After reading William Battersby’s book ‘James Fitzjames – The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition’ (2010) I was left with some questions and wondered if further research had been done after the book came out. I was sad to find out that William Battersby had passed away in 2016 and that nobody seemed to have continued his Fitzjames research.
On Battersby’s blogs and website I read that he had found out new information about who Fitzjames’ mother was and that he intended to publish this in the updated version of his book. Sadly he never got to do that. I asked around if others knew what had happened to Battersby’s research, but nobody seemed to know. I tried to recreate his research with bits of information I found online and in archives, but it felt like reinventing the wheel if Battersby had already done the exact same research.
Thankfully Franklin Expedition researcher Peter Carney found an email from 12 October 2013 in which Battersby had sent him the first two chapters of his intended updated book! These chapters include the new information and research on Fitzjames’ possible mother. It was the information that he had gathered thus far and he was still hoping to find more conclusive evidence before publishing it.
I see that I was on the right track, and while Battersby never found any conclusive evidence it is still very interesting information and an inspiration for further research.
I am very happy to have been given permission by William Battersby’s family to publish the two chapters here, so that all may read them.
– Fabiënne Tetteroo,
11 January 2022
Introduction by Maddie Battersby
“Memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.”
Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900
I came across a photo of my dad recently. Arms outstretched, he’s holding up an enormous broadsheet newspaper, buried in its contents, totally absorbed in the goings on of the world. As a child I remember he’d spend long afternoons just like this, combing the contents from cover to cover, occasionally umming and aah-ing; reflecting on a historical reference here and there.
History was always part of life. When we were kids, he took us to London’s museums, and delighted in giving us pep talks on Roman sewage systems – a topic he covered in his undergraduate degree in Archaeology at University College London, for which he received a First Class Honours. The photo above was taken in the living room of the house we grew up in London. We lived there for the best part of two decades. It was in this house that my dad’s dance with the mystery man James Fitzjames first began. While the house’s occupants were still sleeping, just as the first tube trains started to rattle from below the basement, and several hours before he would don a suit and set off to work in the City where he enjoyed a long and successful career, he would step into the garden-shed-turned-office and armed with a hot heavily caffeinated beverage and a unique certainty that there was more to uncover, and began to research the Franklin expedition. In particular one intriguing crew member, James Fitzjames, of whom there was startlingly little information about, attracted his attention; a mystery within a mystery. The culmination of this research was the biography James Fitzjames: Mystery man of the Franklin expedition as well as journal contributions, contributions to other biographies, and of course, his blogs.
To my mind, dad was drawn to Fitzjames as the charismatic and daring underdog, and it is not outside of the realms of speculation to consider whether he saw some parts of himself in him. My dad was passionate about collaboration. My dad had a distinct sense of humour. He once told me a ring binder was a pasta maker, and I believed him. He let me believe this for quite some time. He could find humour in almost anything, no matter how inappropriate (in fact, the latter was probably an area he excelled in). He was a hard worker. He readily gave up his time for others. He was rather a big fan of eating cheese. He had, for reasons known only to him, a very specific way of answering the phone to me (“‘Elloooo Mad-day?”). He appreciated a good question, as much as its answer. He was very social. He liked meeting new people and was a passionate member of the Franklin community.
He died, quite suddenly, in a very tragic accident, in 2016. My world imploded.
Since his death, I’ve found my mind wander back to thoughts of the house I grew up in, where this photograph was taken. I began to think of the places that make and shape us, and the process of tracing origins, of ourselves and of our history; of how our pasts make us. I began to reflect on the icy waves of the ocean, the very waves that carried Franklin’s men on their ships to their fate. I began to reflect on the vitality of preservation, of memory, and of the importance of telling people’s authentic stories, how they really were, and in their own words, and how, like frozen seas, they can be preserved, held forever in a moment in time.
In the months before he died, dad had been continuing to pull at the strings of Fitzjames’s life, and that of Fitzjames’ mother’s, to update his book. To date these revisions have remained unseen, until now. It is with joy, gratitude and pride that dad’s revisions to the opening chapter of his book The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition (2010) find their natural home here, published on the James Fitzjames website that serves as a wonderfully and beautifully curated tribute to the memory of James Fitzjames. The revised chapter features unseen letters and further information relating to Fitzjames’ birth mother.
Fabiënne not only has our approval and thanks, but our intense admiration. It is our great hope that this contributes to further study in the field.
People like to say time is a healer and you learn to live with loss, but this is a belief I have come to know is false. Losing our dad has been life-changing and soul-splintering. It’s something I suspect we won’t ever recover from. So when I think of the agonising loss for the loved ones of every one of Franklin’s men, plunged as they were into uncertainty and pain, and the harrowing experiences the men endured trapped in the ice, the agony and heartache is unbearable. We simply must remember them. The search goes on.
While I suspect our grief will never truly thaw out, it is my firm belief that the publication of dad’s contributions to the field, carried as they are on the shoulders of generations of historians and researchers before him, and moved diligently forward by the incredible work of those undertaking live and ground-breaking research right now, serves to preserve both the memory of James Fitzjames, but also that of my dad, and indeed, that of every one of those men on the Franklin expedition.
In this way, my dad, and all of us too, are immortally interwoven into the tapestry of the mystery of the Franklin expedition.
– Maddie Battersby
Chapter 1: Tracking down James Fitzjames
James Fitzjames joined the Franklin Expedition at the start of the photographic age. Pictures were taken of the officers of the Franklin Expedition including Franklin, Crozier and Fitzjames. These pictures are not photographs but Daguerreotypes. A Daguerreotype is like a photograph in that it is a mechanical image but like a painting in that each is unique and it can never be reproduced. This makes them precious. To handle the original Daguerreotypes, as I have been privileged to do, gives you a unique connection with the subject.
The often mistranslated Chinese proverb that ‘a picture’s meaning can express ten thousand words’ is certainly true of these portraits. Franklin and Crozier are identically posed. Both have problems with their hats. Franklin is wearing an archaic fore-and-aft hat and looks ill, while Crozier looks tired and wan and is wearing an improbably huge cap. Fitzjames has a rather large cap too, but as he is holding it the absurdity seems less. Two Daguerreotypes were taken of Fitzjames. In one he holds a telescope, the symbol of an officer, and in the second he has put it down. He looks more relaxed and confident than Franklin or Crozier – a more modern figure. One of the Daguerreotypes of him has been lost, but a photograph of it survives, so both images are reproduced in this book.
These Daguerreotypes are well known, yet even they have concealed significant information which generations of Franklin researchers have missed. The researcher Peter Carney noticed that reflections can be seen in the peak of Fitzjames’ cap in both pictures and that, since Fitzjames held his cap at a slightly different angle, by enlarging the two images it is possible to ‘see’ what Fitzjames was looking at when he sat for his pictures. On Fitzjames’ left stood Sir John Franklin, who can be discerned wearing his ‘fore-and-aft’ hat. In the centre can be seen the mast, with a lower spar and a furled sail visible, of one of the ships, possibly HMS Erebus? And on the right can be seen the tripod of the Daguerreotype machine. It is eerie that Fitzjames’ own image has retained, unseen for one hundred and sixty-five years, an image of his own view of his commander Sir John Franklin and (probably) of his ship HMS Erebus.
The Markhams were the starting point for my quest for the truth about James Fitzjames, especially the hand-written draft of Sir Albert’s1 unpublished book on the Franklin Expedition. The other well-known source for information on Fitzjames is the published set of letters he wrote to Elizabeth Coningham, who Markham had said was Fitzjames’ sister.
Less well-known is the archive of Fitzjames’ papers held at the National Maritime Museum. This includes the certificate of his baptism. It records that his father was James Fitzjames, gentleman, and his mother Ann Fitzjames, that he was born on 27th July, 1813 and that he was christened on 24th February, 1815 at the Church of St. Mary-le-Bone in London.
This appeared to settle the identity of his family. But who were Anne and James Fitzjames? I tried to find out more about them. Even though detailed census records did not exist in 1815 there are many other sources of information, especially about someone who was a ‘gentleman’. Many parish records are now accessible through the Internet. I tried everything. But in every single case I drew a blank. I even searched trade newspapers and Court Circulars for some sign of the ‘gentleman’ having some sort of independent existence somewhere. There was no one of that name in the Royal Navy. I looked through the marriages and deaths registers for their parish church, St. Mary-le-Bone from 1790 to 1820 and drew a complete blank.
There were no candidates for either Ann or her husband on any registers or databases of births, marriages and deaths. If Fitzjames was their first child, and if they were supposed to have died a few years after his birth, then there ought to be some trace somewhere. The Baptismal Certificate proved that at some stage on Friday, 24th February, 1815, a couple had brought their one year old baby to be christened at that Church. Yet it was frustrating because I could – and did – go there and stand at the very spot where they had stood with James Fitzjames in their arms, but could not find any more information about them. They seemed to walk into the Church from nowhere and then walk out again into a void.
Some sources said that Fitzjames was a Foundling, so again I looked through the records for every single Foundling Hospital baby from 1790 to 1820, and again drew a blank.
I wondered if I could trace James and Ann Fitzjames through Fitzjames’ ‘sister’ Elizabeth Coningham. Here the parish records were easily accessible and proved beyond doubt that she had been born Elizabeth Meyrick in the little town of Burford in Oxfordshire. Unlike the records relating to the Fitzjames family, her family records are complete. They show that she did not have a brother called James, nor did she have any relations called Fitzjames. I checked her father’s will and again drew a blank on Fitzjames. It seemed impossible that the sibling relationship alleged by Markham between Elizabeth Meyrick and James Fitzjames could have existed.
But Markham had also said that Elizabeth’s father-in-law, the Reverend Robert Coningham, was Fitzjames’ uncle. This had seemed strange, but if Fitzjames was not Elizabeth’s sister, perhaps it was true after all? Again, an exhaustive search of parish and genealogical records failed to show any association between Fitzjames and the Coningham family.
I noticed that in his letters to Robert Coningham, Fitzjames had addressed the older man as ‘uncle’. Markham must have seen this. Yet I had found official letters to the Admiralty from both Robert Coningham and James Fitzjames in which both men stated that Robert Coningham was Fitzjames’ guardian only and that they were unrelated. Typically Robert Coningham said that Fitzjames ‘was placed at a very early period of his life under my charge, and was carefully brought up under my own roof till the time of his going to sea, when he was just twelve years of age’ but sometimes he said that Fitzjames came into his household at the age of seven. John Wilson had picked up this latter comment. But it seemed strange that Coningham had said different and contradictory things – why? Was he covering something up?
This was puzzling but got me no closer to the elusive ‘Ann and James Fitzjames’. I started to think that Fitzjames was illegitimate and that these names were false. Illegitimacy was not unusual and the accepted practice was for the resulting child to be born discretely and then quietly and informally fostered elsewhere. It was not unusual for illegitimate children to be given a surname constructed from their father’s name. The illegitimate son of King James II was called James Fitzjames and the Duke of Clarence’s illegitimate children took the surname FitzClarence.
I guessed that if ‘my’ James Fitzjames was illegitimate then perhaps his name, which has the meaning of ‘James, the son of James’ might suggest that his father also had the Christian name ‘James’. And the fact that his father had adopted the name ‘James Fitzjames’ for himself in turn suggested that Fitzjames’ grandfather might also have been christened ‘James’.
Over the years there have been many different suggestions for Fitzjames’ true family. The name is unusual and at the time had strong connotations of Jacobism2, or support for the exiled Stuart line of claimants to the throne. The exiled Stuart royal line used the surname FitzJames, although usually spelt with a capital ‘J’ and often hyphenated. I noticed that ‘my’ James Fitzjames never used this spelling of his surname – his ‘j’ was always lower case. But was his father a Stuart descendant? Others noticed that James Stephen, the famous anti-slavery lawyer, named his son James Fitzjames Stephen and it has been suggested that Fitzjames was an illegitimate son of James Stephen. A further suggestion is that perhaps he was Irish, as the surname Fitzjames is not uncommon in Ireland. Since many Irish parish records were destroyed in the early years of the last century, this might explain why I could find no trace of Fitzjames’ ancestry in any search.
I had spent about a year puzzling over this, exploring blind alleys and loose ends. One day while reading some Admiralty files at the National Archive at Kew, by complete chance I found a personal letter which proved categorically that Fitzjames was illegitimate and conclusively identified his father. James Fitzjames’ natural father was not called ‘James Fitzjames’, was not Sir James Stephen, was no Jacobin pretender and was not Irish. Nor was he related to Elizabeth Coningham. Proof of Fitzjames’ paternity lies in Admiralty file ADM1/2559, letter S10, dated 27th January, 1831. This was a private letter between two senior officers, Captain Fleming Senhouse of HMS Asia and his friend Captain George Elliot, who was First Secretary to the Admiralty. In the letter Senhouse refers to Fitzjames as ‘Mr. Jas Fitzjames, a son of Sir Jas Gambier and who having served in the Pyramus under Captains Gambier and Sartorius is now on board the St. Vincent as assistant master’.
Later I tracked down a second independent piece of evidence that Sir James Gambier was Fitzjames’ father. In the British Library I found a copy of a book printed privately in 1924, ‘The story of the Gambiers’ written by Mrs. Cuthbert Heath. She was Sir James’ grand-daughter and in it she mentioned Fitzjames, specifically saying:
“… 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-book3, 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.”
This provided independent corroboration of the information in Captain Senhouse’s letter and showed that the Gambier family had retained an oral tradition that James Fitzjames was a relative of theirs for three generations. As an illustration of the impermanence of oral memory in English society, it is fascinating that even this knowledge was lost, even though a member of the family subsequently married a descendant of Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock.
‘The Knight of Snowden’ comes from Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’. A key figure in the poem is called James FitzJames and uses the title ‘the Knight of Snowden’. But in the poem both name and title are false as the character is revealed to be King James of Scotland in disguise. The analogy with ‘our’ James Fitzjames is obvious – a false name is used to conceal his true identity. Possibly nicknaming him ‘the Knight of Snowden’ is slightly demeaning too? It is also worth noting that Mrs. Heath mis-spelt Fitzjames’ name using the capital ‘J’ spelling which the Stuart descendants and Sir Walter Scott used and not the ‘Fitzjames’ which our man always used. This point will become important later.
This was my man and this was my proof. It enabled me to start to reconstruct the story of James Fitzjames. And the story it reveals is far more remarkable than anyone could possibly have guessed.
Fitzjames’ true father, Sir James Gambier, was born in 1772 and died in 1844, shortly before James Fitzjames sailed on the Franklin Expedition. So Fitzjames was not orphaned at an early age and not at the age of seven either. Sir James Gambier was a member of a prominent British family in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He was descended from a French Huguenot called Nicholas Gambier who had moved to England from Normandy in about 1690 to escape sectarian persecution. The family had prospered in the eighteenth century and most of its male members had chosen careers either in the Church of England or the Royal Navy.
My hunch about the Christian names of Fitzjames’ father and grandfather had been correct as Sir James’ father had been a Vice-Admiral James Gambier. Fitzjames’ grandfather Admiral Gambier had fought in the American War of Independence as second-in-command to Vice-Admiral Lord Howe and had briefly been Commander in Chief at New York after Howe resigned his command. Admiral Gambier had been disliked by his brother officers, being widely regarded as corrupt and incompetent. He was once memorably described as ‘this penurious old reptile’. Vice-Admiral Gambier married three times but only had children by his second wife, James Fitzjames’ grandmother. During his career Gambier became notorious for having an affair with the wife of a brother officer, Rear-Admiral Charles Knowles. In 1757 Knowles sued Gambier for £10,000 for adultery and the court awarded him £1,000, a vast sum in those days. The case caused a considerable sensation at the time.
The most famous and even more controversial member of the family was a second Admiral Gambier, who was fifty-seven years old at the time of Fitzjames’ birth. This was Admiral Lord Gambier, whose first name was also James. He had fought with great distinction in one of the early sea battles of the French Revolutionary Wars, the Glorious First of June in 1794, but his career ended in controversy after the Battle of Basque Roads in 1809. After this battle he was accused publicly of cowardice by Admirals Lord Cochrane and Sir Eliab Harvey when he refused to close with and destroy a trapped French fleet. Harvey told Gambier to his face, ‘I never saw a man so unfit for the command of a fleet as Your Lordship.’ Lord Gambier was cleared in the subsequent Court Martial but never went to sea again.
Why had Admiral Lord Gambier behaved like this? The reasons lie in his personality. Lord Gambier was a career naval officer who was known for his profound Christian belief. He seems to have been unable to accept responsibility for the bloodshed which would follow an assault on a large body of trapped French sailors unable to defend themselves. Like Sir John Franklin, he was a man who was regarded as particularly pious even by the standards of the time. Officers found this assertive tea-totaller an uncomfortable mess-mate and the sailors, who evidently did not appreciate his fervent sermons, nicknamed him ‘dismal Jimmie’.
It was probably this which prevented Gambier’s Court Martial from finding him guilty. It would have been extremely embarrassing for this venerable seadog and pillar of the Church to be convicted of cowardice in the face of the enemy.
This mixture of Church of England and Royal Navy was the heritage of James Gambier. But James broke away. Although he had started a career in the Royal Navy, he soon left and instead bought a commission as an officer in the Life Guards, before resigning that and becoming British Consul successively in Lisbon (1803), Rio de Janeiro (1807) and Ghent (1815). He retired after 1825 and died in 1844. He had married a Jemima Snell in 1797 and they had twelve children. She was the daughter of a wealthy City of London merchant who had settled at Salisbury Hall in Hertfordshire.
As I reconstructed Gambier’s life I puzzled over why he had thrown up his army career in 1802-3 to move to Lisbon. At that stage Jemima and he had had four children, three of whom were living. There is no proof of what follows but I believe the timing of his move to Lisbon in 1803 and the birth of the mysterious James Fitzjames in 1802 may not be coincidental.
In the previous chapter I mentioned the mysterious ‘first James Fitzjames’. His full story, such as it can be told, is given in Appendix I. Clearly his birth in 1802 was illegitimate. He died in 1823 – like his more famous namesake being lost at sea with no trace of his body ever being discovered. This pattern of an illegitimate birth, a baby named James Fitzjames and entry into the Royal Navy at least suggests that James Gambier may have been the father of this child too.
There are other pointers too. The Rev. Dawson Warren, the clergyman who dealt with the fostering of this baby, was a personal chaplain of the Duke of York. The Duke was a brother of the King and Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Like Gambier he lived in London. The involvement of the Rev. Warren suggests that James Fitzjames I’s mother might have been associated with the Duke, either a lower class servant in his household or an upper class female relative or connection. The Duke himself was notoriously drunken and licentious. Just the sort of man who might be amused to socialise with a well connected, high-spending but dissolute young cavalry officer like James Gambier.
I speculate that Sir James’ conduct caused this scandal and it was for this reason that he had to resign his commission and go into exile as British Consul-General in Lisbon in 1803, taking his family with him. We know from his later bank records that James Gambier was reckless with money and ran up massive debts. If this was his pattern of behaviour in early life, then a second attraction for him of the position of a Consul-General would have been its money-making potential, especially in a city like Lisbon which traded extensively with Britain.
But what had been a quiet but lucrative backwater suddenly became a vital post with the outbreak of the Peninsular War. And when the Portuguese royal family went into exile in Brazil in 1808 to escape the invading French armies, the Gambier family went with them. Gambier was appointed British Consul-General in Rio de Janeiro in 1808, as Portugal and Brazil shared the same Royal family. Gambier served in this role until 1814.
Britain’s relations with Brazil and Portugal were vital during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. From 1808 British land forces were continually engaged with the French in Spain and Portugal in the bitter Peninsula War. Brazil was a vital British trading partner and ally, especially once the cool relations between Britain and the United States descended into open warfare in 1812. Compounding British difficulties was the start of the protracted Latin American revolt against Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule. This series of revolutions might have been expected to act against British interests and favour France, as the revolution in North America had forty years earlier. But skillful diplomacy, aggressive trading and selective use of the force of the Royal Navy enabled Britain to maintain a positive position in the turbulent world of Latin American politics and to exploit these relationships to counterbalance France and the United States.
The life of the Portuguese expatriates in Brazil was exotic and licentious. Sir James and Lady Jemima fully entered into this and their life in Brazil was one long social whirl of luxurious living. We have an eyewitness account of this from the diary of Elizabeth Macquarie who visited Rio and met the Gambier family in August 1809 while on her way to Australia. She tells us that Sir James and Lady Gambier lived in a beautifully situated house called ‘Bolto Togo’ which Gambier had bought outright. It appears that ‘Bolto Togo’, the name Elizabeth Macquarie gave for Sir James Gambier’s house, was actually Botafogo, the suburb of Rio where many of the aristocracy and royal family lived. The house was situated ‘in a most romantic spot’ on the sea shore surrounded by an orange grove. Elizabeth Macquarie found the smell of the orange blossom overwhelming. The house was approached by a grand drive which skirted the beach. It overlooked the harbour and the Sugar Loaf Mountain. The interior was decorated in the Regency style and furnished in the latest English taste. The family lived a life of ‘unbounded expense’ in which Lady Gambier fully shared. Elizabeth Macquarie described Lady Gambier as ‘one of the most elegant and pleasing women we had ever seen, and very handsome’. The Gambiers continually entertained the English community and passing English visitors and when the Macquaries visited, insisted on organising a Ball for the officers of Colonel Macquarie’s Regiment. At this Ball, Elizabeth Macquarie met not only ‘all the English persons of distinction at Rio consisting for the most part of naval officers’ but also senior members of the Portuguese nobility and the Papal Nuncio.
In the first edition of this book I suggested that James Fitzjames must have been born in Brazil, as he was born in 1813. I noted that Gambier had taken up his appointment as Consul-General in Rio in 1808 and not relinquished it until 1814. I concluded that Fitzjames’ mother was most likely a Portuguese or Brazilian woman. I was never able to trace her but I never gave up trying. For the second edition I returned to Gambier’s bank records, which survive in the archives of Hoare and Company in Fleet Street, London, and the Foreign Office files in the National Archive, to see if I could find any clues as to her identity. From a close study and collation of these two sets of records I found to my considerable embarrassment that Fitzjames could not have been born in Brazil after all. I found that Gambier had dramatically mismanaged his career in Brazil and was able to reconstruct the whole exquisitely embarrassing story.
At first all had gone well. The family had established itself at Botafogo in a position of luxury and influence, all underpinned by a massive loan from Hoare’s. This would make sense because Gambier would be able to earn a great deal through the various routes open to Consuls. It must be recalled that the British Consul was not strictly a diplomat: his remit was trade. Diplomacy was the responsibility of the British Minister, Lord Strangford.
A major part of the Consul-General’s earnings were Consular Fees levied on trade carried out with Britain and in British ships. Gambier must therefore have kept a close eye on all shipping arriving at Rio de Janeiro. He would be delighted, therefore, on 14th September 1810 to see the 64 gun third rate line of battle ship HMS Lion enter the bay and anchor. The Lion was conveying important passengers to England: Sir Gore Ouseley, the British Ambassador to the Persian Empire, and his entourage and a Persian diplomatic mission to England headed by the newly appointed Persian Ambassador, Mirza Abu I Hassan. As with the visit of Colonel Macquarie, this represented not only profit but also a social opportunity for the hospitable Gambiers.
The first indication of trouble came in one of the most acid letters I have ever read, which was addressed to Sir James Gambier by Lord Strangford on 20th September. Strangford wrote:
My dear Sir James,
Allow me to ask whether I understood you rightly last night and whether three different Councillors of State did inform you that the Conde de Linhares had asserted in the presence that you were the sole instigator and mover of the Questions of Etiquette and Ceremony which are said to have arisen between the Persian Mission and myself. I think that this was your meaning although not perhaps precisely expressed in those words. I am convinced that such a declaration never was made by the Conde de Linhares. Whether however it was made or not it is the intention of the Prince Regent to examine his Councillors individually upon the subject of their Reports to you and to punish those who have either been so unfaithful as to reveal what may have passed in his Palace or so malignant as to have invented a calumny against the Conde de Linhares. They will therefore very justly pay the forfeit either of their Indiscretion or their malevolence.
Believe me to be,
My dear Sir James,
Very truly yours,
Thereafter a whole series of letters of clarification and explanation flew to and from Botafogo but it was no good: with a single gigantic social gaffe, Gambier had destroyed his position in Brazil overnight.
What seems to have happened was this: as soon as the Lion had anchored, Gambier had hastened on board, considering it ‘my duty to visit that ship for the purpose of paying my respects and offering my best services to the Embassy’. On being introduced to Sir Gore Ouseley, Gambier had asked that ‘his Excellency would fix a day when I might be allowed the honour of entertaining him, his family and the Persian Envoy at my House’. Perhaps put on the spot by this, Sir Gore accepted this invitation for the 19th September. Returning ashore, Gambier then invited ‘the Royal Highnesses, Ministers and Counsellors of State, Lord Viscount Strangford and the Foreign Ministers resident here to meet His Excellency and the Persian Mission’ at his house. A similar hospitable pattern of behaviour he had shown to the MacQuaries.
But Count de Linhares, who as Minister both for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and who was the most important figure in the entire Portuguese government from the British perspective, did not attend Sir James’ function. It appears that at this function Gambier and Strangford were informed that:
‘H.E. the Conde de Linhares had stated in the morning publicly that I [Gambier] was the cause and had been the fomenter of certain differences which, it was said, had arisen between that Minister, Lord Viscount Strangford and the Persian Mission, and which, it was stated, might probably prevent Sir Gore Ouseley from being present the following day at his, the Conde de Linhares’, entertainment’.
Gambier’s rash invitation had placed him at odds with the British Minister Lord Strangford and the Portuguese Foreign Minister the Count de Linhares. His social and diplomatic position became impossible overnight. Although he struggled on, he was persona non grata and by December, pleading an indisposition of his wife, he asked for leave of absence to return to England. By April 1811 the Gambier family had shut up the magnificent house in Rio and returned home to dreary, wartime England. Although no longer in Brazil, he still retained the position on the Foreign Office payroll, appointing a deputy in Brazil in his place. Obviously all the earnings from his position now devolved to his deputy.
Back in England it appears that, while Lady Gambier and her seven children lived either with her parents at Salisbury Hall or with sympathetic friends or relatives in the country, Sir James Gambier took rooms in London and tried to work out how to rebuild his life. If it is correct that his fathering of the first James Fitzjames was the cause of him having to give up his military career in 1802, then this was the time that a huge and entirely avoidable indiscretion on his part had devastated his family’s life. It would not be surprising if this put his relationship with Lady Gambier under strain.
Gambier now had huge financial problems: by November 1814 he owed Hoare’s and others over £9,000 which in today’s earnings is equivalent to over £3.5 million. Yet his enforced exile from Brazil had cut him off from the lucrative duties which would have enabled him to repay this. He seems literally to have run out of ideas and his sole objective was simply to stay out of the hands of his creditors.
Perhaps not surprisingly, his trail goes cold but inevitably in the end Hoare’s caught up with Sir James. Anyone who has run up an overdraft can well imagine how Gambier felt as he read Henry Hoare’s letter of 22nd May, 1812:
‘It was a matter of much surprise to me to learn yesterday when I was in Town that a correspondence was still carrying on between our solicitor and yours, but without that cooperation on your part Necessary to bring it to that Conclusion which we have every reasonable right to expect. Mr. Williams informs our Solicitors that he has transmitted their letter to you one of them dated the 9th, the other the 19th of this month. They will fully explain to you the State of the Transaction, upon which therefore it is unnecessary for me to enter, but it is indispensably requisite for you to make a new Assurance (the old one being undoubtedly void) and this you told me in a letter some time ago you had taken the necessary steps to procure. We are therefore at a loss to account for its not being complete. We have been placed in a very disagreeable situation for a considerable length of time by the irregularity of the transaction and shall remain so, we therefore think we have a right to call upon you for an immediate performance of that pledge you have so frequently given us of making us secure, this was to have been done on the 12th Feb but that day being a Holyday it was to be deferred to the following week; circumstances afterwards arose which were not foreseen but there has been sufficient time since to make the new arrangement. I beg leave also to call to your recollection the assurances you gave me of a remittance from Rio do Janiero long before this time; this was mentioned by you as so certain that the House could not entertain the least Doubt of it and therefore expected a considerable reduction of the debt. We feel ourselves compelled to urge an immediate Settlement and beg the favour of an answer’.
Sir James was caught like a rat in a trap and another excruciatingly embarrassing correspondence ensued. Gambier did not risk a face-to-face meeting but used his relatives, especially his cousins Samuel Gambier and William Morton Pitt, to negotiate on his behalf. Gambier was unable to realise any money from the sale of his house in Brazil, but fortuitously news reached him that the Count de Linhares had died so he prepared to return to Brazil. Resolution seemed possible until Hoare’s insisted that Gambier insure his life so that in the event of his death Hoare’s would be repaid from the insurance policy. The premium on this policy was £750, an amount which the effectively bankrupt Gambier was unable to raise. Thus Gambier was unable to return to Brazil to resume his career.
Eventually in 1814-15 a group of his creditors, led by Admiral Lord Gambier, took responsibility for all his debts and placed them in trust. Gambier was allowed a modest stipend. All his other earnings passed straight to his creditors and were used to pay off his debts. The Trust was only wound up on his death.
Lord Gambier had been put in charge of the British delegation negotiating a Treaty with the United States to end the War of 1812. They met the American delegation in neutral Ghent. The Treaty was finally signed at Ghent on December 24h, 1814. It seems likely that Sir James Gambier accompanied his uncle to Ghent and it is perhaps not a coincidence that Sir James’ next posting was as British Consul-General to the Netherlands. Sir James and his family moved there in spring 1815, arriving just before Napoleon’s return to the Imperial throne of France. Sir James does not seem to have lost his taste for high living as he next appears in the historical record as a guest at the Duchess of Richmond’s famous Ball given in Brussels on 17th June, 1815, the evening before the Battle of Waterloo. This Ball must stand as perhaps the most glamorous social event ever. It was here that the Duke of Wellington announced that the battle would be fought the next day. Some guests left early but other officers were said to have gone straight to the field of battle from the Ball and fought in evening dress. This sounds a tall story, but Fitzjames’ childhood friend Sophia Percy remembered as a child of seven being shown the coat her uncle Henry had worn for the Ball and then fought in at the battle. She recalled that it had a ‘large stain of blood on one shoulder of it’.
Foreign officer records show that Gambier was in the Netherlands throughout that dramatic summer of 1815 and from then on his life seems to have settled into a more regular pattern.
Throughout this time the Gambiers continued to have children, though not with the frequency they had earlier. In such a fertile couple this suggests they were spending more time apart. Sebastian Gambier was born in 1810 and Ferdinand in December 1811. The Gambiers’ next baby, Gloucester Gambier, was born on 8th June, 1813, just over a month before James Fitzjames himself.
I have gone into this dramatic and rather sorry tale in some detail not just for its intrinsic interest but also for what it can tell us of James Fitzjames. Clearly his father was dissolute and, while 100 years later in the 1920s the Gambier family was willing discretely to claim James Fitzjames’ successes for themselves, the sad tale of the elder James Fitzjames shows that no illegitimate son of Sir James was going to get any practical help or support from the family. We will never know whether Gambier was an incorrigible romantic and these illegitimate children were the product of romantic affairs, or whether Gambier was a serial predator and their conceptions closer to rapes. Some members of the Gambier family seem to have had some affection for Fitzjames, specifically his half-brother Robert Fitzgerald Gambier. Like Fitzjames, Fitzgerald Gambier entered the Navy and Mrs. Heath, author of ‘The Story of the Gambiers’, remembered him when he was ‘a kindly old man, totally blind, and fond of interlarding his conversation with nautical jokes and stories’. Presumably it was from him that she heard of her illegitimate great uncle James Fitzjames.
In all the correspondence and records relating to Sir James and the Gambier family there is absolutely no mention of Fitzjames at all, let alone his mother, although it may be significant that the Trust always refers to his ‘legitimate children’. This suggests the Trustees were aware of at least one illegitimate one… Had it not been for Captain Sartorius’ letter, and Mrs. Heath’s forgotten book, there would be absolutely no evidence whatsoever to link James Fitzjames to James Gambier. Yet when we compare the two portraits of James Fitzjames with the two which survive of James Gambier, we can see an immediate likeness.
So how can we trace Fitzjames’ mother?
Fabiënne Tetteroo’s Footnotes
1 It was not Sir Albert Markham who wrote an unpublished Franklin Expedition book, but his cousin Sir Clements Markham. Clements’ handwritten draft is still kept unpublished in the Royal Geographical Society’s archive. Albert Markham wrote a Sir John Franklin biography that was published in 1891.
3 Unfortunately the Gambier family’s tribute to Fitzjames contains an error: Franklin’s logbook has never been found. It is on what was later called the Victory Point Note that we find Fitzjames’ handwriting and signature.
Chapter 2: Tracing James Fitzjames’ mother
James Fitzjames himself makes his first appears in the historical record when a couple took him to be baptised, at the age of 18 months, at the Church of St. Mary-le-Grand1 in London on 24th February, 1815. We have seen that the names they gave, ‘James Fitzjames, gentleman’ and ‘Ann Fitzjames’ were false.
We know Fitzjames was brought up by foster parents, Louisa and Robert Coningham. We have seen that Robert Coningham usually said this started when Fitzjames was ‘at an early age’. What was the family of Robert Coningham like and what can we learn about Fitzjames’ childhood? Are there any clues from which we can identify his mother?
The Coningham’s only natural son to live to maturity, William Coningham, was Fitzjames’ closest friend. Fitzjames hung a portrait of William up in his cabin on HMS Erebus and it can be seen there in the picture published in the Illustrated London News in 1845. William was born on 26th June, 1815 and christened three weeks later at Madron, Penzance in Cornwall. His place of birth was given as Rose Hill, which is a small hamlet outside Penzance. At the time of William’s birth Robert Coningham was twenty-nine years old, having been born in 1784 in County Londonderry in Ireland where his father had been a merchant. Their family name had been Cunningham and they had originated in Scotland. ‘Cunningham’, pronounced with a northern Irish accent, sound rather like ‘Coningham’ and it was in Ireland that the spelling changed.
Robert’s circle had something of the roving, colonial culture about them. Robert’s uncle Walter, described by Thomas Carlyle as ‘a brave and solid man though somewhat abrupt in his ways’, had emigrated to the West Indies in the early eighteenth century. He made a fortune through the ownership of one of the largest sugar plantations on St. Vincent in the West Indies. This wealth depended upon the ruthless exploitation of a large workforce of slaves.
After attending Peterhouse, Cambridge, Robert Coningham took Holy Orders in the Church of England and was ordained priest at Ely in June 1810. Although he served as Curate of Abington in Cambridgeshire, he never took a living and had sufficient means never to need to work. It is clear that the Coningham family was a happy one. Fitzjames remembered Robert Coningham as a ‘dear and kind’ man who was ‘as fond of me as he was of his own son’. Louisa wrote to Fitzjames that ‘I consider you as son’ and William Coningham, writing to Fitzjames to tell him of Robert Coningham’s death, made the revealing slip of the pen of referring to Robert Coningham as ‘our father’.
At various times relatives of Robert Coningham seem to have lived with them. Robert’s widowed mother, who was born Elizabeth Campbell in 1742, was one. She was 71 at the time of Fitzjames’ birth and was clearly fond of him. Fitzjames and she wrote to each other regularly and he always referred to her as ‘grandmamah’. This formidable lady was linked to a large and close family of Campbells, Boyds, Coninghams and Gledstanes across Britain.
Of these relatives the Coninghams were especially close to a sister and brother called Alicia and Colin Campbell. Alicia and Colin Campbell had scandalous origins. Their grand-mother had also been called Alicia Campbell. Alicia the grandmother married a Henry Campbell but, after having two children with him, ran away with her cousin Colin Campbell who was also married. Scandalously, they set up home together and had more children. One was a daughter, called Alicia by some authorities but Agnes by others, who married a humble Glaswegian carpenter called John McLiver. The Coninghams’ friends Alicia and Colin Campbell were the product of this marriage which, although legitimate, was tainted by their mother’s illegitimacy and near-incest and John’s humble origins. But blood was thicker than water to the wider Campbell family and Alicia and Colin were looked after. Colin was enlisted in the army under the name of Campbell, a surname which his sister also took. Colin Campbell had a record of brave service during the Napoleonic Wars and as a child Fitzjames would have known of him although Campbell was serving abroad for most of Fitzjames’ childhood. Colin Campbell was particularly close to Robert Coningham and in the early 1830s Campbell virtually lived with the Coningham family. In fact when Coningham was taken ill suddenly in 1836 he actually died in Colin Campbell’s arms.
Alicia seems to have been close to Fitzjames too and also to have lived with the Coningham family at times. She was a lively and intellectual influence. In later life Bishop William Boyd-Carpenter, another Campbell relative, remembered her as ‘dear white-haired, beaming-faced Alicia Campbell. Warm of heart, cheery in manner, breathing kindness a kind of fairy godmother. She brought us books, and they were books which, as a rule, interested us’. Alicia Campbell never married but in later life became the housekeeper first to Robert’s sister Hester and after to the famous author and historian Thomas Carlyle. Hester and Robert clearly accepted her and her brother into their society despite their scandalous origins. This suggests a certain disdain for the conventions of birth in the Coningham family.
Robert Coningham’s wife Louisa was seven years older than him and had been born in India. She was the daughter of James Capper, a Colonel in the Madras Army of the Honourable East India Company. She must have been a hardy little girl to survive, as the death rate among European infants born in eighteenth century India was terrible. Louisa Coningham was an intellectual with strong interests in literature, philosophy and especially in women’s education. She wrote and published two books, ‘A Poetical History of England’ and ‘An abridgment of Locke’s Essay concerning human understanding: with some conjectures respecting the interference of nature with education’. The first is a history of Britain in verse, supposed to have been written for the instruction of the ‘young ladies’ at Rothbury House School and published in 1810, the year before her marriage. It was successful enough for a second edition to be published in 1815.
Louisa and Robert married on 16th October 1811 at Northwood on the Isle of Wight. The fact that her book for the education of the young ladies of Rothbury House was published in 1810 suggests that she probably lived in London, teaching, prior to her marriage.
Louisa’s eldest sister Marianne was married to Robert Clutterbuck, the wealthy heir to a large Hertfordshire brewer. Clutterbuck was an author and pioneer topographer who wrote the huge ‘History and Antiquities of the County of Hertford’ in three volumes, published from 1815 to 1827, which is still a valuable resource for local historians today. Louisa’s father Colonel Capper hailed from Derry in Ireland and in the early years of the nineteenth century settled at Catheys, now a suburb of Cardiff but then just outside. He was a tenant of the Marquis of Bute, a wealthy Scottish aristocrat with extensive estates not only in Scotland but elsewhere especially in Ireland and South Wales. Colonel Capper was something of an eccentric: a pioneer meteorologist and keen observer of the weather. Unfortunately he attempted to explain weather patterns by reference to the lunar cycle presumably thinking that the atmosphere, like the tides of the sea, could be influenced by the moon. His theories were therefore valueless.
Colonel Capper had two further distinctions, one of which may have been important in shaping Fitzjames’ future life. In the autumn of 1786 Colonel Capper had been asked to explore a new and faster route for transmitting the vital mails between England and India. He sailed to Aleppo and then explored the lands of the Middle East and the Arabian Desert before taking a ship to India from Basra on the Shatt el-Arab waterway in what is now southern Iraq. He published a book on his adventures called ‘Observations on the passage to India, through Egypt’. Among his other distinctions, therefore, he originated the phrase ‘Passage to India’. Like many in the Coningham circle, he was a writer.
Robert’s only sister Hester had married a Captain Edward Sterling of the militia, another tenant of the Marquis of Bute, and they had two sons who lived to maturity, John and Anthony.
Until the late 1820s the Coningham family does not seem to have settled. Hertfordshire was their home county but they also spent time in the London area at Blackheath and Richmond-upon-Thames as well as the Watford area. To judge by Robert Coningham’s letters they seem to have spent a substantial time abroad in France and perhaps also in Italy and Germany. The young Fitzjames’ letters to Robert Coningham are peppered with hopes that ‘aunt’, that is Louisa Coningham, and ‘Willy’ will be better after their cure at Cheltenham or Switzerland or, less plausibly one imagines, Boulogne. Robert Coningham described Fitzjames at the age of 12 as being fluent in French and having some Spanish and Italian. Such linguistic skills were very unusual in an English child of that time and very likely came from living in those countries.
In the late 1820s the family settled at a substantial estate which they named Rose Hill, in Abbots Langley. There they engaged a tutor to educate the two boys and there is no doubt their standards of education, and living, were high. In 1851 the household consisted of two indoor servants, a cook, a labourer, a laundress and a coachman and there is no reason to assume it was any different in Fitzjames’ day. At the back was a court-yard, coach house, stables, barns and other farmyard buildings with pigs, hens, ducks and geese. The estate extended to about thirty acres of parkland, orchard, kitchen garden, paddock and arable land. In the paddocks lived the family’s horses and with their coach and four the family had an almost modern degree of mobility. They could easily visit London and return home the same day. Fitzjames was fit and healthy and this would have been an idyllic country upbringing for the young boy. The house survived until 1956 and a photograph of it from the late nineteenth century is shown as plate x.
The only actual description of Rose Hill which has survived for us is that of the perpetually hypochondriac Jane Carlyle, who stayed with the Rev. Coningham and left a brief description of the household in a letter to Susan Hunter dated 20th September, 1835. She described the house as being ‘about twenty-five miles from London’ and ‘a perfect Paradise of a place, peopled as every Paradise ought to be with Angels’. There she ‘drank warm milk, and eat new eggs, and bathed in pure air, and rejoiced in cheerful countenances, and was as happy as the day was long’ as everyone there ‘seemed to have no other object in life but to study my pleasure’.
There were thousands of such households up and down the British Isles. At Rose Hill the Rev. Coningham lived the quiet life of country gentleman of independent means, respected in the neighbourhood and on easy terms with the local intelligentsia and nobility. As a pleasant and healthy area to live with easy access to London, Hertfordshire attracted some large and wealthy households.
Close by was the ‘big house’, Cassiobury House, the country seat of the Earl of Essex. The Earl’s wealthy family had connections at the highest level with other members of the aristocracy and into the Royal Navy. Another eminent local family was the Percys, relatives of the Duke of Northumberland, who lived at Scotsbridge House in Croxley Green, a hamlet about six miles from Rose Hill. Sophia Percy knew James Fitzjames as a teenager. She gave a wonderfully vivid portrait of what life was like in this part of the country at that time, in her memoirs published as late as 1901:
‘In those days in the country there were always eccentric people of strong individualities to be met with, and they were probably more numerous and more eccentric than in these times of travelling and of wider interchange of ideas. One wishes one could reproduce them and have their photographs. Their angles had not been ground down by going to London and travelling abroad. Some quite well-to-do people of the upper middle class, and even of the landed classes, lived and died in their own homes and on their own properties. Their prejudices were unassailable, and they were narrow- minded and insular to a degree. Such people could scarcely exist nowadays. They were relics of 1800, some even of 1700. They had a profound contempt for ‘foreigners’, especially for the French, and an entire ignorance of the character and customs of these ‘foreigners,’ and of their language and literature. They were insufferable bores to live with, but amusing to see and listen to for a short time.
The old-fashioned country poor people of those days were delightful, with their entire absence of education (in the South of England at least), their strong mother wit, and excellent manners.
I wish I had written down the prayers of an old woman I knew who rejoiced in the name of ‘Puddifoot.’ They were long verses, which she said she recited every morning and night. They were not about God or religion, but about lambs and green fields, and I suspect of great antiquity. They answered the purpose of prayer to her, and doubtless were accepted as such, for she recited them as an act of worship. ‘She used to reckon time as so many months or years before ‘the Sally-come-o’er-us’ visited or left England. This, I at last discovered, was the cholera which in 1830 visited Rickmansworth. It was the old woman’s Hejira, and she counted all events as occurring before or after ‘the Sally-come-o’er-us.
There was much dissent of all sorts, and superstition. Many of the poor people would declare, and firmly believe, that they had ‘met the Lord’ on such and such a road. Perhaps they did in their hearts. They also would relate how they ‘had met the Enemy,’ and how he had tempted them, which is also not improbable. The Watford road appeared to be the usual place where this dread personage was to be met with. He seems to have frequented it on market days, when farmers and their men would return from Watford ‘market pert’ (pronounced peart), as the old Staffordshire expression had it’.
[Sophie Bagot added a footnote that ‘pert’ meant drunk]
This was the milieu in which Fitzjames grew up: intellectual, outward looking, somewhat radical and wealthy. But nowhere is there the remotest hint as to his maternity. Nowhere do the extended Coningham family ever refer to the Gambiers and even though all of these people must have known exactly who his mother was, no-one referred to her at all.
When I published the first edition of this book I believed that his father was living in Brazil at the time of Fitzjames’ conception and birth and consequently that his mother was probably Portuguese or Brazilian. But since then further research has proved that by the time Fitzjames was conceived and born, Sir James Gambier was actually in England. So who was Fitzjames’ mother?
Publication of the book put me in touch with descendants of the Coninghams and the Gambiers. In something approaching desperation I approached both families and asked them if they had any idea at all, any folk-memory, which might help me identify Fitzjames’ mother. With the Gambiers this drew a blank, but Robert Coningham’s great, great, great grand-daughter Anne Coningham said something which piqued my interest:
‘My mother always said he was a sort of cousin’.
This was strange. I had read the Coningham family’s correspondence with Fitzjames carefully. Although fond of Fitzjames, they were always all punctilious in insisting that he must always refer to Louisa and Robert as ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’. It must have been drummed into him as a very young child that, while ‘Willy’ – William Coningham – could refer to them as ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, he must never do so. Yet he always referred to Robert’s mother as ‘grandmamah’. This made no sense, unless it was true. Could Elizabeth Campbell, nee Coningham, have been Fitzjames’ true biological grandmother? I also noted that Fitzjames wrote much more to Robert, her son, than he did to Louisa. Was this another hint? I discussed this with Anne and also with Jill Kamp, the American historian and author. Both encouraged me to look into this further.
I reconstructed a detailed family tree for the Coninghams and this showed that there was only one woman of child-bearing age in 1812 who was both a daughter of Elizabeth Campbell and sister of Robert Coningham: Hester Sterling. Born Hester Coningham, she had married Captain Edward Sterling in 1802. Could she have been Fitzjames’ mother? I put this to Anne Coningham. Without a moment’s hesitation she replied:
‘I wouldn’t be the least surprised. I am sure there was a family scandal and I think my mother [Audrey Roche, who passed away in 2008] and great aunt [Hester Wathen who passed away in 1972] knew about it’.
This was very interesting as I knew that during her life Audrey Wathen2 had kept possessions and Journals of Fitzjames – she was after all William Coningham’s grand-daughter.
I looked into Hester in detail and my conclusion is that Anne is correct. When Robert Coningham said that he was unrelated to James Fitzjames he was lying. In truth Robert Coningham was Fitzjames’ uncle and William Coningham Fitzjames’ first cousin. Of course there is no absolute proof and with Fitzjames having disappeared in the Arctic, even the theoretical possibility of a DNA match doesn’t exist. To examine the evidence we have to look at the fascinating story of the Sterling family.
Three members of the Sterling family achieved prominence. One was the father, Captain Edward Sterling, who was forty-one years old at the time of Fitzjames’ birth, having been born in 1773. In 1812 Sterling had started writing anonymous letters to the Times using the pen name Vetus. These attracted much attention because of their trenchant expression of opinion. On reading them the Duke of Wellington himself is said to have exclaimed ‘here is someone not afraid to write like a man!’ The anonymous author earned himself the nickname ‘The Thunderer’, which in time transferred to the paper itself and is still in use today. After a brief sojourn in France in 1814, Sterling had settled in London and joined the staff of the Times, becoming chief leader-writer and virtually its editor. He died in 1847.
His son John, born in 1806, was Cambridge educated and has always been known as one of the great ‘might have beens’ of British literature. His undoubted talents were constrained by the TB which eventually killed him. Compared with his father he seems to have been much more of a radical. An early interest in publishing and political activism culminated in the disaster of General Torrijos’ descent on Spain, of which more later. Its failure seems to have triggered a crisis in John Sterling’s life, after which he briefly took holy orders in 1831 and served as curate under the redoubtable Churchman Julius Hare at Herstmonceaux. But this Church career was not a success and he resigned after only nine months to devote the rest of his life to writing. His writing is intellectual and very attractive. He published just one novel, Arthur Coningsby. The hero of the novel is a questing young intellectual, clearly autobiographical, who seeks radical solutions to the problems of the world at the time of the French Revolution and visits France, as Sterling himself did when his family moved there in 1814. Yet the hero is disillusioned. It may or may not be coincidental that the hero’s surname is very similar to ‘Coningham’ and it may also be significant that before he died Sterling is known to have destroyed a lot of papers.
Edward Sterling’s other son to survive was Colonel Sir Anthony Coningham Sterling who, although he chose a military career, also published privately a book of extremely personal poetry. His most noted position was as Military Secretary to his relative General Sir Colin Campbell, serving in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny.
We are fortunate that the author Thomas Carlyle knew the circle of Campbells, Coninghams and Sterlings. His letters make frequent reference to them – he regretted greatly the early death of Robert Coningham and he kept a portrait of Hester Sterling on his dining room wall until he died. At one stage he even employed Alicia Campbell, sister of Sir Colin Campbell, as his housekeeper. Given her own irregular origins, and that she had also kept house for Hester Sterling, she must have known of any scandals in the Sterling family. Thomas Carlyle was very fond of John Sterling and after he died Carlyle wrote a full biography of him. This lively work is today probably Carlyle’s most read book. Obviously Carlyle was hardly going to wash the family’s dirty linen in public, but can this book help us in the identification of Fitzjames’ mother?
The picture Carlyle paints of Sterling in the book is touching, tragic and vivid. It begins with Hester Coningham meeting the dashing young militia officer Edward Sterling at a Ball in Derry in 1802. Sterling proposed to her, but Hester’s family objected to the match for reasons which are not disclosed. Eventually the family gave in and the couple were married.
It is clear that Carlyle’s sympathies at this stage of the Sterlings’ life together are with Hester and not Edward. Edward is portrayed as pompous and ineffective. He attempted to convert his Militia position into a full Commission in the Army but was not accepted. Notwithstanding this he insisted on using his Militia rank – Captain Edward Sterling – at every opportunity. Sterling set himself up as a gentleman farmer on a small-holding on the Island of Bute, renting from the same Marquis of Bute from whom Colonel Capper rented. As a farmer he failed and in 1809 the family moved to a cottage in South Wales at Llanblethian. Here there was not even a single acre of land so the family lived off a modest annuity which Sterling had inherited from his father. Sterling indulged his military fantasies as Adjutant to the Glamorganshire militia, hardly a position of great responsibility at a time of War. By contrast with this rather critical picture of Sterling, Carlyle paints Hester in lyrical terms as a model of womanhood: motherly, gentle, pious and refined. She was also, as he makes clear and can be seen from her portrait, an attractive and intelligent-looking woman. I will leave readers to judge whether they can see any possible likeness between her and James Fitzjames. Carlyle’s only overt criticism of her is that she was ‘somewhat copious in speech’.
When in 1814 the family moved to France they did so separately: first Edward and then Hester with their four children. They returned to London in haste in 1815 with the eruption of Napoleon from Elba. Again they travelled separately – Hester with the children and Edward alone. Clearly this was a dramatic time. The boys had only been enrolled in a French school for three months when, as Anthony later remembered, their classmates suddenly started shouting ‘vive L’Empereur!’ and he and his brother were hastily withdrawn. By staying behind Edward was able actually to be present at Napoleon’s entry into Paris. His dramatic eyewitness accounts of ‘the downcast look of citizens, with fierce saturnalian acclaim of soldiery’ did his journalistic career no harm at all. Reuniting in England the Sterlings settled in London. They had two further children, but sadly both died in infancy as did two of their four elder children, leaving the couple with only two, John and Anthony, to live into adulthood. No wonder Carlyle saw tragedy in Hester’s life.
We know that James Fitzjames was born on 27th July, 1813, so if Hester was his mother, then he must have been conceived and born while the family was living at Llanblethian. Carlyle was hardly likely to advertise this in his book if it happened, but there are a number of peculiarities in Carlyle’s account of this time in the Sterling family’s life which suggest that he knew this to be the case and that he wrote very carefully to take account of this.
There is something very strange in Carlyle’s refusal to mention the name of Robert Coningham. Why? Carlyle knew and liked Robert. Robert was uncle of the subject of his book and brother to Hester. Although Robert is referred to indirectly as ‘an uncle’, ‘a relative’, etc., he is never identified by name. There is no obvious reason for this unless there was something associated with Robert which Carlyle wished to suppress.
A second strange omission is this: Carlyle devotes a full chapter of the book to John’s childhood in the remote Welsh hamlet of Llanblethian. He gives lots of detail and anecdotes, but never mentions that at this time the newly married Louisa and Robert Coningham were very close neighbours of the Sterling’s. We only know this because the baptism of the Coningham’s first child, a son called John who died in infancy, took place at Llanworthy. Llanworthy is just two miles from Llanblethian. And we know that at this time the two families spent a lot of time together. In one of his last letters to his mother, quoted by Carlyle and written on 6th June, 1841, the dying John Sterling tells her that he had just put a cot up in his dressing room ‘partly as a convenience for myself, partly as a sort of memorial to my poor Uncle [Robert Coningham], in whose cot in his dressing room at Lisworney I remember to have slept as a child’. Why had the infant Sterling spent so much time at his aunt and uncle’s house that he slept there?
A third significant peculiarity is the way Carlyle handles his acknowledgement that Hester and Edward spent a considerable time apart at this juncture in their lives. He volunteers this information but ascribes it to Edward’s frequent absences in connection with his duties as Adjutant of the local Militia. But these duties cannot have been very onerous. Carlyle says Sterling frequently had to be in Cardiff, yet Cardiff was only twelve miles, or little over two hour’s ride, away. When Anthony and Jon revisited Llanblethian in 1839, the brothers revisited the place where, Anthony wrote
‘we [certainly John and Anthony and presumably all the children] used to stand with our Father, looking out for the arrival of the London Mail.’
This is very intriguing. We are expected to believe that the busy Adjutant of the Glamorganshire militia regularly spent his time minding his young children while waiting for letters to be delivered to him from London. This does not sound like a man overworked with military duties. And where was the saintly, motherly Hester during these times? Clearly this was a strong enough memory that the two brothers, aged only about six, reminisced about it together thirty years later. Quite plainly it must have been Hester who was away while Edward looked after the children, and during this time Edward was desperately anxious awaiting some news. What might that news have been?
A fourth peculiarity is an interpolation that Carlyle makes into his text at this point so extraordinary that it took my breath away when I first read it. John Sterling is quoted as remembering:
The narrow orchard, with its grove of apple trees against one of which I used to lean, and while I brandished a beanstalk, roar out with Fitzjames:
‘Come one, come all; this rock shall fly
From its firm base as soon as I’
This is a quotation from Scott’s ‘The Lady of the Lake’. It is unlikely that the six year old John Sterling did play childhood games in the orchard based on the story of the Lady of the Lake as the poem was only published in May 1810. Even if he did it seems very strange that he chooses to illustrate it with a quotation which includes a reference to ‘Fitzjames’ – that very same fictional character, the Knight of Snowden, after whom the Gambier family nicknamed ‘our’ James Fitzjames. It is not as if the quotation is especially relevant to the point Sterling was making. Another suggestion that there is more to this quotation than meets the eye is that Sterling, although a fastidious writer, mis-spells the name ‘Fitzjames’ in his quotation. As noted earlier, Walter Scott uses the spelling ‘FitzJames’ or ‘Fitz-James’; in contrast James Fitzjames himself always used the spelling with a lower-case ‘j’. I think this reference to ‘roaring out with Fitzjames’ is much more likely to be a reference to his unacknowledged brother, then very much alive, than a laboured literary allusion to a childhood game.
So even if there is no proof, Carlyle’s account certainly doesn’t invalidate the suggestion that Hester was Fitzjames’ mother. But is there any proof? One thing we will probably never find is any written acknowledgement of who Fitzjames’ mother was because this, in the eyes of the time, shameful event was probably never referred to in writing by anyone, ever.
We do find though, that Hester and the Sterling family seem to have remained closely in touch with James Fitzjames. Here are two examples of this.
The first comes from an examination of Hester’s surviving journals, which can be found in the archive at Yale University and which cover the years 1834 to 1839. Here are the entries in those years in which James Fitzjames is mentioned:
Saturday 11th October, 1834: Mrs. Plumber came to breakfast and drove out with me. Went to the new cemetery in the Harrow Road. James Fitz here. Letter from Lilly Campbell. [A later hand has circled JF’s name and written: ‘Captain Fitz James died in Arctic with Franklin’.]
Thursday 20th November, 1834: John [Sterling] went early in the morning to marry Miss. Dasent now Mrs. Henry Dakins. Robert [Coningham] and James [Fitzjames] here in the evening after Mrs. H (or N) Taylor
Monday 24th November, 1834: Letters from Mrs. Evans and from Susan which I answered. Went to Roberts [Coningham]. Robert and James [Fitzjames] at dinner.
Wednesday 26th November, 1834: Robert [Coningham] and James [Fitzjames] here in the morning.
Friday January 19th, 1838: Letters from John [Sterling] of the 2nd of January and from Anthony [Coningham Sterling] of the 22nd December. Maurice’s here – heard of [James] Fitzjames’ promotion.
Saturday 27th January, 1838: James Fitzjames and Mrs. Minidler (?) came to dinner. I wrote to Mrs. Diggle and heard from Mrs. Pryor.
Thursday 1st February, 1838: We had at dinner Mrs. & Mr Dasent, Maurice(?) & Mrs.(?) Johnston, Mrs. Carlye and J. Fitzjames – I wrote to Lilly Campbell & we heard from Anthony [Coningham Sterling].
Sunday 17th February, 1838: At Church. James Fitz at dinner – wrote to John.
Tuesday 1st May, 1838: Went to the Pantechnicon with little Edward [Sterling, John Sterling’s son]. Wrote to Fitzjames.
Saturday 19th May, 1838: Letter from Fitzjames. I called on Mrs. Carlyle. Mrs. Dechard(?) Mrs. Christie and wrote to Mrs. G.
Sunday 20th May, 1838: At Church. William brought me a boat for Edward [Sterling] from Fitzjames.
Thursday 3rd January, 1839: Thackarys called took luncheon. XXX Maurice came to dinner also William Coningham and James Fitzjames. Mrs. Morgan called.
Saturday 5th January, 1839: Letter from John of the 27th. Called on Mrs. Gledstanes. Maurice & William [Coningham] and James [Fitzjames] came to dine Sunday.
Bearing in mind that for most of the period covered by her Journal James Fitzjames was at sea, it’s clear that she saw him often when he was ashore. It’s interesting to see that on 19th January, 1838, she notes hearing of James Fitzjames’ promotion ONE DAY after it had been announced. It’s also interesting that none of the letters she refers to sending to or receiving from him have survived – someone evidently removed them from his letter file as it has survived today.
But none of this is proof.
So let us see how the stories of the three families, the Gambiers, the Coninghams and the Sterlings might fit together.
In mid-1809 the Sterling family made the journey by sea from the Isle of Bute to South Wales to take up residence at Llanblethian. It must have been hard for Hester, who had three young children: Anthony, John and Edward, and who was heavily pregnant with her daughter Hester. She came from a prosperous family and life in Llanblethian must have been a disappointment for her, living in isolation on £200 a year…
Her brother Robert was at Cambridge University and about to start his curacy at St. Mary’s in Abington, Cambridgeshire. Robert was awarded his BA at Cambridge in June 1811 and it looks as though he proposed to Louisa Capper shortly after that as the couple were married at Northwood on the Isle of Wight on 16th October of that year.
It is now that Carlyle says that, for whatever reason, Hester and Edward were spending time apart. Of course this might have brought the couple together but it is plausible to suggest that, having been married nearly ten years, the effect of a growing family, limited income and Edward’s failure to develop a career were leading to a cooling in the Sterlings’ relationship.
By this time, mid 1811, the Gambier family had returned to England, driven from their palatial house and opulent lifestyle into poverty by Sir James’ cataclysmic mismanagement of his career. Judging from the places of birth of her next children, it looks as though Lady Jemima was living in the country with her parents or friends, while Sir James spent much of his time in Marylebone.
In March of the following year, 1812, Edward Sterling had started to submit his anonymous letters to the Times using the pen name ‘Vetus’. Writing letters to the newspapers is not usually an activity one associates with an overworked man fully engaged with his job and his family and the fact that this unemployed aspiring infantry officer had nothing better to do at this stage speaks volumes.
1812 seems to have been the year of crisis in both families. In May Sir James was pinned down by the gimlet-eyed Henry Hoare and facing bankruptcy, disgrace and possibly even the debtors’ prison. His negotiations over his debts and the possibility of his returning to Brazil to take up his job again occupied him probably until August. Perhaps the dashing of these hopes led to a temporary estrangement between Sir James and the long-suffering Lady Jemima Gambier? She had after all stood by him in his humiliating attempts to hide from his creditors. She had enjoyed the life in Brazil – she had even had her sister living with her.
It will be recalled that Sir James’ mother had died young and his father subsequently remarried. His father’s third wife, Sir James’ step-mother, survived her husband and the last trace that we have is of her living in Bath in 1807. It’s not known when she dies, but if she was still alive in 1812, Sir James may well have stayed with her. Bath was a major social centre and is seventy miles away from Cowbridge. So Gambier had connections in the region. A further connection can be shown in the movements of his cousin, Diana Edwards, by then Lady Diana Middleton 2nd Baroness Barham. In 1813 this wealthy divorcee, she moved to Glamorgan and settled at an estate called Fairey Hill where she engaged in a long-term battle to convert the ungodly inhabitants to low-Church Christianity. So there Sir James Gambier certainly had personal connections with the region where Hester Sterling was living at the times of James Fitzjames’ conception. But this is not proof and perhaps none will ever emerge. So what does the story look like?
All the ingredients are in place for adultery: two families under strain, both brought down by the selfish behaviour and personal shortcomings of the males in each marriage, and both couples spending considerable time apart. One can quite see how Hester might fall for the sophisticated and worldly Sir James. This was a man who had resigned his commission in the army, something which her husband, despite styling himself ‘Captain’, had been unable to gain. How exotic life in Rio must have sounded compared to hers in a small cottage outside Cardiff. He was a knight. He had met the Persian Ambassador. He must have had many travellers’ tales from the exotic court of the Portuguese Regent in Rio de Janeiro.
The best estimate is that James Fitzjames was therefore conceived in late November 1812 when both Sir James and Hester were together and apart from their spouses. By February 1813 the familiar signs of pregnancy would have brought matters to a head. With Hester having been away there was no possibility of her pretending the baby was Edward’s. The critical decisions to take would be how to conceal the signs of pregnancy from Mrs. Sterling’s friends and neighbours, finding somewhere where she could have the baby safely, and then finding someone who could adopt the baby.
The Gambier family would have had to take responsibility for the delivery and birth of the child – a responsibility they may have had to discharge several times already. They would need a remote location where the pregnant Hester could live in seclusion, and where she could then have the baby. If Fitzjames’ statement when he entered the Royal Navy in 1825 that he was born in Devon was correct, that would square with this as the Gambiers had extensive properties in the south west.
But there was an irony. While the Gambiers and the Sterlings seem to have been highly fertile couples, whether happy together or not, the Coninghams must have wondered whether they would ever have a family. In spring 1813 Louisa Coningham was thirty-six years old. She had been married to Robert for 18 months without there being any apparent signs of a conception. With every passing month the chances of a family must have seemed less. Hester and Robert seem to have been close so it would be the most natural thing in the world for Louisa and Robert to foster his sister Hester’s unwanted baby. They had time, money and love to give.
This seems to explain why they took a cottage close to the Sterlings in South Wales. The Coninghams would be able to foster the baby straight away: “from your earliest childhood” as Louisa Coningham described it to James Fitzjames, while Hester would still be close enough to nurse him. All this could be achieved without scandal. Then, once the baby was old enough not to need his mother’s milk, the two families could part: the Coninghams with their ‘sort of cousin’ and the Sterlings to try to rebuild their marriage in France.
And this it seems is what happened. It was presumably news of his wife’s confinement that Edward Sterling was anxiously waiting for when he stood with his four young children trying to sight the London Mail Coach. It was of this time that John recalled sleeping in the cot in Robert Coningham’s room. Why? Presumably because his mother was next door nursing John’s infant half-brother James.
So finally we have a plausible story where all the dates, accounts and, so far as we can see, personal motivations fit. But is there is any proof?
In 1834 Fitzjames joined the Euphrates Expedition. Robert Coningham had a relative in the Middle East, a Colonel Henry Campbell, in the potentially useful position of British Consul-General in Cairo. Egypt at the time was ruled by Mehmet Ali and Campbell had his ear. Coningham therefore supplied Fitzjames with a letter of introduction to Campbell in case Fitzjames needed to ask for his assistance. In fact Fitzjames never went to Egypt so the letter was never used, hence it remaining in Fitzjames’ papers. But see how Coningham approaches the delicate task of explaining exactly who the bearer of his letter was and his to Col. Campbell, and the young man’s connection to Coningham and Campbell:
This letter will be delivered to you by a young friend and relation of mine James Fitzjames of the Navy whom perhaps you may recollect to have seen as a child, when we were formerly neighbours to your sister at Abbot’s Langley. He is to me as an adopted child, and amiable and good in every respect.
Notice that Coningham explicitly says that Fitzjames is a ‘relation of mine’. Since Campbell had seen Fitzjames ‘as a child’, and since the letter was private, Coningham had no reason to lie about his blood relationship with Fitzjames – indeed he couldn’t. He also chooses his words carefully in saying that Fitzjames’ relationship to him is ‘as an adopted child’. In other words, Fitzjames is not adopted, but he is a relative who has to be treated as if adopted. What more evidence do we need? This was a scandal dexterously covered up. The details of it were probably never committed to paper so the search for further proof is probably fruitless – and in any case such evidence probably does not and never has existed.
There is a final possibly highly poignant clue. One letter exists in Fitzjames’ letter archive from Captain Edward Sterling. Although it confirms that Fitzjames had had a correspondence with the family of Hester and Edward, this is the only letter between them to survive. Why?
Dated 30th April, 1842, it reads in full
My dear James,
The letters I received from you on former occasions, were placed by me and others in Lord Haddington’s records + clearly appreciated by his Lordship + Sir George Cockburn.
Though I have this time heard from you through Willy – I have nevertheless gone to see Sir George Cockburn to make enquiries – have been distinctly authorised by that gallant officer to appraise you, that you shall have immediate promotion – and “that a fellow who can take such good care of himself (meaning can so well distinguish himself) need give his friends but little trouble” – I heartily congratulate you, my boy, on this brilliant prospect, which you so richly deserve.
I grieve to say my dear James, that your old friend and well-wisher, Mrs. Sterling, is in an alarming state of health – but as full of kind wishes towards you, as ever.
Always most truly yours,
The Secretary of the Admiralty Mr. Sidney Herbert hopes in God that you will not obtain leave to go on the wild course through China and that you behave properly for that you will never come back alive – be warned.
Fitzjames was on active service in China, a theatre of war where death from disease was a very real prospect, and Hester Sterling was ‘is in an alarming state of health’. Why did Fitzjames keep this letter alone of those the Sterling family sent him? The answer would seem to be that this was his notification that his mother, his ‘old friend and well-wisher’ was dying and that he was unlikely to see her again. She finally passed away the following year.
But to return to Fitzjames’ childhood, he seems to have had little contact with Sir Gambier and his family, especially as they were living in the Netherlands. He was brought up in the intellectual, caring environment of the Coningham family. He would have had contact with his mother and must have witnessed the tragic death of all but two of her legitimate children during his own childhood.
All this changed with the appointment of Captain Robert Gambier to the command of the frigate HMS Pyramus. The ship was on a diplomatic mission to southern and central America, an area where Gambier’s family name would count for something. At twelve Fitzjames was the perfect age to be taken on as a ‘young gentleman’ by the captain and come under the wing of the Gambier side of his inheritance. There does not seem to have been any long-term intention for Fitzjames to have a naval career at this stage.
In those days the first step towards becoming an officer in the Royal Navy was to be taken on as a Volunteer by the Captain of a ship. The youth would spend several years as a Volunteer, under the wing of the Captain who recruited him, and would ‘learn the ropes’. If he wanted to continue his naval career, greater responsibility would come with the rank of Midshipman, before the candidate would finally be commissioned as a Lieutenant. With Robert Gambier willing to vouch for the youth, there was no difficulty with Fitzjames starting on the bottom rung of the naval officers’ promotion ladder.
Fabiënne Tetteroo’s Footnotes
1 “James Fitzjames himself makes his first appears in the historical record” I do not know whether he wanted to go with ‘first appears’ or ‘makes his first appearance’, so I am just leaving it like this. Also, he must mean St Marylebone, as that was the parish church where Fitzjames was baptised.
2 Here Battersby mixed up the names of the women, he meant Hester Wathen.