Gadsden Hertfordshire Buckinghamshire South Carolina

I’ve traced the Gadsden branch of my family back to 1086 and the Doomsday Book. At that time the name was recorded as Gatesdene. The family were living in Hertfordshire. Maybe they arrived with William the Conqueror, or shortly after. That said some sources suggest that the name Gadsden has English origins relating to ‘valley’.

A page from the Doomsday Book

The early Gadsdens were well-to-do, landowners who relative to the times enjoyed comfortable lifestyles. For most branches of the family this pattern continued into the nineteenth century.

The Gadsdens mixed with the nobility and moved in royal circles. An example: John of Gadsden was a physician to Edward II and Edward III, the first Englishman to hold that appointment. John wrote a book, Rosa Anglica, the first English textbook on medicine, which compiled the medical knowledge of his age. 

It is believed that John of Gadsden was familiar with the method of distilling fresh water from saltwater. This process, desalination, was thought to be a modern discovery.

Some of John of Gadsden’s contemporaries regarded him as a genius, the ‘brightest man of his age’. He was a philosopher, a philologist, a poet, he was skilled at manual operations and bone-setting, and he was a great oculist. He was skilled at physiognomy and wrote a treatise on chiromancy. A great dealer in ‘secrets’, he also performed ‘miracles’.

John’s greatest skill was in concocting ‘receipts’, potions. However, some people doubted his wisdom and regarded him as a superstitious quack. His doubters accused him of ‘laying baits’ for the delicate, the ladies and the rich. 

When small pox afflicted Edward II’s son, the future Edward III, the king called for John of Gadsden. John’s ‘prescription’ was to dress his patient in scarlet and ensure that everything about the sickbed was made of scarlet. John worked on the ‘sympathetic’ concept, which stated that the colour red cured inflammation. Quackery or not, the king’s son duly recovered ‘without a mark on his face’.

John wrote his book, Rosa Anglica, while resident at Merton College, Oxford. The source of his material stemmed from the Arabians and the moderns ‘who had written in Latin just before him’. His book was an encyclopaedia of all his potions and it offers an insight into the medical practices of the day, as applied to the nobility and common people. 

The preface to Rosa Anglica

John wrote ‘Rosa Anglica, or Practical Medicine From Head to Foot’, between 1304 and 1317. His book contained four tracts on urine (a key to medieval medical diagnosis and treatment). The original manuscript was owned by All Souls College, Oxford, a leading centre of medical studies in Europe during the fifteenth century.

In his preface to ‘Rosa Anglica’ John wrote, ‘Just as the rose excels among flowers this book excels among textbooks on practical medicine.’ Clearly, he didn’t suffer from undue modesty.

John found time to be prebendary of St Paul’s. He also held theological posts at Chipping Norton and Chichester. Chaucer knew of him and mentioned him as the ‘Doctor of Physik’.

So, was John of Gadsden a genius or a quack? I suspect that he was a bit of both. Here’s an example of his quackery, a cure for toothache. John recommended that you should extract a tooth by smothering it with the fat from a dead green tree frog, cow dung or partridge brain. For the tooth to grow back, you should apply the brain of a hare to the gums. Clearly, this was nonsense and liable to do more harm than good. Yet, editions of his book were published in 1502 and 1595, and for centuries read throughout Europe.

A dentist with silver forceps and a necklace of large teeth, extracting a tooth c1365.

Many of John’s methods were based on superstition while others were crude. However, whether through luck or good judgment he formed a formidable reputation. 

John was a man of his time. Thankfully, over the centuries we have made advances in medicine. But we should also consider that future generations will look back on us and reckon that some of our methods were based on quackery and that they were crude.


The Gadsden branch of my family were millers, travellers, traders and latterly grocers. And in John Gadsden they were involved in ‘Popish plots’.

In 1650 a report stated that John Gadsden, a miller, possessed ‘a very ill character and is a very dangerous person and was very busy in a Popish Plot.’ He left his home ‘for fear of being taken up upon some matters against the government.’ However, he was easily found, betrayed by neighbours, and the deputy took him into custody. John’s fate was not recorded, but his death on 18 August 1666 in Newport Pagnell suggests that he survived that immediate crisis.

John’s son, Richard, my direct ancestor, was born on 6 July 1613 in Stoke Goldington, Buckinghamshire. In Newport Pagnell on 28 October 1633 Richard married Catherine Wright. The couple produced six children.

Around this time various members of the Gadsden family were travelling and trading in America and the West Indies. Some sources suggest that Richard died in St Kitts and Nevis, c1690.

French map of Nevis, 1764.

In 1690, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed the city of Jamestown, the capital of Nevis. The damage was so extensive that the survivors abandoned the city. It’s reputed that the whole city sank into the sea. To date, I have not been able to establish whether Richard witnessed this earthquake or was a victim. It’s possible that this might be a family legend with no basis in truth. Before stating the story as true I would like to discover more evidence. Colonial and shipping records show that the Gadsdens were definitely in the region during this period, but more research is required.

Richard and Catherine’s son, William, my direct ancestor, was born on 30 July 1642 in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. William married Mary Nicholl on 6 January 1668 in Stoke Goldington, Buckinghamshire. The couple produced eight children.

Again there is a suggestion that William died abroad, in 1691 in West Nimba, Liberia. What was he doing in Liberia? To answer that question, we need to look at Liberia’s history.

Map of Liberia, c1830.

Portuguese explorers established contacts with people living in what later became known as Liberia in 1462. They named the area Costa da Pimenta, the Pepper or Grain Coast, because of the abundance of melegueta pepper, a highly desired spice in European cooking.

In 1602 the Dutch established a trading post at Grand Cape Mount, but this was destroyed a year later. In 1663, the English established new trading posts on the Pepper Coast and it would appear that William was involved in them. Again, before confirming this as fact more research is required, but the patterns of the Gadsden’s lives and their interest in trade suggests the tale might contain a grain of truth.

The above generations of the Gadsdens illustrate the fascination and frustration of genealogy. The fascination is there on a personal level because these people are my ancestors and also as a storyteller I’m entranced by their stories. However, sometimes there are gaps in the historical records, which makes definitive proof impossible to find. Sometimes it’s tempting to follow this quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ As a storyteller, this appeals to me. However, as a social historian I like to base my family stories on fact.

After John, Richard and William Gadsden, we move on to firmer historical ground with Christopher, Robert and William. Their stories also involved travel, to America and Australia, and they featured dramatic trials at the Old Bailey. More about them in future posts.


My ancestor, Christopher Gadsden (16 February 1724 – 28 August 1805) was an American politician and the principal leader of the South Carolina Patriot movement during the American Revolution. Furthermore, he was a delegate to the Continental Congress, a brigadier general in the Continental Army, Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina, a merchant, the designer of the Gadsden flag, a signatory to the Continental Association and a Founding Father of the United States.

Christopher Gadsden. Portrait by Charles Fraser.

The son of Royal Navy officer Thomas Gadsden, Christopher was born in 1724 in Charleston, South Carolina. After service in the Royal Navy, Thomas became a customs collector for the Port of Charleston, hence the family association with the area.

Christopher was schooled in England. He returned to America in 1740 and served as an apprentice at a Philadelphia counting house. When his parents died in 1741, he inherited a large fortune, which made him financially secure for life.

Between 1745 and 1746 Christopher served as a purser on a British warship during King George’s War. In 1747, he developed his mercantile ventures and a few years later he built Beneventum Plantation House. 

Slavery was common practice amongst plantation owners in South Carolina. Although Christopher was ambivalent towards this barbarity, nevertheless he did keep and trade in slaves.

As Christopher Gadsden’s businesses prospered, he invested in projects such as Charleston Wharf. Between 1767 to 1787 and 1803 to 1808, it is estimated that forty percent of enslaved people (about 100,000) were brought to America through this wharf.

The Gadsden flag

Christopher was captain of a militia company during a 1759 expedition against the Cherokee. He was first elected to the Commons House Assembly in 1757 and immediately clashed with the autocratic royal governors. His stance brought him to the attention of Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, which resulted in a long correspondence and friendship.

Christopher Gadsden became one of the founders and leaders of Charleston’s Sons of Liberty. In February 1776, South Carolina President John Rutledge named him a brigadier general in charge of the state’s military forces. He played an active roll in the military, often to great personal financial cost.

In 1778, Christopher was a member of the South Carolina convention that drafted a new state constitution. That year he also served as lieutenant governor, stepping down in 1780.

When the British besieged Charleston in 1780, John Rutledge, as president of the council, fled to North Carolina to ensure a ‘government in exile’. However, Christopher remained and representing the civil government he surrendered the city and was taken as a prisoner of war.

As a prisoner of war, Christopher spent forty-two weeks in solitary confinement in a prison room at the old Spanish fortress of Castillo de San Marcos. Gaining his freedom in 1781, he helped to restore South Carolina’s civil government.

Christopher Gadsden was returned to South Carolina’s House of Representatives. He was elected as the governor, but due to poor health sustained during his imprisonment, he declined. In 1788, as a member of the state convention, he voted for the ratification of the United States Constitution.

The Gadsden house in Charleston (Wikipedia).

In 1798, Christopher built an imposing house at 329 East Bay Street in Charleston, a house that remained in the family for more than a century. He married three times and had four children with his second wife. He died, the result of an accidental fall, on 28 August 1805, in Charleston, and was buried in St Philip’s Churchyard.

Christopher Gadsden was born into privilege. A capable and principled man, he achieved a great deal in his life. He was a man of his times and some of his attitudes look dubious today. 

The world of politics is murky at the best of times, and politics was Christopher’s world. To his credit, he wasn’t a populist. Even when it disadvantaged him personally, he stood up for his beliefs, and I feel that history should commend him for that.


My direct ancestors Robert Gadsden and William Gadsden were grocers.

Robert was born on 30 November 1714 in Hanslope, Buckinghamshire. On 18 October 1743 he married Elizabeth Richardson in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, but the marriage did not produce any children. Elizabeth died young and, on 18 July 1755 in Newport Pagnell, Robert married for a second time. His new bride was another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Crips, a widow. This marriage produced seven children, including their first born, my direct ancestor William.

Grocery stores in the 1700s sold a wide variety of items including sugar, tobacco, spices, coffee, tea, rice, chocolate and dried fruit. They featured local produce and items like those listed above from abroad. Earlier and later generations of Gadsdens were traders who travelled far and wide, to America and Africa, for example. Its tempting to think that Robert and William developed their stores from these overseas connections. However, instead of travelling they focused on selling their goods from their local stores.

Robert died on 21 July 1768 in Newport Pagnell. William was only twelve and so too young to take over the family business. Instead, he had to learn the trade as an apprentice. He commenced his apprenticeship on 13 March 1772 in Newport Pagnell.

William’s apprenticeship

William was born on 3 August 1756 in Newport Pagnell and baptised five days later. After his apprenticeship he married twenty-year-old Elizabeth Chibnall, also in Newport Pagnell. The couple produced nine children, including my direct ancestor William and the baby of the family, Robert. Both were to feature in trials at the Old Bailey.

It would appear that William, born 1756, ran a steady business as a grocer. Maybe on account of the land tax introduced in 1798 he moved his family and business to London. He settled in Shoreditch and died there on 14 July 1819, a death that triggered a tragic chain of events.

On 17 February 1820 twenty-two-year-old Robert Gadsden was indicted for feloniously breaking and entering the dwelling-house of John West, Esq. This incident occurred at one o’clock in the afternoon, on 29 January 1820 at St. Marylebone. John West’s wife, Harriet, was present when Robert allegedly stole a shawl, value twenty shillings, the goods of Sarah Griffiths.

Sarah Griffiths gave evidence: “I am servant to Mr. John West who lives in Baker Street, Portman Square, St. Marylebone. On the 29th of January, about one o’clock, I was in the house; Mrs. West, and five of the servants were at home. My shawl laid on a table in the housekeeper’s room, opposite the window which looks into the area – it was about a quarter of a yard from the window – the sash was down; nobody was in the room. I was upstairs, heard an alarm, came down, missed it, and found the prisoner in custody.”

William Ledger gave evidence: “I am servant to Mr. West. I had been out to fetch some water, and as I returned I saw the prisoner down the area – he was a stranger. I watched him, saw him lay a bundle of wood on the ledge of the window, lift up the sash, and with a stick that had a hook to it, he drew out the shawl off the table, put it under his jacket, and walked on into the passage of the house. I ran downstairs, secured him in the passage, and saw him throw the shawl down.”

Finally, Richard Coates gave evidence: “I am a constable. I was sent for, and took the prisoner at Mr. West’s, with the shawl.”

The shawl was produced in court and sworn to. Then Robert spoke in his defence: “I went to see if they wanted any wood; the shawl laid on the window-ledge, and I carried it into the passage. He took me, and it fell from my hand.”

Verdict: Guilty.

Sentence: Death.

The shock deeply upset Robert’s mother, Elizabeth, and she died less than a week later, on 23 February 1820.

Robert condemned. Look at the ages of those sentenced to hang for petty crimes.

Sentenced to hang, Robert appealed. On 11 April 1820 he found himself on the prison hulk Bellerophon moored at Woolwich. With his appeal successful, he was transferred to the Caledonia, which set sail in July 1820 for Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land.

Initially transported for life, Robert gained a full pardon on 13 July 1840. However, before that the authorities granted him parole. On 1 April 1829 in Hobart, Robert married Elizabeth Lewis. A daughter, Elizabeth, arrived a year later. Sadly, she died before her fourth birthday.

Van Diemen’s Land 1828

After his pardon, Robert remained in Hobart. He died there in 1870. While he was in Australia, maybe Robert corresponded with his brother, William. If he did, maybe William reflected on his appearance at the Old Bailey. However, before exploring that case, some details about William.

William Gadsden was born on 10 December 1790. On 14 May 1810 he married Maria Beadle at Saint Matthew, Bethnal Green, London. The couple produced five children including my direct ancestor Sarah.

William broke the link with the grocery trade and made a living as a willow cutter, a silk weaver and latterly as a stone mason. His appearance at the Old Bailey occurred on 15 January 1817 as a witness.

The trial featured James Taylor, 17, and John Blake, 18. They were accused of stealing one pair of boots, value one shilling.

John Burton, owner of the boots, stated: “I live at Hackney. On the 17th of December, between two and four o’clock in the afternoon, I lost the boots from my tool-house, adjoining my dwelling-house; my yard door was on the latch, and so was the tool-house door; I missed the boots after four o’clock. I went next day to inquire if any jack-ass boys had been seen about, and found that the prisoners had been our way, selling catsup. I went to town, and found the two prisoners at the Bull’s Head, Kingsland’s Road; they were taken into custody.”

The Old Bailey, early nineteenth century

James Ingram gave evidence: “I am a smith; I was at the Bull’s Head, in Kingsland Road; about half-past five o’clock in the afternoon, the prisoner, Taylor, came into the house with a pair of boots, he asked me if I knew anybody that would buy them; I told him I would go and see; I took them out of his hand, and went to Saunders’ Gardens, which is close to the house, and offered them to Gadsden for twelve shillings. He offered me ten shillings for them; I went to Taylor, and he said I might let him have them – I did, and gave the money to Taylor, and he gave me a shilling for my trouble; he told me if Blake should come in, and ask what I sold them for, to say six shillings. In about a quarter of an hour Blake came in, and said, if he had been there at the time they should not have been sold for that money. I was quartered at the Bull’s Head.”

William Gadsden said: “I gave ten shillings for the boots. I gave them up to Armstrong.”

John Armstrong: “On the 17th of December, Mr. Burton applied to me. I and my son, accompanied him to the Bull’s Head, in Kingsland Road, and found Ingram and Blake sitting there together, we took them. I left Ingram in Burton’s care, and took Taylor, who was there. I took Ingram to Gadsden’s house, and he gave me the boots; we took the three to the office, and I heard both Taylor and Blake say, it was the first thing they had ever done, and that it was through distress.”

Joshua Armstrong: “I was with my father, and took the prisoners; they said it was the first robbery they had ever committed.”

Verdict: both Blake and Taylor guilt.

Sentence: Transportation for seven years.

I wonder if William and Robert ever reflected on their experiences at the Old Bailey and the fateful day in January 1820 when Robert stole a shawl and set in motion a chain of events which meant that they would never see each other again.