Famous family trees with roots in Dorset

PUBLISHED: 10:27 14 December 2015 | UPDATED: 10:27 14 December 2015

Actor Ricky Gervais can trace his family tree, via his mother's line, to Piddletrenthide (photo by S_Bukley/shutterstock.com)

Actor Ricky Gervais can trace his family tree, via his mother's line, to Piddletrenthide (photo by S_Bukley/shutterstock.com)


From a dame with a bigamous Weymouth ancestor to the thriller writer whose grandfather was mayor of Poole, Roy Stockdill traces some famous family trees whose roots are in Dorset

Dame Judi Dench (photo by Andrea Raffin/shutterstock.com)Dame Judi Dench (photo by Andrea Raffin/shutterstock.com)

HOW do you tell one of Britain’s most illustrious actresses and a national treasure that her great grandfather was a bigamist?

That was the quandary I faced when I researched the family tree of Judi Dench, an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA winner and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Dame Judi, who will be 81 on 9 December, was born a Yorkshire woman but her male line ancestry is principally from Weymouth and a number of her forebears, inevitably, had associations with the sea.

The surname, Dench, is of early medieval origin and derives from ‘densch’, meaning someone from Denmark. Hundreds of mentions of the name are found in Dorset parish records and there are a number of Dench families still in Weymouth today. Dame Judi’s brother, Peter, a retired doctor, said: “If you stood on the pier and shouted ‘Dench!’ they’d all come sculling towards you.”

When I gave a lecture about Dame Judi’s Weymouth connections to the Somerset and Dorset Family History Society in the town, I reckoned about half the audience claimed to be related to her and the other half wanted to be!

I traced the Dench family history back to Dame Judi’s great great great grandfather, Edward Dench, a coal porter, who married Catherine Bartlett at Melcombe Regis in 1805. Most of the Denches and associated families in Weymouth probably descend from this couple.

One of their sons, William Bartlett Dench, also a quayside coal porter, was born at Melcombe Regis in 1811 and married Elizabeth Stone at Wyke Regis on December 17 1834. However, their son, George Joseph Dench (1838-1898), Dame Judi’s paternal great grandfather, a customs officer, had a rather colourful love life!

George married Emily Fooks, who was four years older than him, on December 18, 1859, at Melcombe Regis. Together they had six children, including Dame Judi’s grandfather, George William Dench, born in 1865. The family appeared in the 1871 census in Weymouth, but in middle age George appears to have left Emily for a younger woman and had another family in London.

In the 1881 census Emily Dench was living in Governor’s Lane, Weymouth, working as a dressmaker and with some of her children with her. But George Dench was not there. I eventually found him in Battersea, south London, described as a visitor, aged 41, now a printer and his marital status given as a widower.

1881 census showing Emily Dench living in Melcombe Regis1881 census showing Emily Dench living in Melcombe Regis

The head of the household was a widow called Bessie Higgs, aged 38, with two young children. Two more children were later born to George and Bessie, a daughter in 1881 and a son in 1884. Then I found a marriage at Kensington Register Office in 1887 of George Dench and Elizabeth Higgs. On the certificate George again claimed he was a widower.

However Emily Dench was still very much alive in Weymouth, appearing in the censuses of 1891, 1901 and 1911. Emily did not die until 1914, aged 79, and was buried in Melcombe Regis Cemetery. She outlived George, who died in 1898, by a good many years. The second marriage must have been bigamous because I couldn’t find a divorce.

I dreaded informing Dame Judi of my discovery. However, she took it in her stride: “I’m intrigued by what you’ve found about my great grandfather, but if you were to go further back you’d probably find even more disreputable characters - not just in my family but anybody’s family.” She was right, of course!

For my internet blogs into the ancestries of well-known celebrities I discovered a number with Dorset connections. One such is the comedy TV and film actor, Ricky Gervais.

Born in Reading to a French-Canadian father and English mother, his mother’s ancestry was from rural Dorset. Gervais’ great grandfather, Tom George House, was born in 1851 at Piddletrenthide and moved to Reading some time between 1871 and 1878. Tom’s father, Joseph Squibb House, was born at Ansty in 1812 and married Eliza Bollen, at All Saints’ Church, Piddletrenthide, in 1840.

I got the line back to the late 18th century when Ricky’s ancestors were living in an area at the heart of a triangle bounded by Dorchester, Blandford Forum and Sturminster Newton. Their principal home was Hilton, a village near Milton Abbas. They were typical country folk, working as agricultural labourers and woodmen. The main family surnames were House and Squibb, both names very prominent in Dorset. Ricky had a great great great grandmother who rejoiced in the rather splendid name of Susannah Squibb.

When I contacted Ricky Gervais via Twitter to inform him of my findings, I got a response that the star was “fascinated” by what I had discovered and thanking me for sharing it.

Another Hollywood movie star with Dorset ancestry is Kate Winslet. Like Ricky Gervais she was born in Reading, but she had a great great grandmother on her mother’s side called Susan, or Susannah, Phillips who came from Thorncombe and married John Winslet at Reading in 1868. The couple subsequently ran pubs in Reading.

Kate Winslet (photo by FeatureFlash/shutterstock.com)Kate Winslet (photo by FeatureFlash/shutterstock.com)

It turned out that the original family name of Kate’s Dorset ancestors was Phelps, which became Phillips, though it’s likely the family sometimes used both names. Susannah’s parents were Bernard Phillips, a stone mason, who married Mary Baker at Broadwindsor in 1831 and their daughter was born in 1836 at Thorncombe. She died at Reading in 1897, aged 60.

Emma Chambers, who played the daft-but-lovable verger Alice Tinker in the hit TV sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, also has Dorset ancestry.

Born in Yorkshire, Emma’s family tree reveals ancestors from Piddletrenthide, Iwerne Courtney and Stalbridge. I found a newspaper report on the British Newspaper Archive website about a great great grandfather called Simon Strange, a farmer at Stalbridge, who was tragically killed after a fall from a pony in 1855.

Finally, one of my all-time favourite authors, John le Carre, the espionage fiction writer and creator of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People and many other novels, was born in Poole in 1931 to a distinguished family. He was born into the name of David John Moore Cornwell and his grandfather, Alderman Frank Cornwell, was a prominent businessman and Mayor of Poole in the 1920s. Cornwell became a spy for MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and ‘60s and used the knowledge he learned to become a spy author.

However, le Carre’s father, Ronald Archibald Thomas Cornwell (1905-1975), widely known as Ronnie, was notorious as a flamboyant rogue, womaniser, fraudster, bankrupt, jailbird and associate of the Kray Twins. Le Carre made his father the principal villain in his semi-autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy, which was serialised on television in 1987.

Ronnie Cornwall, who twice tried to get into parliament, lived an astonishing life, veering wildly between extreme luxury on other people’s money, bankruptcy and prison.

About Roy

Roy Stockdill, who lives in Poole, is a professional genealogist and writer who specialises in tracing the family trees of well-known celebrities. His internet blogs can be found at roystockdillgenealogy.com and blog.findmypast.co.uk/tag/roy-stockdill.

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