Bamboo Avenue, Jamaica – early coloured postcard
Well, genealogically speaking, it sometimes feels like they do !
Having finished my postgraduate studies until September I was asked to look into the origins of Dr Benjamin Bates (1737-1828) who was a member of the Hellfire Club, a friend of Erasmus Darwin and of the painter Joseph Wright of Derby, among others. Bizarrely his Wikipedia entry appears to combine the life stories of three quite different people – and if you were to believe it he was commanding a ship of the line in his eighties while simultaneously being a successful merchant in America and a physician in Buckinghamshire !
Only the last is true of the man I am looking at.
Not much was known of his origins in Nottinghamshire, but he married twice, lived to over ninety, and had one surviving daughter Lydia Bates who died unmarried in 1843. Having found her Will I was faced with the genealogist’s greatest challenge – a lovely collection of legatees but almost all female, some widowed, and some referred to as cousins but with no easy way of connecting them into the family tree.
If your cousin is the daughter of your father’s married sister who then herself married (perhaps more than once) there will have been at least two changes of surname from the main tree. Add in a few common surnames such as Smith and it’s no wonder these puzzles are often called brick walls. If your ancestors hale from Scotland you may fare better since Scottish baptism records usually name both parents and include the mother’s maiden name.
My help in this case came from a couple of unusual names and the wonderful 1851 Census, which has so often come to my rescue since, in England, it was the first time people had been asked to say exactly where they were born.
For my own family it was a huge surprise to discover Richard Lee who was born in Jamaica in the mid-eighteenth century but lived into his nineties and was present in the 1851 census – leading ultimately to the creation of this website and my book A Parcel of Ribbons.
So it was the 1851 census that came to my rescue with the Bates family connections via a man called Leigh Churchill Smyth who lived to be 83. He was born in Jamaica and baptised on the 25th June 1801 in St Catherine’s parish to Ann Eleanor Largue, recorded in the baptism records of her children as a free quadroon. There were five children, all baptised there as Smith, but with no father named. This suggests that he acknowledged the children to the extent of giving them his name, but not of having his full name recorded as their father. Jane Beazle Smith was baptised in 1790, Ann Frances in 1796, Leigh Churchill in 1801, Penelope Sophia in 1804 and Henry Shepherd in 1807.
Some time in the latter part of the eighteenth century the family went upmarket in the spelling of their name and Smith became Smyth.
Henry, who wrote his middle name as Sheppard, later recorded his place of birth as Kingston so it’s possible that Ann Eleanor took her children from there to be baptised in Spanish Town. Ann Eleanor herself was baptised there in 1775. She was the daughter of Ester Beazle or Beazley who was born in 1745 and recorded as a free mulatto when she was baptised with her son Stephen Adolphus Beazle in 1768.
Little Ann Frances Smith died of fever before her first birthday, but in the 1841 census Leigh, Penelope and Henry were all living with Matilda Eleanor Archer Smyth in London and Jane was living in Buckingham with Penelope Box (who was another widowed cousin mentioned by Lydia Bates). At first I assumed Matilda was their mother, but it seems possible she was their unmarried aunt.
Matilda had four brothers any one of whom might have been the children’s father. I can only find a record of the death of two of these brothers in England – Samuel Chester Smyth who died in Blackfriars schoolhouse in 1813, and Thomas William Anthony Smyth who killed himself on board his ship HMS Duncan in 1830.
As the Jamaican parish burial registers are not yet indexed on-line, the only way to find out if one of the two remaining brothers died there is to page through the images in the parish registers. For a name as common as Smith and a register with as many deaths as Kingston this is a lengthy task which I will undertake when I have time.
There is another possibility. Just as I was about to post this story I came across reference in an early 20th century book of pedigrees to Henry Sheppard Smyth being the son of Charles Smyth of Spanish Town and grandson of Sir Richard Smyth, a one time Sheriff of Buckinghamshire. This puts a gloss of legitimacy on his birth and pedigree which was obviously important in enhancing his social status as a ‘Gentleman at Arms’. It also fits with the Smyth family associations with Buckingham. But I have been unable to verify it, though while searching I came across both a Leigh Smyth and a Churchill Smyth and a number of Penelope Smyths.
Leigh Churchill Smyth married and was a successful solicitor, perhaps with a wealthy wife, for at his death in 1884 he was worth over £36,000. His wife died a few months later worth even more, and there appear to have been no surviving children. His spinster sister Penelope who had been a governess had an estate valued at under £300 at her death. Jane was also unmarried and left what she had to her brother Leigh. Henry married late and had two children who were still very young when he died in 1866 leaving his wife less than £300. She died in 1870 leaving less than £600 and their children seem to disappear from the record.
So I wonder if there remain any descendants of Ann Eleanor Largue, and if so do they know of their Jamaican heritage? Will they, like me, make the surprising discovery of how often British middle and upper class families had enslaved ancestors, and will they find the road to Jamaica?