Monthly Archives: October 2012

Wills, Property and Slave Returns

Slave Return for 1817 from

I have commented before on how useful Wills can be in establishing family relationships, highlighting people one had missed when searching parish records, and filling in background on where a family was and when.

Following the piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Samuel Felsted I have done some further research on his family. His sister Mary, who married Stephen Cooke in Kingston in 1782, outlived her husband by a quarter of a century dying in Bethnal Green, London in 1843 at the age of ninety-three. Her Will is here.

Several branches of the family had settled in London, but Samuel’s youngest son John Lawrence (or Laurence) Felsted probably died in Jamaica, although we know from his Will that he owned a house in London. John’s sister Sarah also died in London and we know from her Will that she owned property in Kingston.

When John Lawrence Felsted died in about 1821 he left property to his two children Justina Frances and Samuel James. This included a house in Church Street, Kingston; a store in Water Lane (convenient for the harbour front) and a Penn in the parish of St Catherine. In August 1820 John had sworn an affidavit on his slave return that in June of that year he had owned three slaves. Only two are named – eleven year old Henry, a creole ‘sambo’, and seventeen year old Betsey a creole ‘negroe’ both of whom appear to have been passed on to John by his mother Margaret Mary Felsted. In 1817 she had been in possession of thirteen slaves, in 1823 this number had reduced to six. Betsey was still enslaved in 1832, the return then being sworn by the attorney for the Executors of John Lawrence Felsted, whose name incidentally was Justinn Nelson which suggests that John’s daughter Justina may have been named after him.

John’s sister Sarah was also a slave owner, the return for 1817 showing her as having a twenty-nine year old negro creole slave called Cassander and her three sons, Richard, John Walker and William aged twelve, two and four months respectively. She also owned a twenty-one year old African negro woman called Ellen. Sarah was listed as owning Ellen outright, but as having a one-sixth share of Cassander and her children. She shared ownership with  C.Dawson, S.M.Robertson (her sisters) S.M.Fry of London, J.L.Felsted and J.F.Fry ‘an infant of this Island’. All these are descendants of Samuel Felsted and although I have not seen his Will it is reasonable to suppose ownership of Cassander was passed to his children by Samuel. It is possible this list also provides evidence that Ann Cooke Felsted, who married Joseph Fry, had died before 1817 since S.M.Fry and J.F.Fry referred to are her children.

The information from the slave registers for Jamaica can be viewed on Ancestry for the years 1817, 1820, 1823, 1826, 1829, 1832 and 1834 (you do need to be a subscriber to view them). The registers were compiled following the abolition of the slave trade in order to try to ensure that the trade was not being continued.

Returns had to list not only slaves owned, but the changes in numbers since the previous return due to deaths of any slaves or the birth of new ones. Usually in addition to the name and sex of the person, their age and racial mix is given together with whether they were ‘creole’, that is born in Jamaica. I have seen one who was listed as American.

These documents may be one of the few ways someone with ancestors who were enslaved has of finding out about them, and of course they also tell us something about their owners.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of all the Jamaican Wills of the eighteenth century is the way in which slaves are routinely listed as property alongside stock, horses, carriages and all the paraphernalia of the plantation or merchant business. Just occasionally a named individual is able to stand out, perhaps through manumission or the gift of a small legacy, but too often by being passed on, still enslaved, to a new owner.

Jamaican History in postcards


There are of course no photographs from eighteenth century Jamaica, and while there are portraits of members of the Plantocracy and some lovely early nineteenth century watercolours of Jamaican landscapes, such as those by Hakewill, it is hard to get close to the lives of enslaved and free mixed race Jamaicans in the early part of the island’s history. By the mid-nineteenth century the advent of photography and the arrival of tourism means there is a legacy of wonderful images such as those in the Jamaica Nostalgia  galleries.

At the turn of the twentieth century many photographs were being taken for the booming postcard industry. While often they were of the hotels a tourist might stay in, or the landscape they saw, there are quite a number showing the lives of ordinary Jamaicans.



This picture in a banana plantation was clearly posed. In one version a small boy peers out from the leaves at the top of the tree. The white man in the distance appears to be wearing a dog collar and is perhaps the local vicar.






This hand coloured image of ropes of tobacco at a local market has a more natural feel about it.










Captions often reflected the attitudes of the time, referring to ‘native’ people, but in spite of the sometime patronising tone the images do provide glimpses of the lives of the majority of Jamaicans.






Street scenes like this one were probably photographed before the earthquake of 1907. You have only to imagine removing the telegraph poles and wires to have a scene largely unchanged for a hundred and fifty years.




It is frequently difficult to imagine the sights and sounds of the world of our grandparents let alone that of three hundred years ago. In the lifetime of my grandmother, born in 1883, she saw the development of the pneumatic bicycle tyre, the motor car and aeroplane, modern telecommunications, the launching of satellites and men on the moon. In the lifetime of her grandparents the developments of the industrial revolution had changed the world. But in the early twentieth century there were still many corners of the world in which ways of life persisted as they had done for centuries before. Subsistence agriculture powered by horses, mules and oxen, harvesting by hand, processing food and clothing by traditional techniques all continued.

These postcards of life in Jamaica at the turn of the twentieth century sometimes allow us to glimpse the island’s earlier past.



Fort Augusta Jamaica

It is easy to think of Jamaica’s history simply in terms of sugar and slavery and to forget its crucial role as a British military foothold in the Caribbean. Although tens of thousands of enslaved Africans worked to produce sugar, many were also made to work on military building projects in terrible conditions.

From the beginning, with the conquest of the island when it was seized from the Spanish in 1655, the island was home to a transient military population. For most of the eighteenth century Britain was at war with Spain or France or both, as all sought to establish empires, search for gold and other treasure, and plant colonists for permanent settlement.

In the case of Jamaica the port of Kingston, with its huge natural harbour, also became one of the largest in the world for the slave trade, receiving enslaved Africans from the notorious Middle Passage and selling many on to Britain’s American colonies in the Carolinas, Virginia and further north, and also selling on into Central and South America. This was a valuable trade that required protection at sea, but although Jamaica did have her own Militia it also created a situation that from time to time threatened to erupt into rebellion,calling for additional military support on land. Those soldiers were housed in a variety of barracks and forts, the remains of which form a very significant part of Jamaica’s eighteenth century historical legacy.

The strategic location of Jamaica and the safe harbours she provided gave the island added military importance throughout the eighteenth century and during the Napoleonic Wars. Funds for the building of forts were largely provided locally and voted by the Jamaican Assembly, and the labour was largely provided by slaves. Today this heritage is overseen by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

 Eighteenth century Plan of Fort Augusta from Historic Jamaica from the Air p.79

One fort that has recently been in the news is Fort Augusta, which was built in swampland to protect the western end of Kingston harbour, facing across to the remains of Port Royal and which despite huge earthquake damage in 1692 still also housed a military presence.

Fort Augusta is notable both for the huge effort, and loss of life, that went into filling the swamp, and for its curtain wall of cut stone blocks. On three sides this is 1500 feet long,  42 feet thick and nearly 16 feet high. On the northern side a further 900 feet of wall six feet thick faces onto Hunts Bay. Once this eight acre fort would have housed large numbers of British soldiers and their supplies including gunpowder. In modern times it has housed a women’s prison.

In 1763 the Fort Augusta gunpowder magazine was hit by lightning, killing 300 people and breaking windows up to seventeen miles away. Benjamin Franklin had already been involved in developing lightning conductors to protect such military installations from similar disasters, and had developed his lightning rod in 1749, but there is no evidence it had been fitted anywhere in Jamaica.

 Fort Augusta in 1967 from Historic Jamaica from the Air p.78

The reason Fort Augusta has been in the news recently is because of plans to expand Kingston’s ability to handle container shipping. The container port is on the opposite side of Hunts Bay (now enclosed by the Port Kingston Causeway) from Fort Augusta. There is a classic conflict of interest between the needs of economic development and the benefits of preserving a nation’s history. Fortunately assurances have been received that there is no intention to demolish Fost Augusta.

Fort Augusta today showing the Port Kingston Causeway top left, which now encloses Hunts Bay (from Jamaica Observer online 6 August 2012)

Many places have found that by preserving their history alongside modern developments their cultural heritage is enriched and the economic benefits of the new development are enhanced. Let us hope this is possible in the case of Fort Augusta and that the development will bring a renewed interest in Jamaica’s history and appreciation of those who lost their lives creating it.

Historic Jamaica from the Air, by David Buisseret with photography by J. Tyndale-Biscoe and cartography by Tom Willcockson, Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston Jamaica 1996.

Samuel Felsted – Jamaica’s first Classical Composer

 Jonah and the whale (faux-bronze).Detail of a vault fresco “La Résurrection” by Michel Corneille the Elder (1601-1664), church Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, Paris. (via Wikimedia Commons)


Jamaica boasts the first classical composer in the Caribbean, and possibly in the New World. Samuel Felsted wrote an oratorio called Jonah which was first performed in 1775. This part of Jamaica’s history seems recently to have been rediscovered[1] and you can hear a small extract from the oratorio sung by Marie McMarrow here. Samuel also composed extensively for the organ.

The Felsted family probably originated from the English village of Felsted in Essex. Samuel Felsted was born about 1743, most likely in Jamaica. His father, William Felsted, seems to be the same person as the one who in 1736 applied in Boston Massachusetts for permission to open a shop, and who was recorded there as an ironmonger who had arrived from Jamaica. He married Joyce Weaver in 1741 in Philadelphia.

The family were Anabaptists which means that they did not believe in infant baptism, and this contributes to the difficulty in locating all of William and Joyce’s children. Samuel Felsted was baptised on 20 November 1763 in St Andrews Jamaica when he was recorded as being aged twenty and an Anabaptist. There are also baptisms for Sarah and Mary Felsted on 21 August 1768 in Kingston when Mary was eighteen and Sarah twenty-two. It is highly probable that they were Samuel’s sisters. There is also a burial record for John Felsted in 1789 in Kingston, a “Practitioner in Physic and Surgery” – possibly Samuel’s brother.

Samuel became the organist for both the church of St Andrews, Halfway Tree and at Kingston, and in 1770 he married Margaret Mary Lawrence. They had at least nine children, and one source refers to William, James Lawrence and Christiana all playing the organ. Daughters Mary Stephens, Elizabeth Stephens, and Elizabeth all seem to have died young and a Sarah Felsted was buried in Kingston in 1804 (though this may have been Samuel’s sister rather than his daughter).

Three, and possibly four, of Samuel and Margaret Mary’s children had descendants outside Jamaica. Susanna married Captain James Robinson Commander of the ship HMS Castor in 1815, and their son James Felsted Robinson was born in Jamaica the following year.

James Lawrence Felsted and his wife Maria had a son Samuel James born in Spanish Town in 1818. James had been baptised in 1802 in Kingston, so unless he was unusually precocious he too was probably not baptised as an infant. Samuel James left for England where he seems not to have prospered. He married in 1844, worked as a commission agent (basically a salesman dependent on commission for his income) and had three children James Melville Felsted , Grace Lawrence Felsted and Frank Adolphus who died as a baby. Their mother died in 1856, and the two surviving children were boarded out. Although Samuel probably remarried in 1857, he died in 1860. His son James Melville was employed as a railway porter in 1873 but was dismissed the following year for unspecified reasons, and later census records show him as working as a plate layer on the railway, basically as a labourer. However James Melville’s only child Florence Felsted married a coal miner called Tom Rodwell in 1901 and by the Second World War her husband was running his own haulage company with their son, and they were able to afford two trips to New York on the Queen Mary.

Grace Felsted fared rather better than her brother and although she began her life in domestic service, in 1877 she later married David Charles Cox a young policeman and by 1911 they were living comfortably in a six room house in Wimbledon on his police pension. Three of their four children were still alive.

The two branches of Felsted descendants who seem to have fared best were the children of Ann Cooke Felsted and her sister Christiana. Ann married Joseph Fry in 1798 in Kingston. He was a Bristol merchant with connections to Livorno in Italy (known by the English at the time as Leghorn). The 1824 Jamaica Almanac shows Fry as the owner of Felsted’s Pen, with sixteen slaves and two stock. The number of slaves had reduced to nine in 1827, and by the end of the decade the Pen seems to have passed into other hands. The Frys had four children born in Jamaica and some time after 1812 they left the island.

Christiana also married in Jamaica, to John Dawson in December 1815, but almost immediately they left for England where four children were born in Bethnal Green. Joseph and Ann Fry’s daughter Sophia Mathilda married Peter Paul Pate, who is given in one source as having been born in Livorno and whose name is listed as Pietro Paolo Pate. However the marriage took place in England, in Bethnal Green, so it is not clear which rendering of the name is correct. Certainly their daughter Sophie was listed in the Census records as born in Italy but a British subject. Christiana and John Dawson had a son called William Richard born in 1823, and in 1857 he married his first cousin once removed Sophie Pate. So clearly the sisters Ann and Christiana and their families had remained in close touch.

Samuel Felsted died in 1802 and was buried at Kingston on the 29th of March. Margaret Mary his wife outlived him by many years and died on a visit to her daughter Christiana at Livorno in 1833 where she was buried in the Old English Cemetery[2]. Joseph Fry also died in Livorno in 1848.

The story of the descendants of Samuel Felsted illustrates very clearly the fate of families in the days before any kind of welfare state. Whereas the descendants of Ann Cooke Felsted and her sister Christiana remained firmly among  the middle-classes,  living in solid Victorian mansions and on annuities, the grandchildren of their brother John Lawrence Felsted descended into relative poverty.

All was not lost however and the rise of the Rodwell family during the first half of the twentieth century demonstrated what could be achieved through luck and hard work.

I am curious to know what the 21st century Fry, Dawson and Rodwell families would think of their famous musical ancestor who seems set to be reinstated in his proper place in Jamaican and musical history.