Hertfordshire Genealogy

Answers to Questions


Thomas MARRYAT, Barnet, 1760

and "A Happy Child"

August, 2012




Caroline Sloat (csloat @t mwa.org) of Thompson, Conn, US, wrote: My interest is in the local connection to a spiritual song that circulated in the US after 1767 and was reprinted frequently into the 19th century.  It is titled "The Happy Child, being a Narrative of the Holy Life and peaceable death of a remarkable pious child of Hertfordshire, England." In the third line is this reference: "In Barnet liv'd a loving pair, A tender wife and husband dear...." It goes on for 182 lines! A link on the website leads to Vol 2 of the Victoria County History pp. 329-337 and a reference to a Protestant Dissenting Chapel. I believe there may be a connection. Can you point me toward a useful source or two?

I note that the first edition, which appears to be anonymous, was entitled The Happy Child: or A remarkable and surprizing relation of a little girl, who dwelt at Barnat. It was printed and sold by Thomas & John Fleet at the Heart and Crown, Cornhill, Boston, in 1767.

The best printed source for nonconformity at the time is Urwick's Nonconformity in Hertfordshire which reports that a new meeting house was built in Wood Street, Barnet, in 1709 and that "The worshippers ranked under the Union of Presbyterians and Independents formed in 1690 and the congregation, though in 1715 numbering only 60, then included six voters for the county" at a time when few people had the vote. Urwick mentions an incident which could be indirectly relevant to the spiritual song. He writes about the ministers at the chapel:

Next we find the name of Dr. Thomas Marryat, son of Dr. Zephaniah Marryat, a man of peculiar views and great eccentricity. He was want to preach in coloured clothes. Without any notice he suddenly left his family and congregation in 1760, and went to the University of Edinburgh to prosecute the study of physic. Having graduated there, he visited foreign universities, and crossed the Atlantic. On his return he practiced in Ireland with great reputation; thence removed to Shrewsbury, and then to Bristol, "which was the scene of his success, moral degradation, consequent poverty and obscure death in 1792."

When Dr Marryat left Barnet the chapel doors were closed and the building became dilapidated, and was not reopened until 1797.

There is an extensive biography in the introduction of a modern edition of Thomas's book The Philosophy of Masons in Several Epistles which says:

This latter talent or passion was regularly exercised at a poetry club to which Marryat belonged in his late teens. Every Wednesday, Marryat would travel to the Strand at five in the afternoon to share and criticize poetry with the likes of Dr. Richard Brookes, Moses Browne, Stephen Duck, Martin Madan and Thomas Madox – all of them men who went on to greater notoriety than did Marryat. Poems that were found worthy of the group’s careful scrutiny and criticism were passed on to supply gentlemen’s magazines and periodicals of the day. The poetry readings were always followed by a supper and an evening of witty repartée that often ran until the early hours of the morning. Marryat, who is said to have possessed a quick but coarse wit, kept his fellow poets amused and earned the nickname “Sal Volatile” from Dr. Brookes.

Among his writings was a lengthy poem, Female Conduct (1760) [briefly mentioned in A Colonial Woman's Bookshelf] and a book called Sentimental Fables: design'd chiefly for the use of ladies, which was printed for the author in Belfast in 1771

There is an entry for Thomas Marryat in the Dictionary of National Biography - which says he belonged to a poetical club which met at the Robin Hood, Butcher Street, Strand, London.  It not mention any connection with Barnet and suggests he may not have gone to Edinburgh  and may have gone to America in 1762.

In addition I have found an online biography for Thomas's grand son Captain Frederick Marryat which reads:

Frederick Marryat was born in Great George Street, Westminster, London on 10th July 1792. His father, Joseph Marryat, was descended from Huguenots who had taken refuge in England following the St. Bartholemew's Day massacres in 1572, two centuries previously, and his mother was an American from Boston, with the maiden name of Geyer. Frederick's grandfather was Dr. Thomas Marryat, an extremely eccentric physician, who had died, impoverished, in Bristol just before Frederick's birth.

This triggered me to find a biography for Joseph Marryat (1757-1824) who became a Member of Parliament which says:

[Joseph was] b. 8 Oct. 1757, 1st s. of Thomas Marryat (d. 1792), Presbyterian minister, of Southwold, Suff. (afterwards physician of Bristol) and Sarah, da. of John Davy of Southwold. m. 17 Dec. 1788 at Boston, Mass., Charlotte, da. of Frederick von Geyer of Boston, 9s. (3 d.v.p.) 6da. (3 d.v.p.). d. 12 Jan. 1824.

So we have a Presbyterian minister called Thomas Marryat who wrote poems, who left a chapel in Barnet, Hertfordshire, in 1760, turned up in America (and may have made contacts in Boston, Mass.) before returning to Britain in 1766 - and the poem/song about Barnet, Hertfordshire, was published anonymously in 1767 in Boston, Mass.

Of course this is only circumstantial evidence but it suggests that Dr Thomas Marryat could well have been the author. So where can one look for more evidence. The most relevant research library in England for non-conformist records of the period is Dr. William's Library. In addition it could be worth looking for Thomas Marryat in American records between 1760 and 1766 - particularly in the Boston area - and it would be interesting to know if Frederick von Geyer was in Boston during this period and whether he could have met Thomas Marryat.

Unless there are some very definite clues in the poem the chances of identifying the couple and their daughter are not good - assuming there is no poetic licence in the verses. Suitable records are unlikely to have survived. My immediate thoughts on reading the above references is that I hope she did not really die as a result of his quack medicines!

British Library Picture

However having made the above suggestion it may well be completely wrong as the original text could be much older.  The British Library contains the Roxburghe collection of ballads published in England bound into five volumes. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (1661-1724) made a collection of printed ballads which are now preserved in five volumes - possibly including later manuscripts up to about 1790.  These are now available online as part of the English Broadside Ballard Archive of 17th century ballads. Volume 3 of the original collection contains a ballad which starts as follows:


Shewing,  how one Mrs Johnsons Child of Barnet, was tempted by the Devil to forsake GOD, and follow the Ways of other wicked Children, who used to Swear, tell Lies, and disobey their  Parents: How this pretty innocent Child resisting Satan, was comforted by an Angel from Heaven, who warned her of her approaching Death: Together with her dying Words desiring young Children not to forsake God, least Satan would gain Power over them. To the Tune of Bleeding Heart.

  From British Library Collection

YE Parents, that love Children dear,

To what I shall relate give Ear,

And If youd have them Heaven partake

Youll buy this Sheet for their dear sake


In Barnet livd a loving Pair,

A tender Wife and Husband dear,

Whom cruel Death of Life beguild

And left his tender Wife with child


It provd a Daughter, therefore she,

Was brought up very tenderly;

And as she did grow up in Time,

Her temper seemd like one divine.


I have no special knowledge of early ballad sheets and the Roxburghe Collection probably contains examples as late as 1790 and this ballad would appear from the online description of the collection to be pasted on a page with a watermark of "W. C. 1796" suggesting it was pasted in after this date - but may already have been very old. If however it was a late addition to the collection which had been newly published I suppose it could have been by Dr. Thomas Marryat - perhaps printed in England before he went to America - but I think it unlikely unless a specialist in such printed sheets decides it could be mid 18th century.

There is another Hertfordshire connection in that one of the most complete printed editions of the ballads was printed by Stephen Austin & Sons, of Hertford, between 1869 and 1901.

July 2013

Following a  message from Paul Roper (jpcroper @t postmaster.co.uk) I sent the following message to Caroline:

Last year I responded to a question from you about a song circulating in America which referred to Barnet and I have just had a message from Paul which indicates that one (of very many possible) line of enquiry is closed.

He says:

I am descended from both Thomas Marryat and FW Geyer of Boston Mass. Frederick Geyer was a first generation German immigrant who arrived as a child in Boston with his father in 1751. He subsequently became a prosperous merchant, sided with the British in the War of Independence (in 1757), as a result of which he was banished, but returned to Boston and had his property restored in 1788.

This suggests that Frederick Geyer was not in Boston at the time Thomas Marryat was in America - so research in this direction is unlikely to be profitable. Paul also adds:

His son Joseph, sailed from England as a young man in the 1780s to become a merchant (and subsequent plantation owner) on the island of Grenada. It was during a trading voyage from there to Boston in 1789 that he was introduced to, and subsequently married, one of Geyer's daughters, Charlotte. There is no evidence that he was acquainted with, or had knowledge of, the Geyers before this time. Joseph and his young wife returned briefly to Grenada before returning permanently to Britain in 1792. He became a very wealthy merchant and plantation owner, MP for Sandwich and Chairman of Lloyds, dying in 1824.

I am sure you will agree that this evidence does not directly affect the theory of authorship of the poem - but merely rules out one possible source of supporting information.  In this context it might help to clarify the distinction between what is known, what is speculation, and possible sources of information which might provide supporting evidence one way or the other.

The following facts are clear.

  • In the 18th century newspapers were uncommon and much information was circulated in the form of pamphlets. These included news stories, sermons and ballads. Popular pamphlets may will have been copied, and reprinted (with changes), many times, sometimes without the knowledge of the original author.

  • Each printing might only have involved a small number of copies and comparatively few examples of 18th century pamphlets have survived. Many of the survivors are of the more sensational news stories. Moralistic sermons (whether in verse or not) were far less likely to survive.

  • One of the surviving "sermons" is in the form of a ballad relating to a child from the parish of Barnet, in Hertfordshire. At least two early versions survive. One was published in Boston in 1767. The other is in a collection of English ballads and is undated but could be as late as 1796, but is probably earlier.

  • Dr Thomas Marryat was a priest and poet of some note, and it is likely that some of his moralising sermons, in ballad form, were published as pamphlets. He was a minister at Barnet in 1760 and was in America in the 1760s. Several published works by him are known and while I have not seen them the titles suggest they fall into the moralising sermon type category.

  • No copy of the "Barnet" ballad is known which carries his name (or the name of any other possible author) and his movements in America are not known so it is not known if he was ever in Boston,

  • We know that more than 20 years later his son Joseph visited Boston.

The following is speculation

  • When Dr Marryat was in America he continued to act, to some extent at least, as a minister, preached sermons, and distributed printed pamphlets of a moralising sermon type nature.

  • Some of his sermons and/or pamphlets almost certainly contained references to places where he had preached in England, including Barnet. This would strengthen the message by relating it to real people living in real places.

  • He may have travelled around as a visiting preacher and actually preached in Boston. Alternately someone who purchased one of his pamphlets went to Boston and Thomas and John Fleet decided to reprint it, possibly with "improvements"

  • The date the ballad was written is not certain except that it was not later than 1767. It may have been much older and Dr Marryat might not have been the author (although he might have taken it to America). He may have written it while he was in Barnet circa 1760 - or he might have written it in America and later brought a copy back to England.

It is clear that Thomas Marryat is the prime (and in fact only) suspect in the mystery of how a poem about Barnet is published in Boston in 1767. It is extremely unlikely that a definitive contemporary paper trail (such as a letter from Thomas Marryat to the Fleets of Boston) has survived, but there might be other evidence which adds weight to the theory.

The following are some of the places where supporting evidence might be found.

  • A linguistic comparison between the ballad and works known to be by Thomas Marryat could indicate whether they were likely to be by the same author.

  • If Thomas acted as a visiting minister when he was in America there could be church/chapel records that recorded his visit - which would at least establish that he was disseminating the Christian gospel when he was in America. Such records could of course be anywhere in the Eastern States of America, and may only survive as manuscripts in the archives of the churches/chapels concerned.

  • Are there other examples of Thomas's writings in pamphlet collections in America which could have been published or distributed in the 1760s? This could help establish the fact that he was writing or publishing poems or sermons in America in the 1760-66 period.

  • If he went to Boston in the 1760's Thomas may well have provided his son Joseph with a list of useful contact names and addresses - and if we know who Joseph met in Boston in the late 1780s and early 1790s this might suggest names of people Thomas might have met in the 1760s. This could well involve ministers or worshipers in Boston churches/chapels who may have kept diaries of chapel log books.

  • As he went to America shortly are the War of Independence did he it seems possible that he went because he supported the American victory - and this may well have influence what he did between about 1760 and 1766. Again a possible lead for surviving records.

Looking for such supporting evidence could be very hard work with a high probability that nothing would be found one way or another. What Paul's helpful message tells us is that one of the many possible avenues for evidence is almost certainly closed. We now know that while we know that Joseph met (and married into) the Geyer family around 1789 the Geyer family were almost certainly not in Boston at the time Thomas was in America.

If you have any more information since we were first in touch I would be interested to hear more.


If you can add to the information given above tell me.

August 2012   Page created
August 2013   Geyer message and further information about possible sources