La famille Le Vesconte

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La famille Le Vesconte


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Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte


This article by Jean Arthur was published in the 1974 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


It will be remembered that attempts had been made to find a short route to China for centuries and that the quest for a sea route round the North American Continent, called the North West Passage, was still being made in the nineteenth century. Sir John Franklin had already been to the Arctic three times when he set out on his fateful expedition in 1845.

Henry Le Vesconte

"Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte was chosen for Franklin's Arctic expedition because of his knowledge of the Bering Strait. His mother gave him a Bible as a parting gift inscribed with the date of departure and other details of the proposed voyage. The members of the expedition were all lost, but their route was later traced when the Bible was found in the snow. Further digging uncovered skeletons of members of the party. The inscription in the Bible gave proof of identity. The Bible was sent to the Museum at St John's, Newfoundland".

This is the story told by my aunt Ethel. She heard it from cousin Sophy Ollivier, who had heard it from her mother, Marie Arthur. Marie was the grand-daughter of Charles Arthur and Sara Le Vesconte. Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte was a great-nephew of the latter. This establishes the source of the story and is, I think, an interesting example of family memory, of some substance and worth proving, if possible.

The Museum at St John's knew nothing of it but kindly put me in touch with the descendants of the Le Vescontes in Newfoundland. They were unable to confirm the Bible story but told me a great deal about their family.

The Scott Polar Research Institute told me that one of the two skeletons returned to England was believed to be that of H T D Le Vesconte. It is "buried beneath the pavement in front of the Franklin Expedition Memorial in the Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital". They told me that amongst the relics of the Franklin Expedition at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich there were several books.

The National Maritime Museum wrote: "The relics ... are here now and include two spoons marked 'H Le Vesconte' and a receipt for chronometers for the Erebus signed by him. There is also a small Bible, a new testament in French, the covers of a new testament and a prayer book ¬ but there is no mention of a name in the catalogue. It would be possible to make an examination of them." Also in the Polar Gallery is the daguerrotype of Le Vesconte reproduced here.

Handwriting comparisons

Comparison between the best available sample of Henry Thomas Dundas' handwriting from the pen and ink sketch at the Société Jersiaise Museum proved inconclusive. The testament, which has hand-written notes in the margins, is in a poor state, having pages stuck together or bleached owing to their exposure to the Arctic elements, and a comparison with them was impossible. The sample of handwriting was then compared with that of Henry Thomas Dundas' diary, written in retrospect, of his time on the China Coast 1841-44. The writing was certainly similar but it could not be said conclusively that both were written by the same person.

It began to seem impossible that the story of the Bible could be substantiated. However I began to read about the Franklin Expedition and found this just as fascinating as the search for the Bible itself.

M'Clintock writes that in one of the boats they found there were two skeletons, one of which had been much mutilated, probably by wolves. He continues:

"The other skeleton was in a somewhat more perfect state; it lay across the boat, under the after-thwart, and was enveloped in cloths and furs. Close beside it were found five watches; and there were two double-barrelled guns ¬ one barrel in each loaded and cocked - standing muzzle upwards against the boat's side. Five or six small books were found.
"Amongst an amazing quantity of clothing there were seven or eight pairs of boots of various kinds - cloth winter boots, sea boots, heavy ankle boots, and strong shoes. I noted there were silk handkerchiefs ... towels, soap, sponge, toothbrush, and hair-combs; mackintosh gun-cover ... twine, nails, saws, files, bristles, wax-ends, sail-maker's palms, powder, bullets, shot, cartridges, leather cartridge-case, knives, clasp and dinner knives, needle and thread cases, slow-match, several bayonet scabbards cut down into knife-sheaths, two rolls of sheet-lead, and, in short, a quantity of articles ... of little use, and very likely to break down the strength of the sledge-crews.
"The only provisions we could find were tea and chocolate; of the former very little remained, but there were nearly 40 pounds of the latter. These articles alone could never support life in such a climate.
"In the after-part of the boat we found eleven large spoons, eleven forks, and four tea-spoons, all of silver ... " (In addition to the two spoons at Greenwich which have already been mentioned there is a fork, which belonged to H T D Le Vesconte, in the Société Jersiaise Museum).
The sketch by Henry Le Vesconte of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in 1845

Franklin's death

Sir John Franklin died on 11 June 1847 and Captain Crozier was therefore in charge when, on Good Friday, 21 April 21 1848, the ships Erebus and Terror were abandoned in the ice and the expedition struck out overland for Back's Fish River, with at least three boats mounted on sledges which were very heavy. It is thought that Captain Crozier did not realise how weak the men were from scurvy and lack of food and how slowly they would have to travel. Some of the sick and disabled encamped in Terror Bay where Eskimos later reported having found dead men in tents. The main body of the party went forward to the Great Fish River and "died as they walked along", an Eskimo woman recalled. Many of them would have been on the sea-ice and must, therefore, have floated away when the thaw came. At a place called Point Hall near the mouth of the Piffer River a skeleton was uncovered by Eskimos which is believed to be that of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, and which is now at Greenwich.

This ill-fated expedition was a failure in that all its members were lost. It was unfortunate to be caught by two very severe winters, with no summer between, which made it impossible for the Erebus and Terror to break out of the ice, but it was successful in that it established the existence of the North West Passage.

Details of the careers of the three generations of the Le Vescontes who were in the Royal Navy will be found in the article by G W Younger in the Societe Jersiaise Annual Bulletin for 1932, or in Vol 5 of the Genealogists' Magazine.

Le Vesconte genealogy

Further work on the genealogy has revealed that the Le Vescontes were as thick as barley stalks on the ground in St Peter when the records there begin. There were eleven marriages between 1630 and 1650. In St Ouen there were several with the name Jean in the l680s, two of whom lived at Les Marais and La Tihelle (OS No 0.670). There was also a Philippe. At St Mary the family was equally well established in the seventeenth century.

However, it is not possible to link all the genealogical information together. A search through some collections of family records would help here, if they exist. After 1800 there are few Le Vescontes in the registers of these three parishes.

Of the branch in which we are particularly interested, the children of Michel Le Vesconte and Marguerite Lael ('Marriage stone' at Les Buis, St Mary, MLVC 1708 ML) were born in St Mary but they seem to have taken to the sea in a big way. They settled in St Brelade for one generation, then went to Devon and on to Canada. In St Brelade there are references to Capitaine Jean Le Vesconte, Capitaine Raulin Le Vesconte and Capitaine Michel Le Vesconte. It is interesting to note that the re¬cords of Harbour Grace, Newfoundland show that John Le Vesconte, Nicholas Le Vesconte and Michael Le Vesconte, masters of the vessels Union, Three Brothers and Providence all entered Harbour Grace in 1737. They were engaged in trade between England, the West Indies and Newfoundland.

A Philippe Le Vesconte, said to have been of St Brelade, married Marie Marett in 1755. It is not clear which Philippe this was but it is possible that he was the youngest son of Michel and Marguerite Lael. Marie Marett's family came from La Maison Marett, Trinity. She seems to have brought La Porte, Trinity into the possession of the Le Vesconte family. From them is descended the branch of the family now living mainly in St John.

The children of Capitaine Michel, fils Michel, were born in St Brelade. Only Jean, Philippe, Marie and Sara survived to adulthood. Three of Philippe's children were born in Jersey but the first, Henry and Philip, probably died young because they are not recorded in the Bible which has come down to the family in Toronto. The others were born in or near Plymouth.

In 1802, Philippe, fils Michel, writes from Southampton to his brother-in-law Charles Arthur in St Mary asking about the quality and price of the season's cider with a view to purchasing up to "200 Barrique". He says, "Il faut que le Cidre soit doux ou du moins de Meillieur que vous pourrez trouver". His wife, Rosey, sends "un petit Paquet" for his sister Sara. He adds that it is over twenty years since he has written so much French. The naval career of Henry, son of Philippe and Rose Maxwell, is described in the 1932 Bulletin by Mr Younger.

When Henry retired from the Royal Navy in about 1834, he emigrated from Devon to Canada. He took his three daughters with him. He was one of a group of retiring officers who received grants of virgin forest from the Crown Lands in the Trant River Valley in Ontario. Their homesteads were literally hewn out of the forest and are still known as the 'English Line'. His wife, Sarah Wills, kept a medicine chest from which she ministered to the ills of the neighbours after church services on a Sunday.

His eldest son, Henry Thomas Dundas, never went to Canada until he perished on its Arctic shores. Another son, Dr Philip John, studied medicine at Edinburgh and then went to the West Indies where he contracted yellow fever. He became a general practitioner at Greenspond, Newfoundland, where he married sixteen-year-old Amelia Whalen. They moved to Trinity, Newfoundland and finally settled in King's Cove. Their son, Dr Charles Le Vesconte practised all his life in King's Cove, Newfoundland. He had a medical library of repute and many heirlooms, but all was unfortunately lost when the Le Vesconte home, Trafalgar, was burnt down about twenty-five years ago. It is just possible that the Bible which started this story finally perished there.

I acknowledge the help of many friends in the preparation of this article, especially that of the following: Mr C G Stevens, who copied the sketch of the Erebus and Terror; Miss E S Arthur; The Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge; The Museum, St John's, Newfoundland; The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; The Librarian and the Curator, Societe Jersiaise; Mr A Maloney, Newfoundland; Miss H P Le Vesconte, Ontario; Mr Philip Le Vesconte, Trinity; The Rector of St Peter and the Registrar of St Helier.

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