The Swymmer family of Bristol

College Green Bristol where the Swymmer Family owned property during the 17th and 18th centuries. Bristol Cathedral is in the background*

 

 

The Bristol-based Swymmer family played a key part in the development of merchant venturers in that city, in the early history of Jamaica, and in the slave trade.

There are records of seventy-three indentured servants (mainly men) despatched to Jamaica from Bristol by the Swymmers between the 16th of September 1676 and the 10th of August 1685 . With the growing demand for plantation labour and a shortage of indentured servants the trade in the latter decreased as the trade in enslaved Africans increased.

Anthony Swymmer was present in Jamaica from the early days of the colony and in his Will dated the 11th of October 1684, he referred to himself as “Anthony Swymmer of the City of Bristoll, Esq , late resident in the Island of Jamaica, and now bound thither again”. Probate of the Will was granted in 1688 and it is presumed that he died in Jamaica. This Anthony Swymmer was married to Jane Langley, the sister of Elizabeth Langley who was married to Fulke Rose and later to Sir Hans Sloane.

Disentangling the members of the Swymmer family can be tricky – for example not only did this Anthony Swymmer have a son called Anthony but so did his brother William. Both brothers were themselves sons of another Anthony Swymmer and his wife Joan Hayman. Unfortunately Swymmer baptisms on IGI are patchy, although there are also some marriage and burial records. There are fifteen Wills of members of the Swymmer family at the National Archives and I am gradually working my way through transcribing some of them. Some already appear on this website – you can see the current list here. There are also records of property owned by the family held at the Bristol Record Office for members of the family owned considerable property in Bristol on College Green, and also Lower Green, Nicholas Street, Small Street and Kings Square. They also owned land and property at Marshfield, at Rowberrow in Somerset, in Buckinghamshire and later in Flintshire and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

The Lord Mayor’s Chapel in Bristol where Bridget Swymmer was buried in 1820**

 

 

 

 

 

The Swymmer family may have originated in Cornwall where John Swymmer and his wife Susan had three sons Peter, Warne and John baptised in Padstow in 1631, 1634 and 1637. Peter is recorded as a mercer and issued his own tokens (there being regular shortages of small coins). One website suggests that he also lent money at interest. With his wife Grace he had a daughter Elizabeth and a son, another Peter Swymmer. That there were connections with the Bristol branch of the family is further hinted at through the marriage in Padstow in 1700 of a Susanna Swymmer and Arthur Merrett, while a Barbara Swymmer married Anthony Merrett in Gloucestershire about 1698, and Rebecca Merrett married John Swymmer in 1696 at St Philip and St Jacobs, Bristol. Moreover in his Will of 1726 William Swymmer of Bristol left a legacy of £100 to another William Swymmer, the son of John Swymmer of Padstow.

John Swymmer of Bristol died relatively young, and childless, in 1700. He was the eldest son of William (c.1650-1715) the stay-at-home brother of the first Anthony who went to Jamaica. That first Anthony had a son called Anthony who married first a daughter of Bernard Andreiss, possibly called Johanna (widow of a Dutchman called William Kupius resulting in a petition of Mr Swymmer for an escheated estate of one Kupuis, late of Jamaica, deceased’) and then a woman called Milborough (surname unknown) who was the mother of Jane Langley Swymmer and Anthony Langley Swymmer.

John Swymmer’s widow Rebecca (Merrett) shines through his Will as a young woman well endowed in her own right, with a large collection of family jewellery and a passion for both needlework and riding. John, who left the majority of his estate to his brothers, nevertheless explicitly left Rebecca all the needlework hangings she had made and her own bay horse with its saddle and other ‘furniture’. He also left her half the contents of the house in Small Street, Bristol, made sure her marriage settlement was honoured and that she was repaid the twenty-five pounds of her own money she had paid out for his medical bills. A Memorandum attached to the Will also listed items of furniture and other household goods. Whether he remembered them after writing the Will or whether she persuaded him to add such detail is unclear, but at a time when a married woman’s property belonged to her husband such a precaution, preventing as it did all these items from being included in the residuary estate, did secure her position.

The Wills of the Jamaican Swymmers – Anthony, Anthony and Anthony Langley provide an insight into the accumulation of family lands by 1760, when the last of these died in St Thomas in the East. Apart from his extensive holdings and mineral rights in Flintshire in Wales, Anthony Langley Swymmer left 2036 acres at the Nutts River plantation, 1120 acres at Clark’s River, 332 acres acquired from Richard Risby, 4000 acres in Vere and 1100 acres in the parish of St George. There was also land and buildings in Spanish Town ‘near the Beef Market’. As he died childless the main beneficiaries of all this were the children of his sister Jane who had married Richard Chandler Champneys whose first wife was Sarah Daines, Jane’s second cousin.

I must apologies incidentally to any Welsh speakers for my inability to read the names of the various places in Flintshire where Anthony Langley Swymmer held property!

Sadly the Champneys family squandered their inheritance:

Sir Thomas Champneys inherited several estates from his father, but from mismanagement lost all but the Orchardleigh and Nutts River estates. He died at Exton, Hampshire, aged 76 in July 1821. His son and heir, Thomas Swymmer Champneys, squandered what was left of the family’s fortune and ended up in the insolvent debtors court in the 1820s which declared his the largest amount of debt ever filed in the court since its establishment in 1813, with debts and liabilities upwards of £429,000.”

It is a tale not at all untypical of wealth accumulated in Jamaica, using slave labour, by the early migrants who managed their estates in person, but whose successors became absentees spending the profits of an earlier generation. The Swymmer family however, not only made their fortunes on the plantations, they had also made much of it directly through the slave trade, and in the process contributed to the wealth of Bristol derived from that trade.

 

*By Snapshots Of The Past (College Green Bristol England) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Original image: Photochrom print (color photo lithograph).

**By NotFromUtrecht (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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