Sibella Stephen Morison Vernon (Mrs Arthur O'Brien Jones)

The St Helena coat of arms.
The St Helena coat of arms.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

St Helena, still a British territory, is one of the most remote islands in the world: it lies in the South Atlantic, is roughly 50 square miles in area and the current population is around 6,000. I once knew a girl who was born there and when she went home for a visit it was a complicated journey which needed to be impeccably timed - you flew to Africa and caught the next Royal Mail ship, which is still the case today, but an airport is now being built on the island. (The ship currently makes a round trip from Cape Town, taking in Ascension Island, about once every three weeks, with the leg to St Helena taking five days - which emphasises just how remote this island is). Picturesque though St Helena may be, it is really known only for one thing - as the place where Napoleon died in exile.

Jamestown, St Helena 1985
Jamestown, St Helena 1985.
Photo by Andrew Neaum via Wikimedia Commons.

Sibella Stephen Morison Vernon was born on St Helena in about 1817, elder daughter of the Reverend Bowater James Vernon and Sibella Milner Morison, who were married on 29 January 1816 in Edinburgh. Bowater was born in Jamaica or Droitwich, Worcestershire in 1789; his father, James Baillie Vernon RN, was ADC to the Governor of Jamaica. Bowater went to St Helena as junior chaplain to the church in Jamestown in the service of the East India Company and was there at the same time as the exiled Napoleon; allegedly he attended Napoleon's funeral (the 1821 version held in St Helena, not the sumptuous Paris event of 1840 which followed his exhumation) but apparently was not allowed to walk in the procession. Subsequently he returned to England and took up a post at St Peter's, Preston, Lancashire, then went to Petersfield, Hampshire and finally Oxfordshire.

The original tomb of Napoleon on St Helena 1821
The original tomb of Napoleon on St Helena 1821.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Sibella Milner Morison was the daughter of Scottish advocate William Maxwell Morison; her mother was Sibella Stephen, whose elder brother, Sir James Stephen, was MP for East Grinstead, Sussex, a Master in Chancery and a slavery abolitionist (he married the sister of William Wilberforce and was the great grandfather of Virginia Woolf). One of her younger brothers, John, was a judge in the West Indies and later in New South Wales.

Sir James Stephen
Sir James Stephen
Image courtesy of © National Portrait Gallery D32850

Justice John Stephen
Justice John Stephen
Image source: State Library of New South Wales

Sibella Milner Vernon (born c 1788) died at Lancaster Place, Waterloo, London in 1839 and was buried in Camden. Bowater James Vernon died in 1848 and was buried at St Swithun's, Merton, Oxfordshire1. The Vernons had another daughter, Elizabeth Dorrill (1819-94), who was married to the Reverend James Stephen Hodson, latterly Rector of Sanderstead, Surrey (his brother was the interesting William Stephen Raikes Hodson, who founded the cavalry unit known as Hodson's Horse - see https://en.wikipedia.org).

On 20 September 1836, at St John's, Preston, Sibella Junior married surgeon James Farish (born c.1804 Barwell, Cambridgeshire), son of the Reverend Professor William Farish of Cambridge University, who was an expert in isometry (see https://en.wikipedia.org), and Hannah Stephen, sister of the aforementioned Sir James Stephen. James Farish and Sibella lived at Lancaster Place (Sibella Senior died in their house) and then moved to Beckenham, Kent. There do not seem to have been any children and James died on 19 February 1853; he was buried at St George's, Beckenham.

I do not know how Sibella met Arthur O'Brien Jones, but perhaps she knew him via her late husband or, much more likely, there was a Jamaican connection. Arthur was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire in 1813 and qualified as a doctor in 1836; he was the only son of the Reverend Thomas Arthur Jones and Elizabeth O'Brien. There seems to have been no significant wealth in the Jones family. Thomas had been ordained in 1817, by which time he was already married with children, and in about 1818/19 he took the family out to Spanish Town, Jamaica, where he was curate at the parish church of Vere. In May 1820 he was appointed Rector, but died of yellow fever in October of that year, aged only 29, and was buried under a cotton tree in the grounds of Vere Rectory. Elizabeth returned to England with her four young children, Arthur, Ellen, Anne and Jemima (who was only about a year old) and acquired accommodation at Bromley College, Kent: this charitable institution had been founded in 1666 'to provide housing for twenty poor widowes of orthodoxe and loyall clergiemen' and Elizabeth remained there until her death in 1862.

The colonial buildings at Spanish Town 1825
The colonial buildings at Spanish Town 1825.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1851 census Arthur was already practising and living in South Street, Epsom with two of his sisters, Jemima and Anne, and three of Ellen's children were also in residence (it seems that Ellen's husband, coal merchant Arthur Burton, had gone to Paris in 1848 to escape his creditors and he set up in business there). Jemima married Australia merchant Joseph Matthew Holworthy in 1852 and Anne never married, eventually returning to Bromley College. I believe that Arthur and Ellen Burton and their son, Charles, were already in Paris by 1851: six of the eight Burton children died of consumption.

Arthur O'Brien Jones and Sibella Vernon/Farish were married at Epsom on 22 August 1857 and lived at The Shrubbery in South Street [link to The Shrubbery and 'A Death at Epsom College']. There was just one child, Arthur Vernon Jones, born in Epsom on 16 June 1859, who was educated at Eton. Sadly, the boy died of consumption at the age of 19, on 8 September 1878, at the mountain resort of Davos Platz, Grisons in Switzerland.

Memorial to Arthur Vernon Jones in the Ante Chapel at Eton College
Memorial to Arthur Vernon Jones in the Ante Chapel at Eton College
Image source: David Broomfield © 2015.

As mentioned in The Shrubbery article Arthur Senior was found dead at home from prussic acid poisoning on the night of Wednesday, 1 May 1889, having committed suicide. A piece of paper was found, on which he had written 'Taken prussic acid'. The inquest was held at Epsom on 10 May 1889 and reported in The Surrey Mirror next day. Sibella's evidence was taken at her house; she had returned home at about 5pm on 1 May and found Arthur in a chair, evidently dying. 'He tried to open his eyes, but he could not speak. I left home at eleven in the morning, and I then noticed nothing particular in him. He had been very cheerful and happy lately. Nothing had happened to disturb him in any way. His age had incapacitated him from doing so much work and this might have preyed upon his mind.'

Dr George Robinson Barnes, said, 'I was formerly in partnership with the deceased, but during the last six years we had only a working agreement. I last saw him alive on Monday afternoon about two o'clock. He was in a good state of health and did not appear depressed. On Wednesday I was sent for to see him, and on my arrival found he was dead. The prussic acid bottle was by his side and a glass measure was standing on the table. I detected a strong smell of acid. The cause of death was poisoning from prussic acid. I know nothing which would cause the deceased to commit suicide. I was not aware of any financial difficulties. His practice had declined. He had outlived his old patients and a new generation had come into Epsom. I think this feeling of not being able to do much worried him considerably. He had not, through his declining years, been equal to his work, particularly his night practice'

Sibella stayed on in Epsom for a while but on 19 January 1899 she died in Brighton, having resided at 4, New Steine: this building is now The Square Hotel and was a boarding house when she was there. Her effects amounted to £27,864 (approximately £3.1m in today's money).

4 New Steine, Brighton
4 New Steine, Brighton
Image courtesy of Linda Jackson © 2013

Grave of Arthur O'Brien Jones in Epsom Cemetery.
Grave of Arthur O'Brien Jones in Epsom Cemetery.
Image courtesy of Gravestone Photographic Resource



Linda Jackson
February 2013


Footnote
1 His sister, Bathsua Vernon, died unmarried at The Shrubbery, Epsom on 9 January 1877 and was buried in Epsom Cemetery.



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