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The Annesley Abuduction: The Story that inspired ‘Kidnapped’

As he was pushed through the doors of The George on Dublin’s Bow-Lane, the boy did not need to guess who would be standing within. Dick Annesley was at the bar, with two men dressed as constables at either side. Annesley quickly identified the boy as the vagabond who had stolen his silver spoon. The “constables” bundled him onto a coach and drove down the banks of the River Liffey to George’s Quay. He was then rowed out to the fishing village of Ringsend where he thrown upon a 100-ton ship bound for the American colonies at first light. Dick Annesley did not stick around to watch the ship sail. The boy was his nephew, otherwise known as James Annesley, 5th Baron Altham and heir to the extraordinarily wealthy Earl of Anglesea. With the boy gone, that inheritance was now his.

The abduction of 12-year-old James Annelsey, known as Jemmy, was a brazen and shocking affair, even by the standards of the 18th century. The scandal remained secret until, after twelve years in North America, the boy persuaded his superiors of the authenticity of his remarkable birthright. His return to Ireland sparked one of the most controversial trials of the Georgian Age. Although young Jemmy was to be the muse for many authors, most notably Robert Louis Stevenson, his epic story had not been told of its own accord until the publication of Roger Ekirch’s extremely readable and intricately researched new book, ‘Birthright – The Story that Inspired Kidnapped’.

According to Ekirch, the first of the Annesley family to arrive in Ireland was Captain Robert Annesley, a swash-buckling Elizabethan adventurer from Buckinghamshire who acquired 2,500 acres in Co. Limerick during the Munster Plantations. His son Francis was a personal favourite of King James I who created him Viscount Valentia and appointed him Vice-Treasurer of Ireland. Francis’s son Arthur brought the family to giddy heights when, in return for orchestrating the Restoration of Charles II to the British throne, he was created Earl of Anglesea and given ownership of huge estates in Ireland, Wales and England. The Earl became one of the most powerful men in 17th century Britain owning, amongst other things, the largest private library in the land.

By the 1720s, a succession crisis loomed for the Annesley family. The incumbent Earl was not producing children and his vast wealth was thus destined to spin away to the head of another branch of the family, namely Arthur Annesley, 4th Baron Altham, the father of Jemmy.

Baron Altham was an Anglo-Irish rake, addicted to gambling, sport and lavish, drink-fuelled dinner parties. His lifestyle brought him into such disgrace amidst London society that he fled to Ireland where he took up residence at Dunmain House on a 400 acre estate just south of the inland port of New Ross. The Baron actually owned a good deal of New Ross at this time, as well as 1,800 acres in Co. Meath. However, any income he might have derived from these lands vanished instantaneously as he continued to spiral up his debts, hosting dinners, dances and hurling festivals in Wexford.[i]

While Altham’s debts were a talking point in society, he was perhaps rather less concerned by them because he remained heir apparent to his phenomenally wealthy cousin, the childless Earl of Anglesea. Indeed, should the Earl die, the hard-drinking Baron stood to inherit four titles (including the Earldom) and vast lands (including 20,000 acres in Co. Wexford), with a combined income in excess of €1.25 million a year in modern money.

In April 1715, Altham was blessed with an heir when his wife Moll gave birth to a son called James at Dunmain. However, less that two years later, further disgrace enveloped the Annesley household when the Baron allegedly surprised Moll in bed with a local gentleman, Tom Palliser. A servant struck off Palliser’s earlobe in the ensuing scuffle and Lady Altham was sent packing.[ii] The Baron and his small son Jemmy left for Dublin and never returned to Dunmain.[iii]

During the 1720s, Altham became involved in an elaborate fraud selling revisionary leases to his Wexford and Meath tenants. These leases required the signature of the Baron’s closest kin, namely Jemmy. However, as Jemmy was too young to legally give his consent, this was therefore impossible. And that is when Baron Altham began telling potential buyers that his son had died or that he was, in fact, illegitimate. His cohort in this horrible fraud was his only brother, the utterly unscrupulous Dick Annelsey, a former soldier and practicing bigamist who had done time in London for highway robbery before moving to Dublin.

The fraud did not fix Altham’s debts. Ultimately it set him and his younger brother against each other, not least when the Baron ordered another man to beat Dick up. Just months later, in November 1727, Altham was taken ill and died with his mistress by his side. It seems entirely plausible that he was poisoned, and quite possibly by Dick. Six months later his son Jemmy was dispatched to the colonies.

As it happens, Jemmy Annesley had been cast out onto the streets of Dublin four years before his kidnap. Always ‘naturally inclined to low company’, his dissolute father had fallen in with Sally Gregory, a beautiful but ruthless Dubliner. Sally evidently disliked Jemmy from the start and, expressing a desire to start a family of her own, convinced Altham to send the boy to a ramshackle boarding school south of the river in Dublin City. The youngster quickly ran away from school and, abandoned by his father, began living on the streets, sleeping in doorways, working as a shoe-boy and running errands for Trinity students. He was living with the family of John Purcell, a butcher based on Arran Quay, when he learned of his fathers’ death.

Jemmy made his way to the Baron’s funeral at Christ Church Cathedral where he revealed his identity to a number of mourners before running away in tears. His presence was a great inconvenience to his uncle Dick who had been assuring people the boy was long dead and was quietly preparing to lay claim to the family title. But when the King-at-Arms got wind of the boys’ existence, he refused to certify Dick’s title.

Some weeks later, an attempt to abduct Jemmy was foiled when Purcell fended off the kidnappers with his cudgel. However it was only a matter of time before Jemmy was sighted alone in Ormonde Market, captured and spirited away to America as an indentured servant. Purchased by a wheat farmer, he spent the bulk of the next ten years in Delaware. Once he had earned his freedom, he enlisted with His Majesty’s Navy in the Caribbean. He was assigned to a ship where, by chance, his fellow crew included an old school friend and a servant of one of his late father’s cronies. Together they convinced Admiral Vernon of Jemmy’s treacherous fate. His dream of returning to Ireland now seemed increasingly likely.

Jemmy’s return to claim his birthright became the talk of coffeehouses and drawing rooms across Britain and Ireland, long before his ship docked in England in October 1741. It came as a momentous blow to his uncle Dick Annesley, now Earl of Anglesea, who was already engaged in a series of legal disputes with other Annesley cousins over land ownership.

The soap opera played back into Dick’s favour when Jemmy was suddenly arrested and charged with the murder of a poacher in May 1742. However, despite the Earl paying a number of witnesses to speak against Jemmy, his nephew was acquitted. Jemmy then sailed for Ireland where many more old acquaintances came forward to say they recognised him.

By 1743, uncle and nephew were facing into what was then the longest trial in British or Irish history. Jemmy narrowly avoided an assassination attempt but was badly beaten up by hired thugs at the Curragh. Ultimately the jury found in Jemmy’s favour but the Earl appealed the decision and sufficient doubt was cast over Jemmy’s case for the verdict to be postponed indefinitely. Jemmy spent the next thirteen years fighting for his cause, publishing ‘Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman Return’d from a 13 Year Slavery in America where he had been sent by the Wicked Contrivances of a Cruel Uncle’. He died of an asthma attack in 1760 aged just 44 and was followed within two year by his only son, 6-year-old Bankes Annesley. Bankrupt and bitter, Jemmy’s uncle Dick also died on Valentine’s Day 1761. What remained of the Annesley fortune passed to Dick’s son but, in a curious legal twist, the much coveted Earldom of Anglesea was now declared extinct.

‘Birthright – The Story that Inspired Kidnapped’ by Roger Ekirch is published by Norton.

[i] He was particularly passionate about hurling, following the team of the Colclough family who wore yellow sashes and went by the name of the ‘Yellow Bellies’, a name which Wexford hurlers retain to this day.

[ii] This may have been a complete charade, staged by Altham in order to oust his wife. When Palliser’s irate father demanded a duel, the Baron stealthily took a stagecoach to Dublin.

[iii] They briefly relocated to Clonmellon Castle in Co. Carlow.