Wanted! Help from family history fans to help trace a gaoler & debtor...


07 February 2020
Historian Dr Cheryl Butler is researching the stories of people who once worked or were imprisoned in a remarkable building when it was a gun battery and, later, a town gaol. After hitting a brick wall, she is appealing to family history enthusiasts to help her fill in the gaps
Wanted! Help from family history fans to help trace a gaoler & debtor... Images

2020 will be the first full year of operation of a new heritage attraction in Southampton, God’s House Tower. Built in the early 15th century as state-of-art gun battery, it was later adapted in the 18th century to become the town’s main prison, including the House of Correction, Felons Gaol and the Debtors Prison.

It was important in constructing the venue's new permanent exhibition not only to tell the story of the physical creation of the building but also the ‘stories behind the stones', the people who worked and later were imprisoned behind the thick stone walls.

Dr Cheryl Butler, who was the lead historian on the project, used the extensive records held in the Southampton Archives to recreate the stories of the town gunners and those of the prison wardens and inmates. The permanent exhibition has highlighted four of the town gunners over a period of hundred years. This was when the tower was operating as the first line of defence, not only for Southampton, but for England which was always fearful of invasion from the French and later the Spanish.

Dr Butler said that the stories of Deryk Berebrewer, Peter Breme, Richard Netley and Henry Peach show that the men had specific talents which made them useful as gunners but also this was not their main profession. Breme was a glazier, Netley was a town sergeant, Peach a sailor. Deryk and Peter, like many of the early gunners were not English, but came from the Low Countries and Germany. The men looked after a wide variety of weapons from small musket like guns to large cannon called culverins as well as making gunpowder and gunstones.

'The research was made easier thanks to a Heritage Lottery Funded project that had taken place a few years earlier which focused on life in Tudor Southampton,' explained Dr Butler. 'One of the outputs was a free-to-access website which holds biographies of every person who lived in the town in 1485-1603, as evidenced by the local archives. Currently the website, Tudor Revels, has nearly 20,000 entries and is a useful tool for genealogists tracing family links with Southampton.'

However, when the research moved onto the story of the prison, the task was more difficult. 'There were no surviving records which recorded all the prisoners held in custody, and information from prison visits did not include the names of prisoners. The archive of one time town clerk Thomas Ridding did turn up a number of useful documents, details of prisoners being transported to America and Australia, some partial examinations and a cache of letters from a debtor who was in prison for nearly three years,' said Dr Butler.

'By supplementing information from the letters with parish records, inoculation lists, leases, and intriguing newspaper reports in Trinidad and Caracas, the story of Jeffery John Truss the warden and John Fitzgerald Geagan the prisoner has begun to take shape. However the trail has gone cold in certain key points.'

Appeal to family history researchers

Dr Butler would be keen to hear from any family historians who can add to this story.

The outline is as follows:

Jeffery Truss  – the gaoler

Jeffery Truss was born in 1748 and in 1779 married Marianne Hewlett, they lived in St Michael’s Parish, Southampton and ran the Half Moon Inn, in Butchers Row. They had a number of children, Jeffery junior born 1781, John born 1782, William also born 1782, Charles born in 1785, Marianne in 1787 and Sarah 1789. A John Jeffrey and Charles certainly died young, and their mother died in 1794.

Truss then remarried to Mary Rogers, who was some years younger than he being born in 1762. 

From at least 1785 Truss was gaoler of the debtor’s prison and the family lived on site, so this was where Sarah was probably born.

John Fitzgerald Geagan – the debtor

Meanwhile in the West Indies the Geagan family were plantation owners on the island of St Kitts. John and Maria Geagan had at least one child, a son John, who was heir to the property when his father died in 1800. His mother appears to have continued to run the family sugar plantation.

Nothing is known of John Fitzgerald Geagan’s early life but in 1808 he found himself in debtor’s prison in Southampton. He spends the next three years complaining about his treatment from the Truss family but is persuaded to take on the education of their youngest daughter Sarah. However, that education led to Sarah becoming pregnant and giving birth to Maria Eliza in 1810. John Geagan is named as the father.

Finally in November 1811 Geagan has managed to sell assets in St Kitts achieving £1,000, which enables him to pay off his debts and gain his freedom. He and Sarah then marry. It seems they may have returned to the West Indies and another daughter Louisa seems to have been born but the trail runs cold.

The Trusses eventually retire from running the prison, but not before Jeffrey’s daughter Marianne dies at the site in 1815. Jeffery and Mary move to Preshaw Farm in Upham, where Jeffery dies in 1829 and Mary in 1833. A John Truss is running the Crown Inn, Shirley Common in 1843 and might be a surviving son. 

Tracing Geagan

In trying to trace the Geagans the following has been discovered, but it is not possible to prove if this is the same John Fitzgerald Geagan. In 1812 a John Fitzgerald Geagan is listed as a surgeon by the Royal College of Surgeons where he was registered as a Member (rather than a fellow) and as not living within seven miles of London.

In 1815 in Trinidad two letters are written about the tyrannical conduct of Sir Ralph Woodford, in his government of Trinidad. Sir Ralph is here the subject of a  scurrilous attack following the issuing of a proclamation for the forming of a medical board to raise professional standards and prevent quacks from practicing in the colony. A caustic communication of the subject, appearing in an island paper, was laid at the door of one ‘Dr’ Geagan who was called upon to explain himself and who upon his refusal to do so, was placed in the custody of the deputy provost marshal.

Geagan’s grievances are aired in this ranting pamphlet, which would seem to be of his authorship, and Woodford is at the same time accused of constant misrule. Geagan had refused to show his diploma for registry stating ‘that he is forbidden to do so by the Act of Parliament incorporating the College of Surgeons and that it is derogatory to him to show the patent’. 

In 1821 Doctor J F Geagan is mentioned warmly in the Gaceta de Caracas newspaper as having been a benefactor to Venezuelan exiles on the island of Trinidad, whom he treated there for free after the battle of Golfo Triste, against forces supporting Spanish control of Venezuela. In that article he is stated to have been a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and welcomed to the newly-independent country as a friend. 1823 baptism register for the Cathedral of Caracas, Venezuela refers to the baptism in Dec 1823 of Juan Jesus Maria born on 30 May, son of Dr Juan Geagan and Felipa Outlaw. 

The College of Surgeons in London, Edinburgh and Ireland have no records on Geagan and neither does the University of Edinburgh.

Prisoner database

It is hoped that a future project can include a database of prisoners held in God’s House Tower which will help expand knowledge of the justice system in Southampton.

Anyone with possible information on the Truss/Geagan story can contact Dr Butler via her website here.

God’s House Tower

God's House Tower is open everyday between 10am. and 5pm and, as well as the permanent exhibition in the tower, there are two galleries showing contemporary art and art from the city’s permanent collections, a café and shop. The galleries and café are free to enter and the tower is by ticket, which is valid for three months and gives access not only to the exhibition but also onto the roof with its panoramic views of Southampton.

For more information on the story of God’s House Tower see the new book Powder, Prisoners & Paintings: The Story of God’s House Tower by Dr Cheryl Butler, available from the venue shop.

Images courtesy of Dr Cheryl Butler.

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