James Ebenezer Bicheno, 1785 – 1851

Linking England, Wales, Ireland and Australia

He was born in 1785 in Newbury, Berkshire. It was an exciting time and, as is well known, when we are born influences our lives as happened in the case of Bicheno :‑

1775 : American War of Independence.

1779 : Captain Cook sails to Australia.

1789 : The French Revolution.

We shall see in due course how these events affected his life.

This was the time when Dr. Richard Price (1723 – 1791) of Llangeinor, near Bridgend, was preaching and writing the gospel of freedom, morals, patriotism and so on. However, he wrote in English and as a consequence had only a slight influence on Wales.

The case of Morgan John Rhys (1760 – 1804) Penygarn, Pontypool was rather different. He launched a periodical in Welsh, Y Cylchgrawn Cymraeg, in 1792. In the third issue, in 1793, he quoted extensively from the writings of the Reverend James Bicheno (1752 – 1831), the father of Ebenezer. He was a Baptist minister and a headmaster of a boys’ school in Greenham House, Newbury. It was he who stressed the term Anti‑Christ for any movement that did not permit research and response. However, he was significant chiefly for his writings on the ‘Signs of the Times’ in which he he expressed his belief that God was behind the French Revolution and that this was quite clear from a study of the Book of Revelations.

All of this is intended to show what sort of a background Ebenezer Bicheno came from, one in which the problems of the time were studied in depth, where publishing was commonplace, and in which controversy and the opinions of other people were not things to fear or avoid.

Early Days

He was educated first at his father’s school but what happened afterwards I really do not know. As far as I am aware he did not take a degree.

His mother was Ann Hazell from Wantage and she was buried there in St. Paul’s churchyard. It seems that she was a knowledgeable and active lady.

He had two sisters and two brothers but I shall not touch on them with the exception of Elizabeth Frith. She married John Francis and they had seven children of whom three survived.

Following the death of their mother the family emigrated to Massachusetts and they are mentioned in Ebenezer’s will.

In 1812, at the age of 27, he became a Fellow of the Linnean Society which had been established in 1741 by Professor Linnaeus from Uppsala in Sweden. The object of the Society was to give recognition to scientists of note in the fields of Botany, Zoology and Ornithology. Its headquarters were at Burlington House in London where it remains to this day.

In 1817 he published his exposition on the Poor Laws in which he set out to show that their underlying principles tended to be immoral. This book is in fact an inquiry into the administration of these laws at the time.

In 1818 the Linnean Society published two articles by him, ‘Observations on the Orchis Militaris’ (Linn. Soc. Trans. XII. 1818. 28 ‑ 34) and ‘Observations on the Linnean Genus Juncus’ (Ibid 292 ‑ 337).

In 1819 he published a book entitled, ‘Observations on the Philosophy of Criminal Jurisprudence with remarks on Penitentiary Prisons’. In this he argued that the punishment was much too severe and that the colonies should not be burdened with the dross of prisons – a reference to transportation.

In 1821 ‑ now 36 years old – he married Miss Elizabeth Lloyd of Newbury. Tragically, she died in childbirth a year later leaving £2,000, equivalent to more than £300,000 today. There is no indication of his having had any close relationship with a woman after that.

He moved to Notting Hill where he studied law and became a barrister of the Inner Temple working in the Oxford Circuit.

In 1824 he published an enlarged edition of his study of the Poor Laws and the following year he was elected Secretary of the Linnean Society, a position of great importance.

Bicheno and the Bridgend Area

One Thomas Jones of Abergavenny had taken a lease on Llynfi Farm near Maesteg and noticed that the soil was reddish (Brinley Richards, ‘A History of the Llynfi Valley’, 1982). He reasoned that this indicated the presence of iron and thought that an ironworks could be established on the farm if he had the money to do it. Consequently he went to London with his brother Charles with the intention of interesting wealthy people in the project – and they succeeded. Among those people were Buckland and Bicheno (T.C.Evans – ‘Cadrawd’’ – ‘History of Llangynwyd Parish’, 1887 and 1992).

The Ironworks was started in 1826 as did the work on the Llynfi – Portcawl Tramway. Bicheno had invested in both projects — the Ironworks and the Tramway. He signed the plan for the latter in a splendid house, The Hall, Cornelly (Brynmor James, ‘1825 DLPR 1861, The Story of a Railway and its Background’, 1987).

He then returned to London where he became President of the Zoological Section of the Linnean Society and his inaugural address was published.

The following year, 1827, his article, ‘Systems and Methods in Natural History’ was published and he became a Fellow of the Royal Society: FRS (Linn. Soc. Trans. XV. 1827. 479 ‑ 947; Phil Mag. III. 1828. 213 ‑ 219, 265 ‑ 271).

In 1829 he travelled through Ireland accompanied by a friend and published another book, ‘Ireland and its Economy’.

A year later he assisted Sir William Jardine in the preparation of the standard work, ‘Illustrations of Ornithology’, which was published in Edinburgh.

In 1831 his article, ‘The Plant intended by the Shamrock of Ireland’, was published in the ‘Journal of the Royal Society’ (Roy. Inst. Journl. 1831. 453 ‑ 458).

Then, in 1832, he left London and moved to Tymaen, Cornelly, a large historic house. The President, on behalf of the members of the Society, expressed regret at his departure but said he was sure he would return before very long. It was not to be.

His father had died, aged 80. It was now the time of the Reform Bill and in 1834 came the Amended Poor Law Bill which resulted in the formation of the Bridgend and Cowbridge Union consisting of 52 parishes stretching from Kenfig to St. Athan. This had been decided by the Deputy Commissioner, Clive, although the people of Cowbridge were not in agreement.

Each parish had to elect a representative to the Board of Guardians which was formed in 1836 (J.H.Thomas & W.E. Wilkins, ‘The Bridgend – Cowbridge Union, Workhouse and Guardians’, 1995). Meanwhile, Bicheno had been busy with the Maesteg Iron Works and the Llynfi – Porthcawl Tramway.

Early in 1836, before the local Board had formally convened, he was invited by the Marquis of Landsdowne on behalf of the government to join a commission which was to inquire into how the Poor Law should be put into effect in Ireland. He accepted.

As is well known Ireland was united with this country when the Act of Union of 1800 came into effect on the 1st of January, 1801. A workhouse had been built in Dublin in 1703 as well as a hospital for abandoned children. Another workhouse was opened in Cork in 1725.

A number of things had come into existence to deal with the needy such as dispensaries, small hospitals, schemes to improve sanitation and so on. One factor missing from all these, however, was reliable funding to cope with everything. They were all run by charities and were not always able to meet needs as they arose. Therefore, a more reliable and stable system was needed. It is for that reason that the Poor Law was enacted in Ireland, one that was fairly similar to that enacted here.

Bicheno, however, did not feel entirely happy about this and so he submitted his own report, detailed and personal, which was forty pages long. This is his concluding paragraph (Sir George Nicholls. ‘A History of the Irish Poor Law’, 1856) :

After all the assistance that can be extended to Ireland by good laws, and every encouragement afforded to the poor by temporary employment of a public nature, and every assistance that emigration and other modes of relief can yield, her real improvement must spring from herself, her own inhabitants, and her own indigenous institutions, irrespective of legislation and English interference. It must be of a moral nature: the improvement of the high and the low, the rich and the poor. Without this her tenantry will be still wretched, and her landlords will command no respect; with it a new face will be given to the whole people.

In other words he feared that too much help and social welfare from outside would in the end be harmful to the ability of the Irish to overcome their own problems.

Discussion of the Bill in parliament was delayed by the illness and death of the King, William IV0, but when Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837 the debate was renewed. The arguments in the House of Lords were long and noisy because the Irish landlords present, the Marquis of Londonderry in particular, opposed the measure. The reason for this, of course, was that they would be paying most of the necessary taxes. Wellington strongly supported it and the third reading was passed 107 to 41 and the royal assent was given on the 27th of July, 1838.

Bicheno had long since returned to the Bridgend area and had been elected to represent Cornelly and Cwmdu on the Board of Guardians. When they met for the first time he was elected Vice‑Chairman to John Nicholl the MP and in due course he was elected Chairman. Wilkinson was the name of the architect of the Workhouse ? the same person who had planned the workhouses in Ireland.

By 1839 everything was ready and all the officials had been selected. It was not like that in every Union – Merthyr Tydfil, for example (Tydfil Thomas. ‘Poor relief in Merthyr Tydfil Union in Victorian Times’. 1992), and Skibbereen and Waterford in Ireland.

In the 1841 census Bicheno is recorded as being 56 years old and living at Tymaen. Living there at the same time were Laura Francis (aged 20) — his niece from Newbury; three maids: Eliza Cook (aged 40), Elizabeth Newell (aged 23), Sarah Matthew (aged 21) and a servant, William Taylor (aged 20).

Naturally enough, he became a Justice of the Peace but this did not interfere with his work for the Board of Guardians. He was also one of the leading figures involved in setting up the Glamorgan Constabulary in 1842 and in the same year he chaired the committee to assess the county rates.

Then, in September, 1842, he left with his servants for Van Diemen‰s Land to become Colonial Secretary there. Sailing on the ship ‘John Renwick’ (see note below) he reached the island after a journey of four months.

According to a reporter for the ‘Cambrian’, Lord James Stuart, who was representing his brother the Marquis of Bute, said that the magistrates owed a considerable debt to their friend Mr. Bicheno, a comment seconded by Sir John Morris.

Why did he leave?

Probably because he was in financial difficulties following the opening of a second iron works in Maesteg that was competing with his own. He had to get money from somewhere and when the post of Colonial Secretary of Van Diemen’s Land became vacant he applied and was appointed by Lord Stanley. His salary was £1,200 — three times as much as Napier, The Chief Constable of Glamorgan.

The Last Act

After America had won its independence it refused to accept criminals from the British Empire. Consequently they were transported to Canada, South America, the West Indies and even to India but none of these proved satisfactory. Not so Australia. When Captain Cook went there he saw that there was room for thousands and thousands of people. Transportations to Australia began in 1788 but in 1840 the transportations to New South Wales were stopped and thereafter all felons were sent to Van Diemen’s Land. In 1846, three years after Bicheno’s arrival, there were 30,000 of them on the island, 60,000 freemen — the majority of whom had been convicts — and 5,000 Aborigines (Manning Clark. ‘Van Diemen’s Land. A short history of Australia’, 1981).

There had been a Legislative Council there since 1825 consisting of 15 Councillors — seven were officials and the rest were appointed by the Governor. Bicheno was the Secretary. Besides this he advised the Governor, kept an eye on the Supervisors of the convicts, sent reports to the the Secretary of State in London and was responsible for press relations. Indeed, he was responsible for almost every development on the island. Chapels, churches, schools, hospitals, assize courts etc. were established but progress was slow.

He faced many difficulties — first of all there was an economic depression when he arrived; secondly, seven members resigned from the Legislative Council because they disagreed with the level of taxation; thirdly, homosexuality was rife; and, worst of all, there were constant press attacks on the character of the Governor.

Bicheno the man

Here is one description of him in an Australian book: "A short, fat and genial man" And here is another comment: "It would take twelve bushels of .grain to fill his ample trousers!" (Bill Davenport and Ruth Amos, ‘Glamorgan, Tasmania. The oldest Rural Municipality in Australia’, 1988) People agreed that he was extremely effective in his work and that his wit and homely speech made everyone feel at home in his company.

He was very fond of art and music and in 1844 he led the committee that arranged the first exhibition of paintings in Australia. He continued to take an interest in botany and horticulture and he was Vice‑President of the Mechanics Institute. Assisted by Dr. Story, a doctor from Edinburgh, he began the Royal Society there and in 1851 two articles by him appeared in its journal, namely: ‘On a specimen of Pristus Cirrhatus’ (Van Diemen’s Land, Roy. Soc. Papers 1, 1851, 223 ‑ 225) and ‘On the potato as an article of national diet, and the potato disease in connection with distress in Ireland’. (Ibid. 187 ‑ 198).

About Tasmania

The principal district there is called Glamorgan and the principal town of that district is Swansea and its formation and development is due to the enthusiasm and persistence of two farmers from Pembrokeshire — Adam Amos and his brother John. They emigrated with their family to the island in 1821 (Bill Davenport and Ruth Amos. ‘Glamorgan, Tasmania’, 1988). They also were responsible for the development of a seaside town thirty miles away, later named ‘Bicheno’.

It was interesting to read the following letter about the construction of the church in Swansea in 1845 :

The Lieutenant‑Governor has approved of a warrant being prepared in favour of Mr. John Amos, contractor, for the building — for the sum of eighty four pounds.

I have the honour to be Sir,

Your very obedient servant, J.E. Bicheno (Ibid).

A popular resort for visitors nowadays is Fort Arthur (Julie McCullock and Andrew Simmons, ‘A Guide to Port Arthur’, 1993) where 1,200 men and 800 boys were imprisoned. There are a number of interesting buildings to be seen including a church and a hospital which were designed by one of the convicts. There used to be a tramway there as well and in a book describing the old days we find the following anecdote:

Visiting Colonial Secretary (James Bicheno) was catapulted unceremoniously into the bushes! Visiting officials were fair game for the convicts who propelled the carriage. The convicts frequently used the opportunity when dusting down their charges, to practise their well worn pick‑pocket skills. (Michael Ross and Alex Graeme‑Evans, ‘A short history guide to Port Arthur 1830 – 1877’, 1992).

Bicheno died suddenly in February 1851 at the age of 65. It seems that a heart attack was the cause of death.

His estate was worth £1,600 and in his will he left £100 each to his sister‰s children in Massachusetts, to his Welsh manservant who was still in his employment and to two or three friends. He left his herbarium to the Swansea Museum where it still is and he left his collection of 2,500 books to the Legislative Council to establish Tasmania’s first public library in his house. This was done (on the condition that the Council gave £300 towards setting up the Library ‑ 5th of April, 1850). Sarah Miles, of Poole, Dorset, received £100 for caring so well for her father while in his service.

A memorial to his memory was erected in St. David’s Park, Hobart and on the headstone in Hobart is the following inscription :

Sacred to the memory of James Ebenezer Bicheno, Esquire, Fellow of the Royal Society of England and of the Linnean and Geological Societies. Colonial Secretary and Registrar of Records of Van Diemen’s Land. Died 25 February 1851, aged 65 years.

Gold had been found in Australia a month before Bicheno’s d0eath and because of that the number of immigrants increased so much that there was no room for convicts from other countries and as a result transportation was abolished in 1853, two years after his death (John Maloney, ‘The Penguin History of Australia : the story of 200 years’, 1988).

It was at this time that the name was changed to ‘Tasmania’ in memory of the Dutchman, Abel Tasman, who had reached the island in 1642.

The Potato and Ireland

On 14 March, 1849 Bicheno delivered a lecture to the local Royal Society he had helped to establish. Published in the Society’s Journal in 1851, it was entitled: ‘On the Potato as an Article of National Diet, and the Potato Disease in connection with Distress in Ireland’. Some extracts from that lecture are given below:

Physiologists and economists had foreseen the tragedy because the Irish had placed too much stress on the potato as a source of nourishment. As part of a diet the potato is splendid but when total reliance is placed on them they are quite unsatisfactory.

The famine and the sickness that has swept through Ireland since 1845 has led the whole world to sympathise and to contribute again and again to their assistance ‑ perhaps this is the first time that the treasury of the entire world has been poured into the lap of an unhappy country in order to relieve the suffering of its people.

But nothing that has been done has stopped the progress of the famine and disease through the country: indeed, it seems that the manner in which assistance was given in 1845 has compounded the tribulation. Self‑confidence was lost and it is known that the landlords put their tenants on the relief list in order to get their rent and that the tenants themselves in ’46 and ’47 had delayed cultivating their land in order to ensure government relief. The arrangements were then altered and the whole burden was placed on local funds under local administration while the British government did nothing except help those who would help themselves.

The tuber failed again in 1847 – 48 but by then the famine and the sickness had swept millions away thereby making the task of coping with the situation easier. Hopefully the tragedy will prove to be a blessing to the country in the long run by showing that it is not possible to keep people in a healthy state by feeding them on potatoes alone.

Darwin has discovered wild potatoes in South America but though they resemble those found in England they shrink when boiled.

It was Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1584, who first found them in Virginia and the following year they were again seen there by Sir Richard Grenville and Thomas Harriot‑ Raleigh’s mathematics tutor. The latter described them in his report on Virginia using its Indian name ‘Openawk’.

Gerarde grew some in his garden in Holborn in 1590 and in 1597 he suggested that they could be eaten after being soaked in wine!

Some forty years earlier Spain had received sweet potatoes from her colonies in Central America and there they were called ‘patata’ — a word very like our own ‘potato’. Sweet potatoes are mentioned by Shakespeare in ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ and in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ and in a cookery book, ‘The Good Housewife’s Jewel’, published in 1596, there is a recipe for their use.

We have received four good things from America — potatoes, tobacco, corn and turkey — and two bad things — apple pest and potato blight. In a plant nursery in Sloane Street, London, the first apple pest was seen in 1787 in an apple tree imported from America.

It is believed that Sir Walter Raleigh was responsible for bringing the potato to Ireland. In gratitude for his fearless and venturesome spirit Elizabeth had granted him 50,000 acres in Cork and Waterford which he was later to lose when he fell out of favour with the fickle queen. His estate was then divided among three families who are still there to this day, namely ‘Cork’, ‘Burlington’ and ‘Devonshire’. Youghal, Bandon, Dungarvan and Lismore were the centres from which the potato was propagated throughout the land.

It is evident that the potato should not form the chief part of anyone’s diet. In India and China there is an overdependence on rice and, though the crop does not fail as often as the potato, the people there sometimes suffer famine and disease.

It should be noted that the price goes up at times of scarcity and this soon affects the poor.

As far as the potato goes there were scarcities in 1831, ’35, ’36, ’37 and ’39 but in 1845 came the potato blight which had appeared in America the previous year.

The reasons why the scarcity affected Ireland so much are as follows: the people counted on the potato as their principal food; the population had increased and consequently so had the amount of food eaten; it had been necessary to plant again and again in the same place until the necessary elements became exhausted. In addition to all of that poverty had compelled the people to attempt to grow inferior varieties such as the ‘lumper’, the ‘ex‑noble’ and other cattle potatoes.

I believe that there is another reason for the failure, one that affects the plant itself directly and I should like to stress this point. It is reasonably certain that the laws of reproduction demonstrate that one cannot go on propagating from a flower or a plant without it weakening. That can be seen in the case of a plant grown from a root or one that has been grafted. When the growth comes from seeds that does not happen so often; and if we are dealing with vegetables we can propagate for thousands of years without any damage.

It is known in the case of apple pest that it is apples that grow on a tree that has been fruitful for many years that catch the disease rather than those on a young tree. Arguing on the basis of this comparison one ought to grow potatoes from seeds every now and then. It is my opinion, by the way, that it is scientists who should do this, not ordinary gardeners.

Look at the leaf and tuber of this potato that shows the blight as it is in Ireland. Observe also the insects, the Aphis, which, according to some people is the cause of it. In England it is believed that the Aphis comes in with the wind from the east.

When elm trees were seen to die in St. James’s Park and district in London twenty five years ago scientists , appointed by the government, discovered that insects burrowing under the bark were the cause. They were present because the trees had become unhealthy due to pollution.

One may use this line of reasoning to explain the potato blight in Ireland. The Aphis is not the cause but the result: the true cause is unhealthy potatoes. If seed potatoes were grown in a new colony I am confident they would be able to resist the blight.

Additional material

In his book, ‘The Language of the Genes’ (1993) pp.99/100, Professor Steve Jones comments on the outbreak of potato blight in Ireland. His explanation can be summarised as follows:

The potato is a female plant and sex plays no part in its development. The same potato had existed from the time of Elizabeth the First with the same species of chromosomes. With the passage of time down the centuries their quality had declined. It seems quite probable that they had come close to the end of their evolutionary cycle. By then, because the chromosomes had not come into contact with strange chromosomes, the genes had not developed a way to resist an external enemy such as a fungus. An immunity deficiency would be the modern description of that flaw.

Although he had not heard of evolution, nor about chromosomes nor genes, Bicheno’s explanation of the failure of the potato crop in Ireland had been remarkably correct.

In his article ‘Shamrock’ (1991) Charles Nelson writes:

After a short visit to Ireland in 1829 Bicheno published a book titled: ‘Ireland and its Economy’ but it made no mention of the shamrock. Later on he attempted to demonstrate to the Linnean Society that the Irish in London were not wearing real shamrock on their hats on St. Patrick’s Day. He had noticed that they usually wore a variety of clover which had not arrived in Ireland before the middle of the seventeenth century. Bicheno reasoned that the true shamrock had been a forest plant, one with a three sectional leaf that bloomed in March — and the only kind it could have been was the wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). He added that Patrick had chosen a magnificent plant as an emblem of his beloved island.

© Dr. J.H. Thomas.

The above is the English text of a lecture delivered in Welsh by Dr. Thomas, with TV broadcaster Lyn Ebenezer in the Chair, at the Wales National Eisteddfod in Bridgend in August, 1998, one of a series arranged by the Wales Famine Forum.

Translation ©: Wales Famine Forum.

Lyn Ebenezer, has contributed an article on Frongoch, the former prison camp in North Wales which housed Irish prisoners after the Easter Rising in 1916.

Dr. Thomas, a native of Pembrokeshire and now retired, is a well‑known medical historian who has also contributed articles for us as follows:

1. Rhai Agweddau ar Bla y Tatws yn Iwerddon<

An article in Welsh discussing the potato blight during the Great Famine in Ireland.

2. Y Tlawd a’r Wyrcws

An article in Welsh about the history of workhouses.

3. 1847: Starvation Fever

This is an article written by Dr. Daniel Donovan who witnessed ’starvation fever’ in Skibbereen during the Famine. Dr. Thomas contributed a modern response to his predecessorâs vivid account.

Note on the ‘John Renwick’ (provided by Dr. Thomas on the basis of a written reply from the Maritime Information Centre, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 9F) :

The ‘John Renwick’ was a barque of 403 tons built in Newcastle in 1826. In 1838 she was used as a convict ship taking convicts to New South Wales. She made a voyage in 1841 from Ireland to Sidney with 211 Irish emigrants. On the 7th of December, 1842 she left Spithead for Van Diemen’s Land arriving there on April 10th. Her master was W. Morgan and the surgeon aboard was T.E. Ring.

(According to the book ‘Log of Logs’ by I. Nicholson, which is a catalogue of voyages to Australia «New Zealand 1788 – 1988. The surgeon’s journals or copies are with the Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey.)

Dr. Thomas also suggests that ‘The Convict Ships 1787 – 1868’ by C. Bateson (Brown, Son and Ferguson) may be of interest. In this book the author describes the duties of the var0ious officers and how convicts and crew lived on board.

Published in The Green Dragon No 9, Winter, 1999.


Since publication on this site the following email has been received:

Subject: James Ebenezer Bicheno — Dr J. H. Thomas.

Date: Mon, 26 Jan 2004.

I recently came across the text of a lecture by Dr J. H. Thomas on the subect of J. E. Bicheno 1785 – 1851. He was a (distant) relative and I was engrossed by the enormous detail that Dr Thomas went into concerning him.

Is there any possibility of your passing on this email to Dr Thomas? I would be very interested to know if he has any more detail on James Ebenezer Bicheno or any of his relatives. My mother had researched the family history for many years and accumulated considerable material on the Bicheno’s — her grandmother was a Bicheno and would have been enormously interested to have seen Dr Thomas’s lecture; she had always been fascinated by James Ebenezer’s father, the Baptist minister James Bicheno, particularly since he had shown great interest in eschatalogical matters, as was my Mother. Please forgive me if it bores you, but there is a story of the Rev James that may interest you, or possibly Dr Thomas… it is a family story that he was, when a young man, kidnapped from a barber’s shop in Fleet Street and taken as a slave to America. When he was ultimately released (or escaped I have no details) the subject of anti‑slavery was added to his considerable output of pamphlets, or so we have it! He is said to have waxed lyrical on the subject, perhaps not surprisingly.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Essberger,Wiltshire, England.

(E‑mail: richard@essberger.freeserve.co.uk)