THE MONTSERRAT CONNECTION

 

The Imperial Abolition Act of 1833 was to have brought about emancipation throughout the British Empire on August 1st, 1834. As one of the prominent figures in the anti-slavery movement, Joseph Sturge VI had worked tirelessly to bring this about.

But the Act fell far short of the campaigners’ intentions. It committed the ‘freed’ slaves to endure seven further years of bondage, tied to their masters as ‘apprentices’. The steam now went out of the British anti-slavery movement, many of its leading lights believing that this Act was the best that could be achieved. But Joseph Sturge carried on the struggle, co-ordinating a high energy campaign against the apprenticeship.

The first Sturge on Montserrat

As a crucial part of the campaign, he and three others – all but one Quakers – travelled to the West Indies in 1836 to see at first hand the condition of the apprentices. They split into two pairs, Joseph Sturge and Thomas Harvey’s perilous travels taking them first to Barbados and then to Antigua. On the 12 December 1836 they arrived on Montserrat, thus beginning the Sturge family link with that lush, mountainous and beautiful Caribbean island.

During six days on Montserrat they met planters, clergy, Legislative Assembly members, the magistrate and the King’s representative. Their contacts included Francis Burke, a planter who they described as “a gentleman of uncommon intelligence and enterprise”.

Their travels also took them to Dominica, St Lucia and Jamaica. The book they published on their return, “The West Indies in 1837”, together with a frenetic round of public speaking, campaigning and Parliamentary lobbying combined with events in the islands to bring about an end to the apprenticeship on the 1st August, 1838. The former slaves thus achieved full freedom three years sooner than would otherwise have been the case.

Elberton moves to Montserrat

Joseph Sturge must have been smitten by Montserrat, as is just about everyone I know who has become acquainted with it. In 1857 he purchased the Montserrat sugar estate of Bransby’s with the intention of demonstrating the viability of sugar production using free, wage-earning labour. He renamed the estate Elberton after his Gloucestershire birthplace. Sadly he died two years later, in 1859, at the age of 66, before being able to put this enterprise to the test. Ownership of Elberton Estate passed to his daughter, Sophia Sturge.

“Pay day at Elberton Estate, 1890s, with St. George’s Hill and Chances Peak in the background.”

 

Citric acid manufacture

Joseph Sturge VI had four sisters and five brothers. Two of his brothers, John and Edmund, were manufacturing chemists – proprietors of John & E Sturge Ltd of Wheeley’s Road, Birmingham. This firm was engaged in the manufacture of citric acid, in those days made from raw citrus juice. Their main source of juice had been Sicilian lemons but the failure of this crop around this time had lead them to look elsewhere for their raw material. Francis Burke had been experimenting with lime cultivation on his Woodlands Estate in Montserrat. He approached John & E Sturge – it is said through the West Indian firm of P & G Galloway, but no doubt also having been recommended to John and Edmund by their brother, Joseph – with a view to supplying Montserrat juice for the Birmingham works. A contract was entered into with Francis Burke in 1853 and money was advanced to him to finance his lime cultivation, secured by a mortgage on Woodlands.

Two years later Edmund Sturge (Joseph VI’s brother) bought three adjoining estates in order to extend lime cultivation. He named the resulting combined plantation Olveston after the Sturge family home area in Gloucestershire.

“Olveston works, 1890s.” PICTURE THREE: Caption “Agriculture, Olveston Estate, 1890’s.”

More Sturge arrivals

In 1860 “Marshall” Sturge (Joseph Marshall, nephew of Joseph VI, son of Charles) visited the island in the company of his cousin John Edmund Sturge (nephew of Joseph VI, son of Edmund) – the former for his health and the latter to accompany him. About six months after their arrival, Charles Sturge purchased the Grove Estate on Montserrat for his son, Marshall. Edmund and Marshall stayed on the island for a year, lodging with Francis Burke at Woodlands and returning to England in May 1861.

At the end of that year Marshall travelled back to Montserrat to take charge of the Grove Estate. Shortly after his return Francis Burke fell ill and died in the following spring.

An inheritance lost, a spouse gained

In 1865 John Edmund was commissioned - presumably by his father, Edmund - to foreclose the mortgage on Woodlands. This was due, I understand, to losses suffered as a result of the under performance of the late Francis Burke’s lime juice business.

The following year, on 3rd April 1866, Marshall married Ann Burke of Woodlands, daughter of Francis Burke, in St Peters Parish Church in Montserrat. So Ann, having lost her Woodlands inheritance to the Sturge family, gained a Sturge spouse! Marshall was 27, she 30. Their son, “Cousin Charles”, may be remembered by older members of our family.


“Joseph Marshall Sturge”

“Mrs J. Marshall Sturge (nee Anne Burke of Monserrat, West Indies) with infant son Charles on his first arrival in Britain in 1869.”

 

“May, aged 6, Vida 2, Edna 1; August 29th 1877, (daughters of Marshall and Anne Sturge.)”

More Sturge arrivals, more romance

At the end of 1865, “Dickenson” Sturge (Charles Dickenson, nephew of Joseph VI and son of Charles) and his wife Ellen arrived on the island to strengthen the management team. They were accompanied by John Edmund’s sister Edith.

At this time, Marshall resigned his connection with the Grove Estate (no doubt in order to take his Montserrat born wife to England to enjoy the delights of Birmingham), and one James Spencer Hollings from the neighbouring island of St Kitts was engaged to manage it. Hollings was a man of many talents – a surveyor and, it later transpired, a civil engineer of no mean ability. He carried out some outstanding examples of bridge and road building on the island.

In 1868 he and Edith Sturge were married. Their son, James Spencer Hollings, Junior CBE (brought up at Richmond House on Grove Estate) became a leading light in the British iron and steel industry, his obituary in The Times in 1956 describing him as “a recognised expert … in coke oven and blast furnace practice” – all very appropriate as his Sturge/Albright Quaker lineage can be traced back to the Derbys of Coalbrookdale.

Sturge’s Montserrat Company incorporated

In 1869 it was decided to separate the manufacturing business of John & E Sturge in Birmingham from the Montserrat lime juice enterprise. Thus Sturge’s Montserrat Company Ltd was incorporated in that year, registered in Birmingham. The new company acquired title to Olveston, Woodlands and the Grove Estates and to the Store business in the capital, Plymouth. It also leased Elberton Estate from Sophia Sturge. Its shareholders were Arthur Albright, Hannah Albright, John Marshall Albright, James Clark, Thomas Harvey, Edmund Sturge, Joseph Sturge VII (only son of Joseph VI), Charles Dickenson Sturge, Wilson Sturge (my grandfather), Francis Albright Sturge, Sophia Sturge, Priscilla Sturge and Eliza Sturge (the three daughters of Joseph VI), and “Hannah Sturge the younger” – a veritable roll call of Birmingham and Oxfordshire Quakers.

The Cot

Between 1872 and 1873 a splendidly located house was built for John Edmund and Jane Richardson Sturge, high on the side of Olveston mountain. They named it “The Cot” – in some documents referred to as “New Cot”. I don’t know the derivation of the name but I wonder if the original family home of Gaunts Earthcot had acquired a family nickname of “The Cot”.

“Front of Cot, 1890s, with unidentified family members, probably including John Edmund and Jane Richardson Sturge.”

 

“Rear of The Cot, 1890s.”

This fine house only survived for 26 years. It was irreparably damaged in the 1899 hurricane. Of John Edmund and Jane’s three daughters, Hilda, Olga and Elfrida, at least the eldest, Hilda, and I believe also Olga, were born in this house. Senior family members may remember these Sturge sisters who lived in Cambridge.

“No lovelier sight”

By 1878 the company’s lime plantations covered over 600 acres, containing some 120,000 trees. Mrs John Edmund Sturge writes at this time “No lovlier sight could be seen than these orchards when the trees are laden with their bright fruit, the air being pervaded with the fragrance of the blossom.”

“Ecuelling limes – the process of manually extracting essential oil from the rind of the fruit, 1890s.”

 

“Ecuelling limes at Foxes Bay works, 1890’s.”

But Sturge’s Montserrat Company soon ran into difficulties. Management failures may have been a factor. Possibly drought and blight and depressed markets had compounded the problems. And a costly legal case connected, I believe, with Francis Burke’s failure to fulfil contractual obligations resulting in mortgage foreclosure (a case that I’ve been told ended on appeal in the House of Lords) was apparently the death blow. The family chose to draw a veil over this episode. The result was that Sturge’s Montserrat Company was placed in voluntary liquidation in 1875.

Phoenix rises

Mindful of the great hardship that would be caused on the island should the business cease to function, Birmingham Quakers, with the Sturge family prominent among them, floated a new Birmingham-based company to take over the Montserrat business as a going concern.

The new company, incorporated in 1875, was called The Montserrat Company Ltd. George Baker, Robert Dudley, Wilson Sturge, Joseph Sturge VII, and Charles Sturge, all of Birmingham, Edmund Sturge of Charlbury and John Skirrow Wright of Handsworth are listed as subscribers in the Articles of Association. Joseph Sturge was appointed Managing Director and served in this capacity until 1922, handing the reins to Thomas Twyman at that time but staying on as Company Secretary until his death in 1934 at the age of 86.

Eleven visits to the island

During his time as Managing Director, Joseph Sturge visited Montserrat on eleven occasions. One of these visits was in 1899, just after the island had been devastated by a powerful hurricane. His handwritten report to the Board tells of destruction of the lime orchards, extensive damage to company buildings and irreparable damage to The Cot. The difficult decision was made to defy the ravages of nature and replant the lime trees and continue trading. The company was mindful of the serious effect on the island’s population of any other course.

Joseph VII was much loved and respected by the island’s people. Many tributes were paid after his death. His obituary in The Times stated “For nearly 50 years Joseph Sturge, as managing director, not only attended to the concerns of the business but carried on his father’s work doing all he could for the freed slaves and their descendants.”

Sturge Park

In 1936, 100 years after Joseph VI’s first visit to the island, the company presented to the Montserrat government five acres of land adjacent to Plymouth for use in perpetuity as a public open space. It was to be called Sturge Park in commemoration of the association of Joseph Sturge the elder and Joseph Sturge VII. (Sturge Park now lies buried under volcanic ash in the exclusion zone.)

Sea Island Cotton

Following a visit by Joseph Sturge in 1903 an experimental 25 acres of long staple super-fine Sea Island Cotton was planted. This crop expanded in following years to become the company’s and the island’s largest source of revenue. The company’s annual report in 1917 speaks of the production of 17,844 barrels of lime juice – “still very far short of former crops” – and of an “excellent profit” on cotton.

“Loading a lime cask onto a lighter at Plymouth jetty, Montserrat, 1914.”

Montserrat’s largest landowner

At its peak the company owned a dozen estates on the island, an area in excess of 4,000 acres. It was by far Montserrat’s largest landowner and enterprise.

Severe hurricanes in 1924 and 1928, and a series of earth tremors in the 1930s, caused extensive damage but the company soldiered on. In the 1950s mass emigration resulted in a quarter of the population leaving for the UK and Canada. The labour shortages this caused led to militant trade union activity, adding to problems caused by drought and agricultural pests.

My association

I joined the Board in 1954, having been given shares by my Aunt Evelyn Sturge. I paid by first visit to the island in 1956. At that time the island’s plantation society and economy were much as they must have been at the turn of the century, apart from the advent of the motor car and the arrival of an air strip and a regular air service to Antigua.

Continuing financial losses during the 1950s forced the hand of the Board into recommending acceptance of a takeover offer from a Canadian group in 1961. Acceptance that year resulted in the closure of the Birmingham office and the winding up of the UK company. But the Sturge connection was not yet at an end! I was offered a position by the new Canadian management and spent the next thirteen years on the island. Since returning to England in 1974 I have visited the island a number of times, most recently in October 2003.

In 1989 Montserrat was devastated yet again, this time by Hurricane Hugo. Having just recovered from that catastrophe, in 1995 the volcano – dormant throughout Montserrat’s recorded history – began erupting. It is still active nine years later. Nineteen lives were lost, and the town of Plymouth was buried under ash, mud and pyroclastic material. The southern two thirds of the island is now an ash shrouded moonscape – and is a strictly enforced exclusion zone. Our once enchanting and beautiful island is now in a sorry state. I’m afraid its beauty won’t be restored in my lifetime but perhaps some future members of the Sturge family will be caught in its spell.

The amazing, lovely, friendly Montserrat people refuse to be cowed. Their resilience in the face of disaster is legendary. Some 5,000 of them are currently carving out a new life in the “safe” northern third of the island.

The name Sturge still has a resonance on the island. I am in the process of transferring my Montserrat Company archive to the Montserrat National Trust where it will be accessible to historical scholars and others – and also to any future Sturges who venture to the Caribbean. I will continue to visit my beloved island as often as I can afford, and for as long as God gives me the strength.


Joseph Edward Sturge
Malvern, March 2004