The origin of James Fitzjames: who were his parents?


When filling out William O’Byrne’s questionnaire for his Naval Biographical Dictionary of all living officers in 1845, Fitzjames left the question of his date and place of birth blank. But when he signed up as a Midshipman to HMS Vincent in 1831 he said he was born in London in 1814. William Battersby wrote that in Fitzjames’ baptism record it says that he was born 27 July 1813. He also viewed Fitzjames entry on the HMS Pyramus muster roll in 1825, where Fitzjames first gave his age as 14 (born 1811 then) and said he was born in Devon. He later wrote another entry where he said he was 12 (born 1813) and that he was born in London.

His close friend Edward Charlewood wrote in his book Passages from the life of a Naval officer (1869): “Fitzjames, my dearest friend (who afterwards perished in the ill-fated Franklin Expedition), was about six months older than myself, and I was a month senior to him in the Navy.” It’s interesting how Charlewood is saying that Fitzjames is approximately this many months older than him, but he is very precise in that he is a month senior to Fitzjames in the Navy.
Edward Charlewood was born 14 November 1813, so that means Fitzjames was born in April/May 1813. Or Charlewood didn’t mean to be precise and Fitzjames was actually born like he said on 27 July 1813. One would think that Charlewood would know when his ‘dearest friend’ was born.
But why was Fitzjames himself being inconsistent about when and where he was born?


Fitzjames. The Fitz prefix means ‘son of’ and was often used by Royalty and nobility for their illegitimate sons. For example King Henry VIII had a son named Henry FitzRoy, that last name meaning ‘the son of the King’. So was our James Fitzjames named for being the illegitimate son of a James. William Battersby discovered the last name of this particular James: Gambier.

Sir James Gambier (1772 – 1844) was a diplomat who was appointed consul at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1808. Battersby at first concluded that Fitzjames must have been born in Rio, but after the publication of his book learned that Gambier was actually already back in England by the time Fitzjames was conceived.

Battersby posted the following correction on his website, which is no longer online so I thought I’d share here it in full:

Important correction: James Fitzjames was NOT born in Brazil
One of the great surprises of the book “James Fitzjames” is that in it I proposed that James Fitzjames was the son of a Portuguese or Brazilian woman and that he was born in Brazil.  This was based on the, to me at the time, entirely reasonable assumption that since his father Sir James Gambier was British Consul-General in Rio de Janiero from 1809 until 1814, and since James Fitzjames was born in July 1813, this birth must have taken place at least in the region of Rio.

Ah, I was wrong!

Jill Kamp contacted me having seen this website due to her great interest in the Gambier family.  She opened up to me some hitherto unknown information about the Gambier family from which I now can see that James Fitzjames cannot have been born in Rio. 

What is this evidence?  Well, it comes partly from a lot of more digging around in the Consular and Foreign Office records at the National Archive, and a careful re-evaluation of the Hoare and Company archive.

What seems to have happened is this: in the autumn of 1810 a Persian diplomatic delegation was being brought to England on a Royal Navy warship.  While they were at Rio, Sir James Gambier committed some immense breach of etiquette involving them which had the effect of personally insulting the Portuguese Trade Minister and the Portuguese Regent himself!  What this was is never actually stated, but it seems to have made it impossible for Gambier to continue in his position as Consul-General.  For the sake of ‘good form’, he requested an extended leave of absence in London, on the grounds of his wife’s indisposition, and left his Consular duties in the hands of another person (not sure who) to whom he delegated them.  This practice was not unknown at the time.

Returning to London by the summer of 1811, his financial difficulties multiplied.  This was because he had taken out a large loan in London to buy the magnificent household he had established in Rio, relying on the lucrative fees he would be able to levy in Rio as Consul-General to pay off this debt.  His enforced absence from Brazil cut him off from these revenues, so his debts simply escalated.

He hid from Hoare and co but was found by them, to his huge embarrassment, on 22nd May, 1812 and forced to come to terms with the gimlet-eyed Henry Hoare.  By 22nd July, 1812 he seemed to be in the clear – his debts rescheduled and Hoare’s willing to release him to return to Brazil to resume his diplomatic career.  But Hoare’s insisted that he take out life insurance to guarantee repayment of their debts in the event of his death.  The premium for this, £750, was too much for him to raise, so he was trapped in England in enormous debt with no possibility of repayment.

How do we know he was in England?  Well, Lady Gambier gave birth to a legitimate son of Sir James’, Gloucester Gambier, on 8th June 1813, less than five weeks before James Fitzjames was born.  Amazingly, she gave birth to her NEXT legitimate child Samuel Gambier on 24th April, 1814. The basic facts of human gestation mean that Samuel Gambier must have been conceived only about a month after James Fitzjames was born.  All of this does not PROVE that James Fitzjames was born in England, but I think it does make it extremely likely.

By the summer of 1814, Sir James had lost his office of Consul-General and all of his financial affairs were put into Trust by a syndicate of his relatives and creditors led by Admiral Lord Gambier, William Morton Pitt and Samuel Gambier.  Sir James then resumed his diplomatic career by being appointed British Consul-General to the Netherlands in 1815 at The Hague, a position he held until at least 1820 and possibly later. He appears to have had limited contact with his illegitimate son.

So does this take the story forward? Well, yes. It would be very surprising if Fitzjames had NOT been conceived, and born, in England, and when as a boy of 12 on entering the Royal Navy he gave his place of birth as Devon, perhaps he was telling the truth.

His close ties with Portugal in his life still suggest that his mother may have been Portuguese, so the quest for her is still open!

I apologise to my readers for this inadvertent assumption, for which I hope I can be forgiven, but in mitigation I would point out that it was only by publishing in the first place that I was able to make Jill’s acquaintance and hence take the story forward.”

Battersby also received images of two portraits of James Gambier, plus confirmation that the Gambiers were very much aware of the existence of their illegitimate relative James Fitzjames:

“Since I published the book, it has become clear that the story of Sir James Gambier and his affairs, in every sense of the word, is extremely complex.

By a quite extraordinary and complete coincidence, it transpired that one of the guests at the book launch on 27th July, 2010 at Trinity House is herself a direct legitimate descendant of Sir James Gambier and therefore, down the generations, a blood relative of James Fitzjames.  This was the start of a very exciting new trail of discovery, not yet complete, which is unveiling a huge amount of new information about Sir James and his tangled affairs.  So much so that I am devoting a complete section of this website specifically to Sir James – ‘About Sir James Gambier’.
Two people have come to me since its publication with fresh information.  The first was a direct descendant of Sir James, who was able to show me a portrait of him, still in private hands. Comparison of the two portraits makes it clear they are of the same man.  He also bears a remarkable resemblence to his famous illegitimate son.The source of the second portrait is a remarkable book, the existence of which has recently been brought to my attention.  This is ‘The Story of the Gambiers’, which was written and published in 1924 by Mrs. Sarah Heath, who was a grand-daughter of Sir James Gambier.  It includes a portrait of Sir James, clearly made later in life, but recognisably the same man as the Sir James in the family’s painting.

james gambier

It also includes a remarkable passage which confirms the only public recognition that I am aware of by any of the Gambiers that Fitzjames was one of them.  The book includes this passage:

‘At this point mention must be made of a Gambier who bore the ‘bar sinister’, but is worthy to rank with the most distinguished of the legitimate kinsman.  Sir James Gambier, Ambassador to the Brazils, had a natural son, James FitzJames, RN, well known to the Gambier family, who styled him the ‘Knight of Snowden’.  As Captain of HMS Erebus, he accompanied Sir John Franklin on his disastrous attempt to discover the North Pole in 1845, and shared his leader’s fate.  His signature appears on one of the last entries of the great explorer’s log-book, and his name stands in the place of honour next to that of Sir John Franklin on the well-known monument in Carlton House Terrace.’

I feel very heartened that James Fitzjames was to at least this slight extent acknowledged by his real family.”

This is the portrait of James Gambier as a younger man on the left. Because it’s interesting to see the family resemblance I made a side by side of Gambier and Fitzjames. As you can see he is definitely a son of his father!

I edited the portrait on the left a bit, because the original image had some camera flash going on. I hope to be able to someday view the full portrait, which is in a private collection. A descendant from James Gambier kindly provided me with more information on when and by who the first portrait was made. It is painted by Domenico Pellegrini, an Italian and the main portrait painter in Lisbon in 1805/6, when it was probably made. The occasion was commemorating James Gambier’s role in the Battle of Trafalgar.


So we now know about Fitzjames’ father, but I wondered if there was a way to find out who his mother was. I tried looking through Battersby’s online archive to see if he had found out anything. Alas there was no mention of Fitzjames’ mother. After hearing from the same Gambier descendant who provided me with info about the painting that she had heard from a Coningham that Fitzjames’ mother was Hester Coningham, I needed to investigate this further!

My first impulse was to try and find a portrait of Hester, to see if she looked anything like Fitzjames.
I finally found it on there she was! The portrait was uploaded by professor Eric Nye of the University of Wyoming who is doing research on Hester’s son, the author John Sterling (1806-1844). Wishing to hear some details about the painting I emailed Eric Nye and we had an interesting discussion.

On MyHeritage I found a family tree of James Fitzjames made by Battersby, and he has Hester Coningham listed as Fitzjames’ mother! So he must have found out something and had more information.

On his blog, offline and now only accessible through Web Archive, Battersby wrote the following updates on Fitzjames’ mother:

Who was James Fitzjames’ mother?
When I published ‘James Fitzjames’ I knew that he had lived nearly all his life as a member of the Coningham family and was closely linked to them, but I wrongly believed that his mother was most likely Portuguese or Brazilian, based on the assumption this his father Sir James Gambier was living in Brazil at the time of his conception and birth.  Further research carried out – alas – after publication makes it absolutely clear that the Brazilian thesis was without foundation.

I continue to carry out research attempting to identify who is mother was.  This research has uncovered some extremely intriguing pointers but unless or until I feel that the evidence is strong enough, I will forbear to publish further information.  It should be clearly understood, however, that there is no longer any support for the idea that she might have been Brazilian.  She was very likely closely associated with the Coningham and Sterling family who brought him up but until proof can be obtained, all is speculation.

For a suggestion of how close Fitzjames remained to the Sterling family, and how he appeared in their highly intellectual circle, interested readers might study the character of ‘Hastings’ who appears in the roman à clef ‘The Onyx Ring‘, published by John Sterling in 1838. Sterling was a nephew of the Rev Robert Coningham, in whose household Fitzjames was brought up.  Hastings is described as ‘a traveller who had visited almost every part of the world.’
In a longer passage he was described as:

‘a man on whom twenty years of hardship and adventure sat lightly and cheerfully . His set, alert figure suited well with his lively, shrewd countenance. His conversation was in a great degree made up of common remarks upon uncommon things and people; and where he had only common objects to deal with, commonest of the common were all his views and feelings, But when he spoke of the Brazilian forests, the Steppes of Tartary, or the plains of Caffraria, the topic gave an interest which would never have arisen from the speaker. Light-hearted courage and good-humoured kindliness had been the ostrich wings to help him smoothly over the world. By profession a sailor, and still holding a lieutenant’s commission, he had spent the long intervals of his service in travelling. He had been present in the same year at the levees of the American President and the Persian Shah, and had made the Pope laugh by an anecdote which he had picked up a few weeks before in a Turkman tent. In every land he had made friends of all he lived amongst, and even seemed to have formed an amicable acquaintance with the beasts and plants, and the very aspect of the different countries. He knew something of natural history, and had a collection of curiosities, some of which, as they happened to fall under his hand, he would carry with him for a week or two, wherever he might be, and then lock them up again in some huge sea-chest for another imprisonment of years. Men he knew superficially, but on many sides, and dealt with them by instinctive readiness and good-fellowship, rather than from any systematic views. No man moved more lightly within his own limits; but no limits could be more definite or impassable; and though they embraced the five regions of the globe, and all its seas, they were still narrow. All men, however, derived pleasure from so clear, self-possessed, and bright a presence. He was to many a cordial against that melancholy which he had never felt; for the first shadow of it drove him on new undertakings; and fresh scenes and objects were to him always delightful’.

In a later blog post of 12 August 2012, he writes that he has made a lot of progress with his research:

“I haven’t posted or a while. I am working pretty hard in business at the moment, and my primary research focus is piecing together the full story of James Fitzjames’ mother, and of her family.  Believe me it is a remarkable story and when I have it all, with all the proof I need, I will publish it in the Kindle second edition of my book.  But I am keeping quiet until that has been completed.”

Who was Hester Coningham?
Hester Coningham was born in 1783 in or near Derry, Northern Ireland. Her brother was the Reverend Robert Coningham (1784 -1836), he who would become James Fitzjames’ foster-father. Their parents were John Coningham, a Derry merchant of Scottish descent, and Elizabeth Campbell from Sunderland, England.
In 1804 Hester married Edward Sterling, a soldier and author. Thomas Carlyle describes their early relationship in his book The life of John Sterling (1851):
“At a ball in Derry he met with Miss Hester Coningham, the queen of the scene, and of the fair world in Derry at that time. The acquaintance, in spite of some Opposition, grew with vigor, and rapidly ripened: and “at Fehan Church, Diocese of Derry,” where the Bride’s father had a country-house, “on Thursday 5th April, 1804, Hester Coningham, only daughter of John Coningham, Esquire, Merchant in Derry, and of Elizabeth Campbell his wife,” was wedded to Captain Sterling; she happiest to him happiest,—as by Nature’s kind law it is arranged.”

Hester Coningham Sterling. Portrait by John Linnell, 1834. Private Collection

Carlyle further describes Hester thus:
“Mrs. Sterling, even in her later days, had still traces of the old beauty: then and always she was a woman of delicate, pious, affectionate character; exemplary as a wife, a mother and a friend. A refined female nature; something tremulous in it, timid, and with a certain rural freshness still unweakened by long converse with the world. The tall slim figure, always of a kind of quaker neatness; the innocent anxious face, anxious bright hazel eyes; the timid, yet gracefully cordial ways, the natural intelligence, instinctive sense and worth, were very characteristic. Her voice too; with its something of soft querulousness, easily adapting itself to a light thin-flowing style of mirth on occasion, was characteristic: she had retained her Ulster intonations, and was withal somewhat copious in speech. A fine tremulously sensitive nature, strong chiefly on the side of the affections, and the graceful insights and activities that depend on these:—truly a beautiful, much-suffering, much-loving house-mother. From her chiefly, as one could discern, John Sterling had derived the delicate aroma of his nature, its piety, clearness, sincerity; [..] A man was lucky to have such a Mother; to have such Parents as both his were.”

From this description it would seem Hester was the perfect woman and mother. A veritable saint. Not the sort of woman who has an affair…
But then again history only tells us what we can find. This description of Hester is by a man who knew her, but it was published in a memorial book for her son John who had died years before. That book would not be the place and time to write anything negative about his mother. In general the affair would have been something that was swept under the rug. An indiscretion best forgotten.

Of course this is all speculation because there is no conclusive evidence (yet). The first thing I needed to find out was if it is even possible that Hester Coningham Sterling gave birth to an illegitimate boy in 1813 or 1814. I looked up when Hester’s children by her husband Edward Sterling were born:


As we can see she and Edward didn’t have any children between 1812 and 1815.
From 1810 -1814 Edward Sterling was Adjutant of the Glamorganshire Militia. “The office involved pretty frequent absences.” wrote Thomas Carlyle. So Hester was often left on her own? Opportunities…
The big question is: how and where did James Gambier and Hester Coningham meet?
I would have thought that Hester might have met Gambier when she visited her brother Robert in Abbots Langley, if it weren’t for Robert and Louisa Coningham not moving to Rose Hill until at least after William Coningham’s birth in 1815.

In order to have an overview of who was where and when I made this timeline of the whereabouts of James Gambier, Hester and Robert/Louisa Coningham:

1810: Sterling family lives in Llanblethian, Wales

1811 James Gambier back in London from Rio

1811: Ferdinand Wake Gambier (son of James Gambier), born in London

1812 October/November:  James Fitzjames conceived (if we go by 23 July 1813 as his date of birth)

1813 8 June:
Gloucester Gambier (son of James Gambier) born in Hinckley, Leicestershire

1813: both Sterling family and Robert and Louisa Coningham were living in Wales

1813 27 July: James Fitzjames born in Devon or London (?)

1813 6 December: John Robert Coningham (son of Louisa and Robert Coningham) born in Wales

1814 17 February: John Robert Coningham christened at parish church Llysworney, Wales

1814 24 April: Samuel Gambier (son of James Gambier) born in Higham on the Hill, Leicestershire

1814 August – 1815, March: Sterling family moves to Paris, France

1815 24 February: James Fitzjames baptised in London

1815 26 June:  William Coningham born in Penzance, Cornwall

1815: James Gambier appointed consul-general to The Hague, the Netherlands

When Fitzjames was born on 27 July 1813 James Gambier was residing in Leicestershire, Hester was in Llanblethian, Wales and Robert/Louisa Coningham were in Llysworney, Wales. The distance between Llanblethian and Llysworney is about a 30 minute walk.

Perhaps Fitzjames was indeed born in Devon, because if Hester is his mother she couldn’t stay in Llanblethian in the final stages of the pregnancy.
Devon is relatively close to Wales and it seems like a better place to secretly give birth than the big, gossipy city of London.
Robert and Louisa had their son John on 6 December 1813, but perhaps he died shortly after his baptism on 17 February 1814. There is no record of his death, this is another interesting thing to look into. I have done some searching but found nothing yet.

With Robert and Louisa living so near Hester, handing Fitzjames over to their care might have easily been arranged. This probably happened in 1814 after the death of John. It remains strange that Fitzjames was baptised so long after his birth. Babies are usually baptised a few months after they are born.
In February 1815 Robert and Louisa were no longer living in Wales. Louisa was pregnant with William and had perhaps already been staying in Penzance, Cornwall for a while to prepare for the birth. It seems that Louisa and later also William were not in the best of health and that they often traveled to places for ‘cures’. This explains why Louisa was in the seaside town of Penzance when having her second baby. Fresh, healthy sea air! Meanwhile Robert could have arranged the baptism of the 1.5 year old Fitzjames in London. But again, why after 1.5 years and not soon after he was born? Why give him the last name of Fitzjames, instead of fully adopting him and giving him the last name Coningham?

In conclusion: without conclusive evidence (written evidence, a DNA test) there is no way of proving that Hester Coningham is Fitzjames’ mother.
All I have been able to do here is draw conclusions from the resources that were available to me:
– Apparently Coningham family members say that Hester Coningham was Fitzjames’ mother. So Hester Coningham is not just a random option.
– Battersby put Hester as Fitzjames’ mother when he made the MyHeritage family tree for Fitzjames. He also wrote on his blog that Fitzjames’ mother was “very likely closely associated with the Coningham and Sterling family”
– It is biologically possible that Hester gave birth to Fitzjames in 1813 or 1814 because she didn’t have any other children between 1812-1815.
– Hester’s husband Edward Sterling spent years often being away for work. Even though Hester had five small children at home, something could have been arranged.

By Fabiënne Tetteroo
29 September 2021
(updated: 2 November 2021)

Sources (family trees) (family trees) (birth and baptism records)

Battersby, William James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition 2010
Carlyle, Thomas The life of John Sterling 1851 which can be read online here and here