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Saturday, 26 May 2012


What’s not to like about Lechmere Guppy! Tattoo’d school inspector, once-shipwrecked son-in-law of a refugee from the French revolution, furniture-making almanack-founder, civil engineer by trade and palaeontologist by passion, agnostic map-maker, author on molluscs … and then there’s That Fish.

Robert John Lechmere Guppy (1836-1916)

Lechmere was a cousin of my 3x great uncle Thomas Richard Guppy. The Guppys are an extraordinary family, and I not going to let the fact that I am only related to them by marriage stop me from writing about them here. Thomas Richard’s mother and father were both inventors, whose achievements certainly inspired their son to his own significant contributions to civil engineering. Lechmere’s lawyer father was the mayor of San Fernando in Trinidad; and his artist mother was a pioneering photographer who navigated the Orinoco River with the help of some local Indians.

He was without doubt a tremendously inquisitive and open-hearted character. His daughter Yseult Bridges said he “loathed deceit, disloyalty, dishonesty and cant; felt all men should find work well done its own reward." And A.D. Russel, writing only six years after Lechmere’s death, described him, “apart from his contributions to scientific periodicals, lectures etc … [as] a man of remarkable individuality. Tall, gaunt, white-haired, grey-bearded, rugged in speech, combative in his opinions. A whiff of cold air seemed to go with him wherever he went. Watching him stride over the savannah, one imagined a Yorkshire moor.”

Kinnersley Castle, Herefordshire: Elizabethan remodeling of a defensive castle built on the Welsh borders in the reign of Henry I

With his parents living in Trinidad Lechmere was raised by his grandparents back home in England in a 12th century Norman castle, Kinnersley, not in Yorkshire but in the Herefordshire Marches. Ignoring expectations that he would remain there as an adult to run the estate, he instead sailed away from England at the age of 18.

Two years later in 1856 he was shipwrecked on North Island, New Zealand, “living [according to Yseult] very happily amongst the Maoris who had rescued him, roaming the hills and forests, collecting specimens, and thoroughly enjoying himself. Although this was at the time of the Maori Wars, they treated him with great hospitality, and to the end of his life he loved to talk of his adventures with them, and to display the tattoos on his back – of various designs including a sailing canoe – and on his wedding finger – a ring! He had left only just in time, he declared, to avoid marrying the chief’s daughter.”

Lechmere also mapped the region during his two-year stay with the Maoris, and in 1858 sailed to Trinidad to join his parents. There he married Alice Rostant, a creole descendent of French aristocrats who had fled to Trinidad to escape the bloodbath of the French Revolution. Lechmere became Trinidad’s first Superintendent of Schools and spent the rest of his time pottering about the West Indies studying their geology, fossil remains and marine molluscs (a subject I’ve written on in the past).

The Victoria Institute, now the National Museum and Art Gallery
Port of Spain, Trinidad

He founded the Victoria Institute in Port of Spain in honour of the Queens Golden Jubilee in 1887. It’s now a national institution, as is the Trinidad Almanack which he began in 1866 with his brother Francis – it was later adopted by the government and became Trinidad’s official Year Book.

1866 was also the year he discovered a new fish in the waters around Trinidad. He sent it off to the Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum who named it Girardinus guppii in Lechmere’s honour – the Guppy fish. It was later found to have been discovered separately and earlier in off Venezuela by another naturalist Wilhelm Peters and named Lebistes reticulatus (now reclassified as Poecilia reticulate). But the popular name for the fish remains the Guppy.

The Guppy, Girardinus guppii
drawn in 1903 by Plantagenet Lechmere Guppy
son of Robert John Lechmere Guppy
(picture: Natural History Museum London/ Science Photo Library)

Saturday, 19 May 2012


Is it possible for a family tree to have black sheep? Shouldn’t they be black leaves? Or are black sheep only found in genealogical database fields? Whatever. Walter Masterman, my second cousin twice removed, is turning into my favourite black sheep. He’s the man who in his fifties began a successful career writing pulp fiction, after an extremely checkered past which culminated in a spell in prison.

Walter Sydney Masterman (1876-1946)
crime author, soldier and pacifist youth leader
photographed in 1899, before the Boer War

I have now read some of his racy 1920s crime novels, and I wrote about the many phases of his life here once before. They are full of remarkable changes of direction; but I was unaware, when writing then, of yet another strange episode in which he was closely evolved during his time on civvy street between the Boer and Great Wars.

Walter, who had fought in South Africa and lost a brother to disease there during the Second Boer War (1899-1901), struggled to find a role in civilian life. He and his brother Charles briefly took over the running of an ailing boys’ school, Horsmonden in 1903. But by 1905 it had gone bust, and Charles had begun to pursue a successful career in Liberal politics. Perhaps given some introductions by Charles, who was already established as a writer, Walter dabbled in journalism – his no doubt authoritative report “Plaice Fisheries of the North Sea” appeared in 1909.

He also involved himself in the very early days of the Boy Scout movement. Lord Baden-Powell held his first experimental scout camp in Dorset with 20 boys in 1907; his Scouting For Boys magazine was published in six fortnightly parts the following year, and prompted boys to form scout troops all over the country, the core of the new Boy Scout Association.

Lord Baden-Powell (1857-1941)
Chief Scout 1920-1941
founder of the Boy Scout Association

Baden-Powell’s reputation at the time rested on his Boer War role in the defence of Mafeking during its long siege by the Boers 1899-1900. The principles and techniques of scouting which he had learned with the British Army in South Africa were the inspiration for his new movement. But there were many who felt after the war that its ideals were altogether too militaristic.

On Empire Day, 24th May 1909, an alternative and explicitly pacifist scouting organisation was launched, The British Boy Scouts. Its formation was led by a troop in Battersea which withdrew from Baden-Powell’s Association in protest at its army-style administration and the undue influence over the organisation of the National Service League, which campaigned for compulsory military conscription.

Sir Francis Vane (1861-1934)
Grand Scoutmaster 1911-1912
founder of the Order of World Scouts

What began as a small breakaway protest became by the end of the year a full-blown schism, following the sacking by Baden-Powell of his London Commissioner Sir Francis Vane. Vane had dared to express his concerns about militarism from within, with the support of some 300 fellow scoutmasters, most of whom now followed him to the British Boy Scouts. It seems likely that one of those scoutmasters was Walter Masterman. Vane, who became Grand Scoutmaster of the BBS in 1911, promptly appointed Masterman in a specially created post of Assistant Grand Scoutmaster. 

Vane bankrolled the organisation’s early expansion, supplying a London office and organizing the supply of uniforms while founding a new Order of World Scouts (in which he was ahead of Baden-Powell). Unfortunately Sir Francis overextended himself. When his income proved insufficient to cover the cost of uniform manufacture, he was declared bankrupt in August 1912. He resigned both his Grand Scoutmastership and the Presidency of the organisation, which he had held since 1909.

A British Boy Scouts rally, c1930

The BBS was thrown into confusion by the loss of its driving force (and the London office which he had provided). A vengeful Baden-Powell rejected Masterman’s request for BBS troops to return en masse to the Boy Scout Association in a corporate affiliation. Instead he insisted that each troop must apply individually for Association membership. 

Fearing perhaps the imminent demise of the BBS, Masterman accepted this condition and led the eight BBS troops under his direct control back into the Association fold. Although the move was regarded then and now as a defection and a betrayal, Masterman’s troops included Junior Scout sections which he now introduced to the BSA for the first time. The idea spread and in 1916 became the BSA’s Wolf Cubs – I was a Cub in the 24th Glasgow Troop in my 1960s youth! – known today as the Cub Scouts.

A British Wolf Cub in the 1960s (not me!)
descendent of Walter Masterman’s Junior Scouts
(picture from Wikipedia)

Masterman’s commitment to the pacifist BBS seems at odds with his continuing role during those years as an Inspector of Musketry attached to the 1st Cadet Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles, a quite explicitly military unit for boys. When war broke out in Europe two years later, he returned to active service and by all accounts fought for his country with distinction. Returning to civvy street again after the armistice in 1918, he lost his way once more until – after a four year jail term – he built a successful writing career in the final 20 years of his life.

At its height in 1910 one in three boy scouts in Britain was a British Boy Scout. Thanks largely to the international network set up by Sir Francis Vane, the BBS survives to this day, and there are once again several British BBS troops, led by Grand Scout Emeritus Dr Michael Foster. Dr Foster has done a great deal to preserve and record the history of the BBS and this article owes much to his writings.

Saturday, 12 May 2012


I have written here before about the role my ancestors played in the founding of London University. Baptists and other non-conformists, who were barred from graduating at Oxford and Cambridge, England’s only two universities, decided to start their own. My 3x great grandfather Samuel Salter bought a £100 share in the proposed institution and his son my 2x great grandfather William Augustus Salter was in the very first intake of students, studying Latin and Greek.

William Henry Gurney Salter (1837-1928)
a portrait from his "History of the Gurney System of Shorthand" 
published after his retirement in 1912

William’s son, my great grandfather William Henry Gurney Salter, followed in his father’s footsteps. He went to Amersham School (“for the sons of liberal gentleman”), where his father had been a Baptist minister; and then he too studied Classics at London University. Like his father, WHGS began his working life in the office of a London merchant. But in 1859 he joined the firm of Gurney & Co, shorthand writers; and in 1872 he succeeded his uncle Joseph Gurney there as Official Shorthand Writer to the Houses of Parliament, a post he held for over 40 years until his retirement in 1912.

On his death The Times printed a lengthy obituary, a measure of his long service at the heart of British political life. It dwelt of course chiefly on his professional and religious achievments; but there is a short, delightful passage about his personal life:

He was a great lover of poetry and pictures, and was a man of many friends; friendship played a great part in his life. Since the death of Sir John Rotton, K.C., he must have been the last of a small band of classical scholars known as the "Totle", who used to meet weekly to read Aristotle and other Greek authors, and who included in their number Theodore Waterhouse, Lord Cozens-Hardy, Lord Justice Kennedy, James Anstie, K.C., and Sir W.H. Winterbotham.

What a wonderful picture! The great and the good of the day, taking time out from their public schedule to share a laugh and a glass of something over some Greek philosophy with Alexander the Great’s tutor! Apart from anything else, it’s a rare bonus to be presented with a list of your ancestor’s friends. WHGS’s Totle circle were obviously important enough figures to be name-dropped in The Times, so who were they?

Brigadier General Sir John Rotton, K.C., (not pictured) WHGS’s last fellow Totler died in 1926. He served on the Council of London University from 1869 and donated his library, including several important theological tracts, to it on his death. Rotton and Salter were born in the same year, and perhaps went to school and university together.
James Anstie, K.C., was also born the same year as WHGS, and also an alumnus of London University, for whom later he was an examiner in common law and practice. He was called to the Bar the year Salter joined Gurney & Co. His wife was Annie Winterbotham, sister of fellow Totler William Winterbotham.
Theodore Waterhouse (1838-1891) was from a distinguished family of Quakers. No doubt therefore, he too attended London University. His architect brother Alfred designed London’s Natural History Museum; his brother Edwin is the Waterhouse in accountants PriceWaterhouseCooper; and Theo founded the London law firm now called Field Fisher Waterhouse.
Sir William Howard Winterbotham (1843-1926) was a neighbour of WHGS in Ladbroke Terrace, Kensington. He was not just another solicitor, but from 1895 The Official Solicitor to the Supreme Court of Judicature. Fellow Totler James Anstie married his sister Annie.
Sir William Rann Kennedy, Lord Justice Kennedy (1846-1915) was another prominent legal mind of his day; a failed Liberal candidate who ordered a by-election after accusations of Liberal bribery in Maidstone in 1900. A caricature of him in Vanity Fair in 1893 (the year after he was appointed) is captioned “our weakest judge;” but he was created a Lord Justice of Appeal in 1907 and a Privy Councillor two years later.
Herbert, Lord Cozens-Hardy (1838-1920), another alumnus of London University, was a lifelong friend of WHGS. Their connection went right back to their time together at Amersham School. Herbert’s daughter Hope married WHGS’s nephew Richard Austin Pilkington, and to this day at least one member of the Salter family uses the legal firm of Cozens-Hardy. Herbert was Master of the Rolls, the second most senior judge in Britain after the Lord Chief Justice.

It’s a legal Who’s Who of late nineteenth and early twentieth century England. Salter himself was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1874, although he never practiced. His Greek texts remained in the family until the death of my father, himself a Classics scholar and lecturer. Hooray for the Totle!

Aristotle, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome
Roman 2nd century BC copy of a Greek 4th century BC original

Saturday, 5 May 2012


Why do I write about all these people? Sometimes it’s because I know they have a story worth telling. Sometimes I pick on someone precisely because I know nothing about them – it’s a way of forcing myself to look deeper into their lives. Sometimes you think there just must be a story, and only by starting to write can you tease it out of them – it’s like thinking aloud to know what you’re thinking.

William Massy Baker’s brother Godfrey was my 5x great uncle, who was married to my 4x great grandfather Eyre Massy’s sister Margaret. The Massy and Baker families intermarried pretty regularly, hence William’s middle name. William and Godfrey both served in the Bengal Army, one of three private armies owned and operated by the British East India Company.

The flag of the East India Company
before (above), and after the 1800 Act of Union

Granted its Royal Charter in 1600 to trade in the sub-continent, the Company exploited its trade monopoly to become the administrative power in large parts of India. It operated more or less beyond the control of the British government for 100 years, making its owners, British merchants and aristocrats, very wealthy men. Only after the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 was the British Crown forced to assume some direct responsibility for the colony.

This was all after William’s time. He was a quartermaster in the Army, responsible for the purchase and distribution of supplies of all kinds. It was position from which he was able to generate a great deal of personal wealth, setting up a number of private commercial enterprises to boost his basic army pay. When he came home to Cork (in Ireland, another British colony) on leave in 1796, he splashed out a massive £2500 on a large estate in nearby Glanmire. There he built a well-appointed mansion which, after the manner of the times, he named Fort William.

Fort William, Glanmire, Cork

Generating wealth wasn’t Baker’s only enterprise. In Calcutta in 1785, he arranged the christening of Eleanor, his lovechild with an Indian mistress. It’s not clear whether he brought either or both of them back with him in 1796, but he certainly returned to Calcutta for another tour of duty from 1800 to 1806. When he finally came home to Ireland, it was to make a “suitable” marriage, in 1807, with Mary Towgood Davies.

Mary, daughter of a protestant minister, took over the running of the Fort William household. As one may readily imagine, she was keen to give William a fresh start, a break with the past. It’s known that one Dean Mahomet, an Indian guest in the house, left very quickly at this time.

What became of Eleanor, and indeed her mother? One report I’ve read says Eleanor, now 22, got married to a James Swayne. I can’t find any confirmation of this; but one of William and Mary’s many children (at least eight, some say twelve) was christened James Swayne Baker. Another, rather surprisingly, was called Eleanor Davies Baker.

Troops of the Bengal Army c1785

In writing about Eleanor I came across the remarkable Dean Mahomet, and learned more about my 5x great uncle Godfrey. (More on them in a future posting.) But Eleanor is the story I wanted to tell here. Such Anglo-Indian relationships were no doubt common; and no doubt wives were expected to accept the past and present affairs of their husbands. But to call your children James Swayne Baker and Eleanor Davies Baker is a sign either of a very understanding wife or of a very insensitive husband. Since I first posted this I have learned that William did indeed bring home his lovechild, named (according to my source) not Eleanor but Eliza; and Eliza did marry James Swayne, in 1814.
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