Monthly Archives: March 2012

Wet Nursing in Jamaica

Cover image from Wet Nursing by Valerie Fildes*


In January 1784 Frances Lee wrote from Bath to her brother Richard, “ The Duchess of Devonshire is here but she goes little into Public as she is at present a nurse – a very extraordinary circumstance in these refined times”.

At a time when it was unfashionable for the upper classes to breast feed their own infants, the Duchess of Devonshire’s insistence on doing so was much remarked upon.  It was also disapproved of by the Duke’s family.  The child was a daughter, there was great pressure on the Duchess to produce a son, and it was well known that breastfeeding would delay the chances of her getting pregnant again.

Before the easy availability of contraception a woman who was lucky enough to keep her health and survive childbirth, might expect to deliver eight or a dozen children and sometimes more.  The Duchess of Lennox who was married at seventeen, and after the birth of her first child advised not to breastfeed because of a fear of making her “weak eyes” worse, produced twenty-two living children in thirty years[1].

When researching family history a useful rule of thumb is to expect one child every 18 to 24 months on average, and if you find a large gap in the record this generally indicates a lost pregnancy, or a missing record.  Using this principle I successfully tracked down thirteen of the fifteen children of a family who spent the last four decades of the 19th century moving hither and thither across England building and repairing the railways.  I knew there were fifteen children to find because half way through my researches the 1911 census became available. For the first time the 1911 census gives information on the number of children born to a couple, and whether alive or dead.  Had I been prepared to spend more money guessing which birth certificate to purchase (the family name was a common one and often misspelled) I might have been able to find the last two children.

It seems clear that it was well known for centuries that breastfeeding limited the chance of getting pregnant and of course there was no real substitute for human milk. Babies might be fed on cows milk, often contaminated and a source of tuberculosis, or on pap – a mixture of flour and water.  Weaning generally took place from a child’s second year, which helps to account for high levels of infant mortality as the child was exposed to a wider range of risks. Teething is often recorded as a cause of death both in parish records and later on death certificates and was regarded as particularly dangerous for the child.  However it is more probable that infections picked up as a result of weaning with contaminated food were the cause, although the practice of lancing a child’s gums to encourage the teeth to come through would also have introduced infection.

The women who were employed as wet nurses came from a variety of backgrounds.  Overtly the only qualification was to have a plentiful supply of milk to feed a baby, and in some cases particularly among poorer women this resulted in professional wet nurses who farmed out their own babies in order to obtain employment.  In many cases they would have been women whose own child had just died.  The fate of a child whose mother had died in childbed depended entirely on immediately finding a wet nurse.

For those employing them the moral character of the wet nurse was important, not only might a single mother be a threat to the marriage if she was a “loose woman”, but it was believed that more than nutrition flowed with mother’s milk, moral character might  also. Some medical texts advocated that the wet nurse’s own child should be of the same sex as the one she suckled – some thought mothers of boys produced better quality milk and others that inappropriate sexual characteristics might be transmitted in the milk if the babies were of different sexes.  There was also medical discussion as to whether a mother’s milk improved or deteriorated as her baby grow older and therefore whether the age of her baby relative to the age of the one she nursed was important.

For the wealthy upper classes there is evidence that the wet nurses they employed came not from the poor or single mothers, but from the social class immediately beneath them.  One study of the wet nurses employed by Sir Roger and Lady Mary Townshend in the 17th century[2] shows that the women were the wives of prosperous yeoman farmers and other respectable local people who had previously been servants in the Townshend household and were consequently well known to the family.

When we come to the colonists in Jamaica and the wealthy families of the plantocracy we can see that they had a dual problem in finding wet nurses for their children.  Although white society in Jamaica was more socially fluid than in England, it was relatively small in number and generally lacking in the intermediate social class of respectable white servants, yeoman farmers and well to do village craftsmen from whom Sir Roger Townshend’s family drew its wet nurses.

White women were always a scarce commodity in eighteenth century Jamaica.  Moreover death and disease took their toll so rapidly on new white settlers that the numbers of white women were further reduced and the numbers among them who might potentially have been available as wet nurses were very small indeed.  And yet although the pressure for women to breastfeed their own children must consequently have been greater the impression given by the spacing of baptisms suggests otherwise. There is enough evidence to be found in the spacing of plantocracy families, baptising one child a year over a period of the decade or so, to suggest that many of the women were not breast feeding their own children, although this conclusion is necessarily speculative as it is not always possible to establish whether the child lived to grow up.  For example Elizabeth Langley the wife of Dr Fulke Rose, one of Jamaica’s early settlers, produced eleven children baptised between May 1679 and April 1694, and a further four children with her second husband Sir Hans Sloane.

The dilemma for white women in Jamaica who did not breastfeed their own children was whether to employ a black wet nurse.  Just as medical opinion recommended that the wet nurse’s child should be of the same sex, and debated the nutritional quality of the wet nurse’s milk, so there was debate as to what adverse effects being suckled by a black woman might have on a white child.  Both Sir Hans Sloane, and later the Jamaican historian Edward Long commented on the fact that planters avoided the use of black wet nurses.

“Planters eschewed black nurses ‘for fear of infecting their children with some of their ill-Customs’.  The blood of black women was ‘corrupted’ and their milk ‘tainted’, differing distinctly from that of European mothers.”[3]

In the 1780s William Dwarris wrote proudly that his wife fed her babies herself “which I assure you is rather uncommon here”.  His wife Sarah regarded breastfeeding as a means of birth control and recommended it to her sister.  She also disapproved of the custom of using black and mulatto wet nurses.  “I should be very unhappy to have him suck a Negro, there is I think something unnatural in seeing a white child at a black breast besides that of being obliged to put up with their ill manners for fear of hurting your child.”[4]

There was an additional practical problem, that of the low birthrate among female slaves.  Much literature has been produced both about white society in Jamaica failing to reproduce itself and increase in numbers in the way that it did in North America, and about the problem that planters faced owning a slave population that did not reproduce itself let alone increase.  Only after the cessation of the slave trade did planters in general make effective efforts to encourage the natural reproduction of their enslaved workers.  So enslaved black women who might have welcomed the relatively easier work of wet nursing, were deprived of the opportunity by their own low fertility rates, by the relatively small numbers of pregnant plantocracy wives and by the prejudiced fears of contamination among the whites.

It may be that white families in Jamaica sought wet nurses among the mixed race women of their servant class, whose social status was more akin to that of the wet nurses used in England and whose ‘diluted’ colour might be thought to diminish any supposed disadvantage.  I’m not aware that any study has been done on this however.

There are few documented references to family wet nurses other than in the kind of estate accounts used for the study of Sir Roger Townshend’s family. I have however come across the following in the Will of Major General Samuel Townsend (no relation) whose wife Elizabeth Aikenhead (born in Jamaica about 1734) was the widow of Gilbert Ford (Attorney-General for Jamaica 1760, Member of the Assembly for St. John’s 1761, Member of Council 1764, died 1767):

“I give devise and bequeath unto my present Housekeeper Mrs Mary Collins the Sum of Ten Pounds Yearly for and during the term of her natural life as a mark of my intire approbation of her fidelity and good behaviour as well as of her great care and unvaried attention to my children whom she suckled.”

 Mary Collins was clearly a much loved member of the household, for when Elizabeth Townsend died in 1800 she left her £150. Incidentally we also know that Mary was literate since in 1796 she signed an affidavit concerning the validity of the handwriting in the Will of Elizabeth’s sister Milbrough McLean.


*Valerie Fildes, Wet Nursing A History from Antiquity to the present, Basil Blackwell, 1988

[1] Stella Tillyard, Aristocrats:Caroline, Emily,Louisa and Sarah Lennox 1740-1832, Chatto and Windus ,1994

[2] Linda Campbell, Wet-Nurses in Early Modern England: Some Evidence from the Townsend Archive, Medical History, 1989, 33:pp.360-370.

[3] Barbara Bush, Slave women in Caribbean Society 1650-1838, Heinemann Publishers (Caribbean) Kingston, Indiana University Press, James Currey, London 1990, p.15

[4] Lucille Mathurin Mair, A Historical Study of Women in Jamaica 1655-1844, University of West Indies Press, 2006, p. 119.

Jamaican Ancestry by Madeleine E. Mitchell – Book Review


Madeleine Mitchell’s really useful book on researching Jamaican ancestors first came out in 1998 and a revised edition was published in 2008.

In the Preface to the first edition she described herself as a family historian who had been working on her own Jamaican ancestry for more than a decade, that experience now stretches to quarter of a century and more, and some of the useful online links she has discovered over the years can be found on the Rootsweb site that she maintains.

She begins the book with the golden rule of genealogy – to work backwards from what you know to the unknown.  In the Jamaican context she stresses the importance of oral history and of knowing the parish with which your family were or are connected, and to help with this the book includes three maps showing the early parishes, the 19th-century parishes, and the modern boundaries in Jamaica.  There is also a list of critical events in the history of Jamaica.

The topics covered in the book include finding your way among the records for civil registration, church records, monumental inscriptions, maps and land records, records relating to immigration and naturalisation as well as emigration.  There is information about military records; schools, Colleges, and Universities; printed sources of information which may include relevant records such as handbooks, directories, court records and newspapers.  There is also a short but useful section on occupations, and a diagram showing the hierarchy of occupations underneath the owner, and the planting attorney who managed an estate.

Although the various sections act as pointers towards original sources, both online and manuscript or published, there is a huge amount of useful background information as for example in relation to the immigration of Scots to Jamaica covering the Darien disaster in the late 17th century whose remaining colonists fetched up in Jamaica.

Twenty-five years ago most sources for genealogy research were only available in physical form, with the arrival of the internet all that has changed. In addition to references to online sources throughout the main text, a section at the end of the book lists a range of web based resources, and a topic and full name index completes the book.

Madeleine Mitchell was born in Browns Town, Saint Ann, Jamaica and went to school in Browns Town and Kingston, later studying in Canada at McGill University.  She now lives in Florida.  Among her other work on Jamaican genealogy is an index to early Wills of Jamaica.

For anyone interested in researching their own Jamaican ancestry, this is an essential handbook and for anyone with but a passing interest it is full of fascinating background to Jamaica and its colonial past.

Madeleine E Mitchell, Jamaican Ancestry How to Find Out More (revised edition), Heritage Books Inc.,  Westminster, Maryland, USA, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0788442827.



And as a quick footnote – Can I remind you that the page called ‘Latest Additions’ on the left hand menu will take you to a list of – latest additions to the site!

This week I have added several Wills relating to the families of the Aikenhead sisters, daughters of Archibald Aikenhead of Stirling Castle, Jamaica.

The Queen of Hell in Portman Square


How did young Elizabeth Gibbons born in Jamaica about 1704 come to be known as the “Queen of Hell “?

She was the only surviving child of William Gibbons and his wife Deborah Favell, and consequently heir to his plantations of Dry River and Bay Marazy in Vere, jointly known as Gibbons.  At the age of about sixteen she was married to James Lawes, eldest son of Sir Nicholas Lawes who was Governor of Jamaica.

Sir Nicholas had come to Jamaica as a young boy his parents having suffered under Cromwell, and had built up a huge fortune. He introduced the growing of coffee to Jamaica, set up the first printing press, and married five widows (in succession I hasten to add).  No children survived from the first three marriages but James and Temple Lawes were the sons of his fourth wife Susannah Temple who had previously been married to Samuel Bernard. His youngest surviving daughter was Judith Maria who married Simon Luttrell, Lord Carhampton.

By all accounts at a time when the Jamaican Assembly was a hotbed of rivalry, in frequent opposition to interference from Whitehall, and suffering from the problems of absenteeism and the sudden deaths of colonists, James Lawes was a difficult man to deal with.  The Duke of Portland wrote that he left “nothing untry’d to create trouble”, complained of his unconventional behaviour and said that he would not allow his wife to pay any compliment to or visit the Governor’s wife.  Either James reformed or he learned to play politics more effectively, for after a visit to England in 1732 he was appointed Lieutenant Governor as deputy to Sir Robert Hunter.

However Jamaica claimed him as yet another early death and his widow created an elaborate marble monument for him at the church of St Andrew, Halfway Tree, with the following inscription (translated from Latin)[1]:

Nearby are placed the remains of the Honourable James Lawes: he was the first-born son of Sir Nicholas Lawes, the Governor of this Island, by his wife Susannah Temple: He married Elizabeth, the only daughter and heiress of William Gibbons, Esq; then in early manhood, when barely thirty-six years of age, he obtained almost the highest position of distinction among his countrymen, being appointed Lieutenant Governor by Royal warrant; but before he entered on his duties, in the prime of life – alas – he died on 4th January 1733.

In him we lose an upright and honoured citizen, a faithful and industrious friend, and most affectionate husband, a man who was just and kind to all, and distinguished by the lustre of genuine religion.  His wife, who survived him, had this monument erected to perpetuate the memory of a beloved husband.

Even allowing for conventional sentiments honouring the dead, there is nothing in this to suggest that it was anything other than a very happy marriage.  There appear to have been no children, or at any rate no surviving children, and at some point in the next decade Elizabeth left Jamaica for good.

Nine years later on the 25th of December 1742 the widowed Elizabeth married William the Eighth Earl of Home (pronounced Hume).  Curiously within eight weeks on the 24th of February 1743 he left her.  There is apparently no record of why. It seems likely that he was some years younger than Elizabeth, and not impossible that she consented to a marriage of convenience to protect a young man whose sexual preferences lay with his own sex. If they had a blazing row it has not been recorded, and she remained on good terms with his family, remembering some of them in her Will.

William had been commissioned in the second Regiment of Dragoon Guards in 1732 and had fought against the Jacobites at Prestonpans in 1745.  After leaving his wife he continued to pursue his military career. In 1750 he became colonel of the 48th (Northamptonshire) Regiment of Foot and in 1752 he became colonel of the 29th Regiment of Foot. In 1757 he was made Governor of Gibraltar and in 1759 he was promoted to Lieutenant General.  He died at Gibralter on the 28th of April 1761.

Having acquired the title of the Countess of Home, and continuing to enjoy the wealth from her Jamaican estates, Elizabeth moved to a large house on the south side of Portman Square.  However in spite of owning this recently built mansion, in 1773 she then proceeded to commission Robert Adam to build a particularly grand house on a very large plot on the north side of Portman Square and moved into it three years later. There she entertained lavishly, particularly the friends of the Duke of Cumberland and his wife Ann Luttrell, daughter of her sister-in-law Judith Maria Lawes.

Ann Luttrell, already a widow at twenty-eight was described as having “the most amorous eyes in the world and eyelashes a yard long; coquette beyond measure, artful as Cleopatra and completely mistress of her passions”, in other words in the eyes of the writer Horace Walpole, a gold digger. Lady Louisa Stuart called her vulgar, noisy, indelicate and intrepid. It may be the rumbustuous reputation of Ann’s sister Elizabeth, and Ann’s reputation for coarse language that contributed to Elizabeth Gibbons’ title as “Queen of Hell”. The name was bestowed on her by Elizabeth Montagu, wealthy bluestocking and coal heiress, who herself built the grand Montagu House on Portman Square and whose parties seem to have been of a rather different character from Elizabeth Gibbons’, excluding as they did either card playing or strong drink!

On the 16th of  January 1784 twelve year-old Matthew Allen Lee wrote to his brother Richard Lee, who was in Hamburg, “the Dowager Lady Hume died the day before yesterday and left the great house in Portman Square with almost all her fortune to Billy Gale Mr Farquhar’s Ward who is lately gone to Jamaica, expects about 13 thousand pounds in Legacies.”

Billy, or William, Gale was at that time under age and only distantly related to Elizabeth Gibbons who was herself, in the manner of the Jamaican colonists of the period, related to half the most prominent island families.

The residuary legatee in the event of William’s death without children (as indeed happened) was Peter Dixon. William and Peter had a grandmother in common – Gibbons Morant who had married first Jonathan Gale and then Peter Sargeant. The most likely explanation for the connection of all of these to Elizabeth Gibbons is the marriage of John Morant (father of Gibbons Morant) to a sister of William Gibbons – but as this would have taken place some time in the 1690s in Jamaica I have not so far found a record to prove it.

If this seems complicated that’s because it is, and it is absolutely typical of researches into 18th-century Jamaica.  Intermarriage between the main planter families, remarriages following the death of a partner and the desire to consolidate estates and keep them in family hands are all exemplified here.

As for why Elizabeth decided to build a second house on Portman square when she had a perfectly good one already, it seems likely that she was building it deliberately to house two very large full length portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland painted by Gainsborough.  Adam’s drawings for the design of the house show space for the two portraits either side of a large fireplace in the upstairs ‘Capital Room’. In her Will Elizabeth offered to leave the portraits to the Lord Mayor of London for display in the Mansion House, with the proviso that if the Cumberlands requested it they should have the pictures back.  There is no evidence the pictures ever hung in the Mansion House, and they are now in the Royal Collection.  The Cumberlands were not flavour of the month with the King at the time and it may be that the City of London felt it politic not to accept pictures of one of the King’s sons who had married against his wishes and to his great displeasure.

The house was clearly very splendid and is described by its present occupants as Robert Adam’s finest surviving London town house[2] .

 “The interior is conceived as a series of grand reception rooms, beginning with a typically austere hall, leading to one of the most breathtaking “tour de forces” in European architecture; Adam’s Imperial staircase, which rises through the entire height of the house to a glass dome, revealing the sky above.

On the ground floor are the Front Parlour and Eating Room, the latter being decorated with symbolic paintings of banquets and the harvest by Zucchi, the husband of artist Angelica Kauffman. On the first floor is a series of ‘Parade Rooms’ featuring the Ante-room, the Music Room, the Great Drawing Room and finally, one of the most original rooms in England, the Countess’s Etruscan State Bedroom, whose pagan decorations derive from the excavations of Pompeii.”

Home House Dome

For someone who had gained the title “Queen of Hell”, even if only in the popular press, Elizabeth seems to have taken great care not to forget any one of her friends, relations or servants in her Will.  If she was indeed eccentric and outspoken, she was also kind and considerate in her many bequests and attempted to ensure that her Jamaican estates would be left to someone who would remain resident there.

[1] Lesley Lewis, Elizabeth Countess of Home, her House in Portman Square,The Burlington Magazine, Vol.109, No.773, August 1967, pp.443-453.

[2] The house has recently been restored, having for some years housed the Courtauld Institute, and is now an exclusive Club.

Photograph of Home House Dome By Rictor Norton & David Allen from London, United Kingdom (38 Home House) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The White Witch and a Cautionary Tale

The story of the White Witch of Rose Hall in Jamaica is a huge tourist attraction for the beautifully restored Great House of Rose Hall.  The story goes that Annie Palmer murdered her several husbands and numerous black lovers and was eventually murdered in her bed by the slaves she had tortured and cruelly treated.  Having come from Haiti and being brought up in the traditions of voodoo, it is said she haunts the place to this day.

Before we go into the detail of the story let me tell you a cautionary tale.  Some years ago a historian of science was interested to read in an academic paper that the ancient Greeks had discovered photochromic chemicals, which meant that a piece of cloth dipped in the liquid would change colour according to the light.  Intrigued she checked out the reference in a respectable academic journal, and found that paper referred to another one.  Finding the second paper she tracked the reference to yet another respectable academic journal.  The trail eventually led through a series of about a dozen academic papers back to its source – a university student Rag Mag which told the story of how Alexander the Great had dipped a piece of cloth in the chemicals and wound it round his wrist, the cloth changing colour according to the time of day.  It was known as Alexander’s Rag Timeband!

The moral of this tale is always check your sources, and always if you possibly can go back to the original.

So it is with the White Witch of Rose Hall.  If you go online you will find lovely footage of the house as it is today and numerous references to the story which has done wonders for the tourist trade in the area.  But for those interested in the real background, it is a case of never let a good story get in the way of the truth.

It is no wonder there was confusion once the tale had become current, for there are two estates in Jamaica called Rose Hall (one near Linstead and this one at Montego Bay), two John Palmers with four wives between them, and Rosa Palmer who was herself married four times. It is sometimes said that Rose Hall was name after Rosa, but it is more likely that, like the other Rose Hall near Linstead, the root lies with the Rose family with whom Rosa’s husband John Palmer was connected.*

Rosa’s first husband was Henry Fanning who began to build the first Rose Hall but died in 1747 less than a year after their marriage. Next she married George Ash in 1750 who died about two years later having spent £30,000 building Rose Hall; and thirdly Norwood Witter who seems to have spent her money and died leaving her to sort out his debts about twelve years later. There is nothing suspicious about any of their deaths, and eventually Rosa married the widowed John Palmer who owned the neighbouring Palmyra estate and who outlived her. They were happily married for nearly twenty-three years and Rosa was seventy-two when she died in 1790. Her husband created a splendid marble memorial to her and he lived until 1797, having married his third wife Rebecca Ann James two years after Rosa’s death. However he had extensively mortgaged the Rose Hall and Palmyra estates, and both properties were no longer lived in when he died at Brandon.

The widowed Rebecca Ann left for England where she re-married, living on an annuity funded by her former husband’s estates which had passed to his two sons by his first wife, absentee landlords who lived and died in England.

Enter the second John Palmer and the fourth Mrs Palmer in this story – the one to whom the legend now attaches. John Rose Palmer was a great nephew of the owner of Rose Hall and in 1820 he married Annie Mary Paterson, a Jamaican of Scots descent, who was not brought up in Haiti and of whom nothing unpleasant is known. The huge debts on the Rose Hall and Palmyra estates were too much for John Rose Palmer to recover from and the properties passed into the hands of the receivers, having been empty and cared for by just one or two slaves for many years. Thus when John Rose Palmer died in 1827 his wife sold out what little interest she still had in the estate for £200. She died in 1846, a good decade after her supposed murder, leaving what little she had to her god-daughter Giolia Mary Spence.

So how did two perfectly blameless women and their several husbands come to be attached to a tale of lechery, torture and murder?

A Falmouth newspaper editor published a pamphlet in 1868 containing most of the ingredients of the tale, but linking it to Rosa Palmer rather than Annie. Others then pitched in with different versions, supposed family memories, hearsay and third hand accounts.  By 1911 a book on “Old St James” had transferred the blame to Annie Palmer and claimed her husband’s fate was unknown, which was clearly untrue since his death was reported at the time in the Royal Gazette and in the Kingston Chronicle and, his obituary read “His intrinsic worth, kind heart, and generous disposition obtained him the esteem of all his acquaintance, but to his family, and those friends who had the pleasure of being intimate with him, his loss is irreparable.”[1]

The legend became complete and fact and fiction inextricably merged, with the publication in 1929 of the novel “The White Witch of Rose Hall” by Herbert G. de Lisser. In the 1960s various serious and successful attempts were made to establish the facts behind the legend, those by Geoffrey S. Yates and Frederick J. DuQuesnay are republished on the Jamaican Family Search website and a third by Glory Robertson is in the Jamaica Journal.

For anyone researching a family story with lurid details, the White Witch provides a cautionary tale – always go back to the original sources. The real story may differ from the legend, but may be no less interesting.

Rose Hall c. 1930

Unoccupied and unloved for 130 years Rose Hall Great House declined and was in a state of near collapse, as sadly are so many of Jamaica’s great eighteenth century mansions, but unlike many others it was rescued and restored between 1966-71 by John Rollins and his wife which shows clearly what can be done with buildings others have thought impossible to save.

Rose Hall (Jamaica)

Rose Hall Restored

And if its continuance depends in part on a legend with no basis in fact? As I said earlier – why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

* UPDATE: 08 February 2019.
I have recently received the following helpful clarification about the naming of Rose Hall from Paul Hitchings, for which many thanks.
“In your article The White Witch you cast doubt on the tradition that Rose Hall was named after Rosa Kelly (successively wife of Fanning, Ash, Witter and Palmer) and suggest the root of the name more probably lies with the Rose family. The tradition, however, seems supported by the circumstance that the property is mentioned in the marriage settlement of Rose Ash and Norwood Witter, 12 May 1753, which recites that Rosa Ash is seised in her own right of Rosa (sic) Hall in the parish of St.James and is now made the subject of special settlement whereby she is to receive into her own hands the rent and proceeds of Rosa Hall. In the probate inventory of Norwood Witter, 17 January 1767, reference is made to slaves on the Rose Hall estate – so it looks as if the property’s name migrated from Rosa to Rose Hall in the interval. It is certainly the case that Rose Hall was in Rosa’s hands before her marriage to John Palmer, with whom you connect the Rose family – though I dare say her previous husbands also had dealings with the Roses. The Witter marriage settlement is detailed and referenced to Lib.151, fol.225, in a letter written by Leslie Alexander (who worked for many years in the Jamaica Records Office) and printed in The Daily Gleaner on 23 July 1895; this is accessible on-line.”


Rose Hall Restored – By Urban Walnut (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.

Happenstance and Villainy


George II shilling

One of the things I love about genealogy is tripping over a discovery while looking for something quite different.  Earlier this week I was working my way slowly through the Kingston marriage register when a name suddenly jumped out at me – nothing whatever to do with the person I was looking for.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may remember I have previously written about Scudamore Winde who spent many years as a merchant in Kingston, dying there in 1775.  He was the son of John Winde and Mary Scudamore who had married at Kentchurch in Herefordshire in January 1728.  Their first child Mary was baptised at Kentchurch in December 1729.  The only information I had about when Scudamore went to Jamaica related to the fact that his father had committed suicide in October 1759, after which he had sold a family property at Twickenham and left for Jamaica with his younger brother Robert.  I knew nothing of any earlier connection with Jamaica.

Now suddenly there was the name Maria Scudamore Winde in the Kingston parish register five years earlier.  It is not a common name and therefore I have no doubt that this was Scudamore Winde’s sister who was three years older than him.

On the 2nd of  October 1755 at Kingston she married Gershom Williams Esquire.  To date I have no idea why she was in Kingston and whether her father had a previous connection with Jamaica, which seems likely. At twenty-six she would not have required her father’s permission to marry, but it would have been conventional and perhaps he was present. Indeed that could explain why Scudamore Winde went there after his father’s death, possibly picking up the reins of a merchant house his father had established there.

So I went in search of Gershom Williams and thanks to the Jamaican family search website and an abstract from Caribbeana I found a Will written in December 1759 by William Williams of the parish of St Anne Jamaica.  The Will begins in conventional fashion requesting his executors to pay all his just debts and then deals with the disposal of Flatt Point and Woodstock plantations and sugar works, together with a plantation pen and pimento walk and a Mansion house in the parish of Saint James.  These were being put in trust, with the trustees being Robert Arcedeckne and Zachary Bayly both of Jamaica, and Michael Atkins a Bristol merchant.  The money raised was to be devoted to a cause referred to as “the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of exposed and deserted young Children in Lambs Conduit Fields London”.  This was the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram about fifteen years earlier to provide for the needs of abandoned babies and children, and was indeed a worthy cause.

The Will went on to leave £500 Jamaican apiece to a niece and nephew and then –  “Item I give and bequeath to that most abandonedly Wickedly Vile detestable Rogue and Imposter who hath assumed and now does or lately did go by the name of Gershom Williams pretending to be a Son of mine one Shilling only to buy him an Halter wherewith to hang himself being what he hath for a long, long, very long while past Merited and deserved from the Law and hands of the Hangman for his great and manifold Villanies.”

What on earth had Gershom Williams done?  Was he really the son of William Williams, or a conman who had been passing himself off as his son?  In either case William Williams had thought it important to include him in his Will.  Today we sometimes refer to someone being cut off without a shilling, but the importance of leaving somebody only one shilling, or one penny, or some very small amount of money, was that it would prevent them from contesting the Will on the grounds that they should have been included.

It appears that William Williams actually made an earlier Will dated the 26th of May 1759 leaving the plantations to his son William Williams and the remainder to the trustees to sell on behalf of the Foundling Hospital, however by December of that year his son William had presumably died and the Will was revised, leaving the majority of the estate for the benefit of the foundlings.

There is a reference in the catalogue of the Beinecke Lesser Antilles Collection at Hamilton College[1] to articles of agreement between Gershom Williams of Jamaica and the governors of the Foundling Hospital, dated October 1763, by which Gershom Williams agreed to pay £4,500 to the Foundling Hospital by instalments in return for the governors assigning their interest in all the estates of William Williams to the use of Gershom Williams. Did the Foundling Hospital ever receive the money?

If Gershom Williams had pulled a fast one he did not live long to enjoy it.

Maria Scudamore Williams was buried in Kingston on the 17th of December 1763. Following the death of William Williams, and barely two months after the death of his first wife, Gershom Williams remarried and in his own Will, dated September 1765, he left most of his worldly goods to his “faithful and beloved wife Anna Williams”, formerly Anna McNeal and to his brother Job Williams.

Administration of the will of William Williams was finally granted in 1768 to John Edwards who was Zachary Bailey’s attorney.  Robert Arcedeckne was by then living in North America, and Michael Atkins had died.

And what had Gershom Williams done that so alienated his father?

I have absolutely no idea, and if anyone can tell me what his supposed or actual crimes were I would love to hear about it.

[1] University of Florida Press, 1994