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Finding Claire's father

Stumbling on the answer

In 2010, research into my own family tree took me on a hunt for information about an ancestress named Mary Vial(l), my 4xgreat-grandmother, born in December 1792 [1].  Seaching the National Archives ‘Access To Archives’ online index turned up a reference to a bundle of papers dated 1797 – 1814 among the records of Dodson and Pulman, Solicitors, held by the Somerset Archive and Record Service.  The catalogue describes the contents of the bundle:

Daughter of Mary Jane vial.widow, alias St.Julian, fathered by John (later Sir John) Lethbridge of Sandhill Park and born at Brislington, c.1797. The mother was committed to Ilchester gaol for debt in 1799 and 1800 and by 1811 had married - Godwin and moved to London.[2]

Not having more than a casual reader’s familiarity with the central figures of the Romantic movement, I did not immediately recognise any names, but it did not take more than an hour or two with Google to become intrigued by the possibility that these letters might be significant.  With a little more digging (and consultation with a well-read librarian friend) I was excited, to say the least, by the fact that firstly, these documents did not seem to have been examined previously by literary scholars or historians: and secondly, that they might contain new information about the antecedents of Mary Jane ‘Claire’ Clairmont.  I requested photocopies of the bundle of documents from the Somerset Record Office, and these arrived by mail in early December 2010.[3]

The bundle of copies, numbered 1 – 49 by the S.R.O. Researcher, contains 63 separate documents, which include 31 holograph letters from Mary Jane Vial Godwin (4 of these to the father of her child).

The letters confirm without doubt that both Mary Jane Vial and Sir John Lethbridge accepted that he was the father of Mary Jane's daughter, born in Brislington, Somerset in 1798.

 On 25 January 2011, the depositors and Somerset Record Office granted me permission to transcribe and use the documents on the following terms:

  • Permission to make transcripts of the contents of the documents: and to publish the transcripts, in full or in part, on a personal web page, for reference and non-commercial use by scholars, biographers, historians, genealogists and interested persons.
  • Permission to make copies of my transcripts available to interested persons for non-commercial use, with full acknowledgement and citation of the source.
  • Original reference number of the document should be cited on the website and in any subsequent copies.

 Needless to say, I am extremely grateful to the Somerset Archivist and the depositors for their kind cooperation, and enormously satisfied at finding at least part of the answer to a 200 year old mystery.

[NB.  I live in Australia, and not having the means to travel to the UK to view original documents, I have had to be content with working from photocopies.  Similarly, my limited financial resources have restricted my capacity to pay for further document searches.]



[1] This Mary Vial was, I learned, the illegitimate daughter of one George Ralph Payne Jarvis (1774 - 1851), youngest son of a sugar planter and former Chief Justice of Antigua. Jarvis’s sister Jane (1772 – 1796) was the first wife of Lachlan Macquarie (1762 – 1824), Governor of colonial New South Wales from 1809 to 1824, and regarded by many as the ‘Father of Australia’. Ref. JARVIS V, The Papers of G R P Jarvis: V/A Personal Correspondence. Lincolnshire Archives.

[2] Somerset Archive and Record Service. Dodson and Pulman, Solicitors Box 17: Lethbridge family legal papers, DD\DP/17/11  1797-1814  Corresp. concerning Mary Jane Vial.

[3] Unfortunately, the papers did not advance my knowledge about my Mary Vial.



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