129: the Countee family of Leicester and Barnsley

From the late 1830s Americans of African descent had told audiences all over the British Isles about their experiences of slavery, speaking at meetings in chapels, town halls and the streets, and often selling Narratives — the income from these small booklets helping them survive in a strange land. The most famous was Frederick Douglass but there were many others. When US slavery was abolished it seems that most of these fugitives returned to America although others settled in Jamaica, Canada and West Africa, with one or two in Australia. Frail copies of their narratives have been republished and some have been put on line, in America. Some of these refugees remained in Britain, acquired skills and jobs from factory work (Joseph Freeman in Chelmsford) to medicine (William Peter Powell qualified LM in Dublin in 1857 and MRCS Eng in 1858, working in Liverpool hospitals). The exceptional Crafts – who escaped 1848 Georgia and reached England in 1850 – were a married couple. Their six children were born in England and one (William Ivens Craft) returned in the 1880s, married, and died in west London in 1926.

The very unusual surname of Countee attracted my attention and I noted Nelson Countee a fugitive slave from Virginia had addressed a temperance gathering in Leicester in July 1870. Since writing this page I accessed ‘Countee’ in 1860s British newspapers, to find that in the autumn of 1864 he was raising funds for a church in Ontario (Liverpool Mercury, 23 September 1864 p 6); in December 1865 and January 1866 he made anti-boozing speeches in London (South London Chronicle, 16 December 1865 and 20 January 1866) and in September 1865 and February 1866 he addressed a London temperance association (London City Press, 23 September 1865 and 3 March 1866). The Leicester picnic in 1870 was attended by one thousand ‘of the working classes’. Countee had spoken at a ‘crammed’ hall in Leicester that February and was again reported in Leicester in 1872. He was still talking of his slavery experiences in 1877 and 1879, but in Wales. Searching in the on-line listings of English registrations of births, marriages and deaths it was easy to see that he died by the summer of 1886. Francis Nelson Countee’s death was registered in Blaby, a suburb of Leicester. He was 53.

Reports of his talk in Derby in 1879, when he was billed as an escaped slave, noted his children were with him. His name appears in that computer listing (freebmd.co.uk) in the Leicester area and also around Barnsley in Yorkshire. A further examination strongly suggests these two Countee family groups were all his relatives, and the male line (and thus the surname) included a birth registered in early 1945. The 1871 and 1881 census confirm that his wife was Maria, a Londoner. She is recorded as dying in Leicester in 1922, aged 77.

Their male child listed as Charles William Countee was born in 1866/1867 in Leamington. Four other Countee children have been noted: Louisa Maria [born Banbury, 1869 and married in London in 1918 to James Forrest, she seems to have died aged 90 in Lancaster in the winter of 1958-1959], Mary Ann [Birmingham, 1872] and Lucy [born in Aston near Birmingham, 1875 and married to Ambrose Day in Leicester in 1901]. This latter information came from a descendant who made contact in late July 2014 who also advised that  Ambrose Day, a widower in 1947, married his deceased wife’s sister Florence (a widow) that year. Florence Countee’s birth registration is not located but she married William Carver Bott in Leicester in mid-1904. This fifth Countee child was named in the 1881 census, aged four.

At the beginning of 2016 this page attracted the attention of Elizabeth Stacey who was born and raised in Leicestershire but has spent her adult life in the U.S.A. Her grandmother’s mother was Mary Ann Amelia Countee, daughter of Nelson and Maria.

The son of the American was married in Wellingborough in 1887 but it is not certain if his wife was Ada Annie Cooke or Eliza Carter. There were grandchildren namely Frances Mabel Countee born in Leicester in 1887/1888 and married in Cheltenham in 1911, and William Nelson Countee who appears just as Nelson Countee, born Blaby in 1889 and married to Amy Page in Lanchester in 1911. William Nelson Countee and Amy Countee had at least five children, four born in Barnsley between 1914 and 1920/1921. He died in Barnsley, aged 33, in late 1923.

The Countee move to Barnsley seems to have been by the mid-1890s for a male who may well be William Nelson Countee’s brother George Frederick Countee was born there in the summer of 1895. George Frederick L. Countee died, aged 67, in Leicester in late 1962.

The five children of Amy and William Nelson Countee of Barnsley were Marion [born 1913/1914 and married to a Pepper in Barnsley in 1933], Frederick W. [born late 1914], Frances M. [born 1916], Vera F. born 1919 [and married to a Booth in 1939] and Charles F., whose birth was registered in the first quarter of 1921.

Other Countees appear in the computerised listings of births registered in England: Charles A. Countee, whose birth was registered in Barnsley in the first quarter of 1945. The surname and the location of the birth suggest he was the great-grandson of the original fugitive slave lecturer. His mother’s surname is listed as Gore but that, like several other aspects of this investigation, is unresolved. His sister Lynne was born in Barnsley in mid-1958. That Countee is sometimes ‘County’ is additional to the usual family history research problems that forenames are dropped and familiar names substituted for official ones.

A friend in Virginia confirmed that Countee is a rare African American surname and he had a relative who married one. The 1871 census has the patriarch listed as being born in Loudon County, Virginia (sic: should be Loudoun County, which is to the west of Washington DC). It gave his occupation as cooper and local Methodist preacher.

Perhaps British family historians will pick up on the story of the Countees of Leicestershire and Barnsley? To leave a message click on any illustration on any page of this website.

For the Crafts see page 059 of this site. For Dr Powell see page 081.

Details from 1871 and 1881 census added 22 August 2015. The sixth child (a daughter) born to the Crafts in London in 1868 led to another amendment in December 2016. The 1864-1865-1866 newspaper mentions were add in February 2018.


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