By Kim Leslie (with an Introduction by Nichola Court, Archivist)
One of the joys of working at a county record office such as WSRO is the wide variety of collections we hold and the individual documents that can be found within them. Collections of family papers can hold a surprising array of documents concerning a range of subjects and one of our recently catalogued collections, The Corfield Papers, is no exception. Documenting the family history of Kim Leslie, former Education Officer at West Sussex Record Office, The Corfield Papers takes us from Corve Dale in rural Shropshire to Victorian London’s East End, the Australian outback and New York City, and thence to Rustington, allowing us a glimpse into the lives, loves and work of doctors, explorers, wild west riders and actors, covering matters as diverse as medical and sanitary history, emigration, motoring history, and the development of charitable organisations such as The Children’s Society. Over the course of two guest blogs, Kim introduces us to an astonishing cast of characters, his ancestors’ adventures, and gives readers a taste of the contents of The Corfield Papers…
Some ten thousand miles away his grey tombstone is simply inscribed ‘LATE EXPLORER’. We’re in Back Creek Cemetery, Bendigo, some hundred miles north of Melbourne, the edge of bush country, once the heart of Australian gold-rush territory. Just thirty-seven, he died hostage to the merciless hardships of the outback from roasting and steaming in the unrelenting climate of desert and swamp of northern Queensland searching for traces of the missing Prussian explorer and naturalist, Dr Ludwig Leichhardt.
His name was William Frederick Barnett (1841-79). His expedition diary is in Queensland Museum. To flesh out his diary the trail lands at the West Sussex Record Office, a major source of his background and his several Australian adventures.
Here in Chichester is the only known original photograph of the Leichhardt Search Expedition in 1865: here is his party, nine of them with their Indigenous guide, an Aborigine they called Bendigo, along with their camels, Carcoar, Taronga and Budgee.
Wills, his pet name in the family, writing to his aunt back in England, described their hardships in finding water, eking out their meagre rations by eating cockatoo, hawks, even an owl, threatened by Aborigines banging their shields with boomerangs (as they unwittingly trampled across the Indigenous people’s spiritual songlines, their sacred invisible territorial markers) whilst facing ‘almost impossible’ mountains and ‘immense plains of roley poley’ (a prickly bush). His lengthy letter now sits safely in Chichester, alongside some carefully preserved press cuttings, one from the Sydney Morning Herald reporting that through the keeping of a detailed journal and field book these ‘explorations will be found to be of far greater value than those of any previous explorers, public or private,’ noting their discoveries such as the wongaroo (‘a large animal of the kangaroo tribe’) and the discovery of creeks and lakes previously unknown to Europeans.
Wills, as was his father and grandfather, was born in Limehouse on the banks of the Thames in what was then Middlesex, now the London borough of Tower Hamlets.
Thomas William Barnett (1790-1870), Wills’ grandfather, and Adolphus Barnett (1813-67), Wills’ father, were both surgeons and doctors of medicine. Their papers throw considerable light on working amongst victims caught up in the typhoid and cholera epidemics of the 1830s and ‘40s in the East End of London. Appalled by their findings as medical officers to the parish poor of Limehouse and Stepney they both gave evidence to the government’s Select Committee on Medical Poor Relief in 1844, campaigning in support of the sanitary reform movement that culminated in the milestone Health of Towns Act of 1848.
Both Barnetts amassed statistics of horrifying deprivation. Through public lectures in and around London, Adolphus urged for ‘cleaner, sweeter, healthier homes … crowded dwellings, bad drainage, indifferent ventilation and an insufficient supply of water … the begetters of … disease and death [that] … follow with the crowd and reign triumphant in the Purlieus of filth’, he graphically told his Marylebone audience in 1847.
It was Adolphus who took his family to Australia, emigrating to the goldfields of Bendigo in the 1850s where he found a lawless, disease-ridden shanty town. Here he played a prominent part in public life, working to transform and civilise the rapidly growing township. As a founder of the first hospital, its first honorary medical officer, a founder-director of the Bendigo Water Works Company supplying healthy drinking water to combat dysentery and typhoid, his endeavours almost mirrored his earlier work in his native Limehouse. Such was his local fame in and around Bendigo that Adolphus was buried with military-style honours in 1867.
The wider family certainly had its fair share of colourful adventurers. Lieutenant Thomas Pamp (1756-1806) – related through marriage to the Corfields (as were the Barnetts) – commanded ships engaged in trade with North America, in one commission being implicated in a notorious clandestine operation to deceive the newly-independent American authorities into accepting British convicts, the practice since the early 18th century. After independence in 1776 these convicts were no longer welcome. As a ruse, Pamp’s ship changed its name, sailing under false papers with its cargo of convicts unloaded as ‘indentured servants’. Pamp returned home, but only after close questioning before a grand jury in Maryland. Thus it was that Pamp witnessed at first hand the end of America as the dumping ground for British felons when he landed the last consignment on American shores in 1783. This was the pivotal turning point in the history of British convict transportation, the prelude to opening the way for the new penal settlements in Australia.
Fast forward to the twentieth century, to 1915 when one of the Barnett’s and Pamp’s descendants, Kate Corfield (1876-1970) married John McGee in New York, following a rocky previous marriage in Tokyo where she committed adultery with an American bare-knuckle boxer: ‘Middle Weight Champion of the World … Heavy Weight Champion of the Far East and Burma’. Out to hoodwink Kate’s family, her pugilist lover brought trouble and threats of violence wherever he went, warning her mother that he would ‘make it so hot for you that you will imagine you have struck Hades before your time’.
McGee, from New Orleans, was as equally colourful , with an extraordinary past. Married twice already he was a former cowpuncher in the mid-west. He served as a scout and guide with the US Cavalry before joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a rough rider, nicknamed ‘Suspender Jack’ through his trick of riding a bronco with his suspenders as reins. Subsequently McGee was appointed riding master to the New York city police, said to have been engineered through his familiarity with Teddy Roosevelt, the city’s police commissioner (and future US president). They both had much in common, Roosevelt himself once a former rancher and rough rider before he entered public life. An equally larger than life character, McGee was known in New York as the Cowboy Cop, from which post he was dismissed and imprisoned for refusing to pay alimony to his second wife. Kate was his third. From prison he bounced back, transforming himself into a fiery political orator on human rights, likening himself to the geese who ‘saved Rome by their cackling’, threatening that ‘the Capitol would run knee deep in blood’. McGee then stood – unsuccessfully – as sheriff for New York County. To avoid bankruptcy he tried his hand as a notary, at running a New York photographic studio and inventing a new type of razor bizarrely advertised as ‘McGee’s Ripping Device’. Kate’s husband’s life was as controversial as it was extraordinary.
After a stormy relationship they separated in the 1920s. McGee vanished into oblivion to Texas, Kate and her little son, Jack, turning to the church where they were ‘looking to the Lord’s coming any day now…. Doing things for Jesus is the only thing worth while – dress. shows, jewellery, moving pictures … all pass away …’, some candid reflection on earlier, regretful times. She retired to Florida, to a snowbird community, where she died in 1970.
Some years ago ‘little Jack’ visited West Sussex from his home in Connecticut, to swap stories, to talk family history and embellish the papers I could show him, adding life and colour to the stories emerging from these papers. Jack told of Clary, otherwise Charles Clarence St Clair, Kate’s erstwhile pugilist lover who derailed her marriage in Japan: apparently Clary then ran off with another woman, got her pregnant, killed her and then committed suicide, a further twist to some extraordinary stories that fall out of these family papers.
Kate’s sister, May, married to a poor law official from the Billericay Union in Essex, likewise ended up in America, in White Plains, Westchester County, New York State, suffering from her own broken marriage, the burden of looking after three small children, one a cripple, and ‘outrageous’ prices in the shops: ‘we know what it is to feel hungry … we have no meal after five o/clock tea and are glad to get to bed to keep the hungry feeling down’. That was in 1917. Missing her widowed mother (who herself was escaping life’s problems at the Monte Carlo gaming tables), the exhausted May wrote of being ‘tired of life … when you go on the long trail to the happy hunting ground may I not be far behind you for I am so weary of everything … longing for that great day to come when you & I and Dad can be united in heaven for evermore…’ Another life was better than this. The American dream had failed her.
Both Kate and May were my great aunts whom sadly I never met, never knew existed, until this vast treasure trove of family papers came my way in 1983. This was the year when my late grandfather’s house was cleared prior to its sale to the Leonard Cheshire Foundation as one of its homes for the disabled.
Grandfather was Dr Carruthers Corfield (1873-1969) who lived at Broadmark Place in Rustington…
The Corfield Papers catalogue can be consulted via WSRO’s Search Online facility. Using the Advanced Search feature, enter Corfield in the CatalogueNo field. The Corfield Papers in West Sussex Record Office: An Illustrated Catalogue and Family History has recently been published by Northgate Press, Chichester in association with the Record Office (ISBN 978-1-5272-4799-4). This is a hardback volume with over three hundred coloured illustrations and is available at £40 by contacting its editor and compiler Kim Leslie at firstname.lastname@example.org.