Yearly Archives: 2013

Indexing the Website – find your way around


Traditional card index system from the Archives of Ontario


Just a brief posting this week to draw your attention to a new feature on this website, courtesy of my lovely web support at Wick It Services.

With well over eighty articles on the site it seemed a good time to introduce an Index, which you can see at the bottom of the left hand menu. That means there are two ways to search for topics of interest, using either the ‘Search’ box above the main menu which will search for anything you enter there, and the Index which lists all the tags that have been attached to articles. So for example you can see there are four references to Rose Hall, five to smallpox but only one to lunacy!

Thank goodness I don’t have to type up and organise a card index system like the one pictured. Quite co-incidentally it refers to Kingston, but in this case it is in Canada rather than Jamaica.

If you are interested in transcription of Wills or other documents it is always worth checking out the ‘Latest Additions’ page.

Today I am off to a conference at the University of Derby on Enlightenment, Science and Culture in the East Midlands c.1700-1900. While I expect the emphasis to be largely local it will be interesting to see whether there are references to the West Indies and Jamaica. If there are I will report back.


Belisario – a great Jamaican artist



This is not a book to be taken lightly in any sense. It is a large and solid tome, one to be requested as a birthday or Christmas present, to be proudly displayed and frequently pored over. It is carefully researched, beautifully put together and wonderfully illustrated.

Jackie Ranston came to the story via the history of the Lindo family and rather than simply begin with the birth of the artist, born in Kingston in 1794 the son of Abraham Medes Belisario and Esther Lindo, she first sets him in his Jewish family context. The families fled to England from the Inquisition and settled in the small London Jewish community. Ranston traces their activities in London and Europe and then tracks them to Jamaica where Abraham Mendes Belisario arrived as an adventurous 18 year-old in 1786, and where Alexandre Lindo, who had arrived two decades earlier, was already established as a property developer, slave trader and Kingston’s leading Jewish merchant. In 1791 Abraham married Lindo’s daughter Esther who brought with her a generous marriage settlement.

Early in the nineteenth century Alexandre Lindo lent large sums to the French, then in conflict with the British, and subsequently unable to recover his money died demented and bankrupt in London in 1812. The Belisario family were also back in London and suffering hard times – Esther and her daughters set up a boarding school for Jewish girls in Clapton, and in 1809 Abraham Mendes Belisaro was appointed to manage a sugar estate on Tortola. There the slaves were treated with unimagineable cruelty, particularly by Arthur Hodge, owner of the Bellevue estate. Such were his excesses that he was eventually prosecuted for murder, most unusually the testimony of a black woman was accepted by the court, and Hodge was hanged. Abraham Belisario had the account of the trial published in London at his own expense, but never returned to live there, dying in Tortola in 1825 a year after Esther had died in London.

Meanwhile young Isaac Mendes Belisario had become a pupil of Robert Hills and one of his first known works was a watercolour of the interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, painted in 1812. For two decades he painted in London, became a member of the Stock Exchange, had a short lived partnership with his uncle Jacob, who had a role in the fraudulent Poyais scheme (involving a fictional Central American state) and eventually, having finally obtained access to some family funds from the sale of the last remaining Lindo properties to Simon Taylor, left London for Jamaica for the sake of his health.

Given what we know of the graveyard that Jamaica could be for white settlers this may seem an odd ddecision, until you also remember what a damp, crowded, insanitary and smog filled city London was in the 1830s.

Isaac arrived in Kingston in December 1834 and having made contact with various cousins still on the island, immediately sought out premises for a studio. Among four portraits he painted in 1835 were those of Jamaican Chief Justice Sir Joshua Rowe and his wife. Later he was commissioned by the Marquess of Sligo to paint his Jamaican estates, the Marquess having been appointed as Governor of Jamaica. Sligo was a descendant of Dennis Kelly, who with his brothers had owned large estates in Jamaica and whose Wills are transcribed here.

Jackie Ranston’s book takes its title from the prospectus that Belisario prepared during the time that Sligo was Governor Sketches of Character, In Illustration of the Habits, Occupation and Costume of the Negro Population, in the Island of Jamaica. The lithographs were planned to illustrate the carnival known as Jonkonnu or John Canoe a fusion of African and European traditions dating back to the early days of slavery, and Belisario researched carefully for the accompanying text. Ranston’s book reproduces in full folios 1, 2 and 3, which came out in 1837 and 1838.

At this point Belisario ran into trouble, he had lost the services of the person who coloured the prints, and his own health was suffering. In fact he had tuberculosis and he now returned home to live with his sisters in Clapton, where the damp air from Hackney Marshes can have done little to improve his condition. Perhaps it was this that prompted him to journey once more to Kingston where not long after his return he witnessed a catastrophic fire which began in a foundry on Harbour Street and destroyed a swathe of downtown Kingston. Belisario captured the event in three dramatic lithographs and a map of the area affected by the fire, on which he collaborated with Adolphe Duperly.

Some time after this, Belisario left Jamaica for the last time and he died at his sisters’ home in Lower Clapton on the 4th of June 1849.

Apart from a number of maps, the book contains family trees of the Lindo and Belisario families, extensive endnotes and bibliography, and is fabulously well illustrated, not only with Belisario’s work but with numerous images relating to Jewish history, Jamaica, slavery and emancipation. Underpinning it all is a wealth of detailed research.

This is a fabulous book, and while not cheap is absolutely worth the price for anyone interested in Jamaica, Belisario, his background and his art.


Belisario : sketches of character : a historical biography of a Jamaican artist by Jackie Ranston. Mill Press, Kingston, Jamaica 2008

ISBN: 9768-16816-1 and ISBN 13: 978-9768-16816-0

A Missing Miniature – Robert Cooper Lee

Robert Cooper Lee Miniature resized 350

I had always wondered if somewhere there existed an image of Robert Cooper Lee. When he returned to England in 1771 he joined the upper echelons of society, people who often commissioned portraits of themselves either to grace the walls of their homes or to present to friends or family. Indeed we know that he had commissioned Francis Cotes to paint a portrait of his daughter Frances in 1769 when she was at school in England and the family were in Jamaica. Given the high rates of child mortality this might have been their last view of their daughter. Happily she survived as did her portrait, which is in the Milwaukee Art Museum and now graces the cover of  A Parcel of Ribbons.

This black and white image of Robert Cooper Lee is a copy taken from a Christies’ Sale catalogue in 1979 when this miniature was sold. The person who found it is currently trying to establish whether a better image exists, and even whether the purchaser can be discovered so that the original can be photographed in colour in its original gold frame.

Judging by the costume it was painted some time in the 1780s. Robert Cooper Lee died in 1794 aged fifty-nine. You might notice that he is not smiling. There is a whole history of picture making that relates to the smile – it is only in recent times, with the benefits of modern dentistry, that people smile for their pictures. Before then they did not wish to expose their bad teeth to view! Given that Robert Cooper Lee had spent two decades in the sugar producing colony of Jamaica, had probably chewed on raw cane and certainly used sugar in both food and drink, the chances are that by his fifties his teeth were not good.

Another interesting aspect of the portrait is comparing it with his daughter Frances. It is impossible to know about colouring, since he wears a wig and we cannot judge the colour of his eyes, but the angle of the face is similar to that in his daughter’s lovely portrait and I don’t think it is fanciful to say that she looked very like her father.

It has been a good week for my Parcel of Ribbons as I’m delighted to say it received a very good review in the June issue of Family Tree Magazine, which called it ‘family history gold dust’ ! There was also a lovely write-up on the Good Reads website.

If you know of the current whereabouts of the Robert Cooper Lee miniature do please get in touch!


Inoculation, Vaccination and an old controversy

Benjamin Moseley on Vaccination resized 450

Morning P0st 17 May 1810 from British Newspaper Archive

While researching something else entirely I came across Dr Benjamin Moseley and an old controversy with very modern echoes.

Benjamin Moseley was born about 1746, son of Edward Moseley of St Osyth on the north Essex coast. On the 22nd of October 1765 he was granted the Freedom of the City of London by Redemption, paying forty-six shillings and eight pence for admission to the Company of Woolmen. His father was recorded as ‘Gent’ and, combined with the location of the family, this suggests that they had made their money as sheep farmers supplying fine English wool to the world.

Benjamin was trained as a doctor in London, Leiden and Paris and settled in Kingston, Jamaica about 1767, practising as a surgeon apothecary and eventually becoming Surgeon General. He also served as an Assistant Judge in the parish of St Andrew. On the 9th of January 1768 he married Martha Clare, by licence, in Spanish Town. Of their children only two outlived their father, a son William Henry born about 1777 who in due course followed his father into medicine as an Army doctor but who died only four years after his father; and a daughter named Martha Elizabeth born about 1781. Nothing more is known of Martha Clare who may have died in Jamaica.

There is an interesting note on the parish register for St Osyth –  “At front: note of outbreak of smallpox from which 86 persons died, 1737-1738” (now held at the Essex Record Office in whose SEAX database I found it). St Osyth is a very small place, so the village memory of this disastrous event may have coloured Benjamin’s childhood. In any case when he arrived in Jamaica he would have become very aware of the devastating effect of smallpox epidemics.

Normal mortality in such epidemics was about 30 percent, although a milder form had only a one percent mortality, however there was a hemorrhagic form that was almost invariably fatal. No wonder then that a slave who could be certified to have had the disease and have recovered, usually evident from the sometimes terrible scarring it caused, commanded a higher price. By the second half of the eighteenth century most planters were having all their slaves inoculated.

While there was little that could be done to treat the disease once caught, knowledge of inoculation had spread from China, India and the Arab world into Europe by the eighteenth century. The technique involved taking some of the pus from the lesions of an infected person and introducing it into the person to be inoculated via a small cut or scratch.  Sometimes the person doing the inoculating would travel around taking the sick person with them to provide live material. Sometimes dried matter was used and was inhaled. The result was that the person being inoculated caught smallpox, but usually in a mild form, from which they recovered in a couple of weeks or so. However there were fatalities. One high profile death was that of the young Prince Octavius, son of George III who had all his children inoculated.

smallpox resized 250

A boy suffering from smallpox (CDC website)

At the end of the eighteenth century Edward Jenner made a scientific study of inoculation using cowpox – hence the new term vaccination – first inoculating with cowpox and then testing its efficacy by infecting his subjects with smallpox. The cowpox made them slightly unwell, and they failed to catch smallpox. In due course vaccination replaced inoculation with smallpox as being the safer option.

It was not however uncontroversial. Benjamin Moseley had written a number of treatises – on the benefits of coffee and sugar (in which he had a financial interest!) and on dysentery, another killer scourge in Jamaica especially amongst the troops stationed there. He has a small place in history however as a vocal and high profile opponent of vaccination.

Benjamin Moseley on Coffee resized 450

He was not opposed to the principle of inoculation and like many doctors made a living using the traditional method. However the arguments against introducing animal matter into humans, mainly children, have a modern parallel in those who oppose, for example, the use of pig heart valves in humans. Although the notion featuring in cartoons of the time, that those vaccinated with cowpox might turn into cows seems extreme to us now, given that the understanding of disease and its causes was rudimentary, the anxieties are understandable.

According to Sam Kean, writing about a new video game teaching about vaccination, Moseley argued that vaccination would degrade people spiritually, making them near-brutes. Why, “owing to vaccination,” he wrote, “British ladies might wander in the fields to receive the embraces of the bull.” He even prophesied “a new Pasiphaë”—the mythological queen who had sex with a cow and gave birth to the Minotaur. Lisa Rosner, a historian at Stockton College helping develop the video game on vaccination, calls Moseley a talented demagogue: “He really had his finger on the pulse of what people are afraid of.”

Although eventually vaccination resulted in the world-wide banishing of smallpox in the wild to a small number of (hopefully) very secure laboratories, the same is not true of measles. Also an epidemic killer, routine vaccination, compulsory before school admission in some countries, has significantly reduced but not yet eliminated the disease. Recent outbreaks in the UK have been attributed to a scare a decade ago, echoing Moseley, that the vaccine could cause autism. That claim has been totally discredited but a generation of children grew up who had neither had measles nor been vaccinated, with the result that mass vaccination is now being offered to those who had missed out in order to contain the spread of what can be a fatal illness.

Benjamin Moseley had built up a large and wealthy clientelle in England based around his Jamaican connections. This gave him both influence and access to the means of  widely publicising his views. Similarly in the MMR vaccination scandal in the UK, access to media, happy to play on the natural fears of parents who only want the best for their children, facilitated the spread of a scientifically discredited theory. It seems little had changed in two hundred years.





Runaway Slaves


 Advertisement for a runaway from PortCities Bristol

I have to thank a member of the Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society for drawing my attention to a new transcription of advertisements for runaway slaves taken from Jamaican newspapers between 1718 and 1795, and from Workhouse Lists between 1773 and 1795. The list has been edited by Douglas B Chambers of the University of Southern Mississippi and was published in February 2013. There is also a list covering nineteenth century advertisements. The background to the project Documenting Runaway Slaves can be read here.

I wrote recently about the Legacies of British Slave-ownership website and the usefulness of the compensation records in tracking enslaved Jamaicans and their owners around the time of emancipation. This latest source gives a different kind of insight into slave life in Jamaica and enables us to associate the names of some slaves with their owners and the estates they had run away from.

There is a world of suffering encapsulated in a few simple lines in most of these advertisements, some of which were placed by owners wanting to trace their missing ‘property’, and others by people who had found or captured runaways and were advertising for their owners to come and claim them. Such a claimant was expected to pay the expenses of keeping the slave, and usually the owner offered a reward for the return of a runaway. A standard amount seems to have been one pistole, a Spanish coin current in Jamaica and worth in 1774, when Edward Long published his History of Jamaica, 17 shillings and 4 pence Sterling or 1 pound 5 shillings Jamaican. Relative to average earnings now that would be equivalent to about £1260 sterling – a not insignificant amount (source: ).

It was sometimes easier for a slave to disappear in Jamaica than, say, the southern United States. Not only was there a large and fluid population in Kingston, and a significant number of free negro and mixed race creole Jamaicans, but the geography of the island meant that disappearing inland was also possible. One condition of the peace treaty with the Maroons, who after 1738 lived freely in their own territory, was that they should capture and return any runaways. This measure was included in order to ensure that their presence did not encourage slaves to run away. Many of the workhouse records say ‘brought in by the Maroons’. Leaving the island altogether would have been much harder. Even the white colonists had to have permission to leave, in order to prevent the escape of criminals or those with unsettled debts.

The advertisement above is fairly typical, giving the name of the runaway and the place he has left. It was also regular practice to describe the clothes worn (one poor man had been found with none!) and any ‘marks’ – these might be tribal scars indicating the area of Africa from which the person had been taken, or smallpox scars, damage due to tropical ulcers, Guinea worm parasites or infection with yaws. All such marks would make the person easier to identify and make it harder for them to avoid recognition – there can have been little concealment for the man described as missing half his nose. Above all, most were branded with the initials of the estate they belonged to, or perhaps those of a previous owner.

Opportunities for escape sometimes presented as a result of trust earned, perhaps taking letters to another town or estate, and in many cases the person had skills which the owner valued but which might help the escapee earn a living – carpenters, printers, a saddler and a cook are among those listed. Reasons for running away were of course varied, saddest in many ways are those who are said to be heading for another estate where a wife, husband or child was enslaved, for they were probably among those most likely to be caught as a result.

Some captured slaves were reported to speak no English and their chances of escape must have been very slight, they were probably fresh off the boat and as yet ‘unseasoned’. A surprising number of those detained said they did not know who owned them – but then if they were new arrivals why would they? Most had some clothes, but were unlikely to have any others they could change into to help them disappear. In 1816 a sixteen year old boy was described as having been wearing ‘sheeting trowsers, york-stripe jacket and a new striped holland shirt’. A century earlier Nanne was described as having a white petticoat, an osnaburg jacket and a white handkerchief. Osnaburg was a coarse, hard-wearing fabric originally made of flax from Osnabruck in Germany and which was commonly used for slave garments. By the mid-eighteenth century most of what was imported into Jamaica was probably woven in Scotland.

One interesting aspect of the records is that in many the height of the person is recorded – few are taller than 5’7″ and some as small as 4’6″. There were those who when captured claimed that they were in fact free, but without proof of it they had no hope – ‘says he is free, but has no documents thereof’. Occasionally such a claimant would name a witness who could attest to the fact that he was free.

Very few of the slaves in these records have a surname, and if you are looking for your family history it will be much easier to use them to track slave owners than the enslaved. But if you do know which estate an ancestor belonged to, or who the owner or managing attorney was you may be able to extend your knowledge of your family history using these records. They provide another very valuable resource for historians of slavery and of Jamaica.






The Genealogical Jigsaw Puzzle

St Mary Aldermanbury before the Blitz


It is always very satisfying when another piece of the genealogical jigsaw puzzle slots into place, and this is what happened following the item I wrote last time about Robert Fotherby, who gave his body to science.

I already had a copy of his Will and decided now was the time to transcribe it and to remind myself why I knew anything about him in the first place. I had in fact come across him in the Will of John Rose of Cotterstock (c.1696-1736), which is one of those documents that is a real treasure trove. John Rose had no children and left a number of legacies to his cousins before making over his estate which included holdings in Jamaica to his nephew, then a minor, on condition that he change his name from John Pate to John Pate Rose – which in due course he did.

He listed the following cousins – Robert Fotherby and his wife Frances; Mary Stileman; Martha Milner; Thomas Bush; Thomas Pain the Elder of Oundle, and his sons John and Thomas; Rose Fuller and Francis Sadler both of Jamaica; and the widowed Mary Smith of Leicester. He left a number of charitable legacies and money for his servants as well as, intriguingly since I don’t know what the connection was, Fifty pounds to be equally divided between the two Sons of Thomas King late of Spanish Town in Jamaica aforesaid Dancing Master deceased to be paid them in Jamaica money. Whether John Rose had ever visited his estates in Jamaica, which were being managed by Francis Sadler, is not recorded. You can read the Will in full here.

To unpick all these relationships we need to go back to the early days of settlement in Jamaica when the sons of Thomas Rose of Mickleton decided that their future lay there. The eldest brother William, an apothecary, remained in London acting to some extent as family banker; Dr Fulke Rose and his brothers Thomas and Francis patented land in Jamaica; John Rose pursued a career as a merchant based mainly in London, trading goods and convicts into the island (although one of his daughters was born in Jamaica). There was also a sister Elizabeth Rose, possibly married in 1679 to Richard Phelps in Jamaica, and later to a man called Milner, finally in 1699 back in London to a widower called William Bush with whom she had several children.

So we can de-code the cousins of John Rose of Cotterstock, whose father was William Rose the Apothecary, as follows: Mary Stileman was a daughter of John Rose the merchant and you can read more about her here. Her son from her second marriage was Francis Sadler. Martha Milner was a daughter of Elizabeth Rose, and Thomas Bush was Martha’s half-brother. Rose Fuller was a grandson of Fulke Rose and as a young man he went to Jamaica to manage the estates belonging to the Fuller and Isted families.

That was as far as I had got until I looked again at Robert Fotherby and discovered a marriage licence allegation on Ancestry for an intended wedding to the widowed Frances Charnock ‘aged upwards of thirty years’, in 1732.  Frances Rose had buried her daughters Elizabeth and Mary in the parish of St John Jamaica in August and October 1720, and her husband Dr John Charnock in September ten years later. Their deaths are recorded in a monumental inscription (Lawrence Archer, p.313).  Returning to England she remarried and had, it is to be hoped, ten happy years with Robert Fotherby. That he was very fond of her is evidenced by the care he showed in providing for Elizabeth Lambe, who had been her companion, and perhaps her nurse in her last illness.

Frances was buried on the 2nd of March 1741/42 at St Mary Aldermanbury in the City of London, where her mother Elizabeth had been buried in 1735 and her infant niece Elizabeth Serocold (daughter of Martha Rose) was buried in 1716. The church was destroyed by enemy action in 1940, but in 1969 when the site was to be redeveloped the stones were sold and the church was rebuilt in Fulton, Missouri, USA as the National Churchill Museum.

So of this extensive list of cousins, all apparently relations of the Rose family, I am left with Thomas Pain and his sons who I suspect were closely related to John Rose’s wife Elizabeth (one of the witnesses to her Will was a Thomas Payne) and Mrs Mary Smith of Leicester.

I did not hold out much hope of finding Mrs Mary Smith though my guess is that she was also a member of the Pain family. However I then discovered that in 1758 the Bank of Smith and Payne was established in London’s Lombard Street. John Payne, the founding partner, and a Chairman of the East India Company, was a nephew of the Thomas Payne of Oundle mentioned in the Will of John Rose of Cotterstock. Both the Smith and Pain/Paine/Payne families had connections with Wigston near Leicester.

John Paine of Oundle, son of Thomas the Elder, was buried  in the church of St Peter, Oundle on the 23rd of July 1801, aged eighty-one, at which time his younger brother Thomas and sister-in-law Sarah were still alive.


As a postscript: John Pate did obtain a private Act of Parliament in 1744 to change his name to John Pate Rose. He went on to have three daughters with Martha Henn, but I am not clear whether he was married to her. Hannah Bella born in 1753 died young. His daughters Letitia and Sophia born in 1751 and 1752 both married within a month of each other in 1784, each couple being witnesses at the others’ wedding – Letitia to the widowed Sir George Booth and Sophia to the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne with whom she had a daughter Margaret.



Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

 Royal London Hospital 1752

The newly built London Hospital in fields outside London at Whitechapel c.1752


Readers who are within travelling distance of the Museum of London have one week left in which to visit the fascinating Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men resulting from excavations at the London Hospital in 2006. I should declare an interest since one of the joint authors of the book of the exhibition, and a major collaborator thereon is my daughter Natasha Powers.

You may wonder what this has to do with a website such as A Parcel of Ribbons, devoted principally to the history of eighteenth century Jamaica. However, when transcribing Wills with Jamaican connections I have come across several references which link to the whole issue of enlightenment science, medical training and body snatching in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

There is a great contrast during this period between an Enlightenment interest in medical research and the fears of those whose religious beliefs required that their bodies should be available intact for the Day of Judgement.

One very early reference to donating a body for medical research occurs in the Will of Robert Fotherby, who owned 90 acres in the parish of St Catherine Jamaica. Written in 1749, he requested that:

My Body I direct and order to be opened (if I die in London) by Mr Hawkins the Surgeon that now lives near Smithfield Barrs To whom for his Trouble I give and bequeath Three Guineas but if Mr Hawkins should not be alive or not in the Way at the Time of my Death to intitle himself to the above mentioned Three Guineas by performing the aforesaid Operation Then my Will is that my Body shall be opened by one of the Surgeons of Saint Bartholomews Hospital to be paid for his Trouble at the Discretion of my Executor hereinafter named but if it please God I should die in the Country then my Body to be opened by any Surgeon in the Neighbourhood where I die as my Executors shall think proper it being my earnest desire and determined Resolution that my Body should be opened before it is put into the Coffin that the Cause of my Death as much as is possible may be discovered for the Benefit of Mankind and for other Reasons therefore in case my Executor hereinafter named shall neglect or refuse to Comply with my Request and Order aforesaid she shall forfeit and pay to the Poor of the Parish where my Body shall be buried without having been first opened the Sum of One Hundred Pounds to be paid to the Church Wardens of the said Parish at the Time of my Death within one Month after my Burial but for proof of my Body having been opened before put into the Coffin the Oath of the Surgeon that performed the Operation or any Credible Witness that see the Operation performed shall be sufficient and such Oath I do direct and order to be made before some Magistrate before my Body shall be Interred and such Affidavit or Copy of such Affidavit to be delivered to the Church Warden or Church Wardens (or left at the Dwelling House of one of them) of the Parish where I shall be buried to satisfy them that they can have no Demand on my Executor on account of my Body having been buried without having been first opened according to my Directions as aforesaid

Fotherby did not die in London, but at Haselbech in Northamptonshire. From a subsequent Chancery suit it appears that an autopsy was carried out as he had requested. His wish to benefit those who came after him by anything that could be learned from ‘opening’ his body is admirable and in this he was ahead of his time.

A much later reflection on the fear engendered by the body snatchers occurs in the Will of Mary Cooke, a sister of the Jamaican composer Samuel Felstead, who died in Bethnal Green in London, in 1843 at the age of ninety-three. Her Will was written in 1829, before the changes brought about by the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832, when fears of body snatchers were rife, and as a result she requested burial in an iron coffin.

You can see an example of such a coffin (some of which had triple locks !) at the exhibition, and if you cannot go, you can see it in the background to the interview with Jelena Becvalac on the exhibition webpage and on YouTube. It appears that such coffins were successful in foiling the attempts of the body snatchers, but were unpopular with those who managed the burial grounds since unlike wooden coffins they did not decay rapidly, reducing the space available for further burials.


Joseph Stone Williams

 Emancipation 1838 resized 450

Emancipation celebrations in Spanish Town 1838


I wrote last time about the Legacies of British Slave-ownership website, and quite by chance I have now found a Will which illustrates that period of history between the passing of the abolition act and actual emancipation.

Joseph Stone Williams died on the 6th of February 1836 in the parish of Westmoreland, Jamaica. He was born about 1778, the eldest son of James Williams and his wife Frances Cecilia Stone. Although I have not found baptism records for all the family it is possible to piece together the records of nine children, drawing partly on Joseph’s Will for information. The Williams family were present in Westmoreland throughout the eighteenth century and it is probable that Joseph was the great great grandson of Rowland Williams, whose family arrived not long after the British seized the island.

Joseph does not appear to have married but like so many men in Jamaica at the time he fathered a number of children, and in his Will he made generous provision for them and their various mothers, in particular for Mary Pessoa the mother of three sons and a daughter, the last of whom seems to have died before the Will was written. You can read the Will in full here.

Joseph was the owner of three estates – Anglesea Pen, Cairn Curran and Carawina. Claims were made for compensation for all three as owner, plus three other claims (for twenty-four individuals) as awardee. There were forty-two enslaved persons on Anglesea Pen with compensation amounting to £688 2s 2d; there were three hundred and eighteen enslaved at Carawina with compensation equal to  £5912 16s 11d; and at Cairn Curran eighty-five enslaved with compensation amounting to £1628 8s 10d.

Of these former slaves, who at the time he wrote his Will in 1835 had been converted to ‘apprentices’, a number were given to Mary Pessoa and are listed by name in the Will. Because Wills were written without punctuation it can be a little difficult to work out just how many individuals there are in this list but there seem to be about forty-two men and women, in which case they may constitute the workforce of the Anglesea Pen. Mary Pessoa was being left the services of these apprentices during the remainder of their apprenticeship, and Joseph Stone Williams made clear that the apprentices at Cairn Curran were to be allowed to continue to live in their accommodation ‘during the apprenticeship system without any hindrance or molestation whatsoever’.

As long as she remained single Mary Pessoa was to be allowed to continue to live in the Great House at Anglesea Pen where she had already been living with her children, and she also received furniture, household linen, Joseph’s wearing apparel, and the right to continue to pasture her and her family’s stock at Anglesea Pen. In addition to the legacies to Mary’s sons, Joseph also left legacies to Joseph and James Williams the two sons of Eliza Ward Robertson, to Mary Williams the daughter of Eliza Murray and to Ann Williams the daughter of Ann Anderson. There were legacies to various friends, family members, and servants, a large legacy to his brother William Williams, and the residuary legatee was his brother the Reverend Theodore Williams the vicar of Hendon in North London.

As I said, the list of apprentices was unpunctuated in the Will, but I have included it here with what I hope is correct punctuation so that anyone searching for ancestors in Westmoreland at this time may be able to find them.

William Grant, William Montague, William P [blank] Atkinson, George Dixon, James Arthur, James Drummond, Charles Vassall, Alexander Grant, Charles Pinnock, Thomas Williams, Richard Wellington, Nod alias William Godfrey, Amelia Murray, Eliza Grant, Grace Elizabeth Atkinson, Patience, Sarah R [blank] Arthur, Ann Wilson Bell, Margaret W [blank] Grant, Jane Smith, Jane Neill, Daphne, Hannah, Queen, Juba, Matilla, Bessy Anderson, Helen McLeod, Thomas Anderson, George Pessoa, Mary P [blank] James, Maria Williams Pessoa alias Maria Cook, James Gammon, Bonella Gammon, Maria Lewis, Robert Bowen, Jackie alias John MacLeod, Ithy (?) Girling, Mimba alias Eliza Hodges, David Bowen, William Goodin and Richard Bowen.

‘Ithy’ may be short for Ithamar in which case this is a girl or woman.

Reading the will in association with the compensation records provides an interesting snapshot of a pivotal period in Jamaican history.


Your Ancestor – Slave or Slave owner ?

Sir James Esdaile

Portrait of Sir James Esdaile (1714-1793) by Sir Joshua Reynolds


If your ancestor was in the small minority of people who owned land or property then tracking them back beyond civil registration and the nineteenth century censuses may be relatively easy. If on the other hand they were among the 90% or so who were agricultural labourers in Britain, or the even higher proportion in Jamaica who were slaves, records are thin on the ground and difficult to find.

A new database, launched a couple of weeks ago provides a hugely valuable resource for those trying to track ancestors who owned slaves. Although the transatlantic slave trade was ended for the British Empire in 1807, this did not end slavery as such. It did lead to marginally better conditions for some slaves as their owners realised they could no longer easily replace those they mal-treated, worked to death or murdered. But for nearly another thirty years the abolitionists argued with the slave owners who wanted compensation for the loss of their ‘property’ should their work force be freed to leave or go to work for someone else.

In the scandalous compromise that was eventually agreed, not only were the slave owners paid compensation, but their enslaved workforce were converted into ‘apprentices’ and required to continue working for the same masters for an interim period before being given full freedom of movement and the right to sell their labour where they wished. In practice for many this meant either leaving to set up subsistence small holdings on any available scrub land they could find, or working for the same master for a tiny wage and suffering the additional insult of being required to pay rent for the hut in the slave village which they had previously occupied as part of their servitude.

One consequence of the decision to pay compensation, however, was that records had to be compiled of who owned how many slaves and where they were held. This resulted in the creation of the first comprehensive information on slave ownership on the Jamaican plantations. Some earlier records do exist but there are few complete sets of records before this period.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership website has now made these records available online.

“At the core of the project is a database containing the identity of all slave-owners in the British Caribbean at the time slavery ended. As the project unfolded, we amassed, analysed and incorporated information about the activities, affiliations and legacies of all the British slave-owners on the database, building the Encyclopedia of British Slave-Owners, which has now been made available online..”

 Not only does the database contain the names of the slave owners and the details of the compensation awarded, but where possible the researchers have added biographical details, and this is an on-going project to which we can all contribute as there is a mechanism for entering further information in your possession to send to the project team.

As yet there is not full integration of the records of slaves and slavery held at the National Archives with this project, but it is to be hoped this may one day be possible, and in the meantime this website includes useful links to other resources on slavery and the slave trade.

As an example of the kind of information you may find, I searched for my first cousin six times removed, Richard Lee – the son of Robert Cooper Lee – who had inherited a share of the Rose Hall estate in St Thomas in the Vale.

Parliamentary Papers p. 8.

Award split: £1424 8s 0d to each of Lee and Esdaile (seven-eighteenths each); £813 8s 11d to Thwaytes (four-eighteenths).

T71/855: awarded to Richard Lee, London, executor and trustee; James Esdaile and William Thwaytes, London, owners-in-fee. Wm Thwaytes received award as heir-at-law to Wm Thwaytes the claimant.

Clicking on the name of one of the claimants will take you to any biographical information known to the project (and to which you can contribute!). So for example for James Esdaile we find:

Son (and heir) of Sir James Esdaile the banker and brother of William Esdaile (q.v.).

  1. In 1789 the London grocers Davison & Newman bought a 4/18 share in Rose Hall; ‘the other owners were Sir James Esdaile [1714-93] and the Lee family, each of whom held a 7/18 share.’  Davison left his share to Abram Newman, who left it to his daughters, from whom William Thwaytes, the surviving partner bought it in 1811.  In Mr Thwaytes’ time, Richard Lee was the London agent of the estate, ‘taking over the sugar shipments’ [from Davison & Newman?] and rendering half-yearly accounts. After Mr Thwaytes’ death in 1834, his share passed to his heir-at-law, his nephew Wm Thwaytes,  and so out of the hands of the firm, because Thwaytes’s will (under which he left his freehold property including Rose Hall to his widow) was not attested, so his widow received only  a third-share as dower in her lifetime.


1. Owen Rutter, At the Three Sugar Loaves and Crown. A brief history of the firm of Messrs. Davison, Newman & Company now incorporated with the West India Produce Association Limited (London, Davison, Newman & Co., 1938), pp. 26-8, 34.

Previous readers of this website will remember the Three Sugar Loaves and Crown from an earlier posting.
The rich biographical information as well as the details of slave ownership and the amounts of compensation awarded provide invaluable background to a range of studies, genealogical, commercial, political  and economic.

Finally, if you want to try to match the slave owners to those they ‘owned’ you may find the images of the Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1812-1834, which are held on useful. From 1819 registers were compiled and sent to the Office for the Registry of Colonial Slaves in London. You can find the search form here.  Although you will have to register with Ancestry to view them there is no charge for reading these records.

Was Your Ancestor Really Married?

Rebecca Probert sized 300

The question of whether our ancestors were actually married and if so where and when is one which has particular resonance in the context of 18th century Jamaica.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting, albeit briefly, Professor Rebecca Probert and her husband who were at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live event at Olympia in London. You might recognise Professor Probert from her appearances on television in programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Heirhunters and Lucy Worsley’s series Harlots, Heroines and Housewives.  You will also find a very useful lecture by her (which you can download as a podcast) on marriage law and tracing marriages on the National Archives website.

Rebecca Probert is a Professor of Law, and her interest in genealogy has led her to extensive study of marriage law and to a crusading desire to correct many of the misapprehensions that exist about marriage practices and what constituted a legal marriage, which she saw propagated without question down the years in genealogy textbooks and handbooks.

For example, could you marry by jumping over a broomstick, did our ancestors indulge in test marriages for a year to see if the woman would become pregnant, did lack of parental consent mean a marriage was illegal, did many couples live together regarded as married by the custom and consent of their community? Professor Probert’s book Marriage Law for Genealogists sets out to provide the definitive answer to these and many other questions.

The book covers the law of England and Wales as Scotland has always had a separate legal system. It takes as its starting point the year 1600 and covers the many changes that took place in the seventeenth century during and after the Civil War, as well as critical legal changes such as the Hardwicke Marriage Act (which came into effect in 1754), and more recent changes such as that making it possible for a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister.

Because the author recognises that many readers will be interested in specific questions rather than wishing to read the book from cover to cover, she has structured it around a series of key questions, and flags up a series of key facts invaluable to anyone wishing to check on a particular aspect of marriage law. The questions she addresses are whether and why a couple got married, who could marry and whom they were free to marry, how marriages took place in terms of the formalities required, when a person could get married in relation to minimum age and questions of parental consent, and she provides some guidance on where marriages may have taken place. It was for example perfectly legal to get married in a parish other than your own and she discusses why this might have been the case.

Some misunderstandings about marriage are of relatively recent date. For example the belief that before 1754 a simple exchange of vows between two people constituted a valid marriage, can apparently be traced to a New York legal case in 1809, which led to an English case confusing the distinction between being bound to be married and actually being married. Being bound to be married Professor Probert compares with the exchange of contracts on a house purchase which binds the parties but requires completion. The notion that two parties could be married by jumping over a broomstick has been traced to a misunderstanding in a change of language when ‘broomstick’ was an adjective used to describe a sham, and resulted from a nineteenth century interest in pre-industrial folk customs, interpreting visual images of broomsticks as depicting actual folk ceremonies.

A similar misunderstanding arose concerning the term ‘hand fasting’, sometimes believed to be a marriage for a year and a day and used as a fertility test, but which was in fact no more than a period of betrothal which was a formal contract to be married at some future date.

Another myth that Professor Probert debunks is the notion that in the past huge numbers of people cohabited, married in the eyes of their community but not by their church. There were a great many reasons why this was not the case and in fact in the early eighteenth century only about 2% of births were illegitimate, with peaks during the First and Second World Wars, the rate did not really rise until the 1960s. The fact that you may not be able to find a record of your ancestors’ marriage, does not mean that they were not married nor that their children were illegitimate.

Who you were allowed to marry in the past was much more restricted than it is now. The so-called ‘prohibited degrees’ included close blood relations but also many who were only distantly related to you by marriage. The book includes a useful table of those marriages which could never be valid such as between a parent and child, those which have always been valid such as between cousins, and a range of permitted relationships which have varied over time. It is also interesting to note that if a marriage did occur within the prohibited degrees it could only be challenged while both parties were still alive.

You may have been surprised to discover an ancestor whom you knew to be a nonconformist, or a Roman Catholic, who nevertheless was married in an Anglican parish church. Before the advent of civil marriage in 1837 only Jews and Quakers were likely to have been married other than in an Anglican parish church by an Anglican clergyman, although Catholics often did go through a second Catholic ceremony. Even if your ancestor was married without calling the banns or by obtaining a licence, as long as the ceremony was conducted by an Anglican clergyman the marriage was clandestine but valid. During the Civil War religious marriage ceremonies were replaced for a brief period by a form of civil marriage, but Canon Law was reinstated in 1660 and the Hardwicke marriage act tightened up on what had been seen as a number of undesirable practices. After the mid-eighteenth century record keeping improves, to the relief of many a genealogist, but the fact that a marriage was not registered did not render it invalid. This protected the couple whose marriage might have been challenged as a result of an absent-minded cleric failing to keep proper records.

When considering your ancestor’s marriage Rebecca Probert makes clear the difference between directory requirements which were desirable, and mandatory requirements which if neglected would render a marriage invalid. She deals with questions such as couples who gave false or partial names in order to conceal an intended marriage from family members, and with those who did not have  parental consent to their marriage. With the arrival of civil registration and the increasing availability of divorce the question of remarriage in church arose, and I was unaware that it was permissible to be remarried in church although since 1857 Anglican clergyman could refuse to perform such a ceremony.

Professor Probert’s book is an invaluable aid to anyone researching their family history and a useful antidote to the numerous myths that have grown up concerning marriage in the past.

Marriage in Jamaica

In relation to Jamaica the question of whether your ancestors were married relates very closely to who they were, why they were there and when. This is further complicated by the condition of the parish registers of the period. Although the legal regulation of marriage was the same as for the home country and local vicars were required to prepare ‘bishops transcripts’ of their registers, the frequent death of incumbents and the depredations of climate and insect attack on the primary copies of the registers mean that the registers were often poorly kept or have periods without entries. So as in England the lack of a register entry for a marriage does not mean it did not happen. Where both parties were from the white elite, and you can find baptism entries for their children you can be certain they were married.

However, during the eighteenth century there was a serious shortage of white women in Jamaica and an easy availability of free and enslaved women. This led to a variety of relationships, consensual and otherwise, resulting in the birth of mixed race children who if recognised by their fathers were often baptised with his name and were left property on his death. I have discussed previously what happened to some of these children when they were sent to England.

Marriages between free negroes or Taino Indians, who were present in Jamaica from the earliest days,  did take place, but only rarely is the racial category assigned to the parties recorded in a parish register.  For example, Charles Benoist and Uańah ‘an Indian Woman’ were married in the parish of St Andrew on the 30th May 1675. The disapproval accorded to any suggestion of a mixed race marriage is reflected in the reaction to the impending marriage of Rose Price in 1765.

A 1765 letter from Simon Taylor demonstrates the sort of disapproval that a marriage might incur when he refers to the intention of Rose Price to marry. ‘I cannot forget to acquaint you there is a Report on Friday last a Licence was taken out for our friend Rose Price and one Miss Patrick a Writing Master’s Daughter at Spanish [Town] and without a Shilling but that Rose sett out the next day for the Red Hills with his Black wife. I should be very sorry that he should play the fool so egregiously as there has been some coolness between his father and him for some time about other matters and in all probability this will so much incense the Old man that he will disinherit him…’[1] It is not clear whether Rose Price went ahead with the marriage since the following year he was married to Lydia Ann Fagan. Fear of ‘diluting’ the white elite was ever present and perhaps his father intervened to reinforce the convention that marrying a mixed race wife was just not done.[2]

Readers of the book A Parcel of Ribbons will be aware that the marriage of Robert Cooper Lee and Priscilla Kelly, the mixed race mother of  his children, which took place on their arrival in London in 1771 seems to be absolutely unique. While there was nothing in canon law to have prevented it taking place in Jamaica, socially it was impossible.

One other feature of Jamaican marriages, among the white elite, is worth mentioning and that is the much younger average age of brides compared with young women in England. Whereas in England the average age of brides was around twenty-five during the eighteenth century, in Jamaica it was much younger. A systematic survey is required and matching baptisms (and assumed birth dates) with marriages is tricky but the overall impression is of most girls marrying in their teens. This is entirely understandable in the context of high rates of mortality in Jamaica, described by Trevor Burnard as ‘Britain’s most unhealthy colony’. To consolidate estates by marriage and create an heir as early as possible it was necessary to marry daughters as soon as a suitable match could be made. Given that Burnard [3] has calculated that in the parish of St Andrew the mean length of a marriage was eight years and four months and the median a mere six years and four months before the death of one partner, it is not surprising that early marriage was the norm and re-marriage frequent.

Of marriage ending in divorce rather than the death of one partner I only know of one case in eighteenth century Jamaica, where, as in England, a Private Act was required to achieve a divorce. In 1739 Edward Manning divorced his wife Elizabeth Moore citing her adultery with Ballard Beckford. Manning then followed the traditional Jamaican planter pattern of setting up house with a free mulatto woman, Elizabeth Pinnock, who outlived him and to whom he left property and slaves.

For those Jamaican inhabitants who were not of the white elite eighteenth century records are sparse. Only towards the end of the century does regular baptism of slaves become more common, often with changes of name, and with the advent of the Baptist Missionaries attempts to regularise relationships through marriage increased. Even after emancipation however, when people were free to make their own choices, rates of illegitimacy remained high.

With the increasing availability of parish register and civil records on-line you will have a greater chance of finding your ancestors than in the past and, with the aid of Rebecca Probert’s book,  of establishing whether your ancestor was really married.

[1] Wood, Betty ed., The Letters of Simon Taylor of Jamaica to Chaloner Arcedeckne 1765-1775, in Travel Trade and Power in the Atlantic 1765-1884 Camden Miscellany XXXV, vol.19, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.24-25.

[2] Powers, Anne, A Parcel of Ribbons,, 2012, p 151.

[3] Burnard, Trevor, A Failed Settler Society: Marriage and Demographic Failure in Early Jamaica, Journal of Social History, Vol.28,No 1(Autumn 1994) pp.63-82.

Probert, Rebecca, Marriage Law for Genealogists, the definitive guide, Takeaway (Publishing) 2012, ISBN 978-0-9563847-1-3