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THE LIFE & TIMES OF
JAMES GEE OF WALSALL

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: October 12, 2006

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In Bugles 730 and 731 we printed extracts from the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1803 that were written by a James Gee of Walsall. The Gentleman’s Magazine was the most prestigious periodical of its day, read by many thousands of people throughout the English speaking world. It was published from 1731 to 1914 but its heyday was the period at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries - when James Gee was having his letters published. However, we had been unable find any details to tell us who this James Gee was; all we knew was that he lived in Walsall and as well as being published in the Gentleman’s Magazine his works had also appeared in the European Magazine. We asked our readers if they could provide us with any information on this man. Yet again, we were not to be disappointed.

We were contacted by Mrs Pat Bywater, who lives in Brewood, and who told us that James Gee was her great-great-great-uncle. Not only that, but a number of James Gee’s papers had survived in the family including his memoirs, which he wrote around 200 years ago. The original documents were much faded through time but Mrs Bywater’s father Alan Gee, who for many years was at the Midland Bank in Walsall, faithfully transcribed the memoirs, and Mrs Bywater has kindly loaned to us his typewritten manuscript.

It seems that James Gee began writing his life story in 1797 and continued it, off and on, for the next 17 years or so. To begin with he systematically recorded his life, beginning with his birth and moving on to events that lead him to live in Walsall. The latter part of his memoirs is more piecemeal, as it becomes more like a diary, with Gee making intermittent entries, often not adding anything from one birthday to the next. Even so, his memoirs give a fascinating view of life in Georgian Walsall, and Gee led a life that was more interesting than most.

He was by no means a wealthy gentleman or born of noble stock. He was the son of a soldier and was born aboard a Royal Navy warship in 1746. His father, William Gee, had been born in Walsall but as a soldier he moved around a great deal and the family eventually settled in Ireland. James Gee was raised in Cork, and was largely self-educated. When he was around 20 he came to live in Walsall and the rest of his family joined him later on. Throughout his life James had a number of jobs – buckle maker, insurance agent, and Governor of Walsall Workhouse. He also built some houses at Limepit Bank in Walsall, known today as Bank Street.

James Gee died childless and so his memoirs passed to his brother Robert who then passed them to his son, also called James Gee. This James Gee established a successful bridle cutting factory in Lichfield Street and his uncle’s memoirs were passed down through the generations until they came to Pat Bywater.

James Gee was never wealthy enough to have his portrait painted and so we have no idea what he looked like. However, from his memoirs we get a very vivid picture of the man and his life. Here then is the first part of his story, in James Gee’s own words, telling of his early childhood in Ireland:

"I was born May 14th, 1746 on board a ship then lying at Spithead with others having Troops on board intended to be sent to take Cape Breton, but as that was done by the New England People under the command of Sir William Pepperel, this Fleet did not go there, but in the same year (in September) were employed in making a descent on the coast of France under the command of Sir John Sinclair. Afterwards they proceeded to Cork and from thence to England again where the Regiment to which my Father belonged, remained about three years and were at Portsmouth, Plymouth, Salisbury, Exeter, Biddeford, Newbury and many other places. When being ordered for Ireland again we landed at Waterford and I remember to have been at Newport-Pratt, Castle Comber, Kilkenny, Phillips Town, Galway and Limerick.

"In the year 1753 my Father solicited his discharge which he obtained at Kinsale Fort after serving in the Regiment about fifteen years and I was then seven years old. His family at that time consisted of my Mother and me, and two younger Brothers Robert and George. As his allowance when discharged from the Regiment was not sufficient to cover the expense of bringing us to his native Walsall, we went to the town of Bandon where we staid about a week with my Mother’s relations, and from thence to Cork where my Mother had two Brothers settled, Jeremiah and James Collins who were coopers by trade. My Father also had a Brother there – Thomas Gee – who worked at the buckle business and my Parents having been there before and their two eldest daughters, Edith and Ann having died and been buried there, the place to them was a sort of home. In this city I remained until September 14th, 1766.

"Before I proceed any further I will give some account of the Regiment I was born in and also of the respective families of my Father and Mother. My Father enlisted in the 30th Regiment about 1738 and served in it about fifteen years. The Corps was originally raised in 1702 as Marines and frequently did duty as such; after they were numbered as a marching Regiment of Foot especially in the war which closed in 1748. They were commanded by Colonel Bisset from 1717 to 1742, then for a short time by General De Grangues; in 1743 by General Frampton and in 1749 by the Earl of London who was their Colonel many years after. They were faced with yellow and were the first Regiment I noticed whose Grenadiers &c wore black hairy caps like the Guards, which they had new in 1753. I have before noticed their being in France at L’Orient and Quiberon Bay in 1746 and they were on board the Fleet commanded by Anson and Warren which defeated the French Fleet May 3rd, 1747 when I was one year old. After my Father left them they were sent to Gibraltar where they remained many years and were commanded by General Parslow. They were fine, sightly and well behaved men when I knew them, but I do not know much of them of late years nor in which part of the world they now are, yet I should like to see them again as I am partial to them as most people are to their native place.

"I was begotten (as I have heard my Parents say) on board the Royal Sovereign, a first Rate, and born on board the Chrieton (or Creighton) a ship of sixteen guns and I may say that I was born in a wooden world and christened in a place (i.e. the ship) where there was more swearing than prayers. Two Sergeants, Priestly and Marshall were my Godfathers and as I was born within the bounds of Hampshire, that is to say between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, I may venture (notwithstanding my Irish education) to call myself an Englishman, but if I had chanced to be born in Ireland I should not be ashamed if it. I had the small pox and measles on board and the first land I ever was upon was at Plymouth in Devonshire.

"My great Grandfather Gee lived at Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire and followed the business of a wheelwright and farmer. My Grandfather William Gee was born there about 1688 and was set apprentice at Walsall in Staffordshire where he followed the business of bucklechape forger many years. He died at the age of 80 and I attended his funeral in September 1767. He married Ann Peat whose family lived at Five Lanes End near Walsall. She had a Brother named William (father to James and John Peat) and six Sisters who married persons of the names of Saunders, Smith, Whitehouse, Mills, Dutton, etc.

"My father William Gee was born at Walsall in 1712 and was the eldest of his Father’s children. His Brothers were Thomas and James – the former went into the Army and had two or three wives and two Daughters who went young to America from Cork and I have never heard of them since. James lived a bachelor and was brought up to making of nails and lived most of his days at West Bromwich. He was a preacher at the Meeting in the Castle Yard, Walsall. He was not very fond of some of his relations as he did not think them of the number of the Elect, nor of me tho’ I was called after him. He died in 1790 and was taken in a hearse to Birmingham where he was buried in a vault in the new Baptist Meeting in Wolverhampton Street. If he died worth any property it never came into the hands of any of his relatives.

"John Gee, another of my uncles, was brought up to chape making but latterly followed the business of pressing out iron chape tongue. He has been lame with the rheumatism many years but by his industry and economy some years back, he has acquired three houses which, as he is now situated, is some advantage to him. He has been married twice and has seven children whereof six are married. My Father also had two sisters – Mary, who married John Harvey by whom she had two children William and Sarah, and Sarah who married Thomas Foot and left one daughter.

"My parents have had eight children – Edith and Ann who are buried at Cork; William buried at Portsmouth; James now living; Robert and George, buried at Cork, and John and Mary now living at Walsall – and so much for my Father’s family.

"My Mother whose name was Mary Collins, was born at Lislee a village near Courtmasherry and Timoleague in May 1713. This place lies between Bandon and Ross Carberry in the south of Ireland. Her Godfather was Boyle Travers Esq. Her father was John Collins, son of Thomas Collins an Englishman who settled in these parts and rented a large farm from the Travers’. My Mother’s Mother was named Courtney, a niece of the famous Captain Stephen Courtney who sailed round the Globe in a ship called The Duchess of 30 guns in the year 1708. Mr David Henry, the compiler of Voyages round the World by English Navigators, published by Newberry of London in 1773 says that “Captain Courtney was a man of birth, fortune and many able qualities”. My Mother’s Uncle William Courtney was Father to William and John who, I remember (when I was a boy) often brought corn and potatoes to Cork market on their own sloop from Courtmasherry. My Mother had five brothers, Stephen, Thomas, Paul, Jeremiah and James Collins most of whom left children who lived in the South of Ireland. She had also three Sisters two of whom married persons of the names of Barry and Fitzgerald and in consequence of the intermarriage of my relations on both sides, I have cousins german of the names of Gee, Collins, Harvey, Fitzgerald, Barry, Allen, Banbrook, Foot, Clarke, Summerfield, &c.

"My Mother lived a chambermaid at the Burlington Arms in the town of Bandon in 1740. It was kept by a cousin of hers and my Father’s Regiment being quartered there, he became acquainted with my Mother and they were married in the Parish Church of Ballimoden on Candlemas Day, in 1740.

"I have before mentioned sufficient of what happened while he remained in the army excepting one circumstance. The Regiment was with the Duke’s Army at Lichfield in the Winter of 1745 and my mother was with a Captain’s Lady in a coach at Stonnal and was then big of me, so that I was very near Walsall before I was born yet never was in it until I was near twenty-one years old.

"Although I travelled over more ground in extent and was in more places during the first seven years of my life than since, yet I cannot relate much of incident during that time. The first time I ever heard organs (of which I am still very fond) to notice them was in the Cathedral of Limerick and I then thought that the sound proceeded from the silver verge or rod borne by the Verger as he preceded the Minister to the communion table (a proof of the mistaken notions of children) and I was then six years old.

"Afterwards when our Regiment was quartered in the Fort of Kinsale, I remember that the Garrison and inhabitants firmly believed a story of an apparition of a former Governor’s son in the form of a white rabbit. They had used to say that it made its appearance at midnight on the batteries and if any of the centinals became sleepy or drowsy at their posts, it used to waken them by scratching them. It is said that a former Governor had a son who,

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