SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: One of the greatest heroes in British military history relied for matrimonial advice on a friend and fellow officer from Croydon, as DAVID MORGAN discovered in the archives at the Minster
Half a century before Nelson met his heroic end after provoking the Napoleonic French fleet into a decisive battle, another British military leader, James Wolfe, had lost his life after drawing a French army into a battle that was to determine the outcome of a war, and secure a vital part of Britain’s then rapidly growing empire.
The Seven Years War can be properly regarded as the first world war, as 18th Century European powers, principally Britain and France, contested colonial possessions in north America, the Caribbean, India and the Pacific. Before Wolfe masterminded victory at the Battle of Quebec, that city had been the capital of a colony called New France, where its own generals had plans on British territories to the south, such as New York.
But after that 1759 victory, Canada was effectively secured as part of the British Empire for the next 150 years. It was a moment that was to shape the world.
Thus, discovering a mention of Croydon in Wolfe’s personal correspondence is a matter of great excitement.
The letter was written in 1750 when Wolfe was a 23-year-old army major, corresponding with one of his military friends.
James was one of two sons of a distinguished career soldier General Edward Wolfe. They spent the first part of their childhood in Westerham, Kent, not far from Croydon. The house which served as the Wolfe family home is now called Quebec House, owned and run by the National Trust.
The letter containing the Croydon reference was written by Wolfe to Major Rickson of the 47th Regiment of Foot.
At that time Wolfe was having some difficulties with his love life. One problem was that he was never in one place for very long. As a high-ranking young officer, he was posted hither and thither and was never in a position to undertake a “traditional courtship” easily.
The second was the Georgian convention that any marriage of a son from a wealthy background should be involve a financial contract first and a love match second. This was something that exercised Wolfe’s mother frequently. She had selected a suitable young lady. But James was not so sure.
Miss Collins from Croydon was Mrs Wolfe’s idea of a perfect bride for her son.
She came from a wealthy family and there was even talk about a dowry settlement of £30,000 – worth about £1.4million in today’s values. One of her neighbours in Croydon was a Lieutenant Joseph Partridge. Wolfe described him in this letter as “My Lieutenant” and that when he had been to see Wolfe a couple of days previously, Partridge had brought “compliments” from Miss Collins. Wolfe continued in the letter that Partridge was urging him “as a friend” to make it up with her and that he thought Miss Collins was “the complete woman”.
Nothing came of the potential relationship. Indeed, Miss Collins went on to marry the son of the couple who bought the Wolfes’ house in Westerham.
In his letter, Wolfe continued that Lt Partridge had never met the other lady in his life, Miss Elizabeth Lawson. The implication was that his friend would have been impressed.
Wolfe’s mother wasn’t , though, as Elizabeth didn’t come from a wealthy enough family. Wolfe’s posting abroad meant that he and Elizabeth never saw each other for months and eventually this relationship fizzled out, too.
Partridge wasn’t much help with the young major’s matrimonial issues. However, in the marriage registers for Croydon Parish Church we find that in 1766 Joseph Patridge took the plunge himself and walked down the aisle to marry a local woman, Mary Heathfield. The marriage lasted for 12 years, ending when Mary died, aged 49, in June 1778. Mary was buried in the church, what we now know as Croydon Minster, and remembered on a plaque in the belfry along with several other members of the Heathfield family. This plaque was lost in the fire of 1867.
The death of Partridge’s father-in-law James Heathfield in 1772 reveals a little more about Joseph and Mary. Heathfield left £50 each to them, with Mary also getting “all the plate that was my late wife’s”. James Heathfield’s will explains that Mary had already received a gift £100 as well as having a matrimonial settlement of £2,000 – about £450,000 in today’s money.
Partridge outlived his wife by 10 years. His own will provided further information about him. By the time of his death, Wolfe’s lieutenant had achieved the rank of captain in the 41st Regiment of Foot, and had retired to live in Westbury upon Trym in Gloucestershire.
At that time the 41st were designated as a “Regiment of Foot; Invalids”, comprised of soldiers who had been partly disabled by their wounds or who, because of their old age, were unable to be combatants in an active campaign. They were, however, deemed fit enough for garrison duty. Quartered in or near to Portsmouth, the regiment’s duties included the guarding of prisoners of war and general garrison duties.
Capt Partridge’s will shows that there were no children from his marriage. Joseph’s brother John was given a bequest as was Sarah his sister, both receiving a ring and £300 each. Three siblings of his late wife Mary were also provided for, together with bequests for nieces and nephews.
Before they moved to Croydon, Joseph and his Partridge family originally came from Norfolk, specifically Old Buckenham House, situated between Norwich and Thetford.
Joseph, John and Sarah Partridge lived in Croydon because of their family connections. Their father Henry moved here from Norfolk after he married Martha Wright, the daughter of a local merchant. The family never forgot their Norfolk roots, though, as both Henry and Martha were buried in St Mary’s Church, West Tofts. Henry and Martha had four sons and seven daughters. Henry died in 1733 and Martha in 1760.
Martha Partridge left a very detailed will, revealing the family’s wealth. Her detailed distribution of items of furniture such as an Indian table, pieces of china and pictures set in gold provided clear evidence of what the interior of her house would have been like. She left “guinea rings” for both the vicar and curate of Croydon Parish Church and £10 to be distributed to the poor of both the parishes of Croydon and West Tofts.
Sums of money held in bank annuities were bequeathed to John and Sarah, neither of whom married.
Sarah died in 1790, aged 74. John died in 1809, aged 90. John had been a clerk in the Worshipful Company of Stationers from 1759 until 1776. For the last years of his life he became blind. He was buried with his sister Sarah in a small vault in the graveyard at Croydon. She was described as a “singlewoman who had lived in the parish for 55 years”. John remembered the family connection to Norfolk by bequeathing £100 to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.
And General Wolfe?
He met his end in the battle for Quebec in September 1759, after a daring 18th Century-version of a commando raid.
Under orders from the Prime Minister of the time, William Pitt the Elder, Wolfe’s army had spent three months laying siege to the city, where the Marquis de Montcalm commanded the numerically superior French forces. It was a stalemate, but the British needed a decisive action to dislodge the French before reinforcements, possibly including war ships, arrived from Europe by sailing up the St Lawrence River. And Wolfe knew he needed to act before winter arrived, the river froze and they themselves would become snowed-in.
Wolfe came up with a plan. In a daring amphibious assault, the British force of about 4,400 men rowed at dawn past Quebec by river in small boats, and then scaled the cliffs, hauling all their kit, muskets and artillery, to the high ground of the Plains of Abraham just outside the city fortifications, forcing Montcalm’s troops out and into battle.
Wolfe, as generals tended to do at that time, led from the front. As the British charged, Wolfe was shot three times – in the shoulder, the arm and in the chest. The battle was won within just 15 minutes, the stricken general still issuing orders to cut off the French retreat.
Wolfe lived long enough to know that his plan to defeat the French had succeeded, with his last words being, “Now God be praised I will die happy.” Wolfe had never married, though he carried with him into battle a locket with a portrait of Katherine Lowther. He was 32 years old.
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- Four candles and the tragic tale of the Croydon tallow chandler
- How real-life Indiana Jones put together the Scrolls of antiquity
- The sadness in the legacy of 18th Century Vicar of Croydon
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
David Morgan, right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups.
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
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