Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Sarah Letitia Brown's Commonplace Book

The last time I saw my mother was in April 1976 when we all went to Jamaica to help celebrate my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. They were married April 27, 1926 at the Kingston Parish Church and had wedding pictures taken at my mother's home at 49 Beeston Street. Here is a picture of their wedding party:

My mother is seated in front, with my father at her right. Benind her is her bridesmaid, Vera Cox (who married Errol Henriques), and beside Vera is the best man, Julian Smedmore, my mother's youngest brother. The little boy at the left of the picture is Jack Duffus, who was the ring bearer.

All the parties who took part in my parents' wedding were at the fiftieth anniversary and posed for this photo:

From the left they are Vera Henriques, my mother, my father, Julian Smedmore and Jack Duffus. Sadly they are now all gone. My mother has planned to visit us in Ontario in early 1978 but died suddenly in her sleep on December 14, 1977. I made the trip down to Jamaica for her funeral and brought back with me various of her belongings such as photographs, jewellry, some letters, and a rather battered looking book, with no cover. The book meant nothing to me at the time ... it appeared to be full of handwritten verse and some prose, with the occasional illustration of a flower. There were different coloured pages, though rather acidified and the spine, such as it was, was falling apart. One could see that it had been sewn and that there had been a cover at one point.

It was some time before I really began to look carefully at this book. I discovered that some of the entries had initials beside them and with some effort I have been able to identify most of the people who wrote these entries. Only two entries have actual names beside them: one is "Julia", the other "Anna". (I think I know who Anna was.) A few have dates, and these are quite old. The earliest is 1867, and appears on page 13 ... the pages are numbered ... so for all we know the entries on the pages before this may be even earlier. Since the book was in my mother's possession ... though I never saw it in her lifetime ... it must have come down to her from one of her parents. I have no solid evidence to prove this but I believe the book may have belonged to my mother's grandmother, Sarah Letitia Brown. I shall try to explain why I believe this.

My mother never spoke of her grandparents, probably because she didn't know them. Her grandfather, Daniel Elias Brown, died before she was born and she would have been only four years old when her grandmother, Sarah, died. What little I know about Sarah comes only from the research I have done. When I first began the research I questioned my uncle, Rodney Smedmore, about the family. He knew that his grandfather was Daniel Elias Brown but he thought that his grandmother had been a Miss Williamson who had married a McDonald, and then married Daniel on the death of her husband. He knew this because his family knew Daniel's step-daughter, Elizabeth McDonald who married George Christopher Baylis, who like my grandfather, William Dey Smedmdore, was employed at the Port Royal Dockyard. So I searched for the record of Sarah's first marriage and found that her maiden name was Huggins, not Williamson. (I have no idea where Rodney got that name ... A cautionary warning to anyone doing research: check the family stories carefully. Quite often there are mistakes in people's memory!)

I found Sarah's baptism in the Port Royal Copy Register. It's difficult to reproduce the image here. According to the record she was born in Port Royal on August 21, 1832 and baptized by the Rev. T. Alves on October 28th. Her parents were James and Mary Huggins of Port Royal and she is described as being "of colour". She married Donald McDonald, a shoemaker of Port Royal and they had two daughters, Elizabeth and Mary. Donald apparently died shortly after the birth of the second child and Sarah remarried to my grandfather, Daniel Elias Brown. They had seven children, all born in Port Royal. Sarah died in 1898 in Kingston. Daniel had died seven years earlier.

Not much to go on, so why do I think that the book I found was hers? Well, based on one entry, by Robert Raw, dated 9th September 1867, I think it has to belong to her. Robert Raw was the Methodist minister in Port Royal between 1863 and 1868. He baptized three of Sarah's children: Sarah Letitia Webster in 1863, Richard Elias in 1866, and Bertha Rose (who was actually baptized Bertha Raw but seems to have changed her middle name) in 1868. At the time that Robert Raw wrote his verse in the book Sarah Letitia Brown was then pregnant with Bertha.

Why do I call it a commonplace book? Wikipedia defines "commonplace book" as "a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books... Each commonplace book was unique in its creator's particular interests". In a way this little book reminds me of the autograph books I grew up with, where one would invite one's friends to write little verses or comments. The contents of this book reflect the literary interests of the Brown family and their friends and is a window into their lives.

In my next post I will go into more detail about the commonplace book and the people who wrote in it.


Judith said...

Absolutely fabulous treasure, and who but Dorothy should be its heir and interpreter!! There is a lesson here for all of us.

patricia said...

Uncle Julius looks so smug in that photo, holding a cigarette. Would have been nicer to get that photo without him smoking, but it's still a great shot.

I'm looking forward to finding out more about the Commonplace Book. I remember exploring the pages of that book a lot when I was a kid.

Excellent detective work, as always!

Cathy said...

Wonderful work Dorothy. I've started my own blog (using your example!) to track some health challenges I'm having but I'll send that under separate cover. Now that you're talking about Sarah Brown, I'm wondering if Susan isn't her sister (who married John Cassis). I've had no luck tracking the baptismal or birth records for John or Joseph Cassis and think they may have had a different mother from Pedro's other children. I'm hoping to make a date with you in September to do some 'assisted' research!

Jacqueline Smith said...

This is an amazing blog. I just had to link to an old post of yours to enrich a post I wrote about Charles Hyatt's "When mi was a boy", and also to make it easy for me to find you again.

Guy said...

It is fascinating.

Have you come across any online community, or individuals, who also have "commonplace books" and their stories to share?

I'd like to see you post a sample page, or more, so that they can be read online...

Arras Memorial

Arras Memorial

Trooper Victor Dey Smedmore

Trooper Victor Dey Smedmore
My uncle Victor