By Michael McConway

With the help of Genealogist Laura Berry to find out more about her maternal line, television and radio presenter Fearne Cotton discovered that her 4 x great-grandfather, William Gilmour, was born in 1821 in Garvagh.

Fearne was surprised by the discovery of this ancestral link to Garvagh in the latest edition of the popular BBC genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are, in which she headed to Garvagh hoping to unearth more details about her forefather.

In Garvagh, Fearne joined historian Elaine Farrell at the local museum, and by consulting a local newspaper article that had been published in 1844, they found that William emigrated from Garvagh to Liverpool when he was 23. In Liverpool he found work as a chemist and druggist, until ten years after leaving Ireland, he returned with an English wife, Elizabeth, from Buckinghamshire, and a young family, now practicing as a doctor in Coleraine.

In 1856, William Gilmour is next to be found working on board the 'SS Great Britain'. The ship was on charter to the government as a troopship, at this time, as it sailed to and from the Crimea. William Gilmour was the ship's Medical Superintendent and as such he was responsible for the welfare of all those who sailed on her.

A visit to Bristol, where the SS Great Britain is now in dry dock, enabled Fearne to learn about her 4 x great-grandfather’s work on the ship. Naval historian Andrew Lambert elaborated that William would have faced the difficult and dangerous task of treating soldiers that had succumbed to cholera and dysentery, tending to their battle wounds and performing amputations of limbs in cramped conditions.

Andrew’s research unearthed a secret, that William appeared to have exaggerated his qualifications in order to get the job. Andrew surmised that “this is a classic example of Victorian social progress. It was all about taking a chance, finding another way of getting on.”

Despite this subterfuge William was able to pull it off. Fearne was given the opportunity to read a newspaper testimonial which praised her 4x great-grandfather's unstinting work on the ship. Fearne was also delighted to discover that after Queen Victoria visited the SS Great Britain, her ancestor was sent a special invitation to come on board the Royal Yacht for lunch in recognition of his excellent work.

After the Crimea, William continued to work as a Medical Superintendent at sea, this time on board the passenger liner the Royal Charter. In 1859 he resigned from being a ship's doctor stating his intention to "commence the practice of my profession in Aylesbury. I may succeed and may not".

Fearne's next met the historian Elaine Thomson in Aylesbury. Visiting the house from which William conducted his private medical practice and lived with his wife and children, Fearne learned that Aylesbury wasn't such a smart move for him. Just a few years after settling there William Gilmour went bankrupt. He suffered the indignity of having all his belongings auctioned off at his own house so that he could pay his numerous debts. Yet he was not perturbed by this setback as within weeks he was employed as the District Officer for the Ongar Poor Law Union in Essex. In expressing her admiration for William’s tenacity, Fearne said, “I like that he didn’t give up, I admire his persistence. That’s a trait in our family for sure!”

Peter Higginbotham, who specialises in the history of workhouses, explained that as a District Medical Officer, William would have visited the poor in their own homes to provide medical help to them. If he was not able to attend himself then it was up to him to find cover. It seems that was not always able to arrange that and in 1871 he was called before the Board of Guardians of the Ongar Poor Law Union to answer a charge of neglect.

Tragically a child had died after William, who had been unwell himself, had neglected to pay her a visit and had failed to find any cover.

Shortly after this disastrous event, William left Essex and turns up next working at the Bethnal Green Workhouse as the dispenser. It seems that his money troubles had worsened and he had requested to be paid weekly. Sadly, for Fearne's 4x great-grandfather he fell ill and was unable to work.

His death in 1881, aged only 60, was from a common workhouse disease, bronchitis, and his wife Elizabeth was present at his demise. In tribute to William at the end of the programme, Fearne emotively described how "he held such high hopes and kept on trudging and battling away... until he finished his life in quite a humble way – as it had started. Good story, though. He had a great story. He definitely wasn't boring. That's for sure!”

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