Steam bakeries

A long time ago, nearly forty years ago now, I lived for a time in a village called Newbridge on Wye almost slap bang in the centre of Wales.

At the time, further up the hill from where I lived, there was a corner store with a big painted ghost sign proclaiming ‘Steam Bakery’.

When I lived there it was no longer a bakery, but rather a basic corner store with fresh bread (sometimes) run by two old ladies who would occasionally try and slip you an Irish or Isle of Man 10p in your change.

The store now is long gone, as is the sign, and the building, still the same, is an outdoor adventure store. I’m sure I once had a photograph of the sign, but a lot of my photographs and negatives disappeared in one of my moves, so unless it’s in one of my very old boxes of undigitised 35mm slides, I almost certainly no longer have a picture.

I did look on StreetView to see if the sign was still there, but no, and an image search doesn’t turn up anything in the way of matches, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me on this.

Time moves on and I moved on to other jobs, but I’ve always wondered what a steam bakery is.

So yesterday when it was wet I tried a little research.

My first discovery was that the Skewen – Skewen is a village in South Wales near Neath – Historical Society has some information about the old steam bakery in the town on its Facebook page, which looked promising.

So, based on one Facebook post, I’ll hazarded a guess that steam bakeries were a late Victorian thing. How common and how widespread wasn’t clear at first but a search through Welsh Newspapers online turned up quite a few late Victorian adverts for steam bakeries, suggesting that they were pretty widespread including in rural towns as well as the cities

advert for steam bakery

I did discover that the Newbridge on Wye bakery was called the Cambrian Steam bakery, but other than that it doesn’t seem to have left much of a trail behind it.

So what exactly was a steam bakery?

Well, steam baking was a technique popularized by the rather wonderfully named August Zang who introduced the technique to France in the 1830’s. Basically the bread is baked in an oven which has steam in it – originally from wet hay in the base of the oven, but later from a boiler, a technique that produced a better crust and was marketed as a better quality product.

I’ll hazard a guess that in late Victorian times having bread from a steam bakery was a step up from the ordinary, and something that advertised itself as a steam bakery was thought to be something special.

But obviously not that special to have one in a small farming village in rural Wales, so saying you were a steam bakery was to do with marketing as much as anything, just as some bakeries advertised themselves as ‘Hygenic Bakeries’ or even ‘Hygenic Steam Bakeries‘.

What I find interesting about this story is how the whole steam bakery thing has disappeared from memory …

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So who was John Drummond ?

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Piecing together the outline of his life was absurdly easy, in part because the UK National Archives hold the UK army records from the period, the activities of local history societies and the deep interest of military historians in the Peninsular war.

Basically his life looks like this

  • Born 1791 in Crieff in Perthshire Scotland
  • Enlisted in 1807 at age 15 – although apparently he lied and said he was 18
  • Served in the Peninsular war between 1808 and 1814
  • Recorded as being wounded in the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro in 1811
  • Married Jean Currie in Falkirk in Scotland in March 1822
  • Discharged from the army in 1828 – his age was given as 40 – his original lie about his true age had followed him through the army
  • Migrated to Australia in 1831 and initially worked around Goulburn
  • Sometime in the 1850’s he moved to Beechworth
  • Died 1865 at the age of 73, finally admitting his true age

I havn’t been able to find out what sort of work he did around Goulburn or exactly when he migrated to Beechworth – Beechworth was a pastoral settlement prior to the discovery of gold in 1853 so it’s possible he came here for farm work, or perhaps to try his luck during the gold rush.

The other interesting thing is that the gravestone isn’t really a gravestone – he was buried in an unmarked grave and the record of exactly where he was buried was lost in a fire in 1867.

The actual memorial dates to 1995 when it was erected by a local historical society – which explains a) why it differs stylistically from other markers of the period, and b) relatively little wear due to weather and lichen …

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A walk to the cemetery

Today was clock change day, when the clocks went forward for summer. Typically it was a damp day, threatening rain, so we went for a walk up to the town cemetery.

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As Beechworth’s an old town, the cemetery’s pretty old as well, dating from 1856.

There had been cemeteries before, in Loch Street and Albert Road, but the bodies there were disinterred and moved to the new cemetery,

In Australia, the whole church and churchyard thing didn’t really happen, except for a few very early churches round Sydney.

Mostly cemeteries were public facilities on the outside of town, and divided into sections for the various denominations – Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, a section for people who belonged to odd sects, and unusually a Chinese section for the 2000 or so Chinese miners who died here

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I havn’t checked closely, but I don’t think there are any Orthodox, Jewish, or Moslem graves, but again, they might be put among  the independents.

Unlike in England, where quite often country churchyards are unkempt, especially where the church has fallen out of use, and provide a refuge for wildlife and plants, the cemetery is mowed, but interestingly some of the older graves which are surrounded by metal fencing providing a refuge for native grasses


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although in some, the native plants have been outcompeted by lillies that have taken root.

But it’s not all botany and wildlife – there are some interesting graves as well, including this one

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The 71st regiment of Foot is well attested to, having fought in various colonial wars and the Peninsular war in Spain.

I know nothing of John Drummond, or where he served, but it is fascinating to think that someone who was at Waterloo ended up as one of the early settlers in Beechworth …

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Yesterday, when I was working dow in Dow’s I found an old bottle of a patent medicine called Phosferrin in a cupboard


and from the label you can see that it was a complete cure all. As well as the bottle I found a scruffy little cardboard box of Phosferrin pills


remarkably the paper seal on the packet was still intact so I’m presuming the the remains of pills are still inside.

Even though the packages say Forbes Phosferrin, both the bottle and packet were produced by Martin and Pleasance who are still with us as a supplier of homeopathic medicines.

Around the time of the first world war Phosferrin was touted mainly as a nerve tonic to steady the nerves, with various endorsements from men serving at the front as to how it helped them cope with the stress of being in the trenches, but before and after the first world war it was advertised as a stress reliever, with now forgotten silent movie actresses such as Malvina Longfellow endorsing it as a way to cope with the stress of filming.

Sometimes spelt Phosferrin, other times Phosferrine, it was manufactured and sold by various patent medicine manufacturers. 

In 1911 the BMJ published a study which suggested that it was pasically a mixture of water, phosphoric acid and alcohol, with a touch of quinine and a dash of sulphuric acid for added zing.

Probably harmless unless consumed to excess, it would have been totally useless as something to aid depression or relieve stress, except as a placebo.

Phosferrin seems to have dropped out of use in the mid 1920’s, and I originally thought it to be an early twentieth century phenomenon.

Not a bit of it – while researching this post I found this advert from 1878

phosferrin evening times 1878

from the Evening Times in Wellington NZ.

Interesting – and also interesting that homeopathic medicines were being promoted so early in New Zealand.

In fact, using querypic to search for phosferrine we can see it was mentioned in Australian newspapers until the 1950’s, phosferrin was really popular in New Zealand in the in early 1880’s

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Why the interest?

Well it looks as if Phosferrin was promoted as refreshing drink as well

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Which is not quite as weird as it sounds – after all Coca Cola started out was a patent medicine …

[update 24/09/2021]

Just for fun, I did a search for Phosferin on Welsh Papers online as a proxy for advertising in newspapers in the UK.

Their corpus only goes as far as 1919 and I expected to find examples of advertising similar to that which I’d found in Australia and New Zealand.

Initially I drew a blank, but searching for the string Phosfer* brought up plenty of examples, mostly the same as those used in Australia and New Zealand, including endorsements from troops on the Western Front.

(I’m guessing that Welsh Papers Online’s OCR isn’t quite as robust either Trove’s or Papers Past NZ’s and hence struggled with recognising Phosferrin.)

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Stepney and the Moncurs

Back in 2019, I came across the intriguing story that a James Moncur had been a master mariner working out of Sydney in the 1840’s and had has a Maori wife, and two daughters who had both European and Maori names.

At the time I wasn’t able to tie it into my own family history, but recently I’ve got a little closer.

James was born in Stepney in London. No surprises there, that was a major shipping and dockside area. (interesting, Ann Salmond, my distant relation and Thomas Allen’s mistress was born  a few years earlier in Hackney perhaps hinting at a family migration.

His father, also James, married in Marylebone in London but was born and christened in Dundee,

At this point the records start to run out.

His father is given as George Moncur who is said to have been born sometime around 1745 in Dundee.

However a search of Scotland’s People turns up only one George Moncur in the decade between 1740 and 1750, and he was born on March 29 in 1748 in Kirriemuir


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with his father being either Joseph or John Moncur.

Kirriemuir is of course roughly in the area that my family came from, and while circumstantial this hints at a possible link to the New Zealand connection.

Of course, 1745 was a time of disruption with Bonnie Prince Charlie and all, and while Dundee was not subject to any serious damage it could be that the various Kirk session minute books from around that time were lost (or less romantically, that the rats got to them), but for the moment Kirriemuir it is.

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The location, Burnmouth of Kintyrie, as seen in this 1860’s Ordnance Survey map, still exists, and is not that far from Cortachy castle, which I remember various elderly relatives talking about, so possibly there was some oral memory, now lost, of a connection to the Cortachy area.

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Paddle steamers …

About a year ago I blogged about Mary Shelley and her trip by sea to Dundee.

At the time I made the point that before railways, travel by sea was considerably more comfortable that overland travel by coach.

In much the same way, during that window between around 1815 and the development of the railway network – say 1850 – river borne paddle steamers offered a viable alternative mode of travel between major cities in both England and Scotland.

So I was particularly interested when reports on a major archaeological dig in Hull reveled the graves of victims of an 1837 paddle steamer explosion in Hull.

When I lived in Hull at the end of the seventies, it was a moribund, woebegone place. The fishing industry had collapsed, and the city was very isolated geographically – the Humber Bridge was still being built, rail services were poor, often involving a change at Selby (who else remembers coming back from London and freezing on the platform on a winter’s evening waiting for the porter to shout ‘Ull train’ for the invariably late connecting service ?) and road links were not the best.

In contrast, in the early nineteenth century it was a bustling port with shipping services, including passenger services to London and the port cities of Scotland, to the Netherlands and northern Germany, and a network of paddle steamer services up the navigable tributaries of the Humber.

Paddle steamers demanded little in terms of infrastructure – they did not need particularly deep water to operate in, and could utilize existing wharves used for riverborne traffic – making them quick to establish, for example Edward Baines’ 1823 Yorkshire Gazetteer lists numerous steam packet services from Hull to Gainsborough, York, Selby, Thorne, and also connecting stagecoach services to the larger industrial cities of Yorkshire.

In contrast railways were capital intensive due to the costs of construction, and of course took significant time to build requiring bridges, viaducts, cuttings and stations to be built.

But of course the paddle steamers could only go where the navigable rivers went, and of course were often too wide to manage the canal locks, which is why their routes often terminated at unlikely seeming places such as Gainsborough in Lincolnshire and Thorne in West Yorkshire – Thorne being the nearest paddle steamers could get to Doncaster and Sheffield, and Gainsborough to the Trent valley.

The railways won out because they offered direct connections without the need to change services.

But of course it was not just in Britain that paddle steamers offered valuable low infrastructure links.

In Sibera some forty years later, Harry de Windt had a mad dash from Khiatka to catch a paddle steamer to take him on to Irkutsk, and Anton Chekhov again made use of paddle steamers on Amur on his 1889 journey to the Russian far east, the trans-Siberian and trans-Mongolian railways not having been in service until another fifteen years or so in the future.

At the same time, here in Australia, paddle steamers played a crucial role on the Murray allowing wool to be shipped to ports such as Morgan in South Australia from whence it could be shipped on the railway down to Adelaide for export – when we visited Morgan on a chilly winter’s day in 2012 it seemed chilly and forlorn – both the railway and the paddle steamers are long gone.

Paddle steamers, because they need little in terms of infrastructure, have left little behind them – an abandoned wharf there, a rusting hulk here, but it’s important to remember that once they provided an important service before road and rail won out …

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The Victorian Anti-Vaccination movement in England

As part of my background reading about the roles of nineteenth century pharmacists in Victoria (roles such as opticians or dentists) I’ve been reading about the nineteenth century anti vaccination movement in England.

No one seems to have studied the movement much in Australia, and I’m unsure if there was much opposition to compulsory vaccination in Victoria.

Certainly, a quick and dirty search of Trove suggests that while some people may have been opposed, generally most people were in favour.

What is interesting is where the movement sits.

Nineteenth century medicine was not actually very scientific – it was a mixture of herbalism and optimism – doctors had found some things seemed to alleviate some illnesses but no one was very sure as to the causes of illness – not really until the discovery of viruses and a greater understanding bacterial illnesses in the late nineteenth century was there anything resembling a modern understanding of the role of viruses and bacteria in spreading disease.

So, for example, people knew smallpox vaccination worked, but actually did not know how it worked or how smallpox spread.

The major competing theory with germ theory was the miasma theory where the infection spread through the air in some unknown way.

This was not a completely stupid idea – the idea that disease circulated in a community and was spread by close contact, made a lot of sense, as did the consequent need for cleanliness and being careful to avoid contact with diseased people.

And in a slightly roundabout way the miasma theory gave rise to various movements that advocated for access to fresh air and sunshine (and strangely enough, nudism) all of which were generally good things.

At the same time, given the very imperfect understanding of how smallpox spread and the use of the ‘arm’ method where infected lymph as collected from the pustules of people who had been recently vaccinated and then used to vaccinate next group to be vaccinated, that contamination could happen and various dire diseases such as syphilis could be inadvertently spread – syphilis being an especially important worry to a Victorian due to both the moral stigma attached to it and that was incurable and could infect one’s children.

Understandably, some people did not want to be vaccinated under such circumstances, and in England at least, if you could not pay to have your children vaccinated, they would be vaccinated by the same doctor who oversaw the local workhouse, and possibly someone who did not command the respect of the community, and who because of his (and it would always be a man) association with the workhouse might be suspected of using lymph from individuals who were also carrying other diseases.

There were of course cranks who advocated strange cures based on vegetables and being doused with cold water or held bizarre beliefs, but it’s important to realise that given the state of knowledge at the time, the worries about compulsory vaccination were rational.

I suspect that the seeming lack of a strong anti-vaccination movement in Victoria might be due to the government appointing various local doctors as public vaccinators, free from any taint of association with the poor and indigent …

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Bonox, Bovril, and Jack the Ripper …

Recently, I’ve come across a number of beef extract bottles while documenting the contents of Dow’s, including this rather decayed bottle of Beefine, which dates from the early 1920’s.


Beefine was a beef extract product similar to Bonox. So, what was it doing in a chemist’s shop rather than a grocer’s?

Looking at advertising from the time it’s clear that many of these products were positioned as restoratives for invalids recovering from 1919 flu pandemic and as a substitute for that great Victorian pick me up, beef tea. (Incidentally, Florence Nightingale was not a fan of beef tea, thinking it a waste of good beef and of doubtful nutritional value.)

Of these products, Bonox is still with us. In fact when I make a casserole, a bolgnese, or a ragout, I sometimes add a little bonox to improve the flavour, and of course people working outside in winter sometimes drink Bonox dissolved in hot water rather than tea or coffee.

Just as we have Vegemite and the English have Marmite, they have Bovril where we have Bonox.

But while Bonox dates from 1918, Bovril in something like its present form dates from the 1880’s. During the first world war it was fed to troops on the Western Front, and the Irish Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was apparently a fan.

Certainly, he took several crates with him on the Endurance expedition and encouraged his men stuck on Elephant Island to add it to their hoosh, a stew of seal, penguin, pemmican and ship’s biscuit. Unappetising maybe, but it certainly kept them alive and in relatively good health.

However, the origins of Bovril go back to the Franco Prussian war – Napoleon III ordered a million cans of beef to feed his army, and the supply contract was won by a Scottish Canadian entrepreneur John Lawson Johnson.

Johnson had no problem sourcing the beef but getting it to the French was a logistical nightmare. To make transport simpler Johnston, a trained chemist, developed a beef extract product, Johnston’s Fluid Beef, that was probably a bit runnier than today’s beef extract, but each bottle or can contained four or five times the beef content of a standard can of beef.

However, Johnston’s fluid beef wasn’t the only such product.

Across the Atlantic, in Richmond Virginia, Mann Valentine developed a similar product, Valentine’s Meat Juice, in the early 1870’s.

The story is that he originally developed it as an easy to digest product for his ailing wife in the post civil war South, where everything was either unobtainable, or in very short supply. While his wife did not recover, the product was a success and marketed in both America and Britain,.

I first came across Valentine’s Meat Juice in Harry de Windt’s From Pekin to Calais, which I was reading to test out Lithium on the dogfood device.

[Harry de Windt was one of these mad adventurers like Fred Burnaby that the high Victorian period seemed to produce.

Independently wealthy, well connected (he was the brother of Margaret Brooke, the wife of Charles Brooke, the white Rajah of Sarawak, and had served as Charles Brooke’s aide-de-camp) he was a noted adventurer and explorer.

Perpetually restless, he went on many incredible journeys, including a journey from Pekin to Calais before the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian railways had been built. In it, he describes how, while riding across the Gobi Desert to Urga (now Ulaan Baatar) they had no time to stop during the day and how lunch was invariably a cup of Valentine’s Meat Juice, some biscuit, and occasionally a shot of whisky.]

However, Valentine’s meat juice also had a major role in a sensational Victorian murder trial. Florence Maybrick, had been born in Mobile, Alabama in 1862, and had married James Maybrick, a wealthy Liverpool financier and cotton merchant 24 years her senior in 1881.

Liverpool was of course a centre for blockade running during the civil war, and Florence’s father was a banker in Alabama, making it possible that he and James Maybrick had had a long standing association.

In any case Florence was obviously pregnant when she married James, giving birth to a son a few months later.

Overall, the marriage was not a success. James was a philanderer, had mistresses and neglected Florence.

Florence took a younger lover, which probably did nothing to heal the growing rift between her and James.

Finally, James died suddenly in 1889. You might think that Florence’s troubles might be over, but no, she was arrested and accused of poisoning James with arsenic.

Now we know from the Madeleine Smith case that women would sometimes use an arsenic wash to improve their complexions, and that, as Madeleine’s love Emile L’Angelier did, people might also consume small quantities of arsenic to maintain a youthful and vigorous appearance.

James Maybrick did indeed habitually take medications containing arsenic, but it was alleged that Florence had administered a dose enough to kill via a bottle of Valentine’s meat juice she fed him with while unwell.

Access to arsenic was rather more controlled by the late 1880’s than it was in Madeleine Smith’s time, but it was claimed that often women would make up an arsenic face wash by soaking fly papers in water to wash out the arsenic from the coating.

It was alleged that this was exactly what Florence did to poison James.

Like the Madeleine Smith case, it’s difficult to know at this distance whether James died as a result of an accidental overdose, or as a result of Florence poisoning him, or a bit of both. In the even the judge thought she did, sentenced her to death, which was commuted to life.

Released in 1904, Florence eventually moved to Connecticut where she lived on with her cats, ultimately dying in 1941.

That would have seemed to have been the end of it, except that in 1992 a diary emerged, that seemed to have been written James Maybrick.

In it, the author describes various of the Jack the Ripper murders in some detail, but crucially misses out some aspects of the murders, or gets some of the details wrong. Equally the provenance of the diary is highly suspect – while it is written in a genuine Victorian period notebook, some have felt the handwriting to be more twentieth century than nineteenth in style. Coupled with the inconsistencies in the diary, and the provenance problems, it could well be argued to be a fake.

We’ll probably never truly know, but we can probably say with some certainty that James Maybrick is unlikely to have been Jack the Ripper, even if his death in May 1889 fits with the abrupt end of the Ripper killings in late 1888.

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Dating deposits using patent medicine bottles


Three or so years ago, I posted about a rather attractive nineteenth century bottle that had contained Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound.

At the time I was more interested in how a bottle of a patent medicine manufactured in South Wales had ended up in Chiltern on the other side of the world, and uncovered a story powered by advertising – basically a search of online auction sites showed the bottles turning up in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and a comparative search of Trove, Papers Past, and Welsh Newspapers online showed how Hayman’s had reused the same advertising copy.

And you could argue that this showed the first flickers of globalization.

Today I did something a little different.

I searched for “balsam of Horehound” on both Trove and Papers Past and counted the relative occurrences of individual brands for the first ten pages on each site.

Grossly unscientific, but it showed that the two most advertised brands were Arnold’s and Hendry’s in Australia and Arnold’s and Ayre’s in New Zealand.

So, what does the distribution look like in Australia:


We can see that Balsam of Horehound was very much a thing between roughly 1870 and 1900. If we break it down to the individual brands we see


That Hayman’s had a short peak around 1880 – roughly around when the product was also being advertised in Wales. (Unfortunately, there’s no distant reading tool analogous to QueryPic for Welsh Newspapers online, so I’m afraid I’m basing the dates for Wales on the human eyeball.)

What we see is that Arnold’s rapidly becomes the dominant product, rapidly superseding Hayman’s.

Hendry’s, which turns up in advertising as a competitor to Arnold’s really doesn’t figure until even later, and even then was not so heavily promoted.


In New Zealand, mentions of Balsam of Horehound start to become significant a little earlier than in Australia and appear to be a bit more ‘peaky’. I don’t have an explanation for the peakiness of the data – one hypothesis I could conceivably test would be winter rainfall to see if products were advertised more heavily in wetter years.

Graphing the two most common brands, plus Hayman’s,


One sees basically the same pattern as in Australia, with Arnold’s displacing Hayman’s from the mid 1880’s and Ayre’s competing with Arnold’s from the 1890’s.


So, what does this all mean?

For a start when dating deposits, we can say that any deposit containing Hayman’s bottles is unlikely to be much later than the mid 1880’s – the bottles are readily identifiable due to their embossing.

Unfortunately, I havn’t been able to find an image of an Arnold’s bottle so am unable to say if they are similarly identifiable, but being able to tie Hayman’s to a quite short window around 1880 certainly would help date assemblages found on abandoned house sites

(Incidentally, Kirstienne Graham (The Archaeological Potential of Medicinal Advertisements – AUSTRALASIAN HISTORICAL ARCHAEOLOGY, 23, 2005) has proposed a similar use of patent medicine bottles as a dating tool, albeit using different methodology.)

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Bahamian Moncurs …

I’ve long been puzzled by why there are quite a few AfroCaribbean people in the Bahamas with the same slightly unusual surname as me.

I think I might now have the answer. Possibly not the whole answer, but good enough.

A rough trawl of various Caribbean family history websites seems to point the most of the Bahamian Moncurs being descended from a trio of brothers, James, Samuel and Louis all born between 1810 and 1815. There was also a Thomas Moncur born around the same time, and I’m not sure quite how he fits into the story.

Unfortunately, while the records of their deaths are online, their birth records appear not to be available. It is of course entirely possible that their births were simply not recorded, except perhaps in individual slave registers.

I have not been able to trace any earlier births or marriages, so I assume that these individuals had a father whose surname was Moncur. As records started being kept officially in the Bahamas in 1850, we are reliant on church registers, slave registers etc for any earlier birth death or marriage records.

The records seem to point back to Abaco island, which was settled by loyalist refugees from America who brought their slaves with them.

The name Moncur is also known from the slave states in America and comes from earlier migration to the Americas by people who became land owners and possibly slave owners.

In the Bahamas most slaves acquired their western surnames from their slave owner.

So, waving our hands a bit, I’m going to guess that the AfroCaribbean Moncurs are descended from a white slave owner or plantation manager who lived in the Bahamas sometime around the Napoleonic War period. It’s possible that I might be out by a generation and the original slave master arrived in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, but the sources don’t seem to be there to settle that point.

However, despite other distant family connections to slavery in Jamaica, there seems to be no direct connection with my line of farming folk …

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