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The humble beginnings of the ultimate woman of substance

Barbara Taylor Bradford has written plenty of family histories for her heroines – but now it's time she explored her own in ITV's Secrets From The Workhouse. Keeley Bolger meets the Yorkshire-born author

With 28 novels behind her, sales of 85 million books worldwide and an OBE, author Barbara Taylor Bradford's life couldn't be more different from that of her ancestors.

Growing up in Leeds in the 1930s, Taylor Bradford, who is reportedly worth around £180m (€212m), had a modest upbringing. But it came as a shock to realise just how hard her relatives had it.

The doyenne of epic romances (whose first book A Woman Of Substance ranks as one of the top 10 titles publisher HarperCollins have ever sold) is one of five celebrities featured in a new ITV family history series, Secrets From The Workhouse, starting on June 25.

In the two-part series, Taylor Bradford, Fern Britton, actor Brian Cox, Felicity Kendal and Kiera Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, look into the conditions that led their relatives to enter workhouses, which traditionally housed people who could no longer support themselves.

Taylor Bradford's story revolves around her grandmother, Edith, and mother, Freda, who stayed in a workhouse in Ripon, north Yorkshire. Born in Leeds, Taylor Bradford started writing stories as a child and became a newspaper reporter at 16. She worked in Fleet Street before writing novels full time.

It's been a hugely fulfilling career for the sprightly 80-year-old, who has flown from her home in New York to her native UK to discuss her family's history. Perched in a suitably luxurious chair in a hotel suite, the author makes sure we're settled down with refreshingly brick-red tea and signed copies of her book, before she begins to unravel her family's past.

She says she already knew about the workhouse thanks to her biographer Piers Dudgeon's 2005 book The Woman Of Substance: The Life And Work Of Barbara Taylor Bradford, but was intrigued to find out more.

"Because I'm a certain age now, I understand why my mother never told me about the workhouse, which was probably the shame," says Taylor Bradford.

"My mother was born in 1904 and in those years, right through to the 50s and 60s, people were probably ashamed that their parents were destitute. But I certainly wanted to know more."

In the programme, Taylor Bradford heads to Yorkshire to visit Ripon Workhouse, now a museum and garden. The author was pleasantly surprised by what she saw.

"It was in quite good order," says the author, who also met a woman who lived in the workhouse as a child in the late 20s. "I mean, it's horrible to be there, but it wasn't like a prison. Maybe Ripon was better [than other workhouses]..."

The workhouse itself might have been a pleasant surprise, but there were some shocks along the way for Taylor Bradford. The writer knew from her biographer Dudgeon that there was some suggestion that her mother's father might be the Marquess of Ripon. But she didn't know that her mother's brother and sister were born in the workhouse and that once her grandmother Edith died, her mother's siblings were sent by a charity to live in Australia and Canada.

Through letters, the author learned that her mother had tried to bring her younger sister back to the UK. Heartbreaking though, was the news that her aunt remained in Australia because neither Taylor Bradford's parents, nor the charity who sent her away in the first place, could afford the fee of £32 (€37).

Taylor Bradford needed some comforting of her own when she first learned of her family's past from Dudgeon.

"Piers sent me the biography manuscript on my birthday," she says. "By late afternoon, just as my husband came home, I had read this part about my mother being in the workhouse as a child and I couldn't believe it.

"And then comes the next bit about my mother being illegitimate and The Marquess of Ripon and I was crying. My husband came into my office and said, 'What on earth's wrong?' I just said, 'My mother was illegitimate and she never told me'.

"And he replied, 'Put that away. It's your birthday and I don't care about all this because we're taking people to dinner, so come on, come out'. It was a combination of shock and surprise."

Secrets From The Workhouse begins on ITV next Tuesday, June 25


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