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Saturday 22 February 2014


In 1907, an elderly Muslim woman in northern India made a deathbed confession to a Roman Catholic priest. She was, she claimed, Ulrica, daughter of General Wheeler of Cawnpore. 

General Hugh Massy Wheeler (1789-1857)

I’ve written here before now of the Cawnpore Massacre. In 1857 all but four of the 900-strong European population of the Cawnpore garrison in northern India were killed in one of the early atrocities of the Indian Mutiny. My cousin Captain Robert Jenkins was among the dead, as was another cousin, General Hugh Massy Wheeler who commanded the garrison. 

General Wheeler’s wife Frances was also killed, and Eliza one of his daughters, and a son Godfrey who was serving in the Bengal Army alongside him. Another daughter, Margaret, was with the family as her father led the garrison to the Satichaura Ghat, the steps at the edge of the river Ganges from which they had been promised safe conduct. 

Massacre at the Satichaura Ghat, 27th June 1857

As the mutineers began instead to slaughter those whose safety they had guaranteed, Margaret was grabbed by a sowar, one of the rebellious Indian soldiers. It was assumed that she too died in the ensuing slaughter (by local butchers using meat cleavers) of the women and children of the garrison. Her name still appears on the memorial to these victims.

Soon after the event the story began to circulate that she had defended herself fiercely with sabre and pistol, killing four of her captors before throwing herself down a well to preserve her honour from violation. It was a gruesome end, but a satisfyingly heroic one, which upheld the high moral principles of the British imperial elite.

Miss Wheeler Defending Herself Against The Sepoys At Cawnpore

(a contemporary engraving from The History of the Indian Mutiny by Charles Ball)

In fact, Margaret Wheeler, also known as Ulrica, survived. Whether the sowar rescued or simply captured for himself the twenty-year old Ulrica is not clear. She was seen, claimed Edward Leckey writing only the year after the massacre, riding side-saddle in the English fashion and wearing a veil. By 1865 it was known that she was not only still alive but had married the man who saved her life, Ali Khan.

This news was greeted not with joy but with a shocking display of imperial racism. Lady Wheeler, Ulrica’s mother who died at Cawnpore, was of mixed race; this was not uncommon in Indian colonial society. Having celebrated the manner of her honourable English death, Ulrica’s survival now was because she was “by no means of pure English blood,” according to historian G.O. Trevelyan writing in 1865. The implication was that a proper pure-bred Englishwoman would have behaved as Margaret was supposed to have – either dying to protect her honour or, having lost it, committed suicide.

George Otto Trevelyan (1838-1928), historian and politician, author of Cawnpore (Macmillan & Co, 1865)

Ulrica became a Muslim and with looks inherited from her mother she disappeared into Cawnpore’s Indian community. Was it an early case of Stockholm Syndrome? Or did she just want no further part of an imperial power which could be so two-faced about one person in death and in life? 
For more on Ulrica Wheeler, her treatment and colonial life in general, Clare Anderson's book Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World 1790-1920 is detailed, readable and insightful.

Saturday 15 February 2014


My 3x great grandfather William Brodie Gurney was a devout and active lay Baptist. All five of his daughters who survived to adulthood married into families like the Gurneys with a long history of non-conformity. Three of them married ministers (one of them married two!) and in 1832 one, Mary Ann, became the wife of William Kingsbury Jameson, the grandson of Rev William Jameson, a Baptist minister caught up in the internal spiritual politics of the rising nonconformist movement.

Mary Ann Jameson nee Gurney (1812-1871)
granddaughter in law to a minister with a sore head

The nonconformists are the big story of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the emerging radical alternative to the established Church of England. Coinciding with the industrial revolution, nonconformism was the engine for the biggest social change in British history, the creation of a middle class.

Within the nonconformists the big story was the rapid splintering into sects and subsects which followed the legalisation and acceptance of religious dissent. There were particular Baptists and general Baptists, Trinitarians and Unitarians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Calvinists and Socinians, all disagreeing violently about their own special form of dissent.

Rev William Jameson was a Calvinist Trinitarian: to oversimplify grotesquely, this meant a belief in the Holy Trinity of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and the possibility of salvation from man’s natural state of sin through responding to God’s calling of those He chose. Jameson learned his theology at Homerton Academy soon after its opening; Homerton was a strictly Calvinist “dissenting academy” founded in 1768 by and for nonconformists, who were barred from an education at either of England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

Homerton Academy moved to Cambridge in 1894 and became Homerton College, whose alumni include many important non-conformists and, more recently, the actors Julie Covington, Cherie Lunghi and Olivia Colman

Jameson served as the minister for a congregation in Warminster for ten years 1772-1781, before he was invited to audition for the congregation at the Old Meeting House in St John’s Lane, Wolverhampton. After eight trial sermons in March and April 1781 he was appointed there, with instructions to take up his post on 24th April. He duly resigned from Warminster and arrived on the appointed day with his family and possessions. Having become aware of theological divisions in the congregation during his trial period he was not entirely surprised to find the chapel door locked against him and another minister engaged to conduct services.

Poor Jameson had unwittingly walked into a hornet’s nest of nonconformist conflict, a congregation bitterly split between the Calvinist, Trinitarian majority and a growing Socinian, Unitarian minority. The latter had not forgiven the former for ousting their leader, William Jameson’s predecessor of some twenty-one years’ service, the Rev John Cole. Although for the sake of peace Cole had gone quietly and had even recommended Jameson as his successor, his supporters were not so forgiving. The Unitarians simply occupied the building.

The Old Meeting House, St John’s Lane, Wolverhampton (built in 1701, now demolished) - locked door also pictured

Jameson and the Trinitarians had no choice but to go elsewhere. They set up a makeshift chapel in a converted barn off Dudley Street; but when the homeless worshippers built a new church in Temple Street, then known as Grey Pea Walk, Jameson moved on. He accepted a post at John Street Meeting House, in Royston, Hertfordhsire, putting the Wolverhampton feud behind him.

Jameson’s obituary describes him as “eminently distinguished by humility and spiritual-mindedness.” But it must have hurt him in 1790, after nine years in Royston, to be accused by some in his now-divided congregation there of Socinianism, the very form of Unitarianism which his opponents in St John’s Lane professed. He retired “with a painful head condition” and lived out his days in the company and care of his daughter.

John Calvin (1509-1564) and Fausto Sozzini (1539-1604)
who lent their names to opposing theologies

Meanwhile in Wolverhampton things became violent over the next few years in the Old Meeting House. On several occasions riotous Trinitarian crowds forced entry to the chapel, disrupted worship there with hoots during services, and eventually brought lengthy legal proceedings (from 1817 to 1839) to recover their financial share in the chapel from which they had been driven. The case was widely reported as The Great Fight At Wolverhampton. It is not a dignified history, and one is tempted to ask the Trinitarians, if not the Unitarians, to ponder what in similar circumstances Jesus might have done.

Saturday 8 February 2014


The first thing I found out about my 3x great uncle William Collins Jennings was that he bought a ship, the sloop Somersetshire in 1835. This article was going to be about that vessel; about the cargo of grain which the ship probably gathered for William, a corn merchant in Bristol; about Captain William Williams who was the ship’s master when Jennings and his partner James Smith bought it from John Jones and William Roberts, two merchants on the far shore of the Severn in Chepstow.

Typical early 19th century single-masted sloop (this one 37 tons, 41 feet long) – the Somersetshire was 48 tons, 47’ 8” long, 15’ 4” wide, and drew 7’ 6”

Unfortunately I haven’t found any further information about the Somersetshire, or about Jennings’ trade with her; so all that will have to be left to the imagination. In 1836 a schooner Somerset appears in the Lloyds Register of Shipping, based at Dartmouth and sailing between there and Wales, having been built in Bristol in 1827. Is it the same ship? It’s owned by then by Clift & Co, and C. Clift is its master. But with a coppered hull and at 83 tons it has either had a lot of work done to it or is a different vessel.

However in the course of not finding much more about the Somersetshire, I have built up a small picture of the life of William Collins Jennings which makes his purchase of the Somersetshire seem a surprising and reckless gamble. 

Born in 1808, married to Mary Ann Thomas in 1832, William was 27 when he bought the Somersetshire. Two years earlier in 1833, only a year after his wedding, he had been declared bankrupt. Two years after buying his ship, in 1837, he was declared bankrupt again. And on the 9th August 1843 he filed for bankruptcy once more. He had lost his job, as a clerk with the Great Western Railway, six days earlier; and in 1843 there was no safety net of a welfare state.

The train shed of the Great Western Railway at Bristol Temple Meads station, in an engraving by John Cooke Bourne of 1843 – the railway company was founded ten years earlier

The railway job had lasted three years and followed a three-year period of unemployment since the 1837 bankruptcy. In those six years, the 1843 notice of bankruptcy announced, he lived at eleven different addresses, some for only a few weeks. It was a graphic illustration of the fragility of his economic situation.

For the record, his addresses were:

58 Queen’s Square, Bristol (1 Jan 1837 to 29 Mar 1839)
Aust, Henbury, Gloucs (29 Mar 1839 to 12 Jul 1839)
Redwick, Henbury, Gloucs (12 Jul 1839 to 22 Oct 1839)
14 Wine Street, Bristol (22 Oct 1839 to 11 Nov 1839)
Doctors’ Commons, London (11 Nov 1839 to 30 May 1840)
14 Wine Street, Bristol (30 May 1840 to 24 May 1841)
Weston super Mare, Somerset (24 May 1841 to 8 Aug 1841)
9 Queen’s Square, Bristol (8 Aug 1841 to 1st Jun 1842)
Belmont House, Bedminster, Bristol (1 June 1842 to 1st Jan 1843)
Laura Place, Bedminster, Bristol (from 1 Jan 1843)

Queen’s Square, today the elegant heart of Bristol

These addresses raise some questions. From August 1840 the frequent moves could be explained by postings in his work for the GWR. Queen’s Square is today a very elegant address, although it has probably been renumbered since William’s time: the present no. 58 is the Customs House! But the square is also the location of the Sailors’ Refuge, and in 1837 it may have been much less des res following the destruction of much of it in the riots of 1831. Wine Street was also grand – completely destroyed in the blitz of the Second World War, it was in the 1930s a street of fine shops second only to London’s Regent Street in value. 

Wine Street, Bristol, from a magazine article of 1878 about “Old Bristol”

His time at Doctors’ Commons is intriguing. He was still out of work. What could have taken him for six months to London, and to the place where the proceedings of the civil law courts were held? Doctors’ Commons functioned for lawyers specializing in civil law in the same way that the Inns of Court do for practitioners of common law, housing offices and living quarters for its members. Already active in the 16th century the society was largely obsolete by the 19th, described by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield as a “cosey, dosey, old-fashioned, time-forgotten, sleepy-headed little family party.” It finally fell asleep in 1865, and the buildings in which Jennings seems to have lived were demolished in 1867.

Doctors’ Commons, in an engraving of 1808 by Augustus Pugin Senior and Thomas Rowlandson

William Jennings struggled on. At the census in 1851 he was living with his family in St Martin’s on the island of Guernsey, describing himself himself a “retired” merchant. His wife has no declared profession; so with three children under the age of 15, how was the family getting by? Perhaps Mary Ann had a private source of income. She died before William, who spent his last days in poverty in Hackney. At the time of his death his worldly goods were valued at less than £20, which wouldn’t buy you much of the Somersetshire or any other sloop.
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