Family is such a complex subject. It seems to be challenging enough coming to grips with who one’s immediate family is, not to mention one’s historical family. The family tree – the study of genealogy—has never been a keen interest of mine, possibly because I didn’t grow up surrounded by historical portraits, photographs, or even many objects that had been passed down from one generation to another. We moved a lot. And when you do, things go missing. What has survived is land. Property in Bermuda. That today has a new sense of value because it is more deeply rooted in my personal narrative. The discovery of Charles Wotten as my ancestor, my great uncle, triggered a profound new depth to my attachment to Bermuda. Indeed, his tragic death may well be the ancestral root to my passion for community and social justice.
My voice is only one here, in this space of discovery, inquiry and acceptance of the life of Charles Wotten. What follows are the perspectives of my mother Margaret Burgess-Howie and her cousin Valeta Fubler, beginning with the voice of Bermudian scholar Dr. Kristy Warren.
Dr. Kristy Warren
In the spring of 2019 three UK based Bermudians traipsed through the Anfield Cemetery in Liverpool looking for the grave of Charles Wotton, a Bermudian who had been murdered 100 years before by a racist mob during the Race Riots in Liverpool. I was one of those Bermudians and I was joined by Jeremy Blades and Karla Ingemann who both live in Liverpool and were eager to join me in honouring Charles. We quickly found the general location but finding the grave was more difficult than expected. Using a plan of the graveyard she found on the internet, Karla was able to identify the gravestone number. We walked up and down the rows of the section searching for it unsuccessfully.
Finally, we narrowed it down to a section that looked like a regular lawn but was in fact where the unmarked graves are. Then, Jeremy found it! Charles’ gravestone was flat to the ground and the lettering had faded in the years since members of the Charles Wootton College for Further Education had placed it there in 1989. On that same trip to Liverpool, I took the opportunity to visit the plaque that was erected to Charles by David Olusogo during his BBC series Black and British: Forgotten History which aired in 2016. This plaque was placed on the dock where Charles had drowned after having stones thrown at him as he attempted to get out of the water. In this way, I attempted to trace Charles in the landscape of Liverpool on the anniversary of his death.
The ability to do further research did not present itself at that time and Gemma and I had to put our plans on hold. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown an unexpected spark reignited the quest. The topic of Charles came up while I was talking with Bermudian historian Dr. Clarence Maxwell. He commented on someone we both knew due to our work with the National Museum of Bermuda, Lisa Howie, who had discovered she was related to Charles thanks to a recent article by Jessie Moniz in The Royal Gazette. I was ecstatic! Relatives was something I’d been hopeful of finding.
A previous article about Charles by Jonathan Bell had run in the same newspaper the year before with no apparent response from family. So, I’d been unsure that link could be made. My next meeting with Lisa led to a most engaging two-hour chat with her and her mother Margaret Burgess-Howie about their connections to Charles through Margaret’s grandmother Rosalie who was Charles’ sister. The story of how they came to rediscover Charles is theirs to tell, but I am looking forward to the journey ahead.
The British Academy Leverhulme Small Research Grant, which I was recently awarded, will fund the next stage of the journey, a 10-month research project on Charles’ life. Together with Bermudian student researchers Chynna Trott, based in Bermuda, and Jaylen Simons, based in the UK, information from archives and libraries in Bermuda and the United Kingdom will be examined to gather more information. Building on the initial scoping research Gemma and I began in 2018, this research project, which began in February, aims to build a fuller picture of Charles’ life and the world he inhabited.
On Tuesday, 16th June 2020, I was glancing through The Royal Gazette and came upon the headline: “A Bermudian martyr to equality.” What caught my attention was a picture of an individual named Charles Wotten, born in Somerset, Bermuda, and a plaque explaining that he was a victim of the Liverpool race riots in 1919. The circumstances surrounding Charles’s death was both shocking and heart wrenching– he was stoned to death! I became even more shaken by reading this article since my grandmother’s maiden name was Rosa or Rosalie Wotton from Somerset. I immediately telephoned my daughter, Lisa Howie, making her aware that I may have discovered a relative, namely my grandmother’s brother, her great uncle.
I was what Bermudian’s call a “Grandmother’s Child.” I am the youngest in my family, having two older brothers (now deceased) and, in her eyes, I could do no wrong and, in my eyes, she was all of my world. The pet name for my grandmother, which had originated from my older brother, also named Charles, was “Momsey”. I believe I spent more time with Momsey than my own mother and, as a result, I learned a lot about her life and family. She told me that she had a large family, which I imagined consisted of about ten siblings, and that most of them died as a result of the plague [yellow fever], leaving only her and a younger sister, whom I called Dora. Momsey never talked about a younger brother travelling abroad, and I am left to assume that she had no knowledge of this.
Lisa is the Director of Learning & Engagement at the National Museum of Bermuda and she was able to provide me with information on the Church Registers throughout Bermuda dating from the early 1800s to 1913, which has proven most helpful along with the detailed information provided by Dr. Kristy Warren. I have always known that it was my grandmother who named me Margaret Rose Priscilla. Momsey told me that Margaret was her grandmother, a white English woman; Rose was Momsey herself; and Priscilla was Momsey’s mother, my great grandmother. I was not able to confirm the connection to Margaret from the Registry because of the uncertainty surrounding her surname. I was more successful with respect to Priscilla whose maiden name was Lee and that she had married Henry James Wotton in 1875. From that union there were six confirmed children and four not yet confirmed. Charles was the youngest in the confirmed group, born 1892.
Momsey married David Virgil Simons in 1902 and from that union produced one still birth in 1904, and three live births, namely Alison William Penn, born 1906, and Bertha Olive (my mother) 1910, and Carrie born, I believe, in 1921.
As mentioned Momsey’s only living sibling was Dora. Dora was married to Joseph Frates and that union produced two daughters: Iva and Mary. Iva passed many years ago, but Mary only passed on June 15, 2019, a month shy of her 99th birthday. She was a treasure, and had she survived, I am sure could have provided us with even more valuable information.
As a matter of interest, my older brother was named David Charles Henry. I note that David was Momsey’s husband, Charles was her brother, and Henry was her father.
I am most grateful to the historians for bringing Charles’ journey to our attention and I am also grateful that his life is remembered by the Liverpool community. I feel as a result, we have brought him back home. I pray for his soul.
It gives me a lot of sadness to learn about my heritage and the journey our great uncle Charles Wotton took as a young boy. The more I learn about him it makes me wonder why a young boy at the tender age of 15 years old would leave Bermuda and his family and board a boat for the UK. It appears his family never knew that he left or perhaps even what became of him. Especially that he died alone a horrible death by the hands of an angry racist mob in the 1919 race riots as the police watched.
Our family is so grateful for the people that thought enough of him to bury him. As well, we are grateful to the historians who erected a plaque in his name near the place where he took his last steps, thus keeping his story alive. If it wasn’t for the historians, we would never be able to walk this journey.
I still wonder if he ever married and had a family prior to all this. And if there could be any surviving family in the UK or any of the Islands. But by all appearances it seems he was a single man and we may never know anything about that part of his life. It was interesting to learn that there was a college named after our great uncle: The Charles Wootton College for Further Education. Although it no longer exists, it appeared to be very successful. (Perhaps it was forced to close due to lack of funding from the Liverpool City Council.)
In the meeting we had with Kristy, we learned that she has been looking into the life of Charles Wotton since 2018! Also, there was a piece written on Charles Wotton in 2018 in the Royal Gazette (RG) which was not seen by any family members. Unfortunately, the matriarch of our family, Mary Foggo, was ill at this time and I think if she had seen the article it would have sparked something in her as Charles was her mother Madora’s (Deborah Harvey) brother.
Fortunately for us, another article was written on Charles in June 2020 as Kristy and Margaret have referenced. I received a surprise call from Margaret asking, “If I had heard of the name Wotton?” Oh yes, I recalled that being my grandmother Madora’s (Deborah Harvey) maiden name. Margaret sent me copies of the Church Registry that she had received from Lisa and the journey to research our heritage began.
Together Margaret and I have put the pieces together that we can recall from our memories. I only wish my aunt Mary was still here with us because she could have added much more. Currently, we have family that live in the UK and my sister Pat Trimm and I travel there every year and could have possibly been there when the articles were written. Most likely we were in Liverpool in 2018. Pat and I most definitely want to continue on this journey to retrace our heritage to Liverpool as soon as it’s safe to travel. Also, I want to add that after I reached out to RG writer Jessie Moniz Hardy, she put me in contact with historian David Olusoga who then connected me to Madeline Heneghan. Both Margaret and I communicated with Madeline via email as she has done a lot of research regarding our great uncle’s death. She didn’t have any information about his life and was also hoping to find living relatives. Madeline also put me in contact with Emy (Omeka) Onuora who was also looking along with others for Charles Wotton’s final resting place. It’s remarkable how the threads of the story start to weave together.
Both Madeline and Emy co-authored the book Great War to Race Riots, a book about the events that took place during the 1919 Liverpool riots. It’s a challenging read and can be very emotional at times as it speaks to the injustices that happened at that time to our people, as well in detail the tragic death of our great uncle Charles Wotton. As Madeline has written, the fact that the police looked on as this tragedy took place is heart-wrenching. In addition, there are differences between the police reports and the actual newspaper reports. As I read the book and looked at the pictures, it’s truly unimaginable what these men went through. To be disenfranchised in a country that they assisted in fighting in World War 1. Many of the men were homeless, had no money, were disabled due to the war, and couldn’t take care of their families. They lost their jobs to white men who felt they were more privileged then blacks.
This brings us full circle, reflecting on the events of 1919. Although things change, many remain the same. As Black people we are still fighting today for our recognition and our rightful place in this world to be treated equally. Black Lives Matter has deeper meaning in relation to the life and tragic death of our dear great uncle.
Weaving our voices together for this article has had such an emotional quotient. We have each reviewed the history and yet because there are still so many unanswered questions it is hard to come to a conclusion. While we shed tears knowing that our dear relative was murdered by a mob, we must also take comfort in the work of those historians who have ensured that the tragedy was not in vain. That the life of this young man who had served in the Merchant Navy, and thus quite possibly served in World War I, he was courageous, perhaps had fought back against the police and the mob. But forced into the dark, frigid waters of Liverpool’s docks, pelted by stones to his death, is a misery for no human to have to bear, and yet this is in fact the tragic end for our relation.
The echo of injustice is most poignant today, as Valeta observes. While we may be spared gross physical gestures of racial violence in Bermuda, we are all acutely aware that we have much work to do toward social equity. Thank you, Charles for charging us with this responsibility: to enrich our lives by learning about our family history and to further our sense of purpose by serving our families and communities. Rest knowing that you are not alone. Rest knowing that through us you are home.
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