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Saturday 27 February 2010


John Halliday, my 6x great uncle, was a very big, very rich fish in a small pool. He was the tax collector in St John’s on the tiny island of Antigua, a British Caribbean sugar colony a very long way from home. There was a lot of money to be made by the little circle of white plantation owners, who lived extremely well on the island with minimal disruption from London

Antigua in 1750
drawn by Eman Bowen 

Some owners chose to be absentee planters, living extremely well in London with minimal involvement in the affairs of their plantations; but they were dependent on their plantation managers, who were not always scrupulously honest in posting the income of the estates to their owners back in Blighty. One friend of Halliday’s, William Mackinnen, had to move to the island in 1773 having never been there at all until 

“his overseer forgot he had any superior, and having occasion for the whole income, had sent his Master no remittances for above two years. He [Mackinnon] found things however in very good order, as this gentleman for his own sake, had taken care of that.” 

Mackinnen owned two plantations. Halliday had seven, a measure perhaps of his success in the post of Customs Collector, which he held from 1739 to 1777. In addition he had married Elizabeth, a daughter of another very successful plantation owner on Antigua, my 6x great grandfather Francis Delap, creating a powerful island dynasty. (By 1829 Delaps Plantation on Antigua was owned by John Halliday’s grandson, Rear Admiral John Delap Halliday Tollemache.)

Cutting the sugar cane on the Delap Estate, 1823
by Wlliam Clark 

John Halliday was lucky. Abundant and rich as life was on Antigua, two things were in short supply: water, and women. There was only one small spring on the island, and what rainwater the owners could collect in large cisterns frequently ran out in periods of drought. In times of peace, water was imported from the neighbouring French island of Guadaloup; in wartime they had to send to Montserrat for it. As for women, the island council once went as far as to petition London to send some.

One remarkable woman visited the island in December 1774, en route not from London but from Burntisland in Fife, bound not for the West Indies but her brother in law in North Carolina. Janet Schaw of Lauriston in Edinburgh kept a diary of her travels which lay virtually unknown outside academic circles until it was finally published in 1921 as the “Journal of a Lady of Quality.” It is a rich, very human account, full of her observations, interests, prejudices and amusements. And it is thanks to her that we have a glimpse of Halliday’s private life beyond his public position.

1921 title page of Janet Schaw's
"Journal of a Lady of Quality" 

Halliday was one of a party of prominent Antiguans of Scottish decent who called on Miss Schaw’s lodgings on the day of her arrival, clamouring for news:

“Here was a whole company of Scotch people, our language, our manners, our circle of friends ans connections, all the same. They had a hundred questions to ask in a breath, and my general acquaintance enabled me to answer them. We were intimates in a moment. … Mr Halliday is from Galloway, extremely genteel in his person and and most agreeable on his manners; he has a very great fortune and lives with elegance and taste. His family resides in England and he lives the life of a batchelor.” 

There is no suggestion that Halliday behaved in any way improperly, although the following morning it was Halliday’s carriage that Miss Schaw and her companions chose from the seven which arrived after breakfast – all sent by their owners to be at the travellers’ disposal. “Mr Halliday’s [wrote Janet Schaw] was drawn by English horses, which is a very needless piece of expense, as they have strong horses from New England, and most beautiful creatures from the Spanish Main.” 

The following Sunday after church they took lunch at one of John Halliday’s grand plantation houses, a meal of such luxurious largesse that it “might figure away in a newspaper had it been given by a Lord Mayor or the first Duke in the kingdom.” They dined on an Antiguan staple – turtle – in two forms. First came soup, made from old turtles, and “remarkably well dressed today.” And there was the shell,

“indeed a noble dish, as it contains all the fine parts of the Turtle baked within its own body; here is the green fat, not the slobbery thing my stomach used to stand at, but firm and more delicate than it is possible to describe.” 

Taste is a relative thing, I suppose. Bear in mind that when Miss Schaw and friends set off again for North Carolina, the first thing the Scottish captain of the ship did was to slaughter one of the live sheep in the hold – that evening they 

“had a Scotch dinner under the Tropick in the middle of the Atlantick. We ate haggis, sheep-head, barley-broth and blood-puddings. As both our Capt and Mate are Scots, tho’ long from home, they swore they had not seen such an excellent inner since they left their native land.”

Saturday 20 February 2010


On Friday 7th November 1851, my great great great uncle Charles Castle hurriedly composed a staunchly worded petition of support for exiled Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth. It was published the next day on posters throughout Bristol. By Wednesday 12th November the petition had attracted 5585 signatures which (wrote Castle’s fellow petitioner JF Gilbert) “I think is highly satisfactory.”
Kossuth in England
commemorative book published in 1851

It was an impressive total. But Kossuth wasn’t coming to Bristol. What do you do with a 5585-strong petititon? Time was short – Kossuth was about to set sail for America after his triumphant but whirlwind tour of English cities, and of course Charles Castle wanted him to know before he left just how much support he had from the citizens of Bristol.

First name on the petition was not Charles but Michael Castle’s – Michael, Charles’ brother, was a magistrate, and they agreed that his would be a more impressive headline signature pour encourager les autres. But the text, and the motivation, were principally Charles’. He was justifiably proud of the results, and determined to present the ornate scroll of names to Kossuth in person if possible.

He wrote on the 12th to Ferenc Pulsky, Kossuth’s aide and fellow exile to announce his imminent arrival in London with the petition. Kossuth’s secretary Mr Day hastily replied on the 13th that Kossuth was still out of town [speaking in Manchester and Birmingham as it happened], politely implying that Castle hadn’t given much notice to a busy man about to take his cause across the Atlantic to the American people.

I have all these letters, although frustratingly I’m missing the one in which the exchange was finally arranged! But it had been conveyed to Kossuth by Saturday 15th November, when the statesman wrote a long letter of thanks not to Charles but to Michael Castle as first-named petitioner, in terms which must have made their hearts swell. “Among the many generous addresses which I have had the honour to receive since my arrival … there has been none which shows a more just appreciation of the circumstances of my country … than this Address from the inhabitants of Bristol.” The letter, on paper with a Hungarian coat of arms, in an envelope with a red wax Hungarian seal, continues across three hand-written sides with an impassioned analysis of his country’s situation, and is signed with a flourish, Lewis Kossuth.
Kossuth's signature on his letter to Michael Castle

There seems to have been a delay in the post! Although earlier letters in the correspondence were delivered within a day, Kossuth’s thanks did not arrive until at least the 24th. The hold-up prompted one slighted signatory, Henry Prichard, to complain to Charles Castle about Kossuth’s seeming ingratitude. In truth, one can imagine Charles’ own disappointment at not having received any acknowledgement of his efforts, as the days rolled by and Kossuth had left the country, apparently without a word. But just imagine his spirits the day the letter came!
Lajos Kossuth
cover of centenary exhibition leaflet
Budapest, 1994

Lajos Kossuth died in exile in Turin in 1894. In 1994 we went to Budapest with copies of the letters, although I wasn’t aware of the man’s significance until we found that our hotel was in Kossuth Street, and saw his name and face on every 100 Forint banknote. We took the letters to the National Museum, which we found was running a centenary exhibition of Kossuth’s life. There was the desk he sat at; there was a picture of the house where he was born; there was his pen; his chess set; his sword. And there, in the last glass case, was the Bristol petition, headed by the names of Michael and Charles Castle. Just imagine our spirits when we spotted that!

The Bristol Petition
composed by Charles Castle,
displayed in the Hungarian National Museum,
Budapest, 1994

Saturday 13 February 2010


In 1848, while my great great great grandfather Brodie Gurney was celebrating the birth of six grandchildren, the rest of Europe was in chaos. Revolution was breaking out all over the place, including France, from which my cousin John Salter had had to flee, rapidly relocating his Versailles nursery to the less glamorous Hammersmith.
In Hungary there was also revolution, but of a different form. It was led not by a popular rabble but by Lajos Kossuth, a lawyer, and its aim was not to overthrow the Hungarian government but to throw off the yoke of Imperialist Austria. Austria, they felt, was rather overlooking the Hungarian in Austro-Hungarian Empire. My great great great uncle Charles Castle agreed.

Charles Castle (1813-1886)
In Britain the Chartists were agitating for a revolution of their own. Mass demonstrations were planned; the lamps outside Buckingham Palace had been smashed and cries of “Vive La Republique!” had been heard, and the Royal Family were advised to leave London. The Chartists wanted parliamentary reform including universal (male) suffrage; but in the international mood of rebellion prevailing in 1848, they represented greater change and anti-imperialism too.

In the event, the government of the day toughed it out and there was no British Revolution. But resentment simmered, and there was great popular support for the upheavals on the continent, particularly the struggles in Hungary. Austria had roped in the support of another imperial power, Russia, and with severity crushed the revolution on their doorstep. Although Kossuth had the support of Lord Palmerston the British foreign secretary, it was politically impossible for the British government to lend the Hungarian revolution any material or diplomatic aid. The English people however made their feelings known – on a visit to Britain in 1850 the savage Austrian general Haynau, who had executed revolutionary martyrs and whipped women sympathetic to the cause, was beaten up and thrown into a horse trough by the draymen of Barclay Perkins Brewery in London.

Kossuth went into exile in 1850, arriving in Britain in 1851. He was a popular hero, attracting widespread support, civic testimonies and crowds of workers up to 100,000 strong in Winchester, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. And in Bristol

Address to Kossuth
by Charles Castle of Bristol
In Bristol Charles Castle, a local lawyer and wine importer, wanted Bristolian sentiment to have a voice too. Time was short – Kossuth had arrived at Southampton on the 23rd October and was in Britain for only three weeks. On Friday 7th November Castle hurriedly composed a staunchly worded petition of support for Kossuth. It was published the next day on posters throughout the city with a note of where supporters might sign it. By Wednesday 12th November the petition had attracted 5585 signatures which (wrote Castle’s fellow petitioner JF Gilbert) “I think is highly satisfactory.”

It was an impressive total. But Kossuth wasn’t coming to Bristol. What do you do with a 5585-strong petititon? (Find out in Part Two!)

Saturday 6 February 2010


There’s a wonderful short novel called “The Stone Book Quartet” by Alan Garner (incidentally the greatest English story teller since the Second World War). He paints the picture of four generations of an artisan family and the craft trades they pursue. As times change they change too, working first as weavers, then stone masons, then quarrymen, then blacksmiths. What remains constant is their connection with nature, with the materials it provides, and with the craftsmanship of their hands and minds.

An invoice from Thomas Piper Bicycles issued in 1926

It popped into my mind last week when I was thinking about my great uncle Thomas Piper. He was a bicycle agent, and in the 1920s he opened a shop in Churchill in Edinburgh which was still there when I was a student in 1981 – in fact I ended up with a room in a flat right over the shop for a few weeks one summer. Of course the shop had long since lost any contact with the Piper family, but it was nice that the name carried on. (In fact there are still internet references to it, at an address in South Clerk Street in the city – but if you go there, it’s a burger joint, a reminder not to believe everything you read on the internet, especially in the field of family history research!)

What brought Alan Garner to mind was the fact that Thomas’ father John, and John’s father William before him, had been blacksmiths, in the tiny Ayrshire village of Sorn. The smithy was at a bridge by a bend of a tributary of the river Ayr, on a croft called Wealth o’ Waters. There’s such an image of generosity of spirit there, in that wonderful placename and the thought of a strong, hearty blacksmith working there, quenching his irons and his thirst there since the late 18th century.

The Sorn Smiddy in the early 20th century,
after it had passed from the Pipers to the Alston family

I like the transition from blacksmith to bicycle man too. Forwards in industry and modernisation! But there’s a nice line in change going backwards too. The family, originally peasant farmers, came to Ayrshire from a croft at Miln Ness, high on the watershed between Strathglass and Glen Urquhart. In 1773 the first wave of clearances took place in Strathglass in the form of a mass emigration to Nova Scotia.

If the Pipers weren’t actually part of this relocation, they certainly saw the writing on the wall clearly enough to get out before the next round of evictions in 1803-1831. By 1782, when Thomas Piper’s grandfather William was born, the family were living in Sorn. Nineteen years later, William married an Ayr girl, Janet Mitchell, and she was a sock-knitter. We don’t know if William had yet found his calling as a blacksmith; and it may well be that Janet, not William, was the family’s first industrial craft artisan.

And what of Miln Ness now? I don’t know if there are any remains of the Piper’s old homes. There is only one old house there now and three modern holiday cottages, but there are many more traces of those who preceded the Pipers in this beautiful place: the landscape is peppered with 4000 year old chambered cairns, stone circles and other prehistoric boundary markers. And who knows how long the Pipers were in Miln Ness before 1773?

Miln Ness, from Corrimony Chambered Cairn
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