Walford’s own screen legend June Brown – more commonly known as the laundrette-dwelling Dot Cotton – kicked off the eighth series of Who Do You Think You Are on BBC One last night and whilst I wouldn’t like to guess the age of the actress known for her on and off screen chain-smoking, June is apparently the oldest person to star on the programme focussing on ancestral history.
Despite being born in Suffolk, June’s history is heavily focussed around the East End Jewish quarter of London. Thanks in part to the renowned meticulous record keeping of the Jewish community, the actress has already managed to delve back as far as the 17th century, uncovering the history of her Great, Great, Great Grandfather Isaac Bitton, a famous and charismatic bare-knuckle boxer.
Isaac’s chosen profession was an interesting one to say the least, highly-fashionable with London’s wealthy inhabitants but also very illegal. With few rules and no limit to the number of rounds, fights often went on for hours, literally lasting to the last man standing. Indeed, June’s relative was the talk of London after his victory following 74 rounds of boxing, with the fighter retiring in a blaze of glory at the age of 23. But this fame didn’t last however, and he died penniless at the age of 60.
In a quest to find out more about Isaacs’s ancestry, June travels to the oldest surviving synagogue in the UK, built in 1701. Here she learns about the parents of the famous boxer, which leads her to Amsterdam residents Rachel and Abraham, with the latter moving the London with son Isaac in the late 1600’s.
Rachel was effectively left behind in the Dutch capital by her husband and son during a turbulent time for Anglo-Dutch relations. A war between the two nations in 1780 plus the invasion of France in 1795 ensured that communication between the two sides of the channel was difficult, and Rachel sadly died heartbroken and alone following the news of the death of her husband in England. Incredibly, June manages to find her grave on the outskirts of the city, and what follows is a touching scene with the actress talking to the deceased women and leaving a sunflower and stone, a traditional Jewish item to leave at a grave.
This moving encounter makes June determined to go back even further to find the relatives of Abraham, and she soon finds out about his connections to Nice in Italy. Looking further through historical documents however, the actress also discovers that his parents come from Oran in North Africa, now modern day Algeria. June is curious to say the least, and jumps on a plane to a Spanish Records Office to be presented with information on her Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather Isaque, in what surely is a record for a family tree unveiled by the programme.
Looking into her distant relative’s past, she also discovers the explanation behind the family’s move to Amsterdam, with all Jews ordered to leave the city of Oran following the rise to power of the Inquisition and Catholic monarchy of Spain. In a tantalisingly detailed account of what happened, viewer’s learn of the ship that took away the Jewish residents, with the refugees flogging their wares on the beach before sailing to Nice, where June’s Italian connections come into play.
Reflecting on these findings, June references the ‘Wandering Jew Legend’, pondering the fact that her ancestors must have led ‘an exceeding worrying life’. For someone who has effectively had the same on-screen job for 25 years, this constant moving about by her relatives is something that’s hard to comprehend, and June is obviously moved by the whole account.
Who Do You Think You Are? is still as fascinating as it’s ever been, and our taste for celebrity family history as viewers has not waned one bit since the show’s inception. Almost certainly this series will be another ratings hit for the BBC, with June’s story typifying how incredibly rewarding it can be delve into our pasts, and how often we can look at our own lives and realise how lucky we are compared to our relatives. Unless you’re Boris Johnson of course, and have royal blood in your past.