The Gambiers

The privately printed 1924 book The Story of the Gambiers, now in the collection of the British Library and discovered by Battersby after the publication of his book, offers the ultimate proof that James Fitzjames was the son of Sir James Gambier (1772-1844):

“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 his legitimate kinsmen. Sir James Gambier, Ambassador to the Brazils, had a natural son, James FitzJames, R.N., well known to the Gambier family, who styled him the “Knight of Snowden”.1

The writer of The Story of the Gambiers is Sarah Caroline Gore Gambier, Mrs. Cuthbert Heath (1859-1944). She is Robert Gambier’s (1791-1872) granddaughter by his son Charles Gore Gambier (1824-1891). Charles was just a baby when Fitzjames lived at Robert Gambier’s house in 1825 in the weeks leading up to HMS Pyramus’ departure. According to Sarah, Robert Gambier was “a fine specimen of English manhood, and was known throughout his life as “Handsome Bob”.2 Robert was the son of Sir James Gambier’s cousin Samuel Gambier (1752-1813).

Charles Gore Gambier, photograph 1860’s, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Another interesting revelation is that apparently Fitzjames was “well known to the Gambier family”. Besides already knowing Robert Gambier, this contact with the rest of his birth father’s family seems to have started just before Fitzjames sailed out with Franklin’s Arctic Expedition in 1845.
Battersby describes a meeting between Fitzjames and his half-brother Robert Fitzgerald Gambier (1803-1885) in May 1845:

“Before leaving Woolwich, he [Fitzjames] visited the SS Great Britain, at that time the largest ship in the world, which was being fitted out on the Thames. That same day he had what was clearly an unexpected and emotional meeting with his true half-brother Robert Fitzgerald Gambier, who was one of Sir James Gambier’s three legitimate sons [FT: in 1845 Sir James Gambier had five living legitimate sons]. Fitzjames had called on the Barrow family to say goodbye and there, completely by chance, came face to face with Fitzgerald Gambier who, with his wife, had called on the Barrows at the exact same time. The two men recognised each other for who they really were and their relationship was warm, although it is fruitless to speculate on what might or might not have been said. Fitzjames’ comment was that ‘I saw Fitzgerald Gambier and his wife to both of whom I really feel much attached for I cannot but be certain of their real regard for me.’ He clearly hoped to build a more open relationship with his true family.”3

While not wanting to speculate on what might have been said, Battersby speculates on everything else surrounding the meeting of Fitzjames and Fitzgerald.  
These are Fitzjames’ own words regarding the meeting:

Woolwich Sunday 10th [1845]

Dearest William [Coningham]


I called on the

Barrows to day to take

leave — and saw Fitzgerald

Gambier & his wife to

both of whom I really

feel much attached

for I cannot but be

certain of their real

regard for me.

This does not read as an emotional, chance meeting with his half-brother. Instead, it reads as if Fitzjames had met Fitzgerald before and had already established a relationship with him and his wife, to whom he feels by now “much attached” and is certain of “their real regard” for him. William Coningham also evidently already knew who Fitzgerald Gambier was. Battersby’s statement that Fitzjames “clearly hoped to build a more open relationship with his true family”, is contradicted by Fitzjames’ instruction to tear up letters, see later in this article, and his never referring to the Gambiers as his relatives even in private letters to William and Elizabeth.
Some people in the Royal Navy had been aware of Fitzjames’ parentage for years, as is evident by the 1831 letter Battersby found in which Captain Senhouse refers to Fitzjames as a son of Sir James Gambier.4 However, Fitzjames himself was very much not open about his parentage.

With Fitzjames and Fitzgerald meeting at the Barrow residence (although Fitzjames’ letter does not actually say that he met Fitzgerald and his wife at the Barrows’), it must have been at least by then known to the Barrow family that these two men were related. Especially because the family resemblance is uncanny.

This is a portrait of 13 year old Robert Fitzgerald Gambier. After seeing a black and white reproduction of it in The Story of the Gambiers, I found the painting in the collection of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Perugia.5

Fitzgerald entered the Royal Navy in 1816, on the occasion of which this portrait seems to have been made. Fitzgerald’s first ship was HMS Myrmidon under the command of Captain Robert Gambier.6 In 1825 Fitzjames would also start his career in the Navy under Robert Gambier, who was then commanding the HMS Pyramus. Even living at Robert’s house before the Pyramus sailed out, Fitzjames must have been told that he was related to Robert but that this was something that was not to be spoken of. With two of his sons starting their Navy career under Robert Gambier, it must have been Sir James himself who had helped arrange this.

Reading on in Fitzjames’ last 1845 correspondence with William and Elizabeth Coningham reveals that the Gambier siblings were by then very eager to establish a relationship with their illegitimate brother. Curiously, Battersby decided to leave all of this out of his book, despite having had access to these letters and having read them too, as he does quote from other parts of these letters. This information is however an important part of Fitzjames’ life and his state of mind when leaving for the Arctic.
The contact between Fitzjames and his Gambier relatives seems to have been rather recent by the way Fitzjames talks about it. Fitzjames appears to feel conflicted about this sudden outpouring of affection by the Gambiers. On the one hand enjoying their kindness and attention to him, and on the other hand wondering how to feel about these people who were in fact total strangers to him.

14 May 1845 to William

“Capt Robt Gambier came from

Southampton to day on purpose

to see me — and Fitzgerald &

a party come tomorrow —”

16 May 1845 to William

“She [Lady Franklin] has taken it into her

head to have a portrait of

all our officers, & sent a man

down who takes us all with the

Daguerreotype — I have got a

second for Elizabeth to whom

I shall send it when set.

I believe it is very like me

Though I fear Lady Franklin

will have the best —
She comes on board tomorrow, &

I shall try & get 2 more. One

for Fitzgerald & one for Mrs

Campbell — You will have

the best of the three —
                All the Gambiers came

down yesterday to see me

William, Fitzgerald & both their

wives, and Gloucester also

came from Dover on purpose

Capt Robert came up from

Southampton on purpose — and

they were really all so cordial

and kind, that I can have no

doubt of their real feeling of

regard for me — Fitzgerald &

his wife, I really love

Mrs Norris has also written

me a very  affectionate note

which I think you would like

to see so I shall leave it.

and when read tear it up.”

Again, the meeting between Fitzjames and Fitzgerald on May 10th at (presumably) the Barrow residence must not have been the first time they met, if by 16 May Fitzjames already “really love[s]” Fitzgerald and his wife Hester Butler.
Fitzgerald was important enough to Fitzjames that he wanted to give him a Daguerreotype portrait. There are two known Daguerreotypes of Fitzjames, of which one only a photographic copy now exists. His letter reads as if the following was the case: one daguerreotype for Lady Franklin, one for Elizabeth Coningham, and Fitzjames was going to ask Lady Franklin if he could have two more portraits taken to give to Fitzgerald and a Mrs. Campbell. Confusingly he says William Coningham will get the best of the three, although this probably means that the Daguerreotype for Elizabeth was simultaneously meant for William. Thus making three Daguerreotypes that were not Lady Franklin’s to keep. In any case, the possibility that there may be more Daguerreotype portraits of Fitzjames somewhere out there is very thrilling. Although in reality there was probably no more time for portraits between Saturday 17 May when Fitzjames was going to ask Lady Franklin and the Expedition sailing out on Monday 19 May.

The Gambiers who came to see Fitzjames are: Wiliam Gambier, born 14 September 1802 (though it says 1825 in Story of the Gambiers) and died 5 December 1860. He married Annabel Francis Garth Colleton on 2 July 1831.
Gloucester Gambier was born 8 June 1813, and died 29 March 1872. He was an officer in the Royal Artillery and had been a first-class cricketer.
Mrs. Norris is Wilhelmina Frederica Elizabeth Sophia Gambier, Sir James Gambier’s daughter, born 1 July 1801. She died 18 May 1876. She married Richard Norris on 12 June 1820. He died in 1841.7

18 May 1845 to William

“I continue daily to

get most affectionate

letters from all the Gambiers

which I believe answer the

purpose intended —”

1 AM 19th May 1845

Dearest Elizabeth

                Read these two notes

and tear them up — They

pleased me much — more

than I can express —

                You will be glad to
see them because they
gave me pleasure, but
you will make out
more by their handwriting
than I can probably do
by what is written.
Mrs Norris is Sir
James’ Eldest daughter
a widow — whose daughter
is an agreeable girl of
about Eighteen —
                Yet with all their
affection I cannot feel
toward them as I do
to you — How is this? —

I feel grateful to them

for their kindness which

I believe to be genuine

and of course I feel partial

to them. That is I like them

                To Mrs F. Gambier I feel

really most warmly —

but I cannot discover

that I care any more

for any of them then I

should for utter strangers

who had taken the same

pains to be liked —
                To you it is not so —

I love you for yourself

and above all for

the sake of him who is to

me more than all in

this world — and you

know it — and this is the

real reason of our

mutual regard, esteem,

and affection —

God for ever bless you

James Fitzjames

 Fitzjames instructed Elizabeth and William to tear up the letters Mrs. Norris wrote him, presumably because she had written quite candidly about Fitzjames’ true relationship to the Gambiers and perhaps even about his mother. One wonders how many more letters containing information about Fitzjames’ parentage were similarly torn up…

31 May 1845 to William

“[…] I got an immense heap of

notes and newspapers dated 24th from Fitzgerald and Barrow —”

7 July 1845 to Elizabeth

“If you see any more of Fitzgerald Gambier

and his wife, you will find that I have

in both of them sincere and affectionate

friends to whom I feel much attached.

And you will like her I am certain.

I shall write to him before the Transport

goes —”

Fitzgerald Gambier and his wife Hester never had any children, and where the letters he received from Fitzjames ended up, if preserved at all, is unknown.
“Mrs Cuthbert Heath, who often saw Admiral Robert FitzGerald Gambier in her childhood at Gosport, remembers him as a kindly old man, totally blind, and fond of interlarding his conversation with nautical jokes and stories.”8
One can see why Fitzjames and Fitzgerald must have gotten along really well, with both of them being Navy men and being fond of jokes and stories. Having had such a strong bond with Fitzjames in the months before he left England never to return, Fitzgerald must have kept his half-brother’s memory alive within the Gambier family. Resulting in Sarah Heath née Gambier including James Fitzjames in her The Story of the Gambiers.

By Fabiënne Tetteroo
29 May 2022


Fitzjames’ correspondence with William and Elizabeth Coningham is on microfilm at the National Maritime Museum, Caird Library. MRF/89/1

  1. Heath, Sarah The Story of the Gambiers. [With portraits.] London, St. Clements Press, 1924 p. 27
  2. Heath, 1924 p. 41
  3. Battersby, William James Fitzjames: The mystery man of the Franklin Expedition, The History Press, 2010 p. 163
  4. Battersby, 2010 p. 24
  5. Marignoli, Duccio K. Scheda Collezione Alessandro Marabottini: Ritratto di Robert Fitzgerald Gambier, 2015
    oil on canvas, 28 x 21.5 cm. Fitzgerald’s portrait was part of art collector Alessandro Marabottini’s collection which he donated to Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Perugia after his death in 2012. He had bought the painting from antiquarian and collector Andrea Daninos in Florence.
  7., and the family tree in The Story of the Gambiers. Gloucester Gambier Wikipedia.
  8. Heath, 1924 p.27