The mahogany industry has been, unfortunately, a tale of exploitation. The ‘get rich quick’ policy was adopted by all concerned and many of these people left the country and took their profits with them. No attention was paid to either natural regeneration or replanting, and it is now possible to walk through large tracts of bush which were once full of mahogany and not see a single sizeable tree. Indeed, the only natural wealth of the colony has now been exhausted.
F.C. Darcel, A History of Agriculture in the Colony of British Honduras(1954)
Mahogany tree, British Honduras, early 20th century
Back in 1985, at the time I first learned that my great-great grandfather was a widower when he married his young ‘housekeeper’, Mary Ann Hawkins, I had very little interest in discovering more about his previous family – the one I now think of as ‘lost’. In those days genealogy was an extremely time-consuming and relatively expensive pastime, so early on I’d made the decision to only focus on my direct ancestors. I realise now what an incredibly short-sighted view this was: after all, if I wanted to find out more about the man who instigated the London branch of the family, what better way to start than learning about his youthful first marriage? Perhaps I would even also gain more insight into why he later chose to marry a woman who was younger than his own daughters.
When the Waugh documentary (Fathers and Sons) triggered my renewed interest in family history a quarter of a century later (see Begin Again), I straight away began my on-line search for a James Skelton in south London (who was born in North Yorkshire in 1799). When looking for London-based ancestors in the earlier part of the 19th century – before the population of the capital exploded – it is still relatively easy to find those who do not possess overly-common surnames, and thus it was not long before I located James and his family living at Horsleydown Lane in riverside Bermondsey, an experience I wrote about earlier in The Tailor of Horsleydown. This discovery felt like a real breakthrough in my research: finally I would find out more about the man who, like so many during the early 19th century, moved hundreds of miles from his home in an attempt to better himself and give his family the opportunities he himself might have been denied.
And what I learnt through the subsequent investigations came as a surprise. These children of James’ first marriage appeared to have been markedly more successful than those of his second. (Unfortunately, it would not be until the 2nd half of the 20th century that most of the descendants of the latter group would find doors opening to them through changes in educational policies). And this ‘lost family’ were in fact much more documented than the second one which I belong to – in part due to the fact that they they spread out across the Empire, taking risks along the way (some which resulted in their untimely deaths) in their pursuit of new lives and opportunities in the colonies.
This first family James had with Sarah Vaughan was predominantly female, except for their middle child. As to be expected, it is this son – sandwiched between two younger and two older sisters – whose social and economic rise was the most dramatic. The only one of the children to be formally educated, James William Skelton was sent to the nearby St Saviours’ Grammar School, where he would have had the chance to make connections with other socially mobile boys. It may even have been here that James William met the Bermondsey-born Thomas Schofield, son of a local custom house official. These two men (and their sons) were to form a life-long bond that resulted in them establishing a successful mahogany import business together. It was one which flourished throughout the time of Victoria, when furniture made from this dark, tropical hardwood was very much in demand due to the size of the logs as well as the wood’s known resistance to expanding and splitting in the damp weather of the British Isles.
James William Skelton was a self-made man who encapsulated the spirit of the age, with his colonial business and urge to get ahead, and within a generation he would take his family into the fringes of the lesser aristocracy. Possibly he was carrying on the dream his own father had started when he left his Yorkshire village all those decades ago, but had been unable to ultimately fulfil when, after losing both his wife and oldest daughter in mid-life, he ended up living with the young Mary Ann in a cramped terraced house in Kennington, surrounded by the crowd of noisy, young children he’d helped to bring into the world – and whose existence no doubt embarrassed his oldest son. (But perhaps I am giving James William value judgements that he did not possess, and how can he defend his actions now that he is buried under a slab of pink granite at Nunhead Cemetery?)
Finding out about James William’s exotic and successful business was certainly an exhilirating moment, and one of the high points of my research to date (later dampened by thoughts of colonial exploitation and environmental degradation). From his entry in the school records of St Saviour’s, to his deathbed business transactions and elaborate will and testament, this high-flyer left behind a paper trail which documented his achievements and those of his children in the kind of detail that I could previously only have dreamt of finding for my family. And I am still coming across clues to his lavish lifestyle today as new records go on-line or revisiting a previous search allows me to see details I originally overlooked.
The book of St Saviour’s school admission records, discovered cracked and musty in the archives of the Southwark History Centre, showed that James William joined the school in early January 1834, a few days after his seventh birthday, and was a pupil there for four years. This school was attached to the church of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral) but the building in use at the time of James William’s school days ceased to be in service by 1839 (and unfortunately no longer exists – the site is covered by one of the many Victorian railway arches which blight Southwark).
However, when I started searching for James William, his schooldays were the last thing on my mind. Having not found him in either the 1851 or the 1861 census, I had almost presumed him dead until I found a James William Skelton living with his wife and children in some grandeur at a residence named Carlton House, The Avenue, Gipsy Hill, in 1871, and describing himself as a Retired West India Merchant. Fast forward ten years and the same James William (now strangely not retired) had moved the family into a luxury apartment in a new development at Clapham Common, gaining several more servants along the way.
At first I thought I’d made a mistake with this wealthy man. I had always imagined that James Skelton’s first-bon son might have followed him into tailoring, taking over the family business at some point, and going into wheeling and dealing overseas seemed a grand departure from the family line (James Skelton himself having descended from Yorkshire wool staplers – more about this in a subsequent post). It was only until I was able to scrutinise his marriage certificate that my suspicions were confirmed – this James William and my half-ancestor were one and the same person. And so began a frenzied search that lasted several months and which finally convinced me I had to commit this whole project to words, illustrating as it did the disparity between the two branches of the familiy and the different lives of the haves and have-nots of Victorian England and beyond.
During this manic period of research, I soon gleaned that the reason James William disppeared from the UK census for two decades in a row is that at some point in his youth he and his business partner, Thomas Schofield, went out to British Honduras (now Belize) and set themselves up in the nascent colony as mahogany merchants (the Schofields seem to have owned land in Corazol in the northern part of the country), and naming the company Skelton and Schofield. So although James William was most likely moving back and forward between the two distinct worlds of London and the Caribbean during this time, he evades the census which captured his two younger sisters still unmarried and living at home with their father in 1851, and the one ten years later which saw James firmly ensconced in Aldred Rd with Mary Ann and five of their six children.
Map of British Honduras (now Belize)
But what the census was not able to pick up, other records did. Trade directories show that James William (with Thomas Schofield) had offices in the City – moving location several times until the company settled in the Old Rectory in Martin’s Lane off Cannon Street (still standing today, on account of its connection with the church of St Martin’s Orgar). In addition to this, the business had an import office at East Wood Wharf in the West India Docks at the Isle of Dogs. Today the remains of these huge docks and their accompanying warehouses, first developed over 200 years ago, can be seen at the Museum of London, Docklands.
West India Docks, 1841: Mahogany Sheds in East Wood Wharf visible. From: ‘The West India Docks: Historical development’, in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. Hermione Hobhouse (London, 1994), pp. 248-268. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols43-4/pp248-268
The Old Rectory, Martin’s Lane, Cannon St, City of London
Then, when almost forty, James William does something that confirms in my mind that he was without a doubt a social climber. He shrewdly marries a wealthy young woman whose family own a very lucrative body parts shop in Fleet Street (more about this uncanny-sounding business next month) and double-barrels his name with hers, turning this stunted branch of the family (none of their three children had any issue of their own) into the Sleath-Skeltons. And not only that, but on his wedding certificate in 1866, a year before his father died, he decides not to describe him as a retired tailer (as all James’ other children do), but simply furnishes the registrar with one elusive, snobbish Victorian expression: Gentleman. Could it be that he was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of his new bride and her family? Somehow I cannot imagine him ever wanting his putative in-laws to know that his father was currently living with a much younger (and uneducated) woman in a scruffy terraced house in Kennington surrounded by a crowd of what my father used to refer to as ‘snotty-nosed brats’.
During her lifetime, Emma Sleath seemed to have been close to her older sister, Mary Caroline, who married a successful autioneer-banker called John Green. In the census of 1871 the two families with their young children were living next door to each other in Gipsy Hill, renting large detached houses set back from the road, replete with coach-houses for their vehicles and drivers. The row of grand houses, simply called The Avenue (later renamed Dulwich Wood Avenue) was built in 1859 on open country, not far from both the new Crystal Palace at Sydenham and Gipsy Hill railway station, and overlooked a field with a herd of cows which belonged to the local dairy. Today the road (or at least the section which survived WW2 bombing and post-war development) still maintains a semi-rural feel, and the houses are, of course, eye-wateringly expensive. Although Carlton House (where James William lived) and the Green family’s neighbouring Homedale House were unfortunately at the end of the street which was destroyed by bombing, the remaining section does give a flavour of what The Avenue was once like. Now these buildings and their surroundings are an anomaly in a relatively busy urban area, although the old dairy herd field in front of the houses has been preserved as urban parkland.
A typical Victorian Villa on Dulwich Wood Avenue
The old dairy herd field in front of Dulwich Wood Avenue
I visited Dulwich Wood Avenue on one of my marathon walks around London, trying to get a feel for how the various south London neighbourhoods of my ancestors connected together (something that maps cannot really convey). That Sunday I walked from Brixton (where my father and James Skelton both lived in separate centuries) through sylvan Dulwich and the old turnpike (which put me in mind of Totteridge – see A Rose in Holly Park), and eventually arriving at the disconcertingly busy Paxton roundabout. After wandering up Dulwich Wood Avenue, I crossed the park and walked up Gipsy Hill to Christ Church (opened in 1867) where the little Sleath-Skeltons were baptised (and whose brass lectern was gifted by John Green, while church warden from 1867-69). From that vantage point I marvelled at the sight of St Paul’s and the City in the distance – a view spectacular enough to rival the one from the hight point at Nunhead Cemetry where the ostentatious pink granite Skelton family grave (courtesy of James William) is located.
Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, built 1867
Evening view of the City from Christ Church, Gipsy Hill
Later that day, as the unseasonably warm March sunshine gave way to a sudden cool evening, causing an exodus from the local parks onto public transport, it suddenly occured to me that not only were the exhausting walks I was undertaking perhaps the same routes that my ancestors had trodden as they spread outwards across south London from riverside Bermondsey, but that these roads were like genealogical ley lines across the capital. And there at Gipsy Hill, at that place where the Roma once lived in the Great North Wood, was evidence of these tracks meeting. On one side of Gipsy Hill were the remaining smart villas of Dulwich Wood Avenue – and on the other side, higher up, the houses of the newer Bloomfield Estate which my grandparents moved to in the 1930s, delighting at their modern cottage-style council house with indoor toilet and electric lights. And not far from there was the Victorian terraced house at Romanny Road where my grandfather lived at the turn of the old century with his father and new stepmother and assorted siblings.
But if there was one place (node?) which seemed to pull all these elements together, it was the Crystal Palace. From my father’s lifelong recollections of the terible conflagration he observed from his upstairs bedroom window in Brixton, to the knowledge that a great many of my London ancestors, the poor and the wealthy, would have gone there at some point in their lives (either to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, or later to the park and buildings in Sydenham), the grounds and its last remaining statues seemed to me to be a symbol of the great social leveller. I later discovered that the Sleaths had won medals for their moving body parts at the Great Exhibition, so no doubt the young Emma and her family would have been a visitor in 1851, while as a young woman living in Gipsy Hill she may have attended concerts there or accompanied her children to the park, perhaps noting with disdain the growing number of amusements and fairs in the grounds that were encouraging greater numbers of working class visitors
Ghostly reminders of the lost Crystal Palace in Crystal Palace Park
A different day of exploring south London took me to The Cedars at the north side of Clapham Common, which was the subsequent home of the Sleath-Skeltons. Having moved with their coachman and hs family (each apartment came with a mews flat – themselves now worth a pretty penny), the family also took some of their existing servants and acquired a footman – already becoming a dated concept in the 1880s. By this time the two Boys, Herbert and Stanley, had been sent away with their cousins, Sydney and Percy Sleath Green, to Cheam prep school to prepare them for Eton (which would then prepare them for Oxford or Cambridge &Etc.) James William’s youngest child, his daughter Maude Beatrice (a marginally classier name than those of her brother and cousins – at least to modern ears), was educated at home, possibly with her cousin Daisy Winifred Green, who was like a sister to Maude right up until their deaths in the 1950s.
The Cedars (and their mews) at Clapham Common, built in 1860
I intend to write about each of James William’s children (Stanley, Herbert and Maude) in separate chapters, as this dated-sounding troika led strange and colourful lives which, given their social status, were much documented in records and contemporary sources. However, in addition to these three children, there was also an unknown teenager who appeared on the 1871 Gipsy Hill census alongside baby Stanley and Herbert, but disappeared shortly afterwards. This turned out to be the Caribbean-born daughter of James William, who at some point must have been brought over to England from British Honduras, and had been given the rather aristocratic name of Louisa Arabella. Sadly, this young woman died at the family home at Gipsy Hill from the horrific-sounding Renal Anasarca (swelling of the body tissues due to renal failure) at the age of twenty-one. It is heart-breaking to think that this young woman, who no doubt expected to have been initiated into London society, died at the age she would have been ‘coming out’ and taking her place in the world. But her memory lives on in the oral history of the descendants of the Sleath-Green family who today still talk about the rumour that there was exotic Caribbean blood in the family. As Daisy Winifred’s grand-daughter (more about this unexpected contact next month) wrote in an early email exchange with me: One thing that has always interested me is another bit of family lore, and that is that there may be a ‘local’ from the Caribbean in our ancestry, but I have found no trace.
In Deborah Cohen’s book Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day, Cohen devotes a chapter to describing the fate of the illegitimate children of British colonists with indigenous women – a not uncommon occurence. Although these children were sometimes brought back to the ‘mother country’ and assimilated into the new family, many of them were packed off to lesser-known English boarding schools, often at a distance from the family home in order to avoid the obvious questions which might arise from their darker complexions. In the case of Louisa Arabella, she appears to have come to England once James William had set up home as a respectable married man, and it would be interesting to know how Emma Sleath dealt with the arrival of this older step-daughter in the family at the same time as she was having her own children. Unfortunately, the death certificate of this young woman is the only official record I currently have which documents her existence (discounting the 1871 census), yet I hope one day to be able to tell Louisa Arabella’s story in more detail.
And what of Louisa Arabella’s birth country of British Honduras – now Belize, and an independent nation since 1981? Many people know of the country through its growing reputation as a world-class scuba-diving destination, popular with American tourists, (not least because of the prevalence of English.) In addition, eco-tourism is making an impact, and although there is no longer a mahogany exporting industry to speak of, bananas, citrus fruit and sugar are some of the main crops now grown. However, the mahogany tree is still an important symbol in the country: it is the official national tree and features on the country’s flag – along with the phrase Sub Umbra Floreo (under the shade I flourish). The Belizean national anthem (video link below) also includes the patriotic line No longer hewers of wood we shall be – a reference to the period between 1750 and 1950 when the back-breaking and dangerous work of felling and squaring the mahogany trees which grew deep and scattered in the rainforest was carried out (originally by slaves until this was outlawed in 1838) for the benefit of the colonists.
As a postscript, I would like to add that after my initial excitement at learning about these wealthy and successful ancestors, I soon began to question my reaction to their life stories. Why did I somehow feel better about the Skelton family, knowing that there was at least one branch who left their mark on the world? And what did it say about myself and my motives for carrying out family research if I thrilled more about adventures in the Empire and the discoveries of large houses and servants than I did to trips to local parks, and terraced houses and factory labourers?
These are all questions that I will attempt to answer in the next few months as I explore the privileged lives of the Sleath-Skeltons and their relatives. I will also delve deeper into their connection with the Schofields, culminating in a tale which ends with the mysterious death of Thomas Schofield’s son under a train at Warren Street underground station in 1933, shortly after Skelton and Schofield was finally dissolved.
I look forward to you continuing to follow my story in the coming months!
The Incidental Genealogist, March 2017