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Footnotes to History

The Personal Realm of John Wilson Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty (1809–1830), a “Group Family”

Nigel Harris is a former senior lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Dundee and a direct descendant both of Croker’s father-in-law, Consul William Pennell and of his wife’s most scandalous niece, Rosina.

Footnotes to History brings a novel focus to social history. It is a study of a “group family” – an extended family closely structured through marriages that were either internal or with trusted associates. Its members strove cooperatively for their own mutual benefit. This kind of social entity evolved down the centuries, reaching its zenith in the early nineteenth century.

The family portrayed, the Pennells, provides a supreme example of such a united body. John Wilson Croker, his two half-nieces and his best friend all married into it. The size of this “group family” gave ample scope for marriages between cousins. Most men in it gained prestigious appointments through Croker’s patronage, but at the price of giving him their unswerving loyalty.

From diaries, personal letters, newspaper articles, Chancery papers and Government documents, Footnotes to History brings the character of family members to life and shows how they interacted. Their personalities are portrayed through a wealth of entertaining anecdotes recorded by their contemporaries. Discussion focuses on the family in the nineteenth century, but how it evolved is also described. With their varied occupations and far-flung travel, the people whose stories are narrated give insight into fascinating but little frequented byways of British social and colonial history, such as intelligence gathering in the seventeenth century and the Newfoundland cod trade in the eighteenth. Their direct participation in events included riding from Dorset to London to warn James II personally of the Duke of Monmouth’s landing and rescuing Marie Antoinette’s daughter from Napoleon. Footnotes to History takes us on a meandering journey through British history brought to life by the experiences of one family over more than two centuries.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-746-9
Hardback Price: £29.95 / $39.95
Release Date: August 2015
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-830-5
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $34.95
Release Date: August 2016
Page Extent / Format: 240 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No




Part I: William Pennell
1. Waterford and Bordeaux
2. Defending British Interests in Brazil

Part II: The Family
3. The Crokers
4. Portsmouth and Brest
5. Spendthrifts and Picture Dealers
6. Rio and the Afghan Frontier
7. Naval Reports, Oysters and Trout Flies
8. Merchants’ Wives: Brazil and Liverpool
9. To South America and St. Helena

Part III: Ancestors
10. Ship-Owners and Merchants
11. The Decline of the Newfoundland Cod Trade
12. Medieval Roots and the Restoration
13. Clocks and Clergy


Reviwed in the International Journal of Maritime History, February 2018; copyright Sage Publications

The numerous character profiles are thoroughly researched.
Reviewed in Parliamentary History, Vol. 35 (2016):

Harris traces the history of the extensive Pennell family, members of which are generally relegated to footnotes in historical accounts except Croker, who for more than 20 yeas was first secretary to the Admiralty and once famous as a politician, essayist, and literary critic. He shows how Croker used his patronage to further careers in his wife's family in return for their political loyalty. Among his topics are defending British interest in Brazil, spendthrifts and picture dealers, merchants' wives in Brazil and Liverpool, the decline of the Newfoundland cod trade, and clocks and clergy.

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