The team investigate the case of Robert Thomas, who died leaving behind a £20,000 estate. The case is tricky as Thomas is the 9th most common surname in Britain.
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Welcome to Heir Hunters.
We follow investigators searching for living family of people who've died without leaving a will.
Today, we search for heirs who could be in line for thousands of pounds.
Heir Hunters earn their money tracing relatives of people who've died without leaving a will.
They hand over thousands of pounds to family members who had no idea they would inherit.
Could they be knocking at your door?
Coming up on today's programme...
Is this all of them, yeah?
The heir hunters have a surprise in store for two long-lost nieces.
I was very shocked to find out that I was going to be a heir,
because things like that don't happen to people like us.
The team have potentially struck gold in the case of a family of Russian aristocrats.
We could be dealing with an estate worth tens of thousands of pounds,
possibly even millions of pounds.
And I'll be discovering more about Russia's turbulent past and about the family's rich history.
We found out they have connections to the gold-mining industry
in Eastern Siberia.
Plus how you could be entitled to unclaimed estates where beneficiaries need to be found.
Could you be in line for an unexpected windfall?
Every year in the UK, an estimated 300,000 people die without leaving a will.
If no relatives are found,
then any money that's left behind will go to the Government.
And last year they made over £14 million from unclaimed estates.
But there are over 30 specialist firms competing to stop this happening.
They're called heir hunters, and they make it their business
to track down missing relatives and help them claim their rightful inheritance.
That's what I enjoy most about this -
the personal satisfaction that I've cracked the case,
that's maybe been unsolved for 15 or 20 years.
Our first case today is a real puzzle for the heir hunters.
Will the team's research prove correct
and can they identify the right relatives?
It's 7am on a Thursday.
At midnight last night,
the Treasury released their weekly list of unclaimed estates.
And in central London,
the list is being carefully scrutinised
by staff at the country's largest heir hunting firm, Fraser & Fraser.
All we know about him is that he's dead.
I haven't been able to find his address.
Partner Neil Fraser has already spotted a potential case.
We're going to look at a case of Robert William Thomas.
He's from Orpington in Kent.
Death is not too long ago, January of 2010.
So fingers crossed, it's quite recent,
and there's a possibility there's going to be a property on that.
At the moment, I haven't got any idea of the value.
The Treasury's list is a major source of work for heir hunters.
It shows the names of people who've died without leaving a will,
and also lists their date and place of death.
But it doesn't show how much money they've left behind,
and amounts can range from £5,000 to many millions of pounds.
When the values are unknown like this,
the heir hunters usually work for a pre-agreed percentage of the estate.
And this makes their job a real gamble.
For us to receive a workable budget, a workable amount of money,
we have to have a reasonable-sized pot to start with.
The first thing the heir hunters want to find out
is whether Robert William Thomas owned his own home.
But they've already hit a problem.
Robert William Thomas is a popular name, and he could have been born anywhere.
All we know is he dies in 2010 in Orpington, so got to start there.
The team will have their work cut out.
Thomas is the ninth most common surname in Britain.
Robert Thomas grew up in the 1920s.
After serving in the Second World War,
he returned home to marry his sweetheart Winifred.
The couple didn't have any children,
and according to neighbour Lily Young, Robert was passionate about two things in life -
his wife and his car.
His car was always immaculate. He'd come down with his bowl and go out there with his chammy leather.
If he was going to take Winnie out,
he made sure it was all polished before he took her.
I think that was all part of how he felt about Winnie,
cos he always spoke about her.
Robert was a caring and dedicated husband,
and in later life, he also became a keen gardener.
His garden was immaculate. He used to grow all his own vegetables.
He used to love to be able to say to Winnie,
"What do you want for vegetables today?" And run down and get them.
You wouldn't find a weed down there. Now you can't find his shed in the corner.
I think he was quite lost without her after she...
I think this happens in lots of cases where people have to do a lot for a person.
When that person dies, they are really lost.
They don't know what to do with theirself.
Sadly, Winifred died in 1994, leaving Bob a widower
until his own death, 16 years later, at the age of 88.
In the office, the race is on to try and find beneficiaries to Robert Thomas's estate,
and with rival firms competing to be the first to find and sign up heirs,
the team must work fast.
I'm hoping to find addresses,
and from the addresses, trying to work out a value.
The team is trying to find out if Robert owned his own home, and it's not looking good.
His address belongs to a housing association,
which suggests the estate may be low in value.
Normally a case like this would go on the back burner,
but today is quiet, so manager David Pacifico decides to take it one step further.
I've got Bob Smith doing an enquiry.
I'm hoping that enquiry will come up with
some more definite information to help us,
because we're dealing with very common names here.
The company employs a network of regional heir hunters
who are on standby from 7am every morning.
Covering all corners of the country,
they're ready to go wherever the search takes them.
Whether they're speaking to neighbours or picking up certificates from register offices,
they leave no stone unturned in the race to find and sign up heirs.
Ex-Customs official Bob Smith enjoys life at the sharp end.
Phone calls may glean some information,
but it's always better for someone to be on the doorstep.
It's a bit like a detective,
knocking on doors, asking questions about people
and their lifestyle, their family, information, that sort of thing.
You know, it's just something different.
And Bob's experience has given him a hunch about the deceased.
I wouldn't mind betting that he probably originally came from Wales.
Surname Thomas. Just a guess.
If Robert is Welsh, the team will have a real headache.
In Wales, nearly six per cent of the population has the surname Thomas.
But Bob's first concern is to speak to Robert's neighbours.
Did you know him as Bob?
-Oh, yeah, they used to just call him Old Bob.
As Robert didn't own his own house,
Bob Smith is looking for any other signs of wealth,
and one of the neighbours is particularly helpful.
-Right. But he didn't own this property?
-No, he rented it.
-I know he had two, er, company pensions that he...
He phones back to the office with this new information.
Well, they said he was quite old,
and obviously he's drawing a pension.
Yeah. So basically, he could have been living a comfortable lifestyle.
Well, he's got two pensions and a state pension
and he's just bought an £800 plasma TV.
Well, it's certainly worthwhile...
I don't think it's going to be a big estate,
but it might be one of those 20, 30, 40 grand, maybe you know.
Yeah. The question is, where was he from?
We've got a potential birth in Shoreditch.
We'll have to get the death day. That's the thing, isn't it?
Bob's estimate of £20,000 to £40,000 is good news for the team.
It means this case is worth working.
If the person lived in rented accommodation,
it doesn't mean to say he had nothing in the bank.
Looks like he may have had a spare few bob or so there.
Now it's all systems go in the office,
as the team begins the search for relatives.
Robert Thomas's neighbour told them he hadn't had any children,
so the team must look to his wider family tree.
Although Thomas is a difficult name to research,
David decides he's willing to take a chance on the possible birth he's found in Shoreditch in 1921.
And if this is the correct Robert Thomas,
they have already found a brother.
-Henry Charles Thomas.
-That's your brother, yeah?
-Still alive in Gillingham.
This would be a significant breakthrough. Have they found the first heir?
Noel, in searching, identifying the deceased's birth,
found what could be a brother,
which has the same mother's maiden name
and born in the same district.
Born as Thomas, mother's maiden name Dyer, born Shoreditch.
So it looked like two brothers.
And if that is the case,
we think that this brother may still be alive
and he found a probable address for him by virtue of the electoral rolls
in Gillingham in Kent.
The heir hunters are working on the idea
that Bob and Henry Thomas are brothers
because they were both born in Shoreditch,
and have a mother with the maiden name Dyer.
It looks promising,
but so far they have no proof that this is the right Robert Thomas,
let alone that he had a brother Henry.
To confirm their research, they need Robert's death certificate,
which will show his date and place of birth.
So Bob is sent to Bromley Register Office.
If they've got it right,
this case could be sewn up before midday.
I'd like a copy of a death certificate if I may.
Straight away, Bob can see that one of his early fears was unfounded.
Robert Thomas wasn't Welsh after all.
Oh, he was born in London.
It doesn't say where.
-Oh, well. Thank you very much.
-OK, thank you. Bye-bye.
Bob needs to pass the rest of the information on to the office.
-David, hi, it's Bob.
-I've got this death now.
-Died 16th January 2010.
Born 4th March 1921.
Even though the death certificate doesn't specify where in London Robert was born,
it's still great news for the office.
It looks like the birth and the brother are right.
The brother might be at this address in Gillingham.
OK, all right, no, I'll go and do that now.
If Henry Thomas is the brother of Robert Thomas,
he could be the sole heir to an estate worth £20,000 to £40,000.
It's likely that rival firms will also be looking at this case,
so Bob must get to Gillingham as quickly as he can.
It'll be interesting just to speak with him and, er...
Cos he obviously is almost certainly unaware that his brother has died.
And if the information from the neighbours is anything to go by,
he never kept in contact with him either,
so it'll be interesting to find out the circumstances
as to why that is.
Back at the office, there's been another breakthrough.
The team has found Robert Thomas's birth certificate,
which confirms his parents are Robert William Thomas and Rose May Dyer.
The possible brother we thought we may have an address for,
we've now proved it correct.
It was a Henry Charles Thomas,
so it looks like he's still alive, living in Gillingham in Kent,
where Bob Smith is on his way to see him.
From this, they've established that as well as Henry,
Robert seems to have had a second brother.
We'd identified one brother, Henry Charles Thomas born in 1930,
but having gone back and checked on a different computer system,
we found an extra brother, Albert G Thomas,
who was born 1924 in Shoreditch.
So very close in area and in age to the deceased,
so the combination of names is right as well.
On top of that,
we've now discovered that he died in Lewisham in November 2005,
which is the sort of area where his brother Henry Charles was too,
so it's all looking quite good.
But if it's been this easy
for them to crack a potentially difficult Thomas case,
it could have been easy for other heir hunting companies too.
They need to stay ahead of the competition.
So, before Bob Smith reaches the house of Robert's brother Henry,
David gives him the latest information.
-Hi, Bob, just to let you know, it's going to be right.
Um, the other thing is,
there's another brother, looks like, who died.
-And he may have children. Died in Lewisham, 2005. Albert George.
-Might have at least four children. Maybe more, maybe less.
All right, thanks, Dave.
The team now knows that Bob Thomas,
son of Robert Thomas and Rose May Dyer
had two brothers,
Henry Thomas, who's alive, and Albert, who's deceased.
Albert may have left four children,
which would give them five possible heirs.
But when Bob gets to Henry's house...
Does Mr Thomas live here?
..it's bad news.
-Henry went on holiday this morning.
Granddaughter Jenny is looking after the house.
Does she know about the other brother Albert and his children?
-They obviously didn't keep in contact.
-Were they were separated when they were younger?
What was the situation with that, then?
Well, um, Granddad was taken to Somerset.
And then, Albert and Bobby, as they know him,
was taken... They was in the army.
-But they didn't stay in contact.
-I don't think.
Jenny helps Bob by getting her mum on the phone.
Do you know anything about Albert's children?
-Oh, she is?
-To Martin. Do you know his surname?
-Do we know his surname?
-No, she doesn't know his surname.
-OK, that's all right.
Any of the others?
What about any of the others? What about Iris?
-She's not married.
-Thank you very much for that.
Really appreciate that. Sorry to call you out of the blue.
That's very helpful. Obviously, I'm sorry to say that Bobby's died,
um, but as a result, your granddad and Albert's kids will benefit now.
I don't think it's going to be a great deal of money. All right?
-I'll leave my card with you.
-Right, thank you.
-Thanks very much, anyway.
It's a frustrating setback for the team,
who are under pressure to sign up an heir before the competition.
He flew out to Turkey today.
-He's got a home in Turkey.
He was delayed because of the volcano.
Right, shame it wasn't tomorrow, isn't it?
All they can do is courier a letter out to Henry in Turkey,
and hope they can find other heirs to Robert's £20,000 to £40,000 estate.
-You're the daughter of Albert, is that right?
Heir hunters solve thousands of cases a year
and millions of pounds are paid out to rightful heirs. But not every case can be cracked.
The Treasury has a list of over 2,000 estates that have baffled the heir hunters and remain unclaimed.
This could be money with your name on it.
The Bona Vacantia unclaimed list is a list of cases
we haven't found kin for.
The list goes back to 1997, because that's when our case management system came online.
The idea is to produce a list of all those solvent cases,
so there should be at least a few pounds in there, possibly many thousands.
Today, we're focusing on three names from the list.
Are they relatives of yours?
Could you be in line for an unexpected windfall?
Peter Paul McQualter died in Greenwich in 1997, aged 54
and may have come from Ireland.
Are you a relative of Peter's?
If heirs aren't found, his money will go to the Government.
Did you know Gordon Lewis Monteith Keevil from Enfield in Middlesex?
He died on 17th May, 2008, aged 85.
So far, no-one's come forward to claim Gordon's estate.
Do you remember him?
Also on our list is Michael David Geaves,
who died on 25th February, 2011, in Ware, Hertfordshire.
There are only around 100 people with the name Geaves in the country
and they're most commonly in the Stevenage area.
Was Michael part of your family?
So far, all efforts to trace his relatives have drawn a blank.
Remember, this is money the Government want you to inherit, if you are an entitled heir.
My division isn't allowed to make a profit. We don't make commission,
we don't get bonuses for passing money to the Treasury.
In fact, the Treasury's more interested in are we finding more kin, which we are,
and are we good value for taxpayers' money, which we are.
If you think you may be related to the deceased on the list,
the onus is on you to prove your family link.
The people that are entitled
are those that trace their relationship in a direct line
from the deceased person's grandparents.
So, a spouse would be entitled, children would be entitled,
aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, first cousins.
A reminder of today's names again -
and Michael Geaves.
So, if you're a relative of someone on today's list,
you could have a fortune coming your way.
Next, an intriguing case for the heir hunters
that sheds light on the turbulent times of the early 20th century.
Later, I'll be finding out more about the family involved,
their adventures and connections to the Russian revolution.
But, first, here's how the case unfolded.
In 2009, the heir hunters looked into
the estate of a quiet lady from Buckinghamshire,
who seemed to have led a fairly unassuming life.
But little did they know they were about to uncover
a tale of incredible wealth, world travel,
and international espionage.
Alexandra Koshevnikova died in June 2008 in Beaconsfield.
She'd lived to an incredible 100 years old
and was fondly remembered by friends like Hazel Francis.
Alex was kind, loving and very friendly,
and everybody adored her.
Sometimes she used to skip along the balcony, "Hello", waving,
and that was it, you know.
But she always said hello to you.
Alexandra was a keen poet
and an accomplished pianist,
but she was also a very modest lady,
and for the most part,
kept herself to herself.
Janet Smith was Alexandra's neighbour for 44 years.
Alexandra lived immediately above us.
Um, it was just a three-bedroom maisonette.
When Sandra was playing the grand piano,
we would turn the television off, just to sit and listen,
because it was so beautiful and it used to come down through the floor.
And we did enjoy that.
Because Alexandra Koshevnikova died without leaving a will,
her estate was advertised by the Treasury in 2008.
Her unusual surname caught the attention of Neil Fraser,
partner at heir hunting firm, Fraser & Fraser.
On this particular case, we started looking around the surname,
trying to play with the surname
to see if there were other people in the UK records, with the same surname.
A rare name like Koshevnikova
could make the search for relatives quite easy.
And initially, they made quick progress.
We were able to identify not only the mother, but also her brother.
Um, so that's two hits, really.
It certainly helps form a family tree.
It's two steps in the right direction, at least.
Alexandra's mother Susanna
and her brother Vladimir
had both died in the UK,
but they were unable to find any other relatives in the country.
The only other information they had was that the family came from Russia.
One of the things which we have to do
is try and locate a place of birth.
The majority of the time, when we have someone who's born overseas,
the death certificate just gives the country of birth, not the place.
Without knowing the exact place of birth in Russia,
the teams had no real way of finding any family.
Neil had no choice but to call a halt to the research.
But then, something remarkable happened.
Although we'd stopped research on this case,
our feelers had already gone out to try and find a place of birth,
and we've had letters back from America,
which have indicated some more information about Alexandra.
Neil had ordered the family's naturalisation papers,
which detailed their journey from Russia to the UK.
Unlike a usual naturalisation which we'd find,
which may be two, three, four pages long,
this one had 50 or 60 pages in, and a very, very detailed history
about the life which the family had had in Russia,
and their journey throughout the world before they came to the UK.
But a significant piece of information in the records
was that in 1921, Alexandra, Vladimir and their mother
had spent several months
living at one of the world's most expensive hotels,
the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
An immigrant family living in, not just a hotel,
but the Waldorf Astoria,
um, you suddenly think, they must be very, very rich indeed.
Now the case looked very exciting.
It suddenly makes us see that
maybe we're not dealing with a small estate,
but we could be dealing with an estate worth tens of thousands of pounds,
possibly even millions of pounds.
And there was more good news.
A university in America had sent Neil letters and poetry
written by Alexandra.
When we eventually got sight of her letters,
they came back, and they were all in Russian,
for a start, which is slightly problematic
because I don't speak Russian.
Having had them translated,
the team noticed that Alexandra sometimes used the alias Tulunova,
meaning Lady from Tulun.
This Tulun is the place where she's actually born originally.
So having searched for quite a while,
trying to find the place of birth,
all the time it was staring me straight in the face, really.
Her alias gave me her place of birth.
Bit by bit,
they were starting to build a picture
of Alexandra's life in Russia.
She had been born into a wealthy mining family
in the Central Russian town of Tulun in 1907.
At a time when most Russians were living in poverty,
Alexandra and her brother Vladimir enjoyed a privileged upbringing.
Both brothers and sisters would go to good schools.
They would also have a very wide musical education,
they would be taken to museums,
they would travel.
But all that changed in 1917,
as Russia plunged into revolution and civil war.
Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown by the working class population
who were starving to death under his oppressive regime.
It was a violent seizure of power.
There was a great deal of bloodshed,
there was a great deal of elimination of groups.
Fighting broke out between the working class Bolsheviks
and the aristocratic White Russians like Alexandra's family.
And in 1921, disaster struck.
Bolshevik soldiers murdered Alexandra's father,
leaving her mother a widow
in a desperate situation.
She would have to try and escape,
because otherwise, er, she could get killed,
the children could get killed
if they found themselves involved in the civil war.
There was really no future for her.
Fearing for the lives of herself and her two children,
Susanna had little choice but to flee her homeland.
It seems she grabbed all the money she could find,
and escaped through Asia to America,
finally checking in to the Waldorf Astoria.
Designed to be the most luxurious hotel in the world,
the Waldorf Astoria oozed opulence from every corner.
But luxury like this came at a price.
A suite cost thousands of dollars a year in the 1920s.
As Susanna's savings began to run dry,
the family was forced to relocate.
For an educated and cultured family like the Koshevnikovs,
the obvious destination was Berlin.
Berlin was certainly an attractive goal.
There were rather different, but still very strong cultural links.
Until the early '30s,
Russians, particularly in Berlin,
were quite numerous,
and were part of the post-war intellectual and cultural life
of Germany in those years, in that decade.
Surrounded by like-minded people,
Susanna and her two children settled in Germany.
Vladimir went to university to study journalism,
and Alexandra indulged in her passion for music and poetry.
The Koshevnikovs seemed to have found their home from home.
Yet, in 1951, they showed up in England.
The heir hunters were on the trail
of uncovering what happened to their fortune.
They were about to reveal the family's links to British espionage
in the middle of the Cold War.
They were part of a group of people
um, to whom this country owes its freedom.
It's a fascinating story and now even more information about the Koshevnikovs has come to light.
In order to delve deeper into Alexandra's family's exotic past,
'I'm meeting historian John Smeal.
'He's unearthed even more intriguing facts about the family's origins
'and their lives during the Revolution.'
What have you managed to find out about the Koshevnikova family?
We found out they have connections to the gold-mining industry
in Eastern Siberia,
in particular a large mine at the town of Bodaybo,
north-eastern Siberia, north of Lake Baikal.
And they were owners of a mine there.
'No wonder the family could afford expensive hotels in New York.
'John's research doesn't end there.
'The Koshevnikov family's lives were upturned by a number of dramatic world events.'
-So, what happened to the family after World War One broke out?
-When the war broke out,
apparently, the father volunteered for service with the Russian Army
and became a sapper in an engineering corps.
His wife and family then moved from Eastern Siberia back to European Russia,
initially to Moscow,
presumably to be closer to the father when he was in service.
It's quite possible that they had their own property.
In Moscow, they seem to have been a pretty wealthy family.
A little later, they moved for a while to the city of Kharkov,
which is in Eastern Ukraine,
and would've been just that bit closer to the front and the fighting,
whilst still safe.
It would've given them a bit more opportunity to have
a bit more contact with the father whilst he was in service.
-And what would've happened then?
-Well, Russia was relatively peaceful
until the beginning of 1917, but then the whole place fell to pieces.
This was the start of a social revolution that would change not just the family's fortunes,
but the whole country's history as well.
The Tsar abdicated, a new government was established in Petrograd, a provisional government.
Soldiers began deserting from the trenches, workers going on strike and so forth.
Over the course of 1917,
it became a time of really great social disruption and upheaval.
The family, like a lot of people of means in Russia at that time,
tried to shelter themselves by moving to Crimea,
which was where many families of means, noble families and, indeed, the Romanovs themselves,
had summer villas,
and the Crimea remained a relatively peaceful haven.
'This relative peace didn't last long.
'In the aftermath of the 1917 revolution,
'even the Crimea was affected.'
They seem to have left the Crimea and returned, initially, back to Moscow.
Apparently, the father, at this point, opted to join the anti-Bolshevik movement,
whilst his wife and children retreated into Siberia,
presumably back to the family home in the east.
'But they would've found nothing but disruption and devastation going home.
'In 1918 and 1919, the mining industry collapsed
'and John thinks it's around this time that Alexandra's father was killed by the Bolshevik rebels.
'It's this period when the remaining family flee
'to the east of the country.'
And when did they leave?
They left in 1920. They applied in the spring of 1920 for permission
to pass through the port of Vladivostok
and made their way out of the country in 1920,
initially across the Pacific to California,
along with a large number of emigrates
to create what was a substantial emigre community in San Francisco.
They stayed at one of the best hotels in San Francisco,
so they must have had some money with them,
or perhaps gold and jewels which they had converted their funds into, whilst in Russia.
This enabled them to survive a very, very comfortable life
before then moving on to New York, where they stayed at the Waldorf.
'A fact heir hunter Neil had already discovered.
'Interestingly, John speculates the reason why the family chose to stay at such an expensive hotel
'was because, sadly, they believed they'd be going back home,
'not realising they'd actually be exiles for the rest of their lives.'
Here are some more unsolved cases where heirs still need to be found.
The Government list of over 2,000 unclaimed estates is money that is owed to members of the public.
But you must be related by blood ties to the deceased.
People need to prove their entitlement
by producing documentary evidence, various certificates of birth, death and marriage.
We will tell them what's required.
And then they will need documents of identity.
If your claim looks like it has merit,
then the Bona Vacantia division will take it further.
You get two experienced people looking at each claim.
Ultimately, if it's a big claim, or a bit complex, it could go higher.
We generally find the right answer. If there isn't evidence, we can't give the money away.
If there is, the case is made out.
Let's look at some of the unclaimed estates from the list.
Do these names mean anything to you? Are they relatives of yours?
William Oates died in October 2009 in Cornwall.
The surname Oates is common to Cornwall and also to Sheffield.
Was William from a Cornish family? Could you be related to him
and entitled to a share of his unclaimed estate?
Martin Pitters died on 7th December, 2006 in Northampton.
Pitters is an extremely rare surname,
shared by just a handful of people in the UK.
Do you share the surname Pitters?
Could you be Martin's heir?
William Gary Sargent died in Tipton in the West Midlands
on Christmas Eve, 2008.
I've got William's death certificate,
which contains some more information about him.
It shows he was born on 8th February, 1941, in Swansea.
The death certificate also shows that William worked in a factory.
Was he a friend or colleague of yours? Did he ever talk to you about his family?
If you think you can prove definitively
that you are related to any of the names today, then the Bona Vacantia division wants to hear from you.
If people want further information about Bona Vacantia and what we do,
the first port of call would be our website,
which has information about who's an entitled relative,
how to put in a claim, how we deal with estates, and things like that.
A reminder of those names again...
and William Sargent.
If today's names are relatives of yours,
you could be entitled to a forgotten fortune.
Now back to the search for heirs to the estate of Russian exile,
Alexandra Koshevnikova, who died without leaving a will.
The heir hunters were searching for a beneficiary to Alexandra's estate.
She died in Buckinghamshire in 2008.
They'd uncovered new evidence that might finally give them a lead.
Alexandra Koshevnikova was from a rich family
who'd fled the Communist forces after the Revolution.
After crossing three continents and staying in luxurious hotels,
Alexandra and her family had settled in Germany.
Now the heir hunters have been sent her naturalisation papers,
and it seemed that Alexandra could have been very wealthy.
An immigrant family living in,
not just a hotel, but the Waldorf Astoria.
Um, you suddenly think they must be very, very rich indeed.
But did Alexandra die a wealthy woman?
And were there heirs to her estate?
To find out, the team needed to know
why she, her mother and her brother all came to the UK.
60 years ago, the family was living in war-torn Berlin.
But the money they'd brought from Russia was starting to run out.
They probably thought,
as many Russians did, that once things had settled down,
they would be able to go back.
That may be one explanation of why they spent so much money
suddenly they realised that their Russia was no longer there.
With their mother Susanna now in her sixties,
the responsibility of providing for the family fell to Vladimir.
In the late 1940s, he moved to England in search of work,
and landed a remarkable job.
After the Second World War, the Government needed Russian speakers
to train British spies.
There were Soviet sympathisers,
not just within the Civil Service,
but actually within the British intelligence community,
who were meant to protect us from the Soviets.
When that became clear,
it really did make British policy-makers understand
that the Soviet threat was a real threat.
In 1951, the Government set up the Joint Services School for Linguists,
and employed native Russians as language teachers.
They quickly recruited Vladimir,
who was a Russian exile opposed to the Soviet regime.
The purpose of the JSSL
was to train British servicemen
to speak and understand the sort of Russian
that was being used by Soviet tank commanders, Soviet pilots,
Soviet naval captains,
Soviet submarine commanders.
To listen to the wireless traffic that they generated,
and that intelligence was vital,
and it prevented the Cold War
from ever turning into a hot one in Europe.
This World War II airfield in Crail in Scotland
was a base for the top-secret language school
where Vladimir became a teacher.
Dave Allen was taught by Vladimir in the 1950s.
He's now making his first visit back in over 50 years.
At the time, this was a very busy roadway,
with soldiers, sailors and airmen
all going about their Russian language courses,
and I think there were also Polish and Czech courses
going on here at the same time.
But they were in the minority.
Most of the people here were learning Russian.
This is a typical classroom
that we'd have had one of the lessons with Mr Koshevnikov.
We'd have had the tables here,
and Vladimir Koshevnikov would have sat in the front,
usually in a fairly relaxed position, sort of leaning back.
He was quite a big guy and he had sort of brown, wavy hair.
Very good-looking man.
And, er, it would be really quite pleasant.
Dave's not the only former student with fond recollections of Vladimir.
The first really mad Russian
we'd ever met.
It was a sort of, I don't know,
a kind of concept
that Russians were a bit wild.
And that was Vladimir Koshevnikov.
Anyway, Vladimir Koshevnikov was thoroughly eccentric.
We would flop down on the grass.
He would put two bottles of white wine on the grass,
and throw down some packets of cigarettes.
And you had to have a glass of wine
before you were allowed to read or recite a poem.
Because he said the object of drinking wine is to liberate the soul.
That's what the Russians believe. They still believe it, incidentally.
That a bottle of vodka, you drink it to liberate the soul.
Vladimir's informal teaching style appealed to the trainee spies.
Vladimir Koshevnikov was a unique teacher,
and a very gifted man, very artistic.
And he created a very good learning environment.
Because his knowledge of Russian was so good,
we learned a lot about Russian in a kind of literary sense.
The Koshevnikovs had the perfect credentials for the JSSL,
so Vladimir's sister Alexandra was also recruited,
and in 1951, the whole family moved from Berlin to the UK.
There was a sister there, and she went on to teach in later courses.
But the mother must have been a burden to some extent
because she was an old lady
who had to be looked after in a foreign country.
This close-knit family who'd travelled across six countries
finally settled in Beaconsfield in 1966.
Immersed in their work at the JSSL,
neither Alexandra or Vladimir ever married or had any children.
Instead, they lived together with their mother Susanna
for another 25 years,
until she died in 1976.
Sadly, Alexandra's beloved brother Vladimir died just two years later,
and for the first time in her life, she was alone.
Sandra was on her own when her mother and brother had died,
yes, I would say, she was a lonely person to a certain extent,
although she seemed quite self-sufficient in many ways.
But yes, I would have said she was a lonely person.
Alexandra threw herself further into her work,
and became increasingly reclusive.
I gather she'd had a hard life before they came to this country,
and although I know she'd always worked as a translator,
I would have thought she'd have had some money,
but she always appeared not to have a lot of money,
and, you know, I just assumed she hadn't got a lot of money.
Alexandra passed away in June 2008 at the age of 100.
But one question remained.
Having been born wealthy and watched their mother's money run out,
had Vladimir and Alexandra earned enough
as spy school language teachers to leave a valuable estate?
They've lived this very, very exciting life,
and it looks as though it's a family
which has ended up with virtually nothing.
So from wealthy beginnings,
it turned out the Koshevnikovs had died poor.
And with no traces of any relatives in the UK,
Neil had nowhere left to go.
We have spent quite a lot of money.
We spent quite a lot of money sending researchers out,
sending letters to America,
applying for naturalisations,
having an awful amount of documents translated,
and just the research in the first point -
the number of staff we had on it.
We're never going to make that money back.
So this is a case which we unfortunately can't take any further.
Unless we suddenly find out
that the estate's worth a lot more than we thought.
But I seriously doubt that.
But for the heir hunters, the case of Alexandra Koshevnikova has been a memorable one.
It's been quite a nice journey,
even if we're not going to get any fees or anything out of it.
It's taught us a bit more about research,
which hopefully will come in useful next time we have to do a case.
While the case isn't valuable enough for the heir hunters to continue,
it's believed to be worth between £5,000 and £15,000,
and it's still unclaimed.
Could you be a rightful heir?
Finally, let's return to the story of Robert Thomas, who died without a will and with no known kin.
The heir hunters have discovered he'd been in the army,
but, sadly, not much else.
In order to find out more about his experiences in the Second World War,
I'm meeting military expert, Taff Gillingham,
'who's going to help me interpret Robert's war records.'
So, what have you found relating to Robert?
OK, we've got his service record from the Ministry of Defence.
This gives us a clear indication of what he's done and when he's done it.
It shows that he joins in April 1941. By this time, he's 20 years old.
Normally, you'd join at 18 - that's when you'd be called up.
There can be a number of reasons for that.
He was a labourer, a bricklayer by trade,
and my guess is that in the early part of the war, there's an enormous need for new barracks, airfields,
so he may well have been doing that kind of work, or, after the Blitz, it may well have been rebuilding
important buildings in the centre of London.
What regiment was he in?
He joins the Royal Artillery and, specifically, he joins
a light anti-aircraft battery
and stays with different light anti-aircraft batteries pretty much throughout the war.
The job of the light anti-aircraft,
obviously their job is to keep German aircraft away from important positions, airfields, factories,
and, being light anti-aircraft, that was all about the size of the guns.
They had what were called Bofors guns,
with a 40mm shell that they fired. They were very quick.
So they could do a lot of damage very quickly
and did a good job keeping German aircraft away from important places.
-What would he have done in this unit?
-What's interesting is
he joins in 1941 and he's promoted very rapidly.
Bearing in mind he's a bricklayer, not a trained soldier,
and he's promoted very quickly to lance bombardier, then bombardier.
Bombardier was the equivalent of corporal in the Army. Eventually,
he reaches the rank of sergeant.
So he must have had a way with men, been good at leadership.
He obviously was well thought of
and was an important guy in his particular battery.
Did he see any action abroad?
Yes, he does. He goes over two days after D-Day.
Obviously on D-Day, there's an enormous crush on the beaches.
You really need to get the infantry and anti-tank units ashore,
and the tanks themselves.
But a couple of days later, you then need to protect that beachhead,
to try and keep the Germans away from it, so you can bring supplies and everything ashore.
Light anti-aircraft batteries are set up to keep the German aircraft away.
So, obviously, this is a very dangerous part of the war.
Absolutely. This is the invasion of Normandy.
It's what everybody's been waiting for since 1940,
a massive, massive effort to take the whole British and American forces
across the Channel, into Europe, to start pushing the Germans back.
This is where they're trying to break in and the Germans are doing everything they can to keep them out.
So, what happened after D-Day? What happened after this point?
Eventually, they break out and start moving across Europe.
By this time, the battery he's attached to spends some time around Dunkirk.
In 1944, the Germans are very keen to hang onto it. It's a port,
they know how important that is. They don't want us having it, because once we've captured another port,
we have another place to bring supplies,
so the Germans are besieged there for a while
and his unit are part of that siege.
Then they carry on moving across through Europe, till they finish the war in Germany.
'But it was far from over for Robert and his fellow soldiers.
'The Allies then had to defend Germany against the Russians,
'who had taken control of half the country.
'No-one really knew what was coming next,
'but anti-aircraft batteries like Robert's were moved into Germany
'to protect the troops from the threat of the Russians.'
What also happens, it tells us in his records,
that he gets attached to the 3rd Infantry Division.
The 3rd Division, they've fought all across Europe, one of the elite assault divisions on D-Day,
and the decision has been made
that they'll be one of the units that go and invade mainland Japan.
Then the atomic bomb arrives and that's the end of that.
But because they've got this very highly-trained unit, they then send them to the next hot-spot.
At that time, that's Palestine.
So, when was the war over for Robert? When did he go home?
Finally, he goes home in February 1946.
He's actually been in the Army for a long time by then.
He joined in 1941.
Pretty much it was first in, first out, unless you'd got a special skill that you had,
that was needed in the civilian world.
Building labourer might not have put him too high up the list.
-It takes him until February 1946 to get home.
-Fascinating, thank you.
-It's a pleasure.
The revelation that Robert Thomas was an Army sergeant who inspired his men as they fought across Europe
is slightly at odds with the quiet man remembered by his friends and neighbours.
But, having heard his story,
and now, having read his military record,
it's clear Robert was easily capable of being both a courageous and caring man.
Now, to deliver Robert's final legacy, the heir hunters are searching for his surviving family.
The team are making gradual progress on his case,
despite Thomas being one of the most common surnames in the UK.
How many births have we got on that, Noel?
88-year-old Robert Thomas was a widower
who died without leaving a will.
But in a frustrating setback, the team has missed one heir,
Robert's brother, by just hours.
He flew out to Turkey today.
He's got a home in Turkey.
Shame it wasn't tomorrow, isn't it?
Now the team at Fraser & Fraser are racing to find other heirs.
Is this all of them?
-There might be more, but they're the ones in area.
The search is focused on Robert's other brother Albert, who has died,
but had four children.
He'd married a lady, Iris D Warren,
and they've had several children.
We've identified at least four children so far.
Luckily, one of them is called Iris D Thomas,
which is the name of Albert's wife,
so it's all tying in quite nicely.
New details for the Thomas family tree
show Bob's brother Albert Thomas married Iris Warren in 1953.
The team's found they had five children,
but one was adopted out of the family, so will not be an heir.
Lynda was supposed to be married to Martin.
We've got that address there.
They quickly find an address for one of the sisters, Iris Thomas.
And for the second time today, Bob's off to try and meet an heir.
Hopefully, she will be in contact with all her brothers and sisters,
or sisters, there are no brothers.
And sign her up and get all their details.
Bob missed the last heir by a matter of minutes.
He's hoping this time the house visit will produce results.
-You're the daughter of Albert.
-Is that right?
And he had brothers Robert and Henry? Is that right?
Yeah, Uncle Henry, yeah.
Right. I don't know if you're aware,
but your uncle Robert, unfortunately died earlier this year.
He never had children. He was married to Winnie.
-That's right, yeah.
-Do you want to come in?
-Is that all right?
The news of Robert's death has come as a surprise to his niece Iris.
It's just a shock to me to know he'd passed away.
I actually thought he'd passed away before my dad
because we didn't see him for a long time
and we was all saying, even my dad kept saying,
"Bobby must have passed away because he hasn't been in touch."
You know, you do get these things happen, don't you?
Bob Smith fills out the paperwork, which Iris is happy to sign.
I'll have the £90 and you can have the £10.
It's a result.
Finally, Bob's found an heir to the Thomas estate.
Obviously, she was happy to sign a contract with us
and I've got all the details of her sisters,
so good day all round.
In the office, David Pacifico is able to contact Albert's other daughters.
My name is David Pacifico of a company called Fraser & Fraser.
We've just been in contact with your sister Iris.
Robert Thomas's nieces will receive half of his estate.
Right, well, as you know,
we've been trying to track down the Thomas family
regarding an estate of an uncle of yours who unfortunately passed away.
While the other half of the estate,
estimated between £20,000 to £40,000,
will go to his brother Henry.
The big rush is that because it's a new job,
you know, potentially it could be competitive,
and I want to make sure we get all our letters out today.
Almost a month later, the heir hunters have learned their gamble was worth it.
Robert Thomas's estate is worth £20,000.
His nieces Iris and Lynda
have both had time to reflect on the unexpected windfall.
I was very shocked to find out that I was going to be a heir, one of the heirs,
because things like that don't happen to people like us.
And we didn't honestly think that Bob had money, did we?
No, as far as we know,
he lived in a little council maisonette in Orpington,
um, and, all right, he might have had a big win on the National,
got the bingo up, or whatever.
Maybe that's what happened.
Or the lottery.
Yeah, obviously, as far as I know,
I didn't even know he had money, to be honest.
The experience has brought back fond memories of Uncle Bob.
When the girls' parents split up and they moved in with their grandparents
Bob would drive round to entertain them.
He used to have three cars, a Morris Minor,
a Volkswagen Beetle,
and then, obviously, the Mini, and the Mini was our favourite of all.
And he used to take us out for a little ride,
every Sunday he'd come,
to Blackwall Tunnel and back.
And it was brilliant. We loved it.
We used to say, "Take us for a ride, Uncle Bob, take us for a ride."
He'd say, "All right, then."
And we'd all pile in the back,
and he'd take us all the way to the Blackwall Tunnel,
which is no journey, really, but when you're a kid, it was a day out.
We loved it, didn't we? Always through the Blackwall Tunnel.
Always the same place.
Always the same ride, yeah.
The sisters have dug out a treasured photo
of Uncle Bob and their dad Albert from the War,
that their grandmother treasured.
The story behind this was, um,
Dad being in the Navy and Bob being in the Army,
they was never home on leave at the same time.
And this particular time, they were both home together,
and Nan got a snapshot of her two lovely boys in uniform.
And this always sat, pride of place, on Nan's mantelpiece, remember?
-Always on her mantelpiece.
-In that old-fashioned frame.
-Yeah, it was lovely.
-They look so young, don't they?
Look at the lovely uniforms and that. Lovely.
With no children himself,
Bob was happy to spend some of his hard-earned cash on his nieces.
Quite exciting when Bob used to come down, wasn't it?
Yeah, always used to give us our pocket money.
We always used to thought he was rich, didn't we?
Well, we did, because he had no children, I suppose,
whereas our dad had to watch every penny he had.
And I suppose, Bob, not having children,
would give us sixpence here and there,
and we just took it for granted
that he was a cash cow at that point in our lives.
What was it? Ten shillings, wasn't it?
Sometimes a ten-shilling note, yeah.
Now almost 20 years have passed
since Iris and Lynda have seen Bob,
and they wish they'd been able to pay their respects to a much-loved uncle.
I miss not being able to say goodbye
and going to his funeral, that I do miss.
Because it's something you need to do to someone in the family.
-Yeah, it's respect, isn't it?
-But we've got good memories.
I haven't got a tissue on me. Don't start blubbing. Come on.
I'm all right, Iris.
If you would like advice about building your family tree
or making a will, go to:
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Series dedicated to finding the heirs of people who have died without leaving a will.
Robert Thomas died in 2009, leaving behind a £20,000 estate. Thomas is the 9th most common surname in Britain, but will the team win through and ensure Robert's estate goes to relatives and not the government?
The team also look at the estate of Alexandra Koshevnikova, who fled Russia after the revolution of 1917. She came from a wealthy background and spent months staying in the Waldorf Astoria in New York, but ended up living in Buckinghamshire teaching Russian for the British Secret Service.