John Becher’s family
Early period 1761-76
Discharged from the Ambuscade in May 1761, John Becher marries Ann Haysham in August. He spends the next fifteen years on half pay, before his services are needed in the struggle to put down America's rebellious colonists.
The first phase of the marriage’s early period covers the birth of the three eldest children: Michael Thomas, John Harman and Henry Hopson. Henry’s birthplace has been identified as Park Hall, Kidderminster. There is no information on birthplace for the first two, but they are baptised simultaneously at Bristol St Augustine on 24 May 1764. On first reading, the record appears to quote John Harman’s birth date as 26 June 1762, implying that he is the elder, but all other accounts put Michael first: indeed, John Harman’s 1799 will, which states his exact age at the time it is made, implies birth in March 1764. This anomaly may account for secretive behaviour by their mother in later years.
That date, 26 June 1762, is worth noting: exactly nine months after his parents’ marriage. Since there is another account giving Michael’s birth date as 20 March 1762, we may suspect a subterfuge to cover the result of premarital sex.
There is another possibility: that Michael and Harman were both born in 1764. It’s notable that records of Michael’s academic career and death both assume he was born in 1764 and the “June 1762” entry was made by a recorder who had been bribed to conceal an incriminating truth.
Does this mean they were twins? Not necessarily. All family documents and accounts place Michael before Harman. Whoever told Harman he was born in March 1764 may have been trying to perpetuate other falsehoods about their birth. There is also a possibility that Harman was adopted.
Two possible narratives emerge of where the family has been living when these two are born.
The first narrative locates them in Bristol, where John’s widowed mother is living. Not only are the children baptised there in May 1764, but two months earlier John is accepted as a burgess of the town. This is a matter of lineage: grandfather’s status as burgess is grounds for his sons to claim the title, which can similarly be claimed by descendants like John.
An informant at Bristol Record Office tells me that the status doesn’t always imply residence in Bristol (except on the date of the award). Indeed, there are numerous examples, from electoral records, of votes cast by burgesses who were living elsewhere at the time (although they, too, would have had to travel to the city to cast their votes).
One further clue that may support this narrative is the description of John as "Captain John Becher" in the record of his fourth child’s baptism, although his rank in His Majesty's Navy is lieutenant. Since Bristol is a great mercantile centre, it’s possible he has taken a post as captain of a merchant ship. Some source of extra income seems desirable for someone trying to raise a family on a lieutenant's half pay (£52 a year in 1767).
The alternative narrative assumes that John is using his mother’s residence in Bristol as a convenience, much as he has used Admiral Thomas Smith’s residence in Hagley as a convenience for his marriage. He is actually living somewhere else: most likely Kidderminster, since it is there that the third son is born and baptised (11 April 1765).
The children’s names offer a clue.
For the eldest child, “Michael” is the name of John’s brother, who died in 1760. “Thomas” is likely as remembrance to their patron, Admiral Thomas Smith. Indeed it is likely that John Becher wanted Smith as the child’s godfather, and may even have promised him the role. Smith dies in August 1762, so he is alive when the child is born, but dead by the time of baptism.
m Jane Scott
son & 3 dtrs
m John Turner
m Frances Scott
For the next child, “John” is his father’s name, but “Harman” raises some interesting possibilities. Likeliest origin is with Captain William Harman: although there is no evidence that he and John Becher were ever shipmates, Harman has served under Smith. When Lieutenant Alexander Hood receives orders in May 1756 to join Smith’s fleet in the channel, he is told to report to “Captain Harman in HMS Oxford“. Given Smith’s habit of fraternising with officers who have served under him, Harman may well have spent time at Smith’s residence at Rockingham Hall, Hagley (as Hood, Michael Becher and George Hamilton are recorded as doing).
We can therefore postulate that John Becher has seen Smith periodically during this period, and that he has struck up a friendship with William Harman in the process. Harman may even have been present on the occasion of John’s marriage, since he was on half pay (i.e. not serving on any ship) at the time. He is also on half pay at the time of John Harman Becher’s baptism, so may well be a godfather.
The evidence from these children’s names point to a Becher residence near Hagley: Kidderminster fits the bill nicely. Probably John is a tenant on the Park Hall estate. The Hall at the time is owned by the Foley family, who in the previous century had made their fortunes in the iron trade. Suggestion of an iron-related link here, to back up other evidence that one source of John’s income is as West Midlands agent for William Attwick’s ironmongery business in Gosport
The fact that Alexander Hood later becomes godfather to John’s sixth child tends to confirm a link between the Bechers and Hagley. Elsewhere we see the possibility of a connection between John’s father and George Lyttelton, Smith’s half-brother and owner of Hagley Hall: yet another, albeit tenuous, Becher-Hagley link. Hood features here also, since he has met his future bride, Lyttelton’s cousin Mary West, at Hagley, and married her there.
Other names John and Ann Becher choose for their children offer interesting pointers. For the third child, “Henry” was the name of John’s father. The origin of “Hopson” has not yet emerged, but may well have a nautical connection. No officer named Hopson is recorded at the time of the baptism, but there are some of lower rank: notably Able Seaman Thomas Hopson, discharged from the Buckingham on 2nd March 1763. Sixty years earlier there was a Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Hopson.
Second (Kingswinford) phase
The next three children are baptised in Kingswinford, where the family home has been identified as Shut End House. The name suggests a significant upward move in the family’s fortunes: the location is nearer the centre of the Staffordshire iron industry but is still close enough to Hagley to maintain links.
Kingswinford parish circa 1670
Map from The Blackcountryman (1988) used by permission of Peter Chandler
First baptism is Anna Maria (18 January 1767). We may note an Italianisation of the names of John’s wife Ann and his mother Mary, who is still alive (and who indeed outlives him).
On 16 March 1768, John and Ann Becher are in London for her sister Elizabeth’s wedding to Henry Cort, and John becomes a trustee for the marriage settlement. This seems to be the only event other than Becher baptisms chronicled during this period. Next baptism is for Elizabeth Cort Becher (26 August 1768), so we can surmise that the Corts are present in Kingswinford for the baptism.
Third Kingswinford baptism is for Alexander Becher (17 April 1770). Godfather is Alexander Hood, appropriate in that he is the only one of John Becher’s children to achieve a commission in the navy. A warning for the keen researcher: his entry in Marshall's compendium gives his birthplace as "Sheet End". An obvious case of handwriting being misread.
The youngest child, Robert Charles Becher, is baptised at Brierley Hill (23 October 1772). Someone with local knowledge may be able to fathom why he is not at Kingswinford, as his parents are still living at Shut End House. The origins of the names Robert and Charles is not yet evident.
American war period 1777-9
John Becher and four of his children are recorded as playing a part in the American war, third son Henry Hopson making an appearance in the Caribbean in 1782. He transfers to the Alfred shortly after Thomas Morgan leaves.
John, having returned to England in 1779, makes a will in December. All seven of his children are mentioned in it.
We know that the eldest, Michael Thomas, has won a scholarship to Eton, and proceeds to Kings College, Cambridge in November 1781. John Harman has landed a job as a writer with the East India Company and taken off for Calcutta.
To become a covenanted servant a man had to be nominated by one of the Directors of the Company... By the eighteenth century most servants going out to India on their first appointment were young men with the rank of Writer. In 1751 the qualifications for a Writer were formally fixed at a minimum age of sixteen with proof being required that the boy had been through ‘a regular course if arithmetick and merchants’ accounts’.
From P J Marshall, East Indian Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the eighteenth century (Oxford, 1976)
We may note that John Harman is only fifteen when he is accepted as a writer. He is privileged: a relation, Richard Becher, is a director of the Company.
Last years of John Becher
After his discharge from active service, the family continue to live at Shut End House. There is evidence that John is involved in recruiting for the Navy, as well as procuring ironmongery for the Gosport business. In January 1782 he adds a codicil to his will.
Whereas I have met with losses since the making this my Will I leave my two daughters sixteen hundred pounds each my son Michael Thos five hundred my son John Harman one hundred my son Henry Hopson five hundred my son Alexander six hundred my son Robert Charles seven hundred pounds instead of the sums mentioned in my Will and I declare this to be a Codicil to my will this 27th day of January 1782.
From codicil to John Becher’s will.
John Becher’s death and aftermath
In November 1783 comes the Cort demonstration at Stourton (on the river, just beyond the western extremity of the Kingswinford map), the accident and the (coincidental?) death of John Becher. Cort visits again on business the following June. A letter from Joseph Black in Edinburgh is addressed to "Mr. Cort at Mrs. Bicker's, Stourbridge, Worcestershire". One wonders whether it reaches its intended destination: somehow it ends up in the Boulton-Watt collection in Birmingham.
Another business visit from Cort comes in November. Soon after this John Becher’s widow ups sticks and moves to Fareham.
From this point it’s easiest to follow the children’s fortunes a few at a time. Anna Maria (sometimes called Ann) evidently stays with her mother: she is certainly there when William Thackeray turns up nearly thirty years later. John Harman’s later history is covered elsewhere.
Little further to tell of Henry Hopson, said to die at sea in Africa – sounds as though his navy career continues. Likewise Robert Charles: only death in 1793 is recorded.
Michael Thomas qualifies for the priesthood, which later brings him two disparate jobs: head of a school in Bury St Edmunds, and Vicar of Wootton Wawen, dozens of miles away in Warwickshire. It is in Wootton that he marries Jane Scott (7th August 1806), a widow several years his senior: one child by her previous marriage is Alexander John Scott, a notable cleric whose service in the Navy has included ministering to Nelson on his deathbed.
It’s interesting to compare Michael’s marriage to his brother Alexander’s.
He married, in 1793, Frances, daughter of the Rev. – Scott, of Queen's College, Oxford, Rector of Kingston and Port Royal in Jamaica (and brother of the present Countess of Oxford), by whom he has issue Alexander Bridport, a Lieutenant R.N. and acting pro tempore as Hydrographer to the Admiralty…
From entry in Marshall's compendium of sea officers for Cort's nephew Alexander Becher.
Piquant! Both brothers marry a woman called Scott. Michael, a cleric, marries the widow of a naval officer. Alexander, a naval officer, marries the daughter of a cleric.
Another marriage: Elizabeth Cort Becher to Rev John Turner, who turns out to be an alumnus of a school in Bury St Edmunds – presumably the same one where Michael Thomas becomes head.
Widow Ann Becher eventually returns to Gosport. She dies there in 1825, but is buried in Fareham, where Anna Maria lives out the rest of her life.
A curious postscript. The will of Henry Cort’s son Frederick leaves £200 each to his “cousin Ann Becher of Fareham and her sister Mrs Elizabeth Turner in gratitude to their deceased brother Rev Michael Becher of Bury St Edmunds”. The deed which earned this gratitude may have been connected with the baptism of Frederick’s niece Frances Cort.