Today I am delighted to welcome a new guest to All Things Georgian, Paul Martinovich. After a career spent planning museum exhibits in North America and Ireland, Paul retired to pursue a longstanding interest in the Napoleonic Wars.
He first came across Selina Cordelia St Charles whilst researching for his forthcoming biography of Pulteney Malcolm: The Sea is my Element: the eventful life of Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm, in which you can find out more about the liaison between Malcolm and Selina, and the fate of their son. The biography of Malcolm is the result of several years research in archives in Britain and North America.
With that introduction I’ll now hand over to Paul to tell you more about the illusive Selina Cordelia St Charles:
In April of 1796, a 13-year-old girl boarded the East Indiaman William Pitt in Portsmouth harbour. An observer might have noted that she was well-dressed and well-spoken—these facts (along with her elegant name) would have suggested she was from a good family. But what were her origins, why was she going to India alone (except for her maid), what would become of her when she got there? These questions are not easy to answer, but the research has revealed a strange and unexpected life, and the interesting woman who lived it.
Selina was not famous and is not well-documented in the historical record. In fact, her origins are shrouded in mystery, and are the least-understood part of her life. She was almost certainly illegitimate, and born in 1782 or 1783. She was said to have been born in Quebec, and named ‘Selina Cordelia St Charles’, ‘facts’ which it has not been possible to verify, and may well be a red herring to conceal her true parentage. Her father was almost certainly one of a clan of prosperous traders and professional men named Birch, possibly William Henry Birch, an officer in the British Army. Her mother’s identity remains unknown.
The infant Selina was brought up by her Birch grandparents, William and Sally Birch, in Pinner just outside London. Sally Birch was born a Holwell, a family that, like the Birches, had long-standing trading connections with India. She was the daughter of John Zephaniah Holwell, survivor and publicist of the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’. In this famous outrage nearly a hundred-and-fifty British civilians, captured by an Indian ruler, were crammed overnight into a space the size of a good-sized bedroom. The next morning most of them were dead, but Holwell was among the living. After the British recaptured Calcutta, in order to perpetuate the memory of his dead companions he had a monument erected on the site and wrote a widely read book on the incident.
Selina would have learned of these events, and of her family’s Indian links from her grandparents. They also provided her with a good education judging by her letters, which are well-composed and written in an elegant hand.
In 1796, possibly as a result of the death of her father, it was decided to send Selina to India, even though she was only about 13 years old. There she would live with her Birch uncles, prominent businessmen with the East India Company, and would be expected eventually to find a husband. The dispatching of children to live with relatives in distant countries was not unknown in Georgian times, and the annual traffic in young women travelling to India to seek a husband was so common that it came to be nicknamed ‘the fishing fleet’.
So when Selina boarded the Indiaman she must have felt she was about to begin a great adventure. Another passenger was Major John Shee, a British Army officer going out to join his regiment (the 33rd) in Bengal.
Their shipboard acquaintance led the astonishingly young Selina (she was still playing with dolls) to marry the 26-year-old Shee when the ship stopped at Cape Town. Even though marriages to 16 or even 15-year old girls were not unheard of in the Georgian period, it is difficult to understand how under any circumstances a child of 13 could be allowed to marry a man of 26. Probably, Shee got around the legal prohibition on those under 21 from marrying without parental consent by having the banns read in three successive Sundays at a church in Cape Town. Shee’s regiment stayed at the Cape for a couple of months before embarking for India. Selina (now Mrs Shee) seems to have proceeded to Calcutta on a different ship to her husband, under the protection of a Captain Henry Churchill, who was probably her uncle. Perhaps this was because it was felt that such a young girl should not be exposed to the sights and sounds on the troopship in which Shee travelled.
The couple reunited in India and the marriage seems to have been briefly happy as Selina lived with John Shee at Fort William in Calcutta. However in 1798, he sent her back to England on the Indiaman Hawke. Later Selina claimed that this move was for her health, and that she expected Shee to soon join her. Another explanation for sending Selina to England might be to remove her from being caught up in a war with Tipu Sultan, which was clearly imminent. Whatever the reason, Shee not only sent his teenage wife home without making any provision for her support while she was in England, but then also failed to communicate with her in any way for more than two years.
In England Selina lived with her grandparents in Pinner. Naturally she was very short of money, so she wrote a series of polite letters to her husband’s relatives (which included Sir George Shee, a rich nabob with an important government post) asking for support, while proclaiming her continued affection for her delinquent spouse. Selina’s efforts to convince herself that her husband was not the callous spouse that he seemed to be are captured in this extract from a letter she wrote to Jane Jackson, Shee’s sister.
It is the appearance of neglect from him who is dearer to me than life which has stung me to the heart; how then can I help tenderly loving her [Jane Jackson] who assures me of the truth of that which I have always believed? that cruel accident [letters having gone missing] and not neglect is the cause of all my anxieties. I have had every proof of the goodness and Generosity of Col. Shee’s heart, not only in his behavior to me while in India (which was all tenderness and affection), but from his general Character. Is it likely then that his Wife alone should have just reason to doubt the Excellency of his heart?
Selina seems to have received little or no assistance from the Shees, so when the financial situation of her Birch relatives became more difficult, she resolved to return to her husband in India. Where the money came from to pay for her passage is not clear.
John Shee had meanwhile risen to the rank of brevet lieutenant-colonel in the 33rd, which happened to be the regiment of Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. There is ample evidence that Wellesley despised Shee, considering him an incompetent officer, and ‘a species of assassin’, who practiced with a pistol in order to be able to kill his opponents in duels more efficiently.
Selina reached India in July 1801 but did not stay long, since Shee (apparently because of Wellesley’s enmity) decided to return to England and sell his army commission. She accompanied her husband on this journey, but the marriage was now breaking down, and it seems likely that Shee was physically abusing his wife.
The couple was offered a passage from Cape Town to England by a naval captain named Pulteney Malcolm, who was returning in his ship of the line after some years in Indian waters. A number of other passengers and about a hundred troops were also crammed aboard the ship, which was in poor condition and urgently needed repairs.
During the passage, Malcolm and Selina became lovers, despite the proximity of her husband, who on discovering the liaison quitted the ship to complete his journey on another vessel. On reaching England Shee sued Malcolm for Criminal Conversation, essentially an action for ‘damages’ to his ‘property’ i.e. his wife’s reputation. During the trial it became apparent that Shee had beaten Selina, and while the jury found for the plaintiff, it clearly did not feel he deserved any sympathy in the situation.
As was customary in such cases, Selina did not testify in the trial. In fact she was now pregnant with Malcolm’s child, and gave birth to a son a few months later.
Somewhat conveniently, John Shee died (possibly due to alcohol, since he was a heavy drinker) in March 1804.
Three weeks later Selina married one James Martin Holwell, a haberdasher aged 21. This was no sudden infatuation—James Martin was her cousin, another descendant of John Zephaniah Holwell, and she had surely known him from her childhood in Pinner.
At this point, Selina’s life settles into a more typical path. The couple moved to Devon, where Selina had two children with James Martin. His haberdashery business did not prosper and he went bankrupt, but was rescued by Captain Malcolm, who got him a job with the Navy. In the post-war slump, the Holwell family emigrated to Canada, and settled in Montreal. It is not clear if by this move Selina was returning to her roots in the New World: this is just another aspect of the mystery of her eventful life. Selina Cordelia Holwell died in Montreal, still only 42, in 1825.
Should anyone happen to know something about Selina’s origins—where and when she was born and who her parents were Paul would be grateful to learn the details. Such an extraordinary woman deserves a full accounting of her life.
East Indiaman Pitt in two positions by Whitcombe (Christies)