5 July 2014

Elizabeth Fry (1774–1832), by Robert Hughes

Letter from Mollie Tanner, 27 March 2003

Lionel Britton (1887–1971) has been referred to many times here as Dr Tony Shaw is the world authority on this eccentric writer who was also my great-uncle. In the course of researching my family tree I have had enormous assistance from Tony, as well as from a number of cousins including David Guillaume, who has very kindly shown me Mollie Tanner's letter from which two of these images are taken.

Other articles have dealt with Samuel Thomas (1807–78), Lionel Britton's great-grandfather. Samuel married Mary Retallack in the parish of Stoke Damerel (broadly Devonport, Devon) on 2 September 1829, but until recently it was not clear who her parents were as there were several possible contenders within the parish, none of them convincing.

Now it emerges that Mary was born 8 November 1807, but her baptism was delayed until 18 March 1810, when she was baptised at the same time as her younger sister Elizabeth. The parents were John Retallack and Elizabeth.

We have a dramatic and poignant record of the death of Elizabeth Retallack, buried 'at the same time' as her younger daughter. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the time described a raging cholera epidemic, but while the few named deaths did not include the Elizabeth Retallacks, mother or daughter, the paper had the temerity to declare that those not surviving were 'confined to the lowest orders'! Whoever wrote that ought to be horsewhipped, and your man for that would be the Samuel Thomas mentioned above, who was the protagonist in the notorious Redditch Horsewhipping Case of 1865, an affair which made the newspapers all over the kingdom!

The burial record for Elizabeth Retallack gives her as 55. Of all marriage records which come up on Findmypast between a John Retallack and an Elizabeth, the only persuasive one is 14 Mar 1805, in the parish of Antony, in Cornwall, between John Retallack and Elizabeth Fry. The only convincing Elizabeth Fry would be baptised in the nearby parish of Maker on 8 Jun 1774. At her death she would have been 58, not 55. The records generally are very unreliable about the ages of ladies in middle age and this discrepancy is in itself no show-stopper.

What is needed then is some other evidence that this couple were indeed the parents of Mary Retallack who was born in Devonport. Firstly, the parishes of Antony and Maker are just across Plymouth Sound from Devonport. All other records which might compete come from quite a long way further afield in Cornwall. An Elizabeth who marries a John Retallack in Roche and would have been exactly the right age turns out to have had a huge brood of children in Roche and never went near Devonport, while nothing else in the records comes even close.

So while it is gratifying to know about my Cornish ancestry (the Retallack heartland is centred around St Columb) and that I cannot be called an 'emmet' any more on my sojourns in that lovely county, there is also the need to feel confident that Elizabeth Fry was indeed my great-great-great-great-grandmother. Here a little snippet of family legend about a Fry connection would help...and bingo! We have one.

David Guillaume was researching the family tree in 2003 and received a letter from Mollie Tanner in which she asked for a little help on a topic never prompted by him. The images are reasonably clear, even though written by a lady coming up to 97 years old, and she says that she had a 'beautiful ivory fan with the initials E.F.' which she believed to be Elizabeth Fry. Now, she thought this might have been the Elizabeth Fry who was a famous prison reformer, but the only clear evidence handed down to her was that 'one of the Thomas family was a Miss Fry'.

A possibility then would be that the Jane who was Samuel Thomas' mother in the Bitton baptism of 1807 was Jane Fry, but no records support this. One of the children of Samuel Thomas and Mary Retallack might have married a Fry, but again there is no such record.

The ivory fan will have belonged to Elizabeth Fry, but not the noted reformer, just Elizabeth Fry from Maker who died of cholera at the same time as her youngest daughter.

Family history is not always about the sensational find of a connection to fame and celebrity, but more satisfying when, however poignantly, it reveals reality.

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