The Mysterious John Hillier

on Tuesday, 07 May 2013. Posted in Wiltshire People

While working on the SEEME Wiltshire Black History Project I was checking through some leads to an early black presence in the county, when a couple of lines about the death of a black cook sent me on a journey through the archives to find out about him and his family. The Salisbury and Wiltshire Journal reported on 22nd January 1848:

“Died, Jan. 18, at Laverstock, the well-known cook, Hilliar (a man of colour), who for many years was in the employ of the late Dr. Finch, surviving his master but for a few days. He was very much attached to his master, and it is generally believed that the death of Dr. Finch preyed on his mind, and thereby hastened his dissolution.”

On the same page was a piece about Mrs Finch widow of Dr Finch, proprietor of Laverstock House Lunatic Asylum. The parish records of Laverstock Church gave me his full name John Hillier and age as 65. The death certificate confirmed he was a cook and had died of rheumatic gout and influenza.


I could not find him in the leather bound Laverstock House register and at first on the 1841 census. The 1824 parchment articles of partnership for the asylum, wills and deeds for property were very informative about Dr Finch and his family, but not about John Hillier. I was unable to find a birth or baptismal record for him either. After an extensive search of the 1841 census I found him, his wife Elizabeth and family, more importantly it stated that he was foreign (but like everyone on that census, his age was rounded down). It is likely that he was born a slave, but how he arrived in Wiltshire is still a mystery.  John and Elizabeth married in Salisbury in 1818 and some of their children were baptised in Laverstock. On the 1841 census there are eight children, so there could be descendants of John and Elizabeth still living in Wiltshire.

I was able to track their son Frederick John Hillier from his baptism in 1835, marriage in 1865, the baptisms of his children, census returns and work records, which led me to Southampton in 1901 where Frederick and his wife Elizabeth were living with their daughter. He seems to have devoted most of his life to service in a work house and asylums, caring for the vulnerable.

If you are a descendant or know about this family we would like to hear from you.

Jane A Mills
MA Heritage Management student

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