Footnotes to History: The Personal Realm of John Wilson Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty (1809-1830), a

Footnotes to History: The Personal Realm of John Wilson Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty (1809-1830), a "Group Family"

by Nigel Harris
Footnotes to History: The Personal Realm of John Wilson Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty (1809-1830), a

Footnotes to History: The Personal Realm of John Wilson Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty (1809-1830), a "Group Family"

by Nigel Harris


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This book brings a novel focus to social history. It is a study of a "group family" — an extended family closely structured though marriages that were either internal or with trusted associates. Its members strove cooperatively for their own mutual benefit. This kind of social entity evolved down the centuries, reaching its zenith in the early nineteenth century. The family portrayed, the Pennells, provides a supreme example of such a united body. John Wilson Croker, his two half-nieces and his best friend all married into it. The size of this "group family" gave ample scope for marriages between cousins. Most men in it gained prestigious appointments through Croker's patronage, but at the price of giving him their unswerving loyalty. From diaries, personal letters, newspaper articles, Chancery papers and Government documents, the book brings the character of family members to life and shows how they interacted. Their personalities are portrayed through a wealth of entertaining anecdotes recorded by their contemporaries. Discussion focuses on the family in the nineteenth century, but how it evolved is also described. With their varied occupations and far-flung travel, the people whose stories are narrated give insight into fascinating but little frequented byways of British social and colonial history, such as intelligence gathering in the seventeenth century and the Newfoundland cod trade in the eighteenth. Their direct participation in events included riding from Dorset to London to warn James II personally of the Duke of Monmouth's landing and rescuing Marie Antoinette's daughter from Napoleon. The book takes us on a meandering journey through British history brought to life by the experiences of one family over more than two centuries. [Subject: History, Social History, British Studies]

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781845198305
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Publication date: 08/01/2016
Edition description: None
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Nigel Harris is a former senior lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Dundee and a direct descendant both of Croker's father-in-law, Consul William Pennell and of his wife's most scandalous niece, Rosina.

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Footnotes to History

The Personal Realm of John Wilson Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty (1809â"1830), a "Group Family"

By Nigel Harris

Sussex Academic Press

Copyright © 2015 Nigel Harris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84519-746-9


Waterford and Bordeaux

William Charles Pennell (1765–1860) was born on Christmas Day 1765 in Topsham, Devon. At the time it was one of the most important ports in Britain for trans-Atlantic commerce. He was the youngest son of Lovell Pennell and his wife, Sarah (née Follett). It is not known how he was educated, but the style of his correspondence and his excellent command of French showed that he had been well taught. His father was a wealthy merchant involved in the Newfoundland cod fish trade, and would have had ample means to board him at a good school or to employ a competent tutor. In his teens William joined the family merchants' business with his father and some of his brothers.

In 1785 the Rev. James Carrington, his future father-in-law, became rector of St. Margaret's Church in Topsham, and William would soon have gained acquaintance with James's eldest daughter, Elizabeth (1771–1855), then fourteen years old, who was to become his wife. In the spring of 1788 he and Elizabeth, by then aged sixteen, were married. Unfortunately, no records exist of where the wedding took place or of its precise date. William's father, Lovell, died only a few weeks later but his mother was to survive for many years.

Taking up residence in Waterford

Within a year of their marriage William and Elizabeth had left for Waterford, where he was to set up a branch of the family trading business. The Pennells owned a number of vessels used not only to catch cod off Newfoundland but to convey it to Europe, once it had been dried and salted. Most of the fish went to Spain and Portugal. One of his brothers had moved to Oporto in Portugal to manage trading there and another resided at their base in Newfoundland to oversee the fishing. The family's ships rarely returned to Devon, but commonly travelled back from the Iberian Peninsula to North America via southern Irish ports, of which the most important was Waterford. There they took on provisions and picked up passengers. Most of these were men and women from fishing villages in the south of Ireland keen to grasp an opportunity for more lucrative employment in Newfoundland. When William moved to Waterford in the late 1780s the town was experiencing a general boom in trade.

He and his wife were there when the Irish Rebellion of 1798 broke out. By then Elizabeth had given birth to seven children, two of whom died in infancy. The five who lived to become adults were Rosamond [Carrington] (1789–1880), William (1790–1867), James Daniel (1791–1846), [Richard Augustus] Frederick (1793–1852) and George [Hibernicus] (1796–1864).

In the rebellion the rebel forces captured Wexford from the British garrison and then marched west to attempt to storm New Ross, a strategic town some twelve miles from Waterford. The battle of New Ross on 5 June 1798 was the bloodiest of the rebellion, with more than 2,800 rebels being killed and many atrocities being perpetrated by both sides. In a letter to a Mr Walrond, a relative of his by marriage, he wrote of the great alarm in Waterford at the news of the rebels' attempt to capture New Ross and the massacre of many of its inhabitants. He had prudently sent Elizabeth, then pregnant, and their five young children to Haverford West in Pembrokeshire, where she had taken lodgings at two guineas per week. He wryly stated that with all the expenses he was incurring he was not only burning his candle at both ends but in the middle as well. By now the Newfoundland trade was in decline and extra and unforeseen personal costs were unwelcome. It must also have been of some concern that his wife had had to travel by ship without him when nearly seven months pregnant. She returned to Waterford soon after the rebellion was put down, for Jacquelina [Woolcombe] (1798–1892) was born there on 8 August. Elizabeth had another child the following year, but he died soon after birth. She was still to bear a further thirteen children, yet none of her offspring were twins.

Family disasters as well as external factors led to the Pennell's trading empire collapsing at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I shall say more about this in Chapter 11, where I shall describe in far more detail the family's century long involvement in North Atlantic trade, and the Newfoundland cod fish industry in particular. But his origins and this early part of his life have little to do with his subsequent career, or with those of his children. It was not his having been a merchant, but his being forced to seek other employment and having to do this in Waterford that indirectly led to him and his children going on to have such eventful lives and associating with so many prominent people.

Working as a customs officer

It was around 1805 that William was forced to cease trading, though unlike some of his relatives he did not go bankrupt. He remained in Waterford and found employment as a customs officer. In May 1806 when his eldest daughter, Rosamond, married John Wilson Croker he was deputy comptroller of customs for Waterford. Croker, was soon to gain fame as a politician and literary critic, but at the time he was William's superior officer in the customs, namely the comptroller for Wexford, Waterford and Ross, which explains how he became acquainted with Rosamond. In March 1809, after his son-in-law had left the customs service, William was promoted to be comptroller, on a salary of £200 p.a. He held this office until 1814.

As we have already seen, prior to 1800 Elizabeth had borne six children. By the time of Rosamond's marriage she had produced five more: Seraphina [Hibernia] (1800–1878), Eliza (1802–1872), Louisa [Mary] (1803–1876), Follett [Walrond] (1804–1876) and Charles [Henry] (1805–1898). Two further children were born in 1806 and 1807, but both died in infancy.

Between 1806 and 1809 two of William and Elizabeth's children, William and James, left home to work, and during much of this period Frederick was at a school in Devon. However, the size of the family did not shrink for long as further children soon arrived: Richard [Croker] (1808–1905), Rosamond [Hester Elizabeth] (1810–1906) and Harriet (1810–1819). In Chapter 3 it will be made clear why the second child they called Rosamond was so named and why she did not remain with them. Around the time of her birth Frederick had returned to Waterford to work under his father as a customs officer. Elizabeth was still to be pregnant another three times, but Sarah (b. 1812) is thought to have lived only three years, and her last two children, born in 1814 and 1815, both died soon after birth. She had had her first child when she was aged seventeen and her twenty-second when she was about forty-four. The family tree on page 10 gives details of those who reached adulthood and indicates the chapters in which I outline their life histories.

British consul in Bordeaux

In August 1814 William was made British consul in Bordeaux. Experience gained from working in a busy port as well as his fluency in French would have proved useful when taking up the post. He was also somewhat of a Francophile and even chose to adopt a French style of dress. The appointment was due almost certainly to the patronage of his son-in-law, Croker.

William and his family left England for France on 25 September on board a Royal Navy vessel, the Spitfire. One of his first concerns after arriving in Bordeaux was the presence of American naval personnel there — Britain had been at war with the United States since 1812, though the conflict was soon to end. The risk they posed was in the intelligence they might gather about British shipping movements. He made discreet enquiries about when they were likely to depart and their intended destination. As soon as he had gleaned this information he sent a despatch to the Duke of Wellington, then British ambassador in Paris.

William's link with Croker led to distinguished visitors calling on him. In a letter to his son-in-law, he wrote, "The Duke of Portland (& his family) are here — he did me the honour to pay me a visit — you have made the move in a very distinguished circle." We shall see shortly that he had concerns about receiving adequate remuneration for his office, but he also felt, initially, a lack of confidence in carrying out his duties satisfactorily. In another letter he remarked, "I can add, with great truth, that notwithstanding my poverty, I have been more anxious about the duties than the emoluments of my office ... I wish you were at my elbow" (footnote overleaf). The letter also contained the only reference I have found to his wife, Elizabeth, making a social visit.

Within less than six months Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was marching through France. William took steps to advise British ships to leave Bordeaux as expeditiously as possible. On 14 March 1815 he sent a circular letter to the masters of the twenty-six British ships then in Bordeaux harbour saying that if they were ready to sail they should take advantage of the protection of a Royal Navy ship, the Haughty, which was about to depart for Plymouth. To ensure their safety he decided to send Elizabeth and his children on this ship. He wrote to Croker, "I have never entertained an idea of quitting this place, whilst there is any authority here from His Most Christian Majesty [Louis XVIII of France] — I am afraid you will not approve of my having sent off the females, but I am persuaded you would, if you had been here."

The Duchess d'Angoulême was in Bordeaux at the time when Napoleon was marching through France rallying support. She was Princess Marie Thérèse Charlotte of France (1778–1851), eldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who had been imprisoned with the rest of her immediate family, but was the only one of them to survive the Reign of Terror, the most violent phase of the French Revolution. She grew into a strong, resolute but rather arrogant woman — Napoleon once remarked that she was "the only man in her family". She attempted to raise a resistance force against him in the city and its vicinity, but with limited success. In a letter written in March 1815 to Count de la Châtre, Louis XVIII's representative in London, she remarked on William's help to her and said she had had dealings with him on an almost daily basis, adding that she could not "too much praise" him. She had requested that he ask the British government to send her money, arms, and troops as well as despatching their vessels up the Gironde to keep the region in French Royalist hands. She also remarked that William has assured her that English naval forces would "come as friends", as they had done the previous year.

As days went by it became clear that local support for the Royalist cause was collapsing. The duchess stayed as long as there was any hope of maintaining resistance, and finally agreed to leave the city on 2 April only shortly before Napoleon's troops entered it. William had arranged for a British ship, the Wanderer, to evacuate her. He, himself, had planned to leave on it too, but did not reach the embarkation point on the Gironde in time to board. He was thus forced to flee south and cross the Spanish border overland. He wrote later that he had "quitted Bordeaux as soon as the tri-color flag was triumphant without communicating with the new government". He did not reach Passages [Pasajes], near San Sebastian, until 10 April, two days after the Wanderer had arrived there. The next day the duchess re-embarked for England having failed to negotiate a satisfactory arrangement with the Spanish Crown to remain in Spain. William stayed in San Sebastian for at least another two weeks until instructed by the foreign secretary to return to Britain.

In a letter written years later he described not only how he had gained the praise of the Duchess d'Angoulême for his assistance to her — and hence, by implication, had done great service to British interests — but had also, through his own initiative, "saved a sum of about 5,000,000 francs [about £80,000]" from falling into the hands of one of Napoleon's generals, having taken responsibility for it until it could be paid into the British Treasury. It was perhaps because he had despatched such a large bounty on a navy vessel bound for England, that soon afterwards he felt free to claim a substantial sum of money from the British Crown to cover "extraordinary services". On each of the two days before leaving Bordeaux, he drew a bill of exchange on HM Treasury for £500, to cover what he said were "sundry expenses attending His Majesty's ships in the Gironde, and the embarkation of Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Angoulême", and added, "I shall forward the account of expenditure as soon as it shall be in my power." The bills were duly honoured by the Treasury, but even as late as August 1817 its auditors were still demanding to know how the money had been spent! It is unclear whether they ever received a satisfactory response. This was one of many occasions in which William found little difficulty in spending large sums of money and considered himself to be justified in doing so. When he could, he petitioned to receive even more from public funds.

In appreciation of the assistance he had provided in Bordeaux and the steps he had taken in rescuing her from Napoleon's troops, the duchess presented him with a ring containing a magnificent solitaire diamond, judged at the time to be worth £1000. William was careful to refrain from mentioning this gift in his despatches! Despite writing frequently to his superiors lamenting his lack of personal funds, he never felt occasioned to sell it, and was able to bequeath it to his family when he died.

Return to Bordeaux

Although forced to flee to England, William was still officially the British consul for Bordeaux. Following Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, and the restoration of the French monarchy in July that year, he returned to France to resume his duties. William's mother, Sarah, died in early July at the age of eighty-eight and was buried in Topsham on the twelfth. Whether he attended her funeral is not known, but he could well have done so as he did not take up his post in Bordeaux again before mid-August (he later wrote that he had been unable to collect consular fees for a period of 140 days).

In his first career as a merchant he had enjoyed a fairly lavish lifestyle, and after suffering severe financial losses from the collapse of his family's business, he had hoped to live in considerable comfort again as a consul. At the time of his appointment consuls received no salary, but merely a proportion of monies obtained in consular fees. Many consuls had considerable private means, but he was not of their number. He had been led to believe that the British government was actively considering giving more of its consuls a salary, including those in France, but nothing had transpired. Thus a substantial part of the remuneration he had anticipated receiving was not forthcoming, and he judged the consular fees to be too modest to support him and his family adequately. In the end he felt forced to exchange posts with a Mr Scott, who had been appointed as consul in Bahia in Brazil, but who was more than happy to go to Bordeaux instead. William opted to go to South America because he thought that there he would receive a salary in addition to more generous consular fees. He clearly felt aggrieved at having had to move in this way to a post so cut off from Britain and one which involved all the difficulties and hardships of a tropical life.

In 1832, after he was forced to retire, he wrote a long letter to Lord Palmerston, the then foreign secretary, to request a generous pension to take account of the fact that he had received less payment for his services as a public servant than he had been led to expect. In it he said that when appointed as consul in Bordeaux he had had the "expectation that salaries adequate to their stations would be speedily granted to Consuls so appointed". However, Napoleon's return and the war that ensued had delayed any payments to him, so he "returned from Bordeaux impoverished in consequence of that appointment arising from the expenses incident to the conveyance and return of a large family, and the making and breaking up of a household establishment". He had gone back to his post soon after the Battle of Waterloo, but even then, he wrote, "a salary being still indefinitely postponed my pecuniary circumstances induced me to accede to a proposition from Mr Scott the present Consul at Bordeaux to exchange my Consulship for that of Bahia".


Excerpted from Footnotes to History by Nigel Harris. Copyright © 2015 Nigel Harris. Excerpted by permission of Sussex Academic Press.
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Table of Contents

Family Trees vi

Acknowledgements vii

Introduction 1

Part I William Pennell

1 Waterford and Bordeaux 7

2 Defending British Interests in Brazil 17

Part II The Family

3 The Crokers 31

4 Portsmouth and Brest 59

5 Spendthrifts and Picture Dealers 71

6 Rio and the Afghan Frontier 93

7 Naval Reports, Oysters and Trout Flies 101

8 Merchants' Wives: Brazil and Liverpool 109

9 To South America and St. Helena 119

Part III Ancestors

10 Ship-Owners and Merchants 135

11 The Decline of the Newfoundland Cod Trade 147

12 Medieval Roots and the Restoration 167

13 Clocks and Clergy 183

Conclusion 203

Appendix 207

References 209

Index 214

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