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 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. 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.