Anne Lister’s lover for the majority of her adult life was Mariana Percy Belcombe of York, daughter of Dr. William Belcombe and his wife Mary Ann (also called Mariana). The Belcombes were an influential family in the early 1800’s in the city of York and their prominence in society was much elevated when Mariana Percy Belcombe married Charles Bourne Lawton of Lawton Hall, Church Lawton, Cheshire in 1816 at St. Michael-le-Belfry in York. The Lawton family of Lawton Hall appear in Burke’s Peerage and their lineage is well documented. Never ascending to the dizzying heights of the established aristocracy, they continued as Lords of the Manor at Congleton and Church Lawton for many centuries accruing lands and wealth which sustained their place in society amongst the landed families of northern England.
The Belcombes however do not appear in any peerage or gentry rolls and this prompted my investigation into the origins of this family. Using previous published transcriptions from Anne Lister’s diaries as a primary reference and also the work of noted Lister academics Helena Whitbread, Anne Choma and Jill Liddington, the basic Belcombe family unit was established. Dr. William Belcombe was the natural father to Sarah Anne (‘Nantz’) Sherson Belcombe (1785-1847), Henrietta (‘Harriet’) Willan Belcombe (1787-1860), Louisa (‘Lou’) Meynell Travis Belcombe (1796-1871), Mariana Percy Belcombe (1788-1868), Eliza (‘Eli’) Hibbert Belcombe (1793-1869) and Dr. Henry (‘Steph’) Stephens Belcombe (1789-1856). Mariana Belcombe (senior) was the natural mother of all the Belcombe children. Thus completing the basic family unit.
Part 1: Dr. William Belcombe – from Lancashire to the Leeward Islands
Dr. William Belcombe was born as William Bulcock in Burnley, Lancashire in 1757, the son of Mr. Henry Bulcock of Burnley, who in turn was the son of Robert Bulcock. A record for a Henry Bulcock of Rochdale,a worsted manufacturer, appears in a later bankruptcy record, however further investigation is needed into this as records from this time period are a scarcity, and heavily reliant on sometimes incomplete or damaged parish registers. The area from Rochdale to Clitheroe, Burnley and Colne in Lancashire contained the densest concentration of the name Bulcock in the United Kingdom at the time. One might recognise the name Bulcock from the trial of one the original accused Pendle Witches, Jane Bulcock, who was hung for witchcraft in 1612. Whilst there is no record linking the family of Dr. Belcombe with this Bulcock family as of yet, it might not be so far fetched to say that the rarity of the name at the time and the geographical location of Dr Belcombe’s birthplace could indicate some past family connections. Indeed, a record for the purchase of Roughlee estate by a Henry Bulcock of Burnley has been located, interestingly enough this house had in the past belonged to Alice Nutter. Nutter was accused of witchcraft during the aforementioned Pendle witch hunt and she was hung in 1612 along with Jane Bulcock.
To begin with and crucial to the Belcombe history, is the changing of William Belcombe’s previous surname of Bulcock to Belcombe by deedpoll in 1789 and this is recorded both in the Deedpoll Register for that year and also in the Kentish Times (15th August 1789). Note that the Belcombes were living in Europe when this name change was undertaken.
Still known as William Bulcock, he qualified as a doctor in 1777 according to the Medical Register for the year 1779 and entered the Royal Navy, subsequently being posted as a surgeon’s first mate on the HMS Ramillies under Captain Robert Digby. This was the period of the American War of Independence and British Navy ships were engaged in horrific naval battles with the French and the Continental Navy – which was the recently established navy of the American colonies. The Continental Navy ships numbered about 60 in the 1780’s whilst the Royal Navy numbered close to 500 at the peak of the war. The shear numbers of the Naval force of the Royal Navy forced the American Congress to authorise privateering to help prevent the Royal Navy from supporting the British ground troops on American soil during the war. These privateers attacked both British merchant vessels and those of the British fleet for profit and men such as the famous privateer John Paul Jones became infamous for daring skirmishes and ship captures in British waters.
The entrance of France in to the war, followed by the Spanish in 1779 and the Dutch in 1780 put enormous strain on the Royal Navy in guarding its ports and trade and more importantly their ability to maintain a trade blockade of the American ports was hampered by the need to defend against the skirmishes of Spanish and Dutch fleets in European waters. A fierce battle off Ushant, France, in July 1778 between the British Channel fleet under Admiral Augustus Keppel and the Brest fleet under the Comte d’Orvilliers ended inconclusively. Had the British won, French aid to the Americans would have diminished greatly. HMS Ramillies under Captain Robert Digby was involved in this fierce battle. The French Navy had 126 sailors killed and 413 injured, whilst the British Navy had 407 killed and 789 injured. Dr. Belcombe, first surgeons mate, had been transferred from Captain Digby’s HMS Ramillies to HMS Camel towards the end of 1777 and therefore was luckily not engaged in performing surgeon duties at this brutal battle. However, he was not to escape the blood and gore of battle for long.
HMS Camel, a sloop of war, was a sixth rate vessel with a compliment of 24 guns and 160 men commanded by Capt. (later Sir Admiral) Richard Rodney Bligh. She was engaged in a famous skirmish off the Isle of Wight with the Dutch on 31st December 1799 known as the Affair of Fielding and Bylandt. Prior to this HMS Camel was mainly employed in escorting merchant ships across the Atlantic which were laden mostly with sugar, tobacco and cotton from the West Indies. On the 25th of January 1778, HMS Camel sailed from the Navy base in Portsmouth, Hampshire via the Cove of Cork, Ireland to Jamaica. Dr. William Belcombe was onboard, as the ship’s surgeon.
When England expanded its empire to the West Indies in the 17th century, the Royal Navy’s presence was required in order to protect this lucrative trade network from the French therefore a system of convoys was organised by the Admiralty. The convoy dates were agreed between the Admiralty and the London merchants with an interest in the West Indian trade who knew how to maximise commodity profits. To ensure these trade profits continued, convoys sailed from England in December or January, with a second in April. The first sailing was arranged ‘so that merchants could reach the Leeward Islands and Jamaica in time to purchase the crop of sugar as soon as it was ready for shipment, and the second was for ships which were not ready in time to sail with the first.’ (Mcleod, 2013)
Royal naval ships were ordered to the West Indies to undertake this responsibility serving two main naval stations: Jamaica and the Leeward Islands. The Navy’s attendance in the humid tropical region of the West Indies meant that sailors were often exposed to life threatening diseases such as malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever amongst other maladies. High levels of sickness and mortality in the region amongst sailors pressured the navy to order dedicated medical facilities in the region to oversee the care of sailors on board ships and also onshore.
In 1779 Admiral George Rodney requested William Bulcock (I shall refer to him as William Belcombe hence forward) as his surgeon on HMS Sandwich whilst Charles Bligh, brother of Richard Rodney Bligh replaced Dr. Belcombe on board HMS Camel, which was anchored at the Spithead off Portsmouth harbour, presumably after escorting merchant vessels laden with goods for the English markets. This posting request under the famous Admiral George Rodney would bestow prestige to any sailor and no doubt Dr. Belcombe would have benefitted professionally and socially from this new posting. Admiral Rodney was appointed commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands Station late in 1779 and Dr. Belcombe joined him on board HMS Sandwich as he sailed to Jamaica Station to take up this posting.
Surgeons who served in the Royal Navy held a very unusual position on board vessels. For most of the eighteenth century, they received their orders from the Navy Board, not the Admiralty, and therefore were not considered officers and ‘while their names appeared in the ship’s books with those of the boatswain, the gunner and the carpenter, they drew less pay than these worthies and received infinitely less thanks.’(Allison, 1943.)
Petitions made by surgeons for improvements to naval medical practises and facilities were part of larger scientific reform movement in the late 18th century known to us now as the Enlightenment. Buckley states that this period ‘produced a prodigious list of discoveries and leading lights in clinical medicine.’ (Buckley, 1988) These medical advancements for the majority were not conducted by classically educated men. The great distance from the traditional medical centres of Western Europe inferred great autonomy for ship surgeons to experiment in new methods in the prevention of disease and improvement of surgical procedures thus creating successful new modes of medical treatment which greatly improved the professional careers of these medical men.
With this in mind, we find William Belcombe back in the Caribbean in 1780 working as a surgeon in the Navy Hospital on St. Lucia where he was receiving sailors from Admiral Rodney’s squadron who were ill with scurvy, dysentery and the wounds of battles recieved from engagements with privateers and French naval forces in the Caribbean waters. (See the Rodney papers). Dr. Belcombe was also overseeing new techniques in the process of amputation at the Naval Hospital in St.Lucia according to Dr. Gilbert Blane, chief physician of the Leeward Islands fleet, who wrote in his Observations on the Diseases of Seamen first published in 1785: ” Mr. Alanson’s method of amputation by a great retraction of the muscles, so that the fleshy parts shall meet over the bone and unite in the first intention, was attended with great success in the West Indies, particularly at the hospital at St. Lucia, under the care of Mr. Bulcock.” Indeed, Belcombe developed a method for easing the ulcerated sores of sailors and preventing tetanus after amputation with the application of lime slice compresses to the sore. This medical treatment would have greatly helped the recovery of sailors and would have been very well received by the Navy command in the Caribbean at the time.
Part 2: Dr. Belcombe returns to England
William Belcombe is back in England by 1784 where he weds Mary Ann Mountford. The marriage took place on the 15th April 1784 in St. Mary and St. Sexburgh, Minster-in-Sheppey (St. Mary and St. Sexburgh), Kent and I include a copy of the parish register below.
The newlyweds, Dr. and Mrs. Belcombe lived in London for a brief time after their marriage where the birth of their first child, a daughter, occurred. Sarah Anne Sherson Bulcock was born in 1785 and baptised in St.Martin-in-the Fields church on the 12th July.
The Belcombes are recorded as living in 10 John Street, London in 1785, in the parish of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields (where Sarah Anne Sherson was baptised) but they did not settle here for long.
According to a later academic record Guillaume Belcombe studied in Cambridge for a short time before attending the University of Gottingen graduating with his completed thesis entitled “Dissertio Physiologico-Medica Inauguralis. Animadversiones Quadsdam Circa Motum Bilis Sistens” in 1787.
It is interesting William published this thesis under the name Belcombe before he had changed his name legally in 1789, possibly indicating his increasing social status and a move away from his provincial roots. In 1787, his daughter Henrietta was born in Germany possibly in Gottingen where William had just completed his thesis, followed by the birth of his daughter Mariana Percy in 1788. Mariana was born in Vienne in the Rhone Alps in France and these births indicate that the family were still touring Europe at the time. However, these were no ordinary times. In the context of European history this was the beginning of a revolutionary wave that shook Europe. In 1788 the rumblings of the French revolution begun, with the first rebellious act against the French King Louis XVI, occurring in Grenoble in June 1788 and the riots were to herald a wave of violence and brutal executions in the following few years which engrossed and destabilised Western Europe . It would not have been a wise move to stay in France as an English family during this brutal regime change. The Reign of Terror which was just beginning in France may have been the impetus for the Belcombe family to move to Switzerland and by 1790 Dr. Belcombe and his family had relocated to Geneva. The eighteenth century in Geneva was a golden age where industry, especially horology, business and banking was creating vast amount of wealth for the ruling families of the city. Coupled with this, there was an explosion of creative and cultural art and ideas.
Geneva was the birthplace of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), a home for Voltaire (1694–1778), and it attracted other Enlightenment luminaries to a growing scientific community within the city. William Belcombe was soon mingling amongst the finest scientific minds of the age.
Belcombe began working with Henry Albert Gosse, Nicholas Paul and Jacob Schweppes developing on their scientific work in the process of carbonation of water for medicinal benefits. Along with his scientific capabilities Dr. Belcombe was employed in the setting up of the Schweppes’ company London operation in the capacity of promoting the benefits of carbonised water especially amongst the medical establishment back in England. In reading the history of the Schweppes company, it can be seen that William Belcombe’s connections in London and the friendships he formed in Geneva proved invaluable to the success of the company, and maybe without his input Schweppes mineral water would not have enjoy such success as it did in England.
Douglas Simmons in his book, Schweppes: the first 200 years, writes: “In Geneva at that time was an English doctor, William Belcombe, who had been living there for the past two years; two of his children had been born there. He was soon to return to England. Dr. Belcombe would have known many of the local people interested in scientific developments, among them being Jacob Schweppe, the two Pauls and Gosse. The partners agreed to include him in a separate establishment for Great Britain, in which his part would be to publicise the business by all possible means, in particular for the medical profession. Again it was Paul who was the spokesman in recruiting Dr. Belcombe, as previously with Gosse. Dr. Belcombe showed great enthusiasm for the project during his remaining weeks in Geneva…For the space of a month during October and November 1790, until Dr. Belcombe’s departure, Gosse kept notes of the proceedings at the meetings of their partners, providing an illuminating insight into their activities…Paul undertook to arrange with the notary for the new agreement with Dr Belcombe covering the English project…Dr. Belcombe wrote to a doctor friend in London asking him to rent a convenient place where Jacob [Schweppe] could live on his arrival and where he could rent a small factory…Belcombe’s friend was also asked to give all possible help to Jacob, as soon as the waters had been manufactured, to send samples to the principal doctors in and around London. In addition to his friends in the medical profession Belcombe would bring the firm’s mineral waters to the notice of the Secretary for the Navy and various Naval officers and would send them samples…Belcombe proposed that when they knew that the waters had found favour in London an effort should be made to interest Genevans with friends or relatives in England…However, Belcombe advised secrecy regarding Jacob’s departure and its purpose until the waters were manufactured and ready for distribution.” Simmons continues in his book to describe Belcombe’s work in establishing the London operation: “Ten days later [17 Nov 1790] Belcombe was about to leave for England by way of Paris. Some Seltzer water had been sent to Paris for him to distribute there…Belcombe remained full of ideas. He proposed installing a pressure gauge in the plant similar to that on the gasometer created by Lavoiser the previous year. He also suggested that several meaningless parts should be fixed to the apparatus to mislead any strangers who saw it, and said that Jacob was not sufficiently discreet and allowed his apparatus to be too easily seen. The partners’ response was to agree that, for security, all apparatus should be enclosed. Finally Belcombe suggested that in preparation for his task Jacob should brush up on his English and oddly, that he should engage a German servant in London, to be better understood. After providing this glut of information, Gosse’s notes cease. There is no certain answer to the question of why a further whole year passed before Jacob left for England, late in 1791.” (Simmons,1983)
The Belcombe family remained residents in Geneva for the next few years, long enough to see the birth there of their first son Henry Stephens born in 1789, named probably after William Belcombe’s own father Henry Bulcock, and another daughter Eliza Hibbert born in 1793. Whilst in Geneva, William Belcombe befriended a number of important scientists such as Marc-Auguste Pictet and other leading socialites, cultivating friendships that would continue even after his return to England between 1795-1796. (read more on the “Early Belcombe Family Life: York, Geneva, the Enlightenment and the Belcombes here“)
By 1800, Jacob Schweppe had sold most of his interest in the mineral water company after making a considerable profit. William Belcombe’s association with the company seems to have ended by the mid 1790’s where we find the Belcombe family back on English soil. Evidence of the return of the Belcombes to England exists in the birth certificate of his youngest daughter Louisa at Scarborough in 1796 and the growing number of references in York records to their interactions in society there.
To be continued…Next the story of Mary Ann Mountford (Mrs. Belcombe), her background, upbringing and how she would have met William Belcombe.
References for todays post:
The Medical Register For The Year 1779. London: John Murray Publishers.
Allison, R., 1943. Sea Diseases. London: Bale.
Blane, G., 1789. Observations On The Comparative Prevalence, Mortality And Treatment Of Different Diseases. 2nd ed. London: John Murray.
Buckley, R., 1988. The British Army In The West Indies. Gainesville, Fla.: Universtiy Press of Florida.
Crowhurst, R., 1971. The Admiralty and the Convoy System in the Seven Years War. The Mariner’s Mirror, 57(2), pp.163-173.
Duffy, M., 1987. Soldiers, Sugar, And Seapower. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Clarendon Press.
Gillespie, L., 1800. Observations On The Diseases Which Prevailed On Board A Part Of His Majesty’s Squadron On The Leeward Island Station, Between Nov. 1794 And April 1796, By Leonard Gillespie, ... London: J. Cuthell.
Keevil, J., Lloyd, C. and Coulter, J., 1957. Medicine And The Navy. Edinburgh: Livingstone.
McLeod, A., 2013. British Naval Captains Of The Seven Years’ War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Simmons, D., 1983. Schweppes: The First 200 Years. London: Springwood.