MAY and OLIPHANT connection: Who was Isabella Oliphant?
Isabella Oliphant (bef.1774 – 1815) was the wife of Nathaniel May (1762-1830), Vicar of Leigh. Nathaniel May had been born at Brampton, Northamptonshire in 1762 and had been rector of Digswell in Hertfordshire, the son of Thomas May (d.1772), also a clergyman of Brampton. Nathaniel May had married Isabella Oliphant (in 1795) and in 1811 he became Vicar of Leigh until his death in 1830, when his son, Thomas May, took over. Isabella and Nathaniel had two children – Thomas and Jane. Jane never married.
A descendant of Nathaniel May contacted the Society. He had seen our website and was enquiring about Isabella May (nee Oliphant). In his research, he had a gap – the link between Isabella Oliphant and the Oliphants of Gask as described in Lawrence Biddle’s book “Leigh in Kent 1550-1900” and on our website. (This information has now been deleted from the website).
It had been the assumption that Lawrence Biddle’s findings were correct in his book and I had never sought to research the May family myself. But this query prompted me to have a look as the enquirer could find no connection between Isabella Oliphant the Lairds of Gask.
I first looked at what Lawrence had written in his book about Isabella Oliphant and then retrieved the file containing Lawrence’s notes from our archive. With this information, I then began to look at on-line records.
In Leigh in Kent, chapter 14, Lawrence had written:
Nathaniel May ‘on a grand tour of Europe, he met Isabella Oliphant, the younger daughter of Laurence Oliphant, the Laird of Gask. Laurence Oliphant had fought in the 1745 rebellion, becoming one of Prince Charles’s A.D.C.s He marched with him into England and was with him through the retreat from Derby till the Princes’ forces were finally defeated at Culloden on 16 April 1746.
After Culloden Laurence Oliphant fled to hills near Aberdeen and remained in hiding until he took ship to Sweden in Nov 1746 – as a result of months in hiding, he became asthmatic and leaving Sweden he moved south to Avignon and Toulouse and later to Paris.
After Prince Charles had declared that he was a protestant it became safe for Laurence Oliphant to return to Gask in 1763, but his asthma meant he still made long visit to the continent. It was probably on one of these visits that Isabella, who was accompanying her father, met Nathanial May. Nathaniel married Isabella, took Holy Orders and became Rector of Digswell near Welwyn until he was instituted Vicar of Leigh in 1811.
Nathaniel and Isabella had two children, Jane who was born on 5 May 1796 and Thomas who was born on 21 March 1798. Isabella was staying in Brussels in 1815 and attended the Duchess of Richmond’s “Waterloo Ball”, which took place on 17 June, the eve of the battle. The family say she was wearing a white satin and silk gauze dress heavily embroidered with gold thread. Some of the panels still exist and it must have been a very lovely and expensive dress.
The family tradition has it that someone very dear to Isabella, hearing the sound of guns, left the dance and was killed in the battle. Isabella never recovered from the shock and went into decline. She returned to Leigh and died ten days later. Her grave in Leigh churchyard records her death on 29 June 1815.
Lawrence goes on to quote Lord Byron’s poem “The Eve of Waterloo”. All very romantic, all very exciting family history and anecdotes.
Lawrence had done a lot of research: he had contacted members of the May family who had given him ‘family stories’ and ‘family memories’. However, it appears these were never fully investigated or verified with other sources: family stories often contain elements of truth, but can get distorted over time. Lawrence also contacted the Oliphant family – those descended from the Lairds of Gask as that is what he had been told. All the correspondence received convinced Lawrence about the claims about Isabella’s ancestry. But Lawrence did not have the easy access to on-line resources available to us today and may be forgiven for not researching or checking more fully.
1. The claim about the Waterloo Ball and Isabella’s presence there
I did ask myself, what would the wife of a Vicar of a small parish in Kent be doing there, how would she have been invited? The list of invitees to the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball is available on-line – and Isabella’s name is not there. In fact, most of the invited are ‘titled’ people, army people, with a few addressed as purely Mr and Mrs. The story of her attendance at the Ball comes from the family: it was included in some handwritten notes in the ‘May’ file, along with a photo of a piece of the dress which she is supposed to have worn to it. Although she does not appear to be an invitee, perhaps she was in Brussels, as Lawrence writes, at the time of the Battle and perhaps an acquaintance there had taken her to the Ball. It is claimed that ‘someone very dear to her’ had been killed, which caused her such a shock that she declined and died ten days later. When Lawrence Biddle found out the date of Isabella’s death – of 29 June – eleven/twelve days after the battle, he assumed that the family story must be right. We do not know who this ‘someone very dear to her’ was. There is a Waterloo Roll Call available on-line but as you can imagine it is very long. Looking at her Oliphant family tree (the new family tree now drawn up), any close relatives – such as nephews – would probably have been too young to be at the battle; or it may have been some acquaintance in and around Leigh? Perhaps we shall never know.
2. The claim, about her father being Laurence Oliphant and a descendant of the Lairds of Gask
This claim is easier to disprove, although it does not mean she was not descended from the Oliphants of Gask further back in time, or indeed another branch of the family. The name is very distinctive and of long Scottish descent. There was reference from the May descendants in the correspondence of a Gask connection and in typed notes written by Susie Isabella Hamilton (daughter of Henry May). Susie Isabella Hamilton had made these notes many years ago and they had been sent to Lawrence on 28 February 1988 by a Mrs McCanlis (the daughter of Susie Isabelle Hamilton) to compare with his own notes – I call them the May-Bell Descent notes. From these typed notes, we get a very potted ‘Oliphant’ genealogy:
‘The first ancestor of whom we have certain knowledge is Sir John Olifant who married the youngest daughter of Robert the Bruce. The next I know of is Baron Oliphant of Gask. He was out in the 1745 and sequestrated and retired to Holland where he died. Title lapsed but the estates were later granted to a younger branch which had remained loyal to the English. The head of that branch in mid-Victorian days was Laurence Oliphant, the author husband of a very prolific Victorian authoress. Two of his daughters were friends of my May aunts who always spoke of them as second cousins.
Baron Oliphant’s eldest daughter returned to Scotland and became Lady Nairn, the song writer. His youngest daughter, Isabella remained in Holland (where Baron Oliphant died in, I think Utrecht). Just before this, Isabella met a young Englishman, by the name Nathaniel May, who was making the Grand Tour … and after her father’s death she married him ….
There are many inaccuracies here, not only about the daughters of Laurence Oliphant but also about Laurence Oliphant, the author husband of a very prolific Victorian authoress.
However, with this information, Lawrence Biddle contacted Oliphant descendants linked to the Gask line and was referred to some books on the Oliphants of Gask. In his original letter to a Mr E Oliphant he included the information he had read and taken as correct from the May-Bell Descent notes by Mrs Hamilton. In addition he referred to the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball story. When Lawrence obtained a copy of the Jacobite Lairds of Gask, he found a list of seven children of Laurence Oliphant (1724-92), Isabella’s supposed father, and of the marriage to a Margret Robertson (1739-1774) in 1755. However, of the seven children, none of the four daughters was called Isabella. And through my own research, which Lawrence did not do, I managed to find all the baptisms of all these daughters at Perth, their full multiple names and all their marriages. But no Isabella.
Lawrence did not extend his research but made the assumption that perhaps one of the daughters had changed her name, or used the name Isabella, to explain her absence from the list of children. He did not appear to consider looking for a different family. With the anecdotes he had from the May family, including a snippet that Isabella did not marry until after her supposed father’s death i.e. (Laurence Oliphant died 1792; she married in 1795) led him to assume an erroneous connection.
In the May-Bell Descent notes, there were other inaccuracies. The notes say that Baron Oliphant’s eldest daughter returned to Scotland and became Lady Nairne, the songwriter: BUT she – Carolina – was not his eldest daughter, but his third daughter and she was born at Gask and married at Gask. Yes, she became Lady Nairne. It also says that his youngest daughter, Isabella remained in Holland, where Baron Oliphant died (possibly in Utrecht). But there is no evidence given for this. And as Laurence Oliphant (7th) is not Isabella’s father, the information has no validity.
The claim: head of that branch of the family in mid-Victorian days being Laurence Oliphant
3. The claim: head of that branch of the family in mid-Victorian days being Laurence Oliphant
The story, also in the May-Bell notes, about the head of the family in mid-Victorian days being Laurence Oliphant, the author husband of a very prolific Victorian authoress and two of his daughters were friends of my May aunts who always spoke of them as second cousins: this is also inaccurate for many reasons.
The title had lapsed at some point and may well have been granted to a younger branch of the family, but I do not think via the author, Laurence Oliphant.
In the National Dictionary of Biography (available via ancestry.com) there is considerable information on Laurence Oliphant (1829-1888), the author and traveller, but no mention of him being granted the titles and estates of Gask. He married late and twice, but there were no children: so it could not be his daughters who were friends of the May aunts. However, from his parentage, it says that he is descended from the Oliphants of Condie and Newton, Perthshire – not of Gask. However, this line – and the Gask line – both go back at least to Colin, Master of Oliphant, died 1513 Flodden.
A very prolific Victorian authoress did write a biography of this Laurence Oliphant’s life – to whom, according to her biography, he was also related. Her name was Margaret Oliphant Wilson (1828-1897), born at Walliford, Midlothian, who married her cousin, Francis Wilson Oliphant: she was known as Mrs Oliphant. They married in 1852 at Wirral. She was widowed in 1859. She had children: Margaret b. 1854; Cyril b. 1856; Francis b. 1859. The two boys did predecease her – and possibly the daughter also. Her husband, Francis, was said to be the son of Thomas Oliphant of Edinburgh, an ‘ancient but fallen’ family. He was a painter and designer of stained glass – hence not an author himself. However, as Margaret, her husband – and Laurence, the author – are related they are all descended from the Oliphants of Condie and Newton going back to Colin, Master of Oliphant, died 1513 Flodden.
Perhaps it was Margaret Oliphant that was being referred to in Susie Hamilton’s notes and her children were the friends of the May aunts – and second cousins?
On Wikipedia, it says that the title descended from Laurence Oliphant (d.1792), but it says through a female line. Today Laurence Kington Blair Oliphant of Ardblair and Gask is Chieftain of Gask in the female line.
However, this does not help in finding the connection – claimed by the May family – of Isabella to the Oliphants of Gask.
There is a lot of detail about the Oliphants of Gask and other branches of the Oliphant family available today on-line. But there is no Laurence Oliphant (1724-1792), Isabella’s supposed father, in the Dictionary of National Biography: only his father who died in 1767.
Therefore, after exhausting my search for Isabella as part of the Gask descendants, I found no link. She had no fancy, multiple name, she was just Isabella. There was no Scottish baptism. She did not appear to be a daughter in the family of Laurence Oliphant of Gask. So I asked myself why and extended my search away from Scotland. And there she was.
Who was Isabella Oliphant?
After spending time searching for Isabella Oliphant based on the information from Lawrence Biddle, without success, I started from scratch. The known information from Lawrence’s book was the birth dates of the two children which would give an approximate date of the marriage of Nathaniel May and Isabella, which Lawrence did not have in his book. Fortunately, on-line records were more than useful – and immediately told me that she belonged to a completely different family. I found the marriage at St Martin’s in the Fields on 7 April 1795. And what a revelation because recorded on the entry are multiple witnesses to the marriage that link her immediately into another Oliphant family.
On the Findmypast website we have the marriage:
Westminster Marriages: April 1795
St Martins in the Fields
Rev. Nathaniel May clerk of the parish of Hemel Hempstead county of Hertford bachelor and
Isabella OLIPHANT, of THIS parish spinster married in this church by me Rev. William Agutter.
IN THE PRESENCE OF:
Mary Oliphant (further research shows she is the wife of Campbell, nee Eade)
Annabella Oliphant; Jane May; Janet Oliphant; Helen Oliphant; Margaret Oliphant; Susanna Oliphant; Martha Oliphant; Anna Oliphant; John Eade
This enabled me to research around these various witnesses and to find Isabella’s parents and her grandfather on her mother’s side and find several Wills of the family.
Her father was a hatter of Cockspur Street, London. And the family did very well for themselves. She and her sisters were generously provided for by their grandfather, James Campbell’s, in his WILL where he left legacies to his granddaughters. She is not specifically named. But, I have found SIX WILLS of her siblings, the WILL of her father, James Oliphant and of her grandfather James Campbell above. Her mother was Elizabeth Campbell. In two of the WILLS, Isabella is named. All these WILLS, plus other genealogical information are now in our ‘MAY’ file. In her father’s WILL dated 1792 (proved January 1795) she is named as Isabella Oliphant (she did not marry until April 1795). The Will of Margaret Oliphant (her sister), died 1800 names Rev Nathaniel May as a beneficiary, she leaves him five guineas. And she leaves five guineas to her married sisters – and she names her married sister MAY here as well.
I have been unable to find a baptism for Isabella or her sisters and brothers: other than Robert d. 1856 and Anna d. 1845, they all died before the censuses enabling us to get a place of birth. But Robert died in 1857 and in the 1851 census he gives his place of birth as Middlesex, London. Not being able to find any of the baptisms at the moment on-line could mean that the records are not yet available on-line and would require a visit to the Metropolitan archives. They would probably have been baptised in a church in the area of their father’s business in Cockspur Street, between say 1747 (when their parents married) and Robert’s birth around 1775: a long period for poor Elizabeth Campbell to be having babies – 14 of them.
Therefore, what I have found out, quite simply, is that Isabella Oliphant is the daughter of James Oliphant, hatter of Cockspur Street – not Laurence Oliphant of Gask: BUT there is some interesting Oliphant heritage there somewhere and it would be fascinating to find out about it.
Any additional information would be welcome!
JOYCE FIELD (May 2018)
Lawrence Biddle: “Leigh in Kent 1550-1900”
Correspondence with the May and Oliphant families: in the Leigh Archive