Consuls, Ships – Family History Sources.


In their search for detail, genealogists sensibly target extensive personal records drawn up by British and Colonial Government officials at each end of the metropolitan and colonial link. But how many peruse the archives of British Consuls based at locations transited by British and Irish officials, emigrants and convicts on their way to the Australian Colonies?

The role of 19th century Consuls included statutory registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (from 1849, though many such earlier events were recorded in an ad hoc fashion), maritime administration, including of those ships en route to the Colonies, and many activities relating to local British communities. Many Consuls maintained official diaries.  A wealth of such material is available among the Consular Archives held in the UK’s The National Archives (TNA) at Kew. Go to the TNA website <> and call up “Overseas Information Leaflet 14” which provides a comprehensive guide to Foreign Office (FO) material since 1794, including Embassy and Consular records, leading to Indexes to reports and correspondence between Consuls and the Consular Department of the Foreign Office. Unfortunately, the records themselves are not  (yet?) available in Australia.

I have had occasion to examine the reports of the British Consuls based, in 1828/29, in St Jago in the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic (a common stopover for fresh food and water en route to New South Wales in the 1820s) as well as in Rio de Janiero (ditto). While my aim was to assemble the facts surrounding the shipwreck in August 1828 of the Barque “Letitia” (ex Cove 20 July 1828) carrying some 50 emigrants (including my G G Grandfather Edward Conyngham 1806-1868)  from Ireland to van Dieman’s Land and New South Wales, I found  among the Consuls’ reports from St Jago and Rio extensive material regarding “Letitia” and the trials and tribulations of its shipwrecked passengers, as well as material re other emigrant ships and passengers.

As for the St Jago records re the “Letitia”,  which was wrecked on rocks during a storm within the bay, with no loss of life, but loss of all cargo and personal effects of the passengers, the Consul reported that :

  •   I am directed by my Instructions to send home distressed British Subjects, but compliance with this order was almost impossible in the case of the “Letitia” which was wrecked in this Port on the 19th August last. It is not once in three years that a homeward bound English Vessel touches at this Port, and to send the distressed people to Sierra Leone to get a passage to England was found to be a hopeless endeavour. The fever had already broken out, when the Hesperus, Captain Allen, came in and I determined, on mature consideration to send the people to Rio de Janeiro, whence they might prosecute their voyage to New South Wales, or procure a passage to England.”[1] 


Although there was no passenger list to be found among Irish records, the Consul’s contract with the master of the American Ship “Hesperus”  was a welcome surprise as the names, including those of children and servants, were handwritten on the reverse.[2] The consul noted further that

  • “Forty  six of the fifty passengers and six of the thirteen seamen took this passage by the “Hesperus” to Rio. Of those who staid(sic) behind, four have died of the fever, and the others are lying in a precarious state.”

The Consul’s  other reports separately provided the names of those who died of “the fever” on St Jago,  medical costs incurred, and the disposal of their property – not much more than the clothes they were wearing while on shore when the ship was wrecked – and of the two who returned via US to Ireland (and as later records show, one of whom set out again a year later, emigrating to Van Dieman’s Land to join his brother, also a passenger on the “Letitia”.)[3] Even the papers regarding the sale of effects provided additional information on some passengers, particularly their Ireland addresses, who certified correctness of the Consul’s accounting.[4]

It was interesting and amusing, for this ex Australian public servant and sometime Australian Consul, to note in the papers that the Head of the FO Consular Department ticked off the Consul for telling the Treasury about the wreck and its consequences before he told the Foreign Office! He was instructed:

  • You will not in future omit any opportunity of communicating direct to this Department details of what passes within your Consulate”, [5] 

So bureaucratic turf protection hasn’t changed in 180 years!

Contemporary newspaper and other documents made no reference to the name of the “American ship” which carried the emigrants between St Jago and Rio. So the St Jago consular papers were informative in that respect.. Prior to finding the TNA documents, I had examined the US Consul’s reports from Rio, (which NLA had kindly obtained from the Library of Congress[6]), hoping he had reported. No luck. It would have been useful if he had recorded the arrival of the “Hesperus” and its unhappy passengers. The only interesting information was the US Consul’s complaint to Washington that his pay scale wasn’t high enough, and should be at least as high as that of his predecessor!

The first item of interest in the British Consul’s records in Rio is a petition signed, on arrival of the “Hesperus”, by all the male passengers – providing to me further clarification of names –  on behalf of themselves and their families, seeking subsistence,

  • “….. the total loss of property we have sustained – and the consequently deplorable circumstances we have been reduced to, we have therefore to solicit that you will afford us such assistance as will enable us to prosecute our voyage and that you will also be pleased to subsist us while remaining here.”[7]

From October 1828 to March 1829 the (Rio) Consul’s papers include extensive correspondence between the Consul and his Minister (Ambassador) to Brazil, between them and FO addressees, between the Consul and members of the shipwrecked group, between them both and the Royal Navy Station Commander on the safety of the chartered Brig “Anne”, and accounting documents for medicine and sustenance  – over 30 items of correspondence, some running to several pages.[8] The death, from the ‘fever’ of some six passengers between St Jago and Rio is referred to, without names (though these were found later in contemporary newspaper reports.) Much anguished consideration between the Consul and the British Minister before they jointly concluded that despite Consular Regulations providing for subsidised passage back to home port only, it was sensible to pay the emigrants’ way on to the Colony instead of back to Ireland. The group, whose spokesman was one Joshua Henry Moore, who subsequently settled in Hobart, was unhappy at the state of the “Anne” wanted  to travel on the “Denmark Hill” then in port, despite a contract already having been entered into by the Consul to charter the “Anne”. The correspondence shows that temperatures rose progressively, leading the Consul to eventually write that :

  • ….since his arrival in this Port he (Moore) has been more importunate and dissatisfied than any British Subject who has applied to me since I had the honour of serving His Majesty. I am aware that it is my duty to attend to the complaints made to me by any of His Majesty’s Subjects and redress them as far as lays in my power, but having repeatedly received letters from Mr Moore regarding the “Anne”, as well as several verbal communications in which I considered he had no business to interfere; whereby my time was taken up, and the Public Business impeded…..”[9]

The “Anne” finally left  Rio in March 1829, delivering the passengers safely in Hobart and Sydney. The papers provide much additional material to fill out and add value to and supplement the available personal descriptions of the journey, and the basic emigration facts of these early settlers. Most  remained in van Dieman’s Land, some such as Commander Moriarty, the Clerke brothers, and Humphrey Grey becoming prominent in Tasmanian society. As did Mr Moore, though contemporary Tasmanian newspaper and court reports suggest that he upset more people in the years since he settled there. Nor, prior to dealing with the Consul in Rio, did Moore get on with the Master of the “Letitia”, Hanbury Clements, ex Royal Navy. He had earlier written direct to the Colonial Office in London, alleging that the wreck was caused by “the misconduct of the Captain and crew…” [10]

There is even a Canberra connection, in passenger Richard Popham, who left the party in Rio and returned to Ireland, his fare paid by the Consul, who later had to defend the relatively high fare he authorised.[11] He subsequently emigrated again, successfully petitioning the Governor for land :

  • “May it please Your Excellency, your Memorialist, Richard Popham, a native of Co. Cork, Ireland and many years an Agriculturalist in that County, was unfortunately wrecked in the Ship Letitia off St Jago’s on his passage to N S Wales in July 1828. By this sudden and unfortunate calamity, he was bereft of all the property which he possessed and intended to promote his establishment in this Colony. After many distressing privations, he reached Rio de Janeiro where he remained in a state of ill health and despondency for six months, when he returned to Cork, from which place he again started, and arrived here in the ship Caroline on 12 May 1830.”[12]

Popham was eventually granted 640 acres on Ginninderra Creek, in the present day suburb of Latham ACT.[13] . He was recommended as Commissioner of Crown Lands in District of Bungonia, 7 September 1837 as “one whose long residence here and knowledge of persons and the country rendered him fitting. He later, in mid century, became Inspector of Sheep for the ‘Maneroo’, and was granted additional land on the Shoalhaven River.  A bachelor, he died on 26 October 1881 aged 85 and is buried in the Queanbeyan Cemetery.[14]

Some additional reports list the ships, number of passengers and cargo, as well as the destination in the colonies. For example, the Consul in St Jago reported on 10 ships en route to New South Wales between his arrival in August 1828 and June 1829. Additionally, one was destined for the new Swan River Settlement. Details included Master, Tonnage, Number of Crew, Port of Origin and Destination, Cargo and Value. He noted that four of the ships carried convicts.[15]

The ship destined for Swan River, “Marquis of Anglesea”, or rather some of its 130 emigrants, provide a riveting story. The Consul, by now complying with the requirement to tell all to the Foreign Office, wrote on 10 June 1829 that:

  • “During their short stay here most of these (130) persons conducted themselves with perfect propriety, but some, I am sorry to say, indulged in the grossest excesses, and committed the most flagrant misdemeanours. The Surgeon of the Vessel, I was assured by the passengers, was drunk all the time they were here. I myself can bear witness that he was thoroughly intoxicated the first day he came ashore as he was brought to my office in a state of stupefaction produced by hard drinking……… A steerage passenger of the name of Glover knocked down his wife without the slightest provocation on her part, and almost tore off the ear of a Gentleman who interfered on her behalf. …….A fellow of the name of Henry Taylor (a shepherd of Col. Lautour), meeting with Mr Merrill, the American Consul General, threatened to knock out his brains with a bludgeon which he brandished in the air; and had not Mr Merrill, by dint of agility, evaded the blow, doubtless would have carried his threat into effect. Mr Merrill having made me acquainted with the assault, I despatched Messrs Partridge and Bland to take the villain into custody and bring him before me. It was not without danger that they succeeded in their purpose; the fellow threatening “to brain” the first man who should dare to approach him. ……I desired a Sergeant commanding the 63rd Detachment to take charge of the prisoner to prevent the unpleasant necessity of consigning him to Portuguese soldiers, but instead of complying, he seems to take the part of the offender and behaved in the rudest and most insolent manner. …….Threats have been uttered that when they cross the Line, they will serve out obnoxious individuals.”[16]

A ‘Cruise from Hell’, modern media would proclaim in banners! The wreck of the “Marquis of Anglesea” in the Swan River after disembarkation of the emigrants, provides an interesting end to the saga.

So, after accessing the papers of only two of the many British Consuls worldwide, over only a couple of years, it is evident that much valuable information is resting among consular archives in Kew, admittedly readily and efficiently available to researchers on site. The US Library of Congress has microfilmed US consular archives, making them more widely available. Hopefully, the day will come when British material will be digitised and made available to Australian genealogists and researchers without the need to travel to the other side of the world.

Frank Murray.

[NOTE: This article was published in ‘The Ancestral Searcher’, quarterly journal of the Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra in December 2005.]

[1]TNA Ref. F O 63/339 of 2 October 1828.

[2] TNA Ref. F O 63/339 of  23 August 1829.

[3] TNA Ref. F O 63/351 of  7 April 1829 and 30 May 1829.

[4] TNA Ref. FO 63/351 of 19 January 1829.

[5] TNA Ref. F O 63/351 of  28 February 1829.

[6] US National Archives T172 microfilm of Rio US Consulate Papers 1828/1829.

[7] TNA Ref. F O 13/64 of  6 October 1828.

[8] TNA Ref. FO 13/64,  FO 13/50,  and FO 13/51.

[9] TNA Ref. FO 13/64 Page 76 of 26 Jan 1829.

[10] Historical Records of Australia HRA 1829 p. 661.

[11] TNA Ref. F O 13/64 of 1 October 1829.

[12] AO Reel 1173. 2/7951

[13] AO Reel 1173. 2/7951

[14] Queanbeyan Pioneer Cemeteries Vol 1: Queanbeyan City Council and Queanbeyan and District Historical Museum Society.

[15] TNA Ref. FO 63/351

[16] TNA Ref. FO 63/351 of 10 June 1829.