Every family has its legends, some prove to be true whilst others turn out to be utter fiction and mine is no exception! Amongst the family papers is a small book ‘The Diaries of Harriett Newell’ published in 1817. Inside the cover is a handwritten note ‘Esther Smeaton, Eglinton Castle, December 1817’ and underneath in the hand of her daughter is written ‘Jane Montgomery Marshall, July 2nd 1843’. Now legend has it that Esther was a relative of the famous engineer John Smeaton of Eddystone Lighthouse fame. Intrigued and it has to be said somewhat sceptical I decided to investigate.
John Smeaton of Eddystone fame was born in 1724 at Whitkirk near Leeds in Yorkshire, the only surviving son of William Smeaton, a local attorney, born Kirkgate, Leeds in 1684 and his wife Mary Stones. John’s biography states his grandfather, who was a watchmaker, moved from York and built the family home of Austhorpe Lodge in 1698.Esther Smeaton by contrast was born in 1786 at Stichill, Roxburgshire. The extended pedigree and Arms of the Smeaton family of Whitkirk appear on page 60 of the ‘Records of Whitkirk Parish’ and prove the family’s lineage there as early as 1682. There are no apparent links with Scotland and no apparent familial connection whatsoever. So just where and when did the family legend originate?
Esther was the youngest of six children born to parents John Smeaton and Elizabeth Hamilton born at Stichill.
From the Stichill and Hume parish baptisms and marriages the Smeaton family have a line which can be traced back here into the mid 17th century too. However, by the time of the 1841 census no Smeatons can be found in the parish of Stichill, with only a Janet Smeaton and her son William at Coldside Farm in the neighbouring village of Hume in Berwickshire. The last entry in the registers is dated 1830. The lack of death records for the parish of Stichell and Hume makes it difficult to eliminate children that may have died in infancy. Here I must thank my friend and colleague Fergus Smith of Old Scottish for looking up the memorial inscriptions at Stichell which have been crucial in unravelling certain members of this family.
What appears to be Esther’s brother George married a Janet Marshall daughter of George Marshall, a merchant of the Eastend of Hume and his wife Catherine Henderson. Together George and Janet had at least the following children, born in Hume, Berwickshire but recorded in the Stichell, Parish Registers, in Roxburghshire with which the Church of Hume was joined.
It is to the children of George and Janet that attention must be turned for clues as to the origin of the family legend. It transpires that George junior was an eminent theologian:
George Smeaton (1814-89) was born in Berwickshire, studied at Edinburgh University, and was ordained to the ministry of the Church of Scotland at Falkland in Fife in 1839. He was among those hundreds of ministers who came out at the Disruption in 1843 to form the Free Church of Scotland, and later that year was inducted to Auchterarder Free Church. He was appointed to the Chair of Divinity at the Free Church College in Aberdeen in 1853, and in 1857 became Professor of New Testament Exegesis at New College, Edinburgh, holding this post until his death in 1889.
George, or at least the biographer who researched him for Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, believed the family legend was true.
So far as can be determined this familial relationship is impossible as the John Smeaton of Eddystone fame had no brothers. His father William did have a brother John who died at Whitkirk in 1743 but no issue from his marriage is indicated in the family pedigree. For the familial connection to be true, George’s grandfather would have had to have been the son of John died 1743 above which he is not. He appears to have been born to John Smeaton and Margaret Shiel at Stichill in 1736.
George’s mother Janet who had been widowed before 1841 died at his home in Mansionhouse Road, Edinburgh in 1866. George himself passed away in 1889 and is interred with his wife and his three children, including his youngest son Oliphant, in Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh. Oliphant, (full name William Henry Oliphant Smeaton) was a well known ‘Scottish writer, journalist, editor, historian and educator’
He left for New Zealand in 1878 where he taught school for several years. Smeaton then travelled to Australia where he spent ten years as a journalist before finally returning to Britain in 1893. Moving to Edinburgh, he began writing about Australian life and literature for various publications in Victorian Britain, including a multi-volume effort popularly known as the "Famous Scots Series". He also began writing several adventure and children's fiction novels such as By Adverse Winds (1895), Our Laddie (1897) and A Mystery Of The Pacific (1899).
George junior’s sister Elizabeth (Betty) married first a William Henderson of Auchterader at Stichill and Hume in 1830. She married secondly a George Clark of County Down, possibly in Ireland as it was there that their eldest child, Janet Marshall Clark, was born in 1842. Her husband George died on 3rd December 1864 at Rostrevor, Killkeel, County Down, following which the family was once more on the move. This time the destination was New Zealand where youngest daughter Wilhelmina married her cousin Oliphant Smeaton in New Zealand in 1878. Elizabeth died at Queens Street, Thames New Zealand on 3rd June 1884. The familial connection was confirmed by her obituary in the newspaper.
Brother William born 1819 remained at Coldside Farm and appears to have died unmarried at some point after 1861. The Farm of Coldside was advertised to let in 1862 and William is named as the current tenant, but no death record has been identified for him to date. Then we come to eldest brother John who also seems to claim the same relationship as his brother George as evidenced by this article that appeared in the Scotsman in 1827.
Confirmation that this was the correct gentleman came from another reference to the prize
As it happens – possibly inspired by his supposed ‘kinsman’, the John Smeaton in the press also went on to become an engineer of some note. He died in October 1841 and is buried in Kensall Green CemeteryGrace's Guide contains the following entry:
John Smeaton (1806-1841), born at Hume, Berwickshire
Civil Engineer to the London Dock Co
1842 John Smeaton of the London Docks, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers
In 1844 a case was brought in front of the Court of Chancery between George Smeaton for his brother John and William Marshall likely to have been his uncle.
In 1827 Esther Smeaton (the original owner of the book) married John Marshall a tenant farmer of nearby Fallside Hill. In 1828 their only child, a daughter, was baptised Jane Montgomery. Esther died in 1834 and in the 1841 census, Jane aged 13 and her father can be found living at Fallside Hill with a Mary Thomson aged 14 and Helen Cameron aged 30.
Her father John died in 1842 and Jane went to live with her unmarried paternal aunt Janet Marshall with whom she can be found in Wester Row, Greenlaw in 1851. She married John Smith of West Chevington at Durham in 1858 and died in 1860. She is remembered on the family memorial stone in Norham Churchyard. It is through this marriage the book came to be in our family’s possession. In 1863 John Smith married again and the rest, as they say, is history.
Was the familial association dreamed up by the young Smeaton’s father to inspire them? We shall never know but the legend has endured to this day. The reason why Esther was at Eglinton Castle in 1817 remains a mystery and as no records for Smeaton can be found in Ayreshire it will likely remain so.