Yearly Archives: 2011

William May – Vicar, moralist, a father bereft

The Chequer Inn at Ash in Kent, little changed since the time of William May

© Copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

William May had rather sad life although he had a firm trust in divine Providence, and his own superior social background, which carried him through the most difficult of times. He came from Ash in Kent and studied at the University of Cambridge.  He was ordained by the Bishop of London on the 20th September 1719 and left for Jamaica on October 22nd spending thirty-two years as the vicar in charge of the parish of Kingston. It is possible that he had an uncle already in Jamaica as there is a marriage record for a William May and Margaret Rose who were married in Spanish town in 1670.

William found many of his parishioners a grave disappointment and he is probably best remembered for a much quoted letter that he wrote home to the Bishop of London soon after his arrival.

He didn’t think much of the quality of the early colonists, writing  “There is not six families who are well descended as gentlemen on the whole Island. . . And as for those Englishmen that came as mechanics hither, very young, and have now acquired good Estates in Sugar Plantations and Indigo, etc., of course they know no better than what maxims they learn in the Country. To be now short & plain, Your Lordship will see that they have no maxims of Church or State but what are absolutely anarchical.”

Church attendance did not feature much among the planter community who preferred to spend Sundays on their plantations or enjoying socialising. Even those who did attend often walked out early “any pragmatic fellow; an Officer or Justice, when he thinks fit, will go out of our churches before sermon is ended, to disturb our Congregation”.

Many colonists had relatively humble beginnings and he commented on the then Governor of Jamaica, Sir Nicholas Lawes, who had been apprenticed to a shopkeeper in Jamaica when he first arrived there – “there are people alive now, who remember that he went barefooted, & bare leg’d, with shoos on, as was the custom for most young shop-keepers & planters in those dayes.”

Colonel Rose he said had been a cooper by trade, Jonathan Gale had earned his living as a horse catcher and several prominent men were illiterate.

Of the Beckford family he had nothing at all good to say “Mr. Beckford’s brother, Tom, Colonel too, is a Libertine, and of the country principles, & has a great Estate. He has killed his man and so has his Brother Peter, but this makes neither a bit more Religious. He was a Councillor in Colonel Heywood’s time, and his graceless son was Governor of the Fort at Port Royal, a post worth £500 at least (Libs.) per annum. And so these Estated men govern the Island at this rate.”

Altogether young William May had found his parishioners a serious disappointment and an affront to his anti-Papist soul.

“Tavern-Keepers, Taylors, Carpenters, Joyners, are infallibly Colonels, Justices of Peace, as soon as they purchase Plantations, & our Printer, in his papers, styles them every man Esqrs, & Lt.-Collols, Honourable, prints Elegies on men who never were communicants with the Church in any part of her communion, & who liv’d & dyed keeping variety of women, as James, a sailor by breeding, but dy’d a rich merchant.
N.B.-The Papists everywhere are caressed, and those who are true Lovers of our Constitution dare not own it, or they must expect no honey in this country, but instead of it gall.”

You can read the full transcription of the letter in Caribbeana Volume 3 page 5.

William’s personal life was full of sadness.  He married the unusually named Smart Pennant, herself already a widow,  not long after his arrival, but she was killed on the 28th of August 1722 when a hurricane destroyed the house where she was in Kingston.

His second wife was Bathshua Vassall.  I love the name Bathshua which I had not heard of until I came across several of them in Jamaica at around this time.  It is a variation on the name Bathsheba and means ‘daughter of abundance’.  Bathshua Vassall fulfilled the promise of her name and with William May had eight children. Sadly five of them died young and two older sons died on sea voyages while travelling to America in the hope of recovering from illness. Only one son Rose Herring May lived to grow up and have children of his own.

Bathshua died in July 1746, but William lived to what was a good age for white colonists in Jamaica, dying in January 1754 at the age of 58. His health had been poor for some time and in 1748 he had petitioned his Bishop for the assistance of a curate as he was suffering from both gout and asthma.  Some years earlier William had hoped to return to England with his children for the sake of their education as he considered, probably with some truth, that there were no good schools in Jamaica.  He was offered a living in England in 1740 by Robert Hamilton but by the following year this had fallen through and he became resigned to remaining in Jamaica. He did however send his youngest son Rose to school at Eton which is where he was when William died.

The family monument in Kingston Cathedral is one of the more informative to have survived, and this transcription is taken from Monumental Inscriptions of the British West Indies compiled by J.H.  Lawrence-Archer and published in 1875.


I’m not clear how large a fortune William left to his son Rose, but he did own property in Kingston and had a pen, or stock ranch, in the parish of Clarendon remembered today as the town of May Pen. Under his Will he freed his slaves James and Elizabeth and left them pensions of five pounds a year. It is likely that he also owned other slaves who worked on the pen.

Most of the clergy had yet to discover a conscience in relation to slavery.

Spanish Town Census 1754


Reproduced by kind permission of the East Sussex County Record Office ref: ESRO SAS/RF 20/7


Held at the East Sussex County Record Office at Lewes as part of the Jamaica papers of Fuller family of Rosehill in Brightling, is a copy of a census of Spanish Town, otherwise known by its Spanish name of St Jago de la Vega; its reference is ESRO SAS/RF 20/7.

In July and August 1754 Charles White undertook the task of surveying the whole of St Jago de la Vega in order to create a census of all the white population and the free Negroes and Mulattoes. The only persons excluded were those gentlemen who were occasional residents during the sitting of the Assembly and the law courts. White attested that he had taken

Particular Account of the Houses and the Annual Rents or Estimate of Rents of the said Houses in and belonging to the said Town and Suburbs of St Jago de la Vega and of the Number of people of free Condition in each Family by going thro the different Streets Lanes Allies and Places thereof and by calling at or enquiring concerning each respective and Distinct Tenement and concerning the Number of People in each Family and that the annexed Account is the most exact he could with his utmost diligence procure of the Number of houses and the Rents of them and of the Number of persons of free Condition that were in the said Town att the time he took the said Account, exclusive of Gentlemen who appear by the said Account to have Houses therein and who come there occasionally to attend the Service of the Country as Members of the Council and Assembly and Judges of the Suprem(sic) Court of Judicature.

In total he recorded 866 white people and 405 free Negroes and Mulattoes. Slaves were of course not included. He also recorded the rental value of each property, the names of the owner and the occupier and the occupation of the latter. Additional notes give us information about the owners, for example that they were normally resident in Kingston or owned a plantation in some other parish than St Catherine.

You can find the full transcription of the census here, but in the meantime here is a quick breakdown.


The occupations of the white residents are recorded as follows:

11 Attorneys, 5 Barristers and one councillor at law

2 Bakers, 2 Barbers, 2 Blacksmiths (one who was also a provision planter)

1 Bookbinder and 3 Bookkeepers

2 Bricklayers (one of whom was also a provision planter)

9 Carpenters, of whom one combined his work with being Coroner, farmer and provision planter

13 Clerks working in offices, for merchants or the courts and two of whom were also planters

1 Deputy Marshall, a Deputy Clerk of the Peace and a Dancing Master

2 Factors, a Fisherman and a Gardener

5 Gentlemen (one a planter and Justice of the Peace)

1 Housekeeper

20 Hucksters (who would have sold their wares on the street or from booths), one also a carpenter

2 Iron Mongers

1 Jew Butcher

8 keeping Lodgings

2 Mantua Makers

6 Merchants (one combining it with being a planter and farmer)

2 Midwives

2 Millwrights (one combining with being a provision and ginger planter)

1 Music Master and Organist (who had died between Charles White taking the census and writing it up)

John Venn the Parish priest who was also a planter

1 Penkeeper and a Peruke Maker

3 Physicians who were also planters; 4 physicians who were also surgeons (2 being provision planters); and 2 Surgeons

85 Planters, of whom one was Island Secretary, one a Member of the Assembly, one combined it with being butcher, one was clerk of the vestry and one a shopkeeper.

2 Provision Traders, a Retailer and a Riding Master

3 Sadlers

4 School Mistresses and 3 School Masters (one also a planter)

3 Seamstresses

3 Shoemakers, one a provision planter

23 shopkeepers, one resident in Kingston, one with a provision mountain and one a provision planter

1 reader to the Synagogue

3 Silver Smiths and a Surveyor

5 Tavernkeepers who variously combined it with being a silversmith, shoemaker, planter and pen keeper

4 Tailors (two of whom were also planters)

1 Upholder (i.e. upholsterer)

3 Watchmakers and a Wheelwright

11 households were made up of Orphans and there were 18 Widows

One man was Blind and 27 Properties were untenanted.

Three people in the survey of whites were recorded as being “free Mulattoes or Descendants from them admitted to the privileges of white people by Acts of the Legislature”. They were Mary Rose, her son Thomas Wynter, and Susan Hosier.


Of the free Negro and Mulatto inhabitants their occupations included:

4 Bricklayers

17 Carpenters (including 4 planters and one who was also a cooper), 1 cooper, 1 Sawyer,

1 Coachman, 1 Fisherman, 1 Hawker and 1 keeping Lodgings

2 Doctors, 1 Midwife, 1 Nurse (who was also a provision planter)

1 Cook and 3 Pastry cooks

1 Planter

4 Poulterers,

1 Mantua Maker, 29 Seamstresses and 9 Tailors

1 Schoolmistress, 1 Servant

4 Washers

2 Wheelwrights

4 Widows, 2 Orphans , and 19 persons for whom no occupation is recorded.

64 of the total proprietors in this group are women and 50 are men, but a few appear to be duplicates, with the same or a very similar name owning more than one property. This may reduce the total to 60 women and 45 men.



False teeth, slavery and propaganda

The eighteenth century false teeth of Archbishop Dillon


On the 29th October 1794 the good folk of Derbyshire could read news of the international situation in the pages of the Derby Mercury. They were also warned of forgeries of Bank of England £10 and £20 notes found to be in circulation – amounts no doubt well beyond the dreams of many of the paper’s readers. They could peruse advertisements for an “Infallible ointment for the itch” (probably scabies); consider the virtues of the Elixir of Bordana for gout and rheumatism at three shillings a bottle, or discover where to purchase Balsam of Honey effective for coughs, consumption etc.

Tucked among these homely items was one of the more shocking stories of the evils of slavery.

A planter’s wife was walking on the quayside observing a newly arrived shipload of slaves from Africa when she noticed a young woman with a particularly good set of white teeth. As her own front teeth were rotten, doubtless from over consumption of the sugar that had made her family rich, she enquired whether the young woman’s teeth could be implanted in her own gums. On being told they could, she had the young woman seized. The terrified girl found her teeth being forcibly removed despite her screams and struggles and they were given to the planter’s wife.

History did not of course record the sequel. After the immediate pain and trauma the poor victim was now forced to go through life with her looks ruined and her ability to eat whatever meagre food she was given impaired. Her value as a slave was diminished and she was probably condemned to work as a field slave rather than as a more prestigious house slave.

And the planter’s wife – did her implants work? Almost certainly not, though they might have been made into a set of false teeth for show.

There was experimental work in dentistry being done in the late eighteenth century, for example by John Hunter in London. The forced migration of French dentists escaping the terror of the French Revolution changed dentistry in both England and America and the technology of false teeth was improving from the wooden or ivory sets (which tended to rot) which were mainly for show and were removed at mealtimes, to porcelain sets with gold springs  such as those of Archbishop Dillon pictured above, that could actually be used for eating. Improvements in dentistry and dental technology in the nineteenth century followed on the heels of the damage done to teeth by the mass availability of sugar and refined carbohydrates.

There is one other thing to consider about this story in the Derby Mercury, in which no details of names or places were given, for it was part of the propaganda war being waged against the cruelties of slavery. Did it actually happen?

Sadly however, propaganda or not, it is all too likely to have been true.



Mary Rose – a colonial snob

Georgian houses in Charterhouse Square London

reproduced by kind permission of the London Photo Project


Mary Rose is one of my Jamaican favourites, not because I can say she was a particularly good or nice person but because she was a much married survivor. She was also more than a bit of a snob.

The Rose family came from Mickelton in Gloucestershire. Mary’s father John Rose was a merchant, based in London, who traded with Jamaica and made some of his money by transporting convicts captured after the 1685 Monmouth rebellion.

9 December 1685 –
Invoice of sixty eight men servants, shipped on board, Capt
Charles Gardner, in ye Jamaica Merchant (ship) for account of
Mr.Rose and Comp.,they being to be sold for ten years.
The men whose names are contained in the within written list, as
shipt upon the account of John Rose and Company, on board the
Jamaica Merchant, to be landed and disposed of in Barbados or

Born in the City of London on the 17th of May 1681, she was baptised on the 29th of  May at the church of All Hallows Barking by the Tower, the oldest church in the City of London. She was the fifth of fourteen children born between 1676 and 1694. Her uncle Dr Fulke Rose had gone to Jamaica around 1670 and his brothers Thomas and Francis joined him there. So Mary already had family in Jamaica when she went there in her early teens.

On the 18th of  December 1697 aged sixteen, Mary married Thomas Hals (or Halse) in Spanish Town. Thomas was the great grandson of Sir Nicholas Halse of Cornwall, England and was heir to the Halse Hall estate in the parish of Clarendon. It was a sad fact of life in Jamaica that marriages were frequently cut short by the death of one partner, and on 24 Aug 1702 Thomas Halse died barely six months after his father, and was buried at Halse Hall. He left behind him one son, also called Thomas, and a rich widow.

Rich young widows in Jamaica did not long remain unmarried and within three months Mary had married again, this time to John Sadler whose father Charles Sadler was prominent in island politics. Mary and John had at least three children – Mary baptised in 1705, John Charles baptised in 1709 and Francis baptised in 1711.

In the early years of the eighteenth century Mary was joined in Jamaica by two of her sisters – Elizabeth who married Samuel Heming and Frances who married Dr John Charnock – he and their two young daughters died in Jamaica and Frances returned to England. Elizabeth left at least three children – Richard, Mary and Samuel – who lived to grow up. Mary also had several cousins in Jamaica, William the son of her uncle Thomas (who had died in 1679) and the family of her uncle Francis who lived until 1720.

Mary was luckier in the length of her second marriage which lasted over a quarter of a century. John Sadler, who like his father  took an active part in island politics, was a Member of the Assembly for Clarendon in 1704, 06 and 09,  St. Ann in 1707 and  St. John 1711. He was later also a Member of the island Council. Although it seems likely her children Mary and John died young, her son Francis went on to play a particularly dramatic part in island history – of which more another time.

After the death of John Sadler Mary returned to England where she was now the only surviving child of her mother Elizabeth. Captain John Rose her father had died in 1703 and was buried at All Hallows Staining in London. Her sister Martha who had married Jamaica merchant and agent John Serocold had died in childbirth in February 1716/17.

For a time Mary went to live with her mother who by now was in her seventies, but on the 12th of February 1731/32 at St Dunstan and All Saints she married for a third time as the fifth wife of John Styleman an East India merchant who was by then aged about eighty-two. When Mary was a small child and her siblings were baptised at All Hallows Staining there was a Styleman family in that parish and it is possible that the families had known each other for half a century. John Styleman had spent three decades in India, married there and buried his first wife and five children there before returning to England in the first decade of the eighteenth century to marry three more wives before Mary.

John Styleman died in 1734 and Mary lived out her life in his house in Charterhouse Square in London. She died about May 1750 and opted to be buried with her last husband and three of his wives at Bexley in Kent where he had built almshouses that still exist today. You can read Mary’s Will here. It makes fascinating reading being full of very specific instructions such as leaving the marble fireplaces in the garrets of the house in situ!

Sadly I don’t know exactly which house in Charterhouse Square she lived in, though it could have been one of the ones pictured, and I have no idea where the two portraits of herself and John Styleman now are, if indeed they still exist.

And the reason I called her a snob? In her Will she left her silver plate and jewels to her son Francis but specifically requested him not to use them in Jamaica, and in respect of her other household goods  “I likewise earnestly desire and request that he will not use them at Spanish Town which place is my Aversion for a Planter to live in” .


Black, White and In Between – Categories of Colour

The Kneeling Slave – ‘Am I not a Man & a Brother’ (oil on canvas) English School (18th century)

© Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright


It is only a generation since the ending of apartheid, and not much longer since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus that December day in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. In my lifetime rental properties in the UK displayed signs saying “No Irish, Blacks or dogs”, and forty years ago I sat with a friend in a rental agency in London as the woman who had just shown us details of several properties turned away a black couple telling them she had nothing on her books. Such is the legacy of slavery and imperialism.

To understand older Jamaican records it can be helpful to know the categories into which people were put for legal and social purposes.

Not all black people, referred to as negroes in old documents, were slaves. Indeed not all white people were free, as a substantial number of indentured servants from Britain sold their labour for a fixed period of years hoping for a better life at the end of it, when if they survived they did become completely free.

There were already free negroes in Jamaica when the British arrived. For example, Peter Moore and Black Betty, free negroes, were married at St Catherine on the 8th November 1677; and Isabella Husee the daughter of Domingo and Maria, free negroes, was baptised at St Catherine on 13th July 1679.

The Spanish conquerors of the island had owned many African slaves whom they freed, or who escaped into the Jamaican interior when the British arrived, becoming the independent and much feared Maroons (probably from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning wild or untamed). There were also still some of the original Arawak or Taino Indians, and occasionally you will come across a reference in the old parish registers to someone as an ‘Indian’. Charles Benoist and Uańah ‘an Indian Woman’ were married in the parish of St Andrew on the 30th May 1675.

Both the church registers and the slave registers categorised people by their colour, but different vicars varied in the extent to which they entered the racial mix of the person being baptised and whether they were illegitimate.  Of course many slaves were not baptised at all and their lives have gone unrecorded unless in slave registers on the plantations they were sold to.

The following explains the categories used throughout the colonial period.

Negro – a black person with two black parents of African origin, but who might have been born in Jamaica and hence might be referred to as a creole.

Creole – any person, whether black, white or mixed race born in a British colony, although over time this has tended to be thought of as referring to someone of mixed race.

Mulatto – a person with one negro and one white parent.

Sambo –  a person with one parent a negro and the other mulatto i.e one quarter white.

Quadroon – the child of a white person and a mulatto i.e. one quarter black, with one grandparent of African origin.

Mustee, Mestee or Octaroon – a person who is one-eighth black i.e. with one black great grandparent.

Mesteefeena – a rarely used term for the child of a white parent and a mestee. One-sixteenth black, they were legally regarded as white and free.

You will often come across references in Wills to legacies left for a white man’s ‘housekeeper’. In the Jamaican context this almost always means a woman living with a man effectively as his wife, but not married to him, and who was the mother of his ‘reputed children’.  In the case of better-off white men, often they lived with a free mulatto or quadroon woman who might have property of her own including slaves. Another time I will tell some of the stories of their children.

In the mid eighteenth century the Jamaican Plantocracy and Merchants became concerned at the amounts of money being left to the non-white offspring of wealthy whites. Consequently in October 1761 they passed an Act of the Assembly “to prevent the inconveniences arising from exorbitant grants and devises made by white persons to negroes, and the issue of negroes, and to restrain and limit such grants and devises”.  This limited the amount that could be inherited by a non-white to £2000. However many white planters wished to leave their wealth to their ‘reputed’ children and consequently took out private Acts in the Jamaican Assembly, which had to be ratified in the London parliament, to enable them to dispose of their property as they wished.

An earlier and more unusual and interesting case is that of Mary Johnston Rose who was ‘housekeeper’ to Dr Rose Fuller and mother of two sons – Thomas Wynter and William Fuller. William was the son of Rose Fuller born on the 28th January 1734/35 and his paternity was acknowledged at his baptism the following April. I suspect Thomas Wynter was the son of Dr William Wynter and born about 1730. I have not yet found a baptism for him but William Wynter left him £50 for mourning in his Will, which left the bulk of his estate to his legitimate son Edward Hampson Wynter.

Mary, who was a free mulatto, applied to have her sons given full legal rights equivalent to white men. In the 1754 census of Spanish Town she is recorded as being legally white and the owner of a house worth £30 a year.

“At the Court of St. James 17.12.1746.  Present the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council.  Whereas the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Island of Jamaica with the Council and Assembly of the said Island did in 1745 pass an Act which hath been transmitted in the words following viz An Act to Intitle Mary Johnston Rose of the Parish of St. Catherines in the said Island, a free mulatto woman and her sons Thomas Wynter and William Fuller begotten by white fathers to the same rights and privileges with English subjects born of white parents.  The Act was confirmed, finally enacted and ratified accordingly.”

There is no mention of William Fuller in his father’s Will and it is likely that he died before him, as Rose Fuller made generous provision for Mary Rose.

Thomas Wynter became a successful and wealthy man, but in spite of his earlier recognition still had to apply for the rights of his (presumably mixed race) illegitimate children William Rose Wynter and Mary Mede.

Thomas Wynter to settle his estate as he shall think fit notwithstanding the Act to “prevent exorbitant grants and devises to Negroes”.

The Act was eventually repealed, but the categorisation of the inhabitants of Jamaica according to their colour and racial mix continued beyond the ending of slavery, made even more complex by the arrival of thousands of Indian ‘coolies’ imported to provide cheap labour after emancipation.

Georgian Flying Machines

Image courtesy of the DeadPubs Directory

While doing some further research about Susanna Hope (see the previous post on a Very Regency Scandal) I came across the following gem:

From the Derby Mercury 1762


Flying Machines from London to Manchester in three days from the Swan with Two Necks in Lad-Lane London and from the Swan with Two Necks in Market-street-Lane Manchester, every Monday and Thursday Mornings at Four o’Clock; and from the GEORGE INN in DERBY every Tuesday and Friday Mornings, at Four o’Clock: each passenger from DERBY to LONDON to pay One Pound Eight Shillings, and to be allowed fourteen pounds Weight of Luggage; all above to pay Two pence per pound.

We seem to have forgotten that stage coaches were once called ‘machines’, although we do still refer to those wheeled vehicles for preserving modesty on England’s beaches as bathing machines.

I reckon that in terms of retail prices this express service cost about twice as much as a first class train ticket does today – well beyond the means of an average worker.

Moreover it appears that charges for excess baggage did not originate with the budget airlines!


A very Regency Scandal

Richard Lee about 1795


Anyone who has been watching Lucy Worsley’s lovely series on BBC Four  Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency will be aware that scandal was never far from the surface among the families making up the top level of society. The affair of Robert Home Gordon and Susanna Hope, the wife of Joseph Biscoe, was a very Regency scandal involving illicit sex, servants peeping through windows, the rights of a man over his wife and child, great wealth and all ending in a much publicized court case.

Typical of many who had acquired their position via the sugar plantations of Jamaica, Robert Home Gordon passed most of his life in Great Britain spending the wealth generated by his estates – Cromwell estate in St Mary and the Home Castle estate in the parish of St Ann.

He had come to England from Jamaica as a small boy, under the guardianship of Robert Cooper Lee, and went to Harrow School together with Richard Lee. There they also met Joseph Biscoe, about four years their senior, whose mother was Lady Mary Seymour daughter of the Duke of Somerset, and whose father Vincent was a partner in the firm of Hilton and Biscoe, Merchants trading with Jamaica.

On 22nd May 1786 Joseph Biscoe married seventeen year old Susanna Harriot Hope at All Saints Church, Derby. [Location corrected as per comments below] Her father was the well respected Rector of All Saints, now Derby Cathedral. The family were friends of the painter Joseph Wright of Derby and a portrait of Susanna painted a few years before her marriage came up for sale at Christie’s in 2009. It’s a pleasant and very conventional picture of a well to do young girl. Wright doesn’t seem to have seen anything in her to suggest she would later cause the kind of scandal that nudged its way into the national press at a time when it was mostly preoccupied with a raft of treason trials.

For the first seven years the Biscoe’s life together seems to have been a happy one,  living in Derbyshire and Mansfield, and a daughter Mary was born the year after their wedding. There were no further children and in October 1793 the couple moved with their daughter to Kent, taking the lease of Shoreham House the following year from Robert Gordon, to whom Joseph had been reintroduced by Richard Lee.

Biscoe, Gordon and Richard Lee all enjoyed country sports, and Robert Gordon and Richard Lee regularly came down from London to go riding or shooting with Joseph Biscoe. Richard Lee never stayed more than a couple of days before going back to his business in London, but Robert Gordon often stayed several weeks at a time and the Biscoes stayed with him in turn at his hunting box in Kent.

It was at this point that Robert Gordon fell head over heels in love with Susanna and she was undoubtedly attracted to him. Had Joseph Biscoe shown any concern, the affair might have ended before it began.  Instead he continued to go out all day shooting, often with Richard Lee but frequently on his own, leaving Robert Gordon alone with his wife. Although Biscoe claimed to be completely unaware of what was going on the servants were not. It had become common for Robert Gordon to sit for hours alone with Susanna, sending her seven year-old daughter out of the room, and only picking up his gun to go out shortly before Biscoe was due back. Several times when the men came in from shooting Robert and Susanna sat up into the small hours, with Biscoe and Richard Lee having gone to bed hours earlier.

On the 21st October 1794 matters came to a head. Joseph Biscoe had gone up to London on business and Susanna rode out accompanied by the Coachman Francis Swindel. When she met up with Robert, Swindel was told to drop back to where he could not hear their conversation. Her maid Margaret Sparks was already suspicious because that morning Susanna had asked her to leave her drawers unlocked, which the maid had not done wanting to know what Susanna took out of them. It was clear to the servants that an elopement was in the offing. When Gordon and Susanna got back in the middle of the afternoon her two brothers were already there, well aware of her impending flight and having been drinking quantities of Biscoe’s wine while they waited. They spent only a short time talking to Robert before leaving again.

The servants then became aware of a scene being played out between Susanna and Robert Gordon. He was pleading with her to elope with him, stamping noisily up and down in the parlour. She was crying that she could not leave her child. He called for some laudanum to calm her, but the servants, with a somewhat melodramatic turn of mind, suspected that he meant to drug and kidnap her. In any case they had no laudanum and could only provide hartshorn or wine and water.

As it grew dark the lovers left the house unobserved and walked several miles, pursued by Biscoe’s Coachman, before obtaining a chaise at a local inn to take them to Robert Gordon’s London house in Albemarle Street. There they occupied separate but adjoining bedrooms. It was not enough to save her reputation, and Susanna now knew that she had burnt her boats.

The scene was set for a scandalous court case in which the young William Garrow (who featured in the recent BBC series Garrow’s Law) would play a part. Joseph Biscoe, rather than simply demand a divorce, sued Robert Gordon for damages claiming £10,000 for Gordon’s ‘criminal conversation’, i.e. adultery, with his wife. Even for a wealthy man £10,000 was a large sum, equivalent to nearly a million pounds in relation to retail prices, or over ten million pounds relative to average earnings, today.

On the 8th December 1794 a special jury hearing was held before Lord Chief Justice Kenyon. Technically it was the ‘Trial of Mrs Biscoe for Adultery with Robert Gordon Esq.’ although Susanna did not attend. Robert Home Gordon was able to afford some big legal guns and his defence team included Thomas Erskine (later to be Lord Chancellor), William Garrow and a Mr Burrow, while Joseph Biscoe had Messrs Bearcroft, Gibbs and Perceval on his side.

The Biscoe servants were called to give evidence, with Biscoe’s team clearly having decided to paint Susanna as a wronged woman, seduced and possibly made drunk and abducted by Robert Home Gordon. They represented the marriage as blissful and Gordon as a cad who had betrayed his friend’s hospitality.

Robert had ensured that Susanna would not be called to testify by admitting the adultery from the outset – it would have been hard to deny since the couple had been living together at Albemarle Street since October – and so his legal team worked hard to reduce the amount of any damages to be awarded.

Biscoe’s team called several witnesses to testify to his years of happy marriage and that he had been an indulgent husband. However the first hint of where the trouble lay came when an old college friend, George Biggin, described Biscoe as being a man of very reserved character. This gave Erskine the opening he needed and he portrayed Biscoe as a man who would rather spend all day out hunting or shooting than at home with his wife – a man who ‘in consequence of his own gross negligence, permits his wife to have an improper intercourse [unchaperoned meetings] with other men, which may ultimately terminate in the ruin of both’.

Without attempting to destroy Biscoe’s honour Erskine made clear that it should have been obvious to anyone, and particularly Biscoe, that allowing his wife to sit up until three in the morning with Robert Gordon was asking for trouble. Why, Erskine asked, if Biscoe had first become aware of the danger in August, had he not put a stop to it? Why had he done nothing to attempt to reclaim his wife’s affections? Why had he remained in the same room as the lovers while they sat side by side on a ‘sopha’ and did nothing about it? Indeed why when they had gone out riding with Richard Lee, who proposed that all four should stay together, had Biscoe said ‘no, let them go on by themselves, they are made for one another’?

‘After this gentleman sees that his wife’s affections are alienated from him, instead of putting any check or reins upon them, he encourages the defendant, and then comes into a court of justice to complain of them’, said Erskine.

It was a devastating opening statement, representing Biscoe as having thrown his wife into the arms of Robert Gordon, and it was backed up by Richard Lee, who Erskine admitted was appearing as a very reluctant witness. Not only was he a friend of both men, but he was the business associate of Robert Gordon who had grown up with him almost like a brother. Moreover it was Richard who had re-introduced Gordon to Biscoe and who had then watched Gordon fall head over heels for Susanna while her husband did nothing to prevent it. William Garrow asked Richard if he had thought Biscoe was ‘a prudent discreet, cautious husband’ and Richard answered ‘I do not think he was’.

Richard was then asked by Biscoe’s lawyers whether he had thought that Gordon had gone to Kent with the intention of seducing Susanna.

‘I took it for granted, and I thought him criminal’, replied Richard. But when challenged as to why he had done nothing to prevent it he told the jury that ‘I should have thought it extremely improper to interfere in any degree.’ Poor Richard was clearly caught in an impossible situation, deeply disapproving of Robert Gordon’s conduct but not feeling it right to intervene or interfere, and believing it was clear that Biscoe did not care enough to put a stop to the affair.

Kenyon was scathing in his summing up:

On the part of the Defendant they tell you, that Mr Biscoe has stood by and seen his wife debauched; and, if that is so, he is one of the most atrocious men living. And if you see Mr Biscoe to be the pander of the lusts of the Defendant, give him not a farthing, but give the Defendant your verdict. But on the contrary, if you shall be of the opinion that the Plaintiff was put off his guard, by pretended friendship, and that he has been robbed of his domestic comforts by the foulest conspiracy, I think no damages but Ten Thousand Pounds will satisfy the fair calls which Mr Biscoe makes on your honours and your consciences for justice.

In spite of the evident adultery, and Lord Kenyon’s censuring of Richard Lee for failing to intervene, the Jury obviously felt that Biscoe was partly to blame. They withdrew for only a short time and found in favour of Biscoe, but the claim for damages was halved to £5000.

Susanna probably never saw her daughter again, for she was put in the care of Joseph’s sister Mary and brought up in her father’s household. In 1807 she married Sir Robert Harry Inglis, and in 1815 they adopted the nine orphaned children of Henry and Marianne Thornton.

Joseph finally obtained a divorce in 1796 and remarried in 1799, having seven children with his new wife Stephana Law.

Susanna and Robert Gordon continued to live together but did not marry until some years later, a codicil to Robert’s Will implying that by 1812 they were married under both English and Scots Law. This was important as he had substantial estates in Scotland.

Robert died in Brighton in 1826 and, as they had no children, when Susanna died in 1839 most of the property went to Robert’s cousin Sir Orford Gordon of Embo.

It seems a sad ending to a whirlwind romance and elopement and I can only hope they were happy together.

The Great Jamaican Earthquake of 1692

The terrible earthquake that struck Jamaica just before noon on the 7th June 1692 changed the geography of the island for ever and set its progress back by many years.  The timing of the earthquake was recorded by survivors but confirmed by the discovery of an early pocketwatch, made about 1686 by Frenchman Paul Blondel, during an underwater excavation.  The watch had stopped at 11:43 am.

Looking at this 1670 map and comparing it with one drawn nearly a century later, you can see that a huge area around Port Royal, notorious it is true for its pirates and brothels but nonetheless the centre for a lively trade with the outside world, simply ceased to exist.  Port Royal was described as the wickedest city on earth, but mostly after its destruction when people were looking for an explanation and seeing it as God delivering a just punishment on a sinful people.


Port Royal in 1670

Port Royal in 1755

About two thirds of the town of Port Royal disappeared in the quake, much of it because of liquefaction of the sandy soil on which the town was built.  Brick buildings and wooden warehouses collapsed and slid into the sea. According to Robert Renny in his An History of Jamaica of 1807, “All the wharves sunk at once, and in the space of two minutes, nine-tenths of the city were covered with water, which was raised to such a height, that it entered the uppermost rooms of the few houses which were left standing. The tops of the highest houses, were visible in the water, and surrounded by the masts of vessels, which had been sunk along with them”.

In the triple shocks of the quake the liquefied soil flowed in waves, fissures opened up and then closed again trapping victims as the sand solidified, some horrifically left with just their heads visible.  In the tsunami that followed most of the twenty or so ships in the harbour were sunk or carried right over the town, and many who had survived the initial quake were drowned.

The horror of the survivors at the huge number of corpses floating in the harbour was increased when they realised that many of these bodies had been washed out of the town’s graveyard. Looting began almost at once with the looters even hacking fingers off the dead in order to obtain their rings, and goods were stolen from the wharves and warehouses.

The earthquake, which modern estimates suggest was about 7.5 in magnitude, was not of course confined to Port Royal.  A huge landslip occurred at Judgement Hill.  At Liguanea, the site of modern Kingston, the sea was observed to retreat 300 yards before a six-foot high wave rushed inland.  Most of the buildings in Spanish Town were destroyed and serious damage occurred all across Jamaica.

Worse was yet to come, for the survivors then had to endure a series of epidemics particularly of Yellow Fever.  Perhaps 2000 of the 6500 inhabitants of Port Royal perished in the quake, many more died across Jamaica in the following few years. The island was over dependent on imported food and goods from England, and the disruption to its main harbour, loss of ships and warehousing brought about shortages of essential goods and reduced the ability to export.

The Jamaican Assembly removed from Port Royal to Spanish Town and rebuilding began almost at once, but it has been suggested that the progress of the colony was set back by 20 years as a result of the devastation.  Port Royal itself was so much reduced in area and further devastated by fire in 1704 that it never recovered.  Two years after the quake Dr Fulke Rose, one of the early colonists who had been in Jamaica since at least 1670,  returned to London with his family in order better to plead the cause of the island.  He died there in March 1694 and you can read a transcript of his Will here.

During the 1980s and 1990s underwater excavations took place at Port Royal which revealed much about life there before the quake struck. You can read about that project here.

Jamaica suffers up to 200 earthquakes every year, most of which are quite minor, but the Earthquake Unit of the University of the West Indies at Mona describes the quake of 1692 as ‘perhaps our largest and most damaging natural disaster’.


At the Three Sugar Loaves and Crown

While researching the history of the Rose Hall Estate in Jamaica – not the Rose Hall at Montego Bay famed for the (totally fictional) White Witch, but the one in St Thomas in the Vale – I came across a little book called “At the Three Sugar Loaves and Crown“  by Owen Rutter (1889-1944).

It was published in 1938 and tells the near three hundred year history of Davison, Newman and Company, which became the West Indian Produce Association, and made a fortune for its owners.

In Creechurch Lane, off Leadenhall Street, stands an old shop with a sign such as the merchants of the City were wont to display two centuries ago; three golden sugar-loaves surmounted by a golden crown. . . . .Within the shop you may buy anything from sugar to cigars, from Trinidad chocolate to Jamaica rum, from tea to treacle. . .

If the shop did not disappear in the Blitz it must certainly have succumbed to the bulldozers long since, although the church of St Katherine Cree that gave its name to the lane survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz and still stands at the corner of Leadenhall Street. It boasts a fine rose window at the eastern end, supposedly modelled one in old St Pauls, and is now a Guild church without a parish ministering to the world of finance and commerce that surrounds it.

The eighteenth century was the great heyday of the company when it was joined by Monkhouse Davison from Cumberland, made free of the Grocers’ Company in 1738. By the time he became a partner sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, Rawlinson & Davison, were ‘Dealers in Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, Snuffs, Sago, Hartshorne, Virmicelly, Morells, Truffles, Starch & Blue, with the best of all Sorts of Grocery and Confectionery Wares at the lowest prices’.  Tea from the East was traded out to America and the Caribbean; rum, sugar, chocolate and coffee from Jamaica and tobacco from the southern American plantations were brought back to London.

The range of teas stocked by Davison and Newman was extensive and included Hyson, Singlo, Congou, Souchong, Pekoe, Padree and Bohea.

It was a consignment of tea from Davison and Newman that joined others scattered in the waters of Boston harbour at that most famous of tea parties in 1773.  But there appears to have been a second incident the following year which resulted in a number of English merchants petitioning the King in relation to further losses of tea. You can see their petition here .

Davison and Newman had sent sixteen chests of tea on a ship called the Fortune, consigned to Henry Lloyd a merchant in Boston.  Five of the men petitioning the King had underwritten the insurance on the tea for four hundred and eighty pounds.  On Monday the 6th of March 1774 in what seems to have been a repetition of the first tea party the previous December and the day after the ship arrived in Boston, a large number of men, many disguised as Indians and armed with axes and hatchets, dragged twenty-eight chests of tea including those belonging to Davison and Newman out of the ship’s hold, broke them open, and threw the tea into the water.  The insurers had paid out the equivalent of about £48,000 in today’s money and understandably were hoping for compensation.

In the language of the day, “Your Petitioners most humbly pray that your Majesty will be graciously pleased to give your petitioners such relief as their Case may require and such as to your Majesty may seem just.”

If tea had been the only or even a major part of the trade of Davison and Newman these losses would have been more serious, but they traded in a very wide range of goods and had a portfolio of property in London.  In 1789 they diversified even further and bought a 4/18 share of the Rose Hall Plantation in the Parish of St Thomas in the Vale in Jamaica.  The land was owned by Sir Charles Price who had acquired it from the Rose family and now leased it to Sir James Esdaile and Robert Cooper Lee, who each held a 7/18 share.  The Lee family continued to hold their share of Rose Hall into the mid-19th-century, but the Davison and Newman interest ended in 1834.

Davison and Newman held a copy of the slave muster book quoted by Owen Rutter.  In 1784 the slaves included 82 men, 72 women, 39 boys and 27 girls.  Two 6-year-old girls called Ebony and Lavinia were employed to weed among the sugarcane and were described as being ‘healthy’.  Eleven year old Flora was a field hand, which means she was expected to do the harder work of preparing the ground and planting canes,  “but now attends her mother who is blind”.

After the deaths of Monkhouse Davison and Abram Newman the company was taken over by William Thwaytes who had already worked for it for twenty-five years and would do so for another thirty-five.  Sadly however in the latter years of his life he seems not to have controlled the company very effectively and at his death the City properties had become dilapidated and he had even failed to have his will witnessed.  As a result all his estate went to a nephew, including his share in the Rose Hall Plantation, rather than to his wife, and when a buyer could not be found for the company four junior employees undertook what we would now call a management buyout.  They borrowed £8000, acquired the three houses in Fenchurch Street and carried on the business, turning it once more profitable.

The original premises from which the company had traded for two hundred years were demolished in 1890 and the company moved to 57 Fenchurch Street and eventually to 14 Creechurch Lane where in spite of the change of name to the West Indian Produce Association it still displayed the sign of the Three Sugar Loaves and Crown.


Marchant Tubb

This is a portrait of Marchant Tubb, sometime surgeon in Jamaica, and generally really nice man. Judging by his clothes and the grey hair, or lack of it, it was painted in England probably in the 1780’s and was in the possession of Robert Cooper Lee’s family who had labelled the back of the frame ‘Old Tubb’.

Marchant was born in Bath about 1732, one of a large family of at least eleven children. Although his brother Decimus is the eighth child of John Tubb listed in the baptisms at Bath Abbey his name strongly suggests that he should  have been the tenth child!

How Marchant obtained his training as a surgeon I don’t know, but as a young man he went to Jamaica – perhaps as a plantation doctor, perhaps to serve the white colonists.

He married Ann Morant widow of Stephen Morant of Jamaica who was some years older than him, and together with her daughter Mary Powell Morant they returned to England  before the autumn of 1771 when both Marchant and Ann Tubb were witnesses at the wedding of Robert Cooper Lee. Ann Tubb died in 1777 and was buried at Ringwould, Kent, near to Deal where they spent many happy holidays with the Lee family.

When Ann died Marchant erected a touching monument in her memory.

In the Vault beneath are deposited the Remains of Mrs Ann TUBB, wife of Marchant Tubb, Esqr. late of the Island of Jamaica. She died 26th of June 1777, Aged 55 Years. In Testimony of whose Virtues, As an affectionate Wife, A Tender Parent and a faithful Friend, This Memorial is erected By her surviving Husband Who too severely feels The Loss he records.

Marchant and his step daughter moved into number thirteen Bedford Square in London, close to the Lee family and several other ex-Jamaica inhabitants. In August 1782 Mary made a hasty, and hastily regretted, marriage to Joseph Royall a widowed planter many years older than her. As was usual a marriage settlement was drawn up protecting Mary’s interests, but under the right of ‘coverture’ making her property over to Joseph and any children they might have. Within months she had left him and gone back to her step father necessitating the creation of a second document protecting her rights under her separated state.

When Marchant Tubb died in December 1791 he left all his property to Mary Powell Royall who also inherited a share in the Wheelerfield Plantation in Jamaica. He was buried with his wife Ann at Ringwould and in 1816 Mary joined them there.

You can read their Wills in the Will Collection on this site.