Family shame?

I’ve been reading Deborah Cohen’s Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day.[i] It begins with British families’ treatment of illegitimate Eurasian children, born to the early Empire men making their fortunes in India in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These ‘nabobs’[ii] lived openly with their Indian mistresses in India, but erased them from their correspondence home and later lives in Britain. The children of these relationships, however, were not so secret. Deborah Cohen shows that the mixed-race children often accompanied their fathers when they returned to Britain with enough wealth to marry well and establish themselves in British society. Although the men felt and declared paternal love for their Eurasian children, they often kept their biological paternity secret; acting as the children’s guardians. Their children’s fate increasingly depended upon the colour of their skin and their fathers’ families’ acceptance of them.

The nabobs loved their offspring and sought to provide for them but due to societal shame sought to keep their mixed-race children’s origins secret. As Cohen remarks, they were ‘proud and ashamed, evasive as well as open’.[iii] This tension over mixed-race, illegitimate children can be glimpsed further down the social scale. Unusually, there is an example in the matrimonial cases heard at Durham Church Court. It tells us about Shell Pattison, a carpenter from the most northerly part of Northumberland who fathered a daughter in Bengal in 1766. This lower-ranking father did much the same as his wealthy counterparts – bringing his child home, leaving her with his family to raise, while he organised her education and financial support. Yet unlike them, he did not keep her origins secret.

In 1788 Sarah Pattison of Berwick-upon-Tweed brought a case before the Church Courts. She had married a nineteen year old Wool Comber, called John Gray on 20 November 1781. This marriage was solemnised in church by a curate and recorded in the register and the marriage bond stated that her ‘testementary guardian’, Mary Shell, had given her permission for Sarah to marry. Sarah claimed, however, that the union was null and void due to her minority, for Mary had not been legally able to give her consent to the union.

In establishing this, Sarah recounted her origins in some detail. Her father was a carpenter, Shell Pattison, who had moved from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Bengal, East Indies.[iv] Her mother was Zera or Zarah, deceased. Sarah’s Libel explained that she was born in Bengal in April 1766, and that Shell brought Sarah to Berwick to live with his parents when his ‘wife’ Zera died in 1769.

Bengal Gujjari_Ragini

A young woman playing a rudra veena to a parakeet, a symbol of her absent lover. Gouache on paper painting made in Murshidabad in the provincial Mughal style of Bengal. Inscription reads “‘Ragini Gujjari of Megha”. Date circa 1760 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Shell cared for his daughter like the higher-status men. Like them, he brought his Eurasian child to Britain. Having established Sarah in Berwick, he promptly returned to India until the end of 1773 when came back to Berwick once more, to briefly live with his daughter and father until April 1774, when he left to set up a business in Chelsea, London. He died in November 1775. Although mostly absent from his daughter’s life, he provided for his child as a good father should. He left £700 in consolidated shares, of which half the interest would go to maintain his father and the other half to maintain and educate his daughter. At his father’s death, his annuity would pass to Sarah who would inherit all Shell’s estate and stocks when she came of age.[v] This inheritance did prove a huge blessing since it enabled her to bring her case to end her marriage.

Also, like his elite counterparts, Shell depended upon his family for his daughter’s care. He’d intended that his mother would take primary care of Sarah, but on arriving discovered that she had died during his absence. A cousin deposed in the case that Shell said that had he known his mother was dead he would not have brought Sarah because he had to nurse her on the passage and she had been as troublesome as a sucking child.vi] Nonetheless, he left Sarah with his father, Christopher Pattison. As Cohen’s chapter reveals, male relatives were as involved in the childcare of these ‘secret’ children as their female counterparts. The other key figures in such familial arrangements were single women. Indeed on leaving for London, Shell entrusted his cousin, Mary Shell, a spinster, 58 years old in 1788, with £20 to pay for Sarah’s board and lodgings with Ann Jamieson, a sewing school mistress. She did this scrupulously, keeping accounts for the quarterly payments until Sarah left Mrs Jamieson. Mary Shell remained central to Sarah’s life. Although she’d given her consent to Sarah’s marriage, she had gone on to pay Sarah a small sum of money weekly towards her upkeep during the times she had left John Gray.

Berwick-Upon-Tweed_engraving_by_William_Miller_after_Turner_R515

Berwick-Upon-Tweed engraving by William Miller after Turner (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Shell was also keen to ensure a secure place in society for his daughter, though his aspirations were obviously smaller in scale than the nabobs’ desires for their offspring. A letter written in June 1775 to his cousin Mary survives, which demonstrates his desire to educate Sarah appropriately. He wrote that he was delighted ‘to find that Sally has improved so much in her manners and learning’ and hoped her bad habits were rooted out. He insisted that Mrs Jamieson was not to let Sarah keep company with ‘Children of ye lower Class’ and recommended that if she was keen on reading, she must

‘be very Cautious what books she reads, Children of her age are generaly [sic] fond of novels and tho they seem entertaining to ye young reader, yet many of them corrupt ye Morals of Children’.[vii]

It seems likely he would have disapproved of his daughter’s marriage to John, the wool comber. Perhaps that is why Sarah fushed to wed Johnonly a week after her father died?

Since this was a nullity case, the couple’s relationship was not under scrutiny so we don’t know why the union failed. Had Sarah sought some independence through marriage? Did she misguidedly see this as a way to attain maturity and its privileges? Whatever her reasons she quickly repented for there is evidence she had eloped from her husband several times in the six years before her nullity case. Sarah succeeded in having the union declared null and void in July 1788, with John Gray condemned to pay expenses; the case having cost over £100.

Why didn’t her family hide Sarah’s origins as the nabobs did? The deponents in her nullity case did not focus on Sarah’s racial heritage, but were asked whether Sarah was considered an illegitimate or legitimate child. All responded that Shell treated Sarah as his legitimate daughter and treated her with affection.[viii] Indeed, it is possible that Shell entered a formal ceremony with Zera in the 1760s, since this was not uncommon at this time. So perhaps in the 1760s in Berwick it was illegitimacy that brought more shame than colour of skin? Cohen observes that as racial mixture became more and more vilified in nineteenth-century Britain, so too did ambivalence and secretiveness increase about mixed-race children in Britain. As the Empire grew more established intermarriage was prohibited. Thus if Shell had belonged to a later generation, Sarah would not have been legitimate, but perhaps by then her it would have been her skin colour that incurred shame and guilt instead.[ix]


[i] Many thanks to Matt Houlbrooke for the recommendation to read this!

[ii] Elite men who went to India to amass wealth that would be enjoyed at home.

[iii] Cohen, Family Secrets, p. 35

[iv] Pattison v. Gray (1788), DUSC, Durham Diocesan Records [DDR]/EJ/CCD/3/1788/5.

[v] Sarah Pattison’s Libel (18 January 1788), DUSC, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1788/5.

[vi] Deposition of Mary Cairncross, wife of John Cairncross, Brewer, Newcastle, 58 years old. (May 1788), DUSC, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1788/5.

[vii] Ann Jamieson, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Spinster, 58; and the letter submitted as evidence, DUSC, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1788/5.

[viii] Mary Cairncross’s deposition, DUSC, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1788/5.

[ix] Cohen, Family Secrets, pp. 35-6.

7 thoughts on “Family shame?

    • Thanks Helen. This was one of the marriage cases that I collected for my study of marital conflict. Often they are remarkably revealing of so much more than a marriage gone wrong. I find that a lot have remained in my head, which were really interesting but couldn’t be used in my book.

      I am going to use my blog to bring them to a few more people’s attention. I want to write about the Edinburgh landlady who married her lodger who was training to be a doctor – she was nearly 40 and he was 20. And then there is the woman who after she got her separation went to France dressed as a man, seduced a nun and later when her teeth fell out had them set in jewellery for friends.

      Church court records are brilliant!

  1. If they are behaving like Scots (which being from Berwick they may be), it wasn’t uncommon for non-elite men to marry women in Empire, plus in Scotland we had no need of a formal marriage ceremony for a relationship to be legitimate. This allowed some men flexibility in legitimising their children, by leaving it an open question until it was clear they would have no other heirs.

    I’m really interested in what happens to children, like Sarah once they get here. In her case, she seems to have married (even if it ended badly), but did all children from mixed-race relationships manage to do this. If they did, where are their descendants and what did they do? There is now some lovely stuff on the 18thC black community in London and how they intermarried with the white population at high levels. But what about elsewhere and what does this tell us about our identity as ‘white’ Britons?

    • Thanks for this Katie. I did wonder about attitudes in this border area. I should get my head around issues of legitimacy in the law as it is soemthing I get asked about!

      I’m sure that interracial relationship occurred and were forgotten or erased over time. Even genealogists might struggle to discover it since it would not be recorded in the usual family records?

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