Category: Antigua

A Restless Young Man

My three-times great-grandfather Robert Mitcheson (1779-1859) appears to have been the kind of man who took a long time to settle down. He was lucky that he was born in the late 18th century. Previous generations hadn’t had as many career options.

His father and grandfather had both been farmers in County Durham, in northeast England, as were many of his relatives, but harvesting crops and raising animals didn’t appeal to Robert, so he became an iron manufacturer.1 That didn’t work out. Eventually, at around age 40, he settled in Philadelphia, got married and raised five children. Before he moved to the United States, there are only hints of his whereabouts and activities, but it is clear that he spent some time in the West Indies.

He was not the only one in his family to leave County Durham: his older sister, Mary, moved to Canada with her husband, John Clark, around 1797, and his brother William and his sister Jane moved to London.  

Robert Mitcheson, probably in his 40s, painted by an unknown artist in Philadelphia. Bagg family collection.

Robert was the second child and oldest son of yeoman farmer Joseph Mitcheson (1746-1821), and Margaret Philipson (1756-1804). The word yeoman means Joseph was a landowner, although for many years he rented out the properties he owned and leased the farm where the family lived.

According to family lore, Robert was born at Eland Hall, near the village of Ponteland in Northumberland. Perhaps the family was renting Eland Hall Farm, which still exists and is located a few miles from Newcastle. Robert was baptized at Whickham Parish Church, in the town of Swalwell, where his mother had inherited property.

During Robert’s teen years, the family lived on a farm at Iveston, about nine miles northwest of Durham city. After his mother’s death in 1804, they moved into a house in Swalwell. Land tax records from 1810 show that Robert, now age 21, owned this property and that he was an iron manufacturer.

Iron ore, coal and limestone – the main ingredients of iron – were abundant in the region, and there were rivers for transportation and power. Iron had been produced in County Durham since the Iron Age, and Crowley Iron Works operated in the Swalwell area in the 1700s. Robert probably apprenticed as an ironmonger.

It is also possible that Robert was in the military in his youth. His March 28, 1859 obituary in the Montreal Herald and Daily Commercial Gazette, probably written by his daughter Catherine Mitcheson Bagg of Montreal, suggested that Robert was an officer in the British army during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). The article said, “he was a native of England and held, we believe, a commission as captain in the army.” That wording suggests that she wasn’t sure about this and I have not yet confirmed it.

In December 1810, he was almost 30 years old and in business in London as an ironmonger. A search of the U.K. National Archives website showed that Robert and business partner Thomas Kempster, of Greenwich Street, Dowgate Hill, ironmongers, purchased insurance.2 (This could, of course, have been another individual named Robert Mitcheson.) Two years later Thomas and Robert dissolved their partnership.

Perhaps Robert remained in London for a while after that. His brother lived near the docks along the Thames River and some years later established an anchor-manufacturing business there.

According to another family story, Robert was “in the West Indies trade.” That phrase sometimes refers to the slave trade, but Britain abolished its transatlantic traffic in slaves in 1807, although slaves continued to work on the plantations of the Caribbean and in the southern U.S. for many years. It can also refer to exports to Caribbean countries, such as wheat and beef, or the importation of sugar from there. Perhaps Robert sold iron products, such as hoes and nails, to plantation owners in the West Indies. He definitely imported rum and sugar to the United States.

U.S. immigration documents show that Robert travelled from the West Indies to Philadelphia several times. He was listed as a passenger travelling from Antigua to Philadelphia aboard the Achilles in July 1816.3 He also sailed to Philadelphia on the Florida in March 1817, and the vessel’s cargo manifest showed that he had a shipment of sugar and rum, picked up in Kingston, Jamaica, on board with him.  

In October 1817, Robert travelled from Antigua to the Philadelphia, with the intention of settling there. Within a year he was married and a new father, and he began a new career, this time as a distiller.

I will explore Robert’s life in America in my next post.

Notes and Sources

  1. A legal document identified Robert Mitcheson, late of Swalwell, now of Philadelphia, as an ironmonger: Clayton and Gibson, Ref No. D/CG 7/379, 16 September 1835, Durham County Record Office.
  • 2. Sun Fire Office, MS11936/452/, 3 Dec. 1810, London Metropolitan Archives,, entry for Robert Mitcheson, accessed Jan. 21, 2023.
  • 3. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. Passenger and Immigration lists, 1800-1850,, entry for Robert Mitcheson, accessed Jan. 22, 2023.

The Elmes of Antigua

There were no hints or family stories to prepare me for what I found in the 1851 Census of England. I was looking for my three-times great grandparents Henry Keene Smithers and his wife Charlotte Letitia (Pittman) Smithers in Sussex, England. I had already found their 1809 marriage record at St Martin in the Fields Church in London, and it had said that Charlotte was from Barnes, a parish located near the mouth of the Thames River. So when the census revealed that Charlotte was actually born in Antigua, in the British West Indies, I was surprised.

I was also curious. Was her father perhaps in the British navy, which had a large base there? Or did her family own a sugar plantation? The History of the Island of Antigua, written by Vere Langford Oliver and published in 1894, provided the answer: Charlotte’s ancestors, the Elmes family, had lived in Antigua for more than a century and had been planters for several generations. 

According to Oliver, the first mention of the family name appeared in 1654 when John Elmes owed £100 to the Dutch merchants. Thirteen years later, Thomas Elmes and four other people were granted 65 acres of land on Antigua. He acquired more land over the next dozen years. Oliver noted that St. Phillip’s Parish Church registered the 1698 marriage of the man who was probably his son or grandson: Thomas Elmes married Mary Marchant in 1698 and the couple had two children. He was buried in 1745.

the Elmes family tree, by Vere Langford Oliver

Thomas Elmes II married Mary Ann Monk in 1734. Oliver transcribed his 1745 will, a document that revealed something of his personal and financial situation. To his wife he left  ”a negro woman, a horse and jewels.” He made arrangements for money to support his four minor children, and he granted freedom to his mulatto boy Joicey – no doubt his son by one of the plantation slaves. His son Thomas was to inherit the estate. 

He added a codicil a few years later, noting that his wife was now deceased and “my fortune increased and the number of my children decreased, therefore each child’s portion is to be £2000.” Thomas II died in 1755, leaving vacant his seat in the colony’s Assembly. 

Thomas and Mary Ann’s son, Thomas Elmes III, married twice.  In 1761 he wed Letitia Cusack, daughter of Dr. Patrick Cusack and Lettice Lewis. Oliver noted that the Cusack family was from Gerrardstown and Clonard in Ireland. 

Windmill and outbuilding on an old plantation in Barbados, showing the base of the windmill used to grind the sugar cane. photo by Janice Hamilton

Letitia gave birth to two daughters, Letitia and Mary, but they were left motherless when she died in 1763. Thomas’s second wife was Elizabeth Harmon, with whom he had a son, Thomas, and a daughter, Dorothy. Thomas Elmes IV, was the last in the male line and had no children.

Thomas III’s and Letitia’s daughter Letitia Elmes married Francis Pittman in 1782 at St. John’s Parish Church, Antigua. The couple had two daughters, Anne and Charlotte. This branch of the family tree in Oliver’s book concluded with the marriage of Charlotte Letitia Pittman to Henry Keene Smithers. 

Thomas Elmes III died in 1776. As for the Elmes plantation, it had been sold by 1770. In 1779 it was recorded as containing 149 acres. A volunteer researcher with the Museum of Antigua & Barbuda noted on an online message board in 2007 that the sugar mill on the property was still in good shape and that the property, located in St. Phillip’s Parish, on the island’s east side, is still called the Elmes Estate.

Research notes

The three-volume The History of the Island of Antigua, by Vere Langford Oliver, was published in 1894. Information about the Elmes family tree, on pages 243 and 244 of Volume I, can be found at https://archive.og/stream/historyofislando01oliv#page/243/mode/2up

Oliver was a historian whose books are considered invaluable by people trying to track down their white West Indian ancestors because he transcribed many deteriorating records, and he outlined family trees for some of Antigua’s prominent planter families. Although the churches of the British-owned Caribbean islands recorded the births, marriages and deaths of their parishioners, many of these original documents succumbed to dampness, insects, rodents, fires, hurricanes and earthquakes. 

Oliver must have had difficulty reading the documents he found, and some records must have been missing, resulting in gaps in the Elmes family tree. The tree does not meet today’s high standards of genealogical proof but, despite these flaws, I am extremely lucky to have these records. 

My Ancestor Settled in the British West Indies, a guide to sources for family historians written by John Titford and published by the Society of Genealogists Enterprises Ltd, London, 2011, can help you track down your ancestors in the British West Indies. It gives brief histories of the islands and lists books, websites and record repositories in the Caribbean and the U.K. If your local family history society library does not have a copy, you can order one from