[To quote Charles Francis Jenkins in his book ‘Button Gwinnett‘, “It has been necessary in far too many cases to use such expressions as ‘it would appear’ or ‘it is probable’ or ‘it seems likely'”. Like Jenkins, I have tried to adhere to known facts but Button Gwinnett proves to be very elusive when it comes to survivng records of his life.]
Button Gwinnett was the third child born to his parents, the Reverend Samuel Gwinnett, senior, and Anne, his wife. Samuel Gwinnett had married Anne Emes, the widow of Fulke Emes, in 1728. They had two children before Button: a daughter called Anna Maria (1731-1745) and a son named Samuel (1732-1792), who became an Anglican minister, like his father. Samuel and Anne went on to have four more children after Button: Thomas Price (1736-1736) and Robert (1738-1738), both of whom died in infancy, followed by Emilia (1741-1807) and John Price Gwinnett (17–?-1773). The baptism of the latter has not been found as yet but is believed to have taken place before that of his sister, Emilia.
The exact date of Button’s birth is unknown but it was usual to baptise babies at around the age of one month, unless they were sickly at birth, in which case they would be privately baptised at the earliest opportunity. Button Gwinnett was baptised, according to the St Catherine’s parish registers, on the 10th April 1735. There is no reference in the register to a private baptism so it is assumed that Button was born a healthy baby, in or around March 1735. His unusual forename was given to him in honour of his godmother, Barbara Button.
This register entry creates a mystery as the church of St. Catherine had been demolished during the 1650s and the second church of that name was not built, albeit on the same site, until the 1860s so the actual baptism must have taken place in one of the surrounding churches, such as St. Mary de Lode, St. Nicholas or St. John the Baptist.
The second question posed by the St Catherine’s register entry is why the record should be in the St. Catherine’s parish at all, when Samuel was the vicar of Down Hatherley, a small village just north of the city of Gloucester. It is thought that Samuel and Anne had a town house in the city at that time and Anne would have been staying there to have access to the best care when her child was due. If the town house were in the St. Catherine’s parish that would, at least, answer the second question.
Having recently checked some of the rental records of the Diocese of Gloucester and the Gloucester Borough Council, it is apparent that Samuel did rent property within the city. This would explain why the baptisms of his children took place in several Gloucester parishes. Generally, it is not yet known where the family actually lived but it is known that Samuel was renting a house at 10 College Green in 1741.
So Button grew up in the city of Gloucester with his brothers and sisters and probably travelled to Down Hatherley with his father at various times. At some point, the family were joined by a young relative, a girl called Arden Price, whom Mrs Gwinnett had taken in to the family home.
Around the age of seven, it is most likely that Button attended a local school. He obviously had a good education, given his later political career. Tradition records that he went to the College School, now called the King’s School, which was then held in the schoolroom in Gloucester Cathedral. His older brother Samuel was recorded in the admission register in 1739 when he was 7 years old but there is no similar entry for Button. However, that is probably because the register was not completed properly at the time; there are few or no entries for the years between 1740 and 1748.
It has also been suggested that Button was a chorister at the Cathedral but a check of the Treasurer’s Accounts for the relevant period proves this to be untrue – the choristers were named every year and the amount they were paid was recorded. Button was not one of them.
Button’s father, Samuel senior, is believed to have attended Glasgow University where he gained his M.A.; his older brother, Samuel junior, went to Oxford University after he left school, as did several other members of the Gwinnett family, but there is no evidence to indicate a university career for Button. Tradition has it that he went to Bristol to work with his uncle, William Gwinnett, who was a grocer in the city. He does not appear to have been officially apprenticed to his uncle as no record has been found but there is a record of Button Gwinnett being apprenticed to John Weston Smith, an ironmonger from Wolverhampton, on 2nd May 1754. When this happened, Button would have been 19 years of age, which was very late to begin an apprenticeship – most took place when the boy was 14 years old.
So why would Button suddenly move from Bristol to Wolverhampton and start an apprenticeship with an ironmonger at such an advanced age? Maybe his uncle, William, felt he needed a broader training. Perhaps Button showed an interest in trading across the Atlantic Ocean; William had travelled to America at least twice in the 1720s and was believed to be trading with the new world but by 1754, he was approaching 70 years of age. Perhaps he was planning to retire from the merchant’s business. Maybe William had contact with John Weston Smith through his trade at Bristol docks. Not enough is known about William’s life to be sure of why Button left Bristol but there is no doubt that he did go to Wolverhampton.
It was in Wolverhampton that Button met the girl who was to become his wife. She was Ann Bourne, the daughter of a local grocer, Aaron Bourne. On 12th April 1757, 22 year old Button applied for a licence to marry Ann and, one week later, on 19th April, they were married at the Collegiate Church of St. Peter in Wolverhampton. Since apprentices were not permitted to marry, it is assumed that Button’s apprenticeship to John Weston Smith had ended.
The next record relating to Button Gwinnett was created on 24th October 1757 when he was admitted as a Freeman of the City of Gloucester, as had been several other members of the Gwinnett family, including his older brother, Samuel, junior. The entry merely names Button and states that he was the son of Samuel, a clerk. It does not record that he had completed any apprenticeship, nor does it state that he paid ‘a fine’ or was admitted as a freeman ‘by gift’ of the council. Presumably he was admitted based solely on the fact that he was his father’s son.
During the next five years, Button and Ann had three children, all daughters. Amelia was baptised in St. Peter’s church, Wolverhampton on 27th February 1758, followed by Ann who was baptised there on the 14th May 1759. Both of these girls died young: Ann died first and was buried in December 1759 in the churchyard of St. Michael and All Angels in Tettenhall, just outside Wolverhampton. Her older sister, Amelia, died a couple of years later, in March 1762 and was buried close to her sister. Two months before Amelia’s death, Button’s wife, Ann, had given birth to their third daughter, Elizabeth Ann. It must have been a very difficult time for the young family.
Button began to widen his horizons and looked towards trading with America on his own account. Details of the next few years are vague, on the whole, but we do know that he had received a legacy of £100 in the will of his godmother, Barbara Button, in 1755. Perhaps this gave him the wherewithal to invest in shipping.
There is a record of Button’s part ownership, with Matthias Neale, of a brigantine called Recovery, which had been registered in Barbados on 20th January 1764. It weighed 60 tons, had a crew of 5 and no guns. That year, the ship carried ballast from Havana, in Cuba, to Bridgetown in Barbados, under its master, John Mills.
By the 7th September 1765, Button, described as ‘of Savannah’, had become the sole owner of a brigantine called Nancy. The Nancy was again 60 tons, with no guns but, this time, it had a crew of 8. It was registered in Barbados. Under the same master, John Mills, the brigantine had travelled from Pensacola, in Florida, to Savannah in Georgia with a cargo of groceries, medicines, tobacco, saddles, etc.. Two months later, with a new master, John Forster, the Nancy left Savannah for Antigua with a cargo of timber.
One year later, on 6th November 1766, the Nancy entered Sunbury in Georgia, from St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, with a cargo of sugar. By 25th June 1767, the Nancy left Savannah for Bristol, with a cargo of rice, deerskins, staves, tar and pitch, with Philip Conway as master and a new owner, John Powell of Great Britain. It is believed that the Nancy was confiscated from Button Gwinnett to pay for his debts.