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Letter From Chile

     My article appeared in the Family Tree magazine issue of December, 2008.
      I am grateful to the editor, HELEN TOVEY, for giving me permission to use it
and for practical help on other matters.

Pen nib

   Most of my ancestors were rural Welsh, sucked into the South Wales coalfield during the 19th century, so we were intrigued to find that one of them, James Coke, wasrecorded as a ‘gentleman’, and that he came from Edinburgh.

   We were impressed to find that some of our newly discovered distant relatives had looked seriously at the idea that James might have been descended from Edward Coke, the Lord Chancellor of England and a very famous defender of liberties before the English Civil War. The now-deceased husband of our third cousin had, in the 1950s, even been to the trouble of getting a photocopy of the confession, signed by Guy (Guido) Fawkes and countersigned by Edward Coke. Edward had been the presiding judge at his trial; a trial at which the evidence of a rather physical form of interrogation was plain for all to see in the shaky signature of Guy Fawkes.

     Heady stuff then, but it turned out to be nothing to do with our family. The two Cokes were not related in any way. James Coke, born in Edinburgh in 1759, was descended from a line of weavers originally from the parish of Inveresk and Musselburgh, just to the south-east of Edinburgh. The family had originally spelt its name ‘Cock’, and their money had been made largely by James’ father, Charles, who had founded the Drumdryan Brewery in the city’s Leven Street during the 1760s. The site is now occupied by the King’s Theatre, built in 1905.

     There must have been plenty of money in brewing, all the same. When James Coke came to Neath, South Wales, towards the end of the 18th century, he was accepted into the upper echelons of the local society. He was a solicitor, was a leading light in many local projects, and was heavily involved in the copper imports from South America. The copper trade was a prominent one in the Swansea Bay of that time; in fact this was the centre for the whole of the United Kingdom.

   After returning to Neath from North Yorkshire, where he spent a few years early in the 19th century, James was a veritable pillar of the local establishment. He served four times as Portreeve of Neath in the early 19th century (1810, 1818, 1819 and 1820). A portreeve was, roughly speaking, a precursor of both the elected mayor and the appointed clerk or chief executive in today’s local government. It also seems to have been a good way of getting local business and increasing one’s financial influence, incidentally.

Plaque outside The Old Town Hall, Neath

PLAQUE OUTSIDE THE OLD TOWN HALL, NEATH. Although commissioned when James Coke Senior was Portreeve, it wasn't completed until afterwards. .

   James married Jane Simmon(d)s, the daughter of a brewing family (the company later became part of the Courage group) in 1803. The Simmons family lived in Ty’r Symon, a large house in Lower Sketty, Swansea, that later became a Bible college. James and Jane had four children, including two sons. These were James Charles Coke, born in 1807, and Henry Simmons Coke, born in 1811. James Charles, the couple’s eldest child and my great- (x4) grandfather, seems to have been a bit of a handful.

   In 1826, so the family legend goes, Margaret Francis, a working girl (the daughter of a copper-worker, ironically enough) baptised in Haverfordwest in 1804, but now living in Cadoxton, Neath, was drawing water from a well along with a number of other women. They were gossiping, when one of the women noticed a ring on a chain around Margaret’s neck. In those days there was a custom (still common in many parts of the USA today) of marking an engagement by wearing the future wedding ring this way. Under pressure, Margaret admitted she was secretly betrothed to none other than James Charles Coke, ‘the gentleman’s son’.

   One of the women hurried off to tell ‘Lord Coke’ this alarming news. But things happened too slowly to stop James Charles’ plans. After an abortive attempt to despatch the wayward son to London ‘on horseback to finish his education’, the young couple went into hiding and married by special licence on 11 April 1826. James Charles declared himself to be ‘of full age’. In fact he was not yet 19 - he was born on 14 November 1807 and baptised on the following 9 May.

James Coke Senior, from an 1804 oli painting
James Charles Coke, from an 1847 photograph taken in Adelaide

FATHER & SON: James Coke Senior from an 1804 oil painting by I Brooks of London and James Charles Coke from an 1847 picture in Adelaide, believed to be one of the first taken in the South Australia colony

   He was disowned by his father but the couple went on to have a daughter, Maizet - an unusual Scottish name - baptised on 3 September 1827. One of the consequences of this episode was that James Charles broke his articles as a solicitor. He was never to complete them. Eventually, though, he was to receive some sort of forgiveness from his father. At least, James senior took both of his sons to Chile on a business trip in the early 1830s. Margaret Francis died and after a long period of being a widower - or what we thought was a long period - James Charles married his servant girl of just 23 years of age, Rebecca Dallemore, on 8 August 1870 at Swansea. The couple - James Charles was nearly 63 by then, and worked as the accountant to Swansea Docks Board from 1860 until shortly before his death in 1890 - had five children. The last of these was born in 1881, when he was 74 years old.


   Other members of the Coke family followed up a suspected Chilean connection, and my sister, Mary Hughes, was able to make contact with some distant Chilean relatives by post. She found that one of the presidential candidates in 1948 was Dr Eduardo Coke, a member of the family. But our greatest surprise was to discover, through these relatives, the existence of a direct descendant of James Charles Coke and his previously unknown Chilean wife. Gradually, with the aid of a wonderful letter from this lady, whose name was Gloria Coke Casanueva, and a lot of patient research - mainly by my sister, it must be acknowledged - we were able to piece the story together. James Charles Coke met and married a Chilean woman by the name of Elvira Nogueira, on one of his early trips to Chile. Elvira was the daughter of Ramon Nogueira, a Catalonian man who finally settled permanently in Chile and took up citizenship of his new country only in 1848. After the Chilean marriage, James senior disowned and disinherited his recalcitrant elder son once again. This time it was permanent: the father died in 1835.


Letter from Chile, written in 1983 by Gloria Coke Casanueva

The first page of the 1983 letter from Gloria Coke Casanueva

     Our Chilean correspondent told us that James Charles remained in Chile with Elvira, but we have evidence that he made several more trips between Swansea and South America between the 1830s and 1850s. The last one that we can trace was on the Conqueror, which docked at Swansea after a three-month sea trip from Coquimbo, Chile, on 11 July 1859. It carried a cargo of copper and copper ore. We had previously believed that these sea-voyages were business trips. Now we were sure that this was not their sole, or even their prime, purpose. We had thought that James had spent an uneventful time in Swansea and Neath in the middle of the 19th century. How wrong we were.

James Coke Park, Norwood, Adelaide
Mill in Norwood, operated during 1850s by James Charles Coke in partnership

TANGIBLE EVIDENCE OF JCC in Norwood: a modern photograph taken in James Coke Park and a sketch of the mill

   In 2009, we discovered that James Charles made a third marriage, in Australia. He married Hannah M Edwards in 1855. We had known that he’d also sailed to Australia, but had rather naïvely assumed that the visits there were strictly for business. In fact we found that he spent quite some time there in the middle of the century, giving every appearance of settling down in the country (at the time Australia consisted of separate colonies; some of them only recently founded). We found a record that he arrived at Port Adelaide in September 1848 as a cabin passenger on the Emperor of China, having previously visited Albany in Western Australia, then called ‘King George’s Sound’, and Sydney. With a partner, from 1853 he operated, and subsequently owned a large mill in Norwood, a suburb of Adelaide. Some places in present-day Norwood, like James Coke Park, are named after him. However, the business failed in 1857 and James left Australia, permanently, as far as we have been able to establish.

Coke family, showing Scottish descent

Simplified family tree for James Charles Coke
Courtesy of
Family Tree magazine

   We haven’t yet been able to trace any descendants of the Australian marriage, but since my ancestor went on to have a fourth family of five children in Swansea in the 1870s, we aren’t taking any bets against Australian descendants being out there somewhere. The expression ‘a wife in every port’ comes to mind. And James wasn’t even a sailor.

   There is a sad footnote to the Chilean part of this story. My sister wrote back to Gloria Coke Casanueva. There was no reply. She wrote again, and then for a third and final time, again with no result. She also contacted other people to whom she’d written before, and also failed to get replies. Perhaps there is an innocent explanation to it, but this all happened in 1983, when the unpleasant regime of General Pinochet was nearing its end. Some years later, I wrote a poem, also called ‘Letter from Chile’.


     One of the places it was published was in Argentina, in Spanish and English, in the magazine La Carta de Oliver. The translator, my friend Matiás Serra Bradford, told me that copies were circulated in Chile. It would be nice if Gloria Coke Casanueva, or someone who knew her, saw one of them.

Letter from Chile poem in English
Carta de Chile en Espanol

The two versions of the poem

                                 WHAT'S HAPPENED SINCE 2008?
       Many things! Most of the details given above have been verified by our our subsequent researches. However, James actually emigrated to Australia in July, 1840, sailing in the Fairfield. The voyage of this ship was from Gravesend, though it also docked at Plymouth before it left the UK. It looks as if James first daughter, Maizet, was left behind in Neath. In 1841, She was living with her maternal grandparents.


     The Fairfield reached South Australian waters on the 17th of the following December. James sailed with 'Mrs Coke'. Whether this was Margaret née Francis, Elvira née Nogueira, or some unknown person he had married (perhaps en voyage in a port such as Cape Town or perhaps this could have been with Hannah formerly Edwards, who wasn't actually his wife at that time) we haven't as yet been able to find out. We don't believe it was Elvira, who seems to have remained in Tomé, The wedding in Chile may have been of doubtful legality in any event. We have not been able to trace the death of Margaret née Francis in the UK.

       Whether the exotic voyage in the Emperor of China actually took place, or is the result of poor research we may never know. However, this record is now in the archives Norwood Council, Adelaide. Also the report that James Charles styled himself 'Captain Coke' seems a bit dubious. However it is interesting that his brother-in-law, William Llewellyn Powell, was a sea captain and in the 1840s, among other things, commanded the yacht carrying the Tsar of Russia back to Kronstadt from the UK. Still, so far as we know, James had no nautical experience.

       (Presumably the same) 'Mrs Coke' apparently died before 1855, when James Charles married Hannah Edwards in Sydney (why Sydney?). We cannot establish the facts because records of deaths in his home colony are inadequate . Remember, South Australia was only established as a (free; non-convict) colony in 1836.

       Hannah née Edwards may have died by 1857. At all events, she doesn't seem to have returned to South Wales with James Charles, who next surfaces living as a lodger in Aberavon (east of Neath, near to where his married sister and family lived). Another reason for James Charles' hasty departure may have been the financial failure of the milling business on the River Torrens at Hackney, Adelaide. He and his partner John Stevens had operated this in partnership since about 1853.

       We've found out numerous details about James Charles' life. For instance, while he was in Australia he was heavily involved in the shipping of exports and imports between there, Wales and Chile.

       Without doubt, though, the most interesting development has arisen from my contact with JASON SHUTE, who for many years has been a resident of Adelaide. Jason, a former baritone and orchestra leader, whilst researching his book The Man Who Became a Rock, was struck by the constant references he found to James Charles Coke, who coincidentally had been brought up in Jason's home town of Neath.The book, now published, was a biography of HENRY AYERS, the Premier of South Australia, for whom AYERS' ROCK was named (it has now resumed its ancient aboriginal name of ULURU). Jason discovered Coke and Ayers had emigrated on the same boat in 1840 and that their lives crossed in many ways. This included, for example, Coke and his wife looking after Ayers' eldest son for a while.

       We have shared much information for several years and, at the end of June, 2017 during his holiday in the UK, were pleased to meet with our wives and my sister for lunch in one of the Neath inns where James' father held council meetings. Recently, I have come to believe that James and Henry were related and am trying to research this.

Letter from Chile Tom East
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