By Peter Borrows

On the north side of St Mary’s Church, adjacent to the West Door, is a cluster of graves, the Weller family plot. There are also some memorials to the family inside the church. One records the death of Henry Weller in Black River, Jamaica in 1815. Black River was a slave port in the parish of St Elizabeth, so, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and with plenty of lockdown time available, I was prompted to investigate. Using only the University College London Legacies of British Slave Ownership[1] website and the usual on-line resources available to family genealogists – the census, church records and newspapers in the UK and Jamaica – I have uncovered some perhaps surprising facts about the Weller family. To a modern eye, some of the Jamaica baptism records may seem disturbing.

 

Weller Family Grave at St Mary's Church, Amersham
Weller Family Grave at St Mary’s Church, Amersham

 

The Weller brewing dynasty in Amersham was founded by William Weller (1728-1802), a maltster, and his wife Ann House (1732-1817) from High Wycombe. They had (at least) 8 children between 1760 and 1773, all born in High Wycombe and 2 more born in Amersham. The first, third and fourth sons, John Weller (1760-1843), William Weller (1763-1843) and Joseph Weller (1766-1857) became brewers in Amersham with their father, although following an apparent disagreement Joseph emigrated to New South Wales.

John Weller (1760-1843) had (at least) 5 children by Katherine Fowler (1761-99) and Elizabeth Hickman (1769-1851). The first son Edward Weller (1790-1850) became a brewer, the second, John Weller (1794-?) became a clergyman, the third, Richard Weller (1798-?) was living on an annuity by the time of the 1851 census. All very British, very conventional.

The 3rd son, William Weller (1763-1843), is more interesting. With Sarah Lacey (1762-1820) he had (at least) 8 children. Their fifth son, also William Weller (1797-1859) (and his descendants) followed his father and grandfather into the brewery. Their eldest son, Henry Weller (1788-1815), died in Black River, Jamaica and their second son, John Lacey Weller (1790-1823), was also carrying out business In Jamaica at that time. Their eldest daughter, Mary Weller (1783-1860) of Amersham, married George Channer (1779-1830) of Black River, Jamaica by licence in Amersham in July 1807, although he already had a family in Jamaica. Mary and George had (at least) 9 children, 3 of whom died in infancy and these 3 are recorded on a tablet in St Mary’s Church. Their eldest daughter Mary Elizabeth Channer was baptised in Amersham in July 1808. It’s unclear where and when Frederick Lacey Channer was born but he died aged 3 months. However, their 7 other children from 1815 onwards were baptised in Heston in Middlesex.

Despite his marriage in Amersham in 1807, George Channer continued to have business in Jamaica. According to Legacies of British Slave Ownership, in 1808 he filed accounts for the Bath Estate in St Elizabeth. This was a coffee plantation owned by the heirs of the recently deceased John Jenkins. Presumably he was a book-keeper working for slave owners rather than a slave owner himself. George Channer had a second family in Jamaica, 3 children born in 1807, 1808 and 1809 by Sarah Delano.

George Channer had a second family in Jamaica, 3 children born in 1807, 1808 and 1809 by Sarah Delano
George Channer had a second family in Jamaica, 3 children born in 1807, 1808 and 1809 by Sarah Delano

 

‘Reputed’ does not mean that paternity was disputed, just that the couple were not married. All three children were baptised as ‘white by law’ in 1810. Sarah is described on the Baptism register as a Mestize, which was the term used in Hispanic America for children of European and indigenous parents. This connection is supported by her Spanish surname. Under an Act of 1761, a white man who fathered non-white children could have a Private Act presented to the Jamaican National Assembly. This Act would give them the same rights and privileges as British subjects, born of white parents, subject to certain restrictions, usually with respect to voting. However, the Act seems not to have been invoked after 1802 and later the term seems to be used more loosely to mean more than ¾ white.

For a few years, George Channer was a business partner of William Weller’s eldest son, Henry Weller but the partnership was dissolved in 1811[2] and Henry carried on the business on his own. George seems to have been a rather disreputable business man because he left Jamaica secretly in 1813[3]. Even after he left Jamaica, his financial affairs rumbled on and then William Weller’s 2nd son, John-Lacey Weller was appointed to wind up his affairs[4]. The three notices referred to here all appeared in the Royal Gazette of Jamaica and were signed by A. Girdwood, as the attorney.

It is interesting to note that the eldest surviving son of Mary Weller (1783-1860) and George Channer (1779-1830) was baptised George Girdwood Channer in Heston, Middlesex in 1811, presumably in thanks to his attorney, Alexander Girdwood, in Jamaica.  Alexander is listed in Legacies of British Slave Ownership in 1817 as Executor of the Pisgah Estate with 40 slaves, although he had died by 1818. A Frances Girdwood received £546-12-2 compensation for 28 slaves. There were several slaves baptised with the name Frances Girdwood (and other first names), no parents listed, but the surname is unusual so it seems likely that Alexander was responsible.

Meanwhile, George Channer’s problems continued and in 1818 William Williams took over as Receiver from the late Alex Girdwood[5] and in 1820 George was made bankrupt in London[6]. Nothing daunted, he was then involved in setting up a marine insurance business in 1824[7] and continued in this until his death in Amersham in 1830[8].

George’s second surviving son, Alfred Taylor Channer seems to have been a rather prosperous clerk in, surprise, surprise, a marine insurance office, keeping 2 servants according to the 1851 census. George and Mary’s second daughter, Clara Ann Channer (1816-?) married Captain Robert Shortred in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh in India in 1844, where he was serving in the 2nd Bombay European Regiment. It was presumably no coincidence that her brother, George Girdwood Channer (1811-?) was captain of ordnance in Allahabad at the same time.

Now to return to the Weller brothers in Black River, Jamaica. Like George Channer, Henry Weller was not married but had a family with 2 children, William and Frederic by Sarah Smith, described as a free mulatto (a mulatto is usually the child of one black and one white parent). Henry died at Black River in 1815.

William Weller, son of Henry Weller and Sarah Smith
William Weller, son of Henry Weller and Sarah Smith

 

Frederic Weller, second son of Henry Weller and Sarah Smith
Frederic Weller, second son of Henry Weller and Sarah Smith

 

Henry’s son William became a planter. Frederic(k) died in 1833 and was deceased by the time his son Frederick Girdwood Weller was baptised. Note the Girdwood middle name, reflecting both the Channers and Alexander Girdwood, the Jamaican attorney. These families were intimately connected. Frederic(k)’s wife was Sophia.

 

Frederick Girdwood Weller
Frederick Girdwood Weller

 

In Legacies of British Slave Ownership, there is only one award of compensation to any Weller for freeing their slaves –  to Sophia Weller. She had 3 slaves in St Elizabeth  and was awarded £65-13s-11d. It is very likely, therefore, that Frederic(k) Weller, son of a free mulatto and an Amersham Weller, had been a slave owner.

Henry’s brother, John-Lacey Weller, also had a family in Black River. His first children, Edward Ramsay and John Weller, are by Ann Thomson, a negro described as ‘belonging to Mary Hook’. He then had 2 more children, James Stewart Weller and Eliza Weller, with Dorothy Helen Stewart, described as ‘people (sic!) of colour’ on James’s baptism. James became an accountant.

 

Edward Ramsay
Edward Ramsay

 

John Weller
John Weller

 

James Stewart Weller
James Stewart Weller

 

Eliza Weller
Eliza Weller

 

It seems that in the early part of the 19th century, some members of the Weller family had extensive affairs, both financial and of the heart, in Jamaica and benefitted indirectly from the slave trade and their mixed race descendants probably owned slaves.

Read about Amersham’s support for the anti-slavery movement by clicking on this link.

[1]               University College London, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146659909

[2]               Royal Gazette of Jamaica, 25 September 1811.

[3]               Royal Gazette of Jamaica, 3 August 1813.

[4]               Royal Gazette of Jamaica, 21 October 1815.

[5]               Royal Gazette of Jamaica, 28 July 1818.

[6]               The Star (London), 21 August 1820.

[7]               Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 1 August 1824.

[8]               George Channer’s grave is the 2nd from the left, in the front row, in the photograph at the start of this article

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