Birmingham comic Joe Lycett was stunned after he found out he was related to a criminally insane ancestor on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?
Joe, 33, found out more about his great great grandfather Robert Wilkinson who was involved in the persecution of the Chinese.
Robert also stabbed a fellow sailor and was spared the death penalty. He was instead declared criminally insane.
As the tale unfolds, the host of The Great British Sewing Bee says: “Mental illness is woefully catered for in 2021 – it was much worse in Robert’s time.
“He had been through some awful times and struggled with alcohol abuse. Fortunately the legal system spared him the ultimate sentencing.”
Robert was born in Cambridgeshire in 1841 and was sent to live with grandparents.
He was put to work, cleaning chimneys – illegal for under-16s. At first, Joe sees a funny side, quipping: “I’m not sure being a chimney sweep at 10, even though it sounds Dick Van Dykey and fun, would have been. I love Mary Poppins, but I don’t think it was like that.”
The reality, as an expert tells Joe, is the grim practice often left workers bleeding at the knees and arms.
A naval historian later tells Joe that Robert enlisted with the Royal Marines. He patrolled the South China sea during the second Opium War, when China resisted British trade of the drug from 1856 to 1860.
Joe learns Robert would most likely have been involved in destroying villages and burning houses as Britain retaliated.
The comedian says: “It was a massacre. Robert will have killed a lot of Chinese people. He will have seen horrible things done to people.”
Robert also served on HMS London, guarding merchant ships off Greece. By 1870 he was heading home, on HMS Donegal.
Joe says: “Life has taken its toll, started to reveal its uglier side, and I don’t know where that leads him next.”
On the journey back Robert stabbed a colleague through the side of the stomach with a bayonet. Wounded Colour Sergeant William Elton had recruited Robert into the Navy. One account hints at a possible love affair turned sour.
A shocked Joe says: “It’s obviously an incredibly sad moment in his life and really scary. He seems vulnerable, damaged.”
Robert was later discharged from mental health care and returned to Cambridgeshire, where he married and ran a pub before dying from a heart attack in 1908, aged 67.
Joe goes on: “Robert’s life was a lost cause, but he turned it around and was completely different in his later years. A life can take so many shapes.”
There are also lighter moments and Joe learns his great grandfather, Robert William Wilkinson, was in the charity-minded group The Buffalos, whose members wore fancy regalia. Joe says: “There’s a quirkiness to my family. There are some odd fish, but I’m happy about that.”
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