Back in February this year I received a very tantalising email from the TV programme, Who Do You Think You Are?. Now, of course, I may have written and drawn the odd book, even worked for The Beano for a few years, but that doesn’t exactly make me a celebrity, least of all one that gets to have the skeletons of his ancestral cupboard dusted down and put on show for the world to see.
So, why have they got in touch with stupid, old me?
A few years before I became a cartoonist, back around 1998/1999 to be exact, I was pretty obsessed with tracing my family tree. Extremely obsessed, in fact. I worked in an artshop and a furniture factory back in those days and whilst I toiled away at my day jobs, I would meticulously plan my trips to research libraries and archives around London. This was before the internet became the vast genealogical resource that it is today, so sitting in dusty reading rooms, wrestling with microfilm spools, or gingerly turning the crumbling pages of 200 year old books was a necessary chore (although, to be fair, I loved every second of it!).
My great obsession was with a French chap called Joseph Delaplaigne and his family. Joseph was my great (x 7) grandfather, a protestant refugee who’d escaped from France and settled in London in 1702. He was a Huguenot.
Back when I started researching, I had no idea we had Huguenot ancestors, I’m not even sure I even knew what a Huguenot was! What had set me on my trail was a newspaper clipping from the Hackney Gazette from 1914 that had been circulating round my family for a few years.
In the clipping is described the flamboyant funeral of 93 year old Alice Wakefield, the great grandchild of Louis XIV of France, her father being Baron Duplain. In attendance at this funeral were various members of Alice’s family, including a certain Silas Bailey. Silas it turns out, was my great great grandfather.
I’d always been told that we’re connected to the French royal family (I even remember telling my primary school teacher and him laughing in my face) and for a long time I had been determined to get to the bottom of the real story of our ancestors. So one evening I sat down with my (now dearly departed) grandmother, Elsie Ware, grand-daughter of Silas Bailey, to ask her about this amazing newspaper clipping and our French Royal heritage. Elsie told me that Silas Bailey was the nephew of Alice Wakefield and that the tomb of Alice’s father, Baron Duplain, the supposed grandson of Louis XIV, was to be found at St Barnabas churchyard in Hackney.
Aided by one of my art shop colleagues, Brigit, a retired BBC TV producer, who had lots of experience researching her own family tree, we visited St Barnabas in Homerton and almost immediately found the family tomb at the front of the churchyard. The lettering was very worn with age, but here was clearly Alice Wakefield, along with her two husbands and … Mary Laplain. Not Baron Duplain, as we’d been led to believe, but an odd, similarly sounding French surname, nonetheless.
Armed with this information, Brigit took me to the Family History centre where, with names and dates from the tomb we were able to order the death certificates of Alice Wakefield, her husband John and the mysterious Mary Laplain. From these certificates could be gained addresses, and then these checked against census recordings (cue spools of microfilm!), where you find lists of all the occupiers of that household. It was from these census records that we discovered that Alice Wakefield was the daughter of Mary Laplain who was the widow of a Joseph Laplain, a retired policeman. Pieces of a jigsaw puzzle were beginning to fall into place.
We were a step closer to finding our connection to Louis XIV, but more digging was needed. We turned to the IGI, the International Genealogical Index, a database of transcribed Birth, Marriage and Death church records that preceded the introduction of the familiar Birth, Marriage and Death certificates, which were introduced in 1837. This is where we found the mother lode of the Laplain family!
We uncovered dozens of Laplains going back four generations, all leading to a Reverend William Laplain, who had died in Shropshire in 1764. Unfortunately, there was no ‘Baron Duplain’ in sight here either. It was quite frustrating, as all searches for ‘Laplain’ ended with William, with no sign of his father or mother in the church records. We decided to look a bit closer at William, if he was a Reverend, a vicar, then perhaps there ought to be other records for him. Brigit found a small mention of him in the Victorian County History of Shropshire (his parish was the small village of Wrockwardine), it gave a few dates, but not much else.
I decided to visit Kew National Archives and have a nose around. Kew is a huge resource, quite forbidding in fact. I poked around in a few card indexes, skimmed through their intranet, scooping up bits of Laplain info here and there, but nothing to drive the story forward. Then I noticed they had a huge library of history books divided by county, so I began skimming through likely looking volumes and their indexes concerning Shropshire. And it was here that I found an astonishing article that turned our research on it’s head.
Inside a small book concerning The History of Wrockwardine, was reference to a letter handed to the researcher by the then vicar…
Finally, William’s father was found and his name was Joseph Delaplaigne! He was from Bordeaux and was King’s counsel to Henry VI of France (although, date-wise, this didn’t make much sense). He was also best chums with the Duke of Devonshire, who later turned up in the London Huguenot records as Godfather to William, or ‘Guillaume’, as he was originally called. William had Anglicised his Christian name and surname to a more palatable version for his confused parishioners. This is why the name ‘Laplain’ had stopped with him.
No doubt, Joseph Delaplaigne was also the so-called Baron Duplain of family legend, a man, it seemed, who moved in high society, but, unfortunately, not actually related to French royalty. More digging revealed him to be a Greffier, a court clerk in Bordeaux. All said and done, I was convinced it was just as exciting a story!
I don’t think my nan ever forgave me for unravelling our family connection to the French Royal family. It was a story she had grown up with and which she was fiercely proud of. She kept telling me I’d looked up the wrong records and didn’t want to know about this Huguenot chap. To be honest, I don’t think many in my family believed me either. So, I’m hoping Who Do You Think You Are? will change their minds, or even prove me wrong!
So, I never did answer the question, why did the programme get in touch?
For a year or two after the Shropshire discovery, I did lots more digging, trying to find out as much about Joseph Delaplaigne as I could, trying to put a bit more flesh on the bones of his story. If I ever visited an archive I would scour old book indexes looking for the slightest hint of a thread to his story. One day, while I was checking records at Guildhall Library, I came across court case indexes for the relevant period of Joseph’s short time in London. One entry piqued my interest: Delaplayn Vs Debeynac 1703. It was a year after Joseph arrived in London and perhaps Delaplayn could be an Englishman’s attempt at writing ‘Delaplaigne’ as he heard it. It was a long shot and it involved another trip to Kew to see the record.
It turned out to be an astonishing find. Two HUGE parchments densely covered head to toe in scribbly 18th century text.
Not only was it our Joseph, but here within the 18th Century scrawl was the story of his actual escape from France to England, as told by the man himself! The case itself was being brought against Joseph by another French protestant, Jayne De Beynac, who claimed to have lent Joseph large sums of money in return for assisting her escape to England and for his hand in marriage (she wasn’t keen; she was in her 20s, he was in his 70s).
I wanted to find out more about Jane Debeynac (as an aspiring cartoonist, I thought there might be a good story in all of this!) and I put out requests for information on genealogy messageboards. I didn’t find out any more about Jane, but in 2002, Muriel Gibbs from the East London Family History Society got in touch. She and her husband had been tracing the Laplain family for a little while and was EXTREMELY excited about the court case I’d found (She also passed on to me some great Laplain/Delaplaigne information, lots of which I hadn’t seen before, which was fantastic).
Muriel and her husband Roy did an amazing job of transcribing the two parchments and set off to find out more if she could. Unfortunately, I moved house and lost touch with Muriel, and had given up pursuing the Delaplaigne family altogether, as it would have involved me learning French and visiting French archives (still unlikely to ever happen). Also, I’d just got my first proper illustration job on Horrible Histories Magazine, so my mind was in a different place altogether.
So, here we are, 13 years later and Who Do You Think You Are? get in in touch and it turns out they’re actually working on Joseph Delaplaigne’s tree! Very exciting!
They’d got in touch specifically to ask me about Jane DeBeynac, after finding my old messageboard requests. Obviously I was excited to think that Joseph’s story was going to be on TV, but also, finally out there someone was tracing the Debeynac family. Unfortunately, it transpired they’d come across the same two page court case via Muriel Gibbs, who was helping them, and hadn’t traced anything more. Slightly deflated, I gave them a few links to some French genealogists I’d uncovered who looked to have some info on the DeBeynac family and some links I’d found about Joseph and his brother’s supposed property in Ireland.
“SHUT UP ABOUT ALL THAT!!! WHO’S THE FAMOUS CELEB!!!??” I hear you all cry.
Why it’s only the amazing DEREK JACOBI!
Turns out his Great grandmother was Salome Laplain, niece of Alice Wakefield and cousin to my great great grandfather Silas.
Of course, the family are all looking forward to the big Christmas party round his house, which I’m sure we’re all invited to!
Derek’s (and Joseph’s) story is on tonight at 9pm BBC1.