Biography of Robert Scarlett Grignon, Rector 1851-1867

John Kay

This is an abstract from the Lewes History Group Bulletin no.118, May 2020,
written by John Kay

Robert Scarlett Grignon was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on 8 July 1821. He was sent to school in Islington and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a sizar in 1839. He graduated in 1843 with a respectable second in Classics and as a Junior Optimes in the Mathematical Tripos. After a short gap he was ordained deacon in 1846 (by the Bishop of Norwich) and priest in 1847 (by the Bishop of Llandaff). After a short spell as curate at Shermanbury, Sussex, he was Vicar of Dedham, Essex, 1848-1849, and Vicar of Long Bennington, Lincs, 1849-1851, before becoming Rector of St John-sub-Castro in August 1851. He was regularly noted in the local press as conducting weddings and funerals at his church in the 1850s and early 1860s, but retired in 1867 when in his mid-forties, apparently on the grounds of ill-health. He lived on for another 18 years, dying in 1885.

His parents William Stanford Grignon and Elizabeth Anglin Scarlett married at Montego Bay, St James, Jamaica, in 1812. Captain Francis Scarlett took part in the 1655 capture of the Spanish island by the British and was rewarded with a large grant of land there, and the Scarletts were plantation owners resident in Jamaica through the 18th and into the 19th century. Elizabeth Anglin Scarlett’s mother’s first husband was killed in front of her in a slave uprising, but she remarried Robert Scarlett two years later. They had a large family, with Elizabeth Anglin Scarlett the youngest daughter. An elder brother ran the family estates, another brother became Jamaica’s Chief Justice, while a third, James Scarlett moved to England, was educated at Trinity College Cambridge, and became one of the country’s most silver-tongued barristers. In 1812 the barrister James Scarlett of Abinger Place, Surrey, joined his brother-in-law Thomas Read Kemp in standing for election as MP for Lewes on a radical Whig platform, but he was narrowly beaten for the second place by George Shiffner of Hamsey. He was narrowly defeated again by Sir John Shelley in an 1816 by-election. He later entered Parliament for another seat, served as MP from 1819-1834, was Attorney General in the Tory governments of Canning, Goderich and Wellington, and was created Lord Abinger in 1835. In 1834 he left Parliament to take a senior judicial post as Chief Baron of the Exchequer. Robert Scarlett Grignon thus had an influential uncle.

Robert Scarlett Grignon’s father, William Stanford Grignon (1784-1843), became an attorney living at Montego Bay, in St James parish. He was not himself a plantation owner, but as the sugar trade became less profitable in the early 19th century and many of the plantation owners retired to England, attorneys such as William Stanford Grignon took over their management. By 1817 he was managing several plantations in St James, including some belonging to the Scarlett family. In 1818 he became a member of the parish assembly, and from 1820-1831 he represented St James in the Jamaican Assembly. He vacated this seat in October 1831

An 1807 Act abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire, but slavery itself continued in Jamaica for another 25 years. By 1831 opposition to its continuance was gaining strength in Parliament in London. The 30,000 white Jamaica residents were barely a tenth of the island’s population. The slaves had seen some amelioration in their conditions, and were anticipating bigger changes. The last few days of the year saw an uprising called the ‘Baptist War’, the origins of which are traced by some sources to an event on 16 December 1831, when William Stanford Grignon detected a female slave on one of the estates he managed stealing sugar cane and attempted to have her whipped, provoking a hostile demonstration against him from other slaves. What was intended by its leaders to be a large but peaceful Christmas demonstration in St James turned violent, with more than a dozen estates torched and their mansions burned. These included two properties owned by the Scarlett family. A small number of the white residents were killed or taken captive, and at least one white woman was raped. Colonel William Stanford Grignon was the senior officer in the field commanding the St James militia, which confronted the slaves, but was forced by their numbers to retreat. The militias of all four parishes of the Jamaican county of Cornwall were raised, some regular reinforcements and two Royal Navy ships arrived, and the uprising was crushed. Some summary justice was administered, about 200 slaves were killed in the suppression of the rebellion and a further 300 executed afterwards. The Jamaican Assembly estimated the damage to property as amounting to more than a million pounds.

The British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, to be implemented in 1834. Slave owners were compensated for their slaves being freed. William Stanford Grignon of St James received £635 in November 1835 for the freedom of 31 slaves he owned at Montego Bay and a further £515 in February 1836 for a further 23 at Barneyside Pen in the nearby parish of Westmoreland, which he had acquired in 1832. 18 slaves at Upton, which he owned from 1817, had been inherited by his wife from her mother. It appears that the owners were paid about £20 per slave – comparable to what a Sussex farmer would pay for a cow at that date.

William Stanford & Elizabeth Anglin Grignon had at least seven children born at Montego Bay between 1813 and 1828, including an earlier Robert Scarlett buried there a year before the subject of this article was born. Elizabeth and the six children who survived to adulthood all came to England in the two decades after the Baptist War. The eldest, James, might at 18 just have been old enough to join his father in the St James militia in the Baptist War. In 1833 he purchased a commission in the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment of Foot, buying his way up to the rank of Captain but leaving his regiment in 1842. His regiment was based in Ireland. An active promoter of railways shares in the mid-1840s, he then entered the consular service in 1847, serving as vice-consul in Venice, and then consul in Portland, Maine, the Canaries and finally, for many years, in Riga. Probate of his estate was registered in the UK principal registry in 1880.

The next son was Robert Scarlett, who was schooled in Islington before entering Trinity in 1839. The two younger boys, William Stanford junior (born 1824) and Montague Findlater (born 1828) were both at school in Islington in 1841. William Stanford Grignon junior followed his Uncle James and elder brother Robert Scarlett to Trinity College, where he graduated with a first in Classics in 1846 and took an MA in 1849. He also studied at the Inner Temple and took Holy Orders, but followed a career as a schoolmaster, teaching classics at Brighton College before becoming headmaster of first the Collegiate School, Sheffield, and then Felsted Grammar School in Essex. He successfully built up Felsted over the next 20 years, becoming a founder member of the Headmasters’ Conference, with a strong following amongst his boys, their parents and his fellow headmasters, but unfortunately fell out so badly and so publicly with his governing body that, despite his success, he was dismissed in 1875. The rights and wrongs of his dismissal were thoroughly debated in the press, including the letters columns of The Times, and in a special debate in the House of Lords. He spent the rest of his life travelling in Europe and the Near East, or living in retirement, taking private pupils, in the West Country. He died in Torquay in 1907. The main hall at Felsted School is still called the Grignon Hall today.

His younger brother Montague Findlater Grignon broke with family tradition by graduating from Pembroke College, Oxford, and he too became a schoolmaster, teaching classics at Cheam School for many years before he too retired to the West Country. He died at Bedford in 1900. His mother and two sisters are not found in the 1841 census, and may not have come to England until after the 1843 death of William Stanford Grignon senior. In 1851 the elder sister, Elizabeth Scarlett, and her mother, were living at Long Bennington with the bachelor vicar, Robert Scarlett Grignon. In 1853-4 William Stanford Grignon junior married and had a baby daughter but lost his wife in childbirth. It was Elizabeth Scarlett who stepped into the vacant role, and for the rest of her life, until her 1882 death, she kept house for him. The younger sister Mary was in 1851 a visitor in a Plymouth household. By 1871 she had moved to Weston-super-Mare, living with a young woman who had been a toddler in the 1851 Plymouth household, and who she described as her niece. She was still living at Weston-super-Mare at her 1885 death, an event noted in the Morning Post, the St James’s Gazette, and the London Daily News as well as the local Western Mercury.

Robert Scarlett Grignon was appointed as Rector of St John-sub-Castro by Peter Guerin Crofts of Malling House, whose family had owned the advowson for more than a century. He had served as rector of St John-sub-Castro himself for almost half a century but now, in his mid-seventies, had retired. He was however in his prime when Robert Scarlett Grignon’s uncle James Scarlett stood unsuccessfully for election in Lewes, though at that date they would have been on opposite sides of the political fence. Robert Scarlett Grignon presumably brought his mother and sister with him from Long Bennington, and they initially set up house in Coombe Cottage, in Malling Street.

Coombe Cottage, Malling Street, Lewes

It was at Coombe Cottage that his mother died in 1854, at the age of 64 – probably not the only former slave-owner to have been buried in abolitionist Lewes. In 1855 Robert Scarlett Grignon put the contents of Coombe Cottage up for sale, and the 1861 census finds him lodging at 188 High Street, in his own parish.

In 1865, now well into his forties, Robert Scarlett Grignon married. His wife was Mary Augusta Currey, the daughter of the late Colonel Sir Edmund Currey of Erlwood House, Windlesham, Surrey, and the elder sister of the wife of his brother William Stanford Grignon. Robert Scarlett Grignon had officiated at his brother’s marriage at Windlesham twelve years earlier, and now his headmaster-brother, being in Holy Orders, was able to return the compliment. There were other connections between the families. Lady Louise Currey, the bride’s mother, had been born Louise Scarlett, and was a daughter of James Scarlett, Lord Abinger, so that the two brothers who married her two daughters were her cousins. In addition in the 1850s the ecclesiastical lawyer Edmund Charles Currey, a nephew of Sir Edmund Currey and doubtless named after him, had come to Lewes to join one of the town’s legal practices, and had established himself at Malling Deanery.

Two years after his marriage Robert Scarlett Grignon resigned his living. The 1871 census finds him, his wife and two servants living in a large house at 4 Wallands Crescent, overlooking his former church. In 1881 they were in lodgings in Paddington. In 1884 his wife died at Penistone in Yorkshire, aged 54, and Robert Scarlett Grignon’s own death was recorded in 1885 in the Kensington registration district. He was a scholarly man, and a talented linguist. His obituary in the 17 January 1885 Hampshire Advertiser records that when the Finnish prisoners of war were confined in Lewes during the Crimean War he, from his knowledge of Finnish, used to accompany them and act as their interpreter. He is best remembered today as a translator of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and of two of Martin Luther’s books, ‘Concerning Christian Liberty’ and ‘On the Babylonish Captivity of the Church’.

Robert Scarlett and Mary Augusta Grignon had no children. His parents William Stanford & Elizabeth Anglin Grignon raised six children to adulthood, but both daughters and their youngest son remained unmarried, while their eldest son is not known to have married, and his executor was his headmaster-brother. Their only known grandchild was thus Adelaide Eliza, the daughter of William Stanford Grignon junior. She lived into her nineties, dying unmarried in Bristol in 1947.

Sources: Familysearch; British Newspaper Archive; Anglin/Scarlett family history webpage; Wikipedia articles on the Baptist War and the 1st Lord Abinger; Christer Petley, PhD thesis, University of Warwick, available online.; compensation payments to British slave owners,

This page was added on 09/11/2020.

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