BARROW-IN-FURNESS, England (Reuters) - Mitt Romney’s fight to become America’s next president has the backing of one enthusiastic group of supporters, although they don’t actually have a vote: his relatives in England.
Few associate the Republican candidate with Britain but it was in England’s industrial northwest that his ancestors lived for generations and converted to Mormonism before leaving for the United States in 1841 in search of the promised land.
It was a bold escape for a family of lowly carpenters. By sailing for the New World they took a step that eventually brought the Romney clan to the fore of American politics.
But some of them stayed and their descendants still live along Britain’s rainy western coast - a world away from the intrigue and glamour of Washington.
One is a 69-year-old English widow who discovered just a few weeks ago that she is a distant cousin of the former governor of Massachusetts.
“It’s all come out of the blue,” Jennie Iveson told Reuters in her modest home in Barrow-in-Furness, a shipyard town once at the heart of Britain’s industrial revolution. “It’s a surprise really. Quite a surprise. Big surprise.”
Iveson’s link to Romney came to light when her inquisitive grandson-in-law began tracing back their family history by delving into archives in their home county of Lancashire.
Records show that Iveson is Mitt Romney’s fourth cousin - they share a great-great-great grandfather, George Romney, who died in 1859. And now she can’t help but notice that her distant American relative does bear a striking family resemblance.
“I saw him on the telly twice the other day, last week I think. He looks a bit like my brother,” said Iveson, a retired factory worker, most of whose children have no jobs.
“(My brother) looks quite like him. He had dark hair like him. It’s all grey now. He (Romney) looks like our Mike. Same sort of face and everything.”
She offers a shrug and a smile when asked about Romney’s wealth and privileged status in the United States, where he is sometimes accused by critics of being out of touch with poor people. “I wish him luck and everything else,” she said.
Romney is one of the wealthiest Americans ever to run for the White House. He has estimated his fortune at between $190 million and $250 million.
But for Romney, his faith and English roots remain a sensitive issue, partly because his Mormon religion is still regarded with suspicion by some American voters.
When he came to Britain in July this year, Romney did not visit the area where his family have their roots - unusual since emphasizing a European heritage is often seen as an electoral plus in U.S. politics.
Barack Obama, who faces Romney in the November 6 presidential election, went down well last year when he toured an Irish village where one of his forebears once lived.
Romney’s campaign spokeswoman made no comment when asked how the Republican challenger felt about his English origins.
In Lancashire, the county the candidate’s ancestors left behind, Romney enthusiasts offered their own explanation.
“He is Mormon and this is Mormon central,” said Christopher Nelson, a local vicar with an interest in Romney’s heritage. “Perhaps he would perceive (coming here) as highlighting his Mormonism more than highlighting his roots.”
His known relatives in England are genealogically so far removed that many of them were not even aware of the link until recently when the U.S. election campaign began to gather pace.
Amateur genealogist Simon Nash was astonished to discover while digging into regional records that his wife Maria was Mitt Romney’s fourth cousin twice removed.
Poring over archival material and photos on his laptop in his home in the industrial city of Preston, Nash said it was a matter of tracing people back to a common ancestor - a fairly easy task since most records are available publicly in Britain.
The quest has certainly made Nash, whose day job involves dressing in a duck outfit and posing as a mascot for a local football team, more interested in U.S. politics.
“If he got in, America would be a completely different place in three years time to what it is now,” he said. “I don’t know if it will be for the better.”
Nash’s wife Maria, 32, was equally astounded by his researches.
“I was very much shocked ... It still feels like ... it’s not quite happening to (me),” said Maria, who is Jennie Iveson’s granddaughter. “It’s quite an unreal feeling.”
Would she like to meet Romney in the White House? “I think it would be very surreal,” she said with a shy giggle. “I would like to go there for a brew (cup of tea) if he ever got in there.”
The village of Dalton-in-Furness, a picturesque scattering of mediaeval cottages, is where the Romney clan began. Its men are still remembered there as hard-working carpenters.
One of them was William Romney, who gained notoriety for making his own coffin and putting it on display in his workshop before he died in 1915.
“I get the impression that quite a few Romneys were carpenters. It seems to be a family trait,” Jim Walton, a Dalton historian, said outside a canary-yellow cottage where William Romney used to live and work.
“Should Mitt Romney succeed and become the next president of the United States, he would be able to look around in pride and say: ‘My great great granddad came from Dalton-in-Furness’. Well, I hope he can say that in pride.”
Dalton has plenty of Romney-related history. Its most famous son was George Romney, who went to London and became one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the 18th century.
Two streets and a park are named after the artist, who is said to have had a secret affair with the mistress of Lord Nelson, the naval hero who defeated the French at Trafalgar.
George was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s parish church - where Mitt Romney’s great-great grandparents, Elizabeth and Miles, were baptized and married before converting to the Mormon faith in 1837 and moving to the United States.
Their daughter Sarah’s baptism record from the year before is still in the archives in Preston, with her father’s vocation - joiner - scribbled in an old parish book.
“It’s a fascinating story that Dalton holds,” said Rev. Alan Mitchell, gazing over the town’s skyline from the top of a church tower - a view that has changed little since Romneys lived here. Pointing at a couple of old communion cups, he added: “The Romneys could have touched these.”
At the time, Lancashire was a tough, polluted and chaotic place to live, and disease and drunkenness were rife. Mormon promises of a better and more orderly life fell on fertile ground.
“It was a grimy, mucky hell on earth,” said Nelson, the vicar. “Why on earth you would want to stay here, if somebody tells you there is milk and honey elsewhere? It was a horrible place.”
Early Mormon missionaries offered not only salvation but a free ticket to the United States.
They also gave Miles Romney a position of authority aboard a ship called the Sheffield, making the arrangement all the more attractive for a young and ambitious man with a large family.
But many other Romneys never converted and stayed behind in England, and the relatives who live here today know little about Mormonism.
In his autobiography, Mitt Romney said the family left England for New Orleans and travelled by steamer up the Mississippi to Nauvoo, Illinois, where they joined other Mormons. Later they followed Mormons in a trek across the plains to Utah. “Romneys are, by nature, an adventurous breed,” he wrote.
The Mormon fascination with the souls of their ancestors means they have one of the world’s biggest family history archives. The Mormon temple near Preston still contains records detailing the lives of British Romneys.
One document, describing the state of Miles Romney’s family after emigration, listed his job as a joiner and said: “In 1850 Miles had a household of ten, and a real wealth of £200.”
The area is still very much the heartland of British Mormonism. The Ribble, a local river, is known as the River Jordan of European Mormonism. This is where England’s early Mormons were baptized.
A memorial near its muddy bank commemorates those early conversions. Europe’s biggest Mormon temple is nearby, its spire towering high above the misty, rain-washed hills. Neatly dressed missionaries in dark suits and ties are frequent visitors.
“The missionaries that we see coming from America will have roots that originated here in England,” said Bishop Michael Turner, leader of a local Mormon congregation. “It’s an exciting time ... to have a candidate who is a member of the church.”
But for some, Romney is an unpopular figure, particularly after he suggested during his visit this year that Britain was not ready to host the Olympic Games.
“I think Mitt Romney is rather careless in his choice of words sometimes,” said Walton, the Dalton historian. “But there you are. Can’t have everything, can you?”
Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood