Home Magazine
Archives Links

Four year search ends in success


‘Confession’ Found at Kew archives “It’s great to know it really does exists” says Gwent Archivist, Colin Gibson. Up to now, only a single ‘copy letter’ displaying a date of 25th May 1840 was known to exist. That was found in 1939 in the Tredegar Park estate papers now kept at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.


“At the annual ‘Chartist Convention’ held in Newport on November 3rd 2012, Les James reported on a research project being carried out in partnership with Colin Gibson of Gwent Archives. The project will investigate the letters written on board the prison ship ‘Mandarin’ which took the Chartists to Van Diemen’s Land, looking particularly at how the letters were written and how and why they survived" Gwent History NEWSLETTER-Spring-2012.pdf


Later in November 2012, Les James found Colonial Office papers at the National Archives, Kew that revealed the ‘Confession letter ‘ and two letters written by Frost were handed by Dr. Mckechnie on arrival at Hobart (30 June 1840) to the Governor, Sir John Franklin and these were posted to London (3 July 1840). They were received at the Colonial Office and sent on to the Home Office.


. . . . . and there the trail halted. . . . . (See: Les James, ‘The Confession of Zephaniah Williams and the 1839 Rising’, Gwent Local History Journal, no 116, 2014, pp3-32.)


Colin Gibson identified a number of appropriate Series of Home Office Letters and our search began. The number of Home Office Documents at the National Archives in Kew runs into millions. Well organised indexes, lists and catalogues covering great swathes of the collection enable effective search on site. These are generally the documents that were in regular use and required a quick recovery and were carefully filed in the nineteenth century as part of a daily routine.


Only a relatively small number of documents are so far digitised, primarily those of family history use.


On their last visit in February this year, Colin and Les sought the advice of the Archives Home Office specialist, Christopher Day. A very large number of items in the archives are of a kind that had a short archival use; having lost any immediate purpose or concern to the bureaucracy, they ended up amongst the vast quantities of loose, uncatalogued tied bundles of uncertain content. Even so, it is quite amazing how the bureaucracy carefully labelled and stored such material.


Convict appeals are the kind of documentation that is forgotten once overtaken by death or release. And it is amongst these documents that the Confession Letter turned up.


Les James writes:

Sarah Richards finds the needle in the ‘hay stack’


When writing my book, ‘Render the Chartists Defenceless’ (2015, Three Impostors), I found myself relying on Sarah Richards knowledge of the Frost family, which she willingly shared with me and has continued to do so for the new book I am currently working on. She first developed her interest in the Frosts, several years ago, when she discovered that William Davies, her first cousin three times removed, was a Chartist and married John Frost’s daughter, Ellen. (See ‘Finding a Chartist in the Family: William Davies of Blackwood’, Sarah Richards Gwent Local History Journal, no 116, pp89-94, 2014)


She became fascinated by the Frost family’s involvement in the ’Free Frost’ campaign. Using on-line British Library newspapers and the rich Australian sources found in TROVE, she has expertly pieced together an ever expanding story of the key role played by Frost’s daughter Catharine in the petitioning and lobbying of Government.


Running out of options using familiar family history sources, she followed up a tip off from a fellow family historian and delved into the large number of Home Office files that had recently been uploaded on to ‘Find My Past’.


And that’s how one night in April, she found 595 screen shots of petitions and related correspondence in a file devoted to ‘Frost, Williams and Jones’. She had found a treasure trove. Not indexed nor numbered and none described, she has painstakingly listed the contents of the Home Office file.


Sarah writes: “I began to notice the date sequence, or rather that the sequences of dates were not consistent. A first sheet dated 1855 was followed by documents from 1854, then some from 1856.” She was not far into the ‘pile’ when suddenly the dates shifted back into the 1840s; there was no clear chronology, the documents ranged back and fore over a 16 year period.


About half way through the file, amongst hand written letters dated 1850s, Sarah spotted “a printed form, Zephaniah Williams’ 1852 application for a Conditional Pardon. The letter which followed it looked older and was dated 25 May 1840. Skipping to the end I saw the signature, Zephaniah Williams, and the letter was addressed to Alexander McKechnie!!”


Was this the original ‘confession’ letter written by Zephaniah Williams aboard the Mandarin transporting Frost, Williams and Jones to the convict settlement of Van Diemen’s Land? Or was it another second copy? Sarah captured screen shots of the three pages for me. The content appeared to match my transcript of the only extant copy, now in the care of the National Library of Wales. The letter at Kew looked convincing and we got in touch with Christopher Day at the National Archives.


On 5 October, we visited Kew and came face to face with the document. We took with us copies of other letters in the hand of Zephaniah Williams for comparison, particularly his very distinctive signature. We are sure the letter was written and signed by Zephaniah Williams on board the Mandarin.


Next in the file, we found the original two letters written by Frost that Governor Franklin sent with Williams’ letter to the Colonial Office in 1840. - Both are original.


Peter Warner Clark was with us and he has subsequently transcribed the original Confession and compared the copy letter (in Tredegar Park papers). The content of the copy is the same as the original’; the exceptions are minor. The copyist for example uses "&" in place of "and" and uses the spelling "were" instead of Williams’ "where."


At the Convention 2016, Les James will talk about the Confession Letter and Sarah Richards will share her initial thoughts on the rich collection of documents that can be explored in the ‘Frost, Williams and Jones’ Home Office file.