196 : The Rodgers family of south Devon 1880s-1950s

John Augustus Rogers (later Rodgers) was born in Jamaica in 1864. He migrated to England in the 1880s and there became associated with the recently founded Salvation Army in the Sheffield area. In Worksop in the early summer of 1886 he married Harriet Walker, duly reported in the Sheffield Independent 18 June 1886. His surname was then Rogers. Different stories were retained by his British descendants including his attempts to study chemistry or medicine at Cambridge, but no trace has been found. It is said that he had been a prisoner in Russia. He was well educated, played the guitar, and had fine vocal skills. He was an impressive man.

Family documents include a bible presented to him in Belfast in January 1889 and a hymn book given to him in Dublin in March that year. The Lincolnshire Free Press (4 June 1889) recording him speaking for ninety minutes on Wilberforce to an ‘unusually large congregation’ in Spalding — but he and the Salvation Army parted company later that year. Rodgers transferred to the Primitive (meaning ‘simple’) Methodists, and as such was noted back in Spalding in the Lincolnshire Free Press of 17 September 1889. It noted he lived in Worksop (20 miles from Sheffield) and worked as a compositor. He was scheduled to spend a week in the Northamptonshire village of Deanshanger in late October 1889 ‘Mr John Augustus Rodgers, a coloured gentleman, known as the Indian Chief’ noted the Buckinghamshire Advertiser and Free Press of 12 October 1889.

The 1891 census notes his presence near Spalding at the Crowland home of William and Mary Lowden. He was said to be a joiner. The informal family moved to Pontefract. Henrietta Lowden, the twenty-three year old dress maker daughter, had Oscar Goldsmith Rodgers and Rosie (twins) in January 1894 when they were living in Queen Street, Castleford. Daughter Rosie became a domestic servant in Salford by 1935. Rodgers seems to have abandoned his wife Harriet, and he certainly abandoned Henrietta and the baby boy who was taken into care and in 1907 was sent to Canada where there are descendants. Family rumours of bigamy, like the conflict between Rodgers’s Christian preaching and his rejection of his children and their mothers, are unresolved. Nor is there a clear reason why he had been known as the ‘Indian Chief’ other than a contemporary photograph which shows him with a sort-of turban (see http://www.myprimitivemethodists.org.uk).

Towards the end of the century Rodgers settled in south Devon with the much younger Susan Jarvis. There were two sons (Cecil Wilberforce, born in 1899, died 1966; and Basil Augustus Livingstone born in 1900 and died in 1983) born in South Milton close by Kingsbridge. Cecil was to work his way to Jamaica where he met his grandmother. Basil settled in Plymouth, and became closely associated with Dr Harold Moody’s League of Coloured Peoples (founded in London in 1931). He also worked as a singer and lived in London.

Rodgers and Susan Jarvis then married, and more children were born in the Kingsbridge-Salcombe area. Constantine Adolphus (1903-?), George Albert (1906-1992), Letitia (1912-1972) and Clementina (1914-1968). Like his father, Constantine — a skilled builder — was to abandon his family, around 1946. He later moved to Dublin.

The 1911 census of Salcombe states that Rodgers was a cabinet maker and upholsterer. He died in 1915 and was buried in Salcombe where his widow died in 1976.

If and when Rodgers ceased Christian work for the Methodists is untraced but he is known to have been assaulted by two soldiers on a train from London to Romford: the Chelmsford Chronicle of 29 June 1894 said he was ‘the coloured evangelist’ and that both men had been fined.

The south Devon locations of Rodgers and his children were all small towns, perhaps large villages. The education of the children is thought to have been in the Kingsbridge/Salcome area. The split with the Salvation Army after five years needs to be clarified. It seems that Oscar (who rejected the Rodgers name and was known as Lowden) had links to the Salvation Army in Canada and there are hints that he may have been raised in a Salvation Army children’s home.

This report is based entirely on information supplied by grand-daughter Liz Sibthorpe.


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