“Cold Clay”

Barbara Rich
23 min readOct 7, 2018


The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart — part 2

Mary Unwin became heiress to a fortune before she was four years old in 1848. The history of her inheritance is rooted in the middle of the 18th century and the professional relationship and friendship between her great-grandfather, James Unwin (1717–1774) and Edward Wheeler (1722–1761), a relationship which came to change the life of James Unwin, and of his descendants.

James Unwin came from a family of cloth merchants in Great Baddow, Essex. In 1738 he was articled to James Burgh, an attorney, practising in Castle-yard (modern Furnival Street), Holborn. On James Burgh’s death, his younger brother Bertie Burgh took his place and went into partnership with James Unwin. Bertie Burgh was steward to the third and fourth Dukes of Beaufort, as his father had been before him, and it may be that James Unwin became known to the Burghs through his acquaintance with Margaret, the future wife of the painter Thomas Gainsborough, who had also grown up in Great Baddow. Margaret was the illegitimate daughter of the third duke of Beaufort, who acknowledged his paternity to the extent of agreeing to pay her an annuity, which James Unwin managed for the Gainsboroughs during the 1740s. The Burghs were also the connection between James Unwin and Edward Wheeler, as Bertie Burgh was married to Edward’s sister, Mary. The men’s friendships developed through these connections in the growing metropolis of 1740s London, with all its busy occupations and entertainments. Despite their very different working lives, James Unwin and Edward Wheeler shared some enthusiasms. Both were amongst the subscribers to the first edition of Anson’s Voyage Around the World when it was published in 1748.

Edward Wheeler and the Wheeler family of Stourbridge

Stourbridge, then a market and early industrial town in Worcestershire, was Edward Wheeler’s birthplace. He was baptised on 4 March 1721/2 at Oldswinford, so must have been born earlier that year or in late 1721. He spent his early childhood at his father’s home, Wollaston Hall, in Stourbridge. The Huguenots had brought glass-blowing as a local industry to Stourbridge in the late 16C. The Wheelers of Stourbridge of the following two centuries[1] came to prominence and prosperity through their work first as agents and managers for, and then in partnership with the Foleys, a successful local family of ironmasters. This family’s enterprises extended beyond Worcestershire into Staffordshire, expanding their activities in furnaces and forges, glass and iron. In 1692 Edward’s grandfather, John Wheeler, had purchased the fine Jacobean mansion of Wootton Lodge, in rural north east Staffordshire, built from a design by Inigo Jones for the Fleetwood family in about 1611 — a “prodigy house” as such Elizabethan and Jacobean mansions, intended to flaunt wealth and status in “proud ambitious heaps”, are sometimes described. Edward was both his father’s and his uncle’s heir. The Wheelers’ extensive land and property in Stourbridge, including the Ridgrave Glasshouse, were all entailed for Edward and future generations of his sons, and he stood to inherit Wootton Lodge and other Staffordshire property on the death of his uncle John’s widow. On 24 November 1746, following his father’s death earlier that year, Edward, together with James Unwin and Bertie Burgh executed legal documents (essentially giving effect to a notional sale of the property to James Unwin and a collaborative fictional court process called a common recovery, to be instigated by Bertie Burgh) to enable Edward to bring the Stourbridge entail to an end and own the land outright. In 1750 he commenced Chancery litigation against his cousin, daughter of his uncle John, and her husband, and his uncle’s widow, to make certain of his rights to inherit Wootton Lodge and the other Staffordshire estate on the widow’s death.

Wollaston Hall, Stourbridge, Edward Wheeler’s childhood home

A Naval Career

Whilst still very young, Edward chose, or had chosen for him, a career in the Royal Navy, far from the land-locked Midlands of his birth. It was relatively unusual for an only surviving son to go into the Navy. One reason may have been that the prosperity of the iron business was in decline, and the family lands were encumbered with debt — there had been litigation in the year of his birth between his parents and his mother’s family, and more was to follow. It is also possible his older brother was still alive when Edward first went to sea as a boy. His introduction to the Navy — and some necessary patronage — may well have come through his family connection with the Foleys, their iron-working business and its supply of nails and ordnance to the Navy. His career gives him some emblematic weight in this narrative, as the Navy was a commanding presence in English life for much of the second half of the eighteenth century, as a force of war at sea, and as a significant element of the economy, and of public administration on land.

Edward’s early years in the Navy are difficult to trace. He appears to have entered the service in September 1736, when he was 14. Given his background, this would almost certainly have been as a captain’s servant, or as a midshipman, and his general education would have continued aboard his ship, together with learning to enable him to become a commissioned officer in the Navy. His first commission was on 23 January 1741/2, when he was 20, and joined HMS Lightning as a lieutenant. HMS Lightning was a “bomb” ship, armed with 8 guns and designed to attack fortifications with mortars fired from the sea. His commission was conferred by Admiral Vernon, commander of the British fleet in Jamaica, and his previous service was not recorded with the details of the commission, as it would have been in England. But Edward must have had at least six years’ experience at sea and passed the lieutenants’ examination before receiving his commission. In October 1742 he was discharged from HMS Lightning and, again as a lieutenant, joined HMS Grafton, a 70 gun warship then moored at Port Royal in Jamaica. Although the fleet was in the Caribbean to advance British naval strength and protect British trade against the Spanish, for much of the time he served on the ship, it remained at Port Royal, with little activity other than provisioning and repair. The captain’s log marks the events of two rather more momentous consecutive days in January 1743:

30 January Being the anniversary of the martyrdom of King Charles the first hoisted our colours half staff up and at noon fired mourning guns on that occasion

31 January Read the articles of war to the ship’s company & punish’d Patrick Alvarez a Spaniard by running the Gauntlet for attempting sodomy

Later that year, on 23 December 1743, Edward himself was dismissed from both HMS Grafton and the Navy, for disobeying orders (that there should always be two lieutenants aboard the ship) and for disrespect (disturbing the captain in his cabin at night unnecessarily and speaking to him in a Grumbling, Flaunting and Disrespectfull manner). The record of his court-martial reveals him as an impatient young man, confident in his own opinions, and scornful of a captain who he privately described to some other junior officers as an old Crazy Rascall and who, he complained at the court-martial:

had frequently used his Officers ill and not like Gentlemen.

This seems to have been only a temporary setback in Edward’s career, however, as in August 1744 he joined HMS Mary Galley as a lieutenant, and then received his first captain’s commission and the important status of post captain, of the small 24 gun warship, HMS Boston, in 1748. The Navy was always short of recruits and a combination of merit and patronage probably accounted for his swift re-admission to its service. He was sent to the West Indies to reconnoitre French attempts to settle Tobago. In the autumn of 1751 he was commissioned as captain of another warship of the same class, HMS Sphinx, and sent to the coast of West Africa as part of a small squadron under Commodore Matthew Buckle. In the words of Buckle’s entry in Biographia Navalis

He found at Anamaboe [modern Anomabu in Ghana, and in the 1740s a centre of the slave trade] three French ships of war, carrying from twenty-four to sixty-four guns, tampering with the natives, by presents and large promises, for leave to erect a fort there, in defiance of the treaty of peace concluded a short time before. Mr Buckle remonstrated very warmly against the impropriety of their proceedings, informing them, that if they continued to persevere he should consider it a breach, and repel them by force. The French, intimidated at a conduct so firm, and at the same time so spirited, thought proper to withdraw, not however, as some historians assert, till they had promised the natives to revisit them at a subsequent period in greater force.

One newspaper report commented:

The Behaviour of the Commodore is the true Way of treating with the French.

From Anamaboe, Edward and HMS Sphinx sailed to the West Indies, first to Barbados, then to Jamaica, with Edward stationed at Port Royal once more, returning after three years in early October 1754. He was the only officer of the ship’s company to survive the ravages of tropical disease. His work on this voyage would have included protection of British interests in the slave trade from West Africa to the Caribbean. His own thoughts on slavery and its abuses are unknown.

Harbours of Port Royal and Kingston, Jamaica 1756

In January 1755 Edward came to London in search of a fresh commission from the Admiralty. In February, he was sent to Newcastle on Tyne, as Regulating Captain, in charge of persuading and rewarding volunteers, and pressing men who would not voluntarily enter naval service. He set up his rendezvous at the Sun Inn on the Quay. He was welcomed by the Mayor and city corporation, which added a contribution of 20s to the royal bounty of £3 offered to volunteers. The Newcastle Courant newspaper led the cheers for his endeavours, reporting that on Monday 10 March 1755

“we have had a very brisk press, so that on Wednesday [the tender ship, Elizabeth] fell down the river full of volunteers and pressed men: warrants being issued out to the serjeants and constables for that purpose by the right worshipful the Mayor, whose activity and vigilance does honour to the magistracy, as his constant attendance at the Court, accompanied by the worthy Captain Wheeler, secures the honest and industrious artificer, and send the negligent and slothful to learn diligence in the service of their country”

and with even more fervid enthusiasm in its edition of 22 March 1755

Thus the true sons of PATRIOTISM express the Sincerity of their Wishes and Intentions for the Welfare and Prosperity of their COUNTRY and never can our brave Tars have had a more favourable Opportunity than the present, in testifying their Attachment to his MAJESTY in curbing the licentious Insolence of our implacable Enemies, and of convincing the perfidious Poltroons, they have to deal with CAESAR’S SUBJECTS

This was far from the whole picture. Edward’s task of enforced naval recruitment through impressment met with strong resistance, particularly in Sunderland, where a number of Newcastle seamen went to avoid the press gangs, where his lieutenant was assaulted by a mob, and where he did not have the same municipal support as in Newcastle. He was recalled to London at the end of May 1755. Whatever the frustrations of his official role, however, it seems most likely that it was during his stay at Newcastle that Edward met and fell in love with Frances Stephenson, one of the eleven children of wealthy merchant and alderman John Stephenson, and persuaded her to come and live with him, highly unconventionally, without being married.

In July 1755, aged thirty-three, he was appointed captain and commanding officer of HMS Isis “on the prospect of a rupture with the court of France”[2] — a prospect which materialised with the French attack on the island of Minorca that ultimately led to the court-martial and execution of Admiral Byng in March 1757, and the continuation of the Seven Years’ War beyond that. HMS Isis had originally been a French ship, Le Diamant, captured in 1747 and renamed and refitted at Chatham. In the Royal Navy, she was classified as a “fourth rate[3] ship of the line[4]”. She had fifty guns, forty-eight on two gun-decks and two on the quarterdeck. Edward Wheeler and the ship’s crew spent the next few wartime years escorting convoys of trade shipping or of troops and sailors to various European ports and seizing what opportunity they could to take French ships and earn prize money from them. 1757 was a particularly successful year in this respect.

HMS Isis © Royal Museums Greenwich

In March 1759, Isis captured and took possession of a French ship after an engagement with a convoy of French frigates. Later in the year Captain Wheeler and HMS Isis were employed under Rear-Admiral Rodney in his naval attacks on the French port of Le Havre to pre-empt the invasion of Great Britain. The year 1759 ended in a burst of patriotic celebration, with the first performance of Heart of Oak, now the Royal Navy’s official march. In January 1760 Edward faced the refusal of the ship’s crew to go to sea because they believed HMS Isis was unseaworthy and had not been refitted properly when last in Chatham for that purpose. Isis was taken into dry dock in Portsmouth and carefully surveyed, and some repairs undertaken before she sailed again. (I have written a more detailed account of this episode here).

A Royal Navy Fourth Rate Ship of the Line by Thomas Buttersworth — this is from a later date and the gun configuration is not quite the same as on HMS Isis, but gives some impression of the appearance of that ship under sail

The will of Edward Wheeler

On 31 May 1760 Edward made a new will. He was at the home of his cousins, the Egertons, in the village of Chalgrove in rural Oxfordshire. James Unwin was a frequent visitor. Edward was still quite a young man, neither married nor with children, but he was a man of property, and earlier that spring he had been too ill to set sail with HMS Isis. That and the continuing war at sea may have led him to reflect on his mortality.

The property which Edward had when he made the will consisted of:

- The land in and around Stourbridge that he had inherited from his father, and of which he had barred the entail in 1746, and

- Wootton Lodge and the other land in Staffordshire that he did not yet own, but knew he would inherit on the death of his uncle’s widow, and

- Money that he had accumulated for himself, some of it no doubt prize money for ships captured during his naval career, which amounted to about £4,000 and which he expected to increase, and which was in “the sole care and management” of James Unwin

- Personal possessions such as plate, watches and rings

The will is a long document, with elaborate provisions dealing with many different contingencies. This strongly suggests a lawyer’s hand — no doubt that of James Unwin — in its drafting. But a will can also be an intimate portrait, as this will is: discursive, opinionated, and even gossipy. It gives a vivid impression of Edward Wheeler’s personality, and of who and what was important to him.

It begins with instructions for the disposal of his body, conscious that, as a commissioned naval officer in wartime, even in perfect health, he might face sudden death

Will of Edward Wheeler Captain of his Majestys Ship the Isis 31 May 1760 — UK National Archives PROB 11/866/14

I, Edward Wheeler Captain of his Majesty’s ship the Isis being in perfect health, sound in mind, and (as I hope) in my Body too But considering the vast uncertainty of this insignificant life, do make this my last Will (writing it all with my own hand, and signing each page with my Name) in the manner following, that is to say; if I dye, whilst the Ship I may at any time belong to and am on board, is at any distance from England, I would that my carcase be buried or thrown over board, as may be most Convenient and least expensive, and without any parade, but Military honours and the voluntary attendance of Military Men, But if I should dye in England, my desire is, that my Cold Clay may be carry’d down to Stourbridge in Worcestershire, and there mix’d with my Ancestors in the parish Church of old Swynford in the Vault of the family, and that a Bust may be put up for me, amongst them already there of the ffamily; And this, and all other Expenses relative to my ffuneral I would have managed with the utmost ffrugality;

There’s something poetic about his language - the “vast uncertainty of this insignificant life” although, common in wills of the period, like a metaphor for a small ship on an ocean. Many sailors’ wills of the time were more explicit in considering the perils and Dangers of the Seas. The image of “Cold Clay” mixed with that of Edward’s ancestors in Stourbridge connects his mortal remains and the land itself. The deposits of fire clay around Stourbridge, literally “cold clay” capable of withstanding high temperatures and used for making firebricks, were closely connected with the growth of its glass and iron industries and the wealth of the Wheeler family which came to Edward.

Next, Edward appointed “my most valued friend” James Unwin to be his executor, and, anticipating what his family might think of being disinherited by him, put in some bristling words threatening anyone who disputed the will with forfeiture of anything they might inherit under it.

All that Edward provided for his family in his will was an annuity of £50 for his sister Christiana, a gift of £500 (with a possibility that it might be increased to £2,000) to his 15 year old cousin Jane Egerton, and an explanation as to why he had not done more for his sister’s family, saying

perhaps it may be asked too, why I have not consider’d my Sister Burgh in this Will, my answer is, I have so consider’d her, and very well too. Consider’d, both her and her ffamily as appears in the former part of this Will’ But for a further Consideration, and to shew my real Regard to her, and the affinity between us, I hereby declare, I forgive her son’s debt unto me, being all that Money etc with which I supply’d him and laid out for him, during the two years he was with me in the Isis, amounting to upwards of Two hundred pounds; and that my ffamily may not Wonder I have not done more for her son, I must tell her that her own partiality has Occasion’d it, for from her amazing Conduct to her two Children, I have been led to think she would prevail on my Uncle to give every penny to the Son and leave the Girl destitute”

Ultimately, Edward left virtually all his property to James Unwin, “and his heirs for ever”, leaving it to James to decide whether to make any more generous gifts, echoing those in Edward’s previous wills, which he now revoked, to anyone in Edward’s family. Edward was more interested in leaving detailed instructions for James to arrange and pay for their friends to meet and enjoy themselves and drink a toast in memory of him

That my Executor shall … call together such of our ffriends, whom he knows I love, viz: of Landmen[5], Mr Thomas Thornhill, Doctor Isaac Shomberg, Mr Thomas Perkins, Mr John Dighton ( who I think is not a Jacobite), Mr Peter Egerton, Mr Bertie Burgh, my sister’s husband (If he has inclination to come, and his wife will permit him) and Mr James Dickson, and of my sea ffriends, whoever may be nearest at hand of my distinguish’d acquaintance; These Gentlemen, I would have to dine together at any Tavern in London or elsewhere (as they may chuse) and there eat of the Best and Drink of the Best in Remembrance of me, and at my Expense, for one Day, both for Tavern and playhouse or whatever other amusement they may please to chuse, and I hope they will be pleas’d in their chusing.

My Desire is likewise, and I make it my Request, that they may Remember me, in the Sincerity of their potations as one, who in all Truth and Love, wish’d well to them;

Apart from James Unwin, the only other living person who benefited substantially under Edward’s will was Miss Fanny Stephenson. She is variously described in the will as an “esteemed” or “most beloved” friend, but then James says unequivocally “I love her beyond Expression”, although he was not married to her and appeared not to have any intention to marry her. With all these expressions of affection, Edward directed James to pay Fanny a variety of generous income streams for her life, but would not contemplate leaving her any capital, because

it has ever been my fixt Opinion, that no Woman, not even the most sensible amongst them, should be intrusted with the Disposal of money, as they are Strangers to the ffatigue of acquiring it, so are they likewise Ignorant of its real use, and daily observation shows me, That those who have the Most, only throw the Most away, and another Reason, why I have not done it is, her ffamilys conduct and most particularly her Mother’s has been such That I would not put it into the power of even Time or Chance, to give any of them a sixpence of Mine, if I could possible avoid it.

Edward clearly was persona non grata to Fanny’s parents and her older brothers — presumably because of his absence of intention to marry their daughter. In his will made in 1759, John Stephenson left Fanny an annuity of £50 a year for life, and £15 to buy mourning clothes to wear on her father’s death, markedly less than the annuities and legacies he provided for his seven other daughters. He also recorded the family’s disapproval of her behaviour by saying

“in case my said daughter Frances shall by her future conduct merit the regard of my dear wife and of my sons Henry and Matthew I do hereby recommend her to their favour respectively”

Although James Unwin inherited virtually everything in Edward Wheeler’s estate, he really only did so by default. In his will, Edward contemplated the possibility that Fanny might have a son within a year of his death, who would be Edward’s son and could take both his Christian name and his surname:

Now it is to be understood and provided that in case the aforesaid Miss ffanny Stephenson shall have any Son at the time of my decease or within one year after, that I would have him as soon as convenient may be, to take and use both my Christian and Surname, and in that case I leave him the Reversion of all my Estates and Moneys, and appoint my Worthy ffriend Mr Unwin to be his Guardian till he attains the age of twenty one years, when he is to be put into possession of all Rents and Profits of my Estates and Moneys not before mention’d to be disposed of by this Will, and after his Mother’s decease he is to possess everything left behind by me, But if she should have a daughter my Will is that my Executor do pay her an annuity of ffifty pounds for her natural Life

Amongst the contingencies that the will deals with is the possibility that even if Edward had no son, James Unwin might have an illegitimate son, or even that his substitute executor Thomas Thornhill might already have an illegitimate son. Edward made it clear that he wished such a son to inherit, whether illegitimate or not. He was defiantly outspoken about the entitlement of illegitimate children, saying

as I suppose many curious people may think I have by this Will, taken a good deal of pains to Bastardize (as they may Wittily term it) my Estate, To all such curious people, I beg leave to Observe from a very old Translation It is a Wise Child who knows his own ffather; and, Indeed I have ever been of Opinion that, the Children of Love, are more naturally and properly, the heirs of your Inheritance, than those of the Modern Smithfield or Newmarket Matches or the unwish’d for consequence of Dull Conjugal Duty, and they have a greater and more Equitable Claim to your protection Care and Compassion; they being (by the Law and Custom of the Country) left intirely to the Humanity, Charity and Generosity of the ffather whereas the others are provided for by Law;:without allowing the ffather the least Will or Merit in it, they being very often endow’d even before they are begotten, where people Marry, who do not Love, and consequently cannot Trust each other, so that the ffather of Legitimate Children often sees his ffortune descending to a ffool or a Rascal, and is not in his power to prevent it, nor can he ever disinherit, all, he can only take from some

The language of Edward the testator in 1760 is the same as that of Edward the disobedient lieutenant in 1743. There’s a degree of nerve, mixed no doubt with an air of self-satisfaction, from a now long-dead person whom it’s impossible to dislike, as Edward ends the will with the words:

my Justice in this Let the Lord Chancellor consider if he thinks proper, and my Conduct thro’ the whole of this Will, I submit to all those who may happen to Read it, and give it for a pattern to those (if any) who may happen to Like it.

The death of Edward Wheeler

Less than a year after signing and sealing his last will, Edward Wheeler died. In early January 1761 he had sailing orders for the Mediterranean, arriving in Gibraltar Bay on 10 February. During the afternoon of 1 April 1761, he gave orders to chase the French ship L’Oriflamme, off Cape Tres Forcas on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. L’Oriflamme was a ship of war, taking provisions from Toulon to the French colony of St Domingo. Its captain had been forced to make a detour to Oran, on the Barbary Coast, in order to get away from two other British warships in the Mediterranean, and was now sailing westwards towards the straits of Gibraltar. Once HMS Isis, sailing fast and close to the wind, caught up with L’Oriflamme in the early evening, a fierce gun battle ensued between both gun batteries and small arms fired from both ships. After four hours, L’Oriflamme was captured. But in the first hour of battle, a single cannon ball shot across the quarter deck of HMS Isis killed two officers and mortally wounded Edward Wheeler. He died in his cabin two hours later . He was only thirty-nine years old.

1798 map of Morocco, showing both Gibraltar and the straits of Gibraltar and the Capo de tres Forcas on the northern coast (referred to in Edward Wheeler’s day as the Barbary Coast)

The most authoritative account of his death is in a letter from Vice-Admiral Saunders sent to the Admiralty from Gibraltar Bay, a few days later, on 6 April 1761, and reporting with satisfaction that Isis had captured L’Oriflamme and led her to Gibraltar, but

“I am extremely sorry to acquaint their lordships, that although the Isis had only four men killed, captain Wheeler is unfortunately one of that number, he with two others (a midshipman and quarter-master) being killed by one shot very soon after the beginning of the action.”

There are two other published narratives of Edward’s death, both written many years later, but claiming to based on be first-hand recollections. In 1829, the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine published a biography of a Scottish Methodist doctor, James Hamilton, who had recently died. He had been an 18 year-old surgeon aboard HMS Isis in 1761

…. when a most desperate engagement ensued, in which Captain Wheeler was mortally wounded. Dr Hamilton was called from the cockpit to attend the captain. The case was hopeless. A cannon-ball had shattered his arm, and torn away part of the abdomen. He spoke solemnly and kindly to the Doctor, who in return pressed the great truths of religion on his dying Commander. The Captain was much affected, and repeatedly prayed God to bless him. The First Lieutenant was then sent for. “Sir,” said the Captain, “you now command. Remember, His Majesty’s Ship cannot be given away. Fight her while she can swim.” The Lieutenant took his leave, and the Doctor soon after descended to his dreadful duty. On the Lieutenant appearing on the deck, the officers cried out, “Sir, shall we fire?” to which he replied, “No, not a gun, till we brush his yards.” These orders being punctually observed, the combat became so dreadful, the rigging of the ships being intermingled, that it was quickly over. The French Captain and his officers, being brought on board the Isis, requested to see the body of Captain Wheeler. They were accordingly introduced to the cabin, when, after looking in silence for some time at the appalling spectacle, the scene ended with the usual French shrug, and an exclamation of “Fortune de la guerre!”

The Wesleyan Methodist Magazine may have emphasised the piety of this scene, and airbrushed any reference to any dying words Edward had for Fanny, but is otherwise perhaps a more reliable, if less entertaining source, than Confessions of a Naval Officer printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1810 and telling tales of superstition in the garrison at Gibraltar, with this story of the taking of L’Oriflamme by Isis:

Captain Wheeler, immediately prior to close action, sent for Mr Deans, Surgeon of the Isis, and entrusted to him certain particular injunctions about family concerns. The Doctor attempted to parry funeral ideas, but was bluntly told “I know full well this day’s work: Cunningham will soon be your Commander. All the great circumstances of my life have been shown in dreams: my last hour is now come.” He was killed early in the fight; and Lieutenant Cunningham managed so well in the devolved command, that Admiral Saunders made him a Post-captain into L’Oriflamme in Gibraltar Bay.

The names of both James Deans and James Hamilton appear in the pay records of HMS Isis in 1759–60, both described as surgeons, so it is possible that there is some truth in both these accounts of Edward Wheeler’s death — both of which echo what can be discerned of his character from his earlier life.

The last land seen by Captain Edward Wheeler before his death on 1 April 1761 — Gibraltar as drawn (probably by the master of HMS Isis) in the ship’s Remark Book in 1761 — UK National Archives ADM 346/13/18

Cold Clay

As to his mortal remains, none of the wishes Edward expressed in his will were fulfilled. A book published in 1817, The Aegis of England: Or the Triumphs of the Late War quoted an inscription in Gibraltar, said to have been composed in 1771 on a visit to Gibraltar by the future Admiral Earl St Vincent, as a memorial to Captain Wheeler. At the age of 18, as plain John Jervis, the future Admiral had served as a midshipman under Captain Wheeler on HMS Sphinx in Port Royal, and returned with him on that ship to England in the autumn of 1754. The Admiral’s own Edwardian biographer, Captain W V Anson RN, described Wheeler as

“very amiable and very talented, and Jervis received great kindness from him”

The memorial inscription suggests that Edward was buried in Gibraltar, and not, as he had wished, in the cold clay with his ancestors in his native Stourbridge.

1771 Memorial inscription for Captain Edward Wheeler at Gibraltar, composed by John Jervis, Admiral Earl St Vincent

Stilted and indeed the product of vanity though this inscription is, unremitting cheerfulness and the love of his friends doesn’t seem incongruous with the man who wrote the highly idiosyncratic and heartfelt 1760 will. Whether his chosen friends did spend an evening eating and drinking and enjoying their favourite entertainment and “the sincerity of their potations” in his memory, history does not relate. John Dighton, another London lawyer and Oxfordshire country gentleman related to the Egertons had died on New Year’s Day 1761. If Edward’s other friends met, his brother-in-law Bertie Burgh was surely not among them. He was being pursued in litigation by the executors of the fourth Duke of Beaufort for the enormous debt they had found that he owed to his employer after the fourth Duke’s death in 1756. In September 1761, the Duke’s executors and their solicitors obtained a copy of Edward Wheeler’s will and read it carefully. A memorandum records a reported conversation between Bertie Burgh and his brother, in which Bertie said, in the voice of every disappointed beneficiary before or since

“he was surprised at Mr Wheeler’s Disposition as he had never given him offence”

But whatever Edward Wheeler’s family’s feelings, Frances Stephenson and James Unwin had reason to remember their “dear dead friend” far more fondly.

Previous instalments of The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart


“A Shocking and Fatal Accident” — Part 1

Further instalments of The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart

Part 3 — A Gainsborough Portrait

Part 4 — A Ward in Chancery

Part 5 — A Crime of Anonymity

[1] With thanks to Roy Peacock, past President of the Stourbridge Historical Society and the Black Country Society, who kindly provided me with background material about the Wheeler family

[2] Naval biographical detail and description from John Charnock’s Biographia Navalis (1798) and documents in the UK National Archives and in the Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, & more general background from N A M Rodger: The Command of the Ocean (2004), The Wooden World & www.threedecks.org

[3] The rating system referred to the number of guns, not the quality of the ship

[4] A warship intended to operate in formation in a line of battle

[5] This meant his friends other than his Navy friends, but was also a pun on the naval use of “landman” to mean an inexperienced sailor. Edward’s circle of “landmen” included Dr Isaac Schomberg (1714–1780), who was born Jewish, but baptised in 1747, it appears in order to be admitted to the College of Physicians. Isaac’s brother Alexander (1720–1804) was a captain in the Navy who was active in the war in Canada at the date of Edward’s will. The note about John Dighton not being a Jacobite is consistent with other evidence that Edward Wheeler and James Unwin and their circle were largely Jacobites and not Hanoverian, despite Edward’s loyal service to King George II in the Navy.

© Barbara Rich 2018–9 All rights reserved



Barbara Rich

English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity