I’m not who I thought I was: AMANDA PLATELL grew up believing her ancestors were aristocratic Huguenot silversmiths. But a chance discovery led her on a deeply moving voyage into her family roots and unearthed some startling secrets…
All families have their own narrative about who they are and where they came from, told from one generation to the next. And for as long as I can remember, our story was that we Platells were descended from French aristocrats who had been forced to flee their homeland during a severe persecution of Huguenots in the late 17th century.
They came to England, it was said, eventually settled in Kent and became distinguished silversmiths, making exquisite silverware, even for the Royal Family.
On holiday last summer in Dinard, Brittany, with my good friend Simon Heffer, the author, and his family, I fancied I knew why I’d always felt so at home in France and told Simon, a little proudly perhaps, about my past.
Ever the forensic historian, he asked for the few facts I actually knew about my family’s history, before his wife Diana and I headed off for a long swim in the sea.
We had almost returned to the house when Simon stuck his head out of a window and said: ‘Mandy, darling, pour yourself a stiff gin and tonic. I have some news.’
AMANDA PLATELL: And for as long as I can remember, our story was that we Platells were descended from French aristocrats who had been forced to flee their homeland during a severe persecution of Huguenots in the late 17th century (pictured, Amanda Platell visits the run down area of Ducie Street in Toxteth, Liverpool near to where her great-great-grandfather Jacob Freidrich lived)
Using the names of my great-grandfather Isaac Platell, who settled in Perth, Australia, and his first surviving son, my grandfather Charles, he had spent several hours tracing my family’s history with the help of an ancestry website. And the results were both more startling and more moving than I could ever have imagined.
The first discovery was that the Platells had come to England not from a chateau in France but from a much more humble abode in rural Germany.
My great-great-great-grandfather was, in fact, a man by the name of Petrus Otto Platell, not an aristocrat but a modest tailor who died in his German homeland.
And while the eldest of his seven children, Jacob Freidrich, did escape his impoverished birthplace of Hagen, sailing for England and a better life at the age of 19, he was driven out not by religious persecution but by the potato famine, which struck Germany as well as Ireland, in 1846.
Moreover, when Jacob reached British shores, it wasn’t Kent, the garden of England, in which he settled, married and raised his seven children, the eldest of whom was my great-grandfather Isaac. Home for the Platells was in what is known today as the inner-city area of Toxteth, Liverpool.
AMANDA PLATELL: Using the names of my great-grandfather Isaac Platell (pictured with his wife Ellen), who settled in Perth, Australia, and his first surviving son, my grandfather Charles, my good friend Simon Heffer had spent several hours tracing my family’s history with the help of an ancestry website
Jacob, it also transpired, lived and worked for his entire life on Merseyside. Far from becoming a renowned silversmith who crafted objects of beauty for royalty, he toiled as a labourer, working on the docks and on steam dredgers.
I’ll admit that finding out my lineage was traceable to Toxteth, a place I identified solely with the terrible race riots of 1981, came as a shock. Although it was still a largely rural area at the time of my great-great-grandfather’s arrival, it’s a long way from my notions of French gentility.
So I’m a Scouser, I thought. Well, I’ve always loved The Beatles, the closest Liverpool gets to aristocracy. I can do a pretty good karaoke of Gerry And The Pacemakers’ Ferry Cross The Mersey and I know all the words to You’ll Never Walk Alone, but that’s the sum total of my Liverpool culture.
I had only been to the city once, for a Tory party conference at which we were warned we wouldn’t get a warm reception if we strayed far from the official hotel.
Other than that, my knowledge of Liverpool was limited to tragedy: Churchill’s description of it having sustained ‘the worst single civilian bombing’ of World War II, and the disaster of Hillsborough.
A few months after my discovery, I received a box of possessions from the family home in Perth.
Earlier this year, my beloved parents, Norma and Frank, died within minutes of each other, a month short of their platinum wedding anniversary. And although their passing, holding hands into the next life after a 70-year love affair, could not have been more perfect, the agony of losing them — and, by extension, a dwindling of my connection with the past — has been hard to bear.
Strange things happen when your parents die. There is a burning need to keep your links with the past alive, to honour who you are.
So when, on opening the box, I found a book my Aunty Charmian had compiled decades ago on our family tree, it was with a renewed sense of poignancy.
Aunty Charm was an amateur genealogist and had already made a detailed family tree, tracing our family back to Hagen. But when she first presented her idea of the German Platells to us, we roundly dismissed her thesis, as it conflicted with our family’s preferred history — that we were the persecuted descendants of French nobility.
It wasn’t much later in the Nineties that she finally compiled her little book — convinced, I suspect, that it was our true story.
AMANDA PLATELL: My great-great-great-grandfather was, in fact, a man by the name of Petrus Otto Platell, not an aristocrat but a modest tailor who died in his German homeland. And while the eldest of his seven children, Jacob Freidrich (pictured), did escape his impoverished birthplace of Hagen, sailing for England and a better life at the age of 19, he was driven out not by religious persecution but by the potato famine, which struck Germany as well as Ireland, in 1846
There was another reason for us rejecting her findings. According to Aunty Charm, there was a chance the Platells were descended from German Jews. In the Sixties and Seventies, Australia was dominantly, and somewhat arrogantly, white and Anglican. To our shame, none of us wanted to be seen as anything other than that.
Not only that, but, having fought two bitter wars against Germany — 216,000 Australian husbands, sonsand brothers were killed or wounded in World War I and 50,000 in World War II — no Aussie wanted to be associated with the ‘killer Krauts’.
Yet, as it happens, Charmian was partly right. Further research has since proved that the Platells were German Lutherans.
So this week I decided to embark on my own genealogical journey, visiting Toxteth for the first time to retrace the footsteps of my great-great-grandfather and find where we Platells really came from.
The first scrap of information I had to work from was that Jacob’s family had lived at 48 Harlow Street, a dingy cobbled road of small workers’ cottages, near the docks. Long gone now, they were described as slums in the 1930s and most have been knocked down.
Jacob moved to Liverpool in the 1860s and married Ann Davies in 1869, aged 33. They had seven children and probably shared the tiny terrace house with another family. The accommodation would have been primitive: no running water, no lavatory, a shared slop bucket, a bowl for washing.
Jacob’s house has long been demolished, replaced by another modest cottage with a driveway for a car, now occupied by Jayne, a single mum with two young children.
After I’d knocked on the door, two of Jayne’s friends arrived with prams and babies for a shopping trip. I explained the reason for my visit. ‘So you’re a Tox babe now!’ came the reply.
From there I went to the Platells’ next Toxteth home, another worker’s cottage at 9 Lavrock Bank, also demolished and replaced by a Sixties terrace. Mary lives there with her son and her three-legged dog, Molly, and happily welcomed me in.
I wanted to see if my great-grandfather, Isaac, had been able to see, from the back window, the River Mersey where his dad Jacob toiled on the steam dredgers — and indeed he could have done.
On a bitterly cold yet sunny day, the river shimmered just a couple of blocks away. ‘You still see dredgers going past,’ said Mary.
No visit to Toxteth is complete without a stroll down Ducie Street, part of the Granby Four Streets community-led project that worked to regenerate an area which had become Liverpool’s fly-tipping zone, and which won the Turner Prize in 2015.
Some may consider the lifeless, uninhabited, boarded-up semis plastered with graffiti a work of art. For me, it was a reminder of how sad some areas have become. All day I wandered around the streets, where council housing has mostly replaced the tiny cottages, trying to visualise what life must have been like for my great-grandfather growing up there.
AMANDA PLATELL: Isaac’s home in the blistering Aussie heat was a ‘humpy’ (pictured), a lean-to made of tree trunks supporting a roof of eucalyptus branches, with discarded corrugated tin sheets for walls
Did he go to school? Was he happy? Was he hungry? Was he already working at the age of 12 when he decided to leave for Australia? Was he excited or afraid at the prospect of leaving home?And was he seeking an escape from poverty or just pursuing a boyish adventure? I will never know.
I guess they grew up quickly back then. As the eldest of seven siblings, he probably had to.
After visiting Isaac’s family homes, my next stop was St Michael’s Anglican church, Toxteth Park, where his dad and mum became man and wife. The front door was wide open. Inside, the ladies of the parish were having their monthly morning tea.
It may be a poor parish but the church is majestic, the biggest iron-framed church in Liverpool. The vast East Window above the altar — installed in 1857, 12 years before Jacob and Ann took their vows beneath it — is as impressive as anything I’ve ever prayed beneath. And as I walked down the same aisle Jacob’s bride had once trodden, the sun came out, filling the nave with a kaleidoscope of colours.
Was it that which made my eyes suddenly water? Or the thought of an innocent young bride marrying a poor labourer in that glorious place, not knowing she would have to work her fingers to the bone to keep her family alive?
Two of her seven children died before reaching the age of three, and she would face more heartache when her eldest son, Isaac, left for a new life in Australia, later followed by her second son.
For although Isaac was searching for a better life, as his father had, the anguish of knowing you would never see your son again must have been terrible.
The family died as they had lived, in poverty. Jacob, Ann and three of their children were buried separately in unmarked paupers’ graves. Although Isaac may not have known what to expect when he arrived in Perth, Western Australia, in 1881, surely the fear of poverty must have been foremost in his mind. In the only picture we have of him, he is standing beside his most prized possessions — his home and a water pump — even though his new abode was primitive even by the standards of 19th-century Toxteth.
Isaac’s home in the blistering Aussie heat was a ‘humpy’, a lean-to made of tree trunks supporting a roof of eucalyptus branches, with discarded corrugated tin sheets for walls. His table, outside, was probably an old door; his only chair an empty oil drum.
Yet there is no mistaking his pride. Although he is wearing ragged trousers held up by string, as he looks out into the distance, hand on hip, his Roman nose silhouetted against the sun, he is a man with a future, free and happy.
Isaac went on to marry Ellen and have five children. Only three survived childhood — my grandfather Charles (‘Pop’), his younger brother Billy and sister Doris.
Pop’s childhood idyll was short-lived. His father died when he was nine, his mother soon after and the boys were placed in what, by all accounts, was a brutal orphanage until the age of 14. Somehow he survived this and went on to marry my grandmother Gladys and raise five children.
The first of them was my dad, Frank, whose 92 years of life generated more love, laughter and happiness than his father ‘Pop’ could surely have ever dreamt of.
The night before I set off on my Liverpool voyage, a friend asked me: ‘What do you expect to achieve? What point is there in raking over the past?’
I didn’t know then but I do now. I feel some small pride that, for generations, the Platells were plain, hardworking families, people from nowhere who risked everything to escape a life pre-determined for them, prepared to cross continents to find contentment.
The irony was not lost on me as I walked those Toxteth streets.
I haven’t just inherited the family nose. I, too, crossed the world to find my real home — and ended up where my great-grandfather began, in England.
Of course we were never aristocracy. We Platells are ordinary folk. But whether it’s the Mersey docks or the Aussie outback, our homes are still our castles.
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