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Charlene White: Empire’s Child Premieres Thurs 21 Oct on ITV

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In this new documentary commissioned as part of ITV’s programming for Black History Month, Charlene White embarks on a deeply personal journey to uncover the roots of her connection to the British Empire in a bid to find out if we can ever truly emerge from its shadow.

Charlene travels across Britain and Jamaica on a genealogy journey to investigate her own heritage and the relationship between the Empire and her family.

By piecing together broken familial records and going back in time to the very start of the British Empire, Charlene makes some surprising discoveries about how the British Empire has shaped her family’s lives and asks what it is to be Black and British.

Starting her journey in her home city London, Charlene speaks to her brother Josh and her sister Carina about their family history – specifically about their maternal grandparents, Byron and Ruby Stanbury, who arrived in England from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation in 1961. Josh says: “I remember asking Dad questions about what it was like when they first came here. What it was like for Nanny and Grandad. And hearing it, it genuinely made my skin crawl. How they were treated, the things they had to overcome, and just even the fact that they got up one day and left their home to go to another country, a freezing cold one halfway across the world.”

Their children were left with family in Jamaica until they could afford to bring them across. Charlene’s Aunty Eleanor came first followed by her mum Dorrett. Aunty Eleanor tells her: “Initially when I arrived, we were living not too far from here in one room. Over time, black people would club together to form an informal banking system because they could not get mortgages from banks. And it was called ‘a partner.’ because everybody within it was a partner. But it’s through that, that I think around five years after my parents arrived in London they were able to buy their own homes.”

Charlene meets a local man, Albert Johnson, now 91 and living in the same house, who offered her grandparents rooms when they first arrived. She says: “I’m just really, really grateful to Mr Johnson. Because without doing what he did for my family, we wouldn’t be where we are now. He did something that the government of the time wasn’t willing to do and that was to give my family a chance.”

But after she sees a photograph for the first time of her grandfather’s uncle Edward Stanbury, her odyssey takes her to Totnes in Devon to travel further back in her family’s history. She says: “The only thing I’m expecting to find out is about these three brothers who moved from Britain to Jamaica.That’s about all I think I’ll find is who they are, why they moved and what they did in Jamaica and what happened to them.But I have no idea if that’s the truth. I have no idea what family I may well find in Totnes, which sounds bizarre but I am expecting to find, I don’t know, the root of the Stanburys.”

In Devon, she meets Brad Argent, an expert in genealogy, who tells her that her great, great grandfather William Stanbury was actually born in Jamaica, rather than Totnes. Charlene says: “This really throws a lot of things into confusion where my family is concerned, because this is not, this is not the history that we have been told, or that we thought that we had found essentially. So now I’m really confused about who this William Stanbury actually is.”

Charlene returns to London to visit West India Docks, where she meets Professor Catherine Hall, a leading expert on 19th Century Britain and the Empire, who shows her a key birth record and tells her: “I think I can help you a bit. Because we have found William’s sister – here is Matilda Elizabeth, born in 1874 in Green River, which is in Clarendon. Female, and so interesting – brown. Because brown means mixed race.”

The story turns to Jamaica where Charlene goes to find answers by meeting one of the country’s leading genealogists, Dianne Golding-Frankson. Dianne tells her about a white slave owner called John Stanbury, saying: “What I have here is the slave returns that were being sent in. Now, what is very interesting on this record is that several of the children on this property that was being turned in were all mixed race. These bits of information are invaluable to understanding your roots. The placement of John Stanbury in St Catherine at the time and the obvious residency of James Stanbury is a strong suggestion that James Stanbury is the illegitimate child of John Stanbury.”

This news comes as a revelation to Charlene, who says: “Well this is strange to get my head round, and it’s not that the lighter skin meant more than anything else when finding out about my ancestry was concerned, it’s more of a curiosity because we could never really quite get where it came from – you know the red in my hair, the ginger in my hair when it’s not dyed.”

Charlene takes a DNA swab test to find out more about her family’s origins – with extraordinary results – before visiting Clarendon, which is mentioned in much of her family’s history, where she discovers more information about her four-times great grandparents, leading her to conclude: “I genuinely believe that this isn’t just a story about me or a story about my family. I think it’s a story about who we all are as British people in terms of our history with the Empire, irrespective of where we originate from. And the societies and culture and people will forever be intertwined. They just will be. That’s from here, to Britain, to the rest of the British Empire. Our shared history means that we are forever intertwined together. I think it’s really important that we just don’t forget that.”

This is a Doc Hearts production for ITV.

Airdate: Thursday 21 October 2021 at 9.00pm on ITV.