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

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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.

Sur­pris­ing news

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’ (­roes-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 prus­sian­martin@bt­in­ter­

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?

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