Creative Writing, Family, History, Research

Spirited away to Jamaica

Thomas Wilson was a reckless young jake, carousing and imbibing in the meanest taverns in London. The son of a Baronet, motherless since his 10th year, what did he have to lose? His brother WiIliam would inherit the Baronetcy, his brother Edward was destined to be ordained, his sisters wed for love into good families, his other brothers were settled in their ways. Thomas though, he felt the pull of something else, some edge of danger beckoned him, some devil on his shoulder that whispered of the delights of the night and the taste of ale and colonial rum.

Eastbourne, his home town, stifled him, made him feel small and unimportant. A surfeit of siblings had the same effect, wherever Thomas looked, he found no validation. He was one of many, unimportant, yet bound by his father’s protestant conscience and unflinching sense of duty. Thomas was supposed to be good and honourable.

But it was hard.

Cromwell was dead, stricken by malaria some fourteen years earlier. Charles II had been restored to the monarchy and Cromwell’s puritanical, sober rule had ended, now the King and the country celebrated. Too much, some would say. Revellers teetering past Westminster Hall could toast to Cromwell’s severed head, excavated from his grave after Parliament declared the execution of Charles I as regicide.

London was in recovery, from the devastations of the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, two consecutive years in London’s fateful history that saw hundreds of thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of homes destroyed and residents displaced. This new London was one of brick and stone with wide streets and a surfeit of coffee houses.

The year was 1675 and work was just beginning on the new St. Paul’s cathedral, Charles II was attempting to close down the coffee houses – hotbeds of sedition and scandal according to the crown – and the foundation stone for the new Royal Greenwich Observatory was set in place.

The social divide was as marked as ever, beggars and idlers lined the streets alongside orphaned children and shoeblackers, street hawkers and labourers, prostitutes and destitutes. Butchers, blacksmiths and brewers traded with lawyers, MPs and bankers. London was on the up, but only for some.

Amidst the social and structural turmoil, ruthless press gangers and spirits scoured the streets for young, unwary gullibles to lure onto ships bound for the new world or the wars of empire. The press gangers bundled men onto naval ships to fight for their King and country in foreign wars. The spirits kidnapped children and young adults and sent them to a life of indentured servitude in the colonies. Both were to be feared.

A press gang operating in London c.1780. Note the Tower of London and ships at the Thames Dock in the background.

William Bullock, in 1649, was recorded as stating that “..the usual way of getting servants, hath been by a sort of men nick-named ”spirits..”

The spirits operated a network of organised crime – backed by ships captains, merchants and corrupt officials, henchmen, fences and petty thieves. They targeted the poor and helpless, street beggars and street children, criminals and idlers. Cellars, attics and tap-rooms of London served as temporary prison cells where the stolen people were hidden until they could be passed onto ships at anchor in the Thames.*

Thomas, inebriated and out of his wits, was kidnapped and tossed on board a Jamaica-bound ship. The British had taken Jamaica from the Spaniards in 1655 and now many of the British-Jamaican settlers were land owners invested in growing cash crops for trade – a lucrative business – but a back breaking and laborious one. Jamaican planters needed a workforce, and once they had worked through the willing labourers, they invited ‘spirits’ to ‘recruit’ fresh young blood for their enterprises.

Indentured servants were forced to work the land in insufferable heat as they worked out their term of servitude – ostensibly between four and seven years, though many were tricked into much longer contracts – or died before they achieved freedom.

The first Jamaican slaves (after the British takeover) were white, British men, women and children, expending their youth in the hard-baked Caribbean soil. They worked for free, had to buy the meagre clothes they were permitted to wear and accept their meagre food rations.

Pity poor Thomas Wilson of Eastbourne, son of Baronet William Wilson I, Sheriff of Sussex, as he sweated and ached in perpetual servitude on a plantation so far from home. His father, under no illusion as to his sons predilections for wine and women, thought his son lost even before his son was lost. William passed in ignorance as to his wayward son’s fate until a letter arrived at Bourne Place addressed to him from the colonies.

The letter was a dreadful tale of woe from a truly attrite son, practically prodigal in his desire for home. William Wilson the elder sought the counsel of his fellow townsmen and his pleas fell upon the ears of Captain Francis Scarlett, a native of Eastbourne with lands on the Wag Water River in the Parish of St. Andrews, Jamaica.

Captain Scarlett, having sailed to Jamaica, made enquiries about a plantation servant named Thomas Wilson and “succeeded in effecting his freedom.”* The unlucky Thomas, now blessed with release at the command of his father, bided a while with his saviour before returning to Eastbourne. Though it is not to be assumed that the young man changed his ways entirely, for a clause in William Wilson the elder’s will, read in 1685 on the event of his demise, mentioned ‘a sum of money to be employed for the benefit of the family of Thomas Wilson, a son, “until he shall become a civil and orderly person, fit to employ and manage money”.’

So concludes the curious tale of an Eastbourne man spirited away to Jamaica in the early days of empire.

More stories to emerge from the annals of Eastbourne history include tales from a Neolithic enclosure; Rituals at a Bronze Age settlement in the marshes, a Flotilla of fishing ships rescuing British soldiers from a beach in France after the Dunkirk evacuations and.. well.. you might just have to buy the book to find out more!


Jordan, Don and Walsh, Michael, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, NYU Press, 2008

Green, Matthew, The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse: an Essay at

Budgen, Walter, Old Eastbourne: Its Church, Its Clergy, Its People, Frederick Sherlock Ltd., London, 1911

DuQuesnay, F., J., The Scarlett Family in Jamaica,

Image Credit:

1780 caricature of a Press Gang, scanned from Vaisseau de Ligne, Time Life, 1979

Creative Writing, History, Research

Cavaliers and Wheatears: The Wilson’s of Eastbourne

A seventeenth century tale of political intrigue set amidst a Jacobean Mansion with a cast of monarch-loyalists and Cromwell’s parliamentarian dragoons. Meet William and Mary Wilson of Bourne Place, Eastbourne.

William Wilson was born in Eastbourne in 1605, the son of Mary Gardener(1585–1613) and Esq. John Wilson(1565–1640). William was a descendant of Sir Thomas Wilson (1524-1581), Knight, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I. He married Mary Haddon in 1642 and they had their first son, William (second Baronet of Eastbourne) in 1643. They went on to have another six children – one of whom was kidnapped as an adult by pirates and taken to the West Indies – but more on that later.

Mary Haddon was born in London, also in 1605, the daughter of Francis Haddon (1580-1645) and Judith Carter (1585-1665). Judith Carter remarried on the death of Francis, a man named Dr. Edward Burton, Chaplain to Charles I and Rector of Broadwater (1646-1660). Dr. Burton, of the Eastbourne-Burtons, owned Bourne Place (now Compton Place) and sold the estate to William Wilson and his step-daughter Mary, in 1644.

The Wilson’s seven children were baptised in Eastbourne between 1643-1652. Five sons, William, John, Francis, Thomas and Edward, and two daughters, Judith and Philadelphia.

The Wilson’s lived through the reign of Charles I, the English Civil Wars, the Commonwealth, the Restoration of the Monarchy and the reign of Charles II. They were not just bystanders to the events, their loyalties ensured they were involved in the fray. Confrontations between the monarchy and Parliament over power, authority, religion, finances and taxes brought division to the people of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland; the countries were divided in two: those for the monarchy and those for Parliament

William Wilson, a staunch Royalist, was contacted by Charles I from Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, where he had escaped to from imprisonment in Hampton Court in November 1647. Sir William was asked whether he would be prepared to receive the King in Eastbourne, to which he replied that he would with his fortune and his life. It didn’t come to that though, as King Charles subsequently negotiated a deal with the Scots and they provided him with an army – which led to the second Civil War of 1648.

Here, we sense the nature of the Wilson’s devotion to the crown, a loyalty that was generations-deep. William was prepared to put his own life and the well-being of his family and their fortune behind the needs of the King. He wasn’t on his own in his loyalties either, Dr. Edward Burton, Mary’s stepfather, would later have an unequivocal epitaph etched onto his tomb in Broadwater Church:

“He was always a hater and smiter of Presbytarians”. Dr. Edward Burton, 1660

King Charles I Scots-alliance failed and he was recaptured by the Parliamentarians, put to trial and sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded on 30th January 1649 outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London. There followed eleven years of Commonwealth, in which England and Wales, then Ireland and Scotland were governed as a republic, with Oliver Cromwell leading the united Commonwealth from 1653-1658 as Lord Protector.

The same year that Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector by the New Model Army, William Wilson of Bourne Place was made Sheriff of Sussex. We can imagine William’s sympathies lying with the exiled son of Charles I – the future Charles II – who had escaped the country to join his Catholic mother, Henrietta Maria, in France while the Puritan Parliament ruled over the Commonwealth and the moral-laws of its people.

While William Wilson lay seriously ill in bed on Good Friday in 1658, a detachment of dragoons sent by Oliver Cromwell arrived at Bourne Place, ordered to search the house for evidence of a Royalist conspiracy. Though William could do nothing to help himself in this circumstance, Mary swiftly realised the danger and sought to distract the soldiers with a fresh-baked wheatear* pie. While they ate, she hurriedly dashed all William’s incriminating paperwork into a blazing fire. By the time the dragoons were ready to search the house, there was nothing left for them to find.

*Wheatear: Small, ground-dwelling bird common in England and Ireland – winters in Africa.

Oenanthe oenanthe 01 II.jpg
Wheatear (By Philippe Kurlapski)

Later in 1658, Oliver Cromwell died of Malaria at the Palace of Whitehall, in London. The Wilson’s daughter, Philadelphia, studying at a school in Hackney at the time, wrote a letter home to her mother:

I have been to Whitehall to wait on my cousin Gardner, and I saw the Lord Mayor’s show, and by her command we saw the Protector lying in state, which is the most stately sight that I ever did see.”

Philadelphia Wilson, 1658

Charles II was restored to the crown in 1660, much to the delight of the Wilson’s of Bourne Place. In 1661, William Wilson was created Baronet for his loyalty to the Crown, by the title of Willelmus Wilson de Eastborne, Master of Horse to Earl of Suffolk, High Sheriff of Sussex, 1st Baronet of Eastbourne.

Sadly, Mary Wilson died just three months later and was buried in the Church of St. Mary’s, but Sir William Wilson lived on at Bourne Place until his death in 1685, when the estate and title passed onto his eldest son, William. Sir William Senior requested to be buried alongside his wife in the church in Old Town: my chancel, belonging to my house, in the East end of the south aisle of the Parish Church of Eastbourne, at the right hand of my dear and loving wife who lies against the doore.”

Sir William Wilson, 1685

Sir William left a curious clause in his will concerning his son, Thomas, who would not receive his inheritance until “he shall become a civil and orderly person, fit to employ and manage the money”. This is the son who later becomes the subject of a kidnapping plot which sees him sold as a plantation slave in Jamaica. But more on this another day..

I’ll be visiting the current Compton Place in January for a tour, so more on the old Wilson’s house next year.


Researching for a Stuart-era story for the History of Eastbourne storybook has led me down a few rabbit holes but has also brought to life this very interesting tale of a family of loyal royalists caught up in the turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Originally flagged up by Jo (Seaman) in his exhibition The Story of Eastbourne, I’m seeing if I can delve a little deeper into the lives of Mary Wilson, nee Haddon; William Wilson (first Baronet of Eastbourne) and their children; and life in a Jacobean Mansion in seventeenth century Eastbourne.


BUDGEN, W, REV., OLD EASTBOURNE, 1912: P.220-224