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Saturday 30 June 2012


Rioting seems terribly un-British somehow. We’re more ready to march in protest than we used to be. But by and large we continue to place our faith in the democratic process, despite the efforts of some politicians in recent years to discredit the political process completely. Expenses are fiddled, promises are broken … but representation of the people in parliament was hard won, so we cling to it.

Some places are more ready to riot than others, and perhaps none more so than Bristol, home of my Castle family ancestors. In 1793 for example, riots over continuing bridge tolls were ruthlessly quelled when soldiers fired into the crowd killing 11 people, many of them innocently caught up in the demonstrations. In 1831 the most violent riots in modern British history left up to 500 dead and the city in flames.

A rioter hangs a French tricolour revolutionary cap on a statue of King William III in Bristol’s Queens Square, 30th October 1831

The odd thing is that the year after both of these dramatic uprisings, the annually elected post of Bristol town sheriff was filled by a Castle – in 1794 by my 4x great uncle Robert Castle, and in 1832 by his son, my great great grandfather’s cousin Michael Hinton Castle. I don’t really know what to make of that. Was it just coincidence? Both men also served in other years as mayor. I like to think that they were considered suitable candidates for sheriff because, with their family tradition of liberal, Presbyterian non-conformism, they were more in touch with popular sentiment than any Tories in the running.

The bloody disturbances of 1831 were a pivotal event in the nation’s slow march towards representative democracy. They were triggered by the defeat in the broadly Tory House of Lords of a liberal Reform Bill which had been passed by the Whig-dominated House of Commons. The Act sought to increase the electorate and reduce the number of rotten boroughs. In Bristol for example only 6,000 out of a population of 104,000 were eligible to vote in 1831. Meanwhile some Members of Parliament represented so-called rotten boroughs, constituencies whose population had dwindled in some cases to zero and whose seats could simply be bought from the local landlord. Everywhere the ballot was not secret, and votes could be won with money or threats. Reform of the electoral system was desperately needed.

The mayor of Bristol, Charles Pinney,
escaping from Mansion House, 29th October 1831

One of the fiercest opponents of reform happened to be the Bristol recorder, Sir Charles Wetherell. When he arrived in the city only a few weeks after the Bill’s defeat his carriage was pelted with stones. He was forced to abandon his sitting in the Assize Courts; he took refuge in the Mansion House but fled with the mayor across the rooftops as angry Bristol citizens broke in.

Things quickly escalated, inflamed by an advance on a crowd by a company of Dragoons with threateningly drawn sabres in which one man was shot. Buildings were set on fire and Bristol’s prisons were stormed, the escaped prisoners swelling the crowds of thousands. Finally, after three days of anarchy, the mayor of the day gave the order to “take the most vigorous, effective and decisive measures to quell the riot.”

Quelling the Bristol riots, 31st October 1831

This time the Dragoons charged into the mob of men, women and children with sabres flying, cutting them down and pursuing fleeing bands of protesters into the surrounding countryside. The mayor was accused of neglecting his duties by not ordering the charge sooner, and the Captain of the Dragoons was court-martialled for refusing to use rifles on the crowd – he committed suicide during his trial. Four rioters were sentenced to hang and 88 others imprisoned or transported.

So representation of the people was hard won – in 1832, the year Michael Hinton Castle served as sheriff of Bristol, a watered-down version of the Reform Act was finally passed in Parliament. 56 rotten boroughs were abolished and the vote was extended to around one in seven of the population. A more peaceful demonstration, in the form of a 10,000-strong petition to the king to save the lives of the four men condemned to hang, failed.

Saturday 23 June 2012


Last week the very helpful and friendly staff at Watford Museum sent me a newspaper cutting from the Watford Observer of 7th February 1958. It discussed the town council’s plans to demolish a row of four almshouses, in order to enlarge the car park behind the Three Crowns Public House on Watford High Street.

The David Salter Almshouses, Watford
built in 1843 (photograph from the Watford Observer, 1958)

The almshouses were erected in 1843 at the expense of my 4x great uncle David Salter, a deacon of Watford Baptist Meeting Place (now called Beechen Grove). A 1956 history of Beechen Grove by Walter Bennewith describes him as a hero of the Faith. He does seem to have been a mainstay of the Beechen Grove congregation in the first half of the nineteenth century, although a 1907 history by the incumbent of the time, Rev James Stuart includes a lengthy description of him as “of strong and forceful character, … with marked peculiarities which led him to pursue a path of his own. … He would not today have escaped the charge of dogmatism.” The Bennewith history goes further and calls him bigoted and eccentric. I like the sound of him!

David was baptized in 1799, along with  one Daniel Alcock, the first new members of the church under its new pastor Rev W. Groser. The two were soon joined by David’s younger brother Samuel and by John James Smith, the new owner of nearby Hamper Paper Mill – which was just a stone’s throw from Oxhey Lodge where David and his four brothers were born.

David Salter’s Watford, one street town
(from the First Series of Ordnance Survey maps,
dated 1856 but not showing railways which were built twenty years earlier!)

John James Smith ran a London stationery business in partnership with one William Lepard and was already married to Lepard’s daughter Elizabeth when he moved to Watford. He is certainly therefore responsible for David Salter’s greatest happiness, by introducing him to Elizabeth’s sister Sarah, whom David immediately fell in love with and made his wife. (History would repeat itself later in the century when Samuel Salter’s son William Augustus married Emma Gurney and introduced John James Smith’s grandson – also John James – to Emma’s sister Caroline!)

Alcock, Smith and the two Salters threw themselves into church service. Smith and Samuel Salter performed something of a double act as deacons in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, their places eventually being filled by Alcock and David Salter. The Salter family paid for new gravel paths and for a fresh coat of paint on the building; David Salter and John James Smith tried to outdo each other in donating baptizing gowns; and when concern was expressed about the cost of a new and much needed extension to the vestry, David simply offered to pay for the whole thing himself.

Watford Baptist Meeting House, Beechen Grove, in 1810
(from Walter Bennewith’s history of the church)

David’s happiness was short lived. Sarah died after only about three years of marriage, probably in childbirth. They had two children, Sarah and Samuel, neither of whom outlived their father. (Sarah died in 1838; Samuel may have died with his mother.) The death of his wife left David inconsolable and he became reclusive and eccentric. He refused to serve as deacon alongside his go-ahead nephew James Smith, son of his wife’s sister – perhaps the proximity to such a relative induced too-painful memories – and only accepted the position, in 1826, when James agree not to. 

He continued to work tirelessly in the service of the church, although he was, I think, increasingly set in his ways and resistant to any change – he is reported to have been behind the abrupt departure of Rev Groser’s successor Rev Copley, and blocked an attempt by James to introduce open communion (communion for non-members). He was opposed to organ accompaniment for hymn singing, which James introduced when a new chapel was built in 1835.

He died in 1848, six years after his brother Samuel, four years after Samuel’s son Samuel joined David as a deacon of the church, and only one year before the death of his fellow deacon and 1799 applicant for baptism Daniel Alcock. Bennewith wrote of David: “Beneath his kill-joy, Puritan hide lay a heart that melted at another’s need. He did his best to be awkward, but Christianity would keep breaking in.” 

One can all too easily imagine what he would have said when his almshouses, old and in need of much repair, were demolished in early 1960; and what he would have further remarked on learning that the car park too has now gone. But the David Salter Almshouses Trust continues to do the same work it was founded to do, administered to this day by deacons of Beechen Grove Baptist Chapel.

Thanks to Watford Museum and Beechen Grove Baptist Church for information gratefully received.

Saturday 16 June 2012


I’ve been writing here recently about the Baker brothers William and Godfrey, who both served in the Bengal Army of the East India Company. And not so long ago in honour of my brother’s Portuguese wedding I wrote about my cousin Michael Hinton Castle’s first wife Susan Smith.

There are more powerful family connections to India than the Bakers, through MHC’s second wife (of three), Frances “Fanny” Boddam. Her family could be used to chart the early progress of the British rule in India. Fanny’s great grandfather Charles Boddam (active 1715-1726) was a warehouseman at Fort St George in Madras in around 1715. Her grandfather improved on that somewhat – Charles Boddam junior (1719-1794) rose to become a director of the East India Company. But her father Rawson Hart Boddam (1734-1812) topped the lot, serving for four years as the Governor of Bombay.

The British Dominion in India, c1783 –
little Bombay on the west coast, spreading Bengal in the east

(Rawson Hart Boddam’s son (also Rawson Hart Boddam, 1792-1836) served more modestly in the Bombay Civil Service, and his grandson (another Rawson Hart Boddam, 1818-1836) only achieved the rank of Ensign in the 50th Regiment the Bengal Native Infantry before dying at the age of 18, only three months after his father.)

Governor Boddam held the post from 1784 to 1788. His main claim to fame is that he was the first governor to be paid entirely by salary, at nearly £10,000 a year, a massive sum. It ensured that he could retire in great comfort to his new and stately home, redbrick Capel House north of London.

Capel House, Bulls Cross, near Enfield, the Seat of Rawson Hart Boddam Esq, in an engraving by J. Asperne in 1804 
(now Capel Manor Hoticultural College
which counts singer Kim Wilde among its alumni)

Bombay came under British rule after the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza in 1661. But only seven years later the British Crown passed control to the East India Company in return for a token annual rent of £10. The colony thrived to become the jewel in the Company’s crown, until Bengal (where the Baker boys later served) overtook it in importance in the mid 18th century.

Boddam’s rule sits in a period of relative calm between the first two Anglo-Maratha wars, both of which saw the Company expandng its influence by defeating serious threats to its authority from a confederacy of independent Indian rulers. The first war had ended with the Treaty of Salbai which, among other things, guaranteed peace for twenty years. So Boddam probably had a fairly easy time of it in earning his £40,000.

Rawson Hart Boddam’s epitaph in Bath Abbey

He died, almost exactly 200 years ago, on the 30th May 1812, in Bath in western England. I imagine there must have been a family home there in addition to the seat at Capel House. His son also died in Bath; and Bath is only a few miles from Bristol where his daughter Fanny’s future husband lived.

Fanny and Michael Castle had four children, two boys and two girls, before Fanny died of complications following the birth of the fourth. The boys were named after her parents Boddam and Tudor (her mother’s maiden name). The name of Tudor Castle recurs: my great uncle of that name was a promising poet before his early death in World War One; and Governor Boddam had a grandson called Tudor Castle Boddam, remembered on his memorial tablet in Bath Abbey.

Fanny and Michael's other son Boddam Castle, on the other hand, grew up to be a barrister and brought some shame on the family when he appeared in the Old Bailey in 1849 on the wrong side of the witness box. He stood accused of failing to pay maintenance for his illegitimate child. But that’s another story.

Saturday 9 June 2012


My 5x great uncle Godfrey served alongside his brother William in the Bengal Army of the East India Company in the late 18th century. Despite being court-martialed once for insubordination he continued to rise through the ranks to become a Captain. But in 1782 he was eventually persuaded to resign amidst accusations that he had held an entire native village to ransom. Is this how the British Empire was forged?

It was fairly common practice for Britons serving with the East India Company to find inventive ways of augmenting their modest Company pay. Godfrey, like his brother William who followed him in the post, was a quartermaster responsible for the purchase of supplies to the Bengal Army. William certainly set up his own enterprises from which to purchase those supplies, and presumably Godfrey pursued the same income-expanding policies. But extortion on a village scale seems to have been a scheme too far.

Dean Mahomed (1759-1851)
writer, restaurateur, therapist

Godfrey returned in disgrace to the city of Cork in his native Ireland, where his father (also Godfrey) was a prominent merchant. He brought with him the faithful companion of his years in India, Dean Mahomed, a muslim who had served him since the age of 12 when Baker first arrived in India as a fresh-faced cadet. Mahomet had risen to the rank of Subedar, the highest attainable by an Indian in the Bengal Army; but when Baker resigned Mahomed resigned with him in an act of loyal solidarity.

Back in Cork, Mahomed’s life took a remarkable series of twists and turns, bearing in mind that he was an Indian in Imperial Britain in the late 18th century. He went to school, where he received a thoroughly British grounding in English language and literature. He applied what he had learned to the publication in 1794 of the first ever book written in English by an Indian, snappily titled The Travels of Dean Mahomet, A Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of The Honourable The East India Company Written by Himself, In a Series of Letters to a Friend.

Jane Mahomed, née Daly
“wife of Mr Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon”

During his studies he fell in love and eloped with a fellow student, Jane Daly – a teenage member of the ruling white Protestant Ascendancy. Although you might expect this to have been a shocking event, it does not seem to have done Mahomed’s standing in local society any harm. In fact, the publication of his Travels was funded by advance subscriptions from many prominent Cork families. Today the book is regarded as a unique social record, a view of India by an Indian working for the occupying power. There is a superb modern edition with biographical commentary by Michael H Fisher, well worth tracking down.

After the death of his patron, Mahomed joined the household of Godfrey’s brother William. But when William got married in 1807, Dean and Jane Mahomed were no longer welcome there and they moved to London. In 1809 they opened what is now regarded as Britain first-ever Indian restaurant, the Hindustanee Coffee House at 34 George St. After some initial success, the venture went bankrupt in 1812 and the couple moved to Brighton.

Mahomed’s Baths

There Mahomed established himself in perhaps the strangest role of his life, as a massage therapist of sorts, practicing what he called shampooing – not what you’re thinking, the word comes from the Hindi word “chhampa,” meaning to press. He opened Mahomed’s Baths, a bath house offering Indian oil massage and medicated vapour baths. The business thrived, bolstered by claims no worse than those of many quacks of the day. It even launched a branch in London run by one of Dean’s sons. But eventually the fashion for it declined; and Mahomed died in 1851 almost forgotten by the world.

Dean Mahomed deserves credit for his capacity to reinvent himself after setbacks. He led a life rich in variety – I’ve barely scratched the surface here – and as a writer, restaurateur and therapist pioneered the art of marketing “exotic” Indian culture to a western audience.

Uncle Godfrey himself did not live to see any of his old friend’s successes. Perhaps the shame of his dismissal from the Bengal Army sent him into physical decline. Perhaps the shock of the Irish climate was just too much after 13 years in India. He died only four years after his return to Cork, the year Dean and Jane got married.

Saturday 2 June 2012


My brother is getting married in the Minho region of Portugal today! I’m delighted of course, not just for his future happiness, but because it renews the family’s connection with the region and the country, first made in 1808.

In that year, Susan Smith became the fist wife of Michael Hinton Castle, a nephew of my 3x great grandfather Thomas Castle. Michael like his uncle was active in the Bristol wine and brandy trade (about which I’ve written here before). As well as distilling brandy and whisky in the city, the Castle family also imported wines from Europe. This is how Michael met Susan.

Susan was the daughter of John Christmas Smith, a sea captain who shipped wine from the Douro region of Portugal. The vineyards along the Douro river are today best known for producing a fortified wine named after the town at the mouth of the river, known simply as “the port” – Oporto.

Barrels of wine being unloaded onto a bustling quayside in 18th century Bristol

John Smith was born in Biddeford in Devon in 1753, and will certainly have sailed out of nearby Bristol, England’s biggest port at the time. His wife, Susan’s mother Charlotte Maria Bearsley, was a resident of Oporto, and continued to live there after their marriage while John plied his trade between Oporto and Bristol. All four of their daughters, including Susan, were born in the Portuguese port.

Charlotte Bearsley was not Portuguese but part of the large British colony who controlled wine production along the Douro. The Bearsley family were one of the very earliest founders of that colony. Charlotte’s grandfather Peter Bearsley had been the first British wine trader to venture personally into the Douro region – before him, merchants dealt with representatives of the Douro quintas based in Oporto.

One of the “lean, austere” wines of Monçao
(also available in red)

Peter Bearsley was expanding a family business which already had a foothold elsewhere in Portugal. His father Job Bearsley first came to Portugal in 1692, trading not in port but in the wine known at the time as “red Portugal.” Job owned the Ram Inn in London’s Smithfield district, and red Portugal was the product of the Minho region in northern Portugal, where my brother is getting married. No doubt I will be drinking some tonight!

The centre of production was/is Monçao on the banks of the upper Minho river, and it was exported from the harbour city of Viana do Castelo, where in time Job’s son Peter, as a prominent local citizen, was appointed British consul to look after the significant British interests in the region. After Peter expanded into the Douro, his sons, most notably Charlotte’s father, Susan Smith’s grandfather Francis Bearsley, developed the family business into a major port house.

Francis Bearsley’s silver tastevin, which he used to test the maturity and colour of his ports

Francis, the longest-serving of them, was a partner in the business for 61 years. But he died in 1805 without sons to carry on the business. The Bearsley house passed at first to his sons in law (presumably including Captain Smith), but they had little aptitude for wine production.

In 1808, the year of Susan’s marriage to Michael Castle, Napoleon invaded Spain and advanced on British interests in Portugal. Many British firms including Bearsley’s transferred ownership of their enterprises to non-British hands (in the hope that Napoleon would therefore leave them alone). Thus Bearsley’s port house passed out of Bearsley family hands. But the business founded by Job Bearsley and developed by his grandson Francis survives today. The man who took it over in 1808 passed on the reins in 1816 to a manager in his London office by the name of Joseph Taylor. Today, Taylor’s Port is one of the oldest names in the industry and, as it happens, a personal favourite of mine. No doubt I will also be drinking some of that tonight!

Top tipple, Taylor’s Tawny

Congratulations, James and Raquel.
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