Who Does Emilia Fox Think She Is? – so asks the fifth episode of the eighth series of the BBC celebrity genealogy program Who Do You Think You Are?
Emilia Fox is best known to British television viewers for her role of hard-working brooding forensic pathologist Dr Nikki Alexander in Silent Witness filling the equally hard-working brooding footsteps of her predecessor Sam Ryan, played by Amanda Burton. The long-running Silent Witness being the UK equivalent of the USA CSI franchise. Emilia Fox can also be seen currently on commercial telly, alongside Philip Glenister, as the perhaps unlikely replacement for Gordon Ramsay as the face of Gordon’s Gin.
Emilia Fox comes from a very actor-filled family – James Fox is her uncle. Both her father, Edward, and her mother, Joanna David, are actors too, as are cousins Lydia and Lawrence. And cousin Lawrence married actor Billie Piper – to deepen further this Thespian gene-pool!
The program starts with research of her grandfather Robin Fox, a theatre agent.
She herself had not been aware that her grandmother Hilda Hanbury had also been an actor. It transpires her grandmother had a younger sister Lily also an actor – she then discovers many of their cousins were actors too.
Further that these cousins were connected by marriage to the greatest acting family of its time the Terry’s – Ellen Terry being the Judi Dench of the Victorian era.
For sister Lily tragedy was waiting. Having migrated to USA with star-struck hopes of becoming a famous stage actor she quickly found herself doing bit parts and overshadowed by her older sister. She died prematurely following the still-born death of her son. Even more poignant as at the time of making this program Emilia Fox was herself pregnant.
As a researcher of my own family tree, one of its great pleasures is discovering old family photos. Emilia Fox was to have a far grander experience of this discovering that her great great grandfather Samson Fox had both a bust in the Royal College of Music and a grand painting in Armley Mills Industrial Museum.
The story of Samson Fox was not just great British social history but a great personal tale of rags to riches and near ruinous return to rags – but happily not quite.
Samson Fox came from Bradford, the son of a mill manager. Like the Biblical Samson he also sported a great mane of hair and beard. He joined a Leeds textile mill when just eight years old as an apprentice engineer and ascended quickly through the ranks to manager then founder of the Leeds Forge Company. His Victorian Dragons Den breakthrough invention and business idea was the corrugated flue which transformed flues from a fragile unreliable boiler component to a robust component in shipping, locomotives and other industrial functions. He had the patent and it was globally deployed.
With his great wealth came great philanthropy if not great leisure – he was a workaholic and had built a laboratory into the basement of his home Grove House. The Royal College of Music that splendid building located in Kensington London – he bequeathed it to the nation! A gift to the King of the time Edward Prince of Wales. It was noted that such a gift should routinely result in a later knighthood but he never became Sir Samson Fox and the program then set out to fathom why this was.
Samson Fox was not a man to rest on his laurels. Despite his great wealth and at an age where many would have retired to a life of hard earned leisure and contentment he had moved on to another project, Water Gas.
This was an industrial technology able to provide a new energy source to both domestic and commercial buildings more efficiently and effectively than the then current coal gas. His problem was the network infrastructure to supply to homes and factories was courtesy of the very companies who provided the Coal Gas.
There also had been a fatal accident to two of his employees working with Water Gas in his factory. He needed access to this network infrastructure to save this business but the status quo coal gas companies grouped together to lobby the government in an early example of regulatory capture to prevent him entering this energy arena – they succeeded.
And their success was his downfall – much of the funding for the project came from the public invested in it through shares based on his hitherto successful business reputation. Doubts set in then panic and then its stock price crashed with huge losses for investors and Samson himself. He died with this energy source never utilized though did still oversee another great public project, the Royal Hall in Harrogate.
More sad still because his idea was vindicated in the 1920’s – Water Gas was found to be safe and reliable and became a core component of industrial use up until the 1960’s. A happy ending if one he never lived to see.
Perhaps he should be granted a posthumous knighthood from the current Queen?
Another fascinating and informative social history of Britain as well as inspiring and emotionally engaging human drama.
- Who Do You Think You Are? – Emilia Fox’s journey from the stage to steam engines (blogs.ancestry.com)
- Who Do You Think You Are? Emilia Fox – BBC1, 9pm (mirror.co.uk)