Monthly Archives: May 2012

Great Fires of London and the West India Docks

The River Thames and the new West India Docks

From Ordnance Survey First Series 1805

Jamaican sugar planters sometimes struggled to get their produce back to England. Freight rates were often high, ships sometimes in short supply and of course they could be lost at sea. Along with a developing banking industry, the eighteenth century saw the growth of insurance, and new companies sprang up that would insure a cargo against loss. If you have London ancestors you may find them in the Sun Fire Office records, which are held at the Guildhall in London, and indexed on the National Archives online.

Fire was, and is, an ever present risk and it was especially so for warehouses storing Jamaica’s main exports of sugar and rum which are both highly flammable.

I remember stories in my childhood of how the bombing of the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery at Greenock in the second World War caused a fire that could be seen from many miles away. Two decades later a fire in a bonded whisky warehouse in Glasgow remains Britain’s worst peacetime fire services disaster. Wooden barrels stored on wooden racks in an old building with a high wood content burned furiously, and the vapourising alcohol caused an explosion that blew out the sides of the building and cast debris and barrels of flaming liquid onto the firefighters below. Both sugar and alcohol explode at high temperatures, scattering fiery material to start further fires.

Such was the nature of two disastrous London fires in the eighteenth century. You may remember I wrote a while ago about Captain Stephen Blanket who sailed supply ships to Jamaica and ended his life with a comfortable fortune as a merchant, living in Princes Street Rotherhithe, which ran at right angles to the river Thames. There, shortly after his death, a kettle of molten pitch, used for caulking ships and other waterproofing jobs, boiled over and caught fire. The fire spread and destroyed over 200 buildings along the river front at Rotherhithe. The buildings would almost all have been built of wood, many old and dilapidated and many containing flammable materials arriving from abroad or waiting to be despatched. Such fires could be difficult to put out and were sometimes long lasting – after the Great Fire of London in 1666 materials smouldered in cellars for many months afterwards, bursting into flame again when air reached them.

An even more disastrous fire happened at the end of the eighteenth century on the opposite side of the river at Ratcliff. In July 1794 another pitch kettle fire, at Cloves barge builder’s yard, ignited a cargo of saltpetre, an ingredient of gunpowder, in a riverside barge. This sent exploding fragments high in the air over a wide area and before it was finally put out the fire had destroyed 453 private houses, more than 20 warehouses and other large buildings and several ships on the river. The buildings destroyed included offices of the East India Company. Although largely forgotten now, it was London’s worst fire between the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz.

Add these risks to the constant threat to merchants’ profits from the pilfering of their cargoes as they were unloaded on to smaller boats in the overcrowded river Thames and rowed ashore to be manually handled into storage, and you can understand the pressure for a new solution to London’s booming international trade.

The need for new docks had been mooted for some time and in the end a large number were built on both sides of the river, but the most brilliant of these were the West India Docks which utilised a bend in the river at the Isle of Dogs to create an industrialised cargo handling system on a scale that had not been seen before. Ships coming up river entered the docks from Blackwall Reach, unloaded their cargoes directly into huge brick built warehouses and then left via Limehouse Reach having loaded a new cargo. The whole site was secured by a continuous high brick wall.

This view of the proposed West India Docks and City Canal is by W. Daniell and was painted in 1802 when construction had already begun. It looks west towards the City of London. In fact the final layout of the docks was rather different, with three broad docks rather than two docks and a canal, and it was further modified later in the nineteenth century to make use of the new railway technology and steam powered cranes.

A survey sponsored by English heritage and published in 1994, when the docks had reached the end of their useful life, can be viewed on British History online and it shows the vast scale of the eventual project.

One spin-off of the West India Dock Company was the founding of the Imperial Insurance Company, ever mindful of the risk of fire.

Little now remains of this huge and wonderful feat of civil engineering and mercantile ambition – replaced by London’s Docklands offices and tower blocks, the symbol of a different age of ambition. Its history is preserved in the Docklands Museum, housed in these few remaining buildings.

Mapping your family history

I should declare an interest from the start – I love maps! I can look at them for hours.

If a picture is worth a thousand words so too can a map be.

Most people start investigating their family history through photographs, family stories and whatever documents have been kept, moving on to look at old census records and obtain birth, marriage and death certificates.

But when you have these don’t underestimate the usefulness of looking at a map to see where your ancestors lived. Sometimes you will find that two addresses in the same town were just around the corner from each other, or that granny had married the boy next door. Sometimes changes in county boundaries mean that people who appeared to live in different counties were actually quite close. Birmingham is an example, since the Warwickshire village at its core was surrounded by others in Staffordshire and Worcestershire meaning you may have to visit three different county record offices or look at a selection of maps covering the area that now makes up the West Midlands.

When our ancestors adventured abroad they always took a little bit of home with them. Sometimes it was in the form of habits that did not translate well to the new country. Early settlers in New Zealand built their houses facing south as they had done in England. But of course they were now in the southern hemisphere and soon realised that the sunny side was to the north!

In Jamaica, the early settlers often named their houses and plantations after the homes they had left. So the Rose family of Mickleton in Gloucestershire established a plantation called Mickleton, and another called Rose Hall – near Linstead, and not to be confused with the great house now associated with the supposed witch. If you saw a place called Stirling Castle you could be pretty sure the person naming it was a Scot – in this case Archibald Aikenhead who was probably born in Lanarkshire. Lluidas Vale and Landovery had Welsh origins. Other names were simply aspirational – Paradise or Arcadia. An eighteenth century street map of Kingston reveals the names of its most prominent citizens – Beckford, Bernard, Beeston and Lawes among them.

To think yourself back into the early history of Jamaica you also need to consider the terrain faced by the early settlers and how they travelled about. Here the maps in Michael Morrissey’s book Our Island, Jamaica are really useful.  The first and most essential element for settlement is the availability of fresh water, then the availability of land for growing food and cash crops and the materials for building houses, barns and other outbuildings. Once you start to think along these lines you may be able to understand why your ancestors settled where they did. Look too at transport links remembering that in the earliest days it may have been easier to travel by sea than over land, even between places that are now quite close by road. Apart from a few Taino tracks there were no roads for the early settlers.

High rainfall and mountainous terrain often made travel in Jamaica hazardous. The flat bridge in Bog Walk has remained without any railing after repeated floods washed them away. Fording rivers in flood led to the deaths by drowning of more than one early settler. Even after a hundred and fifty years of British settlement, Lady Nugent recorded in her journal the difficult state of the roads as she travelled around with her husband the newly appointed Governor, and she described the loss of a kittareen down a precipice – the officer driving it jumped clear but she didn’t mention the fate of the horse or mule which presumably perished.

After the improved roads, came the railway making more places accessible and in the twentieth century air travel brought more changes to the map of Jamaica.

One of the most useful modern maps available online is the Esso Jamaica road map made in 1967, shown above, and published on the Jamaican Caves website which shows not only the modern road system but many of the names of places and plantations established by the early settlers. A number of places on this map have clickable areas which give even greater detail.

A search online for old maps of Jamaica reveals a wide selection. You can also find some on the Jamaican Family Search subscription website and on the Facebook Group Jamaican Colonial Heritage Society which is a treasure trove of images and information about Jamaica’s past.

So next time you look at the history of your family, take a look on a map at where they lived and work out why they were there rather than somewhere else. I guarantee you will learn something new.

The Importance of Family in Family History


This week’s piece is necessarily brief as family activities have taken me away from the computer, however in the week of my mother’s ninety-sixth birthday I wanted to cherish the importance of those family members who are the custodians and guardians of our history.

The lovely photograph above is my maternal grandmother taken for her wedding in India at the beginning of the twentieth century, whither she had gone as the first white woman doctor ever seen in that part of south India. Her sister Alice was the principal researcher of the family history, but she was following in the footsteps of their great grandfather, and as a result I have inherited a variety of notes and papers compiled in the days when the only way to get a baptism record was to write to the parish priest of the parish where you thought the event had taken place.

Also through my mother, who now holds the family archive, I first heard the story of the ‘Indian Princess’ that led me through a round about route to Jamaica. A tiny fragment of paper with a sketchy line of descent from the eighteenth century had been written down by my mother’s grandfather after a conversation with his mother in about 1889.

From that we arrive at this website, and in due course I hope also a book.

So cherish your family and the stories they tell – you never know where it may lead!

Sudden death under the Sun

The Lee family tomb at St Mary’s Barnes, showing the reburial of Joseph Lee who had died in Jamaica


New arrivals to eighteenth century Jamaica were shocked by the apparently callous attitude of the colonists to sudden death. It was not simply that few of the tombstones in the churchyard in Kingston recorded deaths of people over thirty-five, but when people died there was a lack of the respect and extended mourning there would have been in England.

Tropical conditions meant that burials took place within a day or so of the death, and often in the place of death even when that was not the person’s home parish. Although deaths were recorded in the parish register, the burial of members of the Plantocracy often took place on the estate in a family burying ground rather than in the parish church or graveyard. Sadly over the years many of their grave markers have been lost – overgrown or vandalised.

Occasionally a colonist expressed a wish for their body to be returned home to England, and so although a burial took place in Jamaica the coffin was later dug up to be transported back for reburial. A lead coffin would probably have been used, perhaps packed with sawdust.

In the twenty-first century with much increased life expectancy we regard any death under the age of seventy as premature, accidental death as unusual, and death in childbirth as wholly avoidable. Not so in the eighteenth century. Quite apart from the deaths caused by yellow fever, smallpox and malaria, the dry bellyache caused by lead poisoning, and the heart disease and stroke brought on by diet and lifestyle, even a simple accident could result in death. Take the case of a small boy, possibly a slave, in the household of Rose Fuller who shortly before the event had left for England. His Jamaica factor, John Lee, wrote to him:

‘There has been an accident happened to little Tom, Nelly’s Son, who as he was leaving the Cattle fell down and the wain run over him and broke his Leg, he was not far from town when the Accident happened and was immediately brought there. Doctor Worth set the Leg and he was very hearty for thirteen days, on the fourteenth he was seized with spasms and dyed on the fifteenth notwithstanding all the Care imaginable was taken to save him both by the Doctor and Mrs Rose.’

Poor little Tom almost certainly died from infection which today would have been easily avoided with the use of antibiotics.

The same letter listed the latest roll call of the dead, which is typical in such correspondence:

‘Since you have been gone we have lost Mr Baldwin[1], Mr Halked[2] and Mrs Taylor the Widow of Patrick Taylor[3], and last night Mr Henry Byndloss[4] the Attorney General of a very short illness’ .

Not long afterward John was also reporting the death of Dr Worth, and within six years he himself would be dead.

One of the reasons given to account for the failure of Jamaican colonists to establish the kind of society which was built in North America was their inability to reproduce in sufficient numbers to establish family continuity. Some families did succeed of course, although many then left for ‘home’ in England, but the mortality among women and children made the establishing of families difficult and although infant mortality in Europe at the time was high it was far exceeded in Jamaica. Although the colonists were perceived as callous it would be wrong to assume that parents did not grieve for their dead children, and their tombstones often attest to this, but the frequency of the event tended to harden their outward reactions. Hurried burial and the frequent death, or absence through illness, of parish priests also contributed to attitudes regarded by newcomers as irreligious.

We get a glimpse of the reaction of an outsider to the suddenness of Jamaican death in the Journal of Lady Nugent, who went to Jamaica in 1801 as wife of the new Governor. ‘Heard of the serious illness of poor Captain Cathcart. He is a fine young man and I trust may be spared’. On the following day she wrote ‘We all went melancholy to bed, having heard not only of the death of Captain Cathcart, but also of five of his officers!’.

On another occasion she wrote of her shock at the way such deaths were joked about. ‘Mr Mitchell, is a course looking man, but humane, and treats his negroes most kindly. He disgusted me very much the other day, by making a joke of poor Lord Hugh’s death; but it is common custom here’.


[1] William Baldwin buried Spanish Town 18 July 1755

[2] Richard Halked buried Spanish Town 13 July 1755.

[3] Martha Taylor, death recorded as Maximilia Taylor, buried Spanish Town 21 July 1755. Patrick Taylor was a Member of the Assembly for St George 1753.

[4] Henry Morgan Byndloss (c.1703-24 Jul 1755, buried Spanish Town the following day.)