The shocking story of Joe Lycett's great-great-grandfather | Comedian uncovers a dramatic family history in Who Do You Think You Are? © Wall to Wall Media

The shocking story of Joe Lycett's great-great-grandfather

Comedian uncovers a dramatic family history in Who Do You Think You Are?

Joe Lycett has learned that one of his ancestors was spared the death penalty after stabbing a fellow sailor in the stomach with a bayonet.

Appearing on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, the comedian discovered that his great grandfather Robert Wilkinson was declared ‘criminally insane’  after serving in the Second Opium War with China in the 1850s.

'Mental illness is woefully catered for in 2021 - it was much worse back in Robert's time. He had been through some awful times and struggled with alcohol abuse,’ 33-year-old Lycett said.

'Fortunately the legal system spared him from the ultimate sentencing. Interestingly, because of the nature of information when he was alive, I expect most of his family never knew about his struggles with mental illness and the crimes he committed.

'So it felt strange to think that I knew more about him potentially than his own children and wife.’

Researchers also found that Robert had 'an intense friendship’ with the man, which researchers assume may well have been a homosexual relationship.

Lycett – who is bisexual – said: ’Queer stories from the past are pretty difficult to find as they were rarely documented. Robert's could be just have been an intense friendship with a man, or something more. Either way, they had incredibly strong feelings for one another that become poisonous.

He added: 'It became difficult for me to see Robert's story clearly, as I had so little to go on and couldn't work out how much of his story I was applying my own history on to. Regardless, what happened was very dramatic!’

Hearing about Robert’s time in the Opium War, Lycett commented: ‘It was a massacre. Robert will have killed a lot of Chinese people. He will have seen horrible things done to people.  Life has taken its toll, started to reveal its uglier side.’

Robert went into the military after starting his life as a chimney sweep, with Lycett commenting: ‘I’m not sure being a chimney sweeper at 10, even though it sounds Dick Van Dykey and fun, would have been. ‘

Joe Lycett’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? airs on Tuesday, November 2, at 9pm on BBC One.

Published: 26 Oct 2021

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