Cutting out La Chevrette and other Finnis stories

The Finnis family had a connection with Hythe lasting over a hundred and fifty years and are much memorialised in St Leonard’s church, and elsewhere. Who were they? Their origins were not very grand, but the family eventually included a VC, a Lord Mayor of London, explorers and a naval hero.

The first member of the Finnis family to live in Hythe was Robert, born in Dover in 1754, one of the four children of another Robert Finnis and his wife Ann, nee Spicer. He was apprenticed to a London upholsterer, and, once a master himself, decided to try his luck in Hythe, setting up shop in the High Street in 1776.

He took the sensible step of insuring all this highly flammable stock with the Sun Fire Insurance Company.

He flourished and four years later, on 29 December 1780 in St Leonard’s church, married Elizabeth Quested, the daughter of Stephen Quested and Elizabeth nee Groombridge. They set up home in Prospect House in Hythe and went on to have nine children over the next twenty-two years. Robert took on apprentices himself, leased innings land from the council for grazing sheep and invested in property. As befitted his status, he became a town councillor and, in 1794, Mayor of Hythe.  This was the first of six terms as mayor over the next twenty-six years. The mayorality seems at the time to have been filled by a rota of George and Messrs Tritton, Tournay and Shipdem, each taking their turn every four or five years.

Robert died on 9 August 1832, leaving £6949 12s 11d, a tidy sum for a shopkeeper. He ensured that his unmarried daughter, Sarah, was left freehold property and made specific provision for his widowed daughter, Elizabeth, who lived in Ireland. He also died possessed of a fine silver vase, the gift of Stewart Marjoribanks, MP.

See the source image Stewart Marjoribanks, MP

Marjoribanks had first became one of Hythe’s MPs (the town at this time had two) in 1820. He was a London wine merchant and first visited the town on the eve of the announcement of his candidacy, when he made ‘a liberal distribution of ale to the populace’. He was made a freeman of the town the next year. He served the town until 1837 as an increasingly radical Whig. At some point between 1820 and 1832, he made Robert the gift of the vase – we know this because it is mentioned in the will of Robert’s widow. Why would a politician give an upholsterer a valuable gift? In the early nineteenth century, the answer was obvious – as thanks for help during an election campaign. A little later it was rumoured in the press that Marjoribanks had rewarded another supporter, Thomas Garrett, by securing a plum job for his son. On that occasion, the recipient was subsequently charged with bribing voters. Did Robert Finnis take part in such activities? Possibly. It would not have been unusual for the time. The most we can take from the story is that Robert Finnis was a Whig voter.

His wife Elizabeth survived him by nearly six years. She left two freehold houses to her son George, the son who had stayed in Hythe; and her clothes, linen and half her plate to her unmarried daughter Sarah, except ‘the silver vase presented by Stewart Marjoribanks MP to my deceased husband.’ Sarah also got the furniture of her choice. Elizabeth left money – nineteen guineas each – for mourning clothes to her daughters, sister and daughters-in-law. They would have no excuse not to look the part of the grieving (but prosperous) family.

The sister, Ann, born in 1773, was younger than Elizabeth and, in the event, predeceased her by a year. There was a younger brother, too, Thomas, who served in the Royal Marines, retired with the rank of Captain and in his later years lived with his nephew George Finnis in Hythe. Both were buried, when the time came, with Elizabeth in the Finnis family vault. There are not many vaults at the church – the Mackeson’s have one, as do the Deedes family and the Shipdems, all wealthy and influential people (locally, at least).

The eldest child of Robert and Elizabeth, John Groombridge Finnis died at the age of four, and the second, Robert, met his end as a young man in Canada. His has own memorial plaque in St Leonard’s church, which describes his naval career.

 

He had joined the Royal Navy in 1797 at the age of fourteen, as a midshipman and served on HMS Beaulieu, part of the North Sea Fleet. In 1801, the ship was in a squadron of frigates keeping watch on the French and Spanish fleets at anchor in Brest. England was then at war with both countries. During the night of 21 July, nine of the squadron’s boats, one commanded by Robert, succeeded under heavy fire in capturing and setting lose one of the key French vessels, La Chevrette. In recognition of his leadership, Robert was promoted Lieutenant six weeks later.

‘The Cutting-out of La Chevrette’ (Bristol Museums Galleries & Archives)

By 1813, he was Captain of HMS Charlotte, a 17-gun sloop which got embroiled in a short-lived conflict with America, the result of the latter’s inability to trade with Europe as a result of the war there. In the first battle of the struggle, on 10 September at Lake Erie, Robert was killed outright in the first broadside. His commanding officer, Robert Heriot Barclay wrote: ‘Too soon, alas, was I deprived of the services of the noble and intrepid Captain Finnis, who soon after the commencement of the action fell, and him my greatest support.’ The Charlotte  was captured by the Americans, who won the day.

Robert’s funeral: he was buried together with five other officers on 11 September 1813 at South Bass Island, near Put-in-Bay, Lake Erie

The next child was a daughter, Elizabeth, baptised in St Leonard’s church on 17 May 1785. On 3 December 1803, aged just eighteen, she married Henry Blosse Lynch, a lieutenant in the 27th Foot based at Shorncliffe. He took her to his home, Partry House in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, where she gave birth to eleven sons – of whom, more later. Henry died in 1823 and Elizabeth in 1845.

See the source image

Partry House, Co. Mayo, set in an estate of 1500 acres

Another daughter followed, Sarah Maria, born in 1791. She never married, but was well-provided for by her parents and in her later days divided her time between Hythe and the homes of her sister Jane and her brother Thomas,  both of whom lived in London. She died in Hythe on 8 November 1880, leaving an estate of less than £7,000 to her brother Thomas Quested Finnis, her only surviving sibling.

George was the next Finnis child, born in 1793. He decided to follow his father’s example of solid hard work and civic duty. He went into partnership with John Ronalds, an auctioneer and his son Edward, an upholsterer. They traded not only in those two areas, but as estate agents, insurance agents, ironmongers and (bizarrely) bell-hangers. George was also a trustee of St Bartholomew’s alms-house and  JP both for Hythe and for Kent. He was mayor in 1828 and 1833 and looked set to follow his father’s record, but the upcoming young James Watts dominated council life for many years and George did not serve again as Mayor until 1849.

On 11 August 1830, he had married Anne Castle, a widow and together they had two daughters, though one, Jane Maria, died aged eight and is recorded on the same memorial as her father. The other was Elizabeth. Like his father, he supported Stewart Marjoribanks in the 1830 General Election. However, in 1837, it was reported that he now supported the Conservative Party. He died on 3 May 1850 at his sister Jane’s house in Regents’s Park. His wife died on 4 July 1856 in Hackney.

The next child born to Robert & Elizabeth Finnis was another girl, Jane, baptised on 17 May 1796. She married Thomas Pilcher a farmer of Cheriton in St Leonard’s church in June 1818.  Although he continued living in Cheriton, he was a Hythe jurat (councillor), probably because he had married the daughter of a freeman.  There were no children of the marriage and when Thomas died in 1844, he left all his land to his brother Jesse, presumably to keep it in the family. However, Jane was handsomely provided for, with a lump sum of £6000 and a life annuity of £400.

Jane left Cheriton and either bought or leased a house in London, 13 York Terrace in Marylebone, near Regent’s Park.  £6000 could go a very long way indeed in the 1840s.

See the source image

York Terrace, London NW1

Jane died on a visit to Hythe on 9 February 1871.

The memorial to the Finnis family in St Leonard’s Church

In a vault near the chancel/are interred the remains of/Robert Finnis Esq./one of the jurats/of this town and port/who died the 9th of August 1832/in the 79th year of his age
And of Elizabeth his wife/who died the 13th of May 1839/in the 77th year of her age
Also those of Ann Quested/the sister of the above named/Elizabeth Finnis/who died 29th May 1838/aged 65 years
Also of Capt. Thomas Quested R.M./who died 17th March 1845/aged 68 years
George Finnis Esq/Mayor of this town died 3rd May 1850/aged 56 years
Jane Maria, daughter of the above/died 3rd April 1844,/ aged 8 years
Also of Sarah Maria, daughter of the/above named Robert Finnis/died 10th November 1880 /aged 89 years
To the memory of/Lieut. Stephen Finnis/of the Bengal Army/who died at Dinapoor in the East Indies/the 1st of August 1819, aged 21
Also to his brother Colonel John Finnis/11th Reg. Bengal Army, aged 53, killed by the mutineer/ of the 20th reg. N.I at Meerut May 10th 

To be continued…

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A Canadian Adventure and a Canadian Adventuress

The father of the Trueman family of Hythe did not have an auspicious start in life. Henry William Truman was born in 1857 in the Elham Union Workhouse, the son of Jane Trueman, a single woman. His father was not named. What became of Jane is unknown, but little Henry was taken in by Thomas and Harriet Pilcher, who kept the Providence beerhouse in Hythe High Street. There must presumably have been a blood relationship, since the Pilchers already had a brood of children and were in no need of an extra mouth to feed.  Thomas Pilcher died when Henry was twelve, during the dreadful winter of 1869-70. The town’s water pipes were frozen and he collapsed trying to carry water down from a spring at the top of the hill. Harriet carried on the business alone. Thomas took the Pilchers’  name and was raised as their son. When he left school, he worked as a groom and assumed his birth name.

On 14 November 1876, at St Leonard’s church, Hythe, he married Rosanna Burrows of Ashford. She was the fourth child of the eight of James Burrows, a coach smith and his wife Abigail. Their wedding ceremony seems to have been rather chaotic. The bride misrepresented her age, saying she was twenty-one, not nineteen. Her Christian and surnames were both misspelt as was Henry’s surname. Nearly fifty years later, they went back to the church to have the record set straight.

Trueman1

They set up home in Theatre Street, Hythe, a road of mostly small terraced cottages. Their first son, James Henry (Jim) was born on 17 April 1878 and William John in 1880.  Frederick Charles followed in 1881, then Harry Sydney (Sid) in 1886. By 1891 Henry was prospering. The family lived in Bartholomew Street, and he had become a cab driver and groom, and also a ratepayer, which entitled him to a vote. They stayed there until at least 1901, by which time the three eldest boys had left home and young Sid, at fifteen was apprenticed to a carpenter.   Once Sid had left home as well, Henry and Rosanna moved to 50 North Road, where they ran a general store and Rosanna’s father James moved in with them. He died in 1911 and is buried in St Leonard’s churchyard.

Their eldest son, Jim, became a tram conductor. Horse-drawn trams had started running from Hythe to Folkestone in the 1890s and by 1894 ran all the way from Red Lion Square in Hythe, where the tram sheds and stables were built, to the Sandgate hill lift, which took visitors up to the Leas.  Because of its seating arrangement, the tram was known locally as ‘the toast rack’.

Trueman toastrack

The ‘toast rack’ on its way back from Folkestone to Hythe. The conductor is standing at the back. 

Trueman tramsheds

The tram sheds at Hythe, now converted into offices.

In 1899, Jim married a local girl, Cecilia Powell, the daughter of a marine storekeeper. They settled in Frampton Road, not too far from the tram sheds and two children were born: Georgina in 1900 and James Percy in 1902. Then, perhaps not seeing any great future in his line of work, Jim and Cecilia and their children emigrated to Canada in 1913. During the early-twentieth century, emigration from Britain reached unprecedented levels, with approximately 3.15 million people leaving between 1903 and 1913. The most popular destination during these years was Canada, drawing almost half of Britain’s emigrants.

They sailed on board the Sicilian  from London on 27 March 1913 and James, entirely untruthfully, told the immigration authorities that his occupation was ‘farming.’  The family went to Elgin County in Ontario, but within months Cecilia had developed Bright’s disease (which could be any sort of kidney failure)  and she died in hospital on 7 April 1915.

Jim and the children moved on to Fronterac, also in Ontario and Jim took up house painting instead of farming.  By now, war had broken out in Europe, and Jim immediately joined the Princess of Wales Own Rifles, a reserve infantry regiment, but did not volunteer then for overseas service. When he did, on 1 November 1916, he joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and was attached to a Field Ambulance Unit.  He had brown eyes, dark brown hair and was 5 feet 5 inches tall.  Two weeks before this, he had married again, to Violet Bertha Reid. When he joined up, he made his will, leaving everything to her.

Trueman marriage licence

He returned to England on Boxing Day 1916, aboard the SS Olympic  and was sent to Dibgate Camp, used as a training depot for the Canadians and very near to Hythe.  Within a month he was admitted to hospital at Sir John Moore barracks in Shorncliffe and by April was seriously ill with nephritis (kidney disease).  Although he rallied briefly, he was discharged from the army as no longer fit for service on 29 June the next year, and died at his parent’s home in North Road a month after that, on 24 July 1917.  He had told the military authorities that he did not want to return to Canada.

Jim was buried in the same grave as his maternal grandfather, James Burrows. His children were at his funeral, probably old enough now to make the journey from Canada alone. Rosanna Trueman, Jim’s mother, became their guardian. Violet, however was not there.  The army discovered that she had not legally been Jim’s wife: she had ‘married’ several soldiers in order to receive the separation allowance when they were sent overseas. Sensibly, Violet, if that was in fact her name, disappeared.

James Percy grew up to become a gardener, married and did not die until 1981.  Georgina married Percy Blackman, had a son and was still living in Hythe in 1939.

Jim’s next brother, William, stayed put in Hythe and opened, when he was still a young man, a newsagent and tobacconist in Bank Street, where he also lived with his wife and four children – Vera, Edna, Iris and Wilfred. He also took on the old family home in Bartholomew Street and rented it out. A Conservative, he was also a Freemason and member of the bowls club.  In his forties he became ill and missed his mother’s funeral in 1927, which took place not long after she celebrated her Golden Wedding Anniversary with Henry. William died, aged only forty-eight in 1928. and was buried in Saltwood churchyard.

Trueman Saltwood

William’s grave in Saltwood churchyard. His wife Emily Evelyn is buried in the same grave.

Frederick Trueman, the third brother, had meanwhile left Hythe but had not gone far – only to Folkestone where he worked for some years for a brewery, E. Finn and Co., of Lydd, first as a clerk, later as manager of their Folkestone branch. He spent his working life in the catering trade, later with Maestrani’s in Folkestone and towards the end of his life at Slatter’s Hotel in Canterbury. Both were considered to be rather up-market establishments.

Trueman Maestani

The Maestrani family’s café and restaurant in Folkestone. It was demolished in the 1930s.

Slatters Hotel in Canterbury, now also demolished    Trueman Slatters

Frederick did not marry, and died in 1930, also aged forty-eight, weeks after his father. He is also buried in Saltwood, while his father is with the rest of the family in St Leonard’s churchyard.

Sid, the baby of the Trueman family went away, too, to Plumstead. He seems never to have become a carpenter, but worked as a canvasser and collector for a second-hand clothes dealer. He married and moved to Maidstone.  He is absent from the list of mourners at his family’s funerals, but occasionally sent a wreath. He died in 1959.

But there is a postscript. For years, the Canadian Army and Commonwealth War Graves Commission listed Jim as having no known grave, as although his family had notified the army that Jim was dead, they had not told them where he was buried. His name was recorded instead on the Brookwood Memorial to the missing in Surrey.

Trueman Brookwood

Brookwood Memorial

Then, in 2015, two Canadian researchers, Diana Beaupre and Adrian Watkinson contacted St Leonard’s church. They were – and still are – researching the whereabouts of the graves of Canadian soldiers who died in the UK. We were able to tell them exactly where Jim’s grave was, and a couple of years later, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission erected an official War Grave memorial, in addition to the existing headstone. Since then, however, that original stone, already badly weathered when its inscription was recorded in 2015, has collapsed.

Trueman grave

The Trueman grave in St Leonard’s churchyard as it was in 2015. The inscription could only be partly deciphered:

Nearer my God to thee
In memory of/ …mes Henry …/…. 25th I….h aged …
… James Henry Trueman/ died July 24th 1917 aged 40
Rosanna Trueman/ died December 29th 1927/ aged 71 years
And/ Henry William Trueman/ died February …th 1930 aged 72 years.

On the obverse:

Also of Cecilia/Wife of James Trueman/who died 7 April 1915/buried Kingston Canada

Trueman war grave

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone for James Henry Trueman, the only CWGC stone in St Leonard’s churchyard. 

The fascinating research being undertaken by Diana and Adrian can be seen here:

https://www.canadianukgravesww1.co.uk/

I am indebted to them for providing me with a record of Jim’s military service from the Ottawa Archives.