Thomas Masters Usborne Europeans
Thomas Masters Usborne (standing, right). Courtesy: Archives of the 35th Battalion of the Royal Artillery, Karachi,1899

The first Chapter of the First Book of Moses, otherwise known as Genesis, begins with the verse: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”Chapter 5 of Genesis describes how Adam, the earliest ancestor, had lived 130 years before he had fathered a son, named Seth, and how Adam had lived another eight hundred years, spending a total of nine hundred and thirty years on earth, a part of the time after the Lord, in His flaming wrath, had driven Eve and him out from the garden of Eden. What follows in the Book of Genesis is a detailed account of the origins of the Abrahamic tribes, depicted generation by generation.

Through the years, there have been several scholars who have made it their self-imposed task in life to examine and record the detailed genealogy of their own, or somebody else’s family, from existing records, this being, in most instances, a labour of love rather than an imposition. This narrative examines the life and times of one such extraordinary chronicler of his own family history.

Philologists believe that the name Usborne may have been derived from the Old Norse name “Asbjorn”, a combination of “as” for “God” and “bjorn” for “bear”. According to The Norman People and Their Existing Descendants in the British Dominions and the United States Of America, the surname Usborne was first found in Kent where “this family descends from a Kentish branch of the family of Fitz-Osberne, seated in that county early in the reign of Henry VI, when Thomas Osberne appeared to a writ of Quo warranto for the Abbey of Dartford.”

The family name has been spelt in different variations down the years, a relatively modern version being “Usborne.” The family motto of this long line of Usbornes is reputed to be “Pax in bello”, which translates as “Peace in war”, a rather enigmatic slogan for such an ancient family to bear.

The present story may be said to begin on December 11, 1866, when the first male child was born at Surbiton, Surrey, in the household of Thomas Usborne, an Irishman from Limerick, educated at Harrow and Trinity, a brewer, banker, Justice of the Peace, and Member of Parliament for Chelmsford, and clearly a man of substantial means, and his first wife, Frances Alice, nee Hardcastle, whom he had married in 1863. The family tree shows a total of six brothers and six sisters in the generation of the child born in 1866.

The second child (and first son) was named Thomas Masters after his famous corn-merchant grandfather, and was baptised on February 10, 1867. The children grew up amidst a reasonable degree of wealth, father Thomas having inherited extensive landed property in Ireland, and the family business, from his own father. The 1891 census is found to have reported “13 indoor servants (governess, coachman, cook, lady’s maid, 2 nurse maids, 2 house maids, 2 kitchen maids, 3 below maids).” Outside, there were numerous grooms and gardeners. The estate was reported to have had its own gas works.

As has already been discussed on this forum, an East India College had been in existence at Haileybury, near Hertford, from 1806, with the primary objective of preparing prospective candidates for an overseas administrative career in colonial India. An Act of Parliament passed in 1855, however, relieved the East India Company from the onerous responsibility of maintaining the College.

Furthermore, following the rude awakening of the complacent British Lion consequent upon the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the Crown thought it prudent to nationalise the Honourable East India Company (HEIC), and the College was shut down in 1862.This resulted in a metamorphosis of the institution, and a new Haileybury College emerged in the shape of an independent Public School, initially for boys only, on the same site. The focus of new College, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, continued to be the preparation of the students for a career in Imperial service, principally in India.

Over the years, Haileyburians have been imbued by the ethos of service towards others, as exemplified by the College aim of “giving back something to Society”. Thomas Masters Usborne was educated first at Haileybury, later going on as a cadet to the Royal Military Academy of Woolwich, fondly referred to as the “Shop”, to be trained for a commission in the Royal Artillery.

Although finer details of his military career are not available, it is on record that he was part of the 35th Battalion of the Royal Artillery, serving at Karachi in 1899 with the rank of Captain, as the picture above shows.His military career also included active service in World War I in 1916 as a Sergeant-Major of the 75th Battalion, rising to the rank of Major. Usborne was to serve in the Royal Artillery from 1886 to 1921.

A keen sportsman, Usborne is said to have excelled at lawn-tennis and cricket from his Haileybury days. His cricket profile shows him to be a right-hand batsman and wicketkeeper. He had a positive role to play in Haileybury’s victory by an innings and 69 runs over Wellington College on his home ground in 1884, batting at No. 11 and scoring 11 and then making two crucial stumpings.

We next find him in the colours of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, pitted against the Royal Military College, Sandhurst in 1885. The scorecard shows him scoring 12, holding 2 catches, and effecting 2 stumpings in a 10-wicket victory for his team. He would doubtless also have represented his regimenton a number of other occasions, as his Royal Artillery portfolio hints at, but scorecards for these army matches are, unfortunately, not available to us. Suffice it then, to venture the opinion that he had been smitten by the quintessential English summer game at a fairly early age.

January 18, 1898 was to be an important date in the life of the 31-year-old Royal Artillery officer. It involved him tying the nuptial knot with Mary Florence Violet, daughter of Thomas William Vallance of Lynsted, Kent. The San Francisco Call of July 29, 1906, however, broke a rather disturbing story involving the contents of a mauve envelope that was to cause a major upheaval in the life of the then 40-year-old Artillery Major.

The letter in the envelope, written in first person, had spoken of Violet’s almost eight years of infidelity with a Captain Ernest Wright, one of the Major’s junior officers, and of Violet’s avowed intention of throwing in her lot with Wright in preference to the Major. She had mentioned her placing their only child, daughter Gloria, with her aunt. Well, the marriage was “dissolved”.

As has already been narrated in this forum by worthier scribes, the first of the two Bombay Presidency Matches of the 1892-93 season for the Presidency Cup, played in Bombay from August 26, 1892, had been the first ever First-Class cricket match played on Indian soil, the game ending in a draw after the second day’s play was washed out in its entirety.

All the cricket activity of Usborne spoken of earlier in this narrative had come from Second-Class games. He made his First-Class cricket debut in India, playing for Europeans against Parsees in the second Bombay Presidency Match of 1892-93. The second Bombay Presidency Match, played at Poona Gymkhana Ground later that season, then, was to be the second First-Class match ever played in India.

The Europeans had four First-Class debutants in their ranks, including Usborne, the designated wicketkeeper for the game. The Parsees put up a spirited performance in the game and won by 3 wickets. Usborne had scores of 10 and 0 batting in the middle order, and contributed in the field by holding 2 catches and making 1 stumping.

Usborne’s entire First-Class career, comprising 5 matches in all, was played out in India, with 1 match for Bombay and 4 for Europeans. In all, he scored 109 runs at 13.62, with a highest of 41* in his last First-Class game, in the Bombay Presidency Match of 1899-90, against the Parsees at Bombay Gymkhana. His performance behind the stumps included 4 catches and 3 stumpings.

This brief career in cricket was, of course, only one facet of the man. He was married a second time, to Helen Caroline, daughter of Henry Horton of Brentwood, the ceremony taking place on July 3, 1908, at St Paul’s, South Kensington, London. Helen died on July 5, 1932, and was laid to rest at Battersea Cemetery, Morden, Surrey.

Having retired from the Army in 1921, Usborne took up residence at Berry House, Chilham, near Canterbury, Kent. In his retirement, Usborne gradually became curious about the history of his own surname and family, and began researching the history of his ancestors, initially in a casual manner, but with all interest from 1920 onwards. Soon, he came to regard himself as the Archivist of the family genealogy.

What had started off as a mere curiosity about the antecedents of the family gradually became a passion and an obsession that ended, over a period of time, in two thick leather-bound volumes containing numerous family records and family wills, all transcribed with loving care by Usborne.

In his later years, Usborne was to make the following observation about his monumental family project: “The construction of a Family Tree which has practically no cohesion – by which I mean that a few odd near relations of the same name know one another and their more distant cousins and ancestors, but are not connected up — is a matter of some difficulty, much patience and no little expense!”

His extensive research into the family history from family Bibles, Parish records, statement of family wills, Bishop’s transcripts, and similar documents, ultimately led him to one Osbert Osborne, born 1405, and so through to the seventh generation of Osbert’s descendants, one Thomas Usborne, born 1614. With advancing age, Usborne’s eyesight grew weak; though the enquiring spirit continued to be as indomitable as before, he gradually became somewhat infirm.

He sought the help of Michael Gater, grandson of one of his cousins, Elizabeth Rachel, and was able to infuse enough enthusiasm about updating the family genealogy in the mind young man, resulting in Gater becoming a willing and enthusiastic collaborator in the project. Gater was to remark later: “The Major, as he was known to our family, carried out quite a lot of research into my branch of the family and a relative visited him in Chilham where the walls of his study were lined with pedigree charts. Unfortunately, he died before he had completed his work and was unable to establish a link with his branch of the family.”

The data compiled by Usborne was a medley of charts and copious annotations. It was left to Gater to collate all information and to set it out in the form of an easy-to-follow MS Excel sheet. By 2004, when the document was made public, the combined efforts of Usborne and Gater was seen to have resulted in a prodigious spreadsheet running into 1,886 successive records of an uninterrupted lineage of the family, from the marriage of Christopher Usborne to Katherine Grene in June 1521 right through to the demise of Ann Phoebe, wife of William Thomas Osborne, a forester and woodman on Drane Farm of Wrotham, in March 1921, each individual record being enriched by seven separate fields of information.

The assembling of the family historical records was not without its share of unusual incidents. In a personal letter written in 1979, to a female relative, one Thomas Usborne (born 1907) is seen to have remarked: “In 1928, a strange man appeared in our house and said he was the family archivist and could he have a look round to see if there were any archives for his collection. He did it in such a peremptory manner that I almost refused him entry. However I relented and let him in. His eye soon fell on our portraits of ‘the ancestors’ as we called them, not knowing, (or very much caring) who they were. Before he left he asked if he could have the portraits for his collection. I was so put out by his vulture-like appearance that I said ‘No’ … Ten years later I had a further request from Tom of Chilham to let him have the portraits … I agreed to let them go.”

Thomas Masters Usborne passed away on February 1, 1952 at his residence at Chilham. In his afterlife, having met first his Maker, he would no doubt have tried to interview his ancestors to obtain more detailed information about the Old Norse family that had later settled in Kent, before moving on to Ireland.