it's the...
It's the...lions led by donkeys sort of idea.
I just always find it so moving, the whole idea of it.
I find it such a... It's a...you know,
I think the Second World War was such a necessary war,
but the First World War always seems like such a...
..absolutely futile exercise.
I said I wasn't going to get upset on this programme.
I'm not getting upset on behalf of my ancestors,
it's the general thing. I always find that war very moving.
But to have someone from, you know...
..to feel a closer connection, it's very...
It's, er...it's very profound.
-Would you like to see a picture of him then?
-That's your relation, Samuel Peploe Mellin.
God, he's so young, isn't he?
-Those can't be easy weapons to use, these rifles...
-You can see the horrific bayonet on the end of it as well.
There were 47,000 British casualties during the Battle of Cambrai.
It's just horrendous, isn't it?
And more than that, Ben, he was awarded
a commendation for his work during the Battle of Cambrai.
And what he did for that long period of time
was to keep the communication lines open between...
..the divisional and brigade headquarters.
And that meant going out
every time there was a break in the telephone wire,
it was his job to go out there, under German shelling.
Major-General commanding 20th Light Division has received
a report of the gallant conduct of Acting Corporal SR Mellin.
And he wishes to congratulate him on his fine behaviour.
-Isn't that great? "Fine behaviour."
-That is fine behaviour, isn't it?
Because there was no way that he could fight back,
because, obviously, shells were coming in from some distance away.
All he could do was hope that the next one didn't have his name on it.
-And what we have here is some artefacts...
..from Samuel's family, which show the medals he was awarded.
-The dog tags he was wearing during the First World War.
-And his cap badge.
It's more trauma than any other generation has probably faced.
And to know that someone in my family was at the centre of it,
yes, it's very...
I feel like I'm in one of my sketches.
It's exactly what I didn't want to happen, but I'm glad it's happened.
-But he survived.
-Yeah, he survived.
And he did... Obviously he did, you know, really played his part.
That's a tremendously...
it's a tremendously honourable thing.
Yes, I know.
Earlier, Ben read the obituary of his ancestor Samuel Peploe Mellin.
It claimed he was an artist of some note,
with many commissions for landscapes and even portraits of royalty.
This is brilliant!
Ben is meeting Mike Churchill Jones at Neath's old town hall
to read an account from a court case from 1901.
Samuel had a commission from local pub owner Charles Cheek,
and Samuel had taken Charles to court for failing to pay him for the work.
"The plaintiff painted a sign for the defendant.
"The representation being a white lion.
"Mr Cheek said it wasn't a lion, and he wouldn't pay up.
"The solicitor for the defence said the case would be shortened
"if he could produce the lion."
You couldn't make this up, could you?
"His honour. 'Well, bring in the lion.' Laughter.
"The lion was then brought in and Mr Jeffries said,
" 'Look at it, your honour, what animal is it?' Laughter.
"His honour. 'The lower part is like a lion and the head is like a bear.
" 'But it is very like a heraldic lion.' To Mellin.
" 'I think you ought to have made it look more like a lion.
" 'There's no such thing in nature as a white lion,
" 'but you can hardly say that this is a satisfactory lion.
" 'It's not really like a modern lion, it has a bear's head,
" 'a poodle's neck the legs of a lion.'
"Laughter is recorded in the courtroom.
" 'I think it should be altered and I advise you to alter it.' "
" 'Mr Cheek, you won't object to its body being made a little bigger,
" 'its neck a little smaller and its head a little more like a lion's?'
"Cheek. 'No, sir.' Laughter."
-There's hysterics in court.
So maybe not such a great artist, SP Mellin.
Or perhaps just interpreted it as a heraldic lion.
-Not a, you know... not an African, not a modern lion.
It's almost like each click brings you into a clearer focus.
You know, so you start with someone who has this wonderfully
sort of florid obituary.
As we dig a little deeper, we discover,
maybe by the time it was 1901,
his painting skills were on the wane.
This is not the end of Samuel's story.
But for now, Ben is heading to the sawmill
at St Fagan's Natural History Museum
to learn more about the generation of ancestors who worked as sawyers.
But more importantly, what would have led one of them
to leave his job as a sawyer to work on the railway?
Historian Nathan Goss can explain.
It could be a couple of reasons, really.
-The railway had just come to Neath.
So it could have been a better-paid job.
The other reason, really, it could have been the invention
and progress of the steam-driven saw.
-In sort of the 1830s in London, around 1837,
if my memory serves me right, the first steam-driven pit saw
turned up on the banks of the Thames right by Tower Bridge.
And instantly, when they started that saw up,
-it put 70 pairs of sawyers out of work.
-Wow. Straight away.
Ben's great-great-grandfather may have given up the saw,
but that doesn't mean Ben can't have a go himself.
-I'll start off...
-..with a sawyer's handshake,
because you wouldn't have had a thumb in those days.
You think lots of my ancestors probably gave that handshake?
-No, ideally, this saw should be at 90 degrees.
So, if you imagine you are standing on top of a platform now,
-because you're the ancestor, you're the top dog.
So you are standing on top of the pit train
and I was at the bottom, because I was the apprentice.
And I'm the underdog and you're the top dog.
-So am I going to stand on here?
-No, we won't do it like that.
-But it'll give you some sort of idea.
-It'll give us an idea.
If you imagine now, I've got one cut with this now.
-It's down to me and back to you, it's only one cut.
-That's one cut.
-OK. So, you pull.
-I pull like that, now you pull it back.
You see, I'm a natural. It's in the blood, Nathan.
Look, I'm missing the log entirely.
Try it again, now I've got you started.
You didn't make a good enough groove, that's what happens there.
That's probably what it is.
Why is this not working?
It's hard, that's why!
-You've got to really pull.
-Now you've got it.
-There we go, there we go. So let's get sawing.
I think this would make a really good coffee table, possibly.
-I think it might be a matchstick.
-Get a matchstick.
There we go.
Ben's time in Wales is nearly at an end.
But before he leaves,
the team looking into the obituary claims of Samuel Peploe Mellin
have given him an address to visit in Bridgend.
An address of someone who may have
more information for him about the Peploe Mellins.
Hello. Nice to meet you.
-Lovely to meet you.
And this lady has more than a few surprises for Ben.
-I'm Janet and I'm your fourth cousin.
And my maiden name was Mellin.
Oh, are you a Peploe Mellin?
Mm-hm. Samuel Peploe from the First World War was my grandfather.
-Oh, my word!
I saw his medals and I found it incredibly moving, actually, Janet.
I just couldn't... It was very hard to understand that kind of bravery.
You must be very proud.
I've got a little photo here.
There, of him.
-But he was never called Samuel. He was always called Pep.
Yes, from Peploe. He was always known as Pep Mellin.
You can ask anybody in the town and he was always called Pep Mellin.
And Samuel's grandfather was the man with the controversial obituary
claiming to be an artist of some note.
I have something here that you might like to see.
-Am I allowed to open this?
-Is this one of his...
-Yes, it is.
-Look at that.
-It's got 1891.
1891, that's an oil, is it?
-It's got a bit of damage on it.
And it's basically got coal dust, I would have thought.
This is really very good.
-I'm sad to say it's been up in the attic for about...
..as long as I've known, cos my father's never had it on the wall.
And I don't know if my grandfather ever had it on the wall,
cos his father gave it to him and it's just been passed down.
They do say that to be able to paint horses is one of the...
-It's very difficult, apparently.
-..really difficult skills, yeah.
Look at that.
Do you know what, I'm really pleased to discover that he was actually...
because quite often he gets... he doesn't get full credit.
He gets described as a decorator or a painter and decorator.
And no, he was an artist.
Ben's journey into his Welsh ancestry is now at an end
and he can leave knowing his ancestor Samuel Peploe Mellin
was a true artist
and lived an extraordinary life.
The painting totally legitimises the obituary.
It proves everything that's in there.
This is not a painter and decorator, this is an artist.
This is a man with something to express.
And how does he feel about his whole journey coming home?
It's almost like a kaleidoscope coming into focus
and suddenly you see everything in a very new way
and it has a huge emotional impact.
You know, and I'm getting emotional about it now.
But, you know, I'm proud to come from a culture
that's not afraid to show their emotions.