BLACK HISTORY MONTH 2021
Written by Volunteer Rod White, discover more about the Comissiong family who lived at 21 Brighton Street, Barrow-in-Furness between 1908 & 1916.
The life & times of Joseph Ernest Comissiong: Vickers' Shipyard first black engineer?
Most Black people who came to Barrow in the Edwardian period were passing through; members of a ship’s crew, itinerant land labourers, or artists and musicians who appeared at the town’s theatres. Few made Barrow their home; the Commissiongs were unusual in that they settled here. Joseph Commissiong, the head of the family, might well have been the first Black engineer in Vicker’s Shipyard.
The below, by social historian Rod White, provides some fascinating insights into the lives of Joseph, and his parents, siblings and children. A note of caution: the ages between censuses, or from different sources, are not always consistent.
The first records of the Comissiongs in Barrow
Comissiong is an unusual family name. On Ancestry, it is most commonly recorded in Grenada in the West Indies, from where it has spread to other parts of the West Indies, and also to the USA and Canada. Over the years, Census enumerators have had a great deal of difficulty spelling the family’s name correctly, as have the transcribers for Ancestry. (see below) (such mistakes were not uncommon, English surnames were also often misspelt).
Joseph Ernest Comissiong was one of the earliest BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) residents in Barrow, as the following details from the 1911 Census shows. It lists him living with his family at 21 Brighton Street, Barrow in Furness, where he resided from at least 1908; he had appeared in the Barrow and District Yearbook for that year, and was listed every year until 1916.
1911 census 21 Brighton street, Barrow-in-Furness
Joseph Ernest Comissiong, born in 1857, experienced much tragedy in his younger years. His father, a doctor, along with his mother and two siblings, arrived in Peterborough on 25th June 1858. In 1860 Joseph’s 23-month-old brother Walter managed to get hold of a bottle of hydrocyanic acid from a shelf in his father’s surgery, drank it and died. Joseph’s brother Herbert was born without the full use of his legs. Another brother, Arthur, died in 1865, aged five. His mother Mary Ann Comissiong died aged 36 on 24th July 1870, leaving four children. Joseph’s sister, Ada, died in Bradford in 1860, aged 19, only weeks after Dr. Comissiong filed for bankruptcy. [i]
Joseph Ernest Comissiong was recorded on the 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 Censuses. In the 1871 Census he (misspelt Comisiong) was listed a 14-year-old Boarder at 10, Nene Parade, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, where he was a Scholar, along with two other Boarders, though they are girls aged nine and four. The records state Joseph was born in Peterborough, Northants.
Joseph is probably the Joseph Samuel Comissiong (aged 4), born Tenbury, Worcestershire, in the 1861 Census (census recorders also often wrote down the wrong first names). Joseph’s family was listed as living at 26, Lincoln Road, Peterborough, Northants. In the house were his siblings, Ada May Evalina Comissiong (6), born Streatham, Surrey, and Edward Charles Augustus Comissiong (1), born in Peterborough. Their parents are Mary Ann Comissiong (26), no birthplace recorded, and Joseph Watson Comissiong (29), Member of the Royal College of Surgeons London, General Practitioner, born Grenada, West Indies (note: the Ancestry transcription gives the family name as ‘Commessing’).
Joseph's Later life
Joseph Ernest Comissiong married Rachel Ward in Drypool, Yorkshire, on 6 April 1882. Although born in Scotland, Rachel was living in Drypool, near Hull, by the time of the 1861 Census, where she is aged 7.
The 1893 Kelly’s Directory of North & East Ridings of Yorkshire had Joseph Ernest Comissiong living at 6 Myrtle Villas, Holderness Road, Hull. In the 1899 version Ernest (no Joseph) Comissiong is at 106 Holderness Road, Hull, which may be the same house.
By the 1901 Census, Joseph and Rachel are listed as living at 63 Harrington Street, Cleethorpes, in Lincolnshire. All their children are shown as living at home: Edgar (16), Dora (13) and Elizabeth (12), as well as Sarah Annie, Amy and Maud/Alice – six in all. Five were born in Hull, with the eldest, Annie, born in Middleton, Yorks.
Rachel Comissiong died aged 64 (?) on 28th October 1918 at Stockton, County Durham. There is a fetching photograph of her on an Ancestry Family Tree (see right).
Joseph Ernest died on 11 April 1934, aged 77, living at 28 Rockcliffe Road, Middlesbrough. Administration of the Will shows that £158, 9 shillings and 11 pence was left to Alice Maud Comissiong, (note reversal of forenames). She is listed as ‘Spinster’ – unmarried.
Sarah Annie Comissiong married a John H. Tiltman at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Barrow in 1911. Their son, Richard Comissiong Tiltman, was registered in Barrow in 1914.[ii] Sarah Annie Tiltman died on the Wirral, Cheshire, in 1963. According to a family tree on Ancestry their son, Richard Comissiong Tiltman (bor 18th March 1914), died in Bebington, Cheshire on 16 March 2012.
Amy Kennedy Comissiong married Ernest Gibson in the second quarter of 1924, in Stockton, County Durham. In the 1939 Register (this was compiled to allocate ration books; and to see who was eligible to be conscripted) the family was living at 10, The Grove, Middlesbrough. Ernest Gibson (born 28th March 1892) was listed as an ‘Agent for a Veterinary Chemist’ – and an A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) Clerk. Amy K. Gibson (born 28 December 1892) is listed as on ‘Unpaid Domestic Duties’. Amy Kennedy Gibson of 16 The Grove, Brookfield, Middlesbrough, died on 23rd November 1977, leaving £2,035 in her will.
Elizabeth Rachael Comissiong married Robert Ernest Carter at Trinity Presbyterian Church, School Street, Barrow, in 1911. At the time of the 1911 Census, Robert Ernest Carter was living at Pant, Llanymynech, Shropshire, and working for his father as a ‘Grocery and Provisions Dealer’. By this time Elizabeth and Robert were already married. Dora Comissiong, a visitor at the time of the Census, is recorded as working in the Hospital in Barrow. According to the family tree, Elizabeth was born 3rd January 1889 in Hull, and died 14th June 1984 in the USA. Elizabeth and Robert’s daughter, Maisie Comissiong Carter, was born 6th July 1912, and died in Middlesex 30th August 1977.
Dora Comissiong (misspelt Commisiong) married William Eadie at Trinity Presbyterian Church, School Street, Barrow, in 1915.[iii] In the 1939 Register shows her living with her husband William Eadie (DoB 10 June 1870), a Physician and Surgeon; examiner of military recruits, at 33 Park End Road, Workington. Dora Eadie (DoB 4 September 1889) is occupied with ‘Unpaid Domestic Duties’, and something barely legible about British Red Cross Hospital supplies. Dora died on 5th May 1988 at Purley Surrey, leaving £20,751. Her husband William had died many years before in Edinburgh, 28th February 1942, leaving his estate to Dora.
Maud Comissiong is listed in the Barrow Borough Council Education Committee’s books as an Uncertificated Teacher at Holker Street Council School each year from 23rd August 1910, on a salary of £40 per year, up until at least the end of 1915. She transferred to the Girls’ Department on 22nd August 1911.
Alice M. Comissiong was living as a lady’s companion at 86 Kimbolton Road, Bedford, at the time of the 1939 Register. Her birthdate is given as 7th April 1891, and she was companion to 76-year old Amy A. Roberts, living on private means. Alice died on 13th June 1984 (aged 93) at 16, The Grove, Brookfield, Middlesbrough. Her estate was “not exceeding £40,000” (National Probate Calendar, 1984)
It is possible that Joseph Watson Comissiong came to England at an early age, in spite of what is written in the newspaper account below. A Joseph Comissiong, aged 10, was recorded a scholar in Ecclesall, Sheffield, in the 1841 Census. He is alongside scores of other students, most born in Yorkshire, in what is identified a few pages earlier as a Wesleyan School.
Wikipedia has: Wesley College, a school to educate the sons of the laity, opened in 1838 in new buildings designed by William Flockton on Glossop Road, Sheffield. It was founded by Rev. Samuel Dousland Waddy (1804–1876) to ‘supply a generally superior and classical education, combined with religious training in the principles of Methodism’ and was initially called the Wesleyan Proprietary Grammar School.
Joseph Ernest’s father is listed in the 1876 Harrod and Co’s Directory of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire as a Surgeon, Boroughbury. In the 1890 Deacon’s Directory of Leicestershire, Rutland and Northampton, he is Comissiong, Joseph W. (1862) M.R.C.S. Eng., Mill Field, of Peterborough.
Joseph Watson Comissiong (listed as Walter) became a Freemason in Peterborough in 1862. In the 1851 Census he is a Medical Student at King’s College, London. His name is mistranscribed Comifsiory. In 1891 it is even listed as Cowmisson.
The 1871 Census spells the surname Comsfeong, but Joseph Ernest and his mother were not present on the Census night at the Lincoln Road, Peterborough address. This is not surprising: his mother had died the previous year, and Joseph Ernest was at school in Wisbech.
Joseph Ernest Comissiong’s father was a pioneer:
Doctor Joseph Watson Comissiong was born in 1831 in Grenada in the West Indies and was Peterborough’s first black doctor. He travelled to England from Grenada with his friend John and studied medicine at King’s College in London, as the 1851 census recorded. By 1861 he was living on Lincoln Road in Peterborough and was married with three children, the youngest being born in Peterborough in 1860. He described himself as a ‘Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of London’ and as a General Practitioner.
He worked as a GP in Peterborough and often worked as a coroner on suspicious and unusual deaths in the city. He was connected to Peterborough Infirmary and was one of the stewards at the Infirmary Ball in 1864, which was run to raise money for the institution. He was also chosen as the public vaccinator for Werrington and Walton in the same year.
In his spare time he was a keen musician, a member of a local brass band and the Amateur Dramatic Society. He was also a member of the Freemasons from 1862 in St Peter’s Lodge and a member of the local Engineers Volunteer Corp, as was Dr Thomas Walker.
He died on 12th April 1894 and local papers marked the occasion by stating ‘he was almost the idol of the New England people, who went so far as to propose buying him a horse and carriage. He was most generous in his disposition and he was greatly respected by the poor.’ A statement on his funeral read:
‘Mr J W Commissiong, surgeon of Peterboro’, died at Millfield, Peterboro’, on Thursday week. He had practised in the city for many years. He held the commission of surgeon to the Peterboro’ Enginner(sic) Volunteer Corps, was also medical officer for the Railway Men’s Club, and was an accomplished musician. The funeral took place in the cemetery on Tuesday, and was attended by a large number of spectators. Many of the members of the N. E. V. Corps, including Major Deacon and Dr Cane, attended in uniform as a mark of respect to their late officer, and a great many of the deceased gentleman’s former patients were also present to witness the obsequies.’
Joseph senior’s life was, however, not without its troubles:
From the Peterborough Advertiser, April 1860, and a website on Peterborough.
Doctor Joseph Watson Comissiong was a much loved member of the Peterborough medical support network. He ran his own practice, as well as providing surgery, working as a ‘man midwife’, working as a coroner and being the vaccination officer for Werrington and Walton. However, his life was not one of ease and enjoyment, but of difficulty and tragedy.
Dr Comissiong arrived in the city on 25th June 1858 with his wife Mary Ann, daughter Ada and sons Joseph and Walter. They would have another three children whilst in Peterborough, but tragedy stayed close to their door. Their son Walter sadly died at the age of twenty three months, a few weeks before his brother Arthur was born. Dr Comissiong’s surgery was in his family home and his children often ran into the surgery from the kitchen. On one occasion Walter helped himself to a bottle of hydrocyanic acid which was in a cupboard. The nursemaid heard him scream from the kitchen and found the boy face down and frothing at the mouth. He died swiftly, a verdict of accidental death poisoning being reached at the inquest. Arthur preceded the birth of his brother Herbert, and of his sister Mary Ann. Herbert was born without the use of his legs, being described as lame in the census. Shortly after Mary Ann’s birth, Arthur died at the age of five in 1865.
Five years later on the 24th July 1870, Mary Ann, the wife of Dr Comissiong, died. She was 36 and left behind a husband and four children. Four years later, whilst in Bradford, eldest daughter Ada died at the age of 19 only a matter of weeks after Dr Comissiong filed for liquidation. The reason that we know the exact date he had arrived in the city is that he already had a stream of debtors following his every move before he arrived, this information being published in the paper. His debts were considerable and remained with him whilst he lived in the city.
By the 1881 census Dr Comissiong had moved to a smaller residence and was benefiting from the services of a housekeeper, who remained with him through to the 1891 census. Whilst many couples cohabited under the pretence of being an employer and housekeeper, there is no evidence to support this was the case with Joseph and his employee. He died aged 63 in 1894 and had a well-attended funeral.
Of Doctor Comissiong’s three surviving children, Joseph moved to Yorkshire where he became a marine engineer with his wife and children, Mary Ann married and lived in Peterborough and Herbert gained employment as a wood merchant’s labourer in the city.
I have been unable to clarify certain information about Joseph Watson Comissiong’s parentage, but another source provides the following:
An unsourced online family tree gives Joseph Thomas Comissiong as born in Grenada in 1781, the son of Domingo Comissiong (or Comissione, a sail maker from Genoa, Italy) and Margaret (“Peggy”). In his will, written in 1797 and proved in 1799, Domingo Comissiong bequeathed to his son Joseph Thomas Comissiong and daughters Fanny and Cinderilla [sic], and to Margaret their mother, all his property real and personal “to wit my houses lands messuages tenements and slaves my wharf and the new buildings lately erected” to the four of them share and share alike. Should Margaret marry, the bequest to her is to be replaced with one shilling.
Joseph Thomas Comissiong had eight children with Mary Noel St Hilaire, including Domingo Comissiong (the younger, q.v.). The marriage record of his eldest son Joseph Thomas Comissiong junior, in Stepney, England, in 1850, gives Joseph Thomas senior’s profession as sail maker. Joseph Thomas junior at the time was a collector of customs. According to the same family tree, Joseph Thomas Comissiong senior died in 1852 in Grenada.[vi]
Was Joseph Watson Comissiong one of the legitimate or illegitimate sons of this (older) Joseph Thomas Comissiong? Joseph Thomas Comissiong of St George’s, Grenada, is listed as owning between 1 and 7 slaves on returns for various dates between 1817 and 1834 (Ancestry) and received compensation of £130, 14 shillings and 7 pence.[vii]
Inheriting slaves was not a common occurrence for people who were black or mixed-race, during the time slavery was allowed,, but it did happen in some instances.’
[i] (Peterborough Advertiser 7th April 1860 p6)
[ii] Cumbria Birth, Marriages and Deaths – Cumbria BMD.
[iii] Cumbria BMD and family tree on Ancestry.
[iv] References on Joseph senior’s death:
Stamford Mercury, Friday 19th February 1864, p1 col 1
Peterborough Standard, Saturday 14th April 1894, p5 col 7
Stamford Mercury, Friday 20th April 1894, p4, col 3
1851 census, Middlesex, St Pancras, Gray’s Inn Lane, 11, slide 9
1861 census, Northamptonshire, Peterborough St John the Baptist, District 13, slide 30
[v] Peterborough Advertiser 7th April 1860 p.c. and https://ourjourneypeterborough.co.uk/story/dr-comissiongs-misfortunes
‘Family Chollet/Chollett/Chollette in USA’ by Reynold Chollet, public member tree on Ancestry.com.
Ancestry.com, London, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754-1921 [database online].
[vii] Grenada 15 Claim Details, Associated Individuals and Estates 5th Oct 1835 | 5 Enslaved | £130 14s 7d
MORE ABOUT BLACK HISTORY MONTH IN CUMBRIA
Anti Racist Cumbria: “Tackling and ending racism through action and education to create a forward-thinking and actively anti-racist Cumbria; free from prejudice and systemic inequalities.”: https://antiracistcumbria.org/