Family History

The Betjemann Connection

The weather is bad and I have been browsing in my great-granny, Isabella’s photo album, an object lesson in why you should label photos. Isabella (1873-1964) is here photographed in about 1895 in North London where she was born to Peter and Mary Grant.

Here she is sitting at her mother’s right hand side with her Father and all her siblings; so many girls.

Peter Grant, seen here with his Victorian family, was the son of farmers from Boharm on Speyside, 15 miles south of Elgin, He went to London to make his fortune working initially as a clerk in a wine importers and probably meeting his future wife on a trip home to visit his parents. He eventually had his own import business specialising in port and sherry — as a child I always enjoyed visiting my Great Uncle George — seen here in his youth, lolling on the right of this photo. By the time I knew him, he was a rotund, red and shiny old gentleman with whiskers who went up to town every day in a black jacket, pin-striped trousers, a bowler hat, shoes in which you could see your face and carrying a tightly rolled umbrella. It seemed to me that he lived in the corner of a Victorian museum — a large ground-floor flat in Jackson’s Lane, Highgate. He was surrounded by drapes, oil paintings, bronzes and a large white marble bust — he would rise occasionally to warm his behind in front of the fire and at the end of each visit he would sidle up to me and secretly press two half-crowns into my hand. As I grew older, regardless of the time of day or night one always received a glass of excellent port and a digestive biscuit! His ports and sherries sold on their reputation — he did not believe in advertising. Eventually he sold his sherry interests to Harvey’s who did, and the rest is history — the great sherry boom of the mid-twentieth century!

Mary Grant’s family hailed from Inverness where her father worked as an architect. It is a typical story of migration — although she lived in London, Isabella spent holidays with her aunts and uncles in the north of Scotland often at Lossiemouth. Here she is in 1894 at a tennis match in Stotfield, Lossiemouth.

Another intriguing annotated photo from her album is Gilbert R. Betjemann.

Gilbert was a member of their circle, he was a violinist also working in his family’s luxury goods business. Isabella was an excellent amateur pianist, I suspect she accompanied Gilbert (son of the, then, well known conductor Gilbert Henry Beaman Betjemann, whose father was a cousin of John Betjeman, the poet laureate’s grandfather. I mention this because I have been reading John Betjeman’s biography (they dropped the final ‘n’ due to anti-German feelings around WW1) and I remember my Great Granny talking in rather disparaging terms about the ‘rhymes’ of said celebrity poet!

In the March before he died Gilbert made Isabella this little pot which stands on my windowsill to this day. This must have been a wedding present — the monogram ‘IN’ is for her married name and the tiny inscription — his maker’s mark: GR Betjemann fecit, March 1896, 2 months after her marriage.

She married Mitchell Nicholl (1865-1948) another ex-patriot Scot from Kirkcaldy in Fife. He was 8 years her senior and had started as a stock jobber’s clerk in the City some time before 1891 but within 10 years he was listed as a self-employed, Stock Exchange Jobber, married with a 2 year old daughter. It was his father, the sea Captain, I discussed in a previous blog published on 2019/05/08, entitled “In the family — Shipwrecks and Cholera”. He died of cholera in a foreign port having lost everything in a shipwreck.

Isabella and Mitchell Nicoll — social mobility in action — the growing Edwardian middle-class, thanks to sound education and possibly helped by the inability of the class-bound English to fit a Scottish accent into the established order!

c1900, Isabella, with her mother and her daughter. My sons-in-law will read what they may from this image!

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Family History

In the family — Shipwrecks and Cholera

I have been on the track of John Nicholl who was born in Kirkcaldy on the east coast of Scotland, in 1829, he was my great-great-grandfather. He started life as an apprentice rope-maker (my great granny, who I remember well, had told me he had been a sail maker — not a growth industry at that time — the first commercial steam ships coming into service as the ink on his indenture dried!).

When he was old enough he went to sea, initially on coastal vessels but by 1863 he had become a ship’s master and was sailing to the East Indies (China and Islands of the South China Sea), the US, Canada and South Africa –what a time to be travelling the world but not without its risks!

When I was a child I was told that he commanded a tea-clipper, a sister ship of the Cutty Sark and this may well have been the truth. He certainly commanded the Roslin Castle for 3 years, then the Wemyss Castle, a 700 ton, 183 foot vessel with a wooden hull on an iron frame with two masts. The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, until that time the valuable trade in tea from China was conducted with fierce competition taking the perilous route around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope through the dangerous waters of the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Navigating by the stars!



“Cutty Sark”
 by ballasttrust is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 



In 1875 he took command of the Aberlady and sailed to South Africa but on 11th November 1877 it was in the Java Sea (South East of Singapore) that disaster struck — the ship was lost in the Gaspar Straits after it struck the Alcest Reef which was named after another famous sailing ship that foundered there in 1816 while taking a diplomatic mission to China (the story of their shipwreck, the marooning of the crew, battles with pirates and eventual rescue is told in Voyage of His Majesty’s ship Alceste by John Mcleod MD, surgeon of the Alceste). The captain of the Alceste was court-martialled but exonerated and later knighted.

My great- great- grandfather was not so fortunate though he survived with at least part of his crew and somehow they got to Singapore where the shipwreck was reported. The loss of a valuable ship, cargo and possibly members of the crew was taken very seriously and he could not have been entirely exonerated by the enquiry which suspended his master’s certificate for 6 months from 11th February 1878 — from the records it seems that for several years he did not work as a master again though until his death in 1885 he continued to serve as a mate on ships bound for the Baltic, British North America, Greenland and Iceland, Spain, Portugal and the Azores and to the West Indies — less romantic destinations on ships which seem to have been larger, iron clad steam ships.

He died at sea in 1885 from cholera aboard a 176 ft steam dredger, the Espana, manufactured in Glasgow and bought by the Valencia Harbour Board. John Nichol was, in fact, registered as it’s master, whether he was delivering the vessel or working it for the Harbour Board is not clear. He was 57.

During all his voyages he was married to Catherine (nee Condie) who stayed in Kirkcaldy bringing up their ten children. The eldest girl Catherine died at the age of 17, possibly from tuberculosis.

Catherine Nicoll 1854-1871

Two of the sons lived into their eighties having obtained good educations (probably thanks to the tea boom) and moved to London. They went into partnership with each other as stock brokers — a safer way to make a living.

Mitchell Nicoll and George Macauley Nicoll

At least two other sons of John Nicoll went to sea. Wemyss Erskine Anderson Nicholl (what a name! I want to find out more about him.) He was drowned at the age of 47 when his ship, the Queen, was torpedoed by a German submarine in WW1, he is buried on Tower Hill in the City of London. Another brother, John Mitchell Nicoll is lost from the record after the age of 24 in 1882 when he had qualified as a first mate. Did he also die at sea or in some foreign port or maybe he left his ship in Canada or Australia or South America to start a new life in the New World — I shall have to start searching farther afield.

Great-great-grandfather’s sea box.
Souvenir from the Orient — John Nicoll’s tobacco jar.
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