A little while back, 64-year-old Sharron Langbourne was at home, minding her own business, when there was a knock at the door. She opened it to find a man in a smart suit who knew her name, telling her that a distant relative had died and saying she might be in line for a windfall worth thousands of pounds.
Sharron’s first-cousin-once-removed, Grace Woods, who she’d had absolutely no contact with since the 1950s, had died aged 89 in an Oxford hospital with no known descendants and without leaving a will. Langbourne had been tracked down by a company of genealogy researchers and told that she was in line for a payout.
As one might imagine, she was surprised. No member of her family has ever owned anything much, says Langbourne: “Most of them have died paupers.” She wanted to know all about her cousin. And, of course, she was intrigued to know how much money she might inherit.
Grace Woods’s story, revisited this Monday on Heir Hunters, which has moved from daytime BBC1 to an evening slot on BBC2, is sad and extraordinary. Though she died unknown and alone, photographs and documents found in her modest flat revealed that she’d been a fashion model – in fact, the leading model of her day – in the period after the Second World War.
She was so sought-after that, in 1946, she was paid to sail first class on the Queen Elizabeth from Southampton to New York as part of a sales drive for British fashion in the United States. (Shipping records from the time declare: “Occupation: mannequin”.)
“The last time I saw Grace I was about seven years old,” recalls Langbourne. “I remember her coming to my grandmother’s house. And I remember looking at her and thinking how beautiful she was. I was in awe of her because she wore the most beautiful clothes.”
The programme charts the unhappy story of how the high-flying model’s career came to an end – and also reveals the sum she left when she died: £153,000.
So, is Langbourne now a rich woman? Not quite: she is one of 18 heirs tracked down by the probate research company Fraser & Fraser. She split her money with the firm – it took a 25 per cent share of the booty for doing all the detective work – and with her 17 relations. Her share? Just a few thousand pounds.
Dave Slee was the Fraser & Fraser investigator who worked on the case. Every Thursday, he and his colleagues rush to the office at 7am to pore over a new weekly list of unclaimed estates that is released by the Treasury Solicitor’s Bona Vacantia (“ownerless goods”) division. If 12 years pass without somebody coming forward to claim the money, it goes to the state.
But if Slee can track somebody down – using birth, marriage and death records, census information, the electoral register – the state doesn’t get the cash. And the sting in the tail? Neither Slee nor any of the relatives know how much money is at stake until they put in a claim.
A typical estate is worth around £20,000, estimates Slee – it’s only extremely rarely that something vastly more valuable pops up. So Slee, 54, is not in the business of making people super-rich. “The question I usually get is, ‘Will I be able go on holiday with the money?’” he says. “And I think what a lot of people find just as rewarding as the money is that we share with them our research and their family tree. I’ve put a lot of people back in contact with their families.”
Finally – one issue that isn’t mentioned in the programme. What of Fraser & Fraser’s commission? Slee says his rate depends on the amount of work involved – and, crucially, whether or not a rival company (there are more than 50 of them) is hot on his heels and ready to bid his fee down.
Is it right that companies like his should get a bigger chunk of the money than beneficiaries like Langbourne? Slee insists it is. He puts in a lot of work finding relatives, “and the heirs don’t have to sign an agreement. They are not press ganged, and they are welcome to prove their own claim.”
Heir Hunters is showing Monday to Friday at 7pm on BBC2