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Thomas Dunckerley

In 1982 the late Ron Chudley [i.e. Charles Ronald Thomas Chudley (1913-1996) the author of a History of Mark Master Masons in the Province of Devonshire (1980)] produced Thomas Dunckerley: a remarkable freemason (Lewis Masonic, 1982) though his book added little to the old major work by Henry Sadler, Thomas Dunckerley, his life, labours, and letters (1891). Both authors believed (as Fred L. Pick and G. Norman Knight wrote in The Freemason's Pocket Reference Book (1955) 80-1), 'There can be no doubt that this outstanding Freemason was a natural son of King George II, from whom his birth was kept secret, but he was recognized as such by George III'.

More recently Saint Vincent College, a catholic institution in Pennsylvania, has partially funded research by Susan Mitchell Sommers for her Thomas Dunckerley and English Freemasonry (Pickering & Chatto, 2012). This takes a highly critical view of the integrity of Dunckerley and his circle. Sommers believes that Dunckerley invented the story of his mother's death-bed revelation of his royal paternity and she sets out to show that his personal life was a lie, believing that he started the claim merely because others told him that he resembled the King. Quoting only the first part of the title of Royal Mistresses and Bastards: fact and fiction, 1714-1936, she appears to think that I aimed to corroborate Dunckerley's story, when I merely tried to set out the known facts.

Dunckerley's claimed date of birth in 1724 cannot be confirmed and judging by his date of apprenticeship in 1735 and his age on a pension application in 1764 he was probably several years older. His baptism has not been found. He may have been born as early as 1715 if a notation in the Trinity House records is to be believed, though the births of his siblings makes that unlikely. If born in 1724 he was ostensibly the sixth of at least seven children born to Adam Dunckerley and Mary Bolnest who had married at Houghton, Norfolk, in 1712. Those children were Elizabeth Dunkerley, born 6 December and baptised at St James, Westminster, 8 December 1713 (buried  as Dunckerley and 'not borne hear', at St Martin-in-the-Fields, 26 January 1713/14); Adam Dunkerly, born 21 September and baptised at St James, Westminster, 6 October 1715; Mary Dunckerley, born 2 June and baptised at the new church of St Mary-le-Strand, 2 June 1717; Elizabeth Dunckerly, born 9 June and baptised at St Mary-le-Strand, 25 June 1718; Luke James Dunckrely, born 25 July and baptised at St Mary-le-Strand, 2 August 1719 (buried as Dunckerly 15 August 1719); and Edward Bolnest Dunkerly, born 10 February and baptised at St James, Westminster, 24 February 1726/7. Nothing more is known about the subsequent histories of his surviving brothers and sisters. His father Adam Dunckerley had various posts as a porter at Somerset House and died in January 1728/9.

I do not know whether Thomas Dunckerley was a son of George II or not, but Thomas's account of the circumstances surrounding his birth have, in my view, a ring of authenticity, though they varied somewhat over time. Such variations are characteristic in cases of this kind where the subject has to rely on the accounts of others and records are lacking. It is true that Sir Edward Walpole (1706-1784), formerly a nurse-child of Thomas Dunckerley's grandmother, Elizabeth Bolnest, strongly denied Thomas's claimed paternity (whilst giving Thomas and his mother every other form of support), but Walpole was little more than a child at the time of Thomas's birth and must himself have been relying on the accounts of others. A character sketch of Dunckerley written by the historian of Surrey, William Bray (1736-1832), is made much of by Sommers [(2012) Appendix 2] but is again based, not on his personal knowledge, but on information given by Sir Edward Walpole in 1777. Whilst willing to support Dunckerley, Sir Edward Walpole may also have given an undertaking to his father, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, to do just that but at the same time to deny any royal connection. Such a possibility is not mentioned by Sommers. It may be very relevant that the Prime Minister's wife and Sir Edward's mother, Catherine Walpole, was herself believed by informed contemporaries to have had an affair with the Prince.

Genealogists are, of course, interested to know whether or not Thomas Dunckerley had descendants. Although there was no indication of an earlier marriage Sommers thought that as of St George Hanover Square, groom, widower, Thomas Dunckerley had married within the Rules of the Fleet Prison, London, 7 December 1743, Ann Martin, of Chelsea, widow [TNA RG7/191 folio 77v and TNA RG7/201 folio 120v], and I thought that Ann, as Ann Sherry, had previously married William Martin at St Leonard, Shoreditch, 5 October 1740, and was the mother of Jane Siddall, nee Sherry, who had later lived with Thomas. However, in a recent reprint of her book with an additional Preface [Lexington Books, 2018, page xiv] she has shown that Thomas Dunckerley, unmistakably described as 'late schoolmaster of his Majesty's Ship Edinburgh', married Anne Sherry widow, at Eggbuckland, Devon, 30 April 1746. This Ann was clearly his only wife. As Ann Fossil she had previously married John Sherry, mariner, at Eggbuckland, 16 March 1735/6, and they were the parents of Jane Sherry, baptised 9 June 1738, at Charles Church, Plymouth.

In 1788 Thomas had written about 'my wife's daughter of a former husband' and was thus referring to Jane Siddall (died 1822) who as Jane Sherry had married John Siddall in 1766 and was the mother of the two spinster sisters, Ann Siddall (1768-1842) and Susanna Siddall (1774-1839), who lived at Hampton Court Palace and received the residue of Thomas Dunckerley's estate after his wife' death. As noted in 2007, Ann Siddall was named in his will as 'my much loved friend' and the bequest was made 'for her affectionate regard and attention to my wife' (i.e. her grandmother) [Camp (2007) 23].

Thomas and Ann Dunckerley had two children:

(1) Mary Ann Dunckerley, baptised at Charles Church, Plymouth, in 1746 [Sommers (2012) 157], who was buried at St Martin, Salisbury, 12 February 1783 [Sommers (2012) 52]. She had married by licence at St Mary-le-Strand, 14 October 1780, John Edgar, Junior, of St Thomas, Salisbury [Registers, Entry 724, Page 184], but they appear not to have had children. An apothecary at Salisbury, he died in 1789, having married again [Camp (2007) 23].

(2) Thomas Bolnest Dunckerley, baptised ('Dunkerly') at St Andrew, Plymouth, 1 January 1747 [Sommers (2012) 157], who was in the Royal Navy and who seems to have died destitute and to perhaps have been the Thomas 'Dunkley' buried at Bunhill Fields, 23 August 1791 [Sommers (2012) 52]. As of St Leonard, Shoreditch, widower, he had married 2ndly at St Leonard, Shoreditch, 10 June 1786, Ann Garrett, widow, of that parish [Registers, Entry 727, Page 243], but his first marriage and the baptisms of his children, if any, have not been found. That he was the Thomas Dunkley caught stealing a milk pan at Enfield in 1790 and transported to Australia on the Third Fleet in 1791 [Sommers (2016) xvi] lacks, like the burial entry that year, all confirmation.

In her discussion of Thomas's 'trappings of royal recognition' Sommers has a section about his use of a coat of arms but in that period this would have had little if any significance, despite past attempts to argue otherwise. What may have greater importance is that in addition to the Civil List Pension and the free use of the apartment at Somerset House, granted by George III in 1767, Thomas Dunckerley was given additional annual sums by the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York. Robert Peter has also noted that he was received by Queen Charlotte on 29 December 1768 and by George II's daughter, the inquisitive and difficult Princess Amelia (? his half-sister), on 17 January 1769 [Robert Peter, in his article in Researching British Freemasonry, 1717-2017 (University of Sheffield, 2010), page 129].

The attempt by Sommers to throw doubt on the provenance of the important Grand Lodge Ms. 1 which was bought from Ann Siddall for £25 is misleading [Sommers (2012) 143]. Sommers says that Dunckerley was 'neither a scholar nor a collector of books' yet he asked for his 'Law books' to be sold to pay his debts and Ann would have inherited the manuscript along with Dunckerley's other effects. Sommers doubts that Ann needed money and gives a misleading summary of her will. The will mentions a large silver salver [? the one with the Dunckerley arms sold in London in 2012], a silver ring, a silver teapot and stand, and a silver cup. These were not 'many bequests ... of silver objects' but her few remaining treasured possessions. Indeed, the Estate Duty Office records show that the residue of her estate was 'under £20' and that her sister Susanna had died insolvent. 

I remain unconvinced by Sommers' book or its second edition and consider the question of Dunckerley's paternity unresolved though, in view of the Royal Family's acceptance of his claims in 1767-9, I also am inclined to accept their authenticity.

Anthony Camp, MBE, FSG,

December 2014; revised March and December 2019.