Henry Aston (1701—1748)

The Honourable and Reverend Henry Aston, Rector of Shotley in Suffolk, subscribed for two copies of Kirby’s Historical Account. However, beneath the sober clerical garb beat the degenerate heart of a minor lordling, for Henry Aston was in fact a Hervey. Born Henry Hervey in 1701, he was one of the nineteen children of John Hervey, first earl of Bristol and, according to his father, more trouble than the rest of the children put together.

After a stint at Westminster school, young Henry went up to Christchurch at Oxford. The Bishop of Bristol wrote to Henry’s father that Henry “is very idle, and is not by anything which either his tutor or I can say to him to be prevailed with to apply himself to his studies so that there is not prospect of his improving that very small stock of learning which he brought from school’’. After this report card, Henry left Oxford without a degree, having acquired nothing but debts.

Casting around for an occupation for his feckless son, Lord Bristol hit upon the army and for £600 purchased Henry a commission as cornet in the 1st Dragoons. There, Henry’s neglect of his duties ensured a lack of advancement for a decade before he gradually moved up the ranks to become a captain, at which point his father advised him to sell off his position to pay down some of his substantial debts.

Since the military had failed to instill any discipline in Henry, the next move was to try the church. Henry accordingly took holy orders and was presented to the rectory of Shotley by his father. Henry installed a curate to take on the more tedious duties and concentrated on what he did best, spending money. He presented the church with communion cups, patens and alms dishes and expensively restored and enhanced the church.

Help was at hand. In 1744 his wife’s brother, Sir Thomas Aston, died without a son and his extensive estates came to Henry’s wife Catherine and Henry changed his name to Henry Hervey Aston. Henry died in 1748. As an obituary notice we quote a letter written by Lady Germaine, a friend of his mother’s, “Thank God too, worthless Hervey Aston is dead, which may be a means to save his son and three daughters from entire beggary’’.

While avoiding entire beggary, the son, Henry Hervey Aston (1741-1785) went on to father a son and three daughters by his wife, and a further five illegitimate children.

Kemble Whatley, Carpenter

When George Warren died, he was replaced as carpenter at Kew by Kemble Whatley. Their situations were quite different. The Warrens were a local family with extensive ties to the area and a modest carpentry business.  Kemble Whatley was a wealthy man, well-known to the Office of Works, and with a history of government employment stretching back decades.

Kemble Whatley’s early life is unknown and even his date of birth in unclear; it was somewhere in the 1714—1718 period. His father, Joseph Whatley was a Somerset man who married Elizabeth Kemble.  The Kembles had some money and could support the young family, especially Elizabeth’s uncle Richard Kemble, a prosperous lawyer who helped launch Kemble’s older brother George and died childless in 1734, leaving bequests to the brothers.

Kemble Whatley was apprenticed to James Dowding, a joiner in Trowbridge, a town not far away from the family home in Mells, Somerset. Thus began his career in carpentry. After serving his apprenticeship, Kemble made his way to London where he next appears, somewhat improbably, as a witness to the will of John Theophilus Desaguliers, grand master mason, cleric, and Fellow of the Royal Society.

By 1747, he was able to execute a substantial covenant in connection with his marriage to Elizabeth Marsh (1718—1748), a member of a prominent family of merchants in Salisbury and London. The couple were married in April, but sadly Elizabeth died the following January after giving birth to their son Richard Kemble Whatley (1748—1793). A year later, Kemble remarried to Elizabeth Dare (1730—1793), who, like himself, was from Somerset.  They had one son, George Kemble Whatley (1753—1833).

By this time Kemble had built up a substantial carpentry and timber-trading business based in Millbank. In 1750, he appears in the Richmond Lodge accounts for carpentry work. Meanwhile, his brother George became a governor of the Foundling Hospital and maintained a close connection with the institution for the rest of his life.

In 1756, Kemble Whatley was appointed Deputy Surveyor of Forests with responsibility for the Forests of Alice Holt and Woolmer. The deputy surveyor chose how many and which trees were to be felled each year with the wood sold at auction and much it, oak especially, destined for the Navy. While there is no suggestion Kemble Whatley abused his position during his four-year tenure, a later government commission decided that the practice of having timber merchants who made substantial purchases at the auctions also deciding the supply was perhaps unwise.

With his increasing success in business, Kemble Whatley acquired property in Westminster, Lambeth across the river and small estates at Hartfield in Sussex and Hingham and Binfield in Berkshire. In 1763 he was steward of Westminster Hospital and in 1767 steward for the Asylum for Female Orphans in Westminster. In 1765 he was admitted to the Freemasons, by this time styling himself as “Esquire”, and in 1773 he was High Sheriff of Sussex. No mere handyman, Kemble Whatley was at the height of his profession when the position of carpenter at Kew came open in 1774.

By the 1770s, his elder son Richard was set up with the life of a country gentleman in Sussex, while the younger son George went up to Cambridge and in due course became a clergyman, residing on the Berkshire property. Kemble Whatley died in 1780, having made a substantial success in his trade and leaving a good provision for his family.

Edward Venn


Edward Venn (1717—1780) was a doctor in Ipswich. His father, Richard Venn (1691—1739) was a vicar, as was his father before him and so on in “an unbroken succession of clergymen from the time of the Reformation”, as the DNB puts it. The Venn family “for generations produced parsons for the Anglican church one after the other like eggs from a hen” in James Hamilton’s delightful phrasing [1].

But not Edward, although as the eldest son he might have been expected to, and his brother Henry (1725—1797) carried on the family tradition and was a prominent Victorian theologian.  Henry was also the great-grandfather of the Rev. John Venn (1834—1923) of Venn diagram fame.

What of Edward? He began by following the usual course, going up to Cambridge in 1737 and taking BA in 1740 and MA in 1744 as a first step towards a clerical career, but at some point he veered off course. Perhaps he had a little more leeway as his father had died (of smallpox) in 1739. Instead of the church he went to Leiden to study medicine and then moved to Ipswich to practice as a physician.

The only discussion I have found of Edward’s change of heart is in the Venn family history, Annals of a Clerical Family, which records:

He studied at Cambridge with great diligence, intending to have taken orders.  But, having passed his degrees, some obstacles presented themselves to his mind with regards to subscribing to the Articles of the Church of England.  By this I do not mean that he actually left her Communion and attached himself to any other sect, but only insomuch as related to his becoming a minister. He therefore devoted himself to the study of medicine, and became a pupil of the famous Dr. Heberden.

No further particulars are given of his religious scruples.

At Ipswich Edward Venn led the quiet life of a provincial doctor and is largely absent from the record until his brief obituary in the local paper, the Ipswich Journal, “On Sunday last died Dr. Edward Venn, an eminent physician in this town, universally regarded(?) for his amiable character in private life, as well as for his abilities in his profession”. Apart from that, he at one point owned a dog called Sappho, and he subscribed to the first edition of Joshua Kirby’s Method of Perspective.

Edward Venn married Mary Beaumont (1716—1796) of Witnesham and they had two children, a daughter Mary (1750—1811) and a son Edward (1752—1830).


[1] Hamilton, J. A Strange Business, p. 25.

George Mercer (1723-1799)

In 1751, Elizabeth Pratt (1728—1759), the daughter of Joseph Pratt (1697—1768), Master Bricklayer to His Majesty’s Works, and Elizabeth Churchill (1707—1768), daughter of Thomas Churchill, who had also been Master Bricklayer of His Majesty’s Works, married George Mercer (1723—1799). George Mercer was a master mason and the son of another George Mercer (1696—1776), himself also a master mason.

Elizabeth Pratt’s background was in the social milieu of elite London craftsmen, and that of her husband was similar.  The Mercers were of Scottish background, but in the 18th century were firmly situated in London and, as masons, George Mercer, father and son, were well-placed to participate in the building boom in Westminster. George Mercer, along with Walter Lee, another local mason to whom he apprenticed his son George, were major developers of Great Titchfield Street and other places around Marylebone. George Mercer Sr. worked closely with Marylebone-based Scottish architect James Gibbs, building Marylebone Court House and Oxford Market House, as well as 16 Arlington Street (the townhouse of the Duchess of Norfolk).

George Mercer was one of five (adult) siblings and, as the eldest son, he continued in the profession of his father. I know little of his brother John, although John’s son William became a successful Blackwell Hall factor, a dealer in cloth in the central market in London, a position that required considerable capital. In gaining that capital the younger William may have been aided by his uncle William Mercer (1732—1789). The elder William was described as the captain of and East India ship and seems to have retired to London shortly before his death. In his will he makes provision for the wife he had recently married, but the bulk of his estate went to his nephew.

George’s two sisters, Mary and Margaret, both married into London Scottish families.  Mary married Andrew Douglas who was then a wine-merchant, but rose to become Paymaster of the Royal Navy. Margaret married James Colhoun.  On his death in 1790, the Gentleman’s Magazine described him as “many years ago an eminent shoe-maker, but retired from business”.

George himself prospered.  He was apprenticed as mason to Walter Lee in 1739, becoming free in 1746. In 1763 he achieved Master Mason and becoming Father of the Company of Masons in 1791, on which occasion he donated the ceremonial mace that is still in use.  A Justice of the Peace for Middlesex, like his father before him, he became a wealthy and successful businessman continuing the speculative development of the prosperous West End. He died in 1799 leaving a long will with a complicated collection of annuities and legacies for his extended family.


George Mercer, 1781

After their marriage in 1751, George and Elizabeth had six children in rapid succession: Elizabeth (1752); George (1754); Joseph (1755); James (1756); Douglas (1757), and Thomas (1759).  Sadly, Elizabeth did not long survive the last birth, and nor did baby Thomas.  Mother and child were buried together on 2 June 1759 at St. Marylebone church.

The children were well provided for.  Douglas was articled to train as a lawyer to John Benson, then County Treasurer for Middlesex, in 1773 for a period of five and a half years.  Launched into the world, he joined the Freemasons in 1779, but died in 1780. Joseph Mercer is more elusive.  He is mentioned in tax records as being co-owner of a house in Queen Anne Street in 1780, but he is otherwise invisible and is not mentioned in his father’s will written in 1797, so presumably he also died relatively young.  The three children who did outlive their father were the daughter, Elizabeth, and sons George and James.

James (1756-1810) carried on property development in and around Marylebone. He became a freemason in 1779 and was a director if the Westminster Fire Office in the 1780s. In 1807, when he was 51, he married Elizabeth Wood, who had been a servant of his father and to whom George had left a small annuity.  James then died in 1810 and in his will he made comfortable provision for his wife for life and his by then widowed sister and her children (they received a total of £4000, a house and some other property). The residue and reversion went to his elder brother George.  Elizabeth Mercer (1752—1829) had married John Ainslie (1747—1784) in 1774; they lived in Bolsover Street and had three children before John died in 1784. Thereafter, the Mercer family took the widow and her small children under their wing and provided for their future.

What of George, the eldest son?  The first George had made a fortune as a mason and property developer; his son had increased the fortune and consolidated it.  As substantial and wealthy property owners, it was clearly time to move up the social scale.  For young George (1754—1822), it was the army.  First commissioned into the Dragoons, he seems to have pursued a largely undistinguished military career, although he did manage to end up as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 1st Life Guards and along the way marry Jean Henderson (1760—1814), the daughter of a Scottish Baronet, a catch which eventually led to the inheritance of a minor estate in Scotland and the later generations adding the surname Henderson.  Their three sons were all military, with the youngest, Douglas Mercer-Henderson (1785—1854), having a particularly glittering career.



Of Tartary

The Universal Pocket Companion (3rd edition, 1760), mostly comprises ready-reckoner type tables as well as information on weights, measures, and currencies, and a lengthy listing of London merchants.  All good practical information.


The book also includes brief summaries of history and geography. Here we see what those who were commoditizing information felt should be part of the mental furniture of the mildly-educated mid-eighteenth century Londoner.  From the geography section, here is the one-paragraph summary of Tartary.

OF TARTARY—The Air of this Country is very different by Reason of its vast Extent from North to South: The most Southern Parts having the same Latitude with the middle Provinces of Spain and the most Northern reaching beyond the arctick polar Circle. The longest Day in the North is about two Months, and the shortest in the South nine Hours and three Quarters.  The Manners of the People are very rude and barbarous; their ordinary Food is Horse-Flesh, and they live in Tents and open Fields. The Religion is Paganism in the North and towards the South Mahometism prevails.  The Great Cham of Tartar is an absolute Monarch, and assumes such a proud Superiority over his Subjects as never to be spoke to but upon their Knee with their Faces towards the Ground. His Subjects stile him the Shadow of God; he looks upon himself as the Monarch of the whole World; and every Day after he has dined, he causes the Trumpets to sound, thereby giving Leave to all the Kings and Princes of the Earth to go to Dinner. The chief Commodities of this Country are Sable, Martins, Silk, Camblets, Flax, Musk, Cinnamon, and great Quantities of Rhubarb.

Now you know all that it was deemed necessary for you to know about Tartary.

Back in the day, this book would have set you back three shillings.  If you missed your chance at the time, you can now get a look at it free with an internet connection through the magic of Google Books.


The Military Mercers

Alexander Cavalié Mercer (1783—1868) is quite well-known due to his command of a troop of horse artillery at the Battle of Waterloo, and his subsequent memoir of the campaign, Journal of the Waterloo Campaign (1870). The rest of the family has not received so much recognition.

Alexander Cavalié’s father, Alexander Mercer (ca. 1739—1816) had a distinguished career in the Royal Engineers, rising ultimately to become a General and Colonel Commandant. Joining the army in 1759 he saw service in the Seven Years’ War in France and the Mediterranean, in the American War of Independence, in the West Indies, at Guernsey, and in England. Alexander Mercer and his wife, Thedosia Dickson, had five children who survived to adulthood, of whom all four sons served in the armed forces, and the daughter married a naval Captain.

Alexander Cavalié was the eldest.  He is said to have been the second son, but the first must have died young and I have no record of him.  After attending the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1799. He served in Ireland for the first few years of his career and was part of the unfortunate attempt to seize Buenos Aires in 1807. He then languished in England until called upon to lead his company of Royal Horse Artillery to the Continent in 1815. Although his account of the Waterloo campaign has assured his fame, the fact that he had disobeyed Wellington’s orders during the battle did nothing to enhance his career. Shortly after his return to England in 1816 he was reduced to half pay. He had married Frances (Fanny) Rice (1793—1817), daughter of an English clergyman, in 1813. They had lost their first child, but after the war was over, while his company was still in France, she joined him and her presence gives a light touch to the latter portions of the narrative (he refers to her only as F.). In 1817, they had another son, Cavalié Alexander Mercer (1817—1882), but Fanny died, and was buried three days after the child was born.

Eventually, Alexander Cavalié was reinstated in the Army and posted to Canada in 1823.  After a spell in England, he was gain sent to Canada, serving there from 1837 to 1842 as a lieutenant-colonel in command of the artillery at Nova Scotia. While there he made a number sketches and watercolours, some of which are now held by the National Gallery of Canada.


After his service in Canada, he returned to England, gradually rising through the ranks to become a general and colonel-commandant of the 9th brigade of the Royal Artillery.

The second of Alexander Mercer’s children was the daughter, named Theodosia after her mother. Theodosia Mercer (1784—1881) married Hector Frederick McNeill, a Captain in the Royal Navy, in 1804.  They do not appear to have had any children and after she was widowed she lived for a time in Scotland with her aunt, before moving to Devon to live near her brother.

Next was Augustus Cavalie Mercer (1785—1825). He joined the 9th Regiment of Foot, becoming Lieutenant in 1804 and Captain in 1805. In 1808, the 9th Foot deployed to Portugal as part of the British forces in the Peninsular War, and it was on board ship at Lisbon that in 1809 he married Mary Anne March, presumably of the March trading family in Lisbon. In 1814, back in England, Augustus became a Captain of one of the new Garrison Companies, although he was placed on half pay in November 1816. He died in 1825 in the military hospital at Chatham. He and Mary Anne do not appear to have had any children.

The third brother was Cavalie Shorthose Mercer (1789—1819). He was the only one to follow his father into the Royal Engineers, becoming 2nd Lieutenant in 1804 and 1st Lieutenant in 1805, and posted to Gibraltar in late 1805.  He was one of the first engineers to go to Portugal at the beginning of the Peninsular War in August 1808. In 1810 he was promoted to 2nd Captain and made Captain in October 1813.  At some point he met and married a young Cornish girl, Elizabeth Birt Alice Holmes (1800—1863) and they had two daughters, Theodosia Alice Sterling baptized on the first of January 1818 in Cornwall, and Henrietta Fyers Mercer baptized 31 December 1818 in Bermuda.

The posting to Bermuda was unfortunate.  In 1819 there was a severe outbreak of yellow fever which ravaged the company and killed Cavalie Shorthose. His will closes, “My dear father and mother and brother in law I have ever regarded you with the tenderest esteem never neglect my children”. The History of the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners, by Thomas Connolly says, “An epidemic fever of a severe character raged at Bermuda during the months of August and September, and out of a company of fifty-two total, no less than one sergeant, twenty rank and file, three women, and one child, fell victims to its virulence. Captain Cavalie S. Mercer who commanded the company, was also numbered with the dead”.

His young widow returned to England with her two small daughters.  In 1822, she married John Reed of the 62nd Regiment of Foot.  In 1830 the regiment was posted to India and there her elder daughter Theodosia died at Bangalore in 1832, aged 15. John Reed himself, by then a Lieutenant-Colonel died in 1835. For her third husband, she married a Cornish doctor, John Francis Duke Yonge (1814—1879) in 1839 in Brussels.  Meanwhile, Henrietta had married John Martin Müller in Edinburgh.  They had a daughter Theodosia Yonge Müller, born in 1839, but Henrietta died the same year, only three months after her mother’s third marriage. Theodosia Yonge Müller was the only grandchild of Alexander Mercer to have children, and it is through her that the last of his line descends.

The youngest son was Henry Courthose Mercer (1790—1820). He joined the Royal Navy, being commissioned a Lieutenant on 17 March 1810.  He then served on a wide variety of ships, including the Plover, Hermes, San Josef, Queen Charlotte, Tonnant, Manly, and Puissant, before gaining his own command of the Badger, a revenue cutter patrolling the English Channel for smugglers. An account of their chase and capture of the Iris, laden with smuggled brandy, gin, tea, and tobacco is included in The Fine Art of Smuggling: King’s Cutters Vs Smugglers, 1700-1855, by E. Keble Chatterton. That was in November 1819, and a year later he died at Dover after a short illness.

In the ten years after Waterloo, Alexander Cavalié’s father died, as did his wife, and all three of his brothers.  Robert Pocock, who was instrumental in renovating Mercer’s grave, is working on a biography of him and hopefully we will hear more of his story when it is published.





Casualties of War

The Battle of Waterloo left 40000 men and 10000 horses dead on the field. Between cavalry, dragoons, officer’s mounts, and draft animals, the armies of the day were heavily dependent on horses, and so the horses also became casualties.  Among those present at the battle was Captain Alexander Cavalié Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery. His company of guns and horses were in the thick of battle all day and took many losses.  In his memoir, Journal of the Waterloo Campaign (1870), he writes movingly of one of these casualties.

A distressing circumstance connected with this (shall I confess it?) made even more impression on my spirits than the misfortune of Gunner Hunt.  Bolton’s people had not been long engaged when we saw the men of the gun next to us unharness one of the horses and chase it away, wounded, I supposed; yet the beast stood and moved with firmness, going from one carriage to the other, whence I noticed he was always eagerly driven away. At last two or three gunners drove him before them to a considerable distance, and then returned to their guns. I took little notice of this at the time, and was surprised by an exclamation of horror from some of my people in the rear. A sickening sensation came over me, mixed with a deep feeling of pity, when within a few paces of me stood the poor horse in question, side by side with the leaders of one of our ammunition wagons, against which he pressed his panting sides, as though eager to identify himself as of their society—the driver, with horror depicted on every feature, endeavouring by words and gestures (for the kind-hearted lad could not strike) to drive from him so hideous a spectacle. A cannon-shot had completely carried away the lower part of the animal’s head, immediately below the eyes. Still he lived, and seemed fully conscious of all around, whilst his full, clear eye seemed to implore us not to chase him from his companions. I ordered the farrier (Price) to put him out of his misery, which, in a few minutes, he reported having accomplished, by running his sabre into the animal’s heart.  Even he evinced feeling on this occasion.  (vol I, pp. 304—305)

The incident clearly made a deep impression on Mercer and was vivid when he wrote his Journal decades later.  And indeed, it still stands as a poignant reminder of the pain, suffering, and death inflicted by battle.