ANNE REID INTERVIEW
The resources revealed, plus unseen stories
There are a lot of interesting ancestors in the Reid history!” actress Anne Reid tells me as we’re chatting about her Who Do You Think You Are? experience. She leaves me with no doubt that her fascinating episode merely scratched the surface of what the Reid family tree has to offer – they really could have dedicated a whole series to her. Here she reveals what the episode couldn’t include – from spies to American pioneers – and talks about her experiences of getting to know her convict ancestor…
“There were several starting points for Anne’s episode – there was plenty of story and some great characters,” Mary Crisp the director tells me. At the centre was the tale of John Reid, Anne’s great great grandfather, and it began with a juicy mystery.
Anne had always wondered why her great grandfather Thomas Reid (born in 1837 in Fife), his brother David and sister Isabella had been brought up by their grandparents David and Isabella Husband. Angharad Scott, who researched Anne’s episode, explains: “The Reid children’s parents don’t feature on the census returns, and that straight away raised questions.”
“Once I knew it was going to be about my great great grandfather I thought ‘Oh he’ll be quite boring because my father always said that they were ministers of the Kirk of Scotland’, having no idea where it was going of course,” Anne says.
Burial records for Logie, where Thomas’s family had lived, showed that Margaret, his mother, died in 1839, while Presbytery session minutes revealed that his father John, a school teacher, had been anything but a pillar of the community. “I really liked the Presbytery session minutes,” says Angharad, “the way they list John’s offences, they’re so wonderfully petty, but later there are some really serious crimes. They give you a real insight into the life he must have been leading.”
Anne also found his misdemeanours very amusing. “That was one of my favourite parts of the film,” says Mary. “There were whole bits that we had to cut out where she was in stitches and couldn’t speak.” Anne says: “I couldn’t stop laughing – the crew had to put their hands over their mouths because they were laughing as well. I thought it was hilarious.”
It turned out that John had built up significant debts, and in order to pay these off had faked his father-in-law’s signature on a Bill of Exchange. He was tried for forgery at the Supreme Court in Edinburgh and found guilty. Anne was horrified to discover he had been sentenced to transportation for seven years. “I didn’t expect her to react quite so strongly to John’s sentencing,” says Mary. “You see it all on her face – all the emotions, there’s shock and anger and fear for him – she was very clearly there in his shoes.”
Anne agrees: “Oh yes, I was horrified – I just felt very angry with the people because nowadays, what would you get for forging a signature to get money? You’d probably get six months or something – it was barbaric. I said a lot of very rude things about the judge who sentenced him, but they didn’t put it in the programme.”
John had built up debts and faked his father-in-law’s signature to pay them off
She was shown the forged Bill of Exchange: “It was rather a sad little piece of paper – he’d put three signatures on it, tried to fake them, but actually, to see his writing was amazing.”
From here, Anne traced John’s journey to what was then known as Van Dieman’s Land. “It was only about 20 days before Christmas, and I suddenly discovered that we were going to Tasmania. I hadn’t done any Christmas shopping and I’d never been to Australia, so it was a big adventure.”
Following several months on a prison hulk moored in London, John sailed out to Tasmania on the Earl Grey in the autumn of 1842. “He was appointed the school teacher on the ship and he taught everyone to read – but they still treated him appallingly when he got there,” says Anne. Angharad managed to track down a book about the Earl Grey. “It was an amazing find – a real eureka moment – and it has John’s actual words in it. You can get a general understanding of what it was like on these ships, but to have it detailed by an ancestor was so powerful.”
According to Angharad, the convict records in Tasmania are a fantastic resource. “There’s a service called LINC, through the Tasmanian Archives, and you can find out so much information: the description of the convict, their conduct records, where they were based.” But once John was a free man, the research became more tricky. As Angharad explains: “We had no idea what happened to him – we didn’t even know when he died.”
Anne hoped that John had been reunited with his children, but the trail eventually led to Barilla Bay. “Eventually we found his death certificate. It told us that he died alone on that beach on the other side of the world. I think that’s quite sad,” says Angharad.
“John kept himself together and made the best of the situation, and I think that’s what I would do,” concludes Anne.
Journalists and cyclists
There were several other gems on Anne’s family tree that there just wasn’t time in her episode to do justice to, including a journalistic heritage: “One brother was on the Daily Mail, I had two other brothers in newspapers in Canada, my uncle was on the Manchester
Evening News and my Granddad, TD Reid, was on the Bolton Evening News.”
Thomas David Reid was a professional cyclist in an era before the sport had really taken off, and wrote a column for the paper under the pen name Pathfinder. “He wrote about cycling at the turn of the century when it was very fashionable – people didn’t have cars so they had bicycles, and they were very expensive apparently,” Anne says. “We filmed a scene where Anne spoke to a cycling expert
who explained to Anne what an elite sport cycling was at the time – it was the equivalent of Formula One today,” says Mary. “Thomas would have spent an awful lot of money on bicycles and doing these long tours, and in the end we sadly concluded that he probably blew all his money on that – living the high life.”
Second World War spy
But perhaps more exciting is the story of Anne’s father Colin Reid. He was a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, reporting on the Middle East.
WDYTYA?? took Anne to Lincoln College, Oxford, where an expert revealed that Colin had been in the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during the Second World War. “The expert said he’d run a very active spy ring, getting spies out of Greece during the war,” says Anne. “Well, I knew nothing about that, but of course once you’ve signed the Official Secrets Act it was a criminal offence to discuss it with anybody, so he would never have told us anyway.”
Angharad did a lot of the research into Colin’s story. “He had an amazing First World War career,” she says. “He was out in Palestine and he got taken up by the intelligence services following the war. Their role was essentially to encourage resistance and sabotage in Europe during the Second World War in places like France and Greece. He did a lot of work in Greece, it was really messy at the time. We have the SOE records for him, which are really exciting. You can see where he was posted and what he did. The SOE was quite prestigious. He was an incredible man.”
Anne is keen to carry on exploring her tree: “I’d like to employ everybody at WDYTYA? to research my other branch. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was born in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania. I think she might have been born in a covered wagon – I love that idea – because my great grandfather worked on the railways when they were opening up America, when they built the railways across to California. My other grandmother’s mother was born at Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire. The people at the castle are going to take me to Chester Records Office when I get a minute to help me find out about that branch.”
Perhaps Anne’s urge to continue uncovering the facts reflects the journalism gene in the Reid family tree or maybe it’s down to a trait she shares with John Reid. “They said he had perseverance,” she says, “and that’s what I have, touch wood, I don’t give up on things.”
The Bill of Exchange that contains the signature forged by John Reid, whichwhich waswas used as evidence against himhim atat his trial in Edinburgh
A young Anne Reid with her family, including her father Colin who was in the SOE
Anne found her WDYTYA? episode hilarious