Tag Archives: St Catherine

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.





What’s in a name? – Searching Jamaican Parish Registers

A rose by any other name…

Old parish registers (OPR for short) are an invaluable source of genealogical information, but sadly are often only as good as the parish clerk or vicar who wrote in them. Some are written in beautiful script and contain additional information about the father’s occupation or the street in which the family lived, others are terse to the point of being almost useless without supporting information from another source.

If you have access to Ancestry, take a look at the registers for London where you can view the images of the actual pages. For example the early eighteenth century marriage records for St Lawrence Jewry in the City of London are clearly written and give the parish of both partners, but the later records in the same volume for baptisms and burials are untidy and hastily written although they do give the date of both birth and baptism, and the location of the burial.

Accuracy can be a problem and the record of the baptism of Robert Cooper Lee, whose parcel of ribbons gave this website its title, is doubly inaccurate – for the clerk of St Michael Bassishaw wrote his mother’s name as Sarah instead of Frances and his date of birth as the 4th of September when I know from a letter of his daughter Frances that it was the 15th. These problems can be much worse when dealing with the early Jamaican registers.

You can view the images of the early Jamaican parish registers on the Family Search site, which is free. These images are also available on microfilm through local LDS family history centres, although you may have to order them in for your local centre and pay the postage.

The coverage for different parishes varies a lot, with some of the earliest records in St Andrew (from 1664), St Catherine (from 1668) and Vere (from 1694) whereas Kingston only starts in 1721. Time, mould, insect attack, hurricane and fire took their toll on the records and they were sometimes copied to preserve them, not always with a hundred percent accuracy.

Until the Family Search site completes the computerised indexing of the records, you are dependent on either paging through a particular parish and time period, or using the hand compiled indexes whose images are also available. These are not in fully alphabetical order, but are organised by letter of the alphabet with blocks of records covering a period of years. If you are lucky the one you are looking at will have an annotation in the margin telling you what period it relates to, but not always. The index will give you a volume and folio reference in the form 1/23. Because the images cover two pages of the register an entry at 1/23 might be on image 12 or somewhere either side of it. Be aware that not all records are indexed, that marriages are only indexed by the name of the man and that a child’s baptism may be indexed under the mother’s name if it is illegitimate even if it later took its father’s name.

To have a good chance of finding the records you are interested in, it helps to understand family naming conventions in the eighteenth century which often followed a quite regular pattern. Where a couple were married and their children were legitimate, the eldest son was usually named after his father or one of his grandfathers, and the eldest daughter after her mother or grandmothers. It was also common for a surname to be used as a first name and the surname of a grandparent to be used as a middle name. For example Thomas Beckford married Mary Ballard in 1703 in St Catherine, Jamaica, and their eldest son was called Ballard Beckford, as was his son. The second Ballard Beckford’s daughter was named Mary Ballard Beckford.

Don’t be surprised if you find that a couple use the same name repeatedly – high infant mortality often meant that a father would make several attempts to carry on his name – if you see the same name repeated, look for a corresponding infant burial between the two baptisms. Robert Cooper Lee’s father Joseph had two attempts at a namesake before his youngest son survived.

After the eldest son and daughter, children were then named for the siblings of their parents, or after an aunt or uncle or their godparents. Sometimes they were named in honour of a family friend. Robert Cooper Lee, whose eldest son named after his brother John died young, named one son after himself; one after his friend Richard Welch; Matthew Allen Lee after his friend John Allen and Scudamore Cooper Lee after his friend Scudamore Winde. In turn John Allen named his first son John Lee Allen. Name patterns like this can often be helpful in tracing patterns of friendship especially if backed up by bequests in Wills.

In Jamaica the records are complicated by the number of illegitimate children, many born to white fathers and slave or mixed race mothers. In the early history of Jamaica slaves were not usually baptised or married in church as it was feared that if they became Christian they might acquire the rights of Christians. However from the earliest days there were free blacks and free people of mixed race – often the product of liaisons between white planters and merchants and their slaves or housekeepers. The latter were often free women of mixed race who moved between communities having some of the privileges of the white world, and as described in the article about Mary Johnston Rose, sometimes acquiring the status of being legally white.

When it came to recording the baptisms, marriages and burials of black and mixed race Jamaicans the local vicars varied in what they recorded. Some white fathers happily acknowledged their children and their names appear alongside the name of the mother in the register. However the child’s surname may be indexed as either the father’s or the mother’s.  For example in 1748 John  Lee and Mary Lord had a child baptised as Mary Ann Lord, the name she was buried under soon after.

In the case of the children of Mary Johnston Rose her sons Thomas Wynter and William Fuller took their father’s surnames and she was generally known as Mary Rose, although her mother was Elizabeth Johnston. That she used the name Mary Johnston Rose strongly suggests that she was the acknowledged daughter of a man called Rose, albeit not legitimate. In letters she is referred to as Mrs Rose, but beware of assuming that Mrs means that a woman was married – the title Mistress was used for both married and single women, and Mrs was also sometimes a courtesy title rather like Madame in French was used for an older woman.

The Jamaican registers may or may not tell you something useful about the ethnic origin of the person. The St Catherine’s register has the marriage of Emanuel Angola and Malina Angola in 1671, which only hints at African origin through their names. In 1677 Peter Moore and Black Betty were married as ‘free negroes’, but on the same page the marriage record of a mulatto and a negro does not tell us whether they were free. There was no requirement on parish priests to follow a set form in what they recorded, and as a result the records are fragmentary, inconsistent and sometimes very hard to read!

By the middle of the eighteenth century it is becoming more common to record the status of an individual, and children are baptised using all the various categories of colour discussed in an earlier posting.  Whereas a legitimate child almost always has both parents named, the illegitimate may have none – but almost always its colour is recorded. Watch out for abbreviations such as ‘Mul.’ Or simply ‘M’ for mulatto, a letter Q (which can look like a 2) for a quadroon.  Such is the segregation of people according to their colour that some of the Kingston registers actually had separate sections for Whites and People of Colour.

Civil Registration began in Jamaica on the 1st of April 1878 but some districts did not record until up to five years later. The Family Search site has over one and a half million records for Trelawny Parish Civil Registration Births, 1878-1930, and over 280,000 other indexed records from 1752-1920.

The rejoicing will be great on the part of this user when the fully indexed records are finally available online.

So good luck with your searches, and good hunting!