MAJOR-GENERAL ROBERT BARLOW McCREA, RA

(1823-97)
Soldier and author

Royal Artillery Badge
Royal Artillery Badge. The motto means 'Where Right and Glory Lead'.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Major-General McCrea lived at Petit Ménage, Ewell from 1874 until his death and was a member of the Ewell Vestry; Mrs McCrea was on the Committee of the Epsom and Ewell Cottage Hospital.

Life and career

Robert Barlow McCrea was born in Plymouth on 9 January 1823, the eldest child of Robert Coutart McCrea (1793-1875) and Charlotte Dobrée (1795-1897!). Plymouth is something of a red herring, as the McCreas and Dobrées were Guernsey people, but Robert Senior was a naval Lieutenant in Plymouth at the time of his son's birth. I am not entirely sure how many children there were in total but the names I have been able to discover are shown below.

Name Dates Information
Charlotte Frances 1824-54 Married Rev George Bell of Guernsey.
James 1825-85 Lt.Col Royal Guernsey Milita; married Mary Brock Potenger.
Richard Charles 1826-57 Captain 64th Foot (North Staffordshire Regiment), killed in action at Cawnpore,
India during the Indian Mutiny; married Anne de la Combe Bell.
John Dobrée 1829-83 Rear-Admiral RN, latterly Superintendent of Portsmouth Dockyard;
married Marianne Watson Anderson.
Katherine Carterette 1831-1909 Married Maj-Gen John Blackwood Cromie de Butts, RE.
Lived at Horndon House, Ewell – see St Marys' Appendix 4.
James Rawdon 1832-8  
Mary Coutart 1834-90 Married Rev Haydon Aldersley Taylor, sometime chaplain of Parkhurst Prison.
Harriet Amelia 1839-1919 Married Brownlow Poulter (barrister and JP).

Charlotte Dobree/McCrea.
Charlotte Dobree/McCrea.
Image courtesy of Nicolette Graves © 2014.

Robert Coutart McCrea had a baptism of fire in his naval career, being a midshipman on HMS Swiftsure at the Battle of Trafalgar when he was just twelve. He had, to coin a phrase, 'a friend at court' in naval terms, this being Admiral James Saumarez (later Baron Saumarez), who was related to his wife (and, by the by, there was a distant connection between the Saumarez family and the Northeys of Epsom), and his advancement was fairly stellar; he retired as a Rear-Admiral.

And so we come to Robert Barlow McCrea. He entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1838, aged 15, and was commissioned as a 2nd-Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in June 1842. In about 1847 he was posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and from approximately 1849 to 1853 he enjoyed the delights of Corfu (then a British protectorate). However, his next posting (as a Captain) was not to his liking - he was sent to Port Royal, Jamaica to command the 1st Company of the 8th Battalion and he described the place as 'that delectable hole … with neither food to eat, books to read, nor people to speak to'. He was there for a long time, avoiding cholera and yellow fever, and was at last on his way home when he got diverted to Haiti.

You may have heard of Faustin-Elie Soulouque (I never had until now!): born in slavery, he was freed and joined the Army, becoming President and self-appointed Emperor of Haiti. His reign was rather a mixed bag (murder and voodoo get a mention in his story), but he might well have stayed in power a little longer had he not overreached himself and attempted to conquer the Dominican Republic. In January 1859 he was overthrown by General Fabre Geffrard of the Haitian Army (who was himself overthrown eight years later).

The Emperor Soulouque and his Cabinet Ministers.
The Emperor Soulouque and his Cabinet Ministers.
Image source: New York Public Library

General Geffrard.
General Geffrard.
Image source: Illustrated London News, 29 October 1859

As reported by the Morning Chronicle of 7 March 1859, Robert left Port Royal on 28 December 1858 on the steamship Melbourne, which contained three companies of artillery under his command. Two days later, between Cuba and Haiti, they encountered a French barque which had been sent out by the Charge d'Affaires at Port-au-Prince to seek assistance, since the Europeans in the town were in constant fear of being massacred. On 31 December the Melbourne anchored at Port-au-Prince, where it was discovered that Soulouque had gone off to confront Geffrard and his troops, leaving the town undefended. All was quiet until 10 January 1859 when Soulouque, beaten and in retreat, returned and began to barricade himself in against the advancing Geffrard, who captured the town five days later. Soulouque then abdicated and took refuge with three of his ministers (who were highly unpopular) at the French Consulate, which was promptly surrounded by a mob of thousands. Understandably the French decided that Soulouque should leave Haiti immediately and he elected to go to Jamaica. So, Robert and his soldiers were sent to escort the ex-Emperor and his entourage to the Melbourne. Many of the protesters were armed but they were not about to take on the British Army; the guns of the Melbourne were trained on them and two guard-boats of artillerymen were lying off. Soulouque & Co were safely stowed on the ship, but it wasn't over yet.

The Melbourne was still lying off Port-au-Prince when, on 17 January, the French sent an urgent plea for help. The three ministers were still in the Consulate and the Charge d'Affaires had heard that a mob was coming to burn it down. Robert and 150 men swiftly went ashore. The upshot of all this was that the mob did nothing and Geffrard himself sent troops to guard the Consulate. The ministers then escaped to the Melbourne in disguise and the ship set off for Port Royal. Robert arrived back in England in February, was thanked by the British and French Governments and promoted to Brevet-Major.

There followed more than two pleasant years in England and then there was an international diplomatic incident known as The Trent Affair. The RMS Trent was a British mail packet, which at the time in question happened to be carrying two envoys from the Confederate States of America as passengers. Trent was intercepted by the Union ship, the USS San Jacinto, and the envoys were taken off. The incident ended peacefully when Abraham Lincoln, not wanting a war with Britain, released them. However, the British decided to reinforce their North American garrisons and Robert was sent to St John's, Newfoundland.

He liked Newfoundland, so much so that he wrote a book about it, called 'Lost among the fogs: Sketches of Life in Newfoundland, England's Ancient Colony'.

Panoramic view of St John's 1879.
Panoramic view of St John's 1879.
Image source: Library and Archives of Canada.

It's clear from the opening to the book that Robert was happy with the simple things of life (including the propagation of Brussels sprouts) and not exactly yearning for artillery action in some far-flung spot. Here he is, still only 38 years of age, sitting at home in Landport, Portsmouth.
'What a miserable day it had been: and how cheerily the fire sparkled as I lay back in my easy-chair one memorable evening in December 1861. My wife, chatting and working, was sitting opposite; the cat, blinking at the merry blaze, purred on the hearth-rug; the kettle, the sweetest lecturer on social science in all England, was unburdening its views on the hob; and on that low but genial throne of love I lay back comfortable and happy. Perhaps the more happy inasmuch as I was tired, not with idleness, but with good hard work. All that afternoon I had been assisting a day-labourer to clear and tidy a pocket-handkerchief garden which my predecessors had left planted with bricks, blacking bottles, old shoes, and such other savoury sorts of rubbish.'
An official letter then arrived (this was on a Wednesday), which Robert says he hated at any time, but especially just before meals. The letter read,
'My Dear Sir, the colonel has just come from the Horse Guards; telegraphed for by DAG this afternoon. A great deal more shine about that Trent job than we thought. We are all ordered off for Canada. You are told off for Newfoundland and sail next Saturday in the Liverpool packet. Parade tomorrow at ten for inspection; all hands …'
Before embarking, Robert attempted to acquire some information about Newfoundland, which amounted to the sum total of fog, fish and cooking in cod liver oil; he managed to acquire a map – an incomprehensible Admiralty chart which, he says, 'looked as if a spider had dipped his legs in the ink bottle and travelled leisurely about the paper'. He then recalled an officer's widow who lived in Portsmouth and who had been in Newfoundland years earlier; she told him that she had liked the place very much, but there was nothing to do, letters arrived once every few weeks, the weather was unsuitable for growing fruit and flowers, it was very windy … Robert was somewhat apprehensive, especially as he would be on his own, without Mrs McCrea. Oh no, he would not be alone – Tom, the grey and white cat, went with him, having adopted Robert when he was at Port Royal and been 'posted' with him ever since.

I will leave you to read the book (see link above) if you so wish and suffice it to say that there was fish and fog but Robert did enjoy his time there, and what comes over most strongly is his character. We would have liked him, I think.

The Imperial garrison in Newfoundland was withdrawn in 1870, by which time Robert (now a Lieutenant-Colonel) was long gone. In May 1864 he became Commander of the Royal Artillery in Quebec. This posting seems to have been uneventful and in 1867 he moved on to Malta. In 1871 he returned to the UK as a full Colonel and in 1874 was promoted to Major-General, whereupon he retired to Ewell.

We have had some difficulty in establishing exactly where the McCreas lived in Ewell. We know that the house was called Petit Ménage and the 1881 and 1891 censuses tell us that they resided in Ernest Cottages in the Kingston Road, so it seems that they gave one of these cottages the name of Petit Ménage (unsurprising given their connections with Guernsey and the fact that they had no children). We are now confident that these terraced cottages are still standing (if somewhat altered) and are in a private lane off the Kingston Road. These were modest abodes at the time and mostly inhabited by ordinary workers, which probably means nothing in connection with the state of the McCreas' finances (they seem to have been fairly comfortably off) but, more likely, that they were down-to-earth people themselves. (Robert did, after all, grow his own sprouts, which he very reluctantly passed to a neighbour when he had to go to Newfoundland.) The next two pictures give you an idea of the appearance of Ernest Cottages.

7-8 Ernest Cottages, Kingston Road, Ewell 9 Ernest Cottages, Kingston Road, Ewell
7-8 and 9 Ernest Cottages, Kingston Road, Ewell
Image source: Bourne Hall Museum

As mentioned earlier, the couple became involved in local 'good works' and also, in due course, renewed an old acquaintance with Lieutenant-General Sir John Stokes when he moved into Spring House. Robert was also a founding member of the Committee of Direction of the Army and Navy Co-operative Society, which became the Army and Navy Stores.

You will have noticed that I have not yet told you much about Mrs McCrea, the reason being that she had local connections of her own, and I will come to her very shortly.

Robert died suddenly at Ewell on 11 February 1897, aged 74. His body was taken to Southampton and shipped across to Guernsey, where the funeral was held at Holy Trinity Church in St Peter Port, followed by interment at the nearby Candie Cemetery. Lord de Saumarez, a descendant of the Admiral mentioned much earlier, was one of the pall-bearers. Robert's effects amounted to £16,233 (about £1.8 million in today's money).

Mrs Harriet McCrea

Harriet, was born in about 1826, the daughter of John Maingay, an independent gentleman who lived in St Peter Port. He does not seem to have had direct connections with Epsom and Ewell personally, but members of his family did and you will find various mentions of them on this website, so I have added an Appendix to sort them out for you! Harriet married Robert Barlow McCrea on 9 August 1850 at Castel, Guernsey. Soon after his death she moved back to Guernsey, accompanied by her housemaid from Ewell, Mrs Lucy Cook, and she died on 12 February 1906.

Researched and written by Linda Jackson ©2014


APPENDIX


THE MAINGAY FAMILY

John Maingay (1784-1849) was married to Mary Durand (c.1787-1862). They had four children, as shown below.

Name Dates Information
Mathilde/Matilda 1819 Naples – 1883 Cheltenham Resided in Guernsey for most of her life; unmarried.
Louisa Ann 1824 Naples – 1878 Doncaster Married Rev Henry Frederick Brock.
Harriet 1826 Guernsey – 1906 Guernsey Married Maj-Gen Robert Barlow McCrea.
John Francis 1828 Guernsey – 1905 Ewell Married Jane Elizabeth Robin.

John Francis Maingay moved to Ewell in 1874, the same year as his sister and brother-in-law, Harriet and Robert McCrea. Italy figures in the plot because the Maingay family was involved in the mercantile firm of Maingay, Robin & Co, fish and general merchants in Naples, which was associated with a Robin firm in Canada. A fair number of Maingays married Robins over the years.

John Francis married Jane Elizabeth Robin (c.1828-1908) in Naples but they latterly lived at Chessington Lodge in Spring Street, Ewell. Their children were as follows.

Name Dates Information
Mary Jane 1854 Naples – 1940 Married Radclyffe Walters of Ewell; lived at Persfield, Ewell until her death.
Emily Frances c.1858 Jersey – 1942 Married Lt Frederick Estcourt Poulter RN* 23 Jan 1883 at St Mary's, Ewell.
Widowed in 1907 and latterly lived at Red Cottage, 9 Ashdown Road, Epsom.
Louisa Mildred c.1860 Jersey – 1909. Unmarried; latterly lived in Southsea, Hampshire.

* Frederick Estcourt Poulter was the son of Brownlow Poulter, who married Harriet Amelia, sister of Robert Barlow McCrea.