Tag Archives: London

Invisible Black British History


Only relatively recently have many people in Britain become aware that the presence of black and mixed race people did not begin with the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. Indeed we also forget that the ship was called the Empire Windrush reflecting a heritage that was already on the wane.

Most people are still unaware of a black presence that goes back to Roman times and that increased in numbers during the eighteenth century. There are sometimes protests when a black or mixed race actor is cast in a historical drama by those who do not realise that this is an accurate portrayal of society at the time.

BBC Radio 4 is currently broadcasting a series of short talks on Britain’s Black Past and this reminded me of Betty Harrison, servant of the Lee family for nearly sixty years.

Had it not been for the note on a scrap of paper, shown above, I would never have known when she died or how old she was, let alone that she had married.

For those who have not read A Parcel of Ribbons I should explain that Betty Harrison travelled to England from Jamaica with the Lee family in 1771 and lived with them until her death in 1820. The entry for her burial at St Mary’s Barnes, alongside members of the Lee family who had been buried there since 1732, gave her age as 70 and her parish of residence as St Marylebone, but made no reference to her origins. Like many other black British residents her colour was invisible, and yet in the 1920s the family biographer Audrey Gamble referred to her as the Lee’s ‘black mammy’ and she was so much a part of the family as to merit burial with them rather than in London.

Elizabeth Harrison was born in Jamaica about 1750 and must have joined the Lee family at about the age of ten, probably as nursemaid to their eldest child Frances. It is impossible to be certain of her birth, but there is a baptism on 13 March 1758 in the parish of St Catherine for Thomas and Elizabeth, the children of Elizabeth Harrison a mulatto woman. There is no record of whether Betty was free or enslaved, but it seems probable that she was free.

The Lee children maintained an affectionate relationship with Betty all their lives, referring to her in their letters and bringing back presents for her from trips abroad. Robert Cooper Lee left her a life-time legacy of £20 a year, equivalent to an income of about £40,000 a year now (source: www.measuringworth.com). She had saved enough to be able to lend £30 to a Lee family member in 1804 so her circumstances were prosperous for a servant.

After the deaths of Robert Cooper Lee and his wife Priscilla their house in Bedford Square was sold and their children all set up separate homes. Betty Harrison stayed with Frances Lee who moved to Devonshire Street in Marylebone and it was probably there that Betty died in 1820.

The real mystery to me, and one I have yet to solve, is who was Mr William Pack, and when did Betty marry him? There was no mention of him in any of the Lee correspondence that I have seen and without the scrap of paper shown above (probably written by Frances Lee) I would never have known he existed.

Was he also a Lee servant? Were they married in England? When and where was he born and when did he die? And was he also of African origin? To date I have found none of the answers, but as more and more records come online I hope to one day.

Meanwhile a huge amount of work is now being done on the British people whose African origins have so far been invisible. You can read about Black British History Month here and if you are in London you can visit Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948. There are also many regional events taking place helping to raise awareness of history that should be better known.





Sugar loaves and coal scuttles


JMW_Turner Coal_Boats_Loading,_North_Shields_-_Google_Art_Project

Coal boats loading at North Shields c.1795 – J M W Turner  (via Wikimedia Commons)


It’s that time of year when preserving garden produce for the winter is on my mind. It’s been a fantastic year for fruit in the UK and there is a glut of apples and pears, we’ve had a huge crop of blackberries and the wild rowan trees are covered in berries.

Checking the cupboard for sugar to make crab apple and blackberry jelly I found some left from last year that had hardened in the packet and that made me think of the labour involved in preparing sugar for use in the eighteenth century. Once the cane was cut and the juice boiled and crystalised most was packed into barrels for transport to Europe and further processing there. Only a small amount was ‘clayed’, further refined into white sugar loaves, in Jamaica. This was to protect the interests of the sugar bakers in Britain.

Either way the sugar bought by the eighteenth century housewife came in hard loaves from which the sugar had to be rasped or broken off and then pounded to the consistency required. Imagine taking a bag of modern sugar crystals and pounding it down to produce your own icing sugar and you will get an idea of the sheer physical labour involved and the time it took.

Then remember that to cook using your sugar you would have to light and tend your kitchen fire. By the eighteenth century London was dependent on imported coal as the medieval forests that once covered the country had been cut down for domestic fuel and for early industry. You would have ordered your coal using the old measure of a ‘chaldron of coals’, an amount which could vary from about 2000 pounds weight upwards. A London chaldron was defined as “36 bushels heaped up, each bushel to contain a Winchester bushel and one quart, and to be 1912 inches in diameter” (source:Wikipedia). The weight of this was about 3136 pounds so it was no wonder that a limit was put on the amount that could be drawn in one wagon – incidentally to protect the road from excessive wear rather than the horses from exhaustion!

When the coal was delivered to your house you would have to inspect it to make sure the merchant was not cheating you by including poor quality coal, wet coal or a load full of small dust called ‘slack’. It would be shovelled by hand from the wagon into your cellar or shed and from there you or your servants would have to scoop it up into the coal scuttles for use in kitchen and living rooms. Little wonder that only the well to do had fires in their bedrooms in even the coldest of weather.

Everything that happened in the eighteenth century household involved physical labour on the part of the householder or the servants. Preparing meals meant walking to market for the ingredients, scrubbing and preparing the vegetables, plucking the poultry, rendering your own fat from pork or beef to produce dripping, beating the eggs and ingredients for cakes (my grandmother beat fat and sugar for an eggless sponge by hand – that is using her own hand not a beater, the beating took up to half an hour but she made a superbly light sponge!). Even so simple an act as writing a letter might still involve mixing your own ink, and would require you to cut your own quills – paper you could at least buy ready made.

Leaving aside the digital revolution, think of any task you now undertake and then take yourself back to a time when there was no electricity, and virtually no machinery to assist. You could buy the cloth and thread for your clothes, but you or someone else would have to make the pattern, cut the cloth and sew them by hand. When they got dirty they would have to be washed by hand using soap you made yourself, although in London the air was now so filled with soot that those who could afford it sent their linen out of town to washer women in the outlying villages. If the weather was cold the water might freeze in the pump and in any case it would all have to be carried by hand to where it was needed.

In eighteenth century Jamaica the source of cheap labour that made all this possible was of course enslaved, while London and the growing cities such as Manchester and Birmingham were sucking in labour from the surrounding countryside. The nineteenth century would see a huge change with a move from human to machine power and a gradual increase in the cost of labour, with a corresponding decrease in the relative cost of machine power. We are much closer to this nineteenth century world than we are to that of the eighteenth.

So next time you put sugar in your coffee, boil a kettle, load the washing machine, cut the lawn or drive to the supermarket to load up with ready prepared goods, just pause for a moment and imagine having to do all these tasks the eighteenth century way.

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.


Loose ends and Christmas wishes

Egmont Villa, Fulham, the last home of Theodore Hook (from The Man who was John Bull)

I dislike loose ends. Last week I ended the piece on Berners Street with a brief reference to Theodore Hook and the hope that his family had not starved after his early death on the 24th of August 1841 at the age of fifty-two. So I have spent the last week finding out what happened to them all.

Various 19th-century works recalled the life of Hook and there is a comprehensive modern biography written by Bill Newton Dunn*, who happens to be the Member of the European Parliament for the area where I live. When he was writing it, in the late twentieth century, there were not the online genealogical resources that are now available to us, and so I have had the advantage of being able to find out a little more of what happened to the Hook family than he could.

Theodore Edward Hook had lived for many years with Mary Anne Doughty, and they had at least six children together. In 1828 he wrote a Will in which he referred to them having ‘six children still living’ and requesting his executor and trustee to make provision for his children and their mother. That his brother and one of his nephews had distinguished careers in the Church of England may partly account for the total omission of Mary Anne and and her children from a later 19th-century Hook family tree, and I had feared that the family had been left in total poverty and had perhaps ended up in the workhouse.

In many ways Hook was an 18th-century character. Incredibly talented at improvising both music and verse, endlessly cheerful and good-natured and a bon viveur who increasingly drank more than was good for him, he was an energetic prankster and hoaxer but also an extremely hard-working writer and satirist.

He himself noticed the change in moral tone as the nineteenth century progressed, writing in one of his stories It sounds odd, and even absurd to say so, but true it is, that religion has become fashionable, and its cultivation and pursuits have taken place of what in the days of our grandfathers were called spirit and humour, which in plain English, meant profligacy and dissipation. No midnight broils now break the public peace, no feats of drinking are recorded in our periodical papers as matters of admiration. It is no longer thought brave to beat the watch, nor considered extremely wise to break the lamps; quiet lodgers are now never aroused from their slumbers by bell-ringings of the “Tonsonian school,” nor are waiters thrown out of tavern windows, and charged in the bill.**

That Theodore and Mary Anne lived together without marrying is another example of his 18th century character and whether he eventually married Mary Anne Doughty seems to be in question. It is suggested that they married in 1840, but I have not been able to find any record of such a marriage although it is always possible that they married in France whence Theodore’s father James Hook, noted for having composed the song Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill, had fled on hearing of Theodore’s £12,000 debt incurred in Mauritius. Although it was judged that Theodore had no criminal case to answer, the civil debt hung over him all his life and at his death all his goods were seized.

Although six children are mentioned in the 1828 Will, a contemporary wrote that only five were still alive at the time of Theodore’s death – two sons and three daughters. Only three were living in the family home, Egmont Villa Fulham, when the 1841 census was taken, these were Mary, Louisa, and William. The elder son Frederick Augustus had already left for a military career in India. Who the fifth surviving child was remains a mystery since it has proved impossible to find baptism records for any of the Hook children, and most of Theodore’s many diaries have disappeared. I had wondered whether the free spirited Theodore did not believe in baptism, but in his writing he comments favourably on attending the christenings of friends’ children. The impediment may have been the children’s illegitimacy or it may simply be that the records are not available online either under the name of Hook or Doughty. It is also difficult to establish with certainty when the children we do know of were born, although Mary was probably born about 1821 in the parish of St Pancras; Bill Newton Dunn gives Frederick’s birth as the 24th of June 1823, and Louisa seems to have been born about 1824 in Kentish Town, with William being born in Fulham in 1828. It is likely that the two missing children fell between Louisa and William.

Immediately after Theodore’s death various friends contributed subscriptions for the support of his family, so the rapid descent into the workhouse that I had feared was avoided. However the total amounts were not huge and many who might have contributed appear to have declined to offer support to illegitimate children!

The next we hear of any of them is the marriage of Louisa to Frederick Annesley on the 13th of October 1842 at St Paul’s Canonbury in Islington. On the marriage record Louisa is said to be of full age, which she may not in fact have been. Frederick’s occupation is given as solicitor like his father, and the couple both gave the same address at 9 Maberley Terrace. They went on to have at least four children before Frederick’s early death in about 1868, and there were Annersley descendants well into the twentieth century.

One of the witnesses at Louisa’s wedding was her sister, who signed herself Mary Catherine Hook, and the next clue to her whereabouts comes in a letter to The Morning Post in December 1892 by Algernon Ashton who had been concerned at the dilapidated state of Theodore Hook’s tombstone and following publicity over this had been contacted by Mary, who was then living in reduced circumstances in Agnes Terrace, Leytonstone. Ashton gave her name as Mrs Mary St C Tanner, and as a result I was able to find her in 1851 living as a widow with her mother and brother William at 7 Clarence Place, High Street, Camberwell. I cannot find any record of a marriage of Mary Hook with someone called Tanner and so wonder whether she was in fact twice widowed between 1841 and 1851, and had married Mr Tanner under a different name. Whether the reason for them living in Camberwell was that this was where Mr Tanner lived is unclear but in the 1851 census Mary is recorded as the widowed head of the household. She and her mother (who was recorded as Mary Hook, as she was also in the 1841 census) are both shown as annuitants and brother William is working as a clerk in the Post Office. They were sufficiently well off then to be able to afford a servant.

I have drawn a complete blank with the 1861 census, and wondered if perhaps the family was in France visiting James Hook’s widow Harriett, however a transcription error is perhaps the more likely reason. Mary Anne Doughty seems to have died before 1871 when we find William Hook and his wife Fanny living in Great Warley, Essex, where William is a clerk in a GPO Money Order Office. They have two children William and Alice Fanny, and Mary Tanner is living with them, still in receipt of her annuity. William probably died in the latter part of 1875 and the family moved closer to London where they remained in the Leytonstone area well into the twentieth century.

There is a further mystery attached to this unconventional family. In the 1891 census the widowed Fanny Hook was living with her son William, daughter Alice and sister-in-law Mary and a nephew called Frederick Hook who also appears in the 1901 census. Fanny died in 1894, aged fifty-nine and Mary St C Tanner died in 1902 at the age of eighty-one.

In 1911 William Hook completed the census return recording Frederick as his brother. Alice’s age was adjusted down by five years to forty-four while Frederick’s was adjusted up to twenty-nine. It seems highly likely that Frederick Samuel Hook, born in 1885, was the illegitimate son of Alice Fanny Hook and that William wished to conceal the fact.

And a final footnote, lest you think I have strayed too far from Jamaica.

Theodore Edward Hook had an older brother James, for whom incidentally he published two novels anonymously lest James’s reputation in the church should be damaged. In 1797 James married Ann Farquhar at St James, Westminster. Ann was the daughter of Sir Walter Farquhar, physician to the Prince Regent. Her mother Anne Stevenson had first been married to Dr Thomas Harvie of Jamaica.

I shall be taking a break from research over the Christmas period, but hope to be back with more eighteenth century tales in the New Year.

In the meantime may I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.


It’s not too late to take advantage of the special December Discount on A Parcel of Ribbons!


*Bill Newton Dunn, The Man who was John Bull, Allendale Publishing, London, 1996 ISBN 0-9528277-0-0

**Newton Dunn, op.cit, p.300.

Puritans and Planters – the Halhed family

The Cloisters at Westminster Abbey
from http://home2.btconnect.com/Crusader-Product/Westminster-Abbey.html


I encountered the name Halhed recently while reading about the early British Colony which settled at Providence Island, just over 100 miles off the coast of modern Nicaragua, and I remembered I had seen the name before in a Jamaican context.

Richard Halhed came from a distinguished Banbury family and indeed was apparently the last to be born in Banbury. His distant great-uncle Henry Halhed had joined a contingent of pioneers, the Providence Island Company, recruited by Lord Saye and Sele[1]. They intended to establish a colony according to puritan principles, and although Henry Halhed was already in his mid-50s he sailed with his wife Elizabeth and three of his youngest children – Patience, Grace and Samuel – in 1632.

Henry Halhed had been hit by the combined effects of a depression in the textile industry and a disastrous fire in Banbury in 1628. The colony was not a success and Halhed and three others were deported back to England on the Hopewell arriving in Bristol in early 1641. All four men were released and held to be guiltless of the charges against them, but this seems to have ended Halhed’s connection with the island, which was subsequently taken by the Spanish who deported all the English colonists.

Richard Halhed’s connection with Jamaica was very much more successful. He was born posthumously in 1685, probably apprenticed in London in 1700, and then went out to Jamaica as a planter establishing an estate called Banbury. Like many other single white colonists he fathered a number of illegitimate children of whom Richard baptised in December 1724 seems to have died young.

In 1746 Grace Hazel and her children Robert, Elizabeth, and Susannah Halhed were all granted the rights of whites by the Jamaican Assembly. The children were described as free mulattos, as was Grace Hazel, who was probably Richard’s ‘housekeeper’. Robert Halhed, later described as a surgeon of St Thomas in the Vale,  subsequently applied to the Jamaican assembly in 1752 and was granted “the same rights, liberties, franchises, and immunities as His Majesty’s liege people do now hold and enjoy”. Legally he had become white.

It appears that Richard also had a daughter called Leah, who is mentioned in Robert’s Will as his half sister, who had married Thomas Leadbeater. There is a marriage for Thomas Leadbeater and Leah Phipps on the 24th of December  1738 in the parish of St Catherine, Jamaica. It seems possible however that Leah was already a widow, since the parish register record for the baptism of Elizabeth and Susannah Halhed was written on a scrap of paper, pinned to the main register, on which were also baptism records for Leah and Rachell Ydana on the same date. The Jewish Ydana family had patented land in Jamaica from the latter part of the 17th-century. It may be that the mother of Leah and Rachell (who were older than Richard’s other children) was connected with the Ydana family. There is no indication of Leah having been granted the rights of whites so she may not have been of mixed race.

Leah’s marriage to Thomas Leadbeater, a planter in St Thomas in the East, seems to have been a good one, and the baptisms of several of their five surviving children were sponsored by prominent citizens including Jacob and Sarah Neufville. It is likely that by time of the birth of the last of these children, Sarah in 1755, Robert Halhed had already left for England – a Robt Halhed was paying land tax in the parish of St Sepulchre in 1750. His father Richard died in Jamaica in July 1755 aged seventy, a very good age for a Jamaican colonist, and he was buried in Spanish Town on the 13th of July 1755.

Richard Halhed provided generously for his children. Although I have not found his Will, his son Robert’s Will (proved in 1778) indicates not only that he was wealthy but also that provision had been made by their father for the care of his unmarried daughter Susannah. Elizabeth, who at the time of the granting of the rights of whites was already married to Thomas Peirce of London, had probably died relatively young and without leaving children. Thomas Peirce married again and there is a record of a Chancery dispute involving the Halhed and Peirce families, held at the National Archives at Kew of which I hope to get a copy shortly.

Robert seems to have settled into English society with no difficulty in spite of his mixed race. He married a wife called Elizabeth, probably in England although I have not found a record for the marriage, and had one child Robert Spencer Halhed living at the time of his death. Very sadly Robert Spencer Halhed died just over a month after his father at the age of thirteen. Elizabeth outlived her husband by more than forty years, dying in 1829.

In England Robert prospered as a merchant and was close to his father’s first cousin William (1723-86)[2] who was much the same age as he was, and who became a Director of the Bank of England. Both Robert and William are recorded as merchants at 1 Bank Street, London which implies a partnership.

Robert’s successful career and marriage, and his sister Elizabeth’s marriage to Thomas Peirce are yet another example of the integration of mixed race Jamaican children into mainstream society. For Robert and his family this was crowned by their burial in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

When Elizabeth Halhed died at the age of ninety-two in October 1829 she requested burial with her husband and son and that the stone marking the spot should be recut. Her wishes very nearly failed to be carried out when a bizarre accident overtook the Will.

William Halhed had three sons, all of whom were in their seventies by the time Elizabeth died. The eldest Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, still remembered as a linguist and compiler of one of the first Bengali grammars, was according to Elizabeth incapable by then of managing his own affairs. Robert William and John were nominated as executors and when  John heard that Elizabeth was dying he travelled down to Tunbridge Wells, writing a letter to warn his brother that Elizabeth had not long to live. The following day, after her death, her companion Frances Bonnet produced a tin box with the Will and John wrote a letter to Nathaniel’s wife Luiza, detailing the legacies and asking her to forward it to Robert in London.

When John and Frances Bonnet arrived in London, Robert had not yet received the second letter although he had the first. So that evening the two brothers sat down to make a new list of the legacies, with Robert writing on the second page torn from the letter John had written to him. It was an October evening and as John read the Will by candle light he held it too close to the flame and the Will caught fire. Although the fire was quickly extinguished some portions of the will had been lost. However, because John had written to Luiza, and because he and Robert had been producing an abstract of the Will it was possible to correlate the various documents to produce evidence of Elizabeth’s intentions.

With the agreement of the legatees whose legacies had been obliterated, Robert William and John swore an affidavit which enabled probate to be granted on the 15th of October 1829. It was one of the last acts of John Halhed who was buried on the 4th of December 1829. He was survived by eleven of his eighteen children.

You can read a transcript of Elizabeth’s Will here, and also a transcript of the Will of Robert Halhed. As Elizabeth’s Will makes no mention of Jamaica and her legacies are mostly in 3 per cent consols (safe bank investments) it is to be assumed that at some time after her husband Robert’s death she sold the property and invested the proceeds to provide a regular income. As the great days of sugar were largely over, this was a sensible move freeing her from the worries of an absentee landlord. That she was still a wealthy woman, despite her investments having to support her into great old age, is an indication of the wealth accumulated by Richard Halhed in Jamaica and consolidated by Robert in London.



[1] Providence Island 1630-1641, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[2] Much information about the Halhed family may be found at www.halhed.com


Family stories – the vital clues

If you ever doubt how much can be gleaned from even the smallest scraps of information left by your ancestors take a look at the piece of paper my mother received in the 1950s in a bundle of family papers collected by an aunt.

Aunt Alice was a young girl when her grandmother, born Charlotte  Heap in 1808, died in 1890, but her grandmother had noted fragmentary details of the family story of an ‘Indian Princess’ and from this eventually grew a database of several thousand close and distant ancestors, and my book A Parcel of Ribbons.

One common, but frustrating, genealogical puzzle comes when you are given only the surname and no first names and this is especially acute if you are tracking through the female line of your family with surname changes every generation as in this example. In the end I came at this problem from two directions at once, both working backwards from Charlotte Heap and also looking for two sisters surnamed Jaques, one who had married a Lee and another a Marleton (in fact spelled Marlton).

Another problem with handwritten notes is interpreting connections without a diagram or helpful punctuation. For example ‘his father married a creole’ in the above example could apply to Richard Lee or to Richard Lee’s father or his grandfather. Another piece of paper written by Aunt Alice said that her father had referred to a creole but she had always heard ‘Indian Princess’.

I had very little to go on geographically other than that the family was based in England, Charlotte was born in Kendal in Cumbria but her mother came from Suffolk and it emerged that the roots were all in London. Without the internet and computerised indexes the search would have been all but impossible.

Two key findings helped in unravelling the story. One was a marriage licence issued in 1720 for Joseph Lee and Frances Jaques (I have still not found the marriage record), and the later discovery that Frances’s sister Mary had married Thomas Marlton. The other was the combined information from the Will of Richard Lee in 1857 (which left a small legacy to Charlotte and various members of her family) together with the 1851 census record for Richard Lee giving his birthplace as Jamaica. This last was a total surprise, since until then no-one in the family had any idea there was a Jamaican connection. Indeed in a family with slight connections with North America and extensive ones from the early eighteenth century in India, the search had been on for either a family Pocahontas or the daughter of an Indian Rajah!

I think there are two lessons to be drawn from all of this. The first is always to take seriously any information your ancestors leave whether as stories or documents. The second is, that having taken it seriously, don’t be surprised if what you find is not at all what you expect. Indeed over the passage of time (Charlotte’s notes were made in the late 1880’s and referred to events nearly a century before she was born) a kernal of truth may well have acquired an auro of myth by the time it comes down to you.




First Catch Your Hare

The title page from the facsimile first edition, Prospect Books 2012[1]

‘First Catch Your Hare’ is one of those apocryphal quotations that was in fact never written, in spite of being repeatedly attributed to Hannah Glasse.

Hannah Glasse was the author of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy first published in 1747, and although she is less well remembered than Isabella Beaton she pioneered the method of writing recipes in a systematic fashion that could be understood by anyone who could read.

That her book sold so well gives the lie to the notion that all but the richest eighteenth century women were illiterate. In fact she was at the leading edge of the rise of the self-help book, something which would really take off in the following century with the introduction of steam-powered printing.

Hannah was the illegitimate daughter of Isaac Allgood (of Brandon White House and Nunwick, Northumberland) and Mrs Hannah Reynolds. Her parents’ relationship ended after the birth of three children. Perhaps surprisingly Hannah then lived, not with her mother, whom she called a ‘wicked wretch’, but with her father and his wife, and she grew up close to her legitimate half-brother Lancelot Allgood.

In 1724 her stepmother died suddenly and her father was in very poor health so she moved in with her grandmother Ryecroft in Greville Street, Hatton Garden. It was from here that she left in secret, aged just sixteen, to marry John Glasse at Leyton in Essex on the 5th of August 1724. A month later when her grandmother found out and threw her out, she and John Glasse moved to rooms above a chemist’s shop in the Haymarket.

Over the next fifteen years Hannah bore eleven live children and suffered at least one miscarriage of twins. She corresponded with members of her father’s family in Northumberland and those letters provide most of the evidence for her life with John Glasse, who seems to have been largely without visible means of support and who died in 1747.

By this time Hannah had already indulged in several money-making ventures including selling Daffy’s Elixir, writing her cookery book, and setting up a ‘habit warehouse’, a high class clothes shop in Tavistock Street. Quite how she managed it is unclear but among her clients were royalty, including the Prince and Princess of Wales. It was perhaps her bad luck that ‘poor Fred’ the Prince of Wales died suddenly, and possibly poor management or the unpaid bills of the aristocracy that led to Hannah’s bankruptcy in 1755. This resulted in the sale of the copyright of her book The Art of Cookery, in a story sadly very similar to the sale of the copyright in Mrs Beaton’s books a century or so later.

Hannah went on to write The Compleat Confectioner and the Servant’s Directory but neither had the success of her first book.

As with Isabella Beaton, Hannah Glasse did not invent her recipes, rather she plundered a variety of sources. It seems likely that although she had not had to earn her living as a cook and came from the gentry classes, that she actually enjoyed cooking. Although she took her recipes from other sources the main change she made was to provide precise measurements of quantities where none were given in the originals. She also gave very clear instructions and simplified much of the language that had been used in earlier recipes, for example changing ‘two right oranges’ to ‘two large oranges’, and instead of ‘lard them with small Lardoons’ she has ‘lard them with little bits of Bacon’. Where Hannah was not so systematic is in her arrangement of the recipes, there was no index in the first edition, nor are all recipes for similar ingredients grouped together.

One fascinating aspect of her work is that it makes clear to us that many 18th century ingredients were a little different from now, for example eggs were generally much smaller, so if instructed to take a piece of dough the size of a hen’s egg it is well to remember this. Poultry too were smaller, but teaspoons appear to have been larger and she is probably referring to the caddy spoon used for measuring out tea rather than the smaller spoon for stirring a cup of tea. The Prospect Books facsimile of her book includes not only background to her family, but also detailed discussion of her sources, ingredients and methods of cooking.

Here is a sample recipe chosen at random. I hope to post some more in future. It should be remembered that oysters in 18th century London were still commonplace and cheap. Whether the paper used over the breast was used dry or wet I am not sure.

To marinate Fowls

Take a fine large Fowl or Turky, raise the Skin from the Breast Bone with your Finger, then take a Veal Sweetbread and cut it small, a few Oysters, a few Mushrooms, an Anchovy, some Pepper, a little Nutmeg, some Lemon-peel, and a little Thyme; chop all together small and mix with the Yolk of an Egg, stuff it between the Skin and the Flesh, but take great Care you don’t break the Skin, and then stuff what Oysters you please into the Body of the Fowl. You may lard the Breast of the Fowl with Bacon, if you chuse it. Paper the Breast, and roast it. Make good Gravy, and garnish with Lemon. You may add a few Mushrooms to the Sauce.

And if it seems as if Hannah Glasse’s story has an exclusively London bias, there is a curious postscript. For a document preserved at Nunwick Hall lists some of her surviving children, as of about 1767. Hannah the eldest was alive and unmarried, Catherine was twice widowed and had one son then living, Isaac Allgood Glasse was in Bombay, George who had joined the Royal Navy was lost at sea in 1761, and Margaret (chief partner in the habit making business) had died unmarried in Jamaica.

This raises intriguing questions about why she was there. Clearly a good living could be made in London if her mother’s client list were exploited, so had she gone to Jamaica alone or with a brother? I have not been able to find a burial record for her, nor any other trace of the Glasse family, except perhaps an Edward Glasse who was in Port Royal, and who buried a daughter called Margaret there in 1741. Was he perhaps an uncle?

[1] First Catch Your Hare…The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by a Lady (Hannah Glasse), a facsimile of the first edition supplemented by the recipes which the author added up to the fifth edition and furnished with a Preface, Introductory Essays by Jennifer Stead and Priscilla Bain, a Glossary by Alan Davidson, Notes and an Index. Prospect Books, Totnes, 2012. ISBN 978-1-903018-88-0.






London graveyards and the Wonderful Mrs Basil Holmes

 “Bella” Holmes, photographed in 1895 (courtesy of Jake Holmes)

But for the efforts of the wonderful Mrs Basil Holmes much of what we know about London graveyards and burial grounds would have been lost. Instead of which we now have not only the results of her labours in her book on The London Burial Grounds, but its descendants in modern websites such as Londonburials to aid in our search for lost ancestors. Many of those who went to Jamaica had London roots, and many who made their fortunes in Jamaica came ‘home’ to settle in and around the capital.

Isabella Matilda Gladstone was born in 1861, the sixth of seven children of John Hall Gladstone (FRS and a Scientific Chemist) and his first wife Jane Mary Tilt. Isabella’s mother, her eldest sister and her only brother died when she was three in an epidemic of scarlet fever and diphtheria. Her father’s second wife died in childbirth six years later, barely a year after their marriage. Margaret, the child of this marriage, would go on to become the wife of Ramsay Macdonald, Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister.

In 1887 Isabella married Basil Holmes who was Secretary to the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA) which had been founded five years earlier. Between 1888 and 1896 Isabella had two daughters and two sons, with another son coming along in 1905. During the 1890s the family lived at  5 Freeland Road, Ealing in west London and were able to employ various nursemaids, a cook and a housemaid. The Freeland Road house was a solid brick-built Victorian villa, comfortably situated between Ealing Common and the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club, but the founders of the MPGA were only too well aware that many Londoners lived in squalid slums, seeing little sunlight, rarely seeing any greenery and with no safe places for their children to play.

It was the dawning age of metropolitan socialism that brought about the clearing of slums, the building of ‘model dwellings’ and the first social housing, and the erection of public baths, lavatories and wash-houses for those with no proper sanitation or running water at home.

Before she married Basil Holmes, Isabella had already been providing information to the MPGA. Looking at one of the classic eighteenth century maps of London, by John Rocque, she had noticed that many burial grounds and churchyards marked on it no longer existed. Intrigued, she  investigated what had happened to them and drew up a list which was published in the first MPGA report in 1884.

There was a serious lack of good information. From the mid-nineteenth century many burial grounds were so overcrowded as to become a serious health hazard, the ground level having risen several feet as coffin was piled upon coffin. Many were closed for new burials, and as congregations moved out of the City to the suburbs church attendances fell and churches were closed and demolished, replaced by commercial developments.

In 1884 the Disused Burial Grounds Act was passed with the aim of preventing unregulated development on graveyards. One consequence of this however was that builders finding bones would hush up the discovery and hastily cart away the evidence for disposal elsewhere. Isabella mentions that even in poor Whitechapel building land was worth £30,000 an acre, putting every unrecorded and forgotten burial ground in danger of development.

This then was the context in which she began her work, a task that lasted more than a dozen years, from the early days of the MPGA through marriage, a family, and finally the production of her book in 1896 which accompanied a set of colour-coded maps that she presented to the London County Council. The maps comprised 60 Ordnance Survey 25-inches to the mile sheets, with burial places still in use coloured blue, those that were disused coloured green and those now converted for public recreation coloured red. In the County and City of London she had documented 362 burial grounds, of which 41 were still in use and 90 had become public gardens or playgrounds for slum children. She did not include in this number churches and chapels which had burial vaults but no graveyard. She did however extend her searches to include non-conformist, Quaker and Jewish burial places.

Early on in her work Bella realised that there was no substitute for seeing things on the ground, and off she went notebook in hand searching for burial grounds that she knew should still be there, but which now were often back yards filled with rubbish. Often access was difficult, but a letter of introduction got her into a Jewish cemetery from which her Christian status would otherwise have excluded her. And she was not above climbing fences to peer beyond – ‘One day I climbed a high rickety fence in a builder’s yard in Wandsworth in order to see over the wall into the Friends’ burial-ground. No doubt the men in the place thought me mad, – anyhow they left me in peace.’

She would knock on doors and ask to look out of people’s rear windows to locate old graveyards. Moreover, intrepid but careful, she was quite happy to venture into parts of London she was told were unsafe. ‘An appearance of utter insignificance and an air of knowing where you are going and what you want, is the passport for all parts of London’. One feels she would have made a good spy!

Having collected a wealth of books and information during her searches, Isabella’s own book includes much useful background information on the development of London, albeit some of her archaeological comments have been superseded by more recent work. The book covers British and Roman burying-places; the graveyards of priories and convents; the Cathedral, the Abbey, the Temple and the Tower; the City churchyards; London churchyards outside the City; pest-fields and plague-pits; the dissenters’ burial-grounds; burial places of foreigners in London; hospital, almshouse and workhouse grounds; private and promiscuous cemeteries; the closing of burial grounds and vaults; graveyards as public gardens; cemeteries still in use and a ‘forecast for the future’.

In this last chapter she showed herself somewhat ahead of the times in discussing cremation of the dead, which would help to reduce the need for additional burial places. Not until after the First World War, when so many of the dead had no known resting place, would cremation become as accepted as burial.

The book also has an appendix with extensive listings of extant and disappeared burial grounds, and instructions on how to lay out a burial-ground as a garden. There are also many illustrations of churches and graveyards and contemporary photographs.

It all makes fascinating reading, and moreover her book is still in use by professional archaeologists in London. It is fascinating to compare Isabella’s descriptions of St Pancras after the arrival of the Midland railway, with the Museum of London Archaeology book on the St Pancras Burial Ground, published last year, following the redevelopments for St Pancras International station.

You will be hard put to find a copy of Isabella’s original book for sale, and if you do it will not be cheap, but thanks to print-on-demand technology you can easily obtain  a reprint from the British Library Historical collection.

It is well worth the read.

A Parcel of Ribbons – The Book – Now available

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Available in perfect bound paperback 6″ x 9″ – 374 pages with illustrations.

ISBN: 9781105809743

When I set up this website it was with the aim of sharing material I had come across during research into my family history. In particular I was looking for the origin of the story that in my mother’s family there had been an ‘Indian Princess’.

It may seem a long way from an Indian Princess to Jamaica but the trail that led me there was illuminated by the discovery of a wonderful collection of family letters.

I can now share these and the story of the remarkable Lee family with you. I do hope you enjoy their story as much as I have enjoyed writing about it.