Untold lives blog

43 posts categorized "Americas"

03 June 2021

Most flattering prospects to perfect destitution – Samuel Benstead’s emigration to New York

In the 1830s, thousands of London warehouse labourers lost their jobs when the East India Company stopped all its commercial operations.  The men were given pensions, but some decided to apply for a lump sum in lieu of regular payments to enable them to emigrate with their families.  Sometimes this bold step was not as successful as the labourers believed it would be.

The Emigrant's Address - Illustrated cover of printed music showing a sailing shipThe Emigrant's Address by W Sanford - Illustrated cover of printed music (1853) Shelfmark H.1742.(3.)  © The British Library Board

Samuel Benstead retired from the Company’s Fenchurch Street tea warehouse in September 1834 aged 41 on a weekly pension of 7s 6d.  He couldn’t find work so he put in a request to commute his pension so he could emigrate to New York with his wife Frances Mary (Fanny) and their seven children.  Samuel had been a hosier before joining the Company and he planned to work in America as a slop seller  (a dealer in cheap ready-made clothing).  After rejecting his first application, the Company granted him a lump sum of £203 in February 1835.

Samuel had had to undergo a medical examination by a Company surgeon to prove that he was in good health and of temperate habits.  He had also submitted a certificate, signed by a doctor in Whitechapel, that he was sober and industrious and that there was a reasonable prospect that the large sum of money would be more useful to the family than a regular allowance.

In May 1838 Samuel wrote to the Company from America, petitioning for help. The family had arrived in New York in May 1835. Within a few weeks Samuel had set up business as grocer in New Jersey.  Then he was persuaded to invest in a ‘large concern’ and lost money.  He was reduced from ‘most flattering prospects to perfect destitution’.  Another child was born in 1836.

A second letter was sent by Samuel in July 1838, but this time from Limehouse Fields in London.  Help from a friend had enabled him to return on a Quebec packet ship.  When he landed after 3½ years’ absence, Samuel only had 6d in his pocket.  His two eldest sons had been left in America where he believed they would do well.  The Company turned down Samuel’s request for help.

In April 1840 Samuel petitioned the Company again, giving more details of what had happened in New York.  His business as grocer and general provision dealer was successful until May 1837 when it was hit by the ‘Panic’, a financial crisis in New York.  Almost all business was done on credit, and many hundreds of dollars were owed to Samuel.

Penniless and sick on his return to London, Samuel said that he now had a good opportunity in Jersey and asked the Company for a small sum to help him move his family there.  He claimed he had no other prospect on earth if he couldn’t get to Jersey.  The Company decided that Samuel’s request could not be considered, so in May 1840 his wife Frances sent another petition asking for help with transport costs.  This was also turned down.

The 1841 census shows Samuel, once more a hosier, living in Mile End Old Town with Frances and four of their children aged between four and twelve,  By 1851, Samuel was dead, and Frances was working as a nurse, still living in Mile End with a daughter and two sons.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Records about the Benstead family can be found in the India Office Family History Search and in IOR/L/F/1/2; IOR/L/F/2/30, 48 & 49; IOR/L/AG/30/4 & 5; IOR/L/MIL/5/485.

 

20 April 2021

Another scandalous tale from the Down family

In previous Untold Lives stories, we met two of Major William Down’s children, Arabella and Charles.  Now, for the final instalment of this scandalous tale, we have their sister Eva Magdalene Crompton Down.

Eva was born in St John’s Wood, London on 18 December 1856, the fifth daughter and seventh of the ten children of Major William Down and his wife Christian.

In 1876 Eva was called as a witness in the trial of her brother Charles and Joshua Keith Hilton.  During the trial Hilton had referred to Eva Down as his wife and claimed to have a marriage certificate which he could produce as evidence.  Several other people called as witnesses also stated in their testimony that they believed Eva to be Hilton’s wife.

Eva was called as a witness regarding the claims which she vehemently refuted, her testimony suggesting she was unimpressed at the allegations and that she only knew Hilton as an acquaintance of her brother.  She even demanded to see the marriage certificate which Hilton claimed to have, but it never materialised.

Woman in dark Victorian dress looking reproachfully at a man in a bowler hatImage from Illustrated London News 22 August 1896 - British Newspaper Archive via Findmypast

Eva may not however have been as innocent as her court testimony suggested.  In 1877 Mrs Margaret Ann Redhead, née Thirkell filed for divorce from her husband of seven  years, Joshua William Readhead, on the grounds of adultery and desertion, citing Eva Down as the mistress.  Mrs Redhead had met her husband while visiting London in 1870 and they had married there in secret on 23 November 1870.  She had returned home to Sunderland shortly afterwards but her new husband did not accompany her and she at first attempted to conceal the marriage before admitting everything to her parents.  She never saw her husband again and her correspondence with him ceased after he attempted to extort money from her mother.  In 1876 Mrs Redhead learned that her husband had been living under the alias Joshua Keith Hilton and had been having an affair with Miss Eva Down, who he had been pretending was his wife. She filed for divorce shortly after.

Eva Down clearly cared about her lover as the couple married in Carlisle in 1881 following his release from prison.  The marriage does not appear to have lasted long however as by 1900 Eva had emigrated to the USA with her husband William Robert Tymms and their daughter Salome.  US immigration records suggest the couple married in England in 1885, however there is no record of that marriage.  Eva died in Benton, New Hampshire on 29 January 1926.

William Joshua Redhead assumed another alias, this time the stage name of Howard Reed, and he became manager of the Ilma Norina Opera Company.  He was romantically involved with its star Ilma Norina (real name Josephine Genese) who herself had divorced in 1888.

Howard Reed, aka Joshua Keith Hilton, aka William Joshua Redhead died in Southend on 23 February 1899.   According to his obituary he was ‘deeply lamented by his sorrowing wife and children’ although which wife and whose children is another mystery.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Old Bailey Proceedings 26th June 1876 No. 265: Charles Victor Cleghorn Down (21), and Joshua Keith Hilton (23), Feloniously forging and uttering a warrant for the payment of 75l., with intent to defraud. 
Madras Military Fund Pension Records, Account-General’s Department, India Office Records:
IOR/L/AG/23/10/1-2 Madras Military Fund Pension Register entry for William Down (1822-1868)
IOR/L/AG/23/10/11, Part 1 No. 90 Certificates submitted in connection with William Down’s subscription to the Madras Military Fund, including baptism certificate for Eva Magdalene Crompton Down [given as Eva Neale Crompton Down].

A 19th century tale of adultery 

Unwitting accomplice or habitual offender? 

 

04 April 2021

E. G. G. Hunt

Last Easter we brought you the story of the Bunny Family of Berkshire.  This year we have E. G. G. Hunt who came to my attention when I was looking through The Navy List for 1939.

Navy List 1939 - entry for E G G Hunt in the ship IndusEntry for E. G. G. Hunt in The Navy List February 1939

Eric George Guilding Hunt had a long and distinguished naval career.  He was born in Littleborough, Lancashire, on 22 June 1899, the son of George Wingfield Hunt, a Church of England clergyman, and his wife Ethel née Scholfield.   In 1915 Hunt joined HMS Conway, a naval training ship stationed on the Mersey near Liverpool.  From 1917 to 1919 he was on active service in the Royal Naval Reserve for the duration of the war as a Temporary Midshipman.

After the First World War, Hunt became an officer in the Royal Indian Marine, which later became the Royal Indian Navy.  He rose to the rank of Commander and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in a coastal operation in the Red Sea when in charge of HMIS Indus in 1941.

HMIS Indus IWM
HMIS Indus in Akyab harbour, Burma. Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum ADNO 9148 

The Hunt family had other connections to India, to the sea, and to the Church.  George Wingfield Hunt was born in Akyab, Burma (now Sittwe).  His father Thomas Wingfield Hunt was a mariner in India and then a Salt Superintendent.  His mother Mary Anne was the daughter of Lansdown Guilding, an Anglican priest in the West Indies.  Lansdown Guilding was a naturalist who wrote many scholarly papers, becoming a Fellow of the Linnean Society.  In 1825 he published An account of the Botanic Garden in the island of St Vincent, from its first establishment to the present time. 

Botanic Garden in St Vincent from the bottom of the central walkThe Botanic Garden in St Vincent from the bottom of the central walk  - from Lansdown Guilding, An account of the Botanic Garden in the island of St Vincent (Glasgow, 1825) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Botanic Garden in St Vincent from the superintendent's houseThe Botanic Garden in St Vincent from the superintendent's house  - from Lansdown Guilding, An account of the Botanic Garden in the island of St Vincent (Glasgow, 1825)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

India, the sea, and the Church were also prominent in the family of E. G. G. Hunt’s wife Marjorie.  She was born in Coonoor, Madras, in 1902  where her father Thomas Henry Herbert Hand was an officer in the Royal Indian Marine.  Thomas was a well-known marine painter in watercolour, signing his work T. H. H. Hand.  His father was Captain Henry Hand of the Royal Navy, and Henry’s father was an Anglican priest.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The National Archives, ADM 340/72/14 Record of service in Royal Navy for Eric George Guilding Hunt 1917-1919.
British Library, IOR/L/MIL/16/5/52, 238, 240, 248 Record of service in Royal Indian Marine/Navy for Eric George Guilding Hunt 1919-1946.
Supplement to London Gazette 4 September 1945 - Award of Distinguished Service Cross to Eric George Guilding Hunt.
British Library, IOR/L/MIL/16/3/155-56, 162-64 : IOR/L/MIL/16/8/110, 186 IOR/L/MIL/16/9/75 1890-1921 – records of service for Thomas Henry Herbert Hand in the Royal Indian Marine/Navy 1890-1921.

 

02 February 2021

A 19th century tale of adultery

Major William Down of the Madras Army was a subscriber to the Madras Military Fund Pension scheme.  He was invalided in service and sent home in February 1859.  He died on 20 April 1868 aged 46.  On 1 September 1847 he had married Christian Tripp Hutchinson (1823-1898) and the couple had ten children, aged between five and nineteen at the time of their father’s death.

Three of his children found themselves caught up in or at the centre of scandals including allegations of adultery and involvement in criminal enterprises.

The first was Arabella Almond Down, fifth child of William and Christian, born in Secunderabad, Madras on 13 December 1852.  In May 1869 Arabella was referenced in the divorce proceedings of Samuel George Hulse and Catherine Theresa Ingram.  Samuel Hulse filed for divorce from his wife of four years on the grounds of serial adultery.  They had married in Bengal in 1866 when Samuel was 21 and Catherine was just 15.  Samuel returned to England September 1868 leaving his wife behind in Delhi, where it was alleged she commenced a relationship with another man, returning with him to England in March 1869 and leaving her husband for good shortly afterwards.  During the proceedings, Theresa (as she preferred to be known) submitted a counter claim accusing Samuel of also having committed adultery with Arabella Down.  The court dismissed this counter-claim and the divorce was granted on the grounds of adultery by Samuel’s wife.

Two lovers in bed caught in the act by a husband holding a whipTwo lovers in bed caught in the act by a husband holding a whip - from R. Gill, A new collection of trials for adultery (London, 1799) P.C.19.a.11 volume 2, frontispiece Images Online

There may however have been some truth to the counter claim made by Theresa Hulse.  On 23 December 1871 Arabella Georgina Catherine Hulse was born in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada, the child of Samuel George Hulse and Arabella Almond Down,  I have been unable to find a marriage record for Samuel and Arabella.  The couple had two more children: Samuel Rusk Ramsay born in October 1873 and Violet born September 1876 but dying a month later.

Samuel and Arabella’s relationship appears to have dissolved quite rapidly, as on 22 March 1879 Arabella Down was married in Manhattan USA to Dr Gordon Edward Corbould.  At the time of their marriage Arabella and Gordon already had a son, Gordon Bruce, born in October 1877, and Arabella was six months pregnant with their second child.  Following the marriage they moved to New Westminster, British Columbia, where they had five more children between 1881 and 1890.  Arabella died in New Westminster on 20 February 1894.

Samuel Hulse kept custody of his two surviving children and they were still in Simcoe, Ontario at the time of the 1881 Census of Canada.  All three seem to disappear from official records shortly afterwards, although London probate records show that Samuel senior died on 22 August 1896 in Belize, British Honduras.  What happened to his children remains a mystery to me.  Can anyone help?

Watch out for a story of forgery, deceit and more alleged adultery featuring two more of the Down family siblings, Eva and Charles.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
IOR/L/AG/23/10/1 no.4003 Madras Military Fund Roll of Subscribers: William Down
IOR/L/AG/23/10/11, Part 1 ff. 195-202 Madras Military Fund Pension Certificates, No. 90: Birth/baptism, marriage and death certificates for William Down and family.
The National Archives: J 77/93/1164 Supreme Court of Judicature, Divorce Court File No. 1164: Samuel George Hulse & Theresa Hulse

 

15 December 2020

The Lives and Letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 4 Women’s Lives

When members of the black Nova Scotian community expressed interest in going to Sierra Leone, it was not just men that applied - applicants also included single women.  Unmarried women who applied for land in Sierra Leone were given ten acres of their own.  The following certificates were issued just before the journey to Sierra Leone and show the allocation of land given to women on receipt of their satisfactory character references.

Promise of land to Margaret Halstead

Promise of land to Grace Pool

Promise of land to Mary

Promise of land to Hannah TighePromises of land in Sierra Leone to single women including Grace Pool, Add MS 41262 A, f.47, f.48, f.53, f.58. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In Freetown a high proportion of householders were women.  Their independent status was recognised to the point that they could vote for their local representatives.  They were also instrumental in establishing trades in the new settlement: three of the six first shops to open in Freetown were run by women.

The following manuscript shows the allocations of eggs to women on Christmas Day 1792. It gives us many of the names of the women within the settlement.

Allocations of eggs to women  25 December 1792Allocations of eggs to women, 25 December 1792, Add MS 41263, f.218. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Dinah Weeks, named on this list, is recorded as having being enslaved to a man called Robert Bruce in New York before the American Revolution.  He apparently granted her freedom and in 1783 she left New York for Nova Scotia on the ship L’Abondance.  On the same ship was Harry Washington, who had been one of George Washington’s slaves, but who had escaped to fight with the British.

The final name on this list is that of Elizabeth Black.  She was a mixed-race women who had been born in Madagascar and described as living in indentured servitude in America to a Mrs Courtland.  When she was finally released she travelled to Nova Scotia and came to live with the black community in Birchtown, before moving to Sierra Leone with many others.

The diary and notes of Dr Taylor offer more insights into some of the women who travelled to Freetown.  The Sierra Leone Company doctor kept notes on the patients he treated. These appear to run from shortly before departing to Sierra Leone in December 1791 and the early months of the settlement in the spring of 1792.

Entry for Sarah Wilkinson in Dr Taylor’s medical notesEntry for Sarah Wilkinson in Dr Taylor’s medical notes, Add MS 41264, f.37.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Listed in this manuscript volume is the case of Sarah Wilkinson, who is described as having a fever after catching a cold after suffering a miscarriage.  She received treatment from Taylor, but died shortly afterwards.  Dr Taylor notes that, by 11 April 1792, 41 women had died, mainly from fevers.  He also notes that fourteen babies had been born since embarking.

Entry for Mima Henry in Dr Taylor’s medical notes

Entry for Mima Henry in Dr Taylor’s medical notes, Add MS 41264, f.2. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mima Henry was also listed as having a fever.  We find that she lived in Birchtown, Nova Scotia before moving to Sierra Leone.  We know that Mima survived her fever because she is listed above in the allocations of eggs document that is dated later in 1792.

These documents may appear insignificant, but they give us the names, ages, backgrounds and land allocations of a number of black women who not only survived slavery, but strived to contribute to a free black society of their own, where they would play a foundational part in the beginnings of Freetown.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
The Clarkson Papers, Add MS 41262-41267. British Library.
Black Loyalist: Our Freedom, Our People: Documents
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

 

24 November 2020

The Lives and Letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 3 Cato Perkins and Nathaniel Snowball

The previous blog post in this series explored the written legacy of Thomas Peters.  This post explores letters from two other figures who travelled to Sierra Leone in late 1791.  These letters are addressed to John Clarkson after he had returned to England in December 1792.

Cato Perkins

Letter to John Clarkson from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson  26 October 1793Letter to John Clarkson from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson, 26 October 1793, Add MS 41263, f.97  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Cato Perkins was born into slavery around 1739.  He was given the name Perkins after his enslaver, John Perkins of Charleston, South Carolina.  At the age of 39, he ran away from the plantation and joined the British forces at the Siege of Charleston.  In 1783, he left the USA on the ship Briton for Nova Scotia.  By 1792, he had joined others in the relocation to Sierra Leone where he became a vocal member of the settlers’ community.

In 1793 Perkins wrote that the management of the settlement was unacceptable.  Perkins was nominated to travel alongside Isaac Anderson to London to deliver a petition of grievances to the Sierra Leone Company and to ask that Clarkson be reinstalled as governor, but Clarkson had been dismissed from the Company.  Perkins stayed at 13 Finch Lane and from there would continue to lobby the Company.  He expresses his disappointment at not meeting Clarkson given how ‘all the people have been much put upon since you came away’.

The letter below introduces the petition and declares that the settlers ‘want nothing but what you promised us’.  Clarkson would reply that despite his insistence the Company meet with Perkins that they had refused to.  Perkins returned to Sierra Leone where he continued to protest against conditions in Freetown.

Letter from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson to John Clarkson  30 October 1793A letter from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson to John Clarkson, 30 October 1793, Add MS 41263, f.101 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Nathaniel Snowball
Nathaniel Snowball was 39 years old when he was evacuated from New York to Port Roseway, Nova Scotia.  He was a slave in Virginia before escaping to the British lines in the Revolutionary War.  His wife Violet, son Nathaniel and his 3-month-old daughter Mary, all travelled to Nova Scotia.  He travelled with his family to resettle in Sierra Leone.  There he became particularly dissatisfied with the lack of good farmland and the management by the Sierra Leone Company.  His objections eventually led him to lead a group of settlers out of Freetown into a new location at Pirate's Bay.  The letter below explains his intentions to take ‘departure as the Ezerlities did’ to escape the ‘boundage of this tyranious crew’.  He explains that he negotiated the new land from King Jimmy, a local tribal leader.

Letter to John Clarkson from Nathaniel Snowball describing his reasons for leading some settlers out of Freetown to a new settlement at Pirate’s Bay  24 May 1796A letter to John Clarkson from Nathaniel Snowball describing his reasons for leading some settlers out of Freetown to a new settlement at Pirate’s Bay, 24 May 1796. Add MS 41263, f.129  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Signatures of Nathaniel Snowball and Luke Jordan  29 July 1796The signatures of Nathaniel Snowball and Luke Jordan 29 July 1796, Add MS 41263, f.131.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Clarkson Papers contain many more letters from members of the Freetown settlement.  These were written by members of the community who enjoyed positions of importance, such as preachers and elected representatives.  Up to thirty people seem to have been responsible for authoring the surviving letters.  Among the authors are Boston King, Moses Murray, Isaac Anderson and James Liaster, but absent are the voices of the women of the settlement.  The next post in this series will explore what we know of the women who travelled to Sierra Leone in 1792.

Signatories of a letter to John Clarkson  all members of the Freetown settlement  including Luke Jordon  Moses Wilkinson (preacher)  American Tolbert  Rubin SimmonsSignatories of a letter to John Clarkson, all members of the Freetown settlement, including Luke Jordon, Moses Wilkinson (preacher), American Tolbert, Rubin Simmons and many more. Add MS 41263, f.115.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Jessica Gregory,
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

 

19 November 2020

Eliza Armstrong’s children

This is a further instalment in the story of Eliza Armstrong, the child bought for £5.

Eliza Armstrong at the Old Bailey trial in 1885 from Penny Illustrated Paper 12 September 1885Eliza Armstrong at the Old Bailey trial in 1885 from Penny Illustrated Paper 12 September 1885 Image © The British Library Board British Newspaper Archive

Helena Goodwyn’s recent post told how the Salvation Army stepped in to help Eliza when she was in financial difficulties following the death of her husband. This post focuses on Eliza’s children.

Eliza Armstrong was married at the age of 21 to Henry George West on 24 October 1893 in Newcastle upon Tyne.  Henry was a widower aged 35 living in Jarrow and he was working as a plumber.  The couple’s first child Reginald Ladas West was born in 1894.  His unusual middle name may perhaps be explained by the fact that there was a racehorse called Ladas which was very successful in 1893-1894.

Racehorse Ladas after winning the Derby in 1894 Racehorse Ladas after winning the Derby in 1894 from Illustrated London News 16 June 1894 Image © Illustrated London News Group British Newspaper Archive


Sadly Reginald died aged 3 of tubercular meningitis in June 1897.  Eliza and Henry had five other children: Alice Maud May, William Frederick, Sybil Primrose, Phyllis Irene, and Henry George (Harry). 

Eliza’s life took another sad turn in February 1906 when her husband died of heart disease aged just 42.  She took in lodgers to help ends meet and places were found in National Children’s Homes for the three middle children.  Sybil Primrose and Phyllis Irene (just Irene in some records) were sent 300 miles to Stokesmead at Alverstoke in Hampshire.  They are both there in the 1911 census, aged 10 and 8 respectively.  In 1914 the Hampshire Telegraph reported that Irene West from the children’s home had won a Band of Hope prize.

William Frederick was placed at Edgworth children’s home in Lancashire, a ‘farm colony’ where boys and girls were trained in practical skills.  Many were sent to Canada.  In March 1912 William sailed from Liverpool with 90 other boys in the Dominion to Halifax, Nova Scotia. William became a farm hand in Ontario.

Eliza gave birth to five more children between 1907 and 1915: Reginald West in May 1907 (no father is named on his birth certificate) and four with Samuel O’Donnell, a lead worker - Francis Maurice, Frederick, Minnie, and Norman.

In January 1915 William enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  He arrived back in England with his army unit in August 1915 and went to fight in France in May 1916.  William was wounded in the right leg at Passchendaele on 31 October 1917.  He was sent back to Colchester for hospital treatment.

From August 1916 to his discharge in July 1919, William assigned 10 dollars of his pay to his mother.  He returned to Hebburn and married Eliza Carr in April 1919.  The couple moved to Canada and later to the USA.

Newspaper report of Harry and Reginald West being charged with theft  -  Shields Daily News 24 February 1917Report of Harry and Reginald West being charged with theft  -  Shields Daily News 24 February 1917 British Newspaper Archive

In February and March 1917, Harry West (12) and his brother Reginald (9) appeared at a juvenile court after stealing purses by pickpocketing.  They had run away from home, sleeping rough and eating in cocoa rooms.  Eliza had searched for them night and day.  She asked that her sons be taken away, although they had a good home, because she could do nothing with them.  As the boys had several previous convictions for petty theft, it was decided to send them to Wellesley Training Institution until they were sixteen.

Poor Eliza’s troubles did not end there.  Just weeks later, on 19 May 1917, Samuel O’Donnell died aged 49.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive (also available via Findmypast) e.g. Jarrow Express 2 July 1897, 23 February 1906, & 30 March 1917; Shields Daily News 24 February & 27 March 1917; Hampshire Telegraph 17 April 1914
Stokesmead National Children’s Home 
Edgworth National Children’s Home 

Canadian immigration record for William Frederick West
Canadian Expeditionary Force papers for William Frederick West 

Previous blog posts -
Whatever happened to Eliza Armstrong?
Eiiza Armstrong – still elusive!
Eliza Armstrong – Another Piece of the Puzzle

 

03 November 2020

Tracing the Lives and Letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 2 Thomas Peters

This blog post explores some of the documents within the British Library collection relating to Thomas Peters.  Peters was a former slave who had joined the British Army Regiment, the Black Pioneers, during the American Revolutionary War.  Like many other ex-slaves, he was evacuated to British Territory in Nova Scotia after the British had lost the war.  These documents relate Peters’ campaign to secure better lives for his black community in Nova Scotia, where conditions were inhospitable both environmentally and socially.

Peters formed a petition which outlined the grievances of the community in Nova Scotia and he sailed to England in the aim of presenting it to the British government.  There he met Granville Sharp, abolitionist and activist, who had previously relocated some of the ‘London black poor’ to Sierra Leone as part of a philanthropic project.  Granville probably helped Peters to meet Sierra Leone Company directors.  The following document records the essence of Peters’ petition and gives an account of the meeting.  It describes how the Company was willing to instigate a relocation of the ‘free blacks’ of Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, and how Peters was given a set of terms upon which people would be considered for the trip.

A record of Thomas Peters meeting the Sierra Leone Company officialsA record of Thomas Peters meeting the Sierra Leone Company officials, Add MS 41263, f.158.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On return to Nova Scotia Peters took on the task of finding people who would be willing to re-locate to Sierra Leone.  In this letter, Peters writes to Lawrence Hartshorne outlining his progress.  He describes people as in ‘high spirits’ and expresses his eagerness to see John Clarkson, the Company Agent who was in charge of the mission to Sierra Leone.

A letter from Thomas Peters to Lawrence Hartshorne  written from Saint John  New BrunswickA letter from Thomas Peters to Lawrence Hartshorne, written from Saint John, New Brunswick, [which at the time, was part of Nova Scotia] October 1791, Add MS 41262, f.13.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Peters writes again to the Company in the letter below.  This letter was sent shortly before the departure of the ships to Sierra Leone for a new life.  In the letter,  Peters and his friend David Edmon[d]s ask humbly that the ‘black people of Halifax bound for Sierra Leone’ have some ‘frish beef for Christmas diner’ for their last Christmas Day in America.

Letter requesting provisions for Christmas from Thomas Peters and David EdmondsLetter requesting provisions for Christmas from Thomas Peters and David Edmonds, December 1791. Add MS 41262, f.24.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The handwriting differs between these two letters, so it seems that one of them was drafted on behalf of Peters.  The extent of Peters’ literacy is difficult to determine.  It is noted that his petition of grievances was redrafted to correct his spelling and grammar before it reached the British Government – implying a general level of literary.  However, putting the physical penmanship aside, these letters record the words of an individual who had lived through kidnap from Africa, the horror of the journey through the middle-passage, enslavement in South Carolina and the American Revolutionary War.  Peters was then influential in establishing a colony of free black people in Sierra Leone, where today is he remembered as one of the founding fathers of Freetown.  These few documents are therefore a rare and important recorded legacy of a voice so regularly absent from the written record.

The next blog post in this series will expand on this written legacy by examining some of the other letters written by the Sierra Leone settlers.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

Tracing the lives and letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 1 The Journey to Sierra Leone

Untold lives blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs