Church of Ireland register records escape from slavery in Africa and baptism in Ireland of George Ellis Bernard Freeman, 1855
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Detail from the baptismal entry of George Ellis Bernard Freeman, a child of about 7 years baptised on 15 April 1855, Kilbrogan parish combined register of baptisms, marriages and burials, RCB Library P144.1.2
The RCB Library in Dublin is custodian of over 1000 collections of Church of Ireland records which have been transferred from the parishes where they were created to the library’s safe custody. Within each collection are various categories of records, the most widely–used of which are the registers of baptism, marriage and burial. These document the lives of millions of people – when and where they were born; who their parents were; who they married details of their spouses’ fathers and occupations; and ultimately if and when they received a Christian burial.
Occasionally in the course of our work we come across more unusual pieces of information of lives lived and long forgotten, and this month’s Archive of the Month focuses on one such story – the extraordinary survival and migration of a child from ‘the interior of Africa’, who was saved from slavery and brought to Ireland after his family and ‘all his tribe had been killed in war’. The story is recorded as an annotation in the entries of baptism for the parish of Kilbrogan, county Cork, which centres on the town of Bandon.
Instead of the standard pro–forma information of who the child’s parents were and where they lived, this entry records his fortuitous escape from slavery. The record states that on 15 April 1855 the rector of the parish, Revd Charles Bernard baptised a child ‘aged about 7 years’ with the Christian names ‘George Ellis Bernard’ and presumably surname of ‘Freeman’. The entry further fleshes out his story: that he was the son of an African chieftain from the interior of Africa’, whose ‘tribe were killed in war’ and as a result he was ‘sold as a slave’.
Since the British slave trade had been abolished in 1807 (and slavery itself was abolished in 1833) we can assume that he must have been sold as a slave in the internal African trade, when along came ‘Capt. Ed. Ellis’ – master mariner from Bandon – who as the register entry continues to narrate had been ‘trading up the river Gaboon and Cameroon’ in the 1850s, and ‘made [the child] free’ by bringing him to ‘this country for education and religious training’.
The use of the middle names of Ellis on the one hand and Bernard on the other may have been to make a connection to the man who rescued the child in Africa, one the one hand, and the rector who baptised him in Ireland on the other. Neither man appears to have adopted him, or at least that information is not recorded in the baptismal register, and he does appear to have received the surname Freeman.
Of Captain Edward Bourke Ellis, from the marriage register for Kilbrogan we know that he was the son of Edward Ellis, Excise Officer, and had married Elizabeth Ellis, the daughter of Abraham Ellis, farmer, in November 1851. They had at least three children of their own. A daughter Mary, was baptised in July 1854 when the family are recorded as living at ‘S. Main Street, Bandon’, according to same Kilbrogan register that records George Freeman’s baptism.
The family appear also to have been transient between Cork and Bristol, as the digital resources of parish registers available through Familysearch.org record the baptism of a daughter (unnamed) on 15 November 1853. The parents are given as Edward Bourke Ellis and Elizabeth Kate his wife in the registers of Holy Trinity church, Bristol: click here.
Apart from the unusual entry recording George’s baptism in 1855, we found no further entries for Freeman or Edward Ellis in the Kilbrogan registers. Of Ellis, FamilySearch.org records show he may have moved to the town of Clifton in Gloucester (not far from Bristol) where the baptism of by as a record for one Edward James, son of Edward Bourke Ellis and Elizabeth Kate, his wife, is recorded at St Andrew’s church, Clifton, Gloucester in 1861: click here.
Of Charles Bernard – the rector who married the Ellis couple in 1851; baptised their eldest daughter Mary in 1854; and George Ellis Bernard Freeman in 1855 – he was in fact Charles Brodrick Bernard (1811–90), second son of James, 2nd Earl of Bandon of Castle Bernard, Bandon, who after his role as rector in Kilbrogan was appointed bishop of the diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, from 1867 until his death in 1890. Further biographical information about Bernard’s career is available from the Tuam diocesan succession list, edited by Canon David Crooks.
Our aim in putting this story on public record was spark further interest and feedback from members of the public. Within a couple of hours of this Archive of the Month going live on 01 October 2015, several followers contacted us to say they had found information about young George. This had originally been published in 1857 in The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor just two years after his baptism in Ireland. The source is available free on Google Books, click here, and brings George’s story to a conclusion.
Having witnessed his mother ruthlessly killed ‘ by a savage who sold him into slavery’, the little boy came to the notice of Captain Ellis who was commanding an African trader, laden with palm oil for the port of Bristol, who, the source confirms ‘offered to purchase him to set the little boy free’. On the return voyage to Bristol, they stopped off on the coast of Ireland where the child was baptised (as we know in Ellis’s home parish of Kilbrogan) before continuing to Bristol. On arrival back in Clifton, the child was sent to Hotwells infant–school and where he initially seems to have thrived, making friends and learning easily.
However, as the source continues, the story does not have a happy outcome: ‘… poor little George’s days on earth were numbered. A severe cold turned to bronchitis, and the little ransomed spirit winged its way to heaven. A slow procession was seen in Clifton churchyard – a little coffin borne by four: following it was the infant–school master, with tearful eye, and the warm–hearted Captain Ellis, weeping as if he had lost his only son’.
We are grateful to have been able to put George’s story on record, and thank all who contacted us with this information helping to bring this story to a conclusion
For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood