James Blanch (1784 – 1841): Custom House Officer, convict, and mathematical instrument maker

My great-great-great-great-grandfather James Blanch (1754 – 1840) had four children with his first wife, Jane Barlow. The couple were married at St Anne’s, Soho on 5 September 1779, and in the following May their first child, James, was christened at the same church. However, it seems he didn’t survive. James’ and Jane’s first daughter Maria would be christened in 1781 and her sister Elizabeth two years later in 1783. Finally, another son named James was born towards the end of 1784 and baptised in early 1785.

Maria Blanch would marry John Rodbard of Little Stanmore in 1811. We know very little about what became of her sister Elizabeth, though someone of her name and sharing the same birth year died at Wilson Street, St Pancras in 1853 and was buried at All Souls, Kensal Green.

As for James Blanch junior, it was believed until recently that he was the person of that name who married Martha Babey in 1814 and who lived and worked as a plasterer in the Holborn area. However, there was always a discrepancy between that James Blanch’s birth date, which census returns claimed was in about 1796, and what we knew about ‘our’ James, the son of James and Jane.

Recently, my fellow Blanch family researchers Robin Blanch and Jan Addison have come to the conclusion that ‘our’ James was in fact the person who married Sarah Empson at St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, on 2 September 1813, when he was about 28 years old. Unusually, the marriage seems to have been witnessed by as many as seven people. The record in the parish register is difficult to read, but the names definitely include James Blanch senior (presumably the groom’s father) and Mary Ann Blanch (his 19-year-old half-sister), and possibly Thomas Harrison (who would marry Mary Ann eleven years later).

Custom House, London, in about 1840

Research by Jan and Robin has uncovered some remarkable information about the twists and turns that James’ and Sarah’s lives would take in the following years. On 16 February 1814, just five months after his wedding, James Blanch appeared in the dock at the Old Bailey, indicted along with his colleague John Brennan ‘for feloniously stealing, on the 20th of January, ten yards of Russia duck, value 30s. the property of our Lord the King’, as well as on a second count ‘for like offence, stating it to be the property of George Hall,’ and two other counts ‘stating it to be the property of other persons.’ Russia(n) duck is a kind of cloth, apparently a fine white linen canvas. James Blanch and John Brennan were both Custom House Officers, stationed on board George Hall’s ship. His job might explain how James came to be living in Stepney, close to the London docks. We know, also, that his father James Blanch senior had the same occupation at the time of his death in 1840.

The transcript of the trial is reproduced below:

GEORGE HALL . I am master of the ship the Lord Harlington, from St. Petersburgh to London. I brought a general cargo, among other things Russia linen. My vessel laid in the London Docks for being unladen. The two prisoners were Custom-house officers stationed on board my ship.

Q. About what time was your cargo delivered – A. She was cleared the 9th of this month, and in the course of delivering the goods I was two pieces of Russia duck deficient. The bale was opened for the purpose of getting it out of the place; it was stationed in my state-room; it was too large to get it out whole, therefore they took it out by pieces, and on my finding that I was two pieces of Russia linen deficient I mentioned it to Blanch.

JOSEPH BECKWITH . I am an apprentice on board the Lord Harlington.

Q. Were you in the docks in that ship in the month of January – A. Yes. On Tuesday the 18th, Luke Rochford was clearing the forecastle, I saw the two pieces of Russia duck in the shot locker; this bag was underneath the two pieces of Russia linen in the shot locker. About eleven o’clock in the forenoon I saw it again in the same place in the shot locker.

Q. What time was it you saw it first – A. A little after breakfast, and I saw it again between three and four in the afternoon in the same place. I saw part of it in the same place; part was gone; about half a piece apparently was gone.

Q.When was it you saw a half piece – A. On the 19th, the next day. I perceived a piece and a half was left, and that half a piece was gone. On Wednesday I saw the other half piece underneath the bed cabin. It was about one o’clock I saw it underneath the bed cabin. I first saw a piece and a half, the next day I saw the half piece.

Q.About what o’clock did you see the half piece – A. About one o’clock I saw the half piece underneath the bed cabin in the forecastle; that was a few yards from the shot locker. On Wednesday I mentioned it to Blanch; the other prisoner was on shore. I told him on Tuesday I saw the two pieces underneath the shot locker, that it had been removed. Blanch said Brennan was on shore; we should tell him of it; he added that it would be better to tell the captain, and we should not be blamed, and then they would make a seizure of it. He said there were two boys who had run away, it might be imputed to them, and they would be transported for it. We waited till Brennan came on board; Brennan came about twelve o’clock; then Brennan sent a man to call me in the cabin; I went into the cabin; I found the two prisoners in the cabin. Brennan said they would take the two pieces of Russia linen; they would give me a few shillings out of it, and they would do the best they could with it.

Q. How soon afterwards did you miss the Russia duck out of the place where you saw it – A. Directly after this conversation I went to the place where I had seen it, and found it was missing.

GEORGE NORTH . I am mate of the Lord Harlington. I was informed where the Russia duck was; I was directed by the Captain to watch who should take it away from that place; for the purpose of seeing that, I placed myself close to the bulk head, forward; I then commanded a view of the sleeping place of the two prisoners; they were in bed at the time I was stationed there. I saw Brennan get out bed. I saw one of the prisoners take the Russia duck from under the bed cabin; he placed it in the clew of his hammock. The other was by at the time. Then Brennan got on his back; he was partly dressed. I cannot say which of them laid it on his back; they were both together. Blanch tied his breeches with rope yarn; the waistband would not meet.

Q. Then the Russia duck was in the waistband of his breeches – A. Yes. I then went on deck, and sent for a police officer; the officer came, and found the duck on his person.

Mr. Alley. Smuggling is done as secret as possible – A. Yes.

MR. CLARK. I am a Thames police constable. The captain came for me. I took this piece of Russia duck from Brennan’s back; it was fastened round his waistband with rope yarn. This is the half piece I took from his back; the other has not been found. When I found it upon Brennan he said it was the first thing he had done ever since he had been in the employ.

Q. to Captain Hall. Was that the Russia duck that was on board your vessel – A. Yes; it is ten yards.

Blanch’s Defence. This piece of Russia linen the two boys that run away from the ship, they said they bought it in Russia; they asked us to buy it; we gave them twelve shillings for it.

Brennan said nothing in his defence.

Brennan called five witnesses, who gave him a good character.

BLANCH, GUILTY , aged 29.

BRENNAN, GUILTY , aged 32.

Transported for Seven Years

The sentence might seem unduly harsh for a fairly petty theft, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries plenty of people faced transportation, or worse, for lesser crimes. James Blanch and John Brennan were confined in the prison hulk, the ‘Retribution’, moored at Woolwich. The records state that Brennan was pardoned in 1818, but that James was transported to Australia on the ‘Mary Anne’ on 7 July 1815. He actually arrived in Sydney on another ship, the ‘Fanny’, on 18 January 1816.

Prison hulk

Having served his time, James gained his Ticket of Leave in February 1821 and opted to remain in Sydney. His wife Sarah sailed on the ‘Brixton’ and joined him there in 1822. Julian Holland, in an article in the Australian Metrologist which first alerted my fellow researcher Robin Blanch to our ancestor’s remarkable life-story, narrates the next stage of James’ career:

Blanch set up business in Pitt Street as a mathematical and philosophical instrument maker, brass founder, brazier, plater and general worker in silver and brass. By February 1822 he had moved to ‘a more commodious and centrical situation’ at 78 George Street. ‘J.B. makes, and has always for Sale, brass and plated harness furniture, parlour and chamber candlesticks, copper tea-kettles, brass cocks of all sorts, locks and hinges of every description, scales, beams, weights and steelyards, wire fenders, hand bells, ivory and wood rules, &c.’ He also advertised ‘Sextants, Quadrants, Compasses, Telescopes, and other Nautical and Optical Instruments repaired and accurately adjusted.—Umbrellas and Parasols made and repaired; Musical instruments repaired; and every article in brass, copper, silver or ivory, made to any pattern.’ Such were the diverse means by which Blanch began to prosper. By this time Blanch was aided in his work by assigned convicts, and before 1822 was out he was seeking an apprentice. His address then was 71 George Street, and in time he also acquired the adjacent properties, nos. 69 and 70.

The range of his goods and services suggests that his skills as a mathematical instrument maker played a minor part in his business. While he could not have made a living at this alone, his skill was unique in the colony, and was on occasion valuable to the government. At the beginning of 1823 we find him being paid for the repair of compasses at the government dockyard and the following year he received 32 Spanish dollars and 50 cents for repairing mathematical instruments in the Surveyor-General’s Department.

How James was able to engage in this highly skilled trade, and achieve such remarkable success, is a mystery, given his previous employment as a Custom House Officer. To date, no record of an apprenticeship has come to light. Meanwhile, James and Sarah had started a family in Sydney. In 1822 their first child Maria Jane was born, in the following year they had a son James, in 1824 another daughter Sarah, and in 1827 another son William, who died in infancy.

George Street, Sydney in the early 19th century

In 1826 the Blanch family was joined by James’ half-brother Joseph, aged 17, having arrived on the ‘London’.  It seems likely that Joseph worked for his brother’s company. The 1828 muster or census finds James, 44, Sarah, 37, Maria, 6, James junior 5, Sarah junior, 4, and Joseph, 19, all living together in George Street, Sydney.

Detail of Standard Yard made by James Blanch in Sydney in 1833 (private collection) (via The Australian Metrologist)

Julian Holland resumes the story of James Blanch’s remarkable career:

With the passing of the Bill for preventing the use of false and deficient Weights and Measures in August 1832, a more substantial piece of precision work came to Blanch. ‘It then became a question whether the old or New English Weights and Measures Should be declared the Standard in New South Wales [Governor Bourke informed Lord Goderich in the Colonial Office in London], which question was decided by its being found upon enquiry that no Authorised Set of weights and Measures of the Old Standard could be procured; but, from the Commissariat, a standard Set of Imperial Weights and Measures, Sent out by the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, has been obtained, which, being lodged in the office of the Colonial Treasurer, are declared the Standards of New South Wales, by which all Copies and Models are to be compared and verified.’ Bourke added that a Standard Yard had been obtained from the Surveyor-General’s Office.

Seven sets were required each consisting of a series of weights (1, 2, 4, and 8 drams, 1, 2, 4, and 8 ounces, 1, 2, 4, 7, 14, 28, and 56 pounds), a series of volume measures (half gill, gill, pint, quart, half gallon, gallon, peck, half bushel and bushel) and a standard yard.

Blanch had these ready by February 1833. Then balances and scales were required for ‘making a proper comparison of weights’. The provision of these also fell to Blanch, ‘the other Iron Mongers in the Town declined furnishing the Articles no one of them being able to make the same’. A note records the result: ‘The Surveyor General reports that the Colonial Architect considers the articles to be of as good quality as can be made in the Colony & the prices reasonable’.

Sets were distributed to police offices in various regional towns – Parramatta, Windsor, Bong-Bong, Goulburn, Bathurst, Maitland – as well as one to the police office in Sydney. In the end the production of the weights and measures, and their distribution to the various towns, amounted to £323.11.6, rather more than the sum allocated, but no one seems to have complained.

The late 1830s have been described as ‘a period of dazzling but false prosperity’. Blanch shared in this, acquiring farms at Kissing Point, Brisbane Water and Illawarra in addition to the George Street properties. Blanch died on 27 October 1841 intending the various properties to provide for his wife and three children. His widow, Sarah Blanch, believed the value of his estate did not exceed fourteen thousand pounds.

James Blanch was 56 when he died. For what it’s worth, he is rated at No. 182 in a list of the all-time richest Australians. Quite a contrast with his brother John, my great-great-great-grandfather, who worked as a shoe and boot-maker in Bethnal Green.

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3 Responses to James Blanch (1784 – 1841): Custom House Officer, convict, and mathematical instrument maker

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  2. Jim says:

    Hello –
    I was wondering that if in your research of your James Blanche you came in contact with my GGG GF, James Blanche, born in Guernsey, Channel Island, UK in 1754 and died 1841 in St. Anne’s Parish, England. He married Sarah Hayman, daughter of John Hayman of Norton’s Drops infamy:). I am looking for his parents. My GG grandfather was named after him and I was named after my GG GF. We are just about the only Jameses in all of my trees.

    Thanks for any pointers you may be able to provide me with to this James Blanche.

    Best, Jim

    • Martin says:

      Sorry, Jim, I haven’t found any connection between the Guernsey Blanche family and my own ancestors, who came from Bristol and Gloucestershire. The St Anne’s location is a coincidence – if you mean St Anne’s , Westminster (i.e. Soho). I’ve found a number of Blanch families resident in that area, but haven’t yet discovered any link to my own James Blanch.
      Best wishes
      Martin

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