MY ANCESTOR FOUGHT AT TRAFALGAR
Thanks in part to a letter written by a murderer 135 years ago, Gordon Martin discovered the truth about a seafaring ancestor – and much more besides, says Claire Vaughan
oyaging into his family history, Gordon Martin discovered one forebear who described himself as “springing from the sea”. It’s a poignant declaration, given that being a family historian is about bearing witness to the swirling passage of time, the currents that propelled our ancestors this way and that.
Gordon had believed for much of his life that his paternal ancestors all came from Frome in deepest Somerset, but the reality is much more extraordinary.
Inheriting the hobby
“I first became interested in my paternal family history in 1993, prompted by my uncle Bill’s research into my mother’s maiden name of Crisp,” Gordon explains.
He soon found himself in very murky waters as he investigated the long-standing family mystery of the death of his great grandfather Samuel Martin, who lived in the village of Mells. One day, spooling through local newspapers at Frome Library, a headline caught his eye: ‘ Tragedy in Mells’. “It was a very detailed coroner’s account that provided all sorts of information about the family,” he says. The Somerset and Wiltshire Journal of 16 July 1892 recounted a dreadful tale of infidelity and death.
The inquest under Mr W Muller, coroner, heard that PC Samuel Redman had been summoned to Mells Park on 10 July 1892. According to the newspaper: “On the bank of the pond and near the bathing house he found a coat, vest, cap and scarf, part of a postman’s uniform. Inside the hat was marked the name ‘S Martin’.”
There was what looked like a bag floating on the surface of the water. Approaching it, PC Redman discovered the body of a drowned man. He was identified as Samuel Martin, the 47-year-old postman for Mells.
A witness said he had seen Samuel leaving the Ship Inn in Frome the previous night with Harriet Walters, the pregnant wife of a deaf-and-dumb grinder, and with whom Samuel was said to have been intimate. When interviewed at her home, Harriet produced a box Samuel had given her that contained letters addressed to his brothers Alfred and Charles. The report stated: “Both were dated on the Saturday. In them, Samuel said ‘I am driven to take this foolish step through having a dirty, ungrateful, jealous wife, who has not washed a shirt or pair of socks or any other apparel for me for over three years’.”
The account gives vivid details of Samuel’s family life and his last movements, along with verbatim evidence from his wife, Mary; Harriet; Charles; his son Samuel; and various neighbours and associates.
The court found that “the deceased met his death by drowning, and that he deliberately and feloniously killed himself, in a great measure in consequence of the improper conduct between himself and Harriet Walters”. The lengthy report is a gold mine of family history – and a wonderful window into life in rural Somerset at the turn of the last century.
The plot thickens
Still waters run deep, as Gordon discovered when he followed the Martins’ trail back to a marriage record for his 3x great grandparents Charles William and Priscilla: “Charles, a widower, of HMS Achille, married Priscilla Sherkey in December 1813 at St Thomas, Portsmouth.” Investigating HMS Achille’s history, Gordon was excited to discover that the ship had been at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Following a hunch, he searched the Trafalgar Ancestors database on The National Archives’ (TNA’s) website – and Charles was on the crew at the time.
At TNA, Gordon consulted Achille’s original records. “I feel privileged to
PC Redman discovered the body of a drowned man. It was Gordon’s great grandfather, Samuel Martin
have handled fragile, early 17th-century ship’s muster books. The record for October/ November 1805 confirms that Charles was aboard HMS Achille at Trafalgar. The ship was allocated official ship identification no. 7 in Nelson’s line of battle.”
Achille came off relatively lightly, with only “the loss of her topmasts and 72 casualties – 13 dead and 59 wounded”. A note in the musters showed that Charles had previously been on HMS Kite from 1 July 1800, joining Achille on 14 May 1805. “Nelson was briefly aboard
Kite, in June 1801,” says Gordon. Could Charles have met him?
Though better than living in poverty, the conditions ordinary seamen endured at the time were shocking. “You were actually quite well off by comparison if you were on board a ship, because you would have been fed and watered reasonably well. But it was a brutal regime – corporal punishment, floggings, scurvy and so on,” says Gordon.
The records held another surprise: Charles was born in Magdeburg, Prussia, which helps to explain why his daughter’s baptismal record describes him as “a foreigner”. “I’ve been in contact with numerous sources in Germany since, including Magdeburg Archives, but sadly many records were destroyed during the Second World War and I’ve drawn a blank about his origins.”
Charles was discharged from the navy on 8 August 1815. He settled in Frome with his young family, and they got by on his Trafalgar prize money. “The British Navy was effectively disbanded after defeating Napoleon, and many sailors were left destitute – they were so poorly treated,” says Gordon. “They often had to resort to begging and thieving to get by.”
The National Museum of the Royal Navy sponsored a gathering of nearly 200 ‘Sons and Daughters of Trafalgar’ to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle in 2005. Gordon missed the event, but in 2015 was belatedly registered as one of this illustrious group. This is where his research into Charles would have ended, if it hadn’t been for the diligence of archivist Mark Stevens at the Berkshire Record Office. He had come across an unusual inmate at Broadmoor while searching the institution’s records, and wrote a feature about his find for the November 2010 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.
Gordon remembers, “I had an email from Mark saying, ‘I think I’ve come across some records that may relate to one of your ancestors.’ It was a great surprise. I went and saw him and he showed me documents – and a photograph of my 3x great uncle, Charles Alfred Martin.” Charles Alfred, son of Gordon’s Trafalgar hero, had been sent to Broadmoor for murdering his partner. Seeing his photo for the first time was an emotional moment for Gordon. “He’s a dead ringer for my uncle Percy – barring the colour of his skin.” Charles Alfred was quite clearly black. “Other lines of my family had always speculated about a black ancestry, but it was never mentioned on my side.” Remarkably, preserved with Charles Alfred’s medical records was, in Gordon’s words, “archival gold”: a letter he wrote in 1879 detailing his childhood, his family and his mother’s stories about the father he had never known. The sea was the focus of many of his earliest memories – and he described himself as “springing” from it.
The letter confirmed much of what Gordon had already discovered about Charles William’s remarkable life, but added some tantalising extra titbits.
According to Charles Alfred, his father had been “… a man of colour boorn [sic] in upper Germany but I expect of african descent”. Gordon adds, “He also stated that Charles William came to England from France and joined (or perhaps was pressed into) the British Navy, having been left to his own resources following confiscation of his master’s property and exile around 1798 during the French Revolution.” His apparent travels in early life would account for his son’s description of him as “a linguist, speaking several languages fluently”.
Would Charles William have suffered discrimination in Nelson’s navy? As part of his extensive research into the life of ordinary seamen in the 17th century, Gordon found a 2005 article from the Independent by Colin Brown, with the headline ‘The black heroes of Trafalgar’ ( bit.ly/heroes-trafalgar). It
The son of Gordon’s Trafalgar hero had been sent to Broadmoor for murder
quoted Pieter van der Merwe of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, who said there was “little evidence” that black people in the Royal Navy in Nelson’s day suffered “institutional discrimination”. However, although there were many black sailors – including former slaves from the USA, and men pressganged into the crews in the West Indies – Pieter pointed out that it was rare for one to be promoted beyond able seaman.
With some nifty detective work, Gordon established that Charles William had been rewarded for his part in Nelson’s victory. Charles Alfred had written: “I’ve seen my father’s medal.” “I knew it had to be a ‘Matthew Boulton’,” says Gordon, “because it wasn’t until 1847 that Parliament officially recognised Trafalgar veterans with the Naval General Service Medal. By that time Charles William had passed away.”
These medals were issued immediately after the battle by Matthew Boulton, a businessman who paid to have them minted for every sailor irrespective of rank. Naval archives in Portsmouth confirmed that Charles William had, indeed, received one of Boulton’s awards.
Completing the jigsaw
The letter also provided what may well be the final piece of the jigsaw. Charles Alfred wrote, “Myselfe was only ten weeks old when my father died…”, and Gordon realised that a burial record for March 1824 that he had previously disregarded, because the name on it was Charles Maton, might actually be Charles William’s.
It seems Charles William was a man of the sea right to the end: “My father had only just finished the model of a man-of-war full-rigged with her guns and all compleat when he died.”
Fast-forward to his granddaughter and more encounters with the ocean. This time in the form of emigration across the Atlantic – and some truly remarkable acquaintances. Gordon’s great great aunt Elizabeth Ann Ashley (née Martin) emigrated to the USA in 1877 after she married the Rev Edward Athlestan Ashley. “Edward was a senior clergyman in the Dakotas. He had gone to America, returned to marry Elizabeth, and they went back to the States together.” Elizabeth had a teaching background, and taught in Dakota.
Gordon posted on message boards, and some distant relatives in the USA got in touch. He was flabbergasted when they shared the family stories that had been passed down about Elizabeth and Edward.
“Apparently Elizabeth was a school teacher to Native Americans, and personally knew Chief Sitting Bull, while Edward also knew General Custer.” Incredible – if ironic, given the final surprise that was to blow everything out of the water, fundamentally challenging everything that Gordon thought he knew about his background.
Gordon explains, “Having exhausted the paper trail, I resorted to genetics to try and uncover my Prussian roots. I had a paternal Y-DNA test years ago, and I’ve had others since – and these put a very big question mark over everything. The paper and photographic family evidence says my origins are African, but the DNA tests say they are Native American.” Recent testing goes further – suggesting he’s descended from the Ticuna tribe of South America.
It’s a puzzle that Gordon admits is unfathomable. Rather than stopping him in his tracks, though, it has made him more resolved to discover the origins of navy man Charles Martin. “I’m determined to never give up – I will trace my prePrussian ancestry. My family agree that my research borders on obsession, and I think I’ve got good reason for that!” Gordon Martin can be reached at email@example.com
Gordon’s great grandmother Mary Martin ( centre), Samuel’s widow, at Mells Post Office
Daniel Maclise included a black sailor in his painting of the death of Nelson on board HMS Victory
Charles William is referred to as “a foreigner” on his daughter Rosetta’s baptismal record
Charles Maton’s burial record, aged 40 in 1824 – is this, in fact, Gordon’s misnamed forebear?