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Saturday 30 January 2010


All those 62 granchildren of William Gurney conjure some riotous images of Victorian festive family gatherings at his house. Particularly after hs wife died, Brodie gradually took to the role of family patriarch, holding court at his home in Denmark Hill, South London. 

Denmark Hill House (now demolished)
scene of unforgettable Christmas parties

Rather wonderfully, a description by my great grandfather William Henry Gurney Salter (who was one of those grandchilden) survives of Christmasses in the William Gurney household, and of Christmas 1848 in particular:

"No one who was at the Christmas parties can ever forget them. The parents and children of the different families came trooping in about two o'clock, and each was welcomed with a  present, given with a few kindly words by the grandfather in his library. The presents were really well chosen - a toy, or a magic lantern, or an electrical machine, or a book, so well suited to the receiver that he often found it on eof his chief sources of pleasure in the following year. 

"Then there was a great dinner for the seniors, the large community of cousins who were not old enough amusing themselves with games in the hall or the nursery meanwhile. After the young ones had gone home, there was in many years a little family masque, the poetry for which was contributed mostly by my  uncle Jameson and my uncle Henry Gurney. It turned on the events of the year within the family and in the world without.

"The first that I can recall was in 1848. I remember that, no doubt, because I had a part to play [presumably in the masque]. In that year there had been two weddings, - my uncle Henry Gurney's and my aunt Maria Grey's - and the "six babies", as they have ever since been called, had arrived. ... It was therefore an eventful year, and Father Christmas extended a welcome to the new-comers with more ceremony and more fun than usual. Later in the evening there was generally a game of Blind Man's Buff for the boys in the hall, while the girls sat on the stair and gave the applause."

The garden at Denmark Hill House
which is now part of Ruskin Park, Camberwell

William also recalled other occasions:

"In the summer too there was always a cousins' party to celebrate the birthday of two of them. The garden was large and diversified. Immediately under the windows of the house was a long terrace walk from which the lawn sloped gradually downwars for a considerable distance. At the bottom of it were two of the finest cedars I have ever seen, so rich in foliage below as well as above that their lowest branches resting on the ground formed an almost impenetrable hiding place for us boys and also for the bowls when they strayed too far.

"We cousins used to meet in considerable numbers and so frequently that we knew one another almost as well as if we were brothers and sisters. Until there were nearly fifty of us it was the rule that a Christian name given in one family should not be used in another.

"Besides playing bowls and rounders and other ordinary games on the lawn and in the field, we had free range of the garden, though with reasonable restrictions about the fruit. The fields had great attractions. On one side was a long row of tall trees, rich in birds nests, on the other side was a pleasant shady walk fringed with gooseberry bushes,  with which we were allowed to do our worst, and in the fields themselves was a pond.

"Those of my cousins who remember the house, the garden, and the delightful life there, will I sure gladly tell their children more of it than I have been able, even imperfectly, to relate."

The Portico, Ruskin Park, Camberwell -
all that remains of Demark Hill House

William Gurney led a very public life as a staunch Christian and a Baptist campaigner. William Salter's record  some sixty years later of Gurney's private family life is shot through with genuine warmth and affectionate memory, which trigger similar memories of my own grandfather and our high days and holidays in his country home and garden. Let William have one last word:

"Our grandfather's sympathetic nature led him to follow with real interest the incidents of the lives of his friends, and especially of his children and grandchildren. We boys always took leave of him before going back to school, and we found the interview not only comforting to our pockets but in every way pleasant. He could look at things from a boy's point of view to the last and was tolerant of practical jokes, even booby traps, so that we did not shrink from the serious counsel which he never failed to give."

Saturday 23 January 2010


In 1848, year of pan-European revolution in whose turbulent events many of my ancestors were caught up and even played a part, the focus of Gurney attention was much closer to home. 1848 was the year of the “Six Babies”, the birth of six of my great great aunts and uncles.
William Brodie Gurney (1777-1855)
genial grandfather
Brodie Gurney was blessed with, if I've got this right, 62 grandchildren. Like many Victorian patriarchs, Brodie Gurney had produced a large family. From the middle of the nineteenth century, infant mortality figures began to fall, and birth rates also came down as parents benefitted from the greater survival rate. But three of Gurney’s first four children succumbed to measles epidemics between 1810 and 1812. It’s no wonder that he and poor Ann, Mrs Gurney, kept churning them out.
Of his eight surviving children, two were getting married in 1848, so could not properly be expected to be delivering grandchildren just yet. The other six however were doing all that was expected of them.
So for the record, here are those “Six Babies” stats in full:
Catherine “Katie” Gurney, 6th of 7 children of Brodie’s eldest son Joseph (3rd of 4 with his second wife Harriet Tritton). So far I’ve traced her to Harrogate in 1901, where she was the unmarried Honorary Secretary of the Northern Police Orphanage; ten years earlier she had held the same post at the Christian Police Association in London. I think she died at Steyning in Sussex in 1930.
Arthur Frederick Gurney, 4th of 8 children born to next in line Thomas Gurney (the last with his first wife Margaret Hanson). Arthur trained as a barrister but entered the church and was minister of Bournemouth Baptist Church in 1881; but by 1891 he was merely the manager of a Mission Hall in Ramsey. I think he died at Tendring in Essex in 1925.
Florence Emma Jameson, 9th of 13 children from Brodie’s eldest surviving daughter Mary Ann and her husband William Kingsbury Jameson. Florence never married, and died just short of her 94th birthday in 1942.
Frank Salter, 6th of 7 children of Emma Gurney and her husband the Rev William Augustus Salter. Frank was a gifted engineer – see my earlier blog about him – who died young in 1888.
Herbert Smith, 4th of 7 children for John James Smith and his wife Caroline Gurney. Herbert doesn’t seem to have made good headway in life; 1n 1891 he was a clerk for a timber merchant, and ten years later, still unmarried, he was living in lodgings and working as a shoemaker.
Amelia “Millie” Gurney Angus, 3rd of 10 children born to Amelia Gurney and her husband the Rev Joseph Angus. Joseph was a leading churchman of his day, and his wife Amelia served as foreign secretary of the Baptist Zenana Mission from 1869 to 1893. On her death, Millie and her sister Edith filled the office as joint secretaries. Millie died unmarried at the grand age of 97, in 1945 in Hammersmith.
Henry Gurney and his second wife Phoebe Whitchurch, getting married. Henry had 7 children altogether.
Maria Gurney and her first husband the Rev Henry Grey, getting married. Maria had 3 children in total.

More on the Year of Six Babies next week!

Saturday 16 January 2010


Another gardener in my family tree! And another Austin Cooper, my 8x great grandfather. He’s known as Austin the Settler because he’s the man who brought the family to Ireland in 1661. (They stayed there for 300 years and more than 20 of them are named after him.)

They had a nice life in Surrey up until then. His father, it’s believed, had a position in the court of Charles I at Hampton Court, and they were Royalists during the Civil War. They were also pragmatists, and when land adjacent to their property at Byfleet came up for sale, they jumped at the chance to extend their estate. 

Unfortunately the vendor was one Colonel Thomas Hammond, a Cromwellian soldier. After the Restoration in 1660, and despite his loyalty to the crown, Austin Cooper was obliged to forfeit his lands for dealing with the enemy. He sold up, and with the proceeds (a massive £1500) took his family to Butterhill in Co Wicklow, where they began a new life as yeoman farmers.

 Blessington House from the north
with the town of Blessington beyond

In 1669, the nearby manor of Blessington was created and awarded to Michael Boyle, the Archbishop of Dublin at the time. Boyle first set about building a town on his new estate, presumably to provide revenue for it and housing for its workers. When he began work on the house and grounds in 1672, Boyle turned to Austin the Settler to lay out the gardens. 

It’s not at all clear why Boyle should have considered Cooper the right man for the job. Perhaps it was Austin’s experience of the royal estates at Hampton Court. But he came up with an ambitious geometric plan of avenues and orchards. One report describes fruit being forced there, and there is a bill for £16 13s 6d “for 6 collomes to ye garden.”

Estate map of Blessington, by Langford (1804)

The works seem to have been carried out pretty much as envisaged. When I visited Blessington in the early 2000s, the house itself was long gone - burnt down in troubles in 1798, now just a few stones in the corners of the farm fields to which the once grand estate had been turned. But Austin’s long straight avenues were clearly visible in the landcape, and still in use by farm traffic; and the ornamental pond in front of the house was still there.

I’m glad I saw Blessington when I did. It was already earmarked for a massive development of housing, shops and hotels as a dormitory town for Dublin, ironically a planned new town arising on the manor on which Boyle built his own new town in 1669. What’s more, much of the original Cooper estate at Butterhill has been drowned forever under the vast network of Blessington Lakes which were created to form a crucial water supply for Dublin.

Blessington Shopping Centre
(not what Austin had in mind)

There’s a lovely description of Austin the Settler in Burke’s “ Irish Family Records” which may in part suggest why Boyle chose Cooper for his landscaping. Austin was, we read, 

“famed for his feats of strength such as taking two men, one in each hand, slapping them together and throwing them on a dunghill! … If he held on to a cart, the horse could not go … taking a man in one hand, pulling down his breeches with the other then buttling his backside in the River Weye …”  

Quite a character to found a family dynasty.

Tuesday 12 January 2010


My 5x great uncle is known in the Cooper family as Austin the Antiquary, to distinguish him from the more than twenty other Austin Coopers who occur in the Cooper family tree.

Austin Cooper FSA

In his lifetime he achieved high office in the Irish treasury, but he owes his lasting fame to his extracurricular interest in the ancient buildings of Ireland. As he went about his work of collecting taxes and inspecting the British military institutions which peppered the Irish countryside, he began to sketch what he saw around him – the ruins of earlier fortifications, castles and abbeys, early churches and even prehistoric sites.

It must be said that my family has produced finer artists than he. But his drawings emphasise the fact that he had the eye of an antiquarian rather than that of an artist. He was a civil servant, a recorder of information; and the information that he left now forms, 180 years after his death, an invaluable record of Ireland’s past.

Cloghleagh Castle, Co. Cork
(Austin Cooper in the coach with a military escort, 
taking the Cork taxes back to Dublin)

He was not the first person to wake up to the importance of antiquities in the landscape. In Ireland Gabriel Beranger was already working to record such sites when Cooper began his own activities. In Britain John Aubrey had been drawing detailed plans of prehistoric remians a century earlier, and William Stukeley was working in the same field around the time of Cooper’s birth.

All these men were however at the vanguard of the antiquarian movement which was part of the emergence of science as an academic discipline, a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and for the better understanding of the human condition.

Killenure Castle, Co Tipperary
(Austin Cooper's childhood home)

Cooper’s drawings and plans remained virtually undiscovered, kept together by his descendents in the Cooper family, until his great grandson Albert Damer Cooper left money in his will for their publication. In 1942 “An Eighteenth Century Antiquary – The Sketches, Notes and Drawings of Austin Cooper (1759-1830)” finally made it into print and the public domain.

In the 1960s the Cooper family left Ireland, and in 1993 donated all Austin the Antiquary’s work, including his diary notes about the places he had visited, to the National Library of Ireland. In 2000 the Library published a new collection of the work, “Cooper’s Ireland – Drawings and Notes from an Eighteenth-Century Gentleman.”

Friday 1 January 2010


I came across one of those meaningless flukes of genealogy a few years ago, one of those entirely coincidental little loops of history which show just what a small world it is (although you wouldn’t want to have to serve writs on, or wine to, everyone in it). Now pay attention.

Eustace Barham (whose 4x great aunt Rebecca Delap is my 5x great grandmother) was in the early 1850s a business partner of my 3x great uncle Charles Castle, in the Bristol legal firm of Castle, Henderson and Barham. Castle and Barham were not otherwise related, but Charles’ nephew William Henry Castle would later marry Eleanor Wilhelmina Sadleir, a great great granddaughter of Rebecca Delap by another route.

Is that clear?! No, of course not - but what I'm trying to say is that both men are related to me, by quite different and circuitous lineages although both are descended from Rebecca Delap. And by coincidence they ended up working in the same law firm together for a while. It really is that trivial.

Henderson and Barham were connected by marriage, having married the sisters Arabella and Ellen Hore in the 1840s; and by business, having formed the firm of Henderson and Barham in 1852. A year later they admitted Charles Castle as a partner, but it was a short-lived and unhappy partnership.

Castle, whose father Thomas was a distiller and merchant in the important Bristol spirits industry, had from the start expressed a desire to move into the business of wine-importing; and it was understood (at least by his legal colleagues) that he would withdraw from the partnership if and when that happened. When it did happen, and to the dismay of Barham in particular, Castle showed no sign at all of withdrawing, but rather of sitting tight and continuing to draw a third share of the legal firm’s profits.

There followed a delightful correspondence of veiled, restrained anger between Castle and a very unhappy Henderson acting on behalf of Barham. In a series of letters, all sides expressed their “disappointment” in the other party’s position, and their failure to comprehend the other party’s “disappointment”.

Under duress, Castle offered to repay part of his share of the profits in recognition of his lesser part in the business of the firm; but he made the offer with such bad grace that both Henderson and Barham withdrew their acceptance of it. In November 1854, the partnership was formally dissolved, although not until 1857 and following further bitter exchanges between Barham and Castle would the latter’s financial settlement from the firm be settled finally. (Castle had taken part of his share in the form of a client’s mortgage debt, on which I think the client had subsequently defaulted just when Castle most needed a further injection of capital in his wine business.)

Barham continued with Henderson for a while before setting up in business for himself as Barham and Co, later Carslake and Barham and later still as Barham and Barham (Eustace with his son Thomas).

I’m not sure what happened to Henderson. Charles Castle, many of whose letters I inherited, seems to have tried his hand at many things in his life – mini careers in the law and as a vintner sit alongside periods of political activity and military service. Without a doubt, more from him in future posts!
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