Today I met Steven, a very nice man in charge of the local history library in Walthamstow. I’d been in contact a couple of weeks ago when I’d finished reading the brilliant biography of Captain Fitzroy, the founder of the shipping forecast, by John and Mary Gribbin which describes the plight of some Fuegian captives bought to live for a short time in this corner of North East London.
The Walthamstow archive is housed in an upstairs room of the Vestry House Museum, an old workhouse that has been converted. I walk in through the timber panelled rooms of a collection that includes old bikes (John Kemp Starley, the inventor of the first ‘safety bike’ with two wheels the same size and a chain set allowing rear wheel drive - was born here) uniforms, grubby men in glazed cupboards and a large courtyard garden.
It’s a cold and rainy January day. I remove the red rope from the bottom of the timber stairs and clamber up to the library, dripping all the way. Steven has laid out all the information they have on the Fuegians for me including a folder marked ‘uncatalogued ephemera’ a description that could easily be used to describe the contents of my flat. There are several folders containing press cuttings, articles, previous requests, details of s performance at the young vice called ‘Boat Memory’ a misguided council poster on diversity showing an image of one of the captives and a letter from a BBC tv producer. There are two books of the life of Jemmy Button that in the two and a half hours I’ve allowed for the visit, I don’t have time to read but which contain some interesting illustrations from Fitzroy’s narrative of the voyage.
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. Steven knows a bit about them and also fills me in on the archive collection and what Walthamstow would have been like then. He gives me a run down of the different church factions and who from workers to aristocracy, would have prayed where, as well as recommending some bbc4 documentaries and an overview of the architecture in the borough and it’s district architect. He also tells me about a preacher who gave sermons from the inside of a hollowed out tree in Epping Forest. I get the sense that not many people visit the library.
The book, ‘Fitzroy, Darwin’s Captain’ tells the story of how these three native people from Tierra del Fuego ended up in Walthamstow in the 1830’s as part of an ill conceived plan by Fitzroy that they would be civilised and taught the Christian doctrine. They were captured during a retaliation mission by the crew of the Beagle on its first surveying mission in Patagonia, as they tried to bond with the ‘savages’ to show them the whereabouts of a missing whaleboat. These boats were flat bottomed and used in the narrow and shallow channels to carry out the surveying work.
During the skirmish, four Fuegians ended up onboard the Beagle; York Minster; named after a rocky landmass near where he was picked up, that looked a bit like the building; Boat Memory; who purportedly knew the whereabouts of the missing boat; Jemmy Button who was apparently exchanged for a large, shiny mother of pearl button and Fuegia Basket named after an Island where a Welsh member of the crew had fashioned a coracle to paddle back to the Beagle when their boat was stolen. Fitzroy has not intended to keep them onboard but quickly formed a plan that once ‘civilised’ in England, they could be returned back to Tierra del Fuego to start English speaking settlements along the Magellan Straight and the Beagle Channel ensuring safe passage for ships. It didn’t work out quite as planned. To his credit, Fitzroy genuinely cared for their wellbeing and ensured they were treated well. He used his own money to fund this.
On arrival in England the four were taken to a farm house near Plymouth to get them away from the disease ridden port. They were given smallpox vaccines in Rio but Boat Memory sadly died. The remaining three were then taken to Walthamstow, then a well to do rural village within easy reach of London. They were under the care of the local Minister William Wilson and looked after by the local school teacher and his wife.
St Mary’s infant school was somewhat progressive and reportedly the first public school in England. They were taught arithmetic, English, gardening, xx and were welcomed into the local community where they became something of celebrities. Button and basket got on well but Minster, who was older and much bigger than the others found it hard to fit in. Towards the end of their time on the Beagle, his ‘inappropriate’ sexual advances to Fuegia Basket were covered up to save embarrassment to Fitzroy as they were increasingly in the public eye. They were later married.
This potential embarrassment prompted Fitzroy to make plans to take them home. A few months later, having met with Queen Adelaide and King William. They boarded the Beagle on its second voyage south with the young naturalist and collector, Charles Darwin aboard. There was little room for the butter dishes, tea sets and wine glasses that the good people of Walthamstow had given as going away presents but which would sadly prove utterly useless as survival equipment in the wild, exposed land of this far most tip of South America, but I do like the idea of them hauling it all onto a desolate beach, ready to start a new life.
I thank Steven for his time and wander down the street past the school they would have gone to and back towards Walthamstow Central where I catch the 48 bus back to my own collection of ‘uncategorised ephemera’.