Catherine, the wife of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard – Part 2

Following on from Part 1 of this story, which can be read here if you missed it, we now move on to

Catherine’s arrival in England

The Dictionary of Irish Biography states that Edward and Catherine married in 1786, Jamaica, but having contacted them, in order to check their source, they now plan to amend the entry to reflect the vagueness of that information. Their source being from Colonel Despard: the life and death of an English/Irish Jacobin, which suggests that it must have been between November 1785 and April 1786. None of the available Jamaican parish registers sadly show any marriage for them in any parish (believe me, I’ve read every single one of  entry to check!), so it would appear more likely that if they actually married, that it took place in Honduras.

The Caledonian Mercury, 17 May 1790, tells us that Edward’s post as Superintendent of the settlement in the Bay of Honduras had been filled by a Colonel Hunter and that Edward and Catherine had returned to England, under something of a cloud, the authorities unhappy with Edward’s management style there, having apparently become something of an autocrat.

Arriving in England in 1790, must have been quite a culture shock for Catherine, sailing all that way to a new country, the sights, sounds, smells, climate, clothing, the list goes on and of course and probably one of the most important things being, the lack of people who looked like her, in the social society that Edward would have mixed, all of which must have been completely disorientating. There were of course, black people in London, but most of them would have been servants, working for affluent aristocrats.

Being a woman of colour living in London would not have been easy, especially given the trade in enslaved people, but Catherine seems to have risen above any preconceived notions about the colour of her skin, perhaps helped by her position as having married into Irish gentry. Catherine’s sole aim was to care for her husband, but she couldn’t possibly have imagined in 1790 how this new life in London would have panned out.

On arrival in England, Edward was merely expecting them to only remain there briefly, just long enough to sort out the financial issues pertaining to his time abroad, his plan being to return to Honduras, which makes it somewhat curious as to why Catherine and their son would have accompanied him on such a long voyage, but accompany him they certainly did.

This brief sojourn to England did not transpire the way Edward planned at all.

Edward, it seems, proved to be something of a thorn in the side of the government, he bombarded them with demands for compensation and vindication for what he viewed to be unfair dismissal from his post, no charges were brought against him, but no compensation either, leaving him with little more than his salary as a half pay colonel which wouldn’t amount to very much, probably insufficient to support Edward, let alone his Catherine and their son.

What was he going to do to rectify this matter?  There was little he could do, he tried to seek employment, but nothing was forthcoming. This dispute between Edward and the government continued for two long years.

We can only imagine what Catherine must have made of this terrible situation that she had now found herself in, after all, she thought the visit to England was only going to be a short one, so there was nowhere she could now call home.  There is no sign of them in rate books, so it has to be assumed that they were renting somewhere or living with friends.  We know that Edward was a close acquaintance of Lord Nelson, having served together previously, so perhaps he helped them find lodgings.

On 28 November 1792 Edward was sentenced to two years in prison and the 1794 prison records for King’s Bench and Fleet prison discharge book, noted his release in 1794. With Edward incarcerated this would have left poor Catherine to fend for herself in this new country with presumably few, if any friends to assist her, this must have been immensely difficult for her.

We know that during Edward’s various court cases, Catherine was constantly referred to as his wife, which I do suspect was not done so as merely a courtesy title, but as I’ve said, proof  of such a marriage is sadly lacking.

Besides being described as his wife, Catherine was described in a variety of ways by the press, some of which today we do, of course, deem derogatory, ‘a negress, a mulatto, a woman of the Caribbean and a woman of colour’. Her skin colour must have been an important fact for readers of the day, otherwise why would they feel the need to mention it? Mike Jay in ‘The Unfortunate Colonel Despard’ states that:

Family memoirs referred to Catherine as his “black housekeeper”, and “the poor woman who called herself his wife”. James was ascribed to a previous lover, both of whom were written out of the family tree.

It appears that parts of Edward’s family found it difficult to acknowledge Edward’s choice of wife given her colour, referring to her as his ‘black housekeeper’.

In July 1795, the True Briton, provided the first sighting of where Edward and Catherine were living in London, courtesy of the address ‘34 London Road, St George’s Fields’ an address provided by Edward in court, where he had been charged with allegedly being involved in the Charing Cross Riot.

Edward claimed that he was merely an onlooker and was on his way home. This was not believed, as he was apparently heard to say, ‘No King, No Pitt’. Edward was detained for further questioning.

When not in gaol, did Edward and Catherine appear to have spent their time trying to evade Edward’s recapture? At least, it would certainly appear that way, from this snippet, of 10 March 1798 in the Express and Evening Chronicle which reported that:

It was Colonel Despard, whom the King’s Messengers seized on Sunday in Meards Court, Dean Street, Soho. His house was entered by four Messengers, and several Bow Street Officers. The Colonel and Mrs Despard were both in bed when the former was arrested.

Dean Street was a location well known to Lord Nelson, as he stayed there the day before the Battle of Trafalgar, so perhaps Edward and Catherine were staying close by. Whilst this gives us an address for Catherine, the rates returns show that they must have been staying with someone living there. The residents around that time were George Campbell, Thomas Melhuish, Joel Clifford Mr Miles and John Dealtry, but none of them as far as I can tell, appear to have had any connection to Edward and Catherine.

Given the closeness of the date between the above report to this one from Lloyd’s Evening Post, 12 March 1798, it can only be assumed that the reference to Bath, was not the place, rather, Cold Bath Fields:

Yesterday, Mr Higgins, one of the King’s Messengers, arrived at the Duke of Portland’s office, having in charge Colonel Despard, whom he brought from Bath, after a search of two days.

Having caught Edward, he was brought before the Privy Council, underwent a short examination and was remanded into the custody of the Messengers.

It’s always lovely to come across letter written in the person’s own hand, especially by Catherine as we have little information about her life, but we see from this, that she was educated, fluent in English, articulate and confident in her own ability, assuming this was written in her hand rather than dictated by her. It was not in Edward’s hand; the style is completely different. It also demonstrates that Catherine didn’t remain at Meards Court, with the address, but moved very quickly to Upper Berkeley Street.

This letter, although undated, appears to have been written April – early May 1798, and the full letter tells us that Catherine was trying to establish whether there had been any response from the Duke of Portland regarding the payment of Edward’s pension.

She also wrote that Edward had been moved within Cold Bath Fields prison, from a comfortable, upper floor, to a lower room. Catherine described how awful Edward’s room was, no table, no chair nor a fire to warm himself. She continued to say that he was only allowed to see her briefly and described his care being more akin to that of a vagabond rather the gentleman he was.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

We know from this letter written by Catherine that she was living in lodgings at 41 Upper Berkeley Street, where by 1801, the property itself appears to have been empty, but living a few doors away was Henry Austen Esq. at 24, the brother of the author Jane Austen, perhaps indicating that at least, that at that time, Catherine was living in a pleasant area of London, so, once again who was funding this?

This link will take you to the final part of Catherine’s story.

4 thoughts on “Catherine, the wife of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard – Part 2

      1. Daniel

        Thank you for writing this. I have reason to suspect that I might be a descendant of Catherine and Edward.

        Please could you tell me the best way for me to contact you?


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