16 February 2012

"Sam the Boulevardier!" by Robert Hughes

Seen from the rampart of the Arc de Triomphe, Boulogne-Billancourt appears a seamless appendage of Paris, seeping into its loop of the Seine as a well-digested meal into a medical student's night out.

On ground level, this proud township is far from eaten: since at least before the time of my great-great-grandfather Samuel Thomas, it has retained its own identity...

Today, a trip on Metro 'Ligne 9' will take you to Marcel Sembat, where a sign conveniently points you to 'Centre Ville': not however the centre of 'Gay Paree', but the admin area of the municipality, just about 300 metres up the road.

Sam Thomas (Junior) was either a 'remittance man', a 'rep', or both; but definitely the grandfather of Lionel Britton the famous, if eccentric, writer of 'Hunger and Love'.

Sam may have been a bit of a reprobate, or rather a saintly figure in contrast to his old Gradgrind of a factory-owning father; but these five new records from his time in Billancourt can hardly help but contribute to our understanding of his (and our!) family.

Samuel, and for that matter Marie, are described as 'Rentiers'. This term quite clearly defines someone living on a private income, and is surprising given our previous assumption that Samuel was in Paris actively promoting his father's business. In such a case, the appropriate term would surely have been something like 'commercant', 'negociant', etc. Eugene Bédé, who was in Redditch at the time of the 1871 census in Samuel Thomas' household, (and we may reasonably assume a fellow fugitive of the Franco-Prussian War with Samuel and family), was one of the witnesses at the registration of the birth of Henri Thomas in 1869, and for him the term 'negociant' was not apparently too shameful.

We had not previously found a marriage record for Sam and Marie, but it is stated on the birth record of Frank that his parents were married in 1870, in Jersey. So at least three of the children, (including Irza my great-grandmother), were born out of wedlock!

There seems to be a Jersey motif running through the family: Ernest Augustus was on that island for a long time, and Irza made a brief (and presumed disastrous) second marriage to Frank LeBreton, almost certainly himself from Jersey.

From the point of view of Samuel Thomas Senior, could it not have seemed that his eldest son was cheerfully fathering kids with his exotic Belgian fancy-woman, and sending him the bill? There is speculation that Sam Senior was an atheist at heart, and Frederick Charles Guillaume's scrawled tree mentions Jewish origins; whilst there must also have been Welsh forebears. Is it not likely that any mention of a convent, let alone some royal connection, would have been anathema to the old monster, as it seems he could have been an archetypal Victorian Radical?

For family legend has it that Marie-Antoinette married Samuel Thomas against the bitter hostility of her family, who considered him to be 'in trade' and therefore unworthy of her social status. They were said to be have been an aristocratic Flemish family and some kind of cousins of the King of the Belgians. She is said to have leapt over the wall of a convent and married him anyway.

Records obtained at the Hôtel de Ville of Boulogne-Billancourt, (with the kind assistance of a very helpful lady who operated the microfiche and interpreted the tiny script!):

Birth of Henri, (as Jean Henri): 25 Nov 1869, at Rue Napoleon No. 8.

Death of Rose, (born 1871 at Redditch, and not to be confused with Rosa born 1877): 17 Jul 1872, at Rue Nationale No. 17.

Birth of Samuel, (later known as George), 1 Jan 1873, at Rue d'Issy No. 1.

Birth of Ernest Augustus, 11 Oct 1874, at Rue Nationale 17.

Birth of Francis, 3 Jun 1876, at Rue Nationale 10.

Above is an extract from Frank's birth record, showing how Sam and Marie married in Jersey in 1870. Why have three children out of wedlock (with another on the way by the end of 1870), if it could only annoy old Sam Senior, who would possibly have left his eldest son Samuel a fortune if he had so wished? There is only one sensible answer: one or both of Samuel and Marie were already married and had no capacity to make an honest woman/man of each other! At the moment, we don't know (and I have tried to find out through Ancestry.co.uk and Familysearch.org) who was married; but it is a bit like astronomy.

My great-great-uncle Ernest Augustus Thomas (see above) had a book published about Cosmology, set in some schools as a textbook, (according to at least one source). There can be little doubt that Lionel Britton the wacky old writer about the 'Space/Time Continuum' drew heavily on his uncle's inspiration.

The scientists of the Enlightenment worked out the position of the planets, although I wouldn't know where to start! (Oh, and the Aztecs etc. managed it too). By calculation, someone figured out how to find the Planet Pluto, even though no-one had ever seen it even through a telescope.

OK, I don't know how they worked out that Pluto existed at all, let alone where it was; but what I can say is that it is very, very, likely that either Marie Goffin or Samuel Thomas were married before they repaired to Jersey and married each other!

Seen in this light, the story of the snobbish rejection of Samuel by Marie's family may still have been true but not the whole truth or even the principal reason: suppose she was already married and was packed off to a convent to avoid scandal? This is speculation of course, as would be the probable reasons for Samuel Thomas Jr to be in Paris as a kind of exile. If he were a remittance man rather than a hard-working rep. for his father's business, then why was he?

We might keep in mind a record from Ancestry.co.uk's Criminal Records collection (1791-1892). There is a long list of Samuel Thomases, but only one in Worcestershire in the whole period. On 26 July 1865 at Worcester Midsummer Sessions a Samuel Thomas was fined £5 for Assault. Now, this sum was so huge for the time that it would normally be applied to persons of substantial means. Could it be that this related in some way to another family legend about how Samuel Thomas meted out a beating to a young relative who had caused the death of a horse, leading to the lad going into the attic, taking a shotgun and killing himself? This record might have had nothing to do with the legend, which might have been apocryphal anyway; but suppose Samuel Jr. had witnessed an overuse of force by his father, or had himself gone over the top with someone, would not either case be a possible reason for him to go abroad with some assistance from his Dad?

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