Sarah Thomas Traces Family Tree

PUBLISHED: 10:54 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013

a sketch of The Dove, the Baptist Missionary society's ship captained by Thomas Milbourne

a sketch of The Dove, the Baptist Missionary society's ship captained by Thomas Milbourne

A diary kept for just five years provides an intriguing insight into Victorian life

Anyone who has worked through the intricate maze of tracing their family history will know just how, despite many frustrations and dead ends are encountered along the way; it becomes an all time consuming and fascinating passion. To research someone else's life, with no one around now who knew the family, has certainly exercised my mind for many years when I went in search of Sarah Thomas, whose personal diaries I was introduced to when I was helping a student at Oxford who was working on a thesis on Non-Conformity. I am sure I am not the only writer who has been tempted along the route of research to pursue paths that offer a glimpse at other interesting and unexpected aspects that somehow touch the life of the main subject. And so it was, and still is, in my search of Sarah.

Sarah Thomas was the daughter of a Baptist minister, who lived in the small market town of Fairford, head of the household of Milton House following the death of both parents after two older brothers, William Newitt Thomas and John Anderson Thomas, had emigrated to Australia. Charles Kingsley, a half brother through her mother's former marriage, lived for a great deal of the time at Milton House with Sarah and her younger sister, Kate - often referred to as Kitty in Sarah's diaries. The first diary to come to hand starts in 1860, when Sarah was aged thirty-seven and unmarried. Unlike the journals of many Victorian ladies which have found their way into print, Sarah's diaries were obviously never meant for anyone else's eyes - they are too personal - they are secret confidences and often, where she questions her motives or examines her feelings, they become almost confessionals. And therein lay their value and charm - and their challenge - as I continue to search for the main characters that peopled her life.

One question which constantly tantalises me is whether Sarah kept a detailed diary before 1860, if so where is it, or what happened to it? And, even more intriguing is what it contained. How, for instance, did she meet Captain Thomas Milbourne, whom she eventually married? I can only assume it was through their mutual dedication to the Baptist cause as Thomas Milbourne was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1819 to a family of considerable estate, including Armathwaite Castle. By birth he was a Freeman of both his home town and Carlisle. He, like Sarah's maternal grandfather, John Thomas, whose own chequered life earned him a place in the annals of Good and Great Men of Gloucestershire, ran away to sea.

Thomas Milbourne obtained his master's certificate before the age of twenty and was appointed captain of The Dove, the first ship 'known to modern enterprise' to carry missionaries and their families to Africa and Jamaica. It is interesting that many contributions towards the purchase of the ship for the Baptist Missionary Society came from the Cotswolds. Following a voyage to the west coast of Africa, taking missionaries to live on a small island called Fernando Po, and travelling up and down rivers taking them from one place to another, Thomas Milbourne captained The Dove to Jamaica. In his letter to the BMS dated 29 April 1845, the Captain writes: I intend starting tonight for Cameroons. The old king, Aqua, is sick and not expected to survive, and we very much fear that some poor slaves will be sacrificed, which makes us very anxious to see the king before he departs this life, and I trust we shall be instrumental in checking the evil'.

Checking the evil of slavery became a very close issue to the Captain when he married Catherine (Kate) Knibb, daughter of the Reverend William Knibb, who was truly the Martin Luther King of his day. William Wilberforce has been immortalised in history as a driving force behind the abolition of the slave trade on British ships, but it was William Knibb who brought about the abolition of slavery in the whole of the British Empire. At the back of Sarah's diary the address of Mrs Knibb is given as Kettering, Jamaica - where, according to a report in the Juvenile Missionary Herald of 1845, 'a school house, also used as a chapel on Lord's Day, in the centre of the new free village, formed by Mrs Knibb, is under the care of her daughters. The school room commands a beautiful view of the sea and at times the distant island of Cuba is seen, where slavery still reigns in all its awful power'.

William Knibb died in 1845, at the early age of forty-two having devoted his life to closing the dark and shameful chapter in the history of the slave trade. The bi-centenary of its abolition has been marked so graphically this year in many forms nationally: locally, in the Cotswolds, a special concert of pop star dimensions was held at Stratford Park at Stroud following a marathon walk of the Lifeline Expedition which marched through Cheltenham in June. In July, art students from Farmor's School created an intricate metal sculpture, which was showcased at the internationally acclaimed Quenington Sculpture Exhibition, depicting caged forms chained to a massive intimidating figure representing oppression.

Catherine Knibb died in 1858. Her dying wish was to her husband that he should marry her friend Alice East, but Captain Milbourne opposed the idea, thinking she was too young for him especially as he was left with a young daughter to bring up, and turned his attention to Sarah Thomas, the Baptist minister's daughter back in the Cotswolds. He appears in Sarah's diary in 1860: September 29th. This morning Capt Milbourne wrote to Charles saying he will be here today and leaves for Africa on the 12th ultimo. I went with Richard driving to Cirencester and found Capt Milbourne there. I suddenly felt very glad to see him and thought he looked better than ever, and secretly admired him. He seemed delighted to be here once more.

September 30th. Capt Milbourne went to Meysey Hampton and spoke to the people there from the pulpit, they were all most attentive. He took as his text, 'Please remember me' and I felt his eye wander in my direction. He took my hand on returning from chapel.'

I862: July 26th. Capt wrote to Charles seeking my hand. He wants to marry me at once and he'll come to talk it over. I wrote immediately to decline ... the separation when he is Africa seems so very formidable ... and the responsibility of training Minnie presses on me also. I don't think I could face it, but he is evidently fearful of leaving me behind untied.

Sarah and Thomas Milbourne married a few weeks later, and Sarah details the ceremony in her neat handwriting: 1862. September 3rd. Minnie looking very pretty in her book muslin dress, narrow flounces, cape of same fastened behind with two rosettes of blue, blue sash, hair nicely curled and a pretty little hat of blue and white feathers. She called me Mama. The sudden title seemed rather novel and a little strange.

It was the last full entry in Sarah's diary - having been her silent confidante for so long, it would seem that she would wish to conceal their entries from her newly-wed husband. The next diary to come to light is dated 1865, but the sparse entries are more note like, but of sufficient feeling to draw up a picture of how Sarah was coping as a step mother to Minnie, and as a mother of her own two sons at the time, with Captain Milbourne - whom by now she was referring to as Dear Tom - away at sea for long periods. The most telling change is that of her references to Mr Davis, a Baptist Minister at Arlington, Bibury - a competing suitor to whom she had hitherto written of as Dear J in her most intimate revelations of their relationship. And therein tells the tale, no doubt, of why it was that the Captain was 'fearful of leaving her behind untied!' and why he declined the post of Consul in Sierra Leone and a highly respected position as a seafaring pioneer to become, what the 1871 Census lists as a farmer of Gloucestershire.

Minnie, who was educated at Miss Beal's school at Blockley, married John Wrigley Willans, whose family was also staunch anti-slavery supporters and a close connection with Herbert Asquith, First Earl of Oxford, whose government led Britain into World War I. Of Sarah and Thomas Milbourne's two sons nothing has yet come to light - perhaps, one day, a reader of this Cotswold Life will be able to fill in the many questions still left unanswered - and, even a photograph of Sarah herself. Or do I really want to look at the likeness of this Victorian diarist, of whom I have conjured up my own picture over the years from what she had written of her life and her loves a century and a half ago?

The Secret Diary of Sarah Thomas, Life in a Cotswold Market Town 1860-65, edited by June Lewis-Jones, was dramatised by the BBC as a Radio Four play in 1998 and is now published in paperback by Nonsuch Publishing

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