Sunday, October 13, 2013

Boy emigrants from Redhill Farm School: Edgell

The Edgell Story: guest post by Peter Bathe

There are occasions when following the trail of an ancestor that another person is encountered who, although not related, was a colleague/friend/acquaintance of that ancestor. It can be both rewarding and revealing to follow this person’s life, not least because sometimes fresh discoveries can be made for the main line of research.

One such case happened while I followed the life of my great grandfather and I encountered John Joseph William Edgell.

Brislington nr Bristol
John Edgell was born in 1850 in a small village on the outskirts of Bristol called Brislington. He was the oldest of six boys born to Joseph Edgell, a labourer, and his wife Susan (nee Tucker).

By the time John was six years old, the family had moved the few miles to Bath. It was here that John started working as an errand boy for an auctioneer, but at the age of 11 he was convicted of larceny of his master’s property.
House of Correction, Coldbath Square

He was sentenced to spend 14 days imprisoned at the Bath House of Correction followed by detention in a reformatory for four years.

Thus it was that on 26 December 1861 John arrived at the Philanthropic Society’s reformatory, the Redhill Farm School in Surrey, where he would have met my great grandfather, George Bathe, for the first time (George had started his own sentence there a couple of months earlier).

Redhill Farm School, Surrey

It was the Farm School’s policy to encourage suitable boys to emigrate to the colonies at the end of their sentences – particularly to Canada, but also to Natal and Cape Colony. John and my grandfather were both deemed good material as colonists and so on 27 October 1865, they sailed together on the brig Lord Clarendon and arrived in Durban on 2 February the following year.

Passenger list of the Lord Clarendon, Natal Mercury 6 February 1866.
3rd line down shows 2 Redhill emigrants Bathe and Edgell - misspelt Bashe and Edgar.

When the boys arrived they were taken into the care of the Society’s agent in Durban, Frederick James Dickinson. He reported back to the School on 8 February: 'Bathe & Edgell are stopping a few days with me on the Berea until I send them to their places – one to a coffee planter 30 miles away, on the coast, the other to a sheep farmer 140 miles away near Grey Town.'

It was John who was sent to the coffee planter – W A Remnant at Shortlands, Verulam. John was to be an overseer of the African and Indian workers on the estate. He worked a 12-hour day and also looked after horses and poultry – all for £1 a month initially.

Bishop Colenso:
 cartoon by Pellegrini
Over the next few years, John often wrote to the School’s chaplain, telling him about his life on the farm and odd snippets of news about other former pupils who were in Natal, one or two of whom appear to have slipped back into criminal ways. He also spoke of events in the colony, such as the gold diggings and the controversy about Bishop Colenso, whom he described as 'a very nice man'.

However, one letter at the end of November 1866 was to Frederick Dickinson in Durban asking how to send some money back to his mother: 'I want to send £5 or 6 to my mother. Father was killed on Sept 11 by a Dray passing over his head. He jumped from the cart he was driving & falling was killed instantly. Mother is very ill & very poor. Tell me how I must send it home. Mr Remnant’s gone up country so cannot send the money until next mail. Am thankful to feel that I have one kind friend in Natal.'

A few months later he was again writing to Mr Dickinson: 'My mother wants to send out one of my younger brothers. Can you get him a place? Another has gone to friends in America.'

In fact, the following year, John’s mother and the other brothers all went to live in the USA, but sadly one of the brothers 'was kicked to death by a young colt near New York' a year later.

Coffee plantation
John’s early years with the Remnants seem to have been happy and prosperous. He was made manager of the estate which in 1868 'had above 30,000 coffee trees & shall have 8 tons of coffee this year & 40 tons next. We are going to plant tobacco.' By 1870, he had an average of 70 men and women to supervise.

The following year he wrote, 'We fielded 12 tons of it last year. I have 100 acres to attend to. I shall get about £50 a year & provide for myself & live in Master’s house.” Then later: “We have picked at the rate of 1 ton an acre of clean coffee for 14 acres. From the remainder, 24 tons clean or above 300 tons in the press, & have to look after nearly 100 hands. For June I paid £52 in wages, some men having 8/-, 9/-, 14/- a mo. I have a furnished house of my own & a horse to ride.'

He was doing so well he was sending donations to the Chapel fund for the Redhill School and offered a half sovereign for the best boy in his old school house, Queen’s.

But in 1872 there seems to have been a downturn in his fortunes and he wrote: 'I am no richer than when I came only get £6 a mo & feed & clothe myself & clothes are very dear.' Then 'I am 22 today I have no increase in my pay and can save nothing, things are dearer than ever. I shall have to look out for another place.'

The following year, 'No increase of pay, tho I have been here 8 years. Only brickmakers & carpenters flourish here,' and finally, 'Crops are very poor, Coffee crop as bad as last year. Nearly all are turning to sugar growing. My wages are very low. My brother in America, 4 years younger, gets far higher wages than mine at ordinary work.'

Unfortunately, I haven't copies of any of his later letters but things may have improved sufficiently for him to marry in 1881 in Verulam. His wife was Lucy Caroline Dawtrey who originally came from Halifax in Yorkshire.

Marriage record: John Joseph William Edgell and Lucy Caroline Dawtrey
at Verulam, Natal,1881 *

John obviously gained a good working knowledge of the Indian languages while working at the Remnants’ farm, because in 1889 he applied for the post of Hindustani and Tamil interpreter to The Supreme Court of Natal. He died in 1907.

And how did John Edgell help in my own family history research? In a few of his letters he mentions my great grandfather and added to my knowledge of him. For example:

2 August 1870: 'I saw Bathe a month since. He has gone with the Regt to the Mauritius. He is a smart looking fellow, the tallest but one in his company. He is lance corporal & earned 30/- for shooting.'
21 April 1871: 'I have heard from Bathe at the Cape.'

All I knew was that after he had left the sheep farmer in Grey Town, he joined the army, went to Mauritius with his regiment sometime in 1870 and then returned to the UK at the beginning of 1872. Now I know more precisely when he went to Mauritius and the fact that for a time his regiment was at the CapeBut it is the personal details of his height, rank and earnings which were particularly fascinating.

George never returned to South Africa but he and John did keep in contact for some while afterwards.

Note: Thanks to Peter Bathe for the series of interesting and informative articles on these Redhill emigrants. For further posts on this topic enter Redhill in the blog search facility at top left of page.

"South Africa, Natal Province, Civil Marriages, 1845-1955," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 13 Oct 2013), 004236412 > image 1 of 762.

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