Just Who Was Thomas Spencer?

Just about everyone in the Spencer Family would have heard stories about Thomas Snr being a member of an aristocratic family. The stories have simmered away for 150 years and the sudden interest in Dianna Spencer saw them resurface in the 1990s.

Recently, Annette Hill (Elizabeth descendant) provided some letters written in the mid 20th century which pretty much outline the story.

First though what can we actually say about Thomas'origins? The answer is not much! He and his new wife Mary arrived in Australia as assisted immigrants in 1841. There immigration documents tell us that Thomas was a native of Wicklow county Ireland, his parents were both dead, he could read and write, he gives his occupation as a farm labourer and that he was a protestant. Mary's immigration information gives a similar story. She is a native of Wicklow county Ireland, her parents are both dead, she can read but not write, her occupation is Dairy Maid and she is a protestant.

From later documents including death certificates we learn that Thomas was from Arklow County Wicklow and Mary was from The Vale of Avoca (The Avoca river runs into the sea at Arklow and the valley of the Avoca is called "The Vale of Avoca for about 20 miles upstream from Arklow.)

The protestant birth, death and marriage records for Arklow were destroyed in a fire in Dublin in 1922. So despite many members of the family searching both in Ireland and online, there is no certain trace of Thomas, Mary or their families.

So back to the letters: (There are links to the PDF of the letter transcripts at the foot of the story.)

Various stories are included in the letters;

  • Thomas was born in Surrey England
  • He was a member of a titled family
  • Mary was a maid to the family and they eloped
  • After he arrived in Australia there were advertisements posted in the Australian papers asking Thomas to make contact with the family in Ireland - which he ignored
  • When he was dying he asked his children to come to his death bed so he could tell them who he really was. - However John was at Cuttabunda and by the time he arrived Thomas could no longer speak
  • Mary destroyed all his family documents after he died so the secret could not be told
  • On his death bed Thomas asked his children to maintain the Sherwood name in future generations
  • A picture of the "Red Earl" published in a magazine was the spitting image of Matthew. (The Red Earl was the 4th Earl Spencer or Althorpe)

We can find no evidence of Thomas being born in Surrey in 1815 or 1816.

There are 6 or more titled families in UK with Spencer connections or part of their names. We cannot find Thomas in any of their family trees. The most likely are the Lord Fitzwilliams who were certainly major landholders in Wicklow at the time of Thomas' birth

Mary may have been a maid but there is just no evidence

Despite extensive searches using Trove there are no advertisements or stories asking a Thomas Spencer or any other possible name to make contact with a family in UK or Ireland. There is a request for information about a Thomas Spencer but he is described as a a convict who arrived in 1819 and his story checks out.

The deathbed story and Mary destroying the evidence are very convenient

Matthew in particular gave the name Sherwood as a given name to all his children and the practice has been followed by his descendants. There are a few other instances of Sherwood in other family lines. I recently asked a Matthew descendant who had a Sherwood given name what it meant. He confessed he had no idea.

There is some level of resemblance between Thomas Junior and The Red Earl (we don't have a good enough photo of Matthew), but it is hardly conclusive.
Photo left is The red Earl Spencer - Photo right is an overlay of Thomas Junior onto the Red Earl. The do have similar facial structure.

And then along came DNA research!

Recent DNA research is suggesting there is a distant link to the Spencers from Bedforshire. This family is in turn distantly related to the Althorpe Spencers.

This information is coming from DNA matches with Spencer relatives (4th to 6th cousins) in USA, as a number of the Bedfordshire Spencers left England in the 17th Century and went to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Virginia.

My guess, at this point, is that one of the Bedfordshire Spencers who did not migrate to the US colonies eventually ended up with family in Ireland and Thomas is descended from them. No doubt there will be more information and maybe even a clear link in the future. Interestingly there are Sherwoods in the same village in Bedforshire.

Download Mollie Spencer Letter Here

Download Mac Bridge Letter Here