Eyre John Powell of Ballybooden

Lorian Edwards, UK

“So, where do I go from here?” mused Cousin Dorothy in a phone call to me some years ago. She was wondering about the origins of our great-great-grandfather, Eyre John Powell. Our only information was from the 1859 record of great-grandfather Thomas Eckford Powell’s marriage in Edinburgh where we learned that Thomas’s parents were Eyre John Powell, a sheriff officer (deceased) and Harriet Alison Lawrie. Little did I realise that this was to be my introduction to the all-absorbing world of Genealogy!

So where did we go from there? At the time we believed that our ancestors were Scottish. We could not find a record of Eyre John Powell’s death. 1841 census records were not yet indexed. We found a record of the 1841 marriage of ‘John Eyre’ Powell and Harriet Alison Lawrie in Hull which probably raised more questions than answers but from it we learned that his father was ‘the late Thomas Powell’ whose occupation had been ‘Ensign’. The increasing availability of information on the internet led to suspicions that there may have been an Irish connection; familysearch.org showed that there had been several 18th century ‘Eyre Powells’ in County Limerick but we had no way of proving that our family was connected to them. Eventually we found the Edinburgh death certificate of Eyre John Powell’s youngest son which gave his father’s occupation as ‘Corporal, 82nd Foot’. At last, we knew where to start searching!

The following story, which took us many years to piece together, tells of social, geographic, religious and occupational mobility, such that we sometimes wondered if we were always following the same man.

Eyre John Powell was baptised 22nd January 1812 in the Roman Catholic Church in Durrow, County Laois, the second son of Thomas Eyre Powell, a lieutenant in the Limerick City Militia, and Catherine Lidwell. The fact that Eyre John was baptised Catholic was a surprise; the Limerick Powells were Protestant and amongst his paternal ancestors were such people as Archbishop Adam Loftus, Sir Francis Berkeley and the Reverend Thomas Lloyd, ‘Chanter’ of Limerick. His maternal grandfather, John Lidwell, was also firmly Protestant. However his maternal grandmother, Anne Fitzpatrick, was both Catholic and strong-willed.

Killogue graveyard
Killogue graveyard

Eyre John’s family probably lived in the townland of Ballybooden near Durrow where Anne Fitzpatrick had inherited land from her brother. There is a field there which is still known locally as ‘Powell’s field’ and Eyre John’s parents are buried in Ballybooden in the tiny Killogue graveyard. The Powells were financially comfortable but by no means wealthy. I suspect their eldest son must have died in childhood as nothing more can be found about him but Eyre John had three younger brothers and three sisters. Two of his younger brothers moved away from Ireland, one becoming a Revenue Officer in England and the other a surgeon in the Army Medical Department. His sisters and youngest brother remained in their home country.

On 30th January 1832 Eyre John enlisted (in Ireland) as a Private in the army, in the 82nd Regiment of Foot. He was described as ‘age 18, height 5 feet 8 and seven eighths inches’. By 1833 the regiment was stationed in Edinburgh, where Eyre John was promoted to Corporal on 28 August 1833. By 1834 the regiment were back in Ireland and surprisingly he was discharged from the army on 7 Oct 1835, on payment of £20. In the army records it was noted that his next of kin was his father Thomas Powell from Abbeyleix, Ireland, his place of birth was given as Abbeyleix, his trade when he enlisted was ‘labourer’.

Three months later, Eyre John was back in Edinburgh where Henry Brantfield Powell (born 28 December 1835), the lawful son of Eyre John Powell and ‘Harryitt Brantfield’ was baptised in the RC Cathedral of St Mary’s on 11 January 1836. ‘Harryitt Brantfield’ was almost certainly Harriet Lawrie, the mother of all Eyre John’s subsequent children. I have doubts as to whether Henry was actually Eyre John’s son; Harriet was Edinburgh born and bred and unless she had followed Eyre John to Ireland it is not possible for him to have been Henry’s father. Was the real father actually someone by the name of Brantfield who had deserted Harriet?

Eyre John Powell remained in Edinburgh after 1835, I have found evidence in the Police Committee minutes that he was a Sergeant of Police by 1838. In Feb 1840 he briefly took a job as Sheriff’s Officer in Dalkeith (a suburb of Edinburgh).

Caledonian Mercury, 22 February 1840

On Thursday last, Dalkeith market was honoured with a visit from three notorious thimblers from Edinburgh, who, no doubt, calculated upon a rich bounty owing to the recent death of that active officer Macleod, but fortunately they were “nosed” upon their entree. Powell of the Edinburgh Police, who has succeeded Macleod, and who is equally active, so managed matters, that in a short time not one of the gentry could be seen, and the farmers and others may be thankful, as from the appearance and “business habits” of the “riggers” in the “general line”, some “flats” would have been “done brown” by Elliot and his “pals”.

On 16 Oct 1840 he was appointed as the first Superintendent of Police for Inverness-shire county at a salary of £140 per annum (but he had to provide his own horse). It is a bit of a mystery how he suddenly got such an important job; apparently he was not on the list of original applicants. I wonder if family contacts had any influence.

Inverness Courier, 9 December 1840

SINGULAR ACCOUCHEMENT.- As Mr Powell, superintendent of police, was riding on Thursday last below Drummond, on the south side of the river Ness, he found a woman sitting on the road side, who stated that she was very unwell. Having removed her to a more comfortable place in the wood, he posted into town for medical assistance, and very soon returned with Dr R. Fraser. On their arrival at the spot, they found that the woman had been safely delivered of a daughter. The mother and child were removed to the Infirmary, where, we understand, both are doing “as well as could be expected.”

We have been to Inverness and have read the police committee minutes; at first the committee were very enthusiastic about his appointment and gave him great freedom to run things as he thought fit, encouraging him to try to recruit staff from Edinburgh, Glasgow and even as far away as London. However, Eyre John very quickly seemed to fall out of favour with the committee who began to think that maybe they should have kept closer control over him. Their main complaint seemed to be that he was spending the petty cash too freely and not always providing receipts to account for his spending!

Of course, we can only speculate about what was going on at the time but the fact that he was not legally married may have counted against him. Eyre John and Harriet by this time had four young children; they were all living in Inverness. According to the 1841 census their son George was born there in January 1841. In March 1841 the family travelled to Edinburgh where baby George was baptised on 28 March; they then travelled on to Hull in England (the journeys were very likely by sea) where Eyre John Powell and Harriet Alison Lawrie were married by licence on 3 April 1841. The witnesses were James Lawrie and Nancy Mullins who had also been the sponsors at George’s baptism. It is interesting that Eyre John lied about his occupation; he claimed to be an Officer of Excise. Eyre John was back in Inverness by 23rd April 1841 when the police committee were expressing their dissatisfaction with him. They finally dispensed with his services on 13 July 1841, agreeing to pay his expenses to get his family back to Edinburgh and also the expenses he had incurred in getting to Inverness in the first place. One member of the committee ‘protested against the whole proceedings’. The loss of this position must have been a great disappointment to the family.

We don’t know a lot about what happened to Eyre John between 1841 and 1847 but there are two newspaper reports which place him in Kirkintilloch near Glasgow in 1845; one report says he was a police constable, the other implies he was acting in an advisory capacity to the police superintendent – perhaps he was doing both. Also during this period, two more sons were baptised in Edinburgh but we don’t know where they were actually born.

Glasgow Herald, February 21,1845

Kirkintilloch – Supper and Presentation – On Friday evening last, a number of the commissioners of police and manufacturers of the above town, entertained Mr. E. J. Powell, officer of police, with a supper, and presented him with a massive silver snuff box, bearing the inscription,”Presented to E. J. Powell, by a number of the commissioners of police of Kirkintilloch, as a token for his services to their superintendent, since his appointment, 14th Feb., 1845.”

Eyre John’s career as a policeman seems to have eventually failed and the last documented evidence for him is dated 28 May 1847 when he applied at Liverpool for a Seaman’s Ticket to enable him to be employed as a Ship’s Steward. He falsified his age, place of birth (which he said was Edinburgh) and previous experience, all understandable as he would have stood little chance of getting the job if he had been truthful. I believe he may have been planning to emigrate to Canada and to send for his family later.

We have searched crew lists of hundreds of ships leaving the port of Liverpool during 1847 and 1848 but have found no record of him on any ship. I suspect he may have sailed on the ‘Virginius’, one of the most notorious of the ‘famine ships’ or ‘coffin ships’ carrying victims of the Irish potato famine to Quebec. The ‘Virginius’ sailed from Liverpool early on the 29 May 1847, she arrived at Grosse-Ile, Quebec early in August but the records for this voyage of the ‘Virginius’ were missing from the collection of crew lists. Here is one of the contemporary newspaper reports:

Liverpool Mercury, Friday, September 3, 1847

The Ship Fever in Canada

A letter from Kingston dated August 10th, “The state of the fever at Quebec and Montreal remains the same, but three ships have arrived at Grosse Isle in a condition which far surpasses any previous horrors. The Sir Henry Pottinger sailed from Cork with 399 passengers, she reached the St Lawrence with 112 sick and 98 dead, and the Virginius and John Munn, which left Liverpool with 496 and 425 passengers, respectively, have arrived, the one with 158, and the other with 59 dead, while almost every soul of the survivors was hopelessly ill. Of the crew of the Virginius but 3 are left, the captain and officers having died with the rest, and it is seriously contemplated to scuttle the ship and sink her for a while, as the only means of purifying her from the infection she has absorbed, it is said that every one has abandoned her at Grosse Isle”

The ‘fever’ mentioned was typhus fever. The medical officer at Grosse-Ile specifically recorded that when he boarded the Virginius on its arrival the steward was dying. Unfortunately he did not name him. Even if this was not Eyre John Powell, I suspect he may have suffered a similar fate. We have never been able to find a record of his death.

How long did Harriet wait in Liverpool, hoping to hear news of her husband? Eyre John’s son Rickard Liver Powell (born 4 Feb 1847) was baptised as a Catholic in Liverpool 19 March 1848, then strangely baptised again in Liverpool in the Church of England on 18 April 1848. Harriet was recorded as being a widow in Edinburgh in December 1849 in the burial record of her son Robert. In the 1851 census Harriet and her five surviving sons were living in Candlemaker Row in Edinburgh, overlooking Greyfriars churchyard. She was described as a Pauper and Charwoman, also as a Sailor’s Widow (which was crossed out). Harriet married again in 1855 in Edinburgh and young Rickard was eventually raised as a Primitive Methodist.

Four of Eyre John’s children reached adulthood; Henry, Eyre John, Thomas and Rickard but only Thomas, our great-grandfather, has living descendants.

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