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Acting as family

historian Miriam Margolyes has discovered her family tree includes a criminal and an acrobat. Penny Law meets one of Britain’s best-loved character actresses


ell known for her vivacity and enthusiasm on stage and screen, Miriam Margolyes has recently been channelling her enormous energies into a new “absolute obsession” – genealogy. When I arrive at her London home, she apologies for being late, explaining that she rose at 5am to call a newfound cousin in Canada. Over the last 10 years, on her mother’s side alone, Miriam has managed to trace nearly 4,000 ancestors over 11 generations, with a total of 981 different surnames.

The actress Miriam Margolyes.

“I think what actually started it off was a BBC request for me to take part in a series called Sentimental Journeys. Various people were asked to choose and go back to a place that had an emotional significance to them.” Miriam suggested Glasgow, the city of her father’s birth, or Grodno, the city in Belarus where her grandfather was born. “To my surprise and delight they chose Grodno. A group of us went and I brought along a genealogist at my own expense to help do the research while I was there. The whole trip was an extraordinary experience and it really fired me up to know more.” There was another personal factor that galvanised Miriam into researching her family tree: the fact that she is Jewish.

“I am passionately interested in the history of the Jewish people because so many people throughout history have wanted to destroy us. Genealogy for a Jew is almost a defiance, and is bearing witness to the fact that we survived. It has an emotional context to it.” So many Jewish families changed their names, sometimes more than once, and this, combined with the fact that relatively few records have survived, makes tracing ancestors infinitely more difficult. “During the Second World War, it was not just the Jewish people that were destroyed. The gravestones, records, synagogues, and what we would call the parish registers – everything was burnt.” Even so Miriam has traced some of her ancestors back to 1752.

Miriam Margolyes

The Three Arnos music hall performers. Their female member was Bertha Biermann, Miriam Margolyes’s first cousin once removed.





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It is for this reason that she is grateful to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) also known as Mormons. Its systematic microfilming of old church and synagogue records round the world has proved invaluable. Miriam has clearly dedicated an awful lot of time and effort into researching her family tree, but she does confess to having received outside help on a couple of occasions. “I was in the General Register Office looking for my great-grandfather, Simon Sandeman, on the 1881 Census. When I found him, next to the name were the letters CONV.” She later found it was an abbreviation for convict. “This happened right at the beginning of my search and I didn’t know what to do. How do you search for criminals?” Miriam asked David Hawkings, a specialist in criminal ancestry, for help. He took her to Guildhall Library, which

Miriam was equally thrilled to discover that theatre and entertainment is obviously in her blood... holds mugshots of many London criminals – including her greatgrandfather. David helped her discover that Simon had run a shop in Leicester. In a local directory of 1878 he was listed as a “wholesale retail jeweller and clock dealer”. Later that same year he was imprisoned for receiving stolen goods and for fraud. Many of Miriam’s family emigrated to South Africa in the 19th century, so she also contacted Paul Cheifitz, who lives there and is a specialist on South African Jews. When she had first started working on her family tree, her cousin Buffy had brought her a couple of photographs from a box in the attic. One of them showed a man dressed in a smart coat, sporting a tie pin, and a fur hat. None of the family knew anything about him, nor did they have a date or location for the photo. It was only when Miriam saw her greatgrandfather’s mugshot that she realised it was Simon, who had emigrated to South Africa shortly after his release from jail; he had obviously “The criminal”, Simon Sandeman in Parkhurst Prison. He was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour in 1877 for fraud and receiving.

sent the photo home to England to show relatives how well he had done for himself. There is also a photo of his wife, dressed equally elegantly. On having a criminal ancestor Miriam comments: “Of course some of my family who I have shared this news with are not thrilled. I however, am absolutely delighted! I am not critical of the things that happened to my ancestors, I am just fascinated by them.” It became apparent that “the criminal”, as Miriam fondly calls him, is not her only colourful ancestor. His son, Charles, was summoned for keeping whores in his room in a Johannesburg hotel, described as “a resort for thieves, drunkards and unsavoury clients.” It is perhaps surprising to learn that Charles was also a senior member of the Durban Synagogue Committee in 1907. Miriam was equally thrilled to discover that theatre and entertainment is obviously in her blood, as four grand-daughters of “the criminal” were music hall artists. The most successful was Bertha, who performed comic acrobatics in a troupe called The Three Arnos. Miriam’s most recent surprise was discovering the last surviving member of Simon’s family in Hull. “I wasn’t aware he had any family left at all, but I found out that one of his sons, Solomon, had got married in Manchester to a non-Jewish woman who converted. They in turn had two children who had two children of their own.” Miriam went through the grave database of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain (JGSGB) to discover that one of Solomon’s daughters was buried in Hull. Of her children one, Leah, had died in 2004. On contacting the solicitor who had dealt with Leah’s death, Miriam was delighted to find that the latter’s sister, Eunice, was still alive in her 90s. Having proved her identity and family NOVEMBER 2007





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Miriam Margolyes


The wedding of Samuel Sandeman’s grand-daughter, Fanny Morris, to the Revd Abe Levy in Durban 1905.

links, the solicitor eventually put the two women in touch. “When I first spoke to her she was ever so shocked and confused. She said to me: ‘I can’t believe it, are you the actress? What do you want?’” Miriam has since visited Eunice to find out more about her family and to get copies of her many photos. Like many other committed family historians, Miriam belongs to the Society of Genealogists, and the JGSGB, as well as several smaller family history societies, including ones in Northumberland, Durham and East London. She reads Ancestors, and also spends many hours on “wonderful websites” such as Ancestry, Findmypast, Moving Here, and Jewish Gen (to which she makes monthly donations). “Moving Here is amazing because, for example, they digitised the registers of the Jews Free School. It was the main one in London in the 19th century, and both my aunt and grandmother were teachers there.” Like everyone, Miriam has come up against brick walls during her research. Her mother’s aunt came from a family originally called Michaelis, which they changed to Michaels to sound more English. She and her husband had 14 children and Miriam has been able to trace all but two. 12 • ANCESTORS NOVEMBER 2007

“Those two went to America, changed their name to Mitchell and stopped being Jewish. I think they moved between 1925 and 1929, but they don’t seem to be on any shipping list or census in America under an identifiable name. They wanted to be hidden and they are.” Her other major brick wall is Simon’s son Charles, about whom she has no information apart from his birth and his debaucherous affairs in Johannesburg hotels! Miriam’s obsession has taken her all over the world. She has visited numerous relatives in South Africa, America, Israel, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey, Argentina, Canada and Australia, and has arranged a great many reunions along the way. Yet her enthusiasm and thirst to know more has not been quenched. “What I haven’t done yet is to go back into the German and Polish records and see what I can find there.” She is also emphatic about the importance of family history. “I think that genealogy should actually be taught in schools. It’s like being a detective in history, and it’s great fun. It would be extremely useful for children to know about the things that happened to the people in their family, which have affected who they are and how their life turns out.

“I’m very proud of my family because they came over with nothing from these little rural villages, not speaking or understanding the language, and not knowing anything about the place they were going to. They got on a boat to somewhere entirely unfamiliar, they got off and made a life; and most of them have done very well.” Miriam also gains a great sense of satisfaction from forging links between family members, in spite of uncovering various quarrels. “We didn’t speak to my cousins for 50 years, and it was only because I started doing genealogy that we made up, and are now very close.” Miriam now has several relatives across the globe who are simultaneously working on different branches of the tree. As she admits: “I certainly lose sleep because I can’t resist doing research late into the night! But, genealogy makes me happy.” Quite how she has the time and energy to make Bafta award-winning performances on the stage and screen is beyond me. Penny Law is a history graduate who has worked at the Second World War Experience Centre, Leeds. She has researched the history of local pubs and various buildings.

Acting as family historian  

Article from Ancestors Magazine Issue 63, by Penny Law

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