The Village People

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It was approaching the longest night of the year as a rainbow of sweetly-scented summer flowers ushered me into the Dairy Walk. Barely a tennis ball’s throw away from the world famous tennis courts, I was following a path once taken by milkmaids delivering to the grand houses dotted around Wimbledon Common. I could scarcely imagine where it would lead me and what I would learn over the next weeks about the Village and its people. The outrage at George Floyd’s death in America this summer, the tumbling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and local Black Lives Matters protests all coincided with me delving a little closer into some of the history on my doorstep.

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Unable to do my guided tours, I have been devising a series of self-guided walks for people to do as their daily lockdown exercise. The Wimbledon Championships was cancelled this year and thinking that it might be nice to do something for people missing out on that, I found myself looking in a little more depth at the tranquil gentility of Wimbledon Village. I thought I knew it quite well from the tennis, walks on the Common and visiting the pubs. I had a vague idea of the history but somehow with its grand houses, gardens, golf courses and chocolate-box perfection it hadn’t enticed me to look that closely. It really shocked me then to discover things that have probably changed my mind forever in the way I look at British history. I also stumbled upon an incredibly touching yet troubling story.

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My Walk started at the imposing St Mary’s Church, a very central player in the story. At the top of the hill, about ten minutes walk from the tennis courts. Its the one the TV cameras love to pan over to at the end of a day’s coverage on one of those dreamy midsummer evenings. Dairy Walk passes through an old turnstile and winds its way down to Marryat Place, a fairly recent housing development adjoining Marryat Road. This is a road I’ve been familiar with all the time I’ve lived in London. It descends from Parkside on the edge of Wimbledon Common, sweeping past expensive properties on its way straight down to the All England Lawn Tennis Club on Somerset Road.

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There are spectacular  views over the tennis courts to the distant London skyline. Perched here at the top of the hill, until about 1900 would have been the 100 acre grounds of Wimbledon House, purchased in 1815 by Joseph Marryat. A Member of Parliament, Chairman of Lloyd’s, a merchant with many interests in the West Indies. He died in 1824 but this would be his family’s main home for the next 30 years. It then became the residence of Sir Henry Peek whose endeavours ensured the protection of Wimbledon Common. It was all demolished by the turn of the 20th century as other houses repopulated its landscaped gardens, though some remain in the grounds of the Thai Buddhist temple on Calonne Road.

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I had a vague idea of some sort of Wimbledon link to the slave trade. An exhibiton in the Museum coincided with the bicentenary of abolition in 2007. I knew of the connection with William Wilberforce, but that he was more associated with Clapham. University College London has since 2009 undertaken a major study, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, amongst other things, unravelling exactly where the £20 million compensation money paid by the British tax payer went. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 but it took another 26 years to effect full emancipation. Even then this only happened due to a grant of £20 million paid by British tax payers to compensate slave owners. Its taken 182 years to pay this debt off. The recent research has been highlighted in various BBC programmes fronted by David Olusoga. A family who feature prominently in the UCL findings are the Marryats. 

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Joseph Marryat was no ordinary slave owner but a major force in the anti-abolition movement, a role well documented on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database. The MP for Horsham and later Sandwich, an agent for various islands in the West Indies with plantations in Trinidad, Grenada, Jamaica and St Lucia. In 1807 he actively petitioned against the abolition of the slave trade. In 1816 in his pamphlet Thoughts on the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ he attacked the ‘wild and dangerous political doctrines that are now circulated under the guise of humanity’ by ‘a certain class of Methodists, a sect who profess superior sanctity’. Joseph Marryat was also the chairman of Lloyd’s from 1811 to 1824. Just a few weeks ago, Lloyd’s of London and the Greene King brewing company announced that they would pay reparations ‘to benefit the BAME community and promote diversity’ to address their founders involvement in the slave trade. Its a great irony that although they never lived there at the same time, Marryat’s Wimbledon House and Lauriston House on the south side, associated with his opponent Wilberforce, almost faced each other across Wimbledon Common. 

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From the UCL records it would appear a total of 1,466 slaves were owned by the Marryats and subsequently the family were compensated for their loss with an amount which equates today as roughly £8.5 million. As was not uncommon, Marryat even fathered children in Grenada. One of these, Ann Marryat ended up owning slaves and receiving compensation herself. Joseph Marryat died in 1824 before the money was paid but his sons certainly benefited from it. His American wife Charlotte continued to live at Wimbledon House until her death in 1854. She was the driving force behind the gardens ‘unrivalled in the neighbourhood of London for the beauty and variety of their flowers’ and was one of the first women members of the Royal Horticultural Society. 

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She was described as ‘a keen Evangelical Christian, who took control of ensuring that the moral character of the Village was maintained’. This included banishing the fair on the High Street. Henry Lindsay became Vicar of St Mary’s Church in 1819 and married Maria, Joseph and Charlotte’s oldest daughter. The Church website describes the good works Charlotte did for the poor including building almshouses on Camp Road. She also regularly spent Sundays reading the Bible to gypsies on Wimbledon Common. 

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One of her sons Frederick had joined the navy at an early age and had a highly distinguished career. He went on to become a well known children’s author. One of his many residences was a house called Gothic Lodge on Woodhayes Road, opposite Crooked Billet on the southwest corner of the Common. An association marked by a commemorative plaque similar to the one on Wilberforce’s house five minutes walk away.  An English Heritage blue plaque graces another of his homes at Spanish Place in Marylebone, where he hung out with the likes of Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank. A number of other abodes and associations were in the Fulham, Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush area. The family lived in a large house on Askew Road. Nearby Bassein Park Road gets its name from his naval exploits in Burma.

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There is a Marryat Court near the Hammersmith Town Hall development and until fairly recently a Captain Marryat School in St Dunstan’s Road. Its now the site of the William Morris Sixth Form College. Not too far away is a Marryat Square in Fulham. He also lived in a large house on Fulham Palace Road, now the site of Charing Cross Hospital. This was Sussex House and had been owned by the Duke of Sussex who laid the foundation stone of Hammersmith Bridge in 1825. Frederick Marryat also lived for some time in Brighton, hanging out with the King at the relatively new Royal Pavilion. He died and is buried in Norfolk. The family influence extended around the world with one branch settling in South Australia where Marryatville near Adelaide and the town of Port Augusta received their names. Gothic Lodge, close to where people on Wimbledon Common sprawl on the grass outside the Hand in Hand and Crooked Billet pubs on summer evenings was probably a convenient pad to crash when visiting his mother. 

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Captain Marryat served for many years with the Royal Navy. In 1824 this lead to his involvement in the First Anglo-Burmese War. A key access route to the Jewel in the Crown, Burma was seen as threatening the interests of the British East India Company. Coincidentally, Eagle House on Wimbledon High Street was built as his country home by one of its first directors, Robert Bell. Back in Burma, Marryat was involved in a naval action on the River Irrawaddy, advancing on the cities of Rangoon and Bassein. He appears to have returned with quite a hoard of souvenirs. Many were treasures that he tried to donate to the British Museum in exchange for a place on their board of trustees. A gold buddha statue was accepted and was on display there until quite recently. Over one hundred items including the state carriage of the King of Burma  and a massive royal throne were displayed by the Royal Asiatic Society at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. There are lurid accounts of rubies and other jewels torn from the dead bodies’ of elite Burmese warriors known as ‘Invulnerables’. Some of these were kept at Wimbledon House and shown to garden party guests by Marryat’s mother. 

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At this point I must have mentioned my interest in the Marryat family to a friend Jen. She responded by telling me that she was a descendant of someone whose life had been turned upside down by Captain Marryat. I was now introduced to Sophar Rangoon. Born around 1819 in the Kingdom of Ava, Burma, Myanmar, call it what you like. He is buried in Lambeth Cemetery, a short walk from where I live. He also has his own Wikipedia page and a genealogy site where various descendants have outlined his extraordinary story. 

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Golden treasures weren’t all that Captain Marryat brought back from Burma when HMS Tees arrived at Chatham on 11th January 1826. When he returned from his adventures, he sought to advance his status in high society and became equerry to the Duke of Sussex. Prince Augustus Frederick was the brother of King George IV who would become Queen Victoria’s favourite uncle. Possibly as part of the arrangement, Marryat  ‘gifted’ him an eight year old boy who had returned with him on his voyage from Burma. This was Sophar Rangoon. It appears the Duke was a kindly and eccentric soul, much amused by Sophar, who became a page and joined his household at Kensington Palace. Here he was educated, taught a trade and grew up through a succession of royal events including the coronations of William IV and Victoria. A major event in his life would have been Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840 when the Duke of Sussex gave her away .

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The Queen was a year younger than Sophar and was born and spent her childhood at Kensington Palace. It’s hard to believe that they didn’t meet. The Duke was married twice but had no heirs, so there wasn’t another Duchess of Sussex until Meghan Markle. Sophar remained in Kensington Palace and Windsor Castle in the Duke’s service until the Duke’s death in 1843 when he would have been aged around 27. His ceremonial attendance at the Duke’s funeral and lying in state is reported in the Illustrated London News. Sometime after this he left the Royal household and found work as a tailor. He married Margaret Sophia Green, the daughter of a cabinet-maker from Holborn and had at least seven children. One of his sons, born in Southwark in 1859  was named Frederick Augustus, after the Duke of Sussex and it is from him that my friend is descended.

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Sophar and Margaret lived at various locations around London over the next decades as they raised their family. At first in the Chelsea and Knightsbridge area. Possibly, as that became more gentrified, they crossed to south London and lived In Lambeth and Southwark through the 1850s and 1860s. This included lengthy spells at Marshalsea and Adams Place. The Charles Booth map shows these as areas indicated by dark blue and black, the very poorest streets, a world away from Kensington Palace. 

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Perhaps attracted to the area by the fairly recently transplanted Crystal Palace, it appears that from the late 1870s, Sophar’s family lived at 4 Rommany Road, Gipsy Hill. It sounds like a crowded but happy household. In the 1881 census, Sophar and 56 year old Margaret were living there with two adult sons, William and Edward. Their married daughter Margaret and their infant grandson. Sophar worked as a tailor, William was a painter and Edward a labourer. The house still stands today. A beautiful curving characterful street at the foot of Norwood Park. Sophar died aged 73 on 22nd January 1890 and is buried in Lambeth Cemetery. He was buried in a public grave and there is no headstone or any marker to indicate where it is. Family members have worked out where his plot is, on the southern side of the cemetery, near to St George’s Hospital. 

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The genealogy site that they have put together has further details about Sophar, including speculation as to how he might have come to be brought back to Britain by Captain Marryat and his possible status as a son of the Chief of the Kingdom of Ava. Its an extraordinary story and I am grateful to his descendants for sharing it with me. I hope when we are able to meet and congregate, that we might be able to gather in Lambeth Cemetery to remember his extraordinary life. Among them will be my friend Jen, acknowledging the memory of her Great Great Grandfather, possibly a Prince of Ava. When the Duke of Sussex died, a list of his possessions was reported in the Illustrated News. One of these was ‘the portrait of a black boy in uniform’. The family believe that this painting is out there somewhere and they would love to find it. Little appears to remain of the Marryats in Wimbledon, apart from the name of the road. A family tomb in St Mary’s churchyard is unidentifiable apart from their crest. I look forward to visiting Wimbledon Museum and finding more about them. This has been a difficult story to tell, but perhaps it would be fitting for residents in Wimbledon Village to also in some way acknowledge the 1,466 lives of those enslaved people who are as much a part of their history as anyone. If you want to follow the trail of the ‘Village People’ and see some of the locations associated with this story, download the walk here.

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Britain’s examination of its colonial past is very prevalent at the moment and there is no hiding place from it. To their great credit, a member of the Marryat family provided information for the UCL research. I couldn’t resist checking the database to see what I could find about a family name on my mother’s side. My Great Great Grandmother was a Beresford and they are there. I don’t recognise the particular name on any family tree I’ve ever seen, but the connection with the Beresfords was considered worthy enough for it to be one of my middle names. 

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophar_Rangoon
https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Rangoon-5
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146630485