This blog began in 1997 as a single news page called Nucelus. In 2005, during a long wait to move into a new house, I decided to learn some php and MySQL and write my own blogging system, which became inkyBlog and which now powers this, my own Webbledegook blog.
Thank you to my brother, Murray Ewing, for help with some of the more challenging aspects!
The first showed up during some family history research. I was looking into my Staffordshire Hodgkins family and found myself in the baptism book for St. Michael and All Angels, Penkridge, where there was a baptism on 7 November 1779 for "William, son of Ann Hodgkins". But my eye was caught by the entry directly above, on the same day, for one "Cyrus Hamilton, an African Negroe". I was immediately intrigued - there were reportedly about 10-15,000 black people living in England in the latter half of the 18th century (largely in London), but what was this gentleman's story, and how did he end up in Penkridge?
Cyrus was already around 15 or 16 years old when he was baptised (if his age recorded at death is correct), and was said to have been brought to England by a 'Lady Hamilton'. Within two or three years he went into service as butler to Sir Edward Littleton of Teddesley Park, MP and 'country gentleman' (1727-1812).
In 1809 Cyrus married Susanna Barnes in Birmingham and they had two children in Penkridge, Louisa in 1813, and Edward Moreton in 1815 (the name Moreton came from Sir Edward's brother-in-law, Moreton Walhouse, whose grandson inherited the Littleton estate in 1812). Cyrus died in February 1825 and was buried at Penkridge, in the same church in which he'd been baptised. With his death, a small annuity from Teddesley Hall ended, putting some financial strain on his surviving family.
His wife, Susanna, went on to a new relationship with an engine fitter, Joseph Yates, with whom she had a son, Thomas, who sadly only lived a few months. She died in 1865, aged 78. Son Edward Moreton Hamilton married Esther Jane Brown in 1841 - they may have gone to the US in 1851 and maybe also had family there - I have not yet been able to follow them up.
Daughter Louisa seems to have provided three grandchildren for Cyrus - all from an unknown father who she claimed to have married in France - John (b.1844), Emily (b.1846), and Thomas (b. 1849). Thomas would marry and have at least seven children, continuing Cyrus's family into the 20th century.
The Staffordshire Record Office contains some interesting papers in the form of letters from Louisa to the 2nd Lord Hatherton at Teddesley, suggesting her late father had actually been adopted by Lord Littleton, and that she had leant a large sum of money to Lord Hatherton's father. The letters were an attempt at financial relief and, despite her stories not being believed, she was awarded a small allowance to help with her rent and debts.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this story is the identity of 'Lady Hamilton', the discovery of which might provide an origin for Cyrus himself.
The title of 'Lady Hamilton' immediately conjures up the famous mistress of Horatio Nelson, Emma or Amy Lyon - but she was not Lady Hamilton until 1791. Interestingly, she was also mistress to Charles Francis Greville (her future husband's nephew), whose father had sold his Penkridge lands to Sir Edward Littleton in the 1740s.
Nelson was acquanited with another Lady Hamilton, the wife of one William Leslie Hamilton Esq., Lady Isabella Erskine (daughter of the 10th Earl of Buchan), also known as Lady Belle. She is of particular note as Louisa Hamilton claimed her father was "the natural son of Lady Bel Hamilton". A Lady by way of her father being an Earl, she became a Hamilton in 1770 when she married William in Speldhurst, near Tunbridge Wells.
Immediately after their marriage, the Hamiltons travelled to the West Indies, specifically St. Kitts, where William was Speaker of the House and later Attorney-General of the Leeward Islands. They stayed for a while on the Olivees estate, complete with its enslaved population, and "belonging to Hamilton's sister". This would be Catherine Hamilton, married to Peter Matthew Mills who had inherited the estate from his father (killed on the island in a duel in 1752).
Lady Belle returned to England in July 1779, four months before Cyrus's baptism, due to increasing insecurity from the American Revolutionary War (the French would take St. Kitts in 1782). Her husband followed in the next year but died within days of his return, and their wealth was devastated when the ship carrying many of their belongings was captured by the French. After a second marriage, in 1785 to the Reverend John Cunninghame (15th Earl Glencairn in 1791), she died in Boulogne in 1824.
Lady Belle has another interesting, if obscure, link with her more famous namesake, Lady (Emma) Hamilton, in that both Lady Hamiltons were muses of the artist George Romney (1734-1802). Emma appears in a number of beautiful and sensual portraits by Romney, apparently sitting for him over 100 times. Lady Belle was Romney's subject on several occasions recorded between 1777 and 1791, "as Lady Isabel Hamilton she sat many times ... as Lady Bell Cunningham twice, and twice as Lady Glencairn".
Depending how accurate Louisa was with her 'Lady Bel' comment, more research may uncover a more dependable link with Isabella (or her husband, a more likely candidate with stronger associations with the Caribbean) and some other aspects of Cyrus's history (the Littletons, for instance). Perhaps there is another 'Lady Bel' out there besides the one I've found and speculated on here. There are certainly more Lady Hamiltons to find - there is Lady Marianne Hamilton (1737-1802), or Lady Cassandre Agnes Hamilton (1741-1821) or maybe even Lady Louisa Hamilton (d.1777) dying just before Cyrus's baptism and with the same name as his eldest daughter. Isabella Erskine looks very intriguing, but the case remains open.
I came across William while doing research for my Second Anglo-Afghan War studies. I was examining a photo of Sergeants of the 72nd Highlanders at Sialkot, India, in 1878, and one man in particular stood out - quite obviously, and unusually, a man of African descent.
A bit more digging showed Sergeant 218 William Dobson did not serve in the Afghan war, and was actually discharged from the army as medically unfit (due to years in the harsh climate of the Indies) not long after that photo was taken, in June 1878. He'd given many years of service, enlisting at Edinburgh in 1858 before being sent to his regiment for the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion. He rose up through the ranks, gaining Corporal in 1863 and Sergeant in 1865, serving in India, Ireland and the UK. His conduct was reported as "very good" and he received the Long Service Good Conduct medal with gratuity in 1876.
William was actually born in Edinburgh, in 1831, to an African father (also William Dobson, a gentleman's servant or butler) and a (presumably) Scots mother, Mary Flockhart. He was one of six siblings of which three certainly died young, and no trace can yet be found of the other two.
In 1851 William's father was a widow (with no children present), and manservant to John Kennedy, a retired Writer to the Signet. The census records he was born in Africa, a British Subject, and was working alongside one Margaret Gordon, the household cook. She was almost half his age (born, in fact, just a few weeks after his first marriage), but they would wed two months later and go on to have five children, half-siblings to Sergeant William Dobson, though only two survived into adulthood. The 1861 census gives more detail on William senior's origins, with his birthplace recorded as Sierra Leone, Africa, a Naturalised British Subject.
William's birthdate of around 1807, and birthplace as Sierra Leone is interesting, as in that year the British government abolished the slave trade and the following year made Sierra Leone a Crown Colony, with Freetown as its capital.
William senior would die in 1863 (just a couple of weeks after his six-year-old son, Harris), aged 56, while his second wife would live until the age of 68, dying in 1897. One of their surviving children, Henry Edward Dobson, would live until 1930 (he did not marry).
William junior's good army conduct was not necessarily a reflection of his earlier life, for in 1852 he was sentenced to seven years transportation for house-breaking and spent three years at Portland Prison in Dorset. But in 1855 he was involved in an incident in which he helped one of the warders who had been attacked by another prisoner wielding a pick-axe during quarry labour, and was granted early release. It seems likely these events may have had some influence on William enlisting with the army some two-and-a-half years later.
While still in the army, in July 1866, William married Ann Prescott in Edinburgh (the 72nd had arrived there from India in February), the daughter of a gun polisher from England, though they'd both lived on Jamaica Street in the 1850s so perhaps knew each other already. By this time Ann was mother to an 'illegitimate' child, Jane Prescott, but she and William would have seven other known children, in India, Ireland and Scotland, four of whom would reach adulthood and have families of their own.
Unfortunately the end of William's tale is a sad one. On 9th February 1887, William's wife of 21 years died from disease of the kidney, heart and liver - as a soldier's wife, bearing children in the Subcontinent, she'd had a very hard life indeed - she was only 40 years old. Two weeks later, William (who'd been working as a maltman) took his own life in a rather violent manner, cutting his throat with a razor; he was 60 years old. His eldest surviving child, Thomas, was 17, and his youngest, Sophia, was just 7. Sophia would live a long life, dying in 1958 at the age of 79, and leaving behind family of her own.
It seems important that these otherwise little-known Black Britons should have their fascinating stories researched and told, and I have added both families to WikiTree, which cites many of the sources used (Cyrus Hamilton | William Dobson).