Death on the Beach


Inscription:  Sacred to the memory of Lieutenant George Dyer of the Royal Navy son of the late Major General Dyer/of the Royal Marines and grandson of Rear Admiral Alexander Innes/while zealously engaged in … of his duty…near here… the six men under … the 12th of April … remainder illegible
In memory of Eliza widow of Lieutenant George Dyer/who died illegible/on the 22th of illegible 1852… remainder illegible

George Dyer was born on 23 October 1791 in Stoke Damarel, Devon and baptised in March the next year at Charles the Martyr church in Plymouth. He came from a distinguished military family. His father, another George was at the time of his son’s birth a captain in the marines, soon to become the Royal Marines. Most unusually, he had also been painted as a young man by a leading portraitist, James Northcote, a pupil of Joshua Reynolds. The picture was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1781 and is now owned by the Royal Navy museum.

George Dyer senior, at the age of twenty-two. 

He married Susannah Innes on 14 Oct 1789 at Devonport. She was the daughter of Rear Admiral Alexander Innes who, when he had died in 1786, was commander in chief of the Jamaica Station, a place noted for the ill-health of its personnel. In 1805 George fought with Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. He was seemingly a very religious man, evidenced by the inscription on his gravestone, which records that ‘religion was his guide through life’ and by the anecdote that he preached sermons to the crews of his vessels in the absence of a chaplain, apparently preferring this method of character improvement to the more usual one of corporal punishment.

Young George was the eldest of three children and the only son. Expectations that he would serve in the Army or Navy must have been high, and probably inescapable. He duly joined the Navy, and was based in Plymouth near his home, which he visited often. By 1815, he was a lieutenant on HMS Imogen, a 16-gun brig-sloop.

He was then twenty-four, and his father decided to seek preferment for him. The system for advancement in the navy was based not on merit, but on having a powerful patron. George senior was well-connected and wrote frequent letters to men of influence to try to find his son a suitable ship and possibly promotion. Lord Melville, a former Secretary for War could not help. Nor could Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Buller, even though young George was sent to visit him. He was next despatched to wait on Admiral Sir John Duckworth, who promised to pull strings. He did, and on 22 August, young George received an order to proceed to Portsmouth by the Severn frigate as there was a likelihood of a vacancy for a lieutenant on HMS Havannah, a frigate.

Image result for lord melville                                              Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, who declined to help George…..

Image result for sir edward buller                                                              …..as did Sir Edward Buller

Before he left, George senior took his son shopping – to a book sale. There George junior bought, among others, two volumes of Ovid’s poetry, a History of Greece and one of Rome, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and Du Fresnoy’s Cartographies of Time. He was clearly a serious-minded young man.

The vacancy on the Havannah did not materialise, but George was appointed to another frigate, the aged Pique. His father died two years later, but left nothing to George, bequeathing everything to the young man’s sisters, Anne and Susannah. This was, he said, because George had inherited from his grandfather and he was ‘not to think that I hold him in any less affection than his sisters’.

The next eleven years of his naval career are a blank, until he surfaces in Hythe in 1826, still a lieutenant, as commanding officer of the Coastguard at Fort Twiss. The Coastguard had been set up in 1822 as an anti-smuggling operation, and its instructions also stipulated that when a wreck took place the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, taking charge of the vessel and protecting property.

George had married, on 4 January 1816 in the Isle of Wight, seventeen-year-old Eliza Osmond. His father had died the following year, as had his patron, Sir John Duckworth. One possible explanation for the posting to Hythe may have been the presence in the town of his maternal uncle, Colonel John Innes. Now without influential support, did George turn to his uncle to act as his patron?

Image result for admiral john duckworth

Admiral Sir John Duckworth

In the early hours of Wednesday 5 April, the station received reports of smugglers in the area. George went down to the beach, where he met the captain of HMS Ramilies and some of his men. Ramilies was engaged on the coastal blockade. Patrolling the beach, they heard gunfire coming from the direction of Shorncliffe, followed by a round of fire close by. This had been fired by John Lemon, a Ramilies seaman and it killed George Dyer outright. Coastguard rules were clear that a man should not open fire unless ordered to do so or unless violence had been offered to him. Since in this case, neither had happened, Lemon was charged with manslaughter and court martialled.

He was found guilty, but received a reduced sentence of 14 days at the request of George’s wife Eliza, who stated she believed it was an accident. George was buried with military honours, including a firing party of 103 men, who marched in procession from Fort Twiss to St Leonard’s church.

Eliza, whose origins remain a mystery, married again in 1829, to George Elgar, a surgeon, though perhaps not a very successful one. In 1851, the couple were lodging in a carpenter’s house in Maidstone and George is described as ‘surgeon, not practising’. Eliza died on 8 March 1852 at Romney Place, Maidstone and was buried in Holy Trinity churchyard there. Less than three weeks after her death, her widower petitioned the Admiralty for the eight pounds and ten shillings that was owing from her widow’s pension. Did he spend some of the cash having her name inscribed on the tombstone of her first husband? It would have been an economic way of remembering her, if funds did not stretch to a tombstone of her own, and a large space had been left on George Dyer’s tomb to add her name when the time came.

 

The inscription for Eliza on George Dyer’s tomb. 

George Elgar married again the year after Eliza’s death and had three children, went bankrupt in 1861 and died in 1867

Col. John Innes died in Hythe in 1836 and is buried a stone’s throw away from his nephew’s grave.

The gravestone of John Innes and his wife

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Slavery and Elastic Pavements: Miles Brathwaite

Miles Brathwaite as a young man (www.Findagrave.com)

Miles Brathwaite was the third son of the Hon. General Miles Brathwaite (1771-1848), a sugar planter in the Christ Church and St Philip’s parishes of Barbados. He was born there in 1803. His father was always designated ‘honourable’ because he was a member of the island’s privy council; he had no connection with the peerage and his own father, Robert Brathwaite (1723-1791) was also a plantation owner. Miles senior owned one estate, Palmers, and was tenant for life of another, Three Houses. Like all Barbadian planters he relied on slaves to work his land. John Brathwaite, possibly a brother of Miles senior, another  plantation and slave owner and agent for the island, travelled to London in 1788 to give testimony to the British government’s inquiry into slavery. Predictably, he painted a rosy picture:

He stated that prior to about 1768 the treatment of slaves was marked by much more cruelty than since that date. The wanton killing of a slave in Barbadoes (sic) remained nevertheless, by law of August 8, 1788, punishable by a fine of 15 Pounds Sterling only. It was not uncommon, he said, for slaves to suffer for food when corn [bread stuff] was high or a sugar crop failed. Industrious Negroes, of course, raised some provisions, hogs, and poultry about their own huts or on allotments. Even so, he thought a slave was as well off as a free Negro and better than an English labourer with a family. (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harvesting sugar cane in Barbados. Note the overseer’s whip.

 

 

Miles junior appears to have joined the Royal Navy, but his service records are not extant, though his portrait (above) as a very young man seems to show him in a naval uniform. He married, on 13 December 1823, Elizabeth Jane Welch. Over the next twenty-two years, they had twelve children together.

The Slavery Abolition Act became law on 1 August 1834, but this did not mean automatic bankruptcy for the Barbados slavers. Two things saved them. In the first place, the British government paid compensation to slave owners for their ‘loss’. Miles senior was awarded £3860 for the one hundred and seventy enslaved people he owned at Palmers and tried to claim over £5000 for those at Three Houses, but this was declined.  In the second place, only children were actually immediately freed. Adults had to serve a six-year ‘apprenticeship’ on terms very little better than slavery before they were freed.

Miles junior may, or may not, have had a share in the compensation. By then he was in business as a merchant in Chepstow Street, Barbados, running two businesses, one alone and another as a partner. He gave his address then as Fortress Terrace, Kentish Town, London. The 1841 census confirms his residence in Kentish Town, but by then his businesses must have gone under, as he is recorded as having no trade or occupation. Elizabeth and their six surviving children were with him. The family moved then to Camden, then on to Pentonville and in 1843, Miles became a director of The Elastic Pavement Company. Although this sounds like a 1970s rock album produced under the influence of LSD, in fact it manufactured, among other things, rubber flooring for stables and a lifeboat made of rubber and cork, which was allegedly unsinkable and, if it hit a rock, would just bounce back.

The company was in trouble by 1845 and by February 1846 was reporting losses of over £5000, while insisting that it needed to increase its capital in order to fulfil ‘large orders from Her Majesty’s government’. It struggled on but was wound up in 1849. This made little difference to Miles, who had been committed to a debtors’ prison in 1846. This was probably at Whitecross Street in Islington, which had the reputation of being the worst in London.

Whitecross Street Prison

Salvation came in an unlikely form when in January 1847 he was appointed as Commander of the Coastguard at Fort Twiss in Hythe. The Coastguard had been set up in 1822 as an anti-smuggling operation, and its instructions also stipulated that when a wreck took place the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, taking charge of the vessel and protecting property. Station commanders were generally serving Royal Navy lieutenants and were expected to enforce naval discipline. What qualifications Miles had for the job beyond a brief naval career some years earlier is unclear. It is likely that the post was secured for him through well-placed connections, a common enough practice in the nineteenth century.

Fort Twiss Battery was constructed on Hythe seafront in 1798, a small triangular fort surrounded by a three-and-a-half metre high wall. Miles lived there with Elizabeth Jane and the five youngest of their children – two more had been born in London and one in Hythe. Also living at the fort were six subordinate men with their wives and families. It cannot have been luxurious, compared to a sunny plantation in Barbados served by slaves: there was not even a piped water supply (Miles wrote to Hythe corporation asking for this in 1853) (2). But he had a roof over his head and regular income to support his diminishing family. Only five of his twelve children reached adulthood, and those who did often headed back to the West Indies. While he was in prison, his eldest daughter, another Elizabeth Jane, married a scion of a plantation family, Langford Redwood, who had inherited Cassada Garden plantation in Antigua. He died at sea only two years after the marriage en route to England and Elizabeth married another Antiguan planter.

 

Miles died at Fort Twiss on 26 March 1857. He left no will, and his widow either could not or would not pay for a headstone: this was financed by ‘family and friends’.

The inscription on Miles’s gravestone in St Leonard’s churchyard reads: Sacred to the memory of/Miles Brathwaite/(late RN)/ this tablet is erected by sor-/rowing family and friends/who are cheered with the hope/that from his excellent life, his/firm faith and pious resignation/to the Divine Will, the beloved one is “not lost but gone before”

Elizabeth Jane, now homeless, went at first to live in Croydon, but then moved in with her by now twice widowed daughter Elizabeth in West Derby in Liverpool, where she died in 1879.

And in December 1857, Hythe Council finally agreed to provide piped water to Fort twiss.

(1) Slavery on British West Indies Plantations in the Eighteenth Century, Frank Wesley Pitman, Journal of Negro History, Volume Number: 11 Issue Number: 4, October 1926.

2. Kent Archives Hy/AM/2/1