Among my less recent female ancestors, Eliza is one who stands out in my mind.
It is a fact in history, and particularly genealogy, that we tend to know less about the women in the past than about their fathers, husbands and sons. As a result, much of what we know about Eliza comes to us through the records associated with the men in her life. But when we can discover details about the lives of our female forebears it can be all the more rewarding.
It appears that much or Eliza’s life centered around her own and her extended family although she didn’t have a very auspicious start. Census records show that Eliza was born in the West Indies, a long way from the British Isles where she spent most of her life.
She was the daughter of Lt. Col. Thomas Walsh of the 56th British Regiment. Thomas came from a very distinguished Irish Jacobite emigre family who had made their home in Brittany, France after their association with the Stuart insurrection led to the confiscation of their large estates in Kilkenny. For a number of generation before Thomas, his family had had a close relationship with French royalty as privateers, merchants and particularly slave traders. Thomas had turned his back on that latter “family business” and opted for a career in the military.
While Thomas was stationed in Jamaica with the 56th British Regiment and as Deputy Adjutant to Sir Eyre Coote the Governor of the island, Eliza was born on 8 March 1808, the illegitimate daughter of one A.E. French. All indications from the wording of Eliza’s baptism records are that A.E. French was not only of European but also of African descent, ironically the descendant of a slave. In his will (part of which is below) Thomas not only acknowledged his daughter but also made provision for her future back in Ireland (seemingly illustrating his desire to firmly establish a home there and distance himself from France).
His will indicated Thomas’ desire for Eliza to be returned to Ireland when she was four years old and to be cared for by his friends and relatives Peter and Sarah Walsh of Belline, Kilkenny. We do not know exactly when Eliza did travel to Ireland, but by that time her father would have been dead, killed in an accidental fall from a gig in Surrey, England in 1810. Peter Walsh had converted from Catholicism to become a Protestant but whatever his religious beliefs he was regarded as a complete gentleman with a cultivated taste and appreciation of the arts as well a patron. At Belline Eliza would have had a comfortable upbringing.
The next record of Eliza is when the Waterford Mail announced that she had married Henry Harrison Briscoe of Cloncunny on 2 June 1830. Both the Walsh family of Belline and the Briscoe family of Cloncunny had close relations with Lord Bessborough in Kilkenny among the Protestant gentry. Eliza was twenty-two years of age and Henry ten years older when they married and the date may have been specially chosen because it was also Henry’s birthday.
Over the next fifteen years the couple had six children. Thomas Anthony was born in 1831 but died shortly after. Then there were five other children: Edward William, Caroline Elizabeth Henrietta, Alfred Philip, Henry Harrison jr. and Thomasina Marian.
As well managing the Cloncunny estate, Henry was a local magistrate and became an Inspector of Poor Laws. It is assumed that the latter role was at least partly to provide additional income as the economic and social changes in Ireland at the time made living off the land less sustainable. It appears that he was an absentee landlord for much of the time and away in the Poor Laws role in County Mayo and County Clare between 1848 and 1852 during the latter part of the Great Famine.
Earlier in 1846, Henry is recorded in the Slater’s Directory (under Nobility, Gentry and Clergy) living in The Crescent, Onchan on the Isle of Man indicating that this could have been the family’s usual residence. Their youngest child Thomasina was christened in Onchan in 1845 and both Eliza and Thomasina were still at The Crescent, mentioned in the 1851 census living with her father-in-law Edward Briscoe at Onchan on the Isle of Man presumably while Henry was in County Clare. It is not known how long Eliza stayed with Edward but it may have been to care for him as he died there in October 1851.
Henry subsequently took up the role of Superintendent of Poor Laws in Scotland from 1857 until his death in 1864 and he was buried in Inverness. The 1861 census for Inverness shows a Marion Briscoe as a scholar, aged 16 years, which if it is our Thomasina Marian suggests that Eliza was with Henry during his years in Scotland.
After Henry’s death, Eliza spent some time in Devonshire with her older daughter Caroline but she was back living in Cloncunny with Thomasina Marian when she died in 1875. Her other four surviving children were spread far and wide with Edward living in Surrey, Caroline in Devonshire, Alfred a sea captain and Henry in outback Australia. Thomasina was still living at Cloncunny when she died in 1881.
One of my own memorable family history experiences was locating Eliza’s grave in Kilkenny. Within the deserted Church of Ireland churchyard at Graigavine the memorial stands proud indicative of the family’s love and the esteem in which Eliza was held.
SacredTo the Memory ofElizabeth ThomasinaRelict of the LateHenry Harrison Briscoe Esq.Of Cloncunny Co. KilkennyAnd daughter of the LateLieut. Col. Walsh of H.M. 56th Regt.Died 13th February 1875 in her 66th Year.
and below Also to the memory ofMarion Thomasina BriscoeYoungest Daughter of the AboveWho Died at Cloncunny in Her 35th Year Feb. 6th 1881
My great great grandmother, Eliza Thomasina Walsh, will always have a special place in the Briscoe-Walsh branch of our family tree.