Puritans and Planters – the Halhed family

The Cloisters at Westminster Abbey
from http://home2.btconnect.com/Crusader-Product/Westminster-Abbey.html


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 www.halhed.com


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