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Ancestry of William Thackeray


Grandfather in India


William Makepeace Thackeray, writer of Vanity Fair, is a grandson of John Harman Becher.  Harman has arrived in Calcutta in 1779 or early 1780 as a writer for the East India Company.  His career prospers at first.


In 1786, he marries a local woman, Harriet Cowper.  By 1792 they have three children: a son John, who dies young, and daughters Harriet and Anne. 


John Becher  m  Ann Haysham



              John Harman Becher  m  Harriet Cowper





                                   Anne  m(1)  Richmond Thackeray

                                          m(2)  Henry Carmichael Smyth



     William Makepeace Thackeray

In 1793 Harman becomes Registrar of the Provincial Court of Appeal and Circuit, Calcutta Division.  Later he is promoted to be Collector of the 24 Pergunnahs.


This post (later occupied by Thackeray's father) is of historical significance.  Whereas most privileges enjoyed by the East India Company were granted by the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765, this one dates from the aftermath of the Battle of Plassey in 1757.


The Company were also given control over an area south of Calcutta, called the Twenty-four Parganas, from which they could collect revenue to defray their military costs.

  From New Cambridge History of India II.2


Birth of Aunt Maria


In October 1795 Harman Becher's wife Harriet is in England.  How do we know?  Because her fourth child, Maria, is baptised in Bury St Edmunds on the eighteenth.  No mention of who carries out the baptism.  Is it the local priest?  Or could it be Maria's uncle Michael, now head of the local grammar school?


Bury’s parish register says Maria was born "on the sea" on 14 March.  Information received in April 2009 shows her embarking for the voyage on the Manship on 1st February.  Assuming these dates are accurate, it is remarkable that she should leave for England so late in her pregnancy, while an earlier theory that the child’s father is not Harriet’s husband will have to be discarded.


The purpose of the voyage is likely to be bringing the children to England for their education.


When a child reached four or five years of age, he was sent to England, and the mother often accompanied her infants because of her ill-health or to supervise their education in England.

From Suresh Chandra Ghosh, The British in Bengal (ISBN 81-215-0819-3).  Ghosh also says the cost of passage is “£500 or more for a family cabin for the single journey”.

The Company’s ships held a position analogous to that of the great transatlantic liner nowadays: their galleys, in particular, set a new standard of marine cookery.  The cook might have served his time “in one of the first Tavern Kitchens in Town, and when the ship was in port, London Aldermen would not disdain the Captain’s invitation to dine on board.

  From J.M. Holtzman, The Nabobs in England (New York, 1926)


Last years of John Harman Becher


Around 1797 Harman's career goes suddenly downhill.  So does his marriage.  He and his wife separate: the next we hear of her is as main beneficiary in the will of Captain Charles Christie, an officer in the Indian service – her lover, presumably.


During the period of separation from his wife, Harman (now, according to Thackeray's biographer, "out of employ") lives in what is evidently a bachelor apartment in Writers Buildings, Calcutta.  Here in 1798 he entertains his cousin Henry Bell Cort, who exhibits paranoid symptoms.


Harman makes his will in 1799, and dies in Calcutta the following year.


Mother’s early years


Harman’s daughters grow up under the watchful eye of their grandmother, widow Ann Becher, in Fareham.  Grandmother objects when the fifteen-year-old Anne forms a romantic attachment to Henry Carmichael-Smyth, who has seen service with the army in India: we speculate elsewhere on the reason for her objection.  She goes to extraordinary lengths to stop the liaison, confining Anne to her room and eventually practising a cruel deception on both of them, which leads to a dramatic dénouement several years later.


Shortly afterwards, Anne’s mother turns up and decides to take her two eldest daughters with her to India.  Ann’s beauty causes a stir in Calcutta.


In India she had been accounted "one of the most beautiful women of her time"...  There was a style about her that gained her recognition as a personage wherever she went...  Nor was her character less remarkable than her person.  Its key, perhaps, was what her grand-daughter described as "her almost romantic passion of feeling."  She was incapable of regarding any person or subject dispassionately; her sympathies were always deeply and earnestly engaged.

  Description of Harman Becher's daughter Anne, from Ray's biography of her son William Makepeace Thackeray.


One of those stirred is young Richmond Thackeray, who discards his Indian mistress to win Anne’s hand in marriage.  William is their only child.


Then comes a fateful encounter between Anne’s husband and a young army officer, whom he invites home for dinner.  “You must meet my wife.”


But they have already met…


What that dinner was like no words can describe.  After what seemed an eternity, Anne and Captain Carmichael-Smyth had a moment to themselves, and in a low trembling voice she exclaimed: "I was told you had died of a sudden fever."  And with bitter reproach he replied, "I was informed by your grandmother that you no longer cared for me and had broken our engagement.  As a proof, all my letters to you were returned unopened.  And when in despair I wrote again and again begging for an interview, you never gave me an answer or a sign."

  From G N Ray, Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity.


Anne’s marriage is never the same.  It terminates (mercifully?) in her husband’s death from fever.  She waits a decent 18 months before marrying Carmichael-Smyth.  Meanwhile young William is packed off to England, where he soon meets his Becher relations and makes a notable discovery.


A family portrait


In the low-pitched front parlor hung the pictures (a Sir Joshua Reynolds among them) of earlier generations.

From Thackeray's description of his great-grandmother's house in Fareham High Street, quoted in Ray's biography.


After a long period during which the subject of the Reynolds’s picture was unknown, new information has come from “writings by Thackeray's eldest daughter Annie”, identifying it as of his great-grandmother Ann Becher.


Yet, in a supposedly complete catalogue of Reynolds portraits, compiled in 2000 and based on known portraits by the artist (backed by his record of sittings and payments), there is no record of this one.  Two deductions can be made.


First, the portrait, left by Thackeray’s (unmarried) great-aunt Anna Maria Becher to her nephew Alexander Bridport Becher, has disappeared.


Second, it was not painted at Reynolds’s studio in London.  The most likely location is at Hagley Hall.  Hagley underwent a notable transformation at the beginning of the 1760s.  There are reasons to suppose that Reynolds was invited to see this marvel.


Biographies of Alexander Hood say his portrait was painted by Reynolds at Hagley in 1763.  The Reynolds catalogue also mentions a portrait of Hagley owner George Lyttelton seen by a visitor in 1766, though there is no other record of this portrait and it is likely that it was destroyed in a fire there in 1926.


This suggests that Reynolds visited Hagley in 1763.  Maybe Ann Becher’s was another portrait he painted during the visit.


The Bechers were probably living only a few miles away, at Kidderminster, at the time.  But there is a big question whether they could afford Reynolds’s prices, quoted in the catalogue as 100 guineas in 1763, 150 guineas in 1764.  In 1766 the Bechers reckoned they didn’t have enough funds to fight a legal case over the estate of Ann’s uncle Jeremiah Attwick, and there’s no reason for their fortune to deteriorate between 1763 and 1766.


One possibility is that someone else paid for Ann’s portrait, as reward for a service the Bechers performed.



Thackeray-Cort link


I wade through six volumes of Thackeray's correspondence in search of a possible reference to Cort or any of his descendants: a four-volume set published in 1946, and a two-volume supplement in 1994.  Since they are out-of-county loans from the local library, I have to read them, in limited time, in the order in which they arrive.  Sod's law: in the last volume I read, there it is...


This comes to say plainly that I am very happy indeed that you wrote to me: and shall be delighted to renew an old connexion; it will give me the greatest pleasure to know Dr. Carpenter and I had rather be asked to your family dinner than to the very finest banquet you could possibly devise for me.

  From letter of Thackeray to Cort's granddaughter Louisa Carpenter, 26 March 1846.


Thackeray’s expression “old connexion” shows that he has met Louisa before.  It is easy to conjecture how this connection has arisen.


In 1826 Thackeray’s mother Anne and her husband Henry Carmichael-Smyth, having left India a few years earlier, settle at Larkbeare in Devonshire, mid-way between Exeter and Honiton.  At this point two of Henry Cort’s children, Harriet Dowell and Louisa Powell, are a few miles away in Exeter.


Consider Anne’s experience of her father.  Parted from him at the age of two, she will have heard tales of his earlier days from his relations in England.


But one of the few people close by who have known him in India is Harriet Dowell.  What’s more, Harriet’s husband, like Anne’s, has seen army service in India.


It would be surprising if Anne hasn’t kept in touch with Harriet; in the course of which she will have met Harriet’s sister Louisa and their children.


Thackeray spends most of his holidays from school (Charterhouse) and university (Cambridge) with his mother at Larkbeare: most likely source of his acquaintanceship with the future Mrs. Carpenter.


The 1846 correspondence also shows that Thackeray recognises a family link, while there is reference to a dinner “at Mr. Evans’s”.  Since Frederick Mullett Evans is Thackeray’s publisher, we can conjecture that he is also publishing work by Carpenter, and has held a dinner for some of his authors.


Most likely Louisa is not present at the dinner, but when her husband mentions meeting Thackeray there she recognises an old acquaintance and determines to invite him to her house.


At the time her husband has attained more eminence than Thackeray, who is merely a writer appealing to a limited readership.  Carpenter, on the other hand, is Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution, and already a Fellow of the Royal Society.


The collection of correspondence does not reveal whether Thackeray does dine with the Carpenters in 1846.  But two years later he replies to another invitation to visit.  By this time, however, he is becoming known as the author of Vanity Fair, which has been appearing in serial form: a name to drop to one’s friends!


So what can we suppose about Thackeray’s knowledge of Henry Cort?


It’s most unlikely that he has never heard of Cort during earlier encounters with descendants like Louisa.  Presumably he has also been spun a story of how Cort was deprived of the just rewards for his labour.  No evidence of this from the surviving correspondence, however; nor of any involvement by Thackeray in the attempt to obtain restitution in the 1850s.  A pity, since his advocacy would have brought the case to a wider audience.


Carpenter, however, is involved in the attempt, at least to the extent of signing the Society of Arts petition of July 1856.  Perhaps he and Thackeray have lost contact by this time.  Certainly Thackeray is visiting the USA between October 1855 and April 1856.


Another matter for curiosity is whether Thackeray is ever aware of the activity in Guiana of Cort’s sons William and Frederick.  There is certainly evidence of contact between Thackeray and his mother’s brother-in-law James Carmichael Smyth, who becomes Governor of British Guiana in 1833, not long after its formation from the colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo.


Thackeray-Becher links


Apart from his mother, most family correspondence is with his father's side.  But contacts are evident with grandfather Becher's siblings Anna Becher and Elizabeth Turner; also some of Elizabeth’s descendants (notably Richard Bedingfield, whose son will be christened Richard Thackeray Bedingfield), and Alexander's son Alexander Bridport Becher.


Tell Aunt Becher I have bought her - But I will not say what it is for fear of diminishing that delightful suspense and agitation wh a present of such extraordinary value and beauty must needs occasion.

  From letter of William Makepeace Thackeray in Paris to his mother, 6 August 1829.

We went to the Bedingfields' (delicious rencontre!)...  The evening passed off with a splendid festival at Captn Bechers, where the Bedingfield family were present.

  From letter of William Makepeace Thackeray to Charlotte Ritchie, 9-11 June 1845.


Another of Alexander's sons, Henry Corry Rowley Becher, has moved to Canada.  Letters to him from Thackeray, while visiting America, in 1852 and again in 1856, reply to invitations to visit.  On both occasions Thackeray agrees to come while in Canada, but evidently doesn't manage to fit Canada into his itinerary.




Early life of John Becher

John Becher’s family

Bechers in the American War

Lyttelton-Becher connections

Attwick and Burges families

The Burges will tangle

Henry Cort’s family

The furore of the 1850s


Life of Henry Cort