3 December 2009

John Billingham Swann

John Billingham Swann (1828-1904) was a Passed Clerk in Vesuvius from the 29th of June, 1853, until appointed Assistant Paymaster in Diamond on the 9th of February, 1855, so would have messed with Richard Ramsay Armstrong and they would have known one another well.

Swann had two careers: after retiring from the Navy as a Paymaster on the 17th of June, 1870, he embarked on probably his true vocation as a clergyman. This was unusual, but by no means unheard of for ex-army and naval officers during the nineteenth century. I can name a couple with whom I am very familiar and there were undoubtedly others: the first an old cousin of mine, the Reverend Arthur Ralph Green Thomas, vicar of St. Paul Camden Square for many years, who started out as Lieutenant in the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot, with seniority 13 March 1827, and top-class exam results from Sandhurst. The other was a certain rather unsavoury gentleman by the name of Granville Hamilton Wood, a Commander RN, about whom Richard Ramsay Armstrong heard dire reports when he served on the Slave Coast around 1850. Wood left the Navy under something of a cloud and reappeared having taken Holy Orders and become a Jesuit priest, dying in Malta under slightly suspicious circumstances. (For the full story, see my piece "The Secret History of HM Brig Hound" in the appendices of RRA's Book of his Adventures.)

Swann was born on the 9th of May, 1828, one of at least two sons and at least two daughters, to an interesting character called Edward Swann and his wife Elizabeth, formerly Chambers. The parents had married by licence in Warwickshire on the 4th of November, 1823. The bridegroom was 46. He had been born in Leicester in 1777 and was the eldest surviving son of ten children of a wealthy currier of Belgrave Gate in Leicester, also called Edward. (Above: Belgrave Gate, Leicester, in the 1920s) Edward junior appears to have become an Assistant Surgeon in the Royal Navy sometime around the turn of the century, extrapolating from his brief obituary in the Medical Times & Gazette Vol 2, July 13, 1861:

"July 3rd 1861 death - Swann July 3, at Weedon, Northamptonshire, Edward Swann, late Staff Surgeon to the Military District prison, at Weedon, formerly Asstant Surgeon in the Royal Navy, and afterwards Ordnance Surgeon, aged 83. The deceased gentleman served in the Walcheren Expedition, and the siege of Flushing."

There doesn't seem to be much concrete evidence for his naval career. There is, however, a relevant record at the National Archives (ADM 45/29 Series 8, No. 95) which is an 1852 application to the Admiralty as follows:

"Elizabeth Swann formerly Elizabeth Chambers, Widow of Surgeon, who died: 18 March 1852. Notes on executor's application for money owed by the Royal Navy."

This means Elizabeth had a previous husband who had been a surgeon in the Navy. A quick search identifies one Robert Chambers, Surgeon RN, seniority 17 Nov 1807, who married Elizabeth Billington (Note) on the 10th of May, 1810, at Brownsover, Warwickshire, just outside Rugby. Another search of the National Archives online catalogue confirms all this with the following record in ADM 6/355:

"Elizabeth Chambers, widow of Robert Chambers, surgeon Royal Navy who died 03 Apr 1817. Includes: Extract from Parish Register, married 10 May 1810. Papers submitted to the Charity for the relief of Officers' Widows. Covering dates 1817."

So John Billingham Swann's father Edward married the widow Chambers in 1823, six years after the death of her first husband, a Royal Naval surgeon. Edward claimed he had been an assistant surgeon in the Navy too, but I can't find a service record for him, or any other naval record of any kind for an Edward Swann, although it is possible - probable even - he served under an alias. There were two 'Swann' surgeons in the Navy at approximately the right time, both of whose service records are extant: there was a George Swann, but he appears to be too young and not connected. However a John Henry Swann, seniority 26 Jan 1809, whose service appears to finish in 1814 but continues to appear in the Navy Lists well into the 1840s, is a much more plausible candidate. But on closer examination of his service record it turns out he was in the West Indies for the whole of 1809 and 1810 while the Walcheren Expedition and the siege of Flushing were in progress. (Edward Swann's brief obituary in the Medical Times & Gazette of 1861 - see above - claims he served at Walcheren and Flushing.) Incidently, it is not at all clear from the reference to Walcheren and Flushing whether Swann was still in the Navy at the time, or had already joined the Ordnance Medical Department.

Edward Swann's marriage to the Widow Chambers was actually his second too. He had married an Elizabeth Bishop at St. Margaret, Leicester, on the 9th of June, 1802. They had had at least eight children by 1818, and she probably died in 1819/20. The clue that revealed this first marriage comes from the Monthly Magazine & British Register of the 1st of May, 1821:

"In August last, at sea, off the coast of China, Mr, J. Swann, second son of Mr. S. Royal Ordnance Surgeon, at Weedon Depot."

This was John Edward Swann, born Leicester, 1805, and it will be noted that this death notice was published two years before Edward Swann married the Widow Chambers.

At some point - probably around 1812/13 because his youngest two recorded children by his first marriage were born at Weedon - Surgeon (if that is what he was) Edward Swann apparently left the Navy and started working for the Ordnance Medical Department at Weedon Depot. However, the first mention I can actually find for him in the Army Lists is in 1846. He is listed as "Surgeon: Dr. E. Swann, late of R.N." for the Military Prison at Weedon, Northamptonshire. His earlier career as surgeon for the depot, before the prison was created on the same site, is not recorded in any Army List as far as I am aware. It turns out that a part of Weedon was only converted into the prison in 1844/45 [see this PDF from English Heritage] and "was opened for the reception of prisoners on the 7th August, 1845 [Parliamentary return dated 26th May 1846], so Edward Swann was clearly the first prison medical officer and moved seemlessly from one job to the other.

Very little can be discovered about the children of his first marriage, and infuriatingly, Edward and Elizabeth Swann (Mk.2) and their children can't be found in the 1841 census for England & Wales. I have been informed by Alan J. Clarke who runs a very useful look-up service for the 1841 Northamptonshire census that the Weedon Bec - including the barracks - census returns for that year have not survived.

Nevertheless, John Billington Swann's naval career is well documented in his service record held by the National Archives. Click on the image for a larger version:

It will be seen that he retired from the Navy on the 17th of June, 1870. He had been married for ten years. Not to be outdone by his father, he had also married an Elizabeth - Elizabeth Smith Farmer. This from the Gentleman's Magazine of 1860:

"At the parish church, Cheadle, Cheshire, JB Swann esq RN son of Edward Swann esq of Weedon, Northamptonshire, to Elizabeth, dau. of John Farmer of Cheadle."

The National Archives has a record of the marriage too - it was recorded "for potential Royal Navy widow's pension." [ ADM 13/70 Marriage Certificates. Folio: 680 ] This could well have been done on the advice of his father whose second wife Elizabeth Chambers had apparently had trouble getting her widow's pension from The Admiralty (see above)!

In the 1861 census Paymaster Swann and his new bride were living in Melcombe Regis, Dorset. His father Edward, then 83 years old, a widower for the second time since 1852, was in lodgings in Weedon Bec. Just weeks after the census, he too was dead.

Meanwhile, Swann's elder brother Frederick Billington Swann had studied medicine at St George's Hospital, London, and went on to become a GP in the home village of Weedon, eventually taking on his father's old job as Medical Officer at the prison.

Paymaster Swann and Elizabeth probably had four children during the course of the 1860s: Harrington, Sidney Bellingham, Lilian and Grace. By the 1871 census the family was based in Richmond, Surrey, presumably so Swann could study at King's College, London. [ Crockford's Clerical Directory, 1874 ] The same sources reveals that he was ordained deacon in 1873 by the Bishop of Lichfield and became Curate of St. John, Derby, in the diocese of Lichfield the same year. The family was now living at 9, Vernon Street, Derby. Both boys attended the old Derby School (crest, right) and Harrington went on to Rugby and Sidney to Marlborough.

In the middle of the 1870s Swann became the Rector of Harlaston in Staffordshire (St. Matthew's Church, above), where he remained for twenty years until about 1895. The rectory is pictured at right, looking very much as it would have done in Swann's day. He then returned to his roots - becoming Rector of the tiny village of Catthorpe near Rugby in the very heart of the Midlands and right in the modern 'armpit' of the M1 and M6 motorways. And, as the crow flies, about 12½ miles north of his birthplace of Weedon.

Both Swann's daughters got married in the 1890s. Neither were in the first flush of youth: Lilian, the elder, was the first to go. She married a David Pegrum in Deptford in 1896. She was 32. Grace, who was three years Lilian's junior, married at Catthorpe on the 13th of December, 1898. The bridegroom was Theodore Edward Naish, a thirty year old Captain in the Royal Engineers and son of a Bristol cotton manufacturer. The union was a disaster. Grace bore one child, Sidney, in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1900. In July 1909 Grace filed a petition for seperation on the grounds of cruelty, which she won. In 1912 they were divorced after Grace employed private detectives to provide evidence of Naish's adultery. Page 4 of The Times of Wednesday the 30th of October 1912 carries a report of the court case. Reading through it, one could easily form the impression that Naish was a proper cad and a bounder. However, that was the necessity to win in court, and it may well have been much more a case of 'six and two threes'. Naish remarried in 1917 to a Ruth Harrison - not the woman named in the adultery case. Unfortunately I can find no more recent reference to Grace or her son Sidney.

Of Swann's sons, Harrington opted for a career in the regular army after a spell in the Derby Militia. He married Miss Fanny Stevens of Long Island in 1893. There is just a hint of sniffiness in the New York Times' report - Fanny was well connected in New York society and the wedding breakfast was at the Waldorf - the groom was only described as coming "from a good English family and stands in high favor in the English Army." [Marriages NYT 22 March 1893] After his sister Grace's seperation he became one of the guardians of his nephew Sidney. However, like his sisters, Harrington then disappears into obscurity.

Sidney Bellingham Swann (the spelling of his grandmother's maiden name changed over the years), on the other hand (left), had such a well-documented and extraordinary life than I can do little more than list some achievements and show a facsimile of his obituary from The Times of Tuesday the 4th of August 1942. He was athlete, cyclist, rower (Cambridge Blue), pioneer motorist, canoeist, amateur flying enthusiast, wartime ambulance driver, clergyman and missionary to Japan. Cleary one of the great English eccentrics - some would say madmen - he died of a heart attack in 1942 following a fracture of the thigh caused by falling off his bicycle. For good measure I have added a facsimile of The Times obituary for his second wife, the amazing Lady Bagot, which was published on the 26th of February 1940. His Son, Sidney Ernest Swann followed in his wake and was also a Cambridge rowing Blue, then won gold and silver rowing medals in the 1912 and 1920 Summer Olympics respectively.

The Reverend John Billingham Swann, once a young naval clerk who had likely occupied the next hammock to Richard Ramsay Armstrong in the bowels of Vesuvius fifty years before, died at the rectory, Catthorpe, on Tuesday the 16th of August, 1904. His brief obituary appeared in The Times two days later.