Jamie Oliver’s Ancestors
Not Sudanese, but did help stop the Slave Trade in the Sudan
We first hear of the Olivers living in Madron, a village about 2 miles North West of the coast of Penzance, the Village grew up around a fresh water spring, which, during the time of these early generations of Olivers was the only source of fresh water for both Madron and Penzance, Penzance being at this time the port area for Madron. There are standing stones in the area which were claimed to be able to cure rickets if the afflicted were passed through them, this pagan legend also extended to the Well at Madron, and as with all pagan superstitions, this was taken over by the Dark Age Christians and turned into a Christian superstition attached to St Madern which gradually changed in pronunciation over time to St Madron.
When the Normans came, their local lord of the manor had the church built near the now “Holy” Well of St Madron, and gave it to the Knights Hospitaller in return for them praying for his soul. It is most likely that the spelling of the “Oliver” surname happened during this time and may have come from the English name Alward (pronounced Alvard), as represented in Alverton just a couple of miles from Madron, the French speaking Normans priests and overseers Normanising the local name of Alver to Oliver.
The Olivers would have seen both the growth of Penzance, and it’s ravages at the hands of the Barbary Corsairs raiding the coasts for slaves to sell in the markets of North Africa, followed by plague in the 1570s, and the Spanish who landed in 1595, ravaged the town, held a Holy Mass, and set off to sea again before local forces could muster to confront them. The town’s woes continued during the English Civil War in the 1640s when the Roundhead General Thomas Faifax ravaged the town as a punishment for its Royalist sympathies, and a group of Roundheads destroyed the small chapel at Madron as a pagan remnant, plague returned in 1647 raising the death rate by 10 times the normal.
By the time of the earliest recorded Olivers in the 1660s Madron had started to take second place to its port of Penzance which had steadily grown in importance. After the ravages of the 17th century, things improved during the 18th century, at least judging from the number of children born to Henry Oliver and Jane Vinicomb between 1735 and 1750, seven in total, but times could still be hard, with two sons died in infancy. The Penzance and Madron area boomed during these times thanks to the Tin mining and good corn harvests, and its export via Penzance along with barrels of local Pilchards. By the mid 1700s when the Oliver children were growing up a battery of guns were put in place to deter Spanish attacks, wealthy traders and landowners began building houses in Penzance and enough local taxes were raised to have the streets paved.
By the time that James Oliver had married Jane Hoskin and started to raise his family in Madron in the 1770s, Madron had dwindled to an outlying village supplying the town of Penzance. Penzance itself now boasted a cosmopolitan air that would have been unimaginable a few generations back, trade with the Mediterranean had brought a synagogue, along with a theatre, and assembly rooms used by the gentry for balls and gambling. The Olivers would have been outsiders to all of this, the nearest they came to it was through Edward Hoskin Oliver who worked in the Gentry’s fine gardens, seeing the preparations for balls, and gossiping with the other servants about the scandals of the moneyed classes. To help make ends meet for the family Edward would have grown vegetables on his own plot to sell to the grocers in Penzance.
Richard Hoskin Oliver married Clarinda Davies in February 1806 in Gulval, her home village a couple of miles North East of Madron, where two of their sons Richard Davies Oliver and John Oliver were born. In the late Regency and early Victorian era the gentry of Penzance had started to build houses on the outskirts of the town to avoid the hustle and bustle of the life of the ever growing port and the comings and goings of those taking advantage of the new craze of seaside holidays for the racier classes. Gulval grew around the Village Square, with new stone houses replacing the older wattle and daub cottages, with a pleasant view over Mounts Bay. Most of this granite housing speculation was carried out by the Bolitho Family who the Olivers may have worked for and definitely would have doffed their hats to as they passed them in the village. Meanwhile Penzance grew with Gas lighting in the streets, and houses there had piped water negating the need to travel to Madron to collect water from the ancient well. A newspaper and promenade were opened to service the growing population and the increasing numbers of well to do Regency holiday makers frequenting the area.
So the opportunities in Penzance for local people grew as well, and Richard Hoskin Oliver made sure that his children would not be tied to manual labour as he was; all three of his sons were schooled and could read and write, a rare accomplishment at this time. Richard finds work as a Grocer, possibly selling some of the produce of his father’s gardening work on the family plot, James becomes a Hatter, and John goes into tailoring. Indeed John makes such a good living that he takes a house with spare rooms to run as a lodging house, before using his commercial acumen to move more upmarket to run the Anchor Inn in Barbican Lane Penzance. But the family would not hold together for long, Clarinda died in 1832 at the age of 53, followed by Richard nine years later in 1841 at 66, and this matched the gradual decline of the family.
The eldest son Richard Davies Oliver married and left the Penzance area, drawn by the opening of the Hayle Railway in North Cornwall in the 1830s, this was built alongside the main London to Penzance Coaching Road, originally to help with the transport of the foundry and Copper products from the area, but gradually growing to include passenger traffic from London to Penzance. Seeing this boom, Richard cleverly set up as a Grocer at Hayle Foundry living among the blacksmiths and foundry workers in the town, selling them his produce. The Oliver brothers’ entrepreneurial skill did not stop with Richard, as James and his brother John lived together and worked together in business, John as a Tailor and James as a Hatter. Between them they would have managed to corner the small market for the gentry and other locals in Madron.
After the death of his parents and his elder brother Richard moving to Hayle, James continued to live with his brother John and family, but in the same year as his Father’s death 1841, James married a local girl, Lydia Gray, and soon after passenger services were opened on the Railway in 1843 at Hayle where his brother Richard lived, James took his part of the profits from the hat and clothing business and moves his young family in 1846 to try his luck in London; the Railway had cut the travel time from a week or more to a day or two. James’s move would cut the family off from Cornwall for the rest of their history; London would now be the focus of their future, for better or worse.
Their adventurous move took them to Lambeth on the Surrey bank of the Thames, living in Duke Street, a side street in the triangle formed by Blackfriars Road on the East, Waterloo Road on the West, and the Thames to the North. The population of Lambeth doubled between 1831 and 1861, sanitation was basic; toilets either being emptied by the Night Soil men from the backs of the buildings and shipped out to provide fertiliser for the fields of Essex, or seeped through the ground from dry privies into the the underground streams and creeks that riddled the former marsh that most of North Lambeth was built on, running down into the Thames. Drinking water came straight back out of the Thames to hand pumps in the courtyards and street corners of the working class neighbourhoods, leading to a major outbreak of Cholera killing thousands in 1848/9, the Olivers witnessed its effects, but fortunately for them they escaped the disease itself.
The crowding of the area was reflected in the Olivers’ accommodation, eleven people lived in the three story terraced house at no. 10 Duke Street. The Olivers took the top floor. The rest of the street were mainly Middlesex and Surrey Cockneys, and the Olivers would have stood out dramatically with their Cornish accents, although James’s Hatter’s trade, was on a par with his Warehouseman, and Foreman Labourer, and print worker neighbours. So their immediate surroundings were respectable working class, with a veneer of the elderly living on charity of one form or another. But further afield away from the quiet backstreets in the hustle and bustle of the Waterloo Road and especially around the New Cut market five minutes walk to the south of Duke Street that the complexion of the area changed. Working men toiled for a six day week being paid on Saturday and Lydia Oliver would have gone shopping on a Saturday evening when James would have brought his pay packet home. During the day the New Cut market had a tranquil air, but at dusk on a Saturday night, when the gaslights were being lit and the market was busiest, she would have felt far from the rustic gentility of seaside Penzance and quiet Madron and Gulval.
Out from the slums of the Blackfriars Road scampered the dark shadow of the “Street Arabs”, hoards of children aged from 6 to 10 years old, mainly boys, the children of Irish smallholders driven from their fields by the potato blight and the cruelty of their landlords, to congregate in London and survive at the bottom of the social heap, wracked with poverty, and subject to prejudice for their origins and Catholic religion, the adults must have despaired, while their Irish Cockney children knew no better and flourished, not just surviving but revelling in a culture of their own filling the social niche left by Dickens’ Artful Dodger and his friends a generation before. They congregated in noisy groups on the street corners, out for a laugh at others expense. Pushing in between the crowds of shoppers, music hall goers, loose women with wide hoped skirts ankles provocatively showing, the girls arm in arm with the local bully boys avoiding the “Coppers” on their rounds, the Street Arabs would split into small groups to look for their opportunities, avoiding the stalls of the heavy fisted Costermongers, preferring to raid the stalls managed by older women, grabbing handfuls of produce and running in all directions to the cries of “stop thief”. If this was more mischief than anything else, then there was also a harder more feral set of children who would push the old women over to snatch the meagre takings from their stalls before taking to their heels. This must have filled the Olivers with horror, especially young James Oliver, the same age as the street Arabs, possibly physically a bit bigger than them given his rural upbringing amongst the sea air and market gardens of Cornwall, but he was probably no match for them in terms of their aggression, he may have held close and tight to his mother’s skirts when the Arabs were on the prowl. But he was schooled, and had a chance of rising above them by education.
The Olivers had moved from Cornwall to improve their lot in London, but the streets of London were not paved with gold, James’ work as a Hatter kept a roof over the heads of the family, and they were getting by, although by the early 1860s their roof had moved further south in the Borough to another three story house at no. 9 Green Street, again taking the top floor of the building. They shared the house with a pair of market porters the Bailey brothers and their families. By now the Oliver’s teenage daughter Clarinda had left home, to go into Domestic Service, but the family now had the addition of three more sons, Richard, John, and Alfred at regular intervals between 1852 and 1856. The Oliver children now had six Bailey children to play with, all in all, between the Baileys and the Olivers, there were sixteen adults and children crammed into the three floors of 9 Green Street.
The family stayed together through much of the 1860s, although Clarinda never returned home, marrying Thomas Taylor a local locksmith in 1866, however the family were to face hardships, as James’s trade as a Hatter brought dangers of its own. The Hatters had earned a reputation, epitomised by Lewis Carol, as “Mad Hatters” this was a result of breathing in the poisonous vapours of the Mercury they worked with, the results of this mercury poisoning were a bright pink face and hands, peeling skin, nervous fidgeting, and extreme mood swings, the longer term symptoms were madness, and various heart and liver disorders often leading to death. By the yime safety legislation was brought in in 1864, James had been working in this poisonous environment for more than 30 years, and at the age of 58 in 1868 James died, and the family fell apart.
With the main wage earner gone, the Olivers are forced to give up their lodgings, James the eldest son got a job as a porter at the Guildhall Hotel (a large upmarket Pub) in Gresham Street in the City, where he now boarded, Clarinda was living with her husband, leaving the youngest boys, John and Alfred, and Richard, to be apprenticed by their mother to a Butcher. Lydia their mother takes work at the bottom of the social heap as a Charwoman, cleaning in the early hours of the morning for just enough money to survive on. She moves into a room of a house owned by an elderly widow in Prices Road Southwark, the premises rattled day and night by the trains travelling above their heads on the line to Charing Cross. She survives through to 1896, and ends her days at the mercy of the workhouse.
Things go downhill for the younger boys; it seems that life as Butcher’s apprentices prove to be less than pleasant, the Butcher would have had total control over the boys’ lives, they would have received bed and board, little if any spending money, and would have been expected to spend up to seven years in this servitude before having the opportunity to qualify as a Journeyman Butcher. Some Masters were good to their apprentices, some were very cruel, especially if the boys in question had no father to look out for them. It seems likely that the boys had a very hard time of it, so much so that Richard disappears, leaving no trace in any records, the youngest boy Alfred ends up in the local Workhouse before he also drops out of the records completely, whereas John shows some fighting spirit, runs away to Kent, where he seems to have got into some form of trouble as we next see him in St Augustine’s Prison Canterbury, at the tender age of fifteen. It is possible that he ends up in prison for either a petty crime, or vagrancy if he was “on the Tramp”.
Whatever the reasons for his brush with the law, John Oliver is rescued by his elder sister Clarinda, taking the boy in with her and her husband and putting him to school, although he still may have been a little uncontrollable as witnessed by the scar he bore on his right wrist which was remarked upon when she marched him by the scruff of his neck to the Naval Recruiting Office in Woolwich. As Clarinda was illiterate she called in help from John’s School Master, Mr Fowler, who acted as a professional witness to the relevant papers, signing him up to the Navy as a Boy 2nd class to be followed by ten years in the ranks. She swore that he had not spent time in a reformatory, which although technically true ignored the fact that he had been in Prison at Canterbury! She also swore that he was not apprenticed at the time, which given that he may have just run away from a Butcher’s shop was also a bending of the facts.
But the Navy life was obviously one that suited John, far from the trouble and bad influences of the Lambeth slums, he served his two years with good character, training on HMS Topaz and Boscawen, at Portland and along the South Coast. After a year of “Very Good” Service he rose from a Boy 2nd Class to a Boy 1st Class, and the combination of good diet, hard work, and sea air had seen John grow five inches in height from five foot two to five foot seven, a decent height for a working class boy in the 1870s. In 1872 he moved into the Navy proper as an Ordinary Seaman 2nd Class, spent eight months in Barracks qualifying as an Ordinary Seaman 1st Class, before getting his first posting aboard HMS Philomel on 22nd August 1873, and promptly set sail for Africa and the Indian Ocean.
The Philomel cruised the waters along the East African Coast, including the Sudan (which is probably where the family legend of a Sudanese ancestor may have come from) intercepting slaving ships at sea, armed sailors and marines overrunning them with boarding parties, arresting the crews, and freeing the slaves. It must have made a nineteen year old from Lambeth grow up very quickly.
Having seen the warlike tribes of the mainland and chased the slavers and Pirates off the coast, as well as getting to know the dubious pleasures of the coaling ports of British controlled East and South Africa. But his adventures weren’t over, in 1875 the British resident diplomat in Perak in Malaysia was ambushed while washing in a river and murdered. A force of colonial Police and Indian Sepoys were sent to capture the aggressors, but became badly mauled by the Malays and were forced to withdraw. In the 19th century Britain would not tolerate such an insult, and an expeditionary force was shipped in in 1876 and sent flying columns of soldiers and artillery after the rebels, backed up by amphibious assaults by Royal Marines and Sailors from the Philomel and other ships. Although outclassed by the British Military, the Malays mounted savage ambushes in the thickly forested Jungle terrain, and fought from heavily defended villages, killing a number of the British troops until overpowered, their warriors killed and their leaders captured and hanged. By 1877 the war was over. Quite an adventure for John Oliver.
After this John steamed back to England and spent his time between 1877 and 1879 on the Thames in Barracks at Woolwich and on HMS Fisgard a training ship on the Thames, his service at this time was described as Exemplary, but as he was a Seaman with experience at sea, he was too valuable to be left on the Thames, and by October 1879 he was sailing again for the South China Seas on board HMS Albatross.
We next find him in 1881 moored in the harbour of Yokohama in Japan, this was only thirty years after Japan had opened itself up to the rest of the world, and there was an intense interest in British Naval ships there, and John as an experienced Able Bodied Seaman would have been highly regarded in such a place. John spent more than three years aboard the Albatross patrolling the China Seas, before coming home again in 1883.
When he did return his high standing was reflected in the fact that he served out the rest of his days in the Navy aboard the Admiral’s Flagship, HMS Duke of Wellington at Portsmouth, so his days of action on the high seas were over, to be replaced with days of pomp and ceremony serving the Admiral and Commander in Chief at Portsmouth.
On leaving the Navy John took a wife, Alice Mary Coombes, a nursemaid from Clapham, thirteen years his junior. He also took on a new career, and was fortunate in that Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw was the Head of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and manned it exclusively with ex-Sailors, who he considered disciplined, strong, and hardy, and of course they could be called upon to man river borne Fire Engines on the Thames, an important part of the Brigade’s duties, without needing further training. John was lucky that he joined in 1888, as a year later Captain Shaw was relieved of his command when the London County Council was formed and their bureaucrats took the Brigade over, opening up its recruitment to anyone, not just ex-sailors. John served as a Fireman throughout the late 1880s and through the 1890s, but his fortunes were mixed, as he turns up in 1891 working a what appears to be a private Fireman looking after an unoccupied building for its owners, although he does go back to the regular fire service later in the 1890s. During this period of stability the family settles down to a quiet and regular existence in Gloucester Road, near the Surrey Canal in North Camberwell, or Peckham as it is better known, in fairly comfortable two story home. Their neighbours were also respectable working class no one was well off, but all of them were keeping their heads above water, if anything the area could be described as quiet and slightly boring, as most of the men worked out of the area, commuting by foot or on the horse drawn buses and trams, leaving the streets to the housewives and pre-school children. The only major event that interrupted their lives during this time was the loss of John Alfred their eldest son who died within a year of his birth in 1895, children dieing in infancy in the area was not unusual, but this would not have softened their pain.
From the late 1890s Walthamstow, an East London Suburb had started to grow rapidly, its population doubling to nearly 100,000 by the turn of the 1900s. This rapid growth was matched by the local council’s attempts to keep pace with the population growth by a programme of civic investment, which included the setting up of a professional local Fire Brigade to replace the voluntary force that had been in place before, and the volunteers were gradually replaced by professional experienced Firemen, which proved to be the perfect opportunity for John Oliver and family to up sticks from Peckham, and move north of the river to 9 Selbourne Avenue, Walthamstow, with John joining the Professional Fire Service. Settled in Walthamstow with regular employment, the family grows with the additions of Edward Albert, and Violet Maud Oliver in 1902 and 1904. But John Oliver was not getting any younger, and by 1911, in his late 50s he was no longer working as a Fireman, but fortunately the local council looked after him and found him employment as a road sweeper.
The Family would later settle in Essex, where the modern Olivers have come to be associated with. Pukka!
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