The COVID-19 pandemic has given many of us an unparalleled opportunity for reflection. It’s certainly given me a chance to look back at the unlikely place my journey began, where I am now, and what I once hoped for out of life.

For the first time it also gave me an opportunity to look for answers in a place I’d previously been curious but never had time to explore – my family history. Knowing what I know now, I’m so glad I did. What an incredible history it turned out to be.

And it got me thinking: How much do our genes, and the successes of our ancestors before us, shape our awareness of, and drive for, purpose and meaning? Is their legacy a help or a hindrance? And, if I were to write a book, how might I weave their incredible stories into mine?

Here’s the story of just a few ancestors to whet your appetite.

This is Alderman Henry Martin. Born in Steyning, Sussex in 1813 he was to become Mayor of Brighton in what turned out to be a life of incredible achievement. In his capacity as Mayor he officially opened the West Pier in 1865, and during his lifetime was a Chief Magistrate, a published author, saddler and harness maker to the Queen and Royal Family, a Member of the Board of Guardians for the Poor, a town commissioner and Vice President of the Brighton Volunteer Fire Brigade.

William Frederick Martin was a builder, musician and inventor. Born in 1849 in Ringmer, he built a successful construction business after the death of his father. He was also a gifted musician, poet and composer and at aged six played piano to Russian prisoners (from the Crimean War) being held in his community. He later composed a military march which was published and publicly performed. Perhaps most incredibly, when he was nineteen he constructed what is believed to be the first bicycle in England. He also built battery technologies and communications equipment in his workshop, and made money selling working models of windmills. Despite all of his achievements and inventions, he never benefited from a higher education in science or engineering. You can only wonder what he may have achieved if he had.

The Brighton connection with the Martin family (and the fact I lived in Brighton during my time at Sussex University) was a pleasant one, and learning of another relative who lived and worked in Cambridge (close to where I now live) was another. Dr. Ronald Gray was a Life Fellow at Emmanuel College when he died in 2015, spending over thirty years there as a lecturer on German literature, history and philosophy. He spent three months in Germany as a student in 1938 during the rise of the Third Reich, and saw and saluted Adolf Hitler (something he later regretted). Described by the Times as ‘a brilliant Germanist’ he was later called up to work alongside the code breakers at Bletchley Park, where he was the first person to translate the intercepted message from German High Command announcing “Our shield and Fuhrer Adolf Hitler is dead.” Ron Gray’s time at Bletchley Park is celebrated in their official Roll of Honour.

If having a Mayor of Brighton as a relative wasn’t enough, it turns out one of his sons may have discovered the location of the original stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. At the time, William Martin was Vice President of the Shakespeare Reading Society (which seems to be still going strong) and, just for good measure, Vice President of the British Archaeological Association. Like his namesake, William Martin appears to be a man of many talents. His name appears on the plaque laid at the location. According to this newspaper article dated 27th October, 1910:

Dr. William Martin has just published a further article upon the subject in the Surrey Archaeological Society. It sums up the evidence and ends with the announcement which may be fairly described as sensational. Dr. Martin believes he has actually discovered evidence of the existence of the Globe Theatre so recently as 1891.

A big thanks to Professor Roger Fenner – a relative who has been exploring our family history for far longer than me – for the photos and supporting information.