Thursday, October 31, 2013

Caithness and Napoleon 1

HMS Calcutta, with James Caithness on board, reached Spithead on 23 July 1804 after her round-the-world voyage. Before they left Australia Captain Woodriff had received news that the uneasy peace which had begun with the Treaty of Amiens in March 1801 was finally over and England was again at war with France. In September 1804 Calcutta was refitted by the Admiralty as a 56-gun fourth-rate and fully prepared to play her part in the struggle against Napoleon and his allies.

The British Fleet at Spithead  by John Ward

With Captain Woodriff in command, HMS Calcutta left St Helena on 3 August 1803, escorting a convoy of several assorted ships to England. There were three whalers, an East India Company ship from Madras, a Swedish ship and a British brig, Brothers, which had joined them after being separated from another convoy in a gale.

HMS Calcutta
South of the Scilly Isles, Calcutta’s mast-head lookouts observed unknown sail in the distance and Woodriff positioned the Calcutta between the convoy and the approaching ships. These turned out to be French and Calcutta went to intercept, having signalled to the convoy to make sail and get away. 

The first ship encountered was the 40-gun frigate Armide and after an engagement Calcutta successfully drew the enemy southwards, distracting them from the convoy, though the Brothers, an older and slower vessel, was captured.

Le Magnanime by Antoine Roux

The rest of the French squadron under Allemand was now in the area and Woodriff brought Calcutta alongside the 74-gun Magnanime. After nearly an hour of fierce battle, during which Calcutta was disabled by damage to her rigging, Woodriff surrendered rather than sacrifice the lives of his 350-man crew. His ploy had worked. The convoy had escaped but the price paid would be heavy: Calcutta was taken by the French as a prize, and Captain Woodriff and all his people were forthwith made prisoners-of-war.

Among them was James Caithness.

Embroidered bee:
Napoleon's Coronation Mantle*

* The Napoleonic icon contains bees, which appealed to Napoleon as symbols of industry and was an image apparently popular during the Merovingian dynasty of the sixth to eight centuries A.D.; Napoleon may have favored the resonance between 'bee' and 'Bonaparte' while also savoring the irony that the image of the insect seemed to some to be a Bourbon fleur-de-lys turned upside down.  

Tom Sheldon

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A colony established and Calcutta returns home

It rapidly became clear that the location chosen for the settlement was not ideal.

One of the main difficulties was the scarcity of fresh water. A survey of the area was made and the unfavourable report soon prompted Collins and the other members of the expedition to consider abandoning the place in favour of ‘a more eligible situation’, either to Port Dalrymple on the north side of Van Diemen’s Land or to the river Derwent on the south coast of the same island where a small party from Port Jackson was already established.

The crew of the HMS Calcutta, including James Caithness, were meanwhile busily employed collecting ship-timber to be taken back to England. This is a reminder that war against Napoleon was about to erupt once more and every British ship afloat would need to be fit for action, so Calcutta’s task was of great importance and Captain Woodriff was well aware that speed was of the essence.

It was finally decided to move the infant colony to the Derwent and this was partly accomplished before the Calcutta sailed on 18 December. The name Hobart was given to the new settlement.

Mount Nelson near Hobart

HMS Calcutta took on timber at Port Jackson and sailed again on 17 March 1804, passing south of New Zealand which was sighted on 29 March. 

Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, where Calcutta loaded 600 logs destined
for England's shipyards

Calcutta doubled Cape Horn on 27 April, arriving at Rio de Janeiro 22 May, thus, as Tuckey pointed out, ‘accomplishing a voyage round the world, discharging and receiving a cargo, in eleven months’. He reports:

The remainder of the Calcutta's voyage was almost totally barren of incident, either to amuse or instruct. In the long navigation between New Zealand and Cape Horn, scarce a single incident occurred either to interest the seaman, or the naturalist.Throughout this navigation, the wind seldom deviated to the northward of N. W. or to the southward of S. W. with strong gales, which enabled us to make an average of one hundred and eighty miles a-day for twenty nine days.

At Rio de Janeiro they took on water and all on board must have echoed Tuckey’s fervently-expressed wish to ‘see the shores which custom and reason bid us hail as the happiest of our globe’: in short, they sailed for home on 1 June. The end of one chapter for James Caithness and further adventures awaited him in the next.

Panorama: Greater Hobart

Monday, October 28, 2013

HMS Calcutta: voyage to Australia 1803

Ships off Table Bay
After leaving the Cape on board HMS Calcutta James Caithness would have been able to do some whale-watching – perhaps his first opportunity. 

Lieutenant Tuckey remarked:

In these southern seas, we were continually surrounded by whales, and were even sometimes obliged to alter our course to avoid striking on them.

The stormy seas which wash the southern promontory of Africa … are despised by the British seaman, whose vessel flies in security before the tempest, and while she rides on the billows and defies the storm, he carelessly sings as if unconscious of the warring elements around him.

Despite this boast, the effects of the wet and cold weather soon made themselves felt especially among the convicts who lacked sufficient clothing. Jackets and trousers were made up and distributed to those in need. Some cases of dysentery were reported but due to the surgeon’s care and the attention to cleanliness, only one man died. The animals taken on board at Simon’s Bay were less fortunate, three heifers dying at sea.

The tedium of the following weeks was occasionally enlivened by performances from the African American violinist William Thomas

To say the remainder of the voyage was plain sailing would be to ignore the fact that it took Calcutta until 10 October to arrive at King Island in the entrance of the Bass Straits (she had departed Simon’s Bay on 25 August). The lookouts aloft had been anxiously scanning the horizon for land for two days before the island was sighted and then because of an increasing breeze the ship had to stand three miles off shore.

Off the coast of New Holland

A ‘perfect hurricane’ commenced to blow, but had spent itself by the following morning, the day dawning beautifully serene. It was a totally unknown coast and Calcutta approached cautiously till the break in the land forming the entrance of Port Phillip was observed. 

A shout from the man at the mast-head alerted all to a ship at anchor within this entrance, soon identified as the Ocean, the companion vessel from which Calcutta had parted at Tristan da Cunha many weeks before. This was a welcome and cheering sight after so long at sea. Lieutenant Tuckey was unable to refrain from another fanciful passage of prose:

... an expanse of water ... unruffled as the bosom of unpolluted innocence, presented itself to the charmed eye, which roamed over it in silent admiration.The nearer shores … afforded the most exquisite scenery, and recalled the idea of ‘Nature in the world's first spring.’ In short, every circumstance combined to impress our minds with the highest satisfaction for our safe arrival.

After a week spent searching for a suitable spot for the settlement, it was decided to land the marines and convicts on the shores of a small bay eight miles from the harbour mouth. Camp was pitched and the crews of the two ships began unloading cargo. 

Lieut Col David Collins, leader of the expedition;
 Lieut Gov of Van Diemen's Land

On the first days of our landing, previous to the general debarkation,Capt. Woodriff, Colonel Collins and the First Lieutenant of the Calcutta had some interviews with the natives who came to the boats entirely unarmed, and without the smallest symptom of apprehension.

So far so good.

Scrimshaw on whale tooth

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Caithness at the Cape 1803

Simon's Bay, Cape of Good Hope

Among the duties with which James Caithness would have assisted on joining the crew of HMS Calcutta at Simon’s Bay was loading five cows, one bull, and twelve sheep destined for the new settlement at Port Phillip. Fresh provisions including bread and beef for the ship's company were also taken on and the vital water casks filled for the next lengthy leg of the voyage. The weather continued moderate and fair but the political climate was less than salubrious.

Captain Daniel Woodriff, portrait,
National Library of Australia
The Dutch demanded the surrender of Calcutta and her contents. Captain Woodriff, not easily intimidated, prepared his ship for a fight. With the men standing to their guns Woodriff suggested that the Dutch ‘come and take her if they can’. 

Opinion on shore swiftly veered in favour of allowing the Calcutta to remain for 24 hours before departing the bay and removing the shipload of convicts from the vicinity.

Lieutenant James Hingston Tuckey of the Royal Navy, who accompanied the expedition, has left us an account of the voyage of HMS Calcutta. For an explorer and geographer he seems to have taken rather more than a scientific interest in the female population of the places visited en route and his descriptions of scenic beauties are equally fulsome, punctuated by poetic extracts. However, he gives us a glimpse of the Cape as James Caithness saw it at the time, though whether James had leisure to walk through the streets of Cape Town, as Tuckey evidently did, is doubtful.

Cape Town is one of the handsomest colonial towns in the world; the streets, which are wide and perfectly straight, are kept in the highest order, and planted with rows of oaks and firs. The houses are built in a stile of very superior elegance, and inside are in the cleanest and most regular order. They are not, however, sufficiently ventilated, to dissipate the stale fume of tobacco, which is peculiarly offensive to a stranger.

Shipping off Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope

Simmon's Town [sic] is situated on a small bay of that name, and contains about one hundred and fifty well-built houses; the inhabitants chiefly subsist by supplying ships with refreshments, during the months they are unable to lay in Table Bay. The English built a small block-house, with a battery enbarbet, to the eastward of the town. 
 A detachment of three hundred troops are stationed at Simmon's Town, who would in the event of an enemy's landing, retreat to Cape Town, which is garrisoned by three thousand troops, chiefly Swiss, particularly the regiment of Waldeck, which having served under the English banner in the American war, remembers with partiality the food and pay of its old masters, both of which, in the Dutch service, are wretched enough. 
The Dutch government is endeavouring …by the strictest economy to make the colony pay its expences. These measures are exceedingly unpopular, and have already caused upwards of one hundred real or fictitious bankruptcies. Hence the partiality with which the English are viewed here. Their return is openly wished for, even by those who were formerly their greatest foes. In fact, the Dutch government at the Cape, as well as at home, is entirely under French influence; and it is probable that in the boundless ambition of the Corsican usurper, he considers the Cape of Good Hope as one of the steps by which he intends to mount the Asiatic thrones.

Napoleon I
cameo by
 Nicola Morelli (1771-1838)

Tuckey compares the Cape unfavourably with Rio de Janeiro, where ‘the lofty spires of innumerable churches arise in every point of view’ while ‘at the Cape of Good Hope, two churches and two clergymen are enough for the inhabitants, and at Simmon's Town there is no trace of the peculiar appropriation of the sabbath to religious duties; all here are employed in making money’.*

Presumably, then, with the unfriendliness of the Dutch an additional irritation, Tuckey and all on board Calcutta were pleased to make sail on 25 August, trusting to a fine breeze from the N.W. for a speedy passage to the coast of New Holland. James Caithness was about to get his first view of Terra Australis.MCa


* A Voyage to Establish a Colony at Port Phillip in Bass's Strait On the South Coast of New South Wales, in His Majesty's Ship Calcutta, in the Years 1802-3-4: Tuckey, James Hingston (1776-1816)

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Souvenir Saturday: Maritime Locket late 18th c

This locket dates from the late 18th c. The miniature painting, appropiately for that period of naval warfare, shows a figure representing Hope, anchored ashore, waving farewell to a departing warship seen in the background. At the back of the locket, an empty compartment would have held a lock of hair or other personal memento. (National Maritime Museum, London)

Such a trinket would have been beyond the reach of the average sailor like James Caithness. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Caithness and HMS Calcutta 1803 at the Cape

Action at sea: French Revolutionary Wars by Louis Philippe Crepin

In August 1803 James Caithness joined HMS Calcutta and a new chapter opened in his career. He was about to visit Australia and circumnavigate the world, an adventure beyond his wildest dreams.

Calcutta was an ex-East Indiaman bought by the navy in 1795, converted into a 56-gun fourth rate and used as an armed transport with the famous Captain Bligh in command. By the end of 1802 the ship had been refitted to carry convicts to New South Wales, under Captain Daniel Woodriff. She sailed from Spithead on 28 April 1803, in company with another vessel, Ocean, with 308 convicts as well as civil personnel, a detachment of marines and a crew of 150. The intention was to found a settlement.

Calcutta arrived at Rio de Janeiro on 19 July and the Cape of Good Hope on 13 August, 1803. Remarkably, a contemporary diary by Robert Knopwood reveals that HMS Calcutta, being short of crew, took on seven men at Simon’s Bay (Simonstown, Cape) on 16 August.*Musters for the vessel confirm
that James Caithness was one of the seven added to the complement.

Page from Knopwood diary: 'HM Ship Calcutta at Anchor in Simon's Bay ... 13 (August)
at 9 Saluted the Battery with 11 Guns which was returned ... found an English whaler and two ships riding in the Bay under Dutch colours** ... 16  AM Received 842 lb of fresh beef and 400 lb of soft bread. 

Received 7 British Seamen/Volunteers ...'

James Caithness listed on muster of HMS Calcutta 1803
Further research should establish when he was discharged from HMS Mars and give a clue as to why he turned up at Simon’s Bay in August 1803.
Map of the Colony of Good Hope, c 1800

Interestingly, HMS Mars, after refitting at the Hamoaze anchorage, Plymouth, at the end of February 1803, was involved in the fruitless pursuit of some foreign ships supposedly headed for the Cape of Good Hope under the Dutch Admiral de Winter.

*  The diary of the Reverend Robert Knopwood, 1803-1838 : first chaplain of Van Diemen's Land edited by Mary Nicholls
** By the Treaty of Amiens 1802 between England and France, the Cape Colony was returned to the Netherlands and came under the rule of the Batavian Republic from February 1803 to 1806 when the 2nd British Occupation of the Cape commenced. It’s likely that the presence of Dutch ships at Simon’s Bay came as a surprise to those on board HMS Calcutta.

Tom Sheldon

Thursday, October 24, 2013

James Caithness and the Mars

James Caithness came through his first battle unscathed: 90 others on board HMS Mars weren’t so lucky. Paybooks held at TNA list names of men and their next-of-kin who would be sent portions of wages earned: some of these crew members are listed as ‘slain’, and the date given is 21 April 1798. This was the action at Raz de Sein in which James participated.

Admiral Cornwallis

The Mars had seen action before James joined her. She was built in 1794 at Deptford and under Captain Sir Charles Cotton had formed part of Vice Admiral Cornwallis’s squadron – five ships of the line and two frigates -  off Brest in June 1795 when they were hotly pursued by a French fleet of thirteen sail of the line, fourteen frigates, two brigs and a cutter, under Vice Admiral Joyeuse. 

Mars and Triumph formed the rear guard and these two were constantly engaged with the French ships which kept up a long range cannonade. Mars was in a disabled state, her masts and spars badly damaged by shot, by the time reinforcements arrived in the form of Lord Bridport’s squadron whereupon the French hauled to the wind and gave up the chase. Twelve men of HMS Mars were wounded.

Admiral Cornwallis's Retreat from the French Fleet 1795

HMS Mars was one of the vessels involved in the Spithead Mutiny (Plymouth) in 1797 when seamen on 16 ships of the Channel Fleet (under Admiral Lord Bridport) protested against living conditions on Royal Navy ships and demanded better wages. Negotiations between the crews and the Admiralty continued for two weeks but broke down. Eventually the mutineers were given a royal pardon and some improvements in pay were agreed upon. This marked a step forward in the recognition of seamen’s rights and remedies in the brutal discipline as well as better food followed.

Ships at Spithead Anchorage

Regrettably, the contagion spread to The Nore, an anchorage in the Thames Estuary, and this mutiny developed more serious overtones when the ships involved blockaded London, preventing merchant vessels from entering the port. The Admiralty were infuriated and there were also wider concerns about revolutionary ideas from France influencing Britain’s stability. 

Reprisals were severe. The
mutineers’ main leader Richard Parker was convicted of treason and piracy and hanged from the yardarm of the Sandwich, the ship where the mutiny had begun. A further 29 ringleaders were hanged and others sentenced to flogging, prison or transportation.

The traditional five bells rung in the last dog watch ceased on Royal Navy vessels after the affair at Nore, as that had been the signal to begin the mutiny.*

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Middies and loblollys: Royal Navy

Portrait of a young midshipman, early 19th c

Midshipmen, ‘middies’, or ‘young gentlemen’, were officer cadets, usually drawn from middle to upper echelons of British society and with ‘good family’ and some education behind them.

Like less privileged sailors they started their naval careers at a very early age - 9 was not uncommon - and learned navigation and other branches of seamanship while serving at sea. The term midshipman derived from the area on board ship, ‘amidships’. By the Napoleonic era (1793-1815) a midshipman would have served at least three years as a volunteer or able seaman, or as an officer’s servant. After that he would take the examination for lieutenant which theoretically would make him eligible for promotion. However, patronage was an important factor: a good patron could make all the difference to a young gentleman’s progress in the navy.*

Though advantaged in comparison with the ordinary sailor the middies learnt the ropes in a harsh school, the general conditions and the horrors of combat soon eclipsing any romantic ideas they may have had about the navy, its heroes, glorious victories and prize money.

This world is well-presented in the Hornblower series of films based on the works of C S Forester and also in Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, from the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. The events depicted also provide a glimpse of conditions for ordinary ratings who hauled ropes and manned guns and for the able seamen who did the essential work aloft.

Going aloft

If James Caithness began his career as a powder monkey he may have graduated to loblolly boy, assisting the ship’s surgeon by performing various gruesome tasks such as cleaning up after operations. With time and experience, given that he survived, he would rise to AB (Able Seaman).

Sailor 1799: James Caithness probably wore
a similar outfit

Uniform Royal Navy 18th c
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

*  for more on patronage and promotion see

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Disease and Impressment: Royal Navy 18th c

H.M.S. Mars: the 74-gun ship of the line 
on which James Caithness served in 1798

It’s unthinkable to us that boys aged 12 should be exposed to the dangers of life at sea. During wartime the risks were obviously extremely high but there was also a strong likelihood of death from disease. Typhus and scurvy, both killers, were rife, though by 1795 the Royal Navy had improved revictualling methods and with regular supplies of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables there were fewer cases of scurvy.

This progress in the second half of the 18th c stemmed partly from efforts to provide better treatment and care of naval personnel than was then available in the merchant service. There was always a demand for men to serve in the navy but little incentive for them to join: conditions were generally poor and more money could be made in the mercantile marine.  The navy offered a hard way of life and many deserted – the figure during the French Revolutionary Wars is said to have been 42, 000. Others were lost to the service through death from disease or as casualties of war. Impressment was increasingly resorted to.

There is a notion that any man could be ‘pressed’ but in reality this was restricted by law to seamen – landlubbers were of little use to the navy, though undoubtedly the system was abused and people who should have been exempt, or had no knowledge of the sea whatsoever, were taken by the brutal press-gangs whose ‘approach was dreaded like the invasion of a foreign enemy. Outrages were deplored but the navy was the pride of England and every one agreed that it must be recruited.’

The Impress Service scoured coastal towns and villages in search of men over 18 and under 45. Press gangs were also authorized to stop merchant ships and impress sailors – though sea apprentices were supposedly exempt. Merchant seamen were especially sought after because they had the necessary experience. Frequently men were forcibly abducted from taverns and other mariners’ haunts, when drunk and incapable of resisting, or made unconscious by use of the cosh, waking up on board ship and often already at sea. Their options at that stage were limited. Impressment came to an end with the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Trafalgar Day 21 October

The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, by Denis Dighton. Nelson is portrayed at the moment he falls on his left side. Captain Hardy, with his back to us, advances to assist Royal Marine Sergeant Secker,
 who is already at Nelson's side on HMS Victory.

The scene gives us an idea of events when James Caithness was serving on board HMS Mars a few years earlier at the battle of Raz de Sein, 21 April 1798. Commander of the Mars, Alexander Hood, fell on that day. See previous post on this blog.

Read more about Trafalgar: 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

James Caithness and HMS Mars 1798

James Caithness, father of mariners James Ramsey and George Caithness, appears on the muster roll of the British warship HMS Mars in April 1798, under the command of Captain Alexander Hood.

Europe was in ferment: the French Revolutionary Wars were in progress and the Royal Navy was blockading the coastline of France off Brest.

The British fleet under Admiral Lord Bridport was crossing the Iroise Passage on 21 April when, on foreign sail being sighted to the east, three RN ships left the fleet in pursuit, led by the 74-gun ship of the line, HMS Mars.

One of their quarry was L’Hercule (the Hercules), also 74 guns, under Captain Louis L’Heritier, recently commissioned and sailing to join the main French fleet at Brest. The Mars sped to intercept. L’Heritier tried to escape through the Raz de Sein passage, but the tide was against him and he was forced to anchor, coming under heavy fire as Hood brought the Mars into position. For over an hour the two vessels lay so closely alongside each other that their guns couldn’t be run out but had to be fired from within the ships.

The furious action between H.M.S. Mars and L'Hercule
 off Brest on 21st April 1798 by John Christian Schetky

Casualties and damage were extensive on both sides, Hood himself being mortally wounded when a musket ball severed his femoral artery. He was carried below, bleeding to death.

Death of Captain Hood by James Daniell 1798

L’Hercule surrendered, her crew’s attempts to board the Mars having failed. The French casualties numbered 290 or more and the British 90 including her commander. L’Hercule was taken as a prize and conveyed to Britain, later being repaired and put to service in the Royal Navy until 1810.

This fierce battle between two evenly-matched ships was James Caithness’s baptism of fire: he had joined the complement of HMS Mars only two weeks earlier.

If his birth year as shown on various ships’ musters is accurate (1786), James was very young at the time, not yet in his teens. He may have been a powder monkey, ferrying gunpowder from the hold to the guns. Usually this task was undertaken by boys of 12 to 14 years of age, chosen for their speed and height i.e. short so that they would be hidden behind the gunwales out of sight of the enemy’s sharpshooters.

Firing the 18-pounder

The terrifying impact, noise and intense heat of this bombardment can scarcely be imagined:  two ships raking each other at close quarters, their wooden sides gaping with blackened holes, and men being blown to smithereens on the slippery decks.

James’s naval career had started with a bang. Perhaps it’s fortunate that, as he savoured the dizzy relief of survival after the engagement, he couldn’t foresee the hazardous adventures which still lay ahead of him in the service of his country.

Rope Knots
from textbook on Seamanship

Tom Sheldon for research at TNA Kew.

Nelson, Navy, Nation: the story of the Royal Navy and the British people, 1688–1815. New permanent gallery opens at the National Maritime Museum on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 2013

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Souvenir Saturday: early 19th c Maritime Miniature

A sailor and his lady, delightful early 19th c maritime folk art miniature:
in keeping with the mariner theme and to pave the way for
further sea adventures of James Caithness snr coming soon on this blog ...
the era of the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

Friday, October 18, 2013

FamilySearch sharing with DC Thomson (brightsolid)

FamilySearch has announced still another agreement, this time with DC Thomson Family History (formerly known as brightsolid), owners of FindMyPast, Genes Reunited, the British Newspaper Archive, and several other web sites.

Read more at:

'DC Thomson Family History, formerly known as brightsolid online publishing, is collaborating with FamilySearch, which has the largest collections of genealogical and historical records in the world, to deliver a wide range of projects including digital preservation, records search, technological development and the means to allow family historians to share their discoveries.' 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The New Partnership: FamilySearch and MyHeritage

Further links on this topic:

“FamilySearch values collaborative partnerships that enable more people, in more places, to discover their family history” said Dennis Brimhall, CEO of FamilySearch. “MyHeritage is an innovative company that has a fast growing, global online audience. We are excited to commence this partnership which enables FamilySearch to better serve the global family history community.”

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Family Search and My Heritage Partnership

Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter speaks of the new strategic partnership between MyHeritage and FamilySearch which 'will bring billions of global historical records and family tree profiles spanning hundreds of years to MyHeritage - sophisticated search and record matching capabilities will become available on, far more effective than anything available previously on that site ...'

Read more at:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Boy emigrants from Redhill Farm School: Edgell

The Edgell Story: guest post by Peter Bathe

There are occasions when following the trail of an ancestor that another person is encountered who, although not related, was a colleague/friend/acquaintance of that ancestor. It can be both rewarding and revealing to follow this person’s life, not least because sometimes fresh discoveries can be made for the main line of research.

One such case happened while I followed the life of my great grandfather and I encountered John Joseph William Edgell.

Brislington nr Bristol
John Edgell was born in 1850 in a small village on the outskirts of Bristol called Brislington. He was the oldest of six boys born to Joseph Edgell, a labourer, and his wife Susan (nee Tucker).

By the time John was six years old, the family had moved the few miles to Bath. It was here that John started working as an errand boy for an auctioneer, but at the age of 11 he was convicted of larceny of his master’s property.
House of Correction, Coldbath Square

He was sentenced to spend 14 days imprisoned at the Bath House of Correction followed by detention in a reformatory for four years.

Thus it was that on 26 December 1861 John arrived at the Philanthropic Society’s reformatory, the Redhill Farm School in Surrey, where he would have met my great grandfather, George Bathe, for the first time (George had started his own sentence there a couple of months earlier).

Redhill Farm School, Surrey

It was the Farm School’s policy to encourage suitable boys to emigrate to the colonies at the end of their sentences – particularly to Canada, but also to Natal and Cape Colony. John and my grandfather were both deemed good material as colonists and so on 27 October 1865, they sailed together on the brig Lord Clarendon and arrived in Durban on 2 February the following year.

Passenger list of the Lord Clarendon, Natal Mercury 6 February 1866.
3rd line down shows 2 Redhill emigrants Bathe and Edgell - misspelt Bashe and Edgar.

When the boys arrived they were taken into the care of the Society’s agent in Durban, Frederick James Dickinson. He reported back to the School on 8 February: 'Bathe & Edgell are stopping a few days with me on the Berea until I send them to their places – one to a coffee planter 30 miles away, on the coast, the other to a sheep farmer 140 miles away near Grey Town.'

It was John who was sent to the coffee planter – W A Remnant at Shortlands, Verulam. John was to be an overseer of the African and Indian workers on the estate. He worked a 12-hour day and also looked after horses and poultry – all for £1 a month initially.

Bishop Colenso:
 cartoon by Pellegrini
Over the next few years, John often wrote to the School’s chaplain, telling him about his life on the farm and odd snippets of news about other former pupils who were in Natal, one or two of whom appear to have slipped back into criminal ways. He also spoke of events in the colony, such as the gold diggings and the controversy about Bishop Colenso, whom he described as 'a very nice man'.

However, one letter at the end of November 1866 was to Frederick Dickinson in Durban asking how to send some money back to his mother: 'I want to send £5 or 6 to my mother. Father was killed on Sept 11 by a Dray passing over his head. He jumped from the cart he was driving & falling was killed instantly. Mother is very ill & very poor. Tell me how I must send it home. Mr Remnant’s gone up country so cannot send the money until next mail. Am thankful to feel that I have one kind friend in Natal.'

A few months later he was again writing to Mr Dickinson: 'My mother wants to send out one of my younger brothers. Can you get him a place? Another has gone to friends in America.'

In fact, the following year, John’s mother and the other brothers all went to live in the USA, but sadly one of the brothers 'was kicked to death by a young colt near New York' a year later.

Coffee plantation
John’s early years with the Remnants seem to have been happy and prosperous. He was made manager of the estate which in 1868 'had above 30,000 coffee trees & shall have 8 tons of coffee this year & 40 tons next. We are going to plant tobacco.' By 1870, he had an average of 70 men and women to supervise.

The following year he wrote, 'We fielded 12 tons of it last year. I have 100 acres to attend to. I shall get about £50 a year & provide for myself & live in Master’s house.” Then later: “We have picked at the rate of 1 ton an acre of clean coffee for 14 acres. From the remainder, 24 tons clean or above 300 tons in the press, & have to look after nearly 100 hands. For June I paid £52 in wages, some men having 8/-, 9/-, 14/- a mo. I have a furnished house of my own & a horse to ride.'

He was doing so well he was sending donations to the Chapel fund for the Redhill School and offered a half sovereign for the best boy in his old school house, Queen’s.

But in 1872 there seems to have been a downturn in his fortunes and he wrote: 'I am no richer than when I came only get £6 a mo & feed & clothe myself & clothes are very dear.' Then 'I am 22 today I have no increase in my pay and can save nothing, things are dearer than ever. I shall have to look out for another place.'

The following year, 'No increase of pay, tho I have been here 8 years. Only brickmakers & carpenters flourish here,' and finally, 'Crops are very poor, Coffee crop as bad as last year. Nearly all are turning to sugar growing. My wages are very low. My brother in America, 4 years younger, gets far higher wages than mine at ordinary work.'

Unfortunately, I haven't copies of any of his later letters but things may have improved sufficiently for him to marry in 1881 in Verulam. His wife was Lucy Caroline Dawtrey who originally came from Halifax in Yorkshire.

Marriage record: John Joseph William Edgell and Lucy Caroline Dawtrey
at Verulam, Natal,1881 *

John obviously gained a good working knowledge of the Indian languages while working at the Remnants’ farm, because in 1889 he applied for the post of Hindustani and Tamil interpreter to The Supreme Court of Natal. He died in 1907.

And how did John Edgell help in my own family history research? In a few of his letters he mentions my great grandfather and added to my knowledge of him. For example:

2 August 1870: 'I saw Bathe a month since. He has gone with the Regt to the Mauritius. He is a smart looking fellow, the tallest but one in his company. He is lance corporal & earned 30/- for shooting.'
21 April 1871: 'I have heard from Bathe at the Cape.'

All I knew was that after he had left the sheep farmer in Grey Town, he joined the army, went to Mauritius with his regiment sometime in 1870 and then returned to the UK at the beginning of 1872. Now I know more precisely when he went to Mauritius and the fact that for a time his regiment was at the CapeBut it is the personal details of his height, rank and earnings which were particularly fascinating.

George never returned to South Africa but he and John did keep in contact for some while afterwards.

Note: Thanks to Peter Bathe for the series of interesting and informative articles on these Redhill emigrants. For further posts on this topic enter Redhill in the blog search facility at top left of page.

"South Africa, Natal Province, Civil Marriages, 1845-1955," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 13 Oct 2013), 004236412 > image 1 of 762.