Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Francesca aka Frances Bertha Marion “Daisy” Sexton

 If you were to see Mrs. Noble in 1890, just after the birth of her youngest child and presiding as President of the Ladies Recreation Club of Hong Kong, you would think that the world was her oyster. Always had been, always would be. After all, she was married to the man who had just been appointed Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, the bank whose reputation was head and shoulders above all the other banks in Hong Kong.

The first adjustment to such a picture of a life of ease would be to learn that she was born at sea in 1858. She was the first born child of Capt. John Malone Sexton and Josephine Mary O’Brien, both from Newcastle, Co. Limerick. Her father had been raised by a step father, John Norris, a local schoolmaster. An account, written in 1892 - probably by Nicholas Upton D’Arcy, remembers him as being: about 18 or 19 years old in very poor circumstances. In fact not a shoe to his foot and like Bryan Olinn [a character in a folk tale] had no breeches to wear or very little of it.

Why a schoolmaster’s step son should be so ill attired, is not commented on by D’Arcy.

We do know that John Malone Sexton then did what so many young Irishmen did in the aftermath of the famine: he enlisted in the 90th went through the war and so distinguished himself that he came home a Captain and married Mary O'Brien who was a fine and very clever girl. The army was an effective passport to a brighter future for him.

Military records always make the lists of battles and medals sound so dry: Major Sexton served throughout  the Eastern campaign of 1854-55 as Adjutant of the 25th Regiment from June 1855, including the battles of Alma, Inkerman, siege and fall of Sebastapol, and sortie of 26th October (Medal with three Clasps, Knight of the Legion of Honour, and Turkish Medal). Behind such lists are tales of daring deeds and personal risk.

In order to inject some life into the lists of such battles, it helps to think of Leo Tolstoy’s Sebastapol Sketches, or Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. Think of nurses such as Florence Nightingale tending to the wounded. The men that she cared for could have included Sexton's fellow soldiers, if not him as well.  The risks of one of the battles that he fought, this one at Inkerman, is pithily described:  Despite being severely outnumbered, the allied troops held their ground, becoming a marvel of each regiment's tradition and tenacity. The amount of fog during the battle led to many of the troops on both sides being cut off, in battalion-sized groups or less. Thus, the battle became known as "The Soldier's Battle". In short, it was all bloody terrifying.

It was after proving his mettle in such battles, that John Malone Sexton, who had left Co. Limerick as a barefoot young man, came back home as a Captain and claimed his bride. She was Josephine Mary O’Brien, the daughter of Myles O’Brien, the local apothecary and member of a successful farming family. Right from the start, John and Mary seemed to be a good fit with British military life in India:

She went to India with the regt and became the most popular and best liked lady in the 90th. They remained there for several years and Sexton got an appoint­ment of £2000 or £3000 a year and became a Colonel and I believe is now a General and commands a wide district in India, and has a large family. Nicholas Upton D’Arcy.

Given the dates of some of the battles that Sexton was involved in, matched up with the fact that Frances Sexton was born at sea, she was probably born early in 1858 - before March. If her father had already returned to India before her birth, and was on the next battlefield before she and her mother could make their way to India, then she may have been born a bit later in the year. This is another one of those places where the kindness of strangers could possibly help me out with a birth date, and/or the pertinent shipping records.

We do know that Frances’ father was active in battle during most of first year after her birth, and often afterwards as well. He served as Adjutant of the 95th in the Indian campaign of 1858-59, including action on March 30th leading to the siege and capture of Kotah. Later, he served as a Staff Officer to Colonel Raines commanding the infantry in the battle of Kota ke Serai. In another battle which resulted in the capture of Gwalior on June 20th 1858, he was severely burnt by the explosion of powder while serving a gun captured from the enemy and turned on them. His bravery was repeatedly recognized in the published lists of honours called dispatches. Later in this same year, he was also active in the siege and capture of Pourie, and was amongst the troops who surprised the rebel camp at Koondrye on December 15th. No matter what was asked of him, John Malone Sexton was the kind of soldier who put his boots where they were needed.

Not that such devotion by a soldier to military duty is ever easy on those they leave back at home. His wife, like many military wives, was left behind for long periods of time in India. Many families in this community experienced the cycle of the men being on the battle field, away from home, and then returning on a leave. Nine months later, there was often the birth of a child. Not all of these children lived, of course. The tropical climate took its toll.

A second daughter, Myrna – who did live, was born seven years after Frances, in 1865 in India. She was born in Poona [aka Pune], probably in the large British military cantonment to the east of Poona. There may have been other brothers or sisters born in this interval. Again, there are more records to search. Four years later, a third daughter, Grace was born at Bombay. The last child known for sure to be part of this family was George Henry Noble Sexton, born in 1876 in what the British census records referred to as East Indies.

This last known child, George Henry Noble Sexton, was described in HSBC histories as being Frances NOBLE's nephew, but I believe that he was actually her much younger brother. I doubt that there are two boys in census records with the same name, birth place, and birth date.

There is one more possible sister for Frances. In 1881, the Sexton family was holidaying in the Isle of Wight. Mary, the mother, was there with Louisa Noble, an aunt of her son-in-law – George Edward Noble, as well as the baby of the family, George Noble Sexton – who was then aged five. The mystery so far is that there was also a six year old staying with them: Pauline Leonara Sexton [1874-1899]. So far, I have been unable to find the names of her parents. Other than her birth and death dates, all I know is that she was born at St. Leonards on Sea, in Sussex. Again, others may be able to help me on this.

The evidence that she was a sister of Frances is circumstantial. In 1881, Grace SEXTON, age 11 and born in India was a boarder at the St. Leonards-Mayfield, a Roman Catholic girl’s boarding school on High Street, Mayfield in Sussex. This would have been Grace Gertrude SEXTON, Frances’ younger sister, born 1869 in Bombay. I suspect that it is more than coincidence that this is the same school where Pauline SEXTON, at age 16 was a student in 1891.

As for Frances’ mother, Mary Sexton née O’Brien, she died sometime between the 1881 and 1891census, probably in England. It would have been sometime after the family’s Isle of Wight holiday. In the 1891 census, her husband was a widower, living in London with three of their children, and one grandson.

These Noble and Sexton families formed close bonds of both friendship and family connections that endured through at least two generations. Some of the Sexton boys have Noble as a middle name, and some Noble boys have the Sexton name as a middle name.  Time and again unmarried or widowed aunts of one family resided with the family of the other. Together, the extended families provided the social glue and professional connections that helped all the inter-related children find their feet as adults.

For example. John Frederick Sexton Noble, the grandson who was living with his grandfather John Malone Sexton, in London in 1891, was hired at HSBC, as his father had been, and as was his uncle, George Henry Noble Sexton. In spite of the generational difference, they were both born in 1876. Their HSBC careers overlapped with Sexton serving in Bombay (1896-1903) and Noble in Hong Kong (1897-1901). The source that had initially described them as cousins was H.D. Sharpin, writing in the 1950s. Given their ages, the confusion is understandable. Still, Sharpin is one of those who had firsthand knowledge of the two young men, and left a brief record in the HSBC archives:

They all lived near each other in “The Lines” on Malabar Hill, Bombay. Sexton and Noble were wonderful at Amateur Theatricals, and were the life and soul of the mess. Sexton was a lad of promise, but while home on his first leave, suddenly disappeared into a Monastery in Ireland and we never heard of him again.

Another one of the sons of HSBC staff who was taken into the Noble family’s care was George Gordon Morriss, son of Edward Morriss. In 1911, he was 26 years old, already widowed, and staying with Frances and her family. His father had been hired away from the Agra in 1872, after he had served as liquidator of the Agra, and had been an agent in Bombay along with Noble sr., as well as manager of Yokohama where he died in 1890. Frances’ husband had been the executor’s of Edward Morriss’ will.

Looking back on all this, there are a few conclusions worth noting. For starters, even though there may not have been the traditional village available to these families to support them in raising their children, the support of their extended family on two continents was just as effective. Also, that when it came to the success of the men and their male children, their mothers were as critical when it came to forging the connections that underpinned their future successes as their fathers were.

Frances’ latter years:
Sometime in the mid to late 1890s, it seems that Frances left Hong Kong and then lived in England for the second half of her life, a country that was new to her. When they first arrived in London, her husband was in ill health, sick enough that he had to resign his position at HSBC. He continued to serve in a diminished role, suffering from what, I don’t know, but it is likely that the nature of his illness would be described in his death certificate  - April 10, 1901.

Frances had married young, at age seventeen, but ended up living in England another forty-four years after the death of her husband. Together, they had four children who lived, and one who died. When and how that child died, I have yet to learn. If any of their ancestors have survived, there may be family letters and such which could shed light on this. There is a son in a family picture that I have posted on the blog piece about Frances’ husband. The name of this boy is unknown to me, and it may be that he was the child who died. If he was, then there would have to be another child who I know nothing about.

Frances’ children lived with her in their early adult years. In 1911, her eldest son was 34 years old, unmarried, and living in their large, seventeen room home at 37 Inverness Terrace, London. He worked as an accountant. One daughter, Mary Josephine, age 22, lived at home until a year later, when she married Lionel John Crossley Anderson, of the HK Shanghai Bank (Penang). Their daughter, Diana Margaret, was born Jan 13, 1918 in Tientsin, China. [NOTE: Lionel may be related to A. Hay Anderson, the Manager of the Agra and Masterman Bank in Hong Kong in 1866. In terms of any connection that this might have to the larger story that I am pursuing, A. Hay Anderson was the manager who released Thomas Jackson from his Agra contract so he could go to work for HSBC.] The one daughter, Kathleen,  who was not living at home, had married earlier in the year an optical instrumentation dealer: Edward Ford Callaghan,. They lived not far away at 8 Marchwood Cresent, Ealing W., Middlesex.

Frances died at age 87, at Wharneford Hospital, near Oxford, England. In normal circumstances, I would check to see if there was family nearby that had sparked her decision to move out of London, but 1945 was not a time of normal circumstances. Thousands of Londoners had fled, and many more were still fleeing the city to avoid the nightly bombing raids.

With this in mind, it would be fair to say that Frances’ life had gone full circle. Born and raised in a time and place of military conflict and danger, she had died on another continent in another time and place that was also embroiled in military conflict and danger. Perhaps that moment when she was elected President of Ladies Recreation Club of Hong Kong was one of the calmer oases in her life.

As for the rest of her story, I hope to learn more when I visit Hong Kong in November of this year. I also hope to hear from others, as a result of this post, perhaps people who may have some kind of  family connection with her story. As always, I am all ears – and am also open to correction. I don’t claim to have this all nailed down. It is totally open to additions and revisions.

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