The People of Gibraltar
1831 - The Letts Family

Sarah, Thomas and Rosa - George, Maria Luisa and Evelyn

The history of the Letts family from the middle of the 19th century to the start of the 20th includes a rather nice example of a relatively common species or type of Gibraltarian - the soldier stationed abroad who meets and marries the local girl who then insists that the family return to her roots on the Rock. There is, of course, the added interest that the various characters in this story happen to be ancestors of mine. 

In 1841, Thomas Letts - or perhaps Francis Thomas Letts - first appears on the scene in the village of Creaton in Northamptonshire. He was a 2 year old baby. According to the 1841 census he was living in a house with four adults all of whom were also born in Northamptonshire.

Creaton village green today - perhaps not all that much changed from the early 19th century.

The actual address is unknown but a record does exist of the people living in it. One of them was William Francis. He was 55 and was listed as an agricultural labourer. Another two were his wife Ann Francis, also 55 and Mary Francis, their 20 year old daughter. The other couple were John Letts, a 20 year old described as a shoemaker and Sarah Letts who was also 20 years old at the time of the census. At a guess she could have been either his wife or his partner. John and Sarah were Thomas' parents.

The fact that two distinct families were living together in the same house suggests that Sarah and Mary were sisters. Given the fact that they were both the same age they may even have been twins. John Letts probably decided to live with his in-laws after he married their daughter. Why he made this decision is open to speculation but the reason must have had something to do with their financial situation. Agricultural labouring and shoemaking were not particularly lucrative businesses at the time and there is some indirect evidence that John and Sarah were forced to take refuge in the Brixworth Union Workhouse. This institution was supposed to care for the poor of the parish of Brixworth - which included Creaton village. It was, however, a place to be avoided

A Bow Street Runner sent by London to investigate the workhouse was scathing in his report. It had become known, he wrote, as the “dark portion of rural England”. Conditions inside the building were prison- like. Mrs Briddon, one of the cooks, described the food as both meagre and tasteless. It was an institution feared by the needy both old and young - the kind of place where families were split up and accommodated in single sex dormitories.

Brixworth Union Workhouse. Opened in 1836, closed in 1897

The fact that the name 'Francis' persisted in the Letts family for at least the next generation suggests that it may have been a sign of gratitude in having either saved them from having to move into the Workhouse or allowing them to leave it. There is in fact a possibility that Thomas Letts was actually born in Brixton Union Workhouse in which case the theory becomes all the more likely to be correct. Shortly after the census, and in 1841, Sarah gave birth to a daughter called Anne. Four years later on John Letts junior was born.

By 1851 and according to the census of that date Thomas, who was now 12, was working as an errand boy in Thornby, Northants, for a certain Richard Jellis and his wife Mary. Jellis is listed as a ’Carrier’. In other words he was somebody who drove a vehicle to transport goods. Sarah Letts who was now 32, is listed as the head of the family and working as a shoe builder in Kingswell Street in All Saints, Northampton.

Late 19th century photograph of Kingswell Street, Northampton.
This side of the street has now mostly been demolished

John senior is not listed in this census and the evidence suggests that by now he was probably no longer alive. A John Letts is registered as dead in Brixworth District in1846. There is, However, another possibility. In 1854 a John Letts also of the parish of Creaton and shown as a bachelor, married Elizabeth Hart in St Martin in the Fields. Although impossible to verify, this could be the same John Letts mentioned previously. He would have been about 33 at the time. It is quite possible that he never married in the first place and had left Sarah and the children for a new life with another woman.

By 1861 Thomas is no longer listed in any census. From what we know from his later movements the most likely reason is that he had joined the army. It is difficult to verify exactly where he was sent to during this period but he must have been posted - at least for a while - to Gibraltar as he was there on the 3rd of August 1864 when he married a local girl called Rosa Bottaro. According to the records of the Catholic Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned in Gibraltar, Rosa was born on the 13th of October 1841 and was 23 years old on the day she married.

Mid 19th Century view of Main Street, Gibraltar, near Commercial Square. The Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned where Thomas and Rosa got married is shown in the background at the far end of the street. It is missing the cupola that was added in the 20th century. Griffith's Hotel - also shown in the picture - was a popular watering hole at the time and will almost certainly have been frequented at one time or the other by Thomas Letts and his friends.

Sarah, however, had also disappeared from the census. She may have either died or remarried. Sarah's two other children, however were still living in the area. Ann Letts was now 18 and worked as a 'boot closer'. She would have worked in a boot or a shoe factory stitching the upper parts of the shoes. Her colleagues would have been other women like herself sewing other parts of the shoe. It was considered a rough and bawdry profession. She had not, however, moved far from mother's original address in Kingswell Street in Northampton as she lodged somewhere in Foundry Street which intersects this road.

Relatively modern photo of the corner between Kingswell and Foundry Street. in Northampton.

John Letts junior was now 16 and was also continuing his father's trade as a shoemaker. He was boarding with another shoemaker in Bridge Street, a relatively prosperous area in Northampton.

Early 20th century photo of a rather prosperous looking Bridge Street.

By 1867 Thomas Letts was serving in Canada as a sergeant in the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. The 4th battalion was sent to Quebec in 1861, to Montreal in 1863 and to London (Ontario) in 1865. However it was in Montreal that Rosa Letts gave birth to their first son. John Francis George Letts was born there on the 9th February 1867. The new baby would be known to family and friends as George. His certificate of baptism still exists in the form of a crumpled piece of blue note paper signed by the Chaplin of the Forces of the Garrison of Montreal.

Certificate of baptism for John Francis George Letts

1867 Thomas Letts. Photo taken in Montreal

1867 Rosa Letts. Photo taken in Montreal.
In the original photograph, Thomas - as shown above - is posing with his wife and a very blurred and very young John Francis George. This is the oldest extant family photograph.

By 1869 Francis Thomas had returned to England but his connections with the rest of his family seem to have been severed for good. His own, however, was prospering. John Francis George Letts now had a younger brother. Joseph Letts was born that very year in the town of Chester. One can only guess that this is where Sergeant Letts was stationed at the time. By 1870 the family were probably still in England. Rosa and her now three year old son John Francis George certainly were as they had their photograph taken that year by the 'Chemist & Photographer' Edward Banes at No. 3 High Street, Old Brompton, Gillingham, Kent,

1870 - Rosa Letts and her son John Francis George Letts.
On the back of the photograph appear the words 'Patronized by the Army and Navy'.

One year later in 1871, Thomas , now 32 years old and still a sergeant in 4th Battalion was moved to Cheriton which is also in Kent and almost certainly in or close to the Shorncliff Army Camp. According to the authors of the book 'Coast of Conflict', the regular occupation of this camp by the military changed the character of nearby Sandgate. 'Troops returning from the war' wrote the co-authors Martin and Michael George, 'were expected to indulge their animal, nay beastly, propensities to the full. Sandgate at that time reeked with the trap-doors to hell. Low beer houses abounded on every hand.' It was not a particularly attractive place to bring up one's children.

Mid 19th century engraving of Shorncliffe army camp at Cheriton in Kent.
It is difficult to understand how a married couple with two young children would have fared in such a camp. Perhaps the Letts were given married quarters elsewhere in town.

In 1873, Thomas was moved to Winchester and on the 10th of November of that year Rosa Letts gave birth to her first daughter. She was called Rose, presumably in honour of her mother. She would in future be known as Rosa. The family may have been given quarters near or close to the Peninsula Barracks which was later destroyed by fire in 1894

Peninsula Barracks in Winchester which was destroyed by fire in 1894

Thomas and his family returned to Gibraltar at some time between the years of 1873 and 1876. They were definitely there in 1876 as Rosa's second daughter, Charlotte was born in Gibraltar on the 19th of May 1876. Charlotte died when she was only 21 years of age on the 8th of October 1897.

In 1877 one year after having given birth to Charlotte, Rosa had her third daughter. She was called Sarah and she was born in Gibraltar on 18th of November. Three years later on the 27th of May 1880 Isabel was born. She was followed 5 years later on the 5th of March 1885 by her sister Mary. Isabel would always be known as Lita and Mary would eventually be known as Midge, a reference to the fact that she was a rather small child. She continued to be less than tall in stature in later life but those who knew her remember her as a person with a very strong personality.

In 1887, John Francis George was 20 years old. It was probably around this time that he joined the Eastern Telegraph company in Gibraltar as a telegraphist. Two years later his father, Sergeant Thomas Letts was awarded the Canada General Service Medal (Fenian Raids) of 1866-71. This medal refers to a military campaign waged by the Fenian Brotherhood based in the United States. Between 1866 and 1871 they managed to mobilise up to 1,000 Irish veterans of the American Civil War in order to launch raids on British army forts and other targets in Canada in order to bring pressure on Britain to withdraw from Ireland.

Canada General Service Medal (Fenian Raids) 1866

Although the medal was not issued until 1899 - and was only awarded if applied for - there was plenty of time for Thomas to send in his application. He may just possibly have retired from service by this time but he was still only 60 years old and still very much alive. One slight anomaly is that Thomas - Regimental number 712 - is listed as having served with the 1st Battalion rather than the 4th Battalion of the Rifles. Although both the 1st & 4th Rifles are the only ones to have taken part in this campaign Thomas is known to have been a member of the 4th and not the 1st.

In 1894 Thomas must have felt a certain pride when his son, John Francis George Letts was transferred to the Tangier office of the Eastern Telegraph Company Limited. Telegraphy was still a relatively newfangled technology. The Falmouth, Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph Company had finished laying the Cable that connected Malta to Gibraltar and from there to Carcavelos in Portugal and to its final destination in Porthcurno in Cornwall only about twenty odd years previously. The actual creation of the Eastern Telegraph - or ETC as it was known then - from the amalgamation of four separate companies was even more recent. It was a very desirable job for a middle-class Gibraltarian.

John Francis George Letts - bottom left - with friends in Tangier. The photographer, A Cavilla, is reputed to have been the first to establish a studio in Morocco.

By 1897 John was obviously making a name for himself as he had by now served as supervisor in various important overseas stations including Lourenco Marquez, Diego Suarez, Aden and Zanzibar. Despite his travels he spent a considerable amount of his time in Gibraltar. Not only was he a member of various local clubs but he was also known as el Ingles Andaluz because of his guitar playing.

John Francis George Letts - with Calpe Rowing Club hat

On the 18th of August 1898, John Francis George Letts married Gibraltar born Maria Luisa Gomez in the Registrars' Office in Gibraltar. Curiously neither Thomas nor Rosa Letts are mentioned as having been present during the ceremony in the Marriage Certificate although both were almost certain to have been in Gibraltar at the time. John Francis George had met Maria Luisa at a party aboard one of the Eastern Telegraph ships that shuttled between the two terminal of La Coruña and Gibraltar.

Marriage certificate of John Francis George Letts and Maria Luisa Gomez. John's father Thomas was now

John Francis George and Maria Luisa shortly after their wedding.
He was most probably still working in Tangier

John Francis George Letts died in Bombay where he had been appointed supervisor of the Eastern Telegraph Company. The cause of death according to the local Death Certificate was a 'sudden failure of the heart'. Both his parents were still alive at the time. He was 38 years old. Thomas died in Gibraltar on the 22nd of December 1908. Rosa outlived him by another nine years and died, also in Gibraltar, on the 27th of May 1917.

A view of the Casemates and the Moorish Castle in the 1870s, more or less as Thomas  would have seen it.

A military fortress, the need for an overwhelmingly male garrison of British born soldiers, a local population made up mostly of people of Spanish, Genoese or Jewish origin, the inexorable force of people meeting and falling in love with each other and the nostalgia based on the need to return to one's roots lie at the heart of this particular story. And yet, John Francis Letts seems to have spent most of his working life away from Gibraltar. His eldest daughter, Evelyn was born in Alexandria, his youngest, Ethel - who died young - probably in Bombay. 

It was the other side of the Gibraltarian coin - the need for a kind of diaspora that would always be close to the surface, an understandable phenomenon in a place as crowded as Gibraltar and where oportunities for improvement for the local population - unless of proven British stock - were invariably stymied by a narrow minded and by today's standards, racist administration. 

As such the story of the Letts family is almost certainly anything but unique within the context of the social history of the Rock. In fact the very opposite is probably true.