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Essex historian helps Sir Ian McKellen trace family for BBC

  • Date

    Thu 26 Jan 17

Social historian Dr Amanda Wilkinson from the Department of History has helped actor Sir Ian McKellen trace the impact of his ancestors as part of BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are?.

Dr Wilkinson was one of the experts who helped Sir Ian on the show and met him in Manchester to explain how his great-great-grandfather Robert Lowes was a Victorian political activist who championed workers’ rights. Robert Lowes secured the first ever half-day holiday for clerks and warehousemen, and campaigned for others to have the same right. As a result he is sometimes described as “the forefather of the modern weekend”.

Dr Wilkinson used archive materials including newspapers of the time to outline how Robert Lowes gave up his job as a clerk to set up a publishing and printing business which also supported his campaigning work – including trying to secure a half-day holiday for ‘needle women’.

Dr Wilkinson said: “The needle women in the 1840s are amongst the most exploited and put upon workers in Britain. These girls worked in the most horrific conditions – in rooms often in the back of shops, which were poorly lit with very little ventilation.

“They are preparing all these beautiful gowns and amazing hats to be sold in the shops at the front. They are working up to 19 hours a day – even when quite young children – with nothing but a bucket in the corner for their toilet. They work every day and get paid a pittance. These are the women Robert is campaigning for.”

Dr Wilkinson explained how Robert Lowes’ successful campaign inspired similar movements across the country.