Finding a New Cousin – Coincidence, Correspondence & Scandal

By Elizabeth Mills

This article was published in the April 2022 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

It all began in 2012 when I was walking the dog in one of the many side streets off the Cowley Road in East Oxford. I met a student, who was with her mother, and they were looking for local advice because the student house in which Milly was living was in a very dilapidated state and the landlord was clearly not taking the tenants’ complaints seriously. We chatted for a while and they introduced themselves – Fiona MacPherson and her daughter Milly from Wallingford.
Completely coincidentally, a few months later, I had a message from Fiona on saying that we might actually be related. I admit I found the connection a bit far fetched, so didn’t take it very seriously. It was a year or so later that I was running a conference for the Creative Dementia Arts Network, and Fiona turned up as a delegate as she works with people with dementia and we shared notes on the family tree.
It is necessary to go back in time and talk about the Sewell family of Arcadia, Trelawny, Jamaica who were sugar planters. Henry Sewell 1838-1906 had inherited substantial estates from his late father, William Sewell 1801-1872 but while William was careful and frugal, accumulating a considerable fortune, Henry seemed determined to spend.
Henry had been educated at school in Cumberland, and was living in Glasgow (working as an engineer) when his father, knowing he was dying, sent for him, asking first that he find himself a nice English wife to bring home with him to Jamaica. This he obligingly did; on 2nd March 1869 at Upperby, Carlisle he married Maggie Crowther, one of the sisters of his school friend, John Crowther.
Henry and Maggie settled in Jamaica, although they returned to Britain on a regular basis so of their six children, Alice and Arthur were born in Jamaica, Percy and Beatrice in Carlisle, and Nesta and Horace in Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire.
William had actually left his fortune in trust for any children Henry may have, but Henry managed to break that trust, and squandered the money on a large steam/sailing vessel which transported them back and forth from Jamaica. He also bought Steephill Castle in the Isle of Wight so that he could be close to Osborne, the home of Queen Victoria, although as a sugar planter from the colonies, and of mixed race, he was unlikely to have been accepted into Her Majesty’s social circle, he had social aspirations!!
Of Henry and Maggie’s six children, I always believed just three had married and produced children. Alice 1870-1919, the oldest, who eloped with a ship’s purser – Harry Kendall Oram (having been thwarted by her father in her intention to marry the curate on the Isle of Wight). Family lore says that “she fell into his arms on the boat deck” on her way home to Jamaica. She was my Great Grandmother.
The youngest, Horace 1881-1953, was the most successful of the children, not only rising to the rank of Brigadier General but also managing to restore the family fortunes in Jamaica by marrying an heiress! My cousin Percy Sewell is one of his grandsons.
And Beatrice, who married an academic called Richmond Noble, and my cousins Nick and Brigid Noble are among their descendants.
And until recently that was it. I then started seriously researching the family tree and found that Arthur Victor William Sewell 1878-1913 had married Rose, née Chaplin (1879-1934), on 29 August 1900 at the
St Pancras Register Office. But even a year later they had still not told their families. They both appear on the 1901 census – Arthur living with his mother and Rose with her parents and both shown as single. He was studying to be a veterinary surgeon, and I suspect that the parents would have thoroughly disapproved of their marrying at 22.
By 1903, however, Rose had met Arthur’s family, and 24th October 1903 sees Rose departing Bristol aboard the SS Port Maria bound for Kingston, accompanied by Beatrice and Nesta, plus Beatrice’s maid. Rose and Beatrice returned to England on 10th May 1904 aboard the SS Port Antonio.
Rose must have returned to Jamaica the following winter because on 7th July 1905 at Brown’s Town, Saint Ann, Jamaica, Rose gave birth to a daughter, Joan Flavia Sewell 1905-1986. But all was not well with the marriage. And Rose refused to live in Jamaica, claiming that Arthur had told her they would set up home in England when they married. And Arthur denied that Joan was his child. For several years, Rose and later Joan, begged the Sewell family to accept Joan as Arthur’s true daughter.
Divorce ensued. Rose petitioned for divorce on the grounds of adultery and desertion in 1911, and Arthur was supported by his entire family; the final decree was awarded on 16th December 1912. One of the details of the grounds for divorce was that Arthur was ashamed of Rose, encouraging his friend Frank Rowan Ward to entertain her instead of bringing her into contact with the family. The unwelcome attentions of Frank Rowan Ward were rewarded when Rose married him just a week after the divorce was made absolute.
Joan Flavia Sewell married Charles Fawkes Macpherson on 29th September 1928 and went on to have 3 children – Jennifer 1929-2017; Charles 1931- and Shirley 1935-1939.
Charles Anthony Sewell Macpherson is Fiona’s father.
After I had met Fiona, and heard how they have always believed themselves to be Sewell descendants, I spoke to Percy about this claim and he remembered talk in his family about the persistent claims first from Rose and later from Joan that they should be treated as members of the family. Indeed, he still has family correspondence dating back to the 1950s making these claims – claims that were rejected by all the Sewells! But claims that it turns out were completely justified… in 2017 I took an Ancestry DNA test and among the many distant cousins who have shown up on my family tree is Fiona! So it is true! I have a cousin – in fact I have four cousins – I had no idea existed – and they live only a few miles from me in Oxfordshire.