By Richard Shiell & Dorothy Anderson. (Last revised Sept 2006). Discussion welcomed at


Matthew Dowdy Shiell was born on Montserrat on Sept 18th 1824 [1] and died on Montserrat January 7th 1888 aged 63 years. [2]


His father and mother’s names have not been positively identified at this stage but he was almost certainly illegitimate and his father was most likely James Phipps Shiell (1790-1834).[3] The only other known young Shiell males on Montserrat at the time of his conception were William Shiell (1785-1853) [4] and John Shiell (1788-1847).[5] Their father, Queely Shiell (1755-1847) [6], was still living on Montserrat, but aged 68, and one would presume that circumstances and opportunity would favor the younger generation.


 Although it is impossible to prove a causal relationship between the events, it is on record that a child slave, Priscilla, the property of Mrs Dowdy [7], was returned to Montserrat on H.M. sloop Dasher in January 1824 and signed off by the 23 year old Customs Officer, James Phipps Shiell.[8]  Eight and a half months later a child who was later known as Matthew Dowdy Shiell was born on Montserrat. Details of his parentage seem to have been conveniently “forgotten” by Matthew and his very Methodist and respectable descendants [9] although carnal knowledge or even the rape of a black slave girl was probably not considered a criminal offence on Montserrat in 1824.


Matthew’s subsequent career was probably aided by the fact that he appears to have been very light skinned so therefore most likely no more than 1/16 African. If his father was the white James Phipps Shiell, then his mother was probably no more than about 1/8th black. She and her mother may both have been the direct offspring of white masters and perhaps brought up as valued household domestic servants and perhaps even received some education. This may account for why Mrs. Dowdy was so keen to avoid handing such valued servants over to Dudley Semper with her other forgone property.


If the above scenario is correct then the baby and his mother would have been freed after Emancipation in 1834. Young Matthew seems to have received a better than average education[10] and according to his son Phipps, he became a trader, ship owner, store keeper and a Methodist lay-preacher.[11]  To this the current authors must add the occupation of “tailor”. We have documentary proof of his trading activities and ship ownership from 1850 at which time the 26 year old was described as a “tailor of the parish of St Anthony”.[12]  We presume that, in his teens MDS was apprenticed to a tailor in Plymouth, although the identity of his master has not yet been discovered.[13] In 1852, in partnership with Peter Irish, he acquired the larger 59 ton schooner “Agnes”.[14]


Matthew married Priscilla Ann Blake around 1846.[15]. She was the daughter of William Blake [16] and Sarah (nee Harman).  On her birth entry in 1828 Priscilla was listed as “free”. This comment is thought to indicate that her parents had once been slaves but that the family were now free.[17]


The couple went on to have possibly 8-9 daughters before a son was born on 20th July 1865 and named Matthew Phipps Shiell.


Children of Matthew Dowdy Shiell.[18]

The name of some of the daughters is known. The other girls were never mentioned by name and obviously could have died young, as was common in those days, when an infant mortality rate of over 50% was not uncommon.


Harold Billings provides the following details in his biography of the early years of MPS.


Alberta Augusta (“Gussie”), born January 11, abt. 1852, died 1927. She married the Honorable Samuel Lamartine Horsford (“Sammy”) on Nevis in 1872.[19] They subsequently lived on St Kitts.  Their children were Reginald Shiell Horsford, born May 1st 1873, Cyril Arthur Bennett Horsford 1876-1953 (he later became an ENT Surgeon at 24 Harley St. London), Samuel Leonard Horsford “Leo”, born 1877, Olive, born abt. 1879, and Muriel “Nonnie” born abt. 1881.  (Full name of Gussie determined by Billings subsequent to the publication of his life of MPS.)


Ada Catherine, born approximately 1855, died unmarried on Montserrat on Oct 11th 1886, aged 31.


Harriet Garry (“Harrie”).  She was born on January 7, 1862, never married and was recorded as an elderly landowner in Plymouth, Montserrat. She died in August/September 1946.  (In letters to his son, MDS calls her “Haga.”)


Sarah Ann (“Sallie”) Born ? 1864. She married a Methodist minister, the Rev. Killikelly on 7th June 1887 and died February 1913. They appear to have subsequently lived on St Vincent and their children were Carlton (born 1888) and Ada Catherine. Ada later married a man named Manchester and lived on St Kitts.


One of the sisters was said to be the grandmother of West Indian Public Servant and writer, Charlesworth Ross. [20]  If this is so then his mother was most likely to be Muriel, the 2nd and daughter of Augusta. There is no clear evidence that she ever married and no trace of this relationship to Charlesworth Ross has been discovered. Shiel scholar Harold Billings notes that it was virtually impossible for Muriel to have been Charlesworth's mother and not have told him about his distinguished great-uncle, especially since both men had ties to the University of London.


Further life of Matthew Dowdy Shiell. [21]

Life for a trader on Montserrat was never easy and became increasingly precarious in the economic doldrums that had beset the sugar islands in the aftermath of Emancipation in 1834 and continued for decades.  Many other crops were tried but there was a general reluctance of the population to work hard and a lack of capital and incentive in the plantation owners to buy machinery such as steam engines, pumps and modern ploughs, that would have increased productivity on the island.


Natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes struck with regularity and often were followed by epidemics of cholera and smallpox which depleted and demoralized the population and further reduced the spending power of those left behind. Land prices had fallen to prices less than 1/40 of their book value and carried large encumbrances in the form of debts to the British Crown for past loans for repairs to buildings following the 1843 earthquake. Wages remained low on Montserrat and many laborers were lured away by promises of higher wages on other islands.

An aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-65) was a decline of trade with the USA which put further strain on the already fragile economy of Montserrat.


There is no sign of obvious financial strain on MDS in the years leading up to the departure of Phipps for England on 25th April, 1885 but it is difficult to be sure of these details 120 years after the event and the financial state of the family may have been steadily deteriorating for years.


MDS, with his education and lightly colored skin regarded himself, and was probably regarded by others on Montserrat, as upper middle-class. This would necessitate a standard of housing, lifestyle and dress well above that of the majority of the population of Montserrat. These folk were semi-literate, of laboring class and unemployed much of the time. They were also very black while Phipps and his sisters appear to have been much lighter skinned than many of the other coloreds in Plymouth. As befitted their station, Phipps had periods away at school in Devonshire, England (?1877-80) and at Harrison College on Barbados (1881-83). It is possible that the girls also had short periods in schools off the island.


The health of MDS which had been slipping, declined even faster after the departure of Phipps for England in 1885 and in fact he died a mere 3 years later, after a series of strokes.


On top of all this, the prodigal son Phipps was not making his own way in London. In spite of his honors in the Matriculation Examinations in 1883, did not appear to have made any serious attempt to enroll at London University or elsewhere. Details of his early years in England as a teacher are detailed in the Billings biography.


Various other misfortunes had been suffered by the family back on Montserrat with the sickness and death of Ada on 10th October 1886, aged 31. As described by Billings, Matthew lost trading goods on Nevis as the result of a fire and his ship the “Dreadnaught” was also lost in some disaster. On top of all this Matthew suffered his first stroke on the day after Christmas in 1886.  It affected his speech and mobility and resulted in him withdrawing from all his business activities, apart from the small store attached to the house where they lived in Plymouth.


Shortly afterwards Matthew suffered a 2nd and more serious stroke.  This left him temporarily dumb and paralyzed down the left side. By March 1887 he had recovered sufficiently to be able to write again to Phipps but he was distressed by the news that Phipps had left his provincial teaching position and was back in London unemployed. He wrote that he had no money to send Phipps and no dowry to give to his daughter Sally who was about to marry a Methodist minister from St Vincent, the Rev. C. Killikelly.


By the time of Phipps’ birthday on 21st July 1887 his father had managed to send him £2 to get a suit made up from material sent earlier.  He is distressed by the impoverished state that Phipps has found himself in and reminisces that of all the young men on Montserrat a few years earlier, Phipps's prospects had appeared the brightest.


By August 1887 Phipps in unemployed again and there is some talk of him returning to Montserrat but it is probably not serious, as the cost of fares was high and unemployment was high on Montserrat too. And then there was the matter of pride, to return home would have been an admission of failure. Business in Matthew’s store in Plymouth continues to be bad and, as Billings notes, he admits that some days they “close in the evening without taking in a penny”.


The letter of Dec 9th 1887 is the last found in the possession of Phipps and is full of dismal news, but records that MDS has sent his “likeness” to Phipps.[22]  MDS, only 63 years old, suffered a further series of strokes and died. He was buried on 7th January 1888. His last weeks were recorded by daughter Harriet in a letter to her niece Olive Horsford (see Billings).  There was no one except Harriet to nurse him through a very painful, if finally sudden death, beset by fit after fit, with his death on her birthday, 7th January.


It is sad to recall that at the time of his death, Matthew’s beloved 23 year old son Phipps still had no regular work and had not yet turned to writing, which was to occupy him for the remaining 60 years of his life.


Chronological Summary of Known Events in the life of MDS


1824, Sept 18th.  Matthew Dowdy Shiell was born on Montserrat 


1846-48 (date only a rough estimate). MDS marries Priscilla Ann Blake


1850. The 24 ton schooner Jane built at Plymouth, Montserrat in 1850 by Anthony Meade was registered to MDS, tailor, of the parish of St Anthony. ((BT 107 562)


1852. MDS, “merchant in Plymouth”, part owner, with Peter Irish, of the 59 ton schooner Agnes (BT 107 568)


1852? First known daughter, Augusta born (there may have been earlier children who died in infancy)


1865, July 21st. Son born at last -Matthew Phipps Shiell (later known as the author M. P. Shiel)


1883. Phipps matriculates with honors from the University of London.


1885.  25th April.   Son Phipps departs for England, never to return to Montserrat.


1886.  Dec. 26th. MDS suffers first of a series of strokes


1887.  Late Dec. - Jan 7th 1888. Final days of MDS, nursed by daughter Harriet.


1888.  January 7th.  MDS died Montserrat aged 63 years [23].


1910.  April 14th, 1910, Priscilla, wife of MDS died aged 83.[24]






APPENDIX III - Certificate dated 30th January 1824.

To the Collector of Customs, Montserrat, in regard to the runaway child slave Priscilla.

Montserrat, 30th January 1824.

I do hereby Certify that Priscilla a Negroe Child Slave, the Property of Mrs Sarah Dowdy, was sold by me at Marshals Sale and Purchased by Dudley Semper Esquire on the 4th day of September 1822.


(signed) Michl. Jos. Semper      Dep. Pro. Marshall



APPENDIX IV- Letter from the Governor of St Eustatius, regarding the return of several runaway slaves.

27th January, 1824

                                                                                                         Government House

St Eustatius.


I have delivered over to Captn Allers of the British Sloop “Dasher” four Slaves by name Simon, Ino Matthews, Ned and William which it appears are the same of whom Your honor gave me Notice under date the 24th July last and which were at the time searched for in vain.


The three first were concerned with nine other Slaves of this Colony in cutting out of the Road of the Dutch Sloop “John and Anna” in the Night of the 30th November last. They were pursued and fortunately taken by an Expedition, fitted out by this Government, off Porto Rico, and brought back to this place where they have been tried and punished according to our Laws.


William did not go with them and returns without having been in anywise punished. Three Slaves complain much of ill treatment and some of them bear evident marks of the truth of their assertions.


There is likewise aboard the “Dasher” a female Child, Slave to Mr. D. Semper of your Island, whom it appears, had been clandestinely brought here by Her Mother, a Slave formerly of Mrs Dowdy. She is sent up to her Master by his Attorney here.


Capt Allers has my direction to report to Your Honor immediately on his arrival and you will direct him farther how to proceed.


I have the Honor to be

Sir, Your Honor’s Most Obedient Servt

(signed) J. M Saba

Post Captain in His Netherland Majesty’s Navy

Governor of St Eustatius


APPENDIX V . Certificate acknowledging the receipt of runaway slaves from St Eustatius and signed by Edmund and Dudley Semper and James Phipps Shiell.


Montserrat 30th January 1824


Mr Dudley Semper, Edmond Semper Junior and James Phipps Shiell of the Island of Montserrat. Do swear. That the Negroe Slaves just arrived in the Sloop Dasher Ino D. Allers Master are truly and Bonafide the same Slaves as are described in the several Certificates of Registration herewith produced. And that the said Slaves did in the Month of July last 1823. Elope without leave, from this Island taking with them the Boat the Property of a Mr John Brambles of this Island. And upon receiving advice from a

Mr Martine of the Island of St Eustatius informing us of the Arrest and Detention of the said Slaves did Hire and dispatch the Aforesaid  Sloop for the Purpose of bringing them to this Island.  So help me God.


(signed and sworn)

Ed. Semper

James Phipps Shiell. (Attorney to the Representatives of James Neave, Deceased)

Dudley Semper


APPENDIX VII.   Notes on the Name Horsford. [25]


Samuel “Sammie” appears to have been a natural son of one of the members of the wealthy Horsford family of Antigua, where he was born. He is not included in the extensive “Pedigree of Horsford” listed in Oliver’s book The History of Antigua. This strongly suggests that he was from an illegitimate line. Sir Robert Marsh Horsford was Chief Justice of Antigua at the time of Samuel Horsford’s birth, having taken this office following the death of John Shiell, son of Queely Shiell, in 1847. Whether Sir Robert had any relationship to Sammie is unknown.


The three sons of Sammie and Augusta all attended Bedford Modern School, (according to school records provided to Harold Billings by the Registrar), residing at “Matson House”. When Phipps died in 1947, neither Reginald nor Leo was mentioned in his obituary, as were Cyril, Olive and Muriel, so it is likely that they were deceased by that time. (One of the two had in fact died by the time the family firm was sold in early 1929, per Billings).


When Sammie died in 1913 The Times of London provided a major obituary for him  (December 20th, page 11c)


The Hon. Samuel L. Horsford, of St. Kitts, died in London recently, aged 64. Mr Horsford, who was born in Antigua in 1849, received his commercial training in that island and migrated to St. Kitts, where he succeeded to the mercantile business of the late Captain J.H.H. Berkeley, and became the agent of many of the principle sugar estates in the island. His ability and public spirit were recognised by his appointment to be a member of the Legislative Council of St. Kitts-Nevis and the Federal Council of the Leeward Islands in 1894, and in 1911 he was nominated a member of the Executive Council of the Federal Establishment, on which he sat until his death. He proved a keen debater, and a strong advocate of economy in public affairs and of representative government.  A staunch Freemason, he had filled all the offices in the Mount Olive Lodge of St Kitts, and he was for many years a member of the West India Committee and the West Indian Club in London. The Canadian Government appointed Mr Horsford Commercial Agent for the Dominion of Canada and he represented St. Kitts-Nevis at the conference at Ottawa in 1912, which resulted in the reciprocal trade agreement between the Dominion of Canada and a majority of the British West Indian Colonies.  He was married to Miss Sheil (sic), of Montserrat, who, with five children, one of whom has attained the distinction as a throat specialist, survive him. Mr Horsford will be greatly missed not only in St. Kitts, where he was a general favourite, but also in this country.


The funeral service will be held at College Chapel, Swiss Cottage, at 2 o’clock on Monday, and the interment will be at Kensal Green.


As Harold Billings notes, the company of SL Horsford & Co. Ltd on St Kitts grew, in the 21st century, into one of the major corporations in the West Indies.  While located on St. Kitts, it handled a major series of business enterprises and supported soccer teams and various cultural and civic activities. The Shiell family interests in the firm were sold in 1929.


APPENDIX XXXII - The Name Dowdy on Montserrat.


a.                The name Dowdy was to be found early on Montserrat and Sergeant Daniel Dowdy, Dermond Dowdy and John Dowdy junior were recorded on a census record of 1677-8.[26]


b.               The name is also found on St Kitts in the mid 18th century. Isaac the son of John Dowdy and his wife Ann was born on 22 January and baptised 13th February 1757. On Feb. 16th, 1758 John, the son of John Dowdy junior and Elizabeth, was buried. Thomas, the son of John and Mary Dowdy was born at Palmeto Point and baptised on June 23rd, 1765. [27]


c.                A Peter Dowdy was one of the owners of the 75 ton brig Peggy registered in Montserrat in 1784 and which put in at St Kitts in June 1784 and January and April 1785. Peter and John Dowdy owned the 15 ton schooner True Blue and Peter Dowdy was also part owner of the 100 ton brig Grace during the same period.[28]


d.               The minutes of the Montserrat Council for 1787 contain a reference to a Nathaniel Dowdy and also to “Mrs Crosby having represented to the Board, the great difficulty she labours under from subsidising  three destitute orphans, the children of the late James Dowdy” [29]


e.                A 1799 inventory of the personal estate of Matthew Dowdy junior appears on page 178 of “Ireland’s Only Colony; Records of Montserrat. A 220 page typescript held by the Library of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London.[30]


f.                 In 1823, the brothers Dudley and Michael Joseph Semper foreclosed a mortgage on the property of Sarah Dowdy. She had put it up as security for a loan from the Sempers to one of her relatives, who was also kin to the Sempers. When the loan was not paid, the Sempers claimed Dowdy’s property. Fearing destitution and arrest, she fled with her 20 slaves on an uncleared vessel to the Dutch island of St Eustatius pursued by Dudley Semper. Mrs Dowdy was defying the laws abolishing the transportation of slaves between islands but the Sempers appear to have conspired with their common kinsman to do her out of her property.[31] The slaves were captured in January 1824 and returned to Montserrat, including a child slave Priscilla.[32] There is a possibility that this child was the mother of Matthew Dowdy Shiell and that the father was Customs Officer James Phipps Shiell.[33]



g.                Matthew Dowdy Shiell born 18th September, 1824.[34]


h.                Slave claims 29th Feb. 1836.  John Joseph Dowdy £60-16-2 (Claim 214)                                                     Peter Dowdy £143-4-1 (Claim 215)


i.                 A group of men appeared before Montserrat Council in 1842 charged with beating Richard Dowdy who was on watch at Fort Barrington.[35]


j.                 John and Antony Dowdy are owners of freehold land in Plymouth valued at £200.[36]


k.                The 24 ton schooner Jane was built in Montserrat by Anthony Meade in 1850 and registered the same year by the owner, Matthew Dowdy Shiell, a tailor of the Parish of St Anthony (Town of Plymouth). Jane was later registered in Barbados in 1851.[37]


l.                 The only ship registered in Montserrat in 1852 was the 59 ton schooner Agnes, formerly registered at Barbados May 11th 1852 but transferred to the ownership of Peter Irish and Matthew Dowdy Shiell, described as Merchants of Plymouth. [38]



APPENDIX XXXIII - The Blake family of Montserrat.


The West Indies branch of the Blake family seem to descend from John Blake, Mayor of Galway in 1646.  His 2nd son, Henry, emigrated to Montserrat in 1670. Henry later sold his share of the estates to his brother John who died in 1692 leaving a daughter Catherine, who married Nicholas Lynch of Antigua.


Other members of the Blake family associated with the West Indies were –


Patrick Blake of St Kitts who married Mary Ann, daughter of Andrew Bodkin of Montserrat, leaving one son,


Martin Blake of St Kitts. Martin married Sarah, daughter of Dominick Trant.


Andrew Blake of St Kitts married Marcella French and died in London in 1760 leaving issue.


Sir Patrick Blake married Annabella, daughter of Sir William Bunbury and had one daughter and 2 sons.


Sir Patrick Blake, of Montserrat and Langham, Co Suffolk, officer in the 10th Dragoons, married Maria Charlotte Phipps on 12-8-1789 and died without issue on 27-7-1818. (Caribbeana, page 68 and 74.) The Phipps family was very prominent on St Kitts and in England.  Many members were knighted and Sir Constantine Phipps (1655-1723) became Lord Chancellor for Ireland (1710-14)


Sir Henry James Blake, brother of the above, married 13-2-1794, Louisa Elizabeth, daughter of General Hon. Thomas Gage and had 4 children, Sir Henry Charles, Admiral Patrick John, Rev William Robert and James Bunbury Blake.


At the time of slave compensation in 1836 a number of Blakes were noted as receiving compensation. Elizabeth Burt Blake received £75-18-9, Elizabeth Blake £97-11-2, Susannah Blake £45-12-2, Isabella Blake £70-19-8, Henry Blake £321-18-7, Henry Blake and William Harnett £283-18-4, John Blake £68-9-0, Mary Browne Blake £83-13-2 and Martha Blake £34-4-2. It is not known if these Bakes were white or colored but they were certainly "middle-class" enough to each own a number of slaves.


One branch of the Blake family was, by 1850, one of the largest property owners on Montserrat but Priscilla’s relationship to this family is unknown.  Her father had possibly once been a Blake family slave. The absence of Priscilla’s father William from the list of those compensated possibly indicates that the family were either too poor to own a slave or had been liberated so recently themselves that they did not consider slave ownership a proper thing. 


[1] This date appears in a letter from MDS to Phipps in 1887, reminding him of his birthday.  (See Harold Billings M. P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years, 2005)


[2] The date of death is known from letters by Harriet Shiel to her niece Olive Horsford, and is confirmed by Montserrat death records.


[3] See chapter on James Phipps Shiell in this book.


[4] See chapter on William Shiell (1785 -1853) in this book.


[5] See chapter on John Shiell in this book.


[6] See chapter on Queely Shiell in this book.


[7] See Appendices  III, IV & XXXII


[8] See Appendix V.


[9] In a letter to his sister Augusta in 1895, many years after he had left Montserrat for London, Phipps demonstrated this lack of family background knowledge quite clearly:

“ By the way I want to know the name of my father’s mother and also the maiden name of our old Granny. Would you write and let me know, and if you yourself don’t know, try and find out for me. It is from the old folk, darling, that we get all we are; they fiz in our blood, and beat in our brain; it is they who stand at my shoulder and dictate to me the very words I am now writing”.  (See Billings, M. P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years.)


[10] As evident from his letters and early business acumen.


[11] Biographical data provided in writings of his son M. P. Shiel (“About Myself”).


[12] Documents associated with the purchase of 24 ton schooner “Jane” in 1850 (BT 107 562)


[13] It is possible that Priscilla’s father, William Blake, was a tailor and that MDS “married the boss’s daughter”. Certainly it has never been explained how MDS came to be able to afford to buy a small ship so soon after his marriage to Priscilla.


[14] Montserrat Shipping Register (BT 107 568)


[15] Priscilla Blake was born April 13, 1828 and died April 14th 1910, aged 82 years. Her marriage date is just a guess based on the fact that Matthew would not have been free to marry until he had finished his indentures as a tailor (probably 1845 at the earliest) and the assumption that he would need to work for a couple of years to be able to afford to marry and support children. Their oldest known daughter Augusta was born in 1852 but in those days of high infant mortality there may have been at least one child before Gussie.


[16] The Blakes were an extensive family on Montserrat (see Appendix XXXIII). Most of the old white families also had their colored descendents amongst which her father William, was almost certainly numbered.


[17] Quest for Redonda by A. Reynolds Morse, printed privately in 1979.


[18] From Harold Billings M. P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years. (Roger Beacham, Austin, Texas, 2005)


[19] For further details of the Horsford family see Appendix VII.


[20] Montserrat historian Dr. Norman Griffin, in a letter to the author (RCS) in 1974, said that he was told this by Charlesworth Ross himself.


[21] From Billings, M. P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years.


[22] This was presumably a portrait photograph and indeed, in Morse The Work of M. P. Shiel-Update, page 552, it appears above the mantelpiece in a photograph taken of Shiels literary executor John Gawsworth. Regrettably the portrait has now vanished without trace.


[23] Letter from Harriet to her niece Olive Horsford and burial records, Parish of St Anthony, Montserrat.


[24]  A. Reynolds Morse The Works of M. P. Shiel Vol. I. 


[25] From Billings M. P. Shiel: A Biography of His Early Years


[26] Caribbeana, by T. Savage English, Vol 2, p.316


[27] Supplement to Caribbeana


[28] CO 243 1


[29] CO 152 66


[30] It is now also available at


[31] From The White Minority and Emancipation in Montserrat, by Riva Berleant-Schiller, page 277.


[32] Cust 34 502


[33] See Chapter on James Phipps Shiell in this book.


[34] Letter from MDS to his son dated 24th Sept 1887.


[35] CO 7 73


[36] BPP Vol. 45, 1848


[37] BT 107 562


[38] BT 107 568


Copyright © 2006 By Richard Shiell and Dorothy Anderson.

Used with permission of the authors.

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