History matters – A life swapped for a pearl button …

… and a Darwinian connection in Walthamstow Village.

By Teresa Deacon







This bizarre and tragic story took place in the Village in the early 19th century, when Walthamstow was a rural parish in Essex. To put it in context, at this point in history slavery was still common around the world, the British were extending the Empire as never before and here in the Village, what’s now the local museum was a workhouse.

In 1829, Captain Robert Fitzroy, a scientist and officer in the Royal Navy, was on an exploration voyage on the HMS Beagle, navigating Tierra del Fuego, the southern-most tip of South America. A small whaling boat being used to survey narrow waters was allegedly stolen by locals. In retaliation, Fitzroy ordered several indigenous people to be taken hostage. Most managed to escape but four young Fuegians remained on board the Beagle.

Fitzroy decided to take the four Fuegians back to Britain as a social experiment to ‘teach them in the ways of Christianity and gentility’ and to return them back to their homeland so that they might ‘civilise’ their fellow natives.

They were renamed Fuegia Basket, a girl of 9, Jemmy Button, a boy of 14 (so-called as he had been ‘exchanged’ for a pearl button), Boat Memory, a male of 20, and York Minster, a male aged 26.

Boat Memory sadly died of smallpox on reaching Plymouth. Fitzroy paid for the remaining three to be driven by stage coach to Walthamstow, where he had a connection with the vicar of Walthamstow, the Reverend William Wilson. The three youngsters were apparently enthralled with the horses and carriages that took them on their journey and more so with the stone lion that once stood atop Northumberland House in central London, which they thought to be alive.

Rev. William Wilson had set up St. Mary’s Infant School in 1824 (pictured opposite – now the Welcome Community Centre at the back of the Squire’s almshouses), which is where they were educated. Rev Wilson lived in Grove House, a long-since demolished grand house on Grove Road, with grounds stretching back to Maynard Road. The young Fuegians may have lodged with him there and/or at The Chestnuts in Bishop’s Close, built in the early 19th century, which still stands today.

As well as learning about Christianity, the young Fuegians were taught English and practical skills, such as gardening, husbandry and carpentry. Fuegia Basket and Jemmy Button fitted into the community well and became very popular with the locals. Jemmy loved his western clothes, always wore gloves and became a bit of a ‘dandy’, never missing an opportunity to admire himself in any reflection. York Minster, the eldest of the group, didn’t fare so well as he had a very large physique and was unhappy being put in with infants.

Such was their celebrity that they were presented to the new King William IV and wife Queen Adelaide, who gave Fuegia Basket a bonnet
and other gifts.

A little more than a year after they’d arrived, it was discovered that the much older York Minster had become sexually interested in the much younger Fuegia Basket, who was still a child. In order to avoid a scandal and personal humiliation, Fitzroy decided to return them home. The locals had taken the three into their hearts and sent them off with a stash of gifts – including wine glasses, tea trays, butter dishes – all of which were unsuitable items for their home environment.

In December 1831, they returned home on the HMS Beagle, this time accompanied by the young Charles Darwin, an acquaintance of Captain Fitzroy, who was brought on board as a trainee pastor and naturalist. As it turned out, the research Darwin accumulated on this 5-year journey led to him writing Evolution of Species and later The Descent of Man.

In his account of The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin remarks that ‘Jemmy was a “universal favourite” who comforted him when he was seasick’. He also writes that ‘Jemmy’s hair was neatly cut and he became distressed if his well-polished shoes were dirtied’.

Also on board was a trainee missionary who was to marry Fuegia Basket and York Minster as soon as they reached home. The repatriation didn’t go as Fitrzroy had planned. There was much looting of the Walthamstow gifts and the three soon reverted to their traditional way of life.

Reports filtered back over the years as to what had become of the trio. Jemmy married and had a son who made a trip to England in 1866. Reports also alleged Jemmy led a massacre of missionaries in 1859. York Minster was killed in a dispute, and his wife Fuegia died aged 44. Jemmy’s connection to Walthamstow has been recognised through a recent residential development in E17, which has been named ‘Button Lodge’ after him.

Sources: Walthamstow Past, David Mander, The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin, Local Studies Library, Vestry House, LBWF. St. Mary’s School image used with permission from Vestry House Museum, LBWF.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of “The Village” magazine.

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