The Skutts Part 3 – Slaves, Kings and Law Suits

During the 1650s, George Skutt as Governor was often in touch with the Council of State. In 1658 he manned a vessel and successfully captured a shallop man-of-war which had been commissioned by James, ‘styled’ Duke of York, to attack local shipping. Having spent £57 manning the ship and caring for the prisoners, George asked for his expenses to be taken from the money remaining and the value of the ship.

Brownsea

Brownsea Island

The following year, in the disorder following the death of Cromwell, ‘Maj. Skutt Governor of Brownsea Castle’ had more instructions from Whitehall: ‘For the better preservation in this time of danger of the castle of Brownsea and the town of Poole, Council desires you to repair to those places, and empowers you to enlist and arm such of the well affected inhabitants of Poole as shall suffice to guard it, and to train, muster, conduct, and command them as cause and opportunity shall occur.’ These volunteers were to be furnished with arms and paid, by an order of August 17th.

Royal oakIn spite of being under suspicion by the authorities of connection with the Dorset insurrection of 1653, William Skutt remained prominent in Poole as a Justice of the Peace and served as Mayor in 1657/8. In 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne, those that supported the monarchy were in the ascendancy. There were obviously widely diverging opinions in Poole. As a justice, William Skutt was in correspondence with the authorities about Sydrach Lester, captain of the Magdalen, who had been transporting goods for ‘Wm. Cole, a dangerous fellow and a plotter in the late rebellion, who fled to Holland, and perhaps may be in Lester’s vessel.’ Lester was also reputed to have spoken treasonable words against the king. He later managed to escape from custody in Poole and was believed to have also fled to Holland. William’s own opinions may be indicated by the fact that an inn which he owned called the Three Tuns in the Market Place was at some stage renamed the Royal Oak, a significant name because it commemorated the king’s escape from England after his defeat at Worcester in 1651. After Charles’s restoration, his birthday, 29th May, was declared Royal Oak Day.

In a tax list of 1662, Col. William Scutt is listed as owning a mansion house with brewhouse, (the highest rated property in the town), a house at the Quay with cellar and garden, another cellar at the Quay, two inns, and three tenements. He also rented two other cellars and a garden at West Butts. George Skutt owned a mansion house in New Street and rented another tenement, as well holding the lease for Brownsea Island. Both were therefore big property owners in the town.

Meanwhile, the younger Skutt brothers, Benjamin, Joseph and possibly also Thomas had set up in London as merchants importing sugar and other comodities from the colonies. They also hired out ships to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa which supplied negro slaves to the colonial plantations. Benjamin’s progress can be followed by the places of baptism of his 11 children from 1657 onwards. The three eldest were baptised in St. Lawrence Jewry and St. John, Hackney but from 1663, they were all baptised at St. Helen, Bishopsgate in the heart of the city. Joseph spent many years in Barbados where he bought Buckland plantation from Sir Thomas Modyford, but he retained his London base. This branch of the family therefore may have witnessed the King’s triumphant entry into London on his restoration, not to mention the plague epidemic of 1665 and the great fire of the following year which spared St. Helen’s church but devastated so much of the city.

Charter of 1667 granted to Poole

Charter of 1667 granted to Poole

It was on 15th September 1665, during the plague outbreak in London, that Poole received the ‘unparaleld honour and grace’ of a visit from the King Charles himself. The court had been temporarily exiled to Salisbury to avoid infection, when the day trip to Poole was planned. The King was accompanied by the Duke of Monmouth, other lords and members of the local gentry and was greeted by the Mayor, Peter Hall, Senior Bailiff, Edward Man, and others like William Skutt who had proved their loyalty. Those who were not supporters of the monarchy no doubt kept a low profile.

The royal party first dined at the house of Peter Hiley (all expenses paid by the mayor) and then took ‘coll. William Skutt’s boat to Brownsea, steered by the sayd colonel, and rowed by six masters of shipps, where his majesty tooke an exact view of the said island, castle, bay, and this harbour, to his great contentment’. On returning to the Quay, the party went on foot to William Skutt’s house ‘where was a stately banquett provided’ and learning that it was the season of mayor-making, the king ‘was pleased . . . to nominate and appoint the said coll. Skutt for the future mayor of Poole’. It was a gratifying moment in Skutt’s career, even though the Corporation, always jealous of its rights and privileges, was not likely to ratify the king’s choice.

The rear of the George Inn as it is today

The rear of the George Inn as it is today

William Skutt did not have long to reflect on his triumph as he died only five weeks later, leaving a widow, Elizabeth, and four children, Allen, Elizabeth, Melior and Jane. His prominence in Poole’s affairs had spanned one of the most tumultuous periods in the country’s history, through which he had steered a consistent, sometimes difficult course. His will was surprisingly brief, the only properties specified being the George Inn and the Plume of Feathers. These were left to Elizabeth his wife along with the rest of his estate, and she was made his executrix with the duty of discharging his debts and providing portions for the children. His brothers Benjamin and Joseph were made his overseers.

As well as the two inns named in the will, William’s widow inherited a dwelling house, two other houses and a brewhouse in High Street, two houses in Market Street and the Royal Oak in the market place besides his personal estate ‘consisting in shipping and stock tradeing as a marchant to a very great value’. It was potentially a very rich inheritance but according to a later statement by Benjamin Skutt, William also had considerable debts amounting to £3,000 and upwards. After the will was proved, Elizabeth ‘through age, grief and trouble’ was not able to manage the estate and it fell to Allen Skutt to settle his father’s affairs and debts, advised by his uncle Benjamin. For this purpose, Elizabeth transferred most of the properties to Allen’s ownership. Twenty five years later the two branches of the family would go to law over the remains of William’s legacy.

Skutt petition 1667In 1667, Benjamin Skutt was one of five colonial merchants petitioning Parliament against the monopoly enjoyed by the Company of Royal Adventurers to trade along the African coast. They argued in favour of the former system of ‘freedom of Trade for all His Majesties Subjects for Negroes on the whole coast of Guiney, by reason whereof the said Plantations have been plentifully supplied with Negroes of the best sort, and at an indifferent [ie. cheap] rate, to the great encrease of the said Plantations, and the advantage and profit of this Crown and Nation.’ This mutually beneficial state of affairs, they argued, had been destroyed by the Company’s actions, the supply of slaves was reduced, prices had shot up and the plantations were ‘at present much decayed and unless a timely remedy be provided, will speedily be brought to inevitable destruction.’

The Company replied point by point to the petition, but they were in financial difficulties and in 1672 were re-structured as the Royal African Company with a licence to operate along the whole of the Guinea coast. Benjamin Skutt was named in the charter as one of the trustees and Joseph Skutt as a member of the new company. It was a time when European sailors captured by Barbary pirates were frequently sold as slaves, and inhabitants of ports like Poole were familiar with appeals to ransom their relations or neighbours languishing in ‘cruell bondage and slavery’. However there was no attempt to apply these ideas to the fate of African slaves transported to the colonies, and even among men who would have considered themselves as God-fearing, the moral aspect of this very profitable trade did not feature.

‘Mr. George Skutt of Brownsea’ died in 1671, leaving a daughter, Mary. (I have found no trace of a will or administration for his estate.) In the spring of 1674, both Benjamin and Joseph were in Poole staying with their nephew, Allen who that year was following the family tradition by serving as Sheriff of Poole. Now Joseph fell ill and his friend, William Orchard, was called to help him make his will. After spending several hours in Joseph’s chamber, helping him to draft the will, William Orchard left the room to get witnesses and sealing wax. When he returned, Joseph was asleep and later died without signing the will. The document was nevertheless submitted for probate and Benjamin was required to give evidence. In his deposition he described the circumstances of making the will and said that Joseph owed most of his estate to Benjamin’s help and had often said that he would leave the bulk of his estate to Benjamin and his children. In the event, the will was accepted and proved in 1677.

BarbadosIn the will, Joseph (who presumably had no children of his own) left the George Inn and the Plume of Feathers to his nephew, Allen Skutt. Nine years before these had been part of William’s estate, left to his widow Elizabeth, so it is not clear how they came into Joseph’s possession. Perhaps he acquired them to provide Elizabeth and Allen with cash to settle some of William’s debts. Anyway, he now returned them to the branch of the family that originally owned them.

Half of Joseph’s interest in Buckland plantation, Barbados was left to his godson, Benjamin’s son Joseph junior and the other half was shared between Benjamin’s other three sons, William, George and Thomas. Joseph’s sister received £20 to repair her house and her daughters had £30 each to be paid at their marriage. William’s three daughters, Elizabeth, Jane and Melior received £300 to be divided between them. Benjamin was to be his sole executor.

In 1674 there was a mention in the records of Thomas Skutt, presumably the brother of Benjamin and Joseph: ‘Thomas Skutt now resident in the Island of Jamaica, Merchant’ was named in the 4th charter of the Royal African Company as one of the two attorneys managing company affairs on the island and overseeing its ‘Plantations, Lands, Tenements, houses, store-houses, Goods, Chattels, Stock, Servants, Negroes, Merchandize and all other the Estates and Estates, whatsoever, both real and personal’ according to Company instructions. Thomas must have died not long after this appointment because in Joseph’s probate law suit, Benjamin described himself as the only surviving brother.

In the next few years Allen followed the family pattern of public service, being Mayor of Poole in 1677 and serving on the council to raise money for the king. At the same time he was apparently still struggling with his father’s financial affairs and in 1684 was taken to court by James Gould over money matters.

Elephant and castle logo of the Royal African Company

Elephant and castle logo of the Royal African Company

Meanwhile, Benjamin’s business affairs flourished. He served three times as Assistant to the Royal African Company and became a Common Councilman for Bishopsgate Within, a Tory Alderman and a master of the Ironmonger’s Company. In spite of his busy life in London, he retained interests in Poole. In 1681, he was involved in the sale for the large sum of £800 of ‘the great house in Poole situated near the New Key’ with its quay and lands, another messuage near the ‘High Key’, lands at Sterte, and other Poole property. The buyer was Robert Helmes of London, an agent for the Royal African Company on Nevis. The house near the Quay may be the one owned by William Skutt in the 1662 tax list and the Sterte lands those inherited by George Skutt from his father in 1654. If so, it is not clear how they came into Benjamin’s hands.

The later years of Charles’ reign were troubled and in 1683 there was a conspiracy, known as the Rye House plot, to assassinate Charles and his brother James. Following the plot, Charles had took steps to tighten his control of the country by suspending the charters, rights and privileges of many cities and boroughs, Poole being one of them. The Poole corporation wrote an address to the king declaring their ‘constant loyalty and stedfast obedience’ in humble and ingratiating terms, and asked Benjamin Skutt as a London based Poole man to present it to the king.

Charles IIOn 4th October, Benjamin wrote a letter back to Poole describing how had obtained an audience with the king ‘and his majesty receiving us with a pleasant countenance, wee, accquaynting him with the occasion of our attendance, upon our knees delivered the addresse into his majesty’s hands, who receiving itt with all demonstration of kindnesse, gave it to one of the clarkes of the council to read itt’. The king seemed to be pleased with the address and directed that ‘the matter relating to your charter should be settled as you pray’d for.’ So the mission appeared to be accomplished. In the later part of Benjamin’s letter, it is possible to detect a slightly bitter, even sarcastic tone when he praises the submission of the Poole authorities to ‘so great a king and the best of men, who studdyes the good of his subjects, and whoever suffers under his government, it’s only from themselves’. The city of London has not been so compliant and now ‘all our libertyes, franchises, lands &c., are forfeited and seized into the king’s hands, and many thousands of widdows and orphans left in a most deplorable perishing condition’.

Monmouth trialsIn spite of Benjamin’s efforts and the king’s words, the judgement went ahead and in the following year, all Poole’s privileges were taken away. John Wyndham of Salisbury was appointed Mayor of Poole under a commission of the peace and Allen Skutt was named as deputy mayor. Charles died in February 1685 and was succeeded by his brother James. Only months after his accession, the Duke of Monmouth raised a rebellion in the West Country which was quickly defeated. After the so-called ‘Bloody Assize’ at Dorchester, the condemned rebels were sent to different towns, including Poole, to be hanged, drawn and quartered and it was Allen Skutt who was responsible for sending the quarters of bodies out to local villages to be displayed. Allen died in 1687 without leaving any issue and without making a will, having probably been dogged by financial problems throughout his career. Poole’s rights and privileges were restored by James II shortly before he fled the country in 1688.

Benjamin Skutt was doing well. In 1686, he was listed among the 30 top importers of colonial commodities into London, with imports worth over £7,500. However he was apparently discontented with the political situation in England and in 1687, he retired to live in Barbados. On the voyage he disagreed with his travelling companion and nephew, William Pendleton, so violently that the following year, Pendleton attempted to murder him.

One would expect Pendleton to be held to account for his attack but instead he accused Benjamin Skutt of speaking against the state. He said that Skutt had complained about the execution of Henry Cornish, the Sheriff of the City of London, condemned on possibly spurious evidence, and that he had insulted Pendleton’s father, Thomas, who had been a member of the jury. Obviously treason trumped attempted murder. The Attorney General of Barbados, Sir Thomas Montgomery, made a complaint about Skutt’s ‘highly criminal’ words to Lieutenant  Governor Edwyn Stede but Stede was inclined to believe Skutt and the witnesses he produced, who all swore that he had never said anything of the kind. After examining the evidence, Stede decided not to proceed any further without specific instruction from England.

The financial dealings between Benjamin Skutt and his brother William’s family came to a head in 1691 when Benjamin issued a bill of complaint against Elizabeth, William’s widow, her two daughters and two grand-daughters who were allegedly withholding from him a house and its contents granted to Benjamin by Allen Skutt in a bill of sale. In the complaint Benjamin described how he was ‘prevailed upon’ to lend Allen considerable sums of money and stood surety for his debts as he got deeper and deeper into difficulties. Allen was even confined for debt at one stage. Now, Benjamin argued, the family were combining to ‘defeat and defraud’ him of his rights.

The list of household goods

The list of household goods

In reply, the defendents claimed that Benjamin Skutt and Allen Skutt had possessed themselves of all or most of William’s estate which was of great value ‘and if there was any misapplication thereof these Defendents believe itt was done by the cunning and contrivance of the Complainant who governed the said Allen Skutt in the disposition of the said estate as he pleased.’ They claimed that Elizabeth frequently asked Benjamin for an account of her husband’s estate and debts, but Benjamin ‘having got the greater part of William Skutt’s estate into his hands and power went beyond the seas and there doth still remain’ while his agents collected the profits of the properties.

The inventory of goods attached to the bill of complaint suggests the contents of a large, comfortable and well furnished house. Eleven rooms are mentioned, not including the well house, and besides all the normal household goods and furniture are such refinements as pictures and ‘skitchings’, forty two books and two bibles, a set of draughts, a ‘Rock of Coriall’ and a globe. It is not clear which house this is, but it may well be George Skutt’s old house in the High Street, known as the Priory where King Charles was entertained in 1665.

Benjamin Skutt junior

Benjamin Skutt junior

Whether Benjamin Skutt was an unfortunate victim, helping his feckless nephew out of the goodness of his heart and becoming embroiled in his affairs or whether he was a cynical manipulator, exploiting his distressed sister-in-law and inexperienced nephew to line his own pockets, is now impossible to tell. Probably the truth was somewhere in between these extremes. What we can say is that William’s property was dispersed and some of it, such as the Priory, the George and the Plume of Feathers ended up in the hands of Benjamin’s sons.

Benjamin Skutt died in 1699 leaving an estate estimated to be worth between £10,000 and £30,000. Controversial to the end, he virtually disinherited his eldest son, William, leaving him only £10 because he ‘hath bin very unkinde to me and hath very unjustly dealt with me’. The rest of his estate in Barbados or elsewhere was left to his other five surviving children, Joseph, Thomas, Benjamin junior, Mary and Anne and they were all to be his executors. His gold, rings and plate were to be divided between his daughters, and as Thomas lived in Barbados, he had the duty of arranging his father’s funeral and sorting out his estate on the island.

Throughout the troubled 17th century, the Skutts were more than just helpless victims of changing fortunes. Within their sphere of influence, they helped to shape events and fought for their beliefs. In times of extremes, they steered course of moderation (mixed with self-interest) and they were lucky enough, in most cases, to emerge successful and prosperous.

Jenny

 

 

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