Chris Hollins: Past Master

18th January 2013

As the fascinating genealogy show Find My Past continues its second series, Al Gordon talks to presenter Chris Hollins

History first came alive for broadcaster and journalist Chris Hollins at junior school more than 30 years ago; today the 41-year-old former sports presenter is sharing that same sense of excitement and discovery on Yesterday channel’s genealogy show Find My Past.

The programme features key moments in history seen through the eyes of descendants of people who were there, and the second series, which is currently airing on Tuesdays at 9pm (with several repeats throughout the schedule on the following day), includes an insight into Dickens’ double life, plus personal connections to the Battle of Trafalgar and the abdication crisis.

“Genealogy is just a brilliant way of retelling famous British historical moments, Chris explains, and immediately begins to enthuse about the Battle of Trafalgar episode – ‘‘one of the most incredible stories” – due to air this coming Tuesday. ‘‘We all think ‘Nelson… kiss me Hardy… all that… yeah, done it’, but our research team put together a really incredible combination… a relative of Captain Hardy, a relative of the surgeon and a relative of the Master Gunner. The Master Gunner’s son was very badly injured in the battle and had his leg amputated by the surgeon. So the Master Gunner’s relative wouldn’t be here today if the surgeon hadn’t saved that boy’s life. Those little stories are within that very famous Battle of Trafalgar.’’

Chris, who also works on BBC’s The Food Inspectors and Watchdog, became interested in social history as a child at school in Kent. ‘‘My teacher, John Turner, told brilliant stories using his shatterproof ruler to represent a sword or an axe or a bow. I always remember him telling the Thomas Becket story, when Becket had the top of his head chopped off and the knights said ‘This troublesome priest will rise no more’. Mr Turner got out his shatterproof ruler and was waving away!’’

In the first series, Find My Past featured events such as D-Day, the Gunpowder Plot and Dunkirk, and Chris is adamant that looking at historical events from another perspective reveals new aspects. ‘‘I thought I knew everything about Dunkirk but it’s the stories within them that touch you. I wasn’t quite aware how desperate Great Britain and the allied forces really were at that moment. It was brought home to me when I interviewed a veteran who was organising defence systems in Dover. I said to him that it must have been a fantastic magical moment when all the troops came back and he saw them alive. He said, ‘Do you know what, we all thought we were done for’… They were the British elite and they’d been given a good hiding and looked so desperate and beaten when they came back. I hadn’t thought about that before.”

Alongside the fascinating facts come emotional moments. “I was also very touched by the ‘Shot at Dawn’ episode, poor boys who were shot for cowardice when we know they were really suffering from shellshock. It was a very difficult story to handle because we had a relative of the arresting officer and a relative of the man who signed this poor boy’s death warrant. It’s not as clear cut as we like to think it is. That’s the other thing that’s come out of these stories, that none of this is as clear cut as it’s been passed down through the generations.’’

To my surprise, Chris admits that he hasn’t researched his own family tree. ‘‘The trouble is,” he explains, “that doing this programme I’ve been surrounded by people who have the most incredible relatives… I’m frightened I may find I’m from a long line of accountants.’’

One personal history that he does intend to investigate further was prompted by his marriage last year to marketing executive Sarah Alexander. ‘‘We think that my granddad on my mum’s side and my wife’s granddad on her mum’s side might have been in the same regiment or fought in the same place.’’ It would be fantastic to confirm that.

Despite his many current tv projects, Chris is, of course, best known for his connection with the sporting world. He played football for Swindon Town, Charlton Athletic and Aldershot, as well as cricket for Oxford University, and began his broadcasting career at the age of 23 as an editorial assistant at Sky Sports. He later joined the BBC and presented sports on Breakfast but left in 2011 to go freelance, ahead of the programme’s relocation to Salford.

‘‘I miss the sports reporting; it’s one of the things I desperately want to get back into,’’ he says, ‘‘but the chance to explore real history – that goes beyond World Cups and Olympics – well that’s pretty priceless.’’

The Suffragette Connection

In series one Philippa Bilton, Katy Arnander and Matt Jopling (seen here with Chris) came together to discover how they were all linked to the tragic death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison at Epsom racecourse in 1913.

Emily, Philippa Bilton's first cousin thrice removed, was killed after she stepped in front of the King's horse at the 1913 Derby. At the time, she was living in Fulham with her parents and sister, but the 1911 census, taken on the night of Sunday 2 April, reveals that she was hiding in the Houses of Parliament in order to make a political point. Katy Arnander's great-grandfather, Reginald McKenna, was Home Secretary during the suffragette protests, and although Katy declares that she would have been a suffragette herself, she says that she does understand the difficult position her ancestor was in, as he faced having to imprison and force feed the protestors. The final link in the programme was Matt Jopling, whose great-grandfather, Herbert Jones, was the jockey riding Anmer, the horse that knocked down Emily Davison…

Execution and Pardon

In ‘Shot at Dawn’, which Chris recalls as one of the most moving episodes of the first series, three people discovered their shared connection to the execution of a WWI soldier. Harry Farr, who was Elizabeth Haylett’s great-grandfather, served as a private in the West Yorkshire Regiment, but during the Battle of the Somme refused to take part in a planned attack, probably as a result of shell shock. Sergeant Major Herbert Laking, great-great-uncle of David Brocklesby, had little option but to arrest him on the grounds of cowardice, and send a report to Field Marshal Douglas Haig (grandfather of Peter Howard-Johnson). Although Haig commuted 97% of death penalties, Harry's was not one of them, and he was, controversially, executed at dawn on 18 October 1916. He was pardoned 90 years later.

Find My Past, new and exclusive to
Yesterday, is on Tuesday nights at 9pm
(Sky 537/ Virgin 203/ Freeview 19)

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