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Discover the surprising romances and shadowy figures within Michael Palin's family tree

5-6 minute read

By Daisy Goddard | February 23, 2024

Michael Palin's family tree

From comedian to travel writer, Michael Palin has worn many different hats over the course of his almost 60-year career. We delved into his family's history and made some interesting discoveries.

With an entertainment career spanning back as far as the 1960s, Sir Michael Palin is somewhat of a British cultural institution. Whether from his starring roles in Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the TV show Ripping Yarns or his travelogues and documentaries, many of us are familiar with Palin and his work.

Along with the likes of David Attenborough and Julie Andrews, this actor, writer, comedian and presenter is one of the 21st century’s foremost national treasures. He was even knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth II in 2019.

Michael Palin, as featured in our newspaper collection.

Michael Palin, as featured in our newspaper collection.

He is no stranger to family history. He recently went on a deeply personal genealogy journey of his own, researching the life of his grandfather’s brother, Harry William Bourne Palin. He has published his findings about Harry's extraordinary life in the book Great-Uncle Harry: A Tale of War and Empire (2023).

Inspired by his very own painstaking research, we delved into our record collection to see what we could uncover within Michael Palin’s family tree. We found theological connections and roots that stretch across the Irish Sea.

Read on to learn what we discovered in the family history of this fascinating figure.

From Princess Diana to Doctor Who, why not explore even more of our celebrity genealogy discoveries via the Findmypast blog?

Michael Palin's family history

Michael Edward Palin was born on 5 May 1943, in Ranmoor, Sheffield. He’s the only son of Mary Rachel Lockhart Ovey (1903-1990) and Edward Moreton Palin (1900-1977), and had an older sister Angela, nine years his senior.

Born at the very beginning of the 20th century, Michael’s father Edward was an engineer educated at Shrewsbury and Cambridge. He’d married Mary Rachel – whose father Richard served as High Sheriff of Oxfordshire in 1927 – in 1930.

We found Edward and Mary in the 1939 Register, just four years before Michael was born. They lived at 26 Whitworth Road in Sheffield. Edward worked as a mechanic production engineer, while Mary’s occupation was listed as unpaid domestic duties.

The couple remained in Sheffield for years to come. Michael was educated at South Sheffield’s Birkdale School, before continuing his schooling at the Shrewsbury School and later Brasenose College, Oxford.

Michael Palin’s paternal ancestry

On his father’s side, Michael is descended from a whole host of educated and distinguished figures. Michael’s father Edward Morton was born in 1900 to Edward Watson Palin (1869-1937) and Agnes Rose Buckley (1869-1944).

We find Edward Watson (Michael’s grandfather) in the 1901 Census, living at Manor House in Walsingham, Norfolk with his wife Agnes and infant son Edward. Edward Watson was a medical practitioner. In 1901, his household employed both a housemaid and a cook.

The vicarage in Linton, Herefordshire.

The vicarage in Linton, Herefordshire.

Edward Watson had been born in 1869, to parents Edward (a clergyman born in 1825) and Brita Gallagher (b.1844). Edward and Brita are Michael’s great-grandparents.

With a total of seven children born in Linton, Herefordshire between 1869 and 1884, Edward and Brita had a large and bustling family. The couple had four girls and three boys, with their firstborn being Edward Watson (Michael’s grandfather).

Michael's Great-Uncle Harry

Readers of Michael Palin’s book Great Uncle Harry will recognise a name along this branch of the family tree – that of Harry William Bourne Palin, born to Edward and Brita in 1884.

As Michael himself discovered when asking his own family members about Harry’s life, Harry is somewhat of a mysterious figure. We struggled to find his census entries, and he cannot be found living with his family beyond 1901.

In 1912, Harry appeared in our outbound passenger list collection. We find him leaving the UK for Wellington, New Zealand. He was aged 30 and working as a clerk.

Upon his arrival in New Zealand, Harry found work as a farmhand in Canvastown, near Marlborough.

Just two years later, World War One broke out. Harry enrolled as a Private with the Canterbury Infantry Battalion. He listed himself as single, and his mother Brita’s address as St Helen’s, Tonbridge, Kent. He was deployed to the Dardanelles as part of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915.

Tragically, Harry was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme in Northern France on 27 September 1916.

With his new book, Palin remembers the sacrifice made by his Great Uncle Harry. Amazingly, his research was able to uncover aspects of his family history that had been mysterious until now.

Uncovering Irish roots

Harry’s story isn’t all that we uncovered on Michael’s paternal side. A little digging into the life of Brita Gallagher, Harry’s mother and Michael Palin’s great-grandmother, revealed a plot that sounds like something straight out of the silver screen.

In fact, it actually was made into a film.

Written by and starring none other than Michael Palin, American Friends (1991) is a fictionalisation of the love story between Brita and her husband Edward.

But what actually happened?

Brita Gallagher was born on 2 February 1844 in Tipperary, Ireland. Due to the patchiness of some 19th Irish records, it's difficult to pinpoint Brita's birth parents.

However, we do know that Brita left Ireland after the potato famine that devastated the country between 1845 and 1852. She was adopted by a wealthy American couple – her adopted mother was the Philadelphia-born Caroline Watson (1798-1882).

Brita met Edward Palin while touring around Europe. As revealed by this article in the Gloucester Citizen, the couple were married in Paris. In 1867, Edward left his teaching post at Oxford to become an Anglican reverend at St Mary’s Church Linton.

The records suggest that Brita’s mother Caroline joined the couple in their move to Herefordshire, as she died at the Vicarage in February 1882.

Although the 1991 film certainly took a fair amount of artistic licence, Brita and Edward’s story is nevertheless a surprising one. From their very different backgrounds, the couple went on to welcome seven children into the world, one of which was Michael’s great-uncle Harry.

Clearly, the Palin family became fixtures of the local community in the latter decades of the 19th century.

Our research uncovered a photograph of their daughter Brita. Born in 1870, Brita Palin married into a local clergy family in 1895.

What surprises lie within your family tree?

As the story of Michael Palin’s Great Uncle Harry shows, you can uncover rich and emotive details about your roots using our historical records and newspapers.

With our handy family tree builder to help you, it's easier than ever. For advice on starting your Findmypast family tree, check out our beginners' guides, expert top tips and more.

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Daisy GoddardDaisy Goddard