Monthly Archives: September 2012

Spanish Town – an 18th century History worth saving

Recently, I was reading a discussion on the Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society Facebook Group about the current state of Spanish Town. All contributors mourned its decline and the state of its historic buildings, but there are optimistic straws in the wind about what might be possible in future. Despite some people’s concern about the safety of the town, a large group made a walking tour in August 2012 photographing historic sites and buildings and educating each other about a shared history. Many of the photographs were posted on the Facebook Group, which also houses a huge collection of albums of pictures of Jamaica’s Great Houses and many other interesting images.

For those of us outside Jamaica, who may never be able to visit, James Robertson’s book Gone is the Ancient Glory, Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1551-2000[1] provides an ideal history of the development of the town from Spanish colonial outpost, to island capital, to modern centre with the University of the West Indies Campus at Mona.

The book takes a chronological approach to the history of the town beginning with the reasons for its establishment as the Spanish capital after the abandoning of New Seville in the north of the island. One interesting feature of the early town is the relatively large number of free negroes. In 1611 there were 107 when adult Spaniard numbered 523 and there were 558 slaves. Also reflected in Jamaica’s early history were a significant number of Portuguese, and many Portuguese and Spanish Jews due to the absence of the Inquisition. Robertson describes the imprint of the Spaniards on the layout of Spanish Town and on the ecology of the island through their imported fruit trees and domestic animals. Indeed the cattle the Spaniards left behind provided a much needed source of food and hides in the early days of British conquest.

The imprint of Spain on Spanish Town in its layout, single storey houses and buildings facing inward to courtyards rather than outward onto the street, made the town seem very foreign to the incoming English in the late seventeenth century. Following the 1692 earthquake and the destruction of much of Port Royal, Kingston was laid out on a large modern grid pattern and Spanish Town would always suffer to a degree by comparison. However the location of Spanish Town still made it much more convenient for planters coming together for the Assembly and law sessions, and for the associated social life of racecourse, theatre and balls. Its primacy as island capital would be challenged by the Kingston merchants in the mid-eighteenth century, but not supplanted by Kingston until the mid-ninteenth.

One distinctive characteristic of Spanish Town, highlighted by Robertson, was the existence of clusters of slave huts within the town. Whereas in North America the enslaved were segregated and crammed together into buildings and outhouses on the owner’s land, there was legislation in Spanish Town to control the ‘Negro Hutts’. Although such groups of huts could house runaways, they did enable many to live some form of family life, and in turn the town benefited from produce grown in these yards or brought in from outside to negro markets, the sellers staying overnight in the huts with friends or relations.

Robertson describes how Spanish Town flowered in the mid-eighteenth century with the construction of the great municipal buildings, the Archives Building, Kings House and the Assembly around the central square. In many ways this was a high point and far less construction took place in the later part of the century although Spanish Town did win out over Kingston in the tussle to house the statue of Admiral Rodney. A further engineering high point was reached with the construction of the cast iron bridge over the Rio Cobre, which still stands today – probably the first and certainly the oldest still surviving structure of its kind in the western hemisphere.

The arrival of Protestant missionaries amid the struggle for emancipation at the start of the nineteenth century led to the building of new churches, and the street names in Spanish Town reflected the politics of the day – Canning Street, Duke of Wellington Street and Peel Lane demonstrating an identification of the property owning classes with the English establishment.

With the coming of emancipation in 1838 we have a number of prints showing the celebrations as a crowd of about 7000 assembled at the Baptist Chapel and marched to the Parade to hear the Proclamation read – commemorated today by a plaque.

Early Victorian times saw investment in the Island from outside, including the building of the railway between Kingston and Spanish Town, but by the mid-century international recession and a cholera epidemic rapidly followed by a smallpox outbreak resulted in Spanish Town suffering from lack of investment and becoming increasingly dilapidated. Eighteenth century architecture was out of favour with the Victorians, the railway was funneling trade in the direction of Kingston, the population of Spanish Town reduced, many falling into desperate poverty.

Following the uprising of 1865 and the establishment of Jamaica as a Crown Colony, the island’s administration was moved to Kingston and Spanish town was demoted to the status of an ‘inland county town’. Many buildings that had been leased to those attending the island Assembly were no longer tenanted and were demolished to make way for development of humbler cottages. The day of the eighteenth century town mansion was finally over.

All was not lost however and Robertson describes how ‘Architecturally Spanish Town retains a firm imprint from the revival of prosperity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.’ Much derived from the banana boom. Many small houses constructed in this period still remain, and the social mix included middle class professionals. With the banana boats came the first tourists and Spanish Town developed as a stop over between Port Antonio and Kingston, or for day trippers all arriving by by rail.

Moving into the twentieth century Robertson draws on oral history, accounts of the class structure, the myths and tales told by residents, memories of Spanish Town holding the island’s first cycle races. Then in the 1920s three disasters afflicted the town. In October 1925 the Kings House burnt down. Then came Panama disease, a fungal infection destroying the banana crop. A switch to a resistant strain which was thinner skinned and transported less well, had mixed success. Finally the Railway company racked up huge debts sucking money from the government’s allocation for capital investment. The Great Depression and riots in 1938 saw even more difficult times, and only in 1944 did Jamaicans finally achieve universal suffrage.

The final chapter of James Robertson’s book  covers the development of Spanish Town from 1942-2000 and asks ‘Where are we now?’ Bounded by a new bypass, with bus passengers queuing in front the of the now closed railway station, there is more traffic, and fewer animals forage in the streets where taller modern buildings replace those of earlier times. Gradually Spanish Town and Kingston spread out to meet each other.

‘Despite all the demolitions of old buildings and infilling of original lots, the older gridded ground plans of the sixteenth-century settlement and its 1740s expansion still organize the heart of the town”. Spanish Town has now gained conditional acceptance as a World Heritage site but lacks the resources to fulfill the conditions for full acceptance.

I have only been able to scratch the surface here. James Robertson’s book, covering many aspects of the history of Jamaica, not simply of Spanish Town, provides ample material to back up its claim to be viewed and preserved as part of our World Heritage. It is a fascinating read.

[1] Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, Jamaica, 2005. ISBN 976-637-197-0





Puritans and Planters – the Halhed family

The Cloisters at Westminster Abbey


I encountered the name Halhed recently while reading about the early British Colony which settled at Providence Island, just over 100 miles off the coast of modern Nicaragua, and I remembered I had seen the name before in a Jamaican context.

Richard Halhed came from a distinguished Banbury family and indeed was apparently the last to be born in Banbury. His distant great-uncle Henry Halhed had joined a contingent of pioneers, the Providence Island Company, recruited by Lord Saye and Sele[1]. They intended to establish a colony according to puritan principles, and although Henry Halhed was already in his mid-50s he sailed with his wife Elizabeth and three of his youngest children – Patience, Grace and Samuel – in 1632.

Henry Halhed had been hit by the combined effects of a depression in the textile industry and a disastrous fire in Banbury in 1628. The colony was not a success and Halhed and three others were deported back to England on the Hopewell arriving in Bristol in early 1641. All four men were released and held to be guiltless of the charges against them, but this seems to have ended Halhed’s connection with the island, which was subsequently taken by the Spanish who deported all the English colonists.

Richard Halhed’s connection with Jamaica was very much more successful. He was born posthumously in 1685, probably apprenticed in London in 1700, and then went out to Jamaica as a planter establishing an estate called Banbury. Like many other single white colonists he fathered a number of illegitimate children of whom Richard baptised in December 1724 seems to have died young.

In 1746 Grace Hazel and her children Robert, Elizabeth, and Susannah Halhed were all granted the rights of whites by the Jamaican Assembly. The children were described as free mulattos, as was Grace Hazel, who was probably Richard’s ‘housekeeper’. Robert Halhed, later described as a surgeon of St Thomas in the Vale,  subsequently applied to the Jamaican assembly in 1752 and was granted “the same rights, liberties, franchises, and immunities as His Majesty’s liege people do now hold and enjoy”. Legally he had become white.

It appears that Richard also had a daughter called Leah, who is mentioned in Robert’s Will as his half sister, who had married Thomas Leadbeater. There is a marriage for Thomas Leadbeater and Leah Phipps on the 24th of December  1738 in the parish of St Catherine, Jamaica. It seems possible however that Leah was already a widow, since the parish register record for the baptism of Elizabeth and Susannah Halhed was written on a scrap of paper, pinned to the main register, on which were also baptism records for Leah and Rachell Ydana on the same date. The Jewish Ydana family had patented land in Jamaica from the latter part of the 17th-century. It may be that the mother of Leah and Rachell (who were older than Richard’s other children) was connected with the Ydana family. There is no indication of Leah having been granted the rights of whites so she may not have been of mixed race.

Leah’s marriage to Thomas Leadbeater, a planter in St Thomas in the East, seems to have been a good one, and the baptisms of several of their five surviving children were sponsored by prominent citizens including Jacob and Sarah Neufville. It is likely that by time of the birth of the last of these children, Sarah in 1755, Robert Halhed had already left for England – a Robt Halhed was paying land tax in the parish of St Sepulchre in 1750. His father Richard died in Jamaica in July 1755 aged seventy, a very good age for a Jamaican colonist, and he was buried in Spanish Town on the 13th of July 1755.

Richard Halhed provided generously for his children. Although I have not found his Will, his son Robert’s Will (proved in 1778) indicates not only that he was wealthy but also that provision had been made by their father for the care of his unmarried daughter Susannah. Elizabeth, who at the time of the granting of the rights of whites was already married to Thomas Peirce of London, had probably died relatively young and without leaving children. Thomas Peirce married again and there is a record of a Chancery dispute involving the Halhed and Peirce families, held at the National Archives at Kew of which I hope to get a copy shortly.

Robert seems to have settled into English society with no difficulty in spite of his mixed race. He married a wife called Elizabeth, probably in England although I have not found a record for the marriage, and had one child Robert Spencer Halhed living at the time of his death. Very sadly Robert Spencer Halhed died just over a month after his father at the age of thirteen. Elizabeth outlived her husband by more than forty years, dying in 1829.

In England Robert prospered as a merchant and was close to his father’s first cousin William (1723-86)[2] who was much the same age as he was, and who became a Director of the Bank of England. Both Robert and William are recorded as merchants at 1 Bank Street, London which implies a partnership.

Robert’s successful career and marriage, and his sister Elizabeth’s marriage to Thomas Peirce are yet another example of the integration of mixed race Jamaican children into mainstream society. For Robert and his family this was crowned by their burial in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

When Elizabeth Halhed died at the age of ninety-two in October 1829 she requested burial with her husband and son and that the stone marking the spot should be recut. Her wishes very nearly failed to be carried out when a bizarre accident overtook the Will.

William Halhed had three sons, all of whom were in their seventies by the time Elizabeth died. The eldest Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, still remembered as a linguist and compiler of one of the first Bengali grammars, was according to Elizabeth incapable by then of managing his own affairs. Robert William and John were nominated as executors and when  John heard that Elizabeth was dying he travelled down to Tunbridge Wells, writing a letter to warn his brother that Elizabeth had not long to live. The following day, after her death, her companion Frances Bonnet produced a tin box with the Will and John wrote a letter to Nathaniel’s wife Luiza, detailing the legacies and asking her to forward it to Robert in London.

When John and Frances Bonnet arrived in London, Robert had not yet received the second letter although he had the first. So that evening the two brothers sat down to make a new list of the legacies, with Robert writing on the second page torn from the letter John had written to him. It was an October evening and as John read the Will by candle light he held it too close to the flame and the Will caught fire. Although the fire was quickly extinguished some portions of the will had been lost. However, because John had written to Luiza, and because he and Robert had been producing an abstract of the Will it was possible to correlate the various documents to produce evidence of Elizabeth’s intentions.

With the agreement of the legatees whose legacies had been obliterated, Robert William and John swore an affidavit which enabled probate to be granted on the 15th of October 1829. It was one of the last acts of John Halhed who was buried on the 4th of December 1829. He was survived by eleven of his eighteen children.

You can read a transcript of Elizabeth’s Will here, and also a transcript of the Will of Robert Halhed. As Elizabeth’s Will makes no mention of Jamaica and her legacies are mostly in 3 per cent consols (safe bank investments) it is to be assumed that at some time after her husband Robert’s death she sold the property and invested the proceeds to provide a regular income. As the great days of sugar were largely over, this was a sensible move freeing her from the worries of an absentee landlord. That she was still a wealthy woman, despite her investments having to support her into great old age, is an indication of the wealth accumulated by Richard Halhed in Jamaica and consolidated by Robert in London.



[1] Providence Island 1630-1641, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[2] Much information about the Halhed family may be found at


Family stories – the vital clues

If you ever doubt how much can be gleaned from even the smallest scraps of information left by your ancestors take a look at the piece of paper my mother received in the 1950s in a bundle of family papers collected by an aunt.

Aunt Alice was a young girl when her grandmother, born Charlotte  Heap in 1808, died in 1890, but her grandmother had noted fragmentary details of the family story of an ‘Indian Princess’ and from this eventually grew a database of several thousand close and distant ancestors, and my book A Parcel of Ribbons.

One common, but frustrating, genealogical puzzle comes when you are given only the surname and no first names and this is especially acute if you are tracking through the female line of your family with surname changes every generation as in this example. In the end I came at this problem from two directions at once, both working backwards from Charlotte Heap and also looking for two sisters surnamed Jaques, one who had married a Lee and another a Marleton (in fact spelled Marlton).

Another problem with handwritten notes is interpreting connections without a diagram or helpful punctuation. For example ‘his father married a creole’ in the above example could apply to Richard Lee or to Richard Lee’s father or his grandfather. Another piece of paper written by Aunt Alice said that her father had referred to a creole but she had always heard ‘Indian Princess’.

I had very little to go on geographically other than that the family was based in England, Charlotte was born in Kendal in Cumbria but her mother came from Suffolk and it emerged that the roots were all in London. Without the internet and computerised indexes the search would have been all but impossible.

Two key findings helped in unravelling the story. One was a marriage licence issued in 1720 for Joseph Lee and Frances Jaques (I have still not found the marriage record), and the later discovery that Frances’s sister Mary had married Thomas Marlton. The other was the combined information from the Will of Richard Lee in 1857 (which left a small legacy to Charlotte and various members of her family) together with the 1851 census record for Richard Lee giving his birthplace as Jamaica. This last was a total surprise, since until then no-one in the family had any idea there was a Jamaican connection. Indeed in a family with slight connections with North America and extensive ones from the early eighteenth century in India, the search had been on for either a family Pocahontas or the daughter of an Indian Rajah!

I think there are two lessons to be drawn from all of this. The first is always to take seriously any information your ancestors leave whether as stories or documents. The second is, that having taken it seriously, don’t be surprised if what you find is not at all what you expect. Indeed over the passage of time (Charlotte’s notes were made in the late 1880’s and referred to events nearly a century before she was born) a kernal of truth may well have acquired an auro of myth by the time it comes down to you.




A White Beaver Hat

A Beaver Hat perhaps similar to the one sent to Mary Rose, although apparently dating to about 1830. Source:

Rose Fuller left Jamaica in 1755, after two decades running the Fuller and Isted interests, in order to return to Sussex to manage the family estates he had inherited on the death of his older brother.

He left behind his housekeeper and long time companion Mary Rose who would now keep an eye on his properties in Spanish Town and at Grange Penn. It is clear from her letters that she missed him. Although we do not have his replies to her letters the fact that several of her letters to him are preserved among his papers at the East Sussex County Record Office suggests the affection was mutual.

One of those letters contained a shopping list which included a request for a white beaver hat. Beaver hats had been fashionable in Europe since the sixteenth century. The barbs on beaver fur make it particularly suitable for felting and the inner fur is very soft. Later on a new process for preparing the skins would be developed using mercury salts, which combined with the steam used in shaping the hats produced highly toxic fumes. Mercury poisoning can result in madness and this is thought to be the origin of the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’.

By the eighteenth century the European beaver was being hunted so extensively that numbers were dramatically reduced. However the development of the North American fur trade meant that the beaver hat still had a future. From the late seventeenth century the Hudsons Bay Company was sending back regular shipments of furs to Europe. One beaver pelt could be traded for an iron axe head and the pelt would in turn be worth a dozen such axes. The benefit was not all one way however, since the increased efficiency of an iron axe over a stone one and the time saved in making the stone axe head benefited the native Americans and Canadians who trapped the beaver.

As you would expect for a fashion that has lasted for over four hundred years, beaver hats came in all shapes and sizes, from the large, dashing Cavalier hats of the court of Charles I, to tricorns and military hats, stetsons, top hats and trapper style hats with ear flaps.

I have only come across a couple of historical references to white beaver hats – one in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and another a reference to one worn by American President John Adams. Clearly white beaver hats must have been much more expensive than black or brown, and much harder to keep clean. Whether there was a particular fashion for them in Jamaica in the mid-eighteenth century I do not know, but what is certain is that it would have been an expensive luxury item. I do hope Rose Fuller sent the hat and that Mary Rose enjoyed the wearing of it.

You can read more about the history of the beaver hat in a project by Kelly Feinstein-Johnson here.


Blog Anniversary

It is just over a year since I began weekly postings on this blog.

I set up the website while I was working on the research for what eventually became the book  A Parcel of Ribbons, because at that stage I did not know if it ever would become a book, and I felt it would be a pity if the research existed only in an electronic archive that no-one else could see or make use of.

During the year I have been contacted by a number of readers who share my interest in the history of the 18th century, and in particular of the connections between Britain and Jamaica. It has been a rewarding relationship and often readers have provided further information on topics I have written about. Sometimes I have been able to help with research others are engaged in.

I am now reviewing where to go to next. I shall be promoting my book when I can, and I have two projects in mind that have arisen from the research into the Lee Family. One concerns the elopement of Matthew Allen Lee and what happened next. The other relates to William Perrin, his estates in Jamaica and the family of his wife in England who intersected with the Lee family in London. Whether there will be another book or two in all this remains to be seen, but I hope there will still be interesting finds to share here. I also have a fair few Wills relating to Jamaica that I have yet to transcribe, when I do they’ll be uploaded here.