steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Fire and Fleet

Those of you who follow my family maunderings will know that when I went to the British Library in September to research Daniel Southwell's voyage to Australia with the First Fleet, I was surprised to find him referring to a young cousin of his on another of the Fleet ships - a lad named Daniel Butler. This was a shock, as I'd never come across young Dan Butler in my family tree, even though most of the children of that generation are listed. There were several potential Butler uncles for Dan to be the son of, but none had his name attached. Dan is a lively character - not very disciplined, a bit untidy though "a clever little tar" when he puts his mind to it, bad about writing letters home, an artist of sorts, something of a rogue in fact (as my great*4 grandfather Weeden calls him in a letter to Southwell). Southwell - only in his mid-twenties himself - takes him under his wing and is solicitous about him in letters after their paths diverge, but there is never any mention of his having parents, although he is clearly only in his mid-teens. The last sight we have of him - and that's really a non-sighting - is in a letter of June 30th, 1793, from Southwell to Uncle Weeden:

Does my enquiry about Dan. B. slip your memory or has any thing particular come to hand? I have left off to ask my mother, as possibly she might not like to inform me of any mishap but you Uncle need not be sway’d by any such reasons. We know “we’re born to die”. I was going to say particularly soldiers and sailors, and you yourself once did tell me or ask me, if “Botany Bay would not sound as well at the Day as Nicholas Lane or Chelsea.” So also I imagine Africa, or the sea between it and us.

And that's where our story ended in September. Since then, however, I've been contacted by Michael Flynn, an Australian historian currently working on a new edition of The founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet. He's given me quite a bit of help with the two First Fleet Daniels (and I hope I've given him a little too). The story is now coming together, although it's sadder than I would have liked...

First, we've established - largely by a process of elimination - that young Dan Butler is, as I speculated in September, the son and namesake of Daniel Butler, whose feats of derring-do in capturing a French privateer in 1756 got these family history entries off to such a dramatic (if sanguinary) start. That older Daniel was, naturally, much feted after his exploit: I have a copy of a letter from his brother saying that his health was being drunk by complete strangers, and indeed it earned him a coveted Lieutenancy. I also have letters to Daniel from his father and from Weeden, however, reminding him that he mustn't let his deeds go to his head, and that he must remember to give thanks to God.

At the time I thought this was conventional piety, and perhaps it was, but now I begin to wonder. Daniel senior was 25 when he captured the ship. From the lack of references to him in the Southwell correspondence I'd assumed he was dead by the time the First Fleet sailed thirty-one years later. Thanks to my historian friend we have established that this is not so: however, things had gone fairly sharply downhill for him. By 1771 he was on half-pay, and petitioning to be reinstated to his Lieutenancy (we don't yet know why or how he lost it). His wife, Margaret, is recorded as giving birth to young Dan in the Lying-in Hospital in 1772. The hospital had been founded just 5 years earlier, but was no elite institution: it was designed for the "wives of poor industrious Tradesmen or distressed House-keepers" as well as soldiers and sailors - and it is simply as "sailor" that Daniel's name is recorded. By 1776, in his mid-forties, he was in a different Fleet - the debtors' prison in London.

Clearly, a lot of information is missing about how Daniel ended up in that situation, and how the wider Butler family reacted. As Southwell's letters make clear, there was some attempt to help young Dan along (and possibly his sister, for he apparently had one), but it's unclear just how material a form that help took. The formerly heroic Daniel, however, was persona non grata. A letter written by Weeden to Southwell when the latter was in New South Wales in January 1791, names no names but it's fairly clear who's meant. He tells Southwell that young Dan is currently sailing to the West Indies: "Far better there, or anywhere, than with those you know", adding: "Our Strange Being goes on as usual: and if anything can be more miraculous, it is, that He yet lives to do so. I have given him up for ever."

At that point, Daniel Butler would have been some sixty years old. He was out of both Fleets, it seems, but whatever had brought him low - drink? gambling? PTSD? - he clearly hadn't risen far since.

We still lack a date of death for either Daniel Butler. Perhaps that will come. It's all too likely, of course, that old Daniel ended in a pauper's grave somewhere, and that young Dan found a briny tomb between here and Africa, as Southwell evidently feared.

However, there's a slightly more hopeful postscript. Prior to moving to Margate, the parents of old Daniel, Weeden and the rest lived for some time in Rye, and the oldest brother, Richard, lived there still throughout this period, working as a solicitor. From 1802 onwards, a Daniel Butler and his wife Esther began baptizing children - and plenty of them - at Rye. Could this be young Dan, now thirty years old, moving to be near uncle Richard and his cousins? I don't know, but I'd like to think so, and that his rather chaotic story could have a happy ending.

As for the other Daniel, I wish him well - fire and fleet and candlelight. And a Happy New Year to the rest of you, this ae night, and every night and all.
Tags: family history

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