Sir John Maclean KB FSA 1811-1895
Article by Alan Kent
Sir John Maclean is best known to students of the local and family history of Cornwall as the author of the monumental Parochial and Family History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor. They have doubtless wished that there were similar works for the other seven deaneries. And they may have wondered how someone of Scottish descent came to write about a place so far from his ancestral home. In fact, he was no Scot but a Cornishman.
He was baptised plain John Lean, the son of Robert and Elizabeth Every of the parish of Blisland, which lies within the deanery. He changed his name to Maclean in 1845 – more of that later. In 1835 he married Mary the daughter and coheiress of Thomas Billing. This marriage probably brought some social advancement. His father farmed the barton or home farm of the manor of Trehudreth, but as a tenant and not as lord of the manor. Such a tenancy would have led him to be styled as ‘Mr in official documents and Maclean describes him as a gentleman in the memorial that he raised to his parents in Blisland parish church and also in Trigg Minor, but unlike the Billings the family was not armigerous and was of no ancient lineage. The Billings were said to be descended from the Norman family of Billon and they had owned Lanke in the neighbouring parish of St Breward since 1592.* Maclean’s marriage was childless. His brother Benjamin also adopted the name Maclean, married Mary’s sister Elizabeth and settled in New Zealand where there were descendants.
In 1837 John Maclean was engaged as a clerk in the ordnance department of the War Office. He became keeper of ordnance records in the Tower of London in 1855 and deputy chief auditor of army accounts in 1865, retiring in 1871 on a pension of £662 18s 4d. He was knighted for his official services three weeks before retiring. He then moved to Bicknor Court in Gloucestershire, one of the seats of a landed family called Machen who were living at another seat nearby. He spent the last ten years of his life in Clifton, Bristol. His effects at probate were valued at £4,420.
Most of his many publications appeared after 1855 but he had made a name for himself before then, being elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (FSA) in that year. Most of the publications had an antiquarian flavour, concerning Cornwall and Gloucestershire especially, but a few dealt with religious matters. Comprehensive lists are given in Bibliotheca Cornuhiensis by G.C. Boase and W.P. Courtney, pp.333 &1273 and in Collectanea Cornuhiensis by Boase, p.523. He was a co-founder and council member of the Harleian Society and he co-operated with J.L. Vivian and H.H. Drake in the publication of the pedigrees from the 1620 visitation of Cornwall in Vol.IX of the Society’s series, 1874. (This work is not to be confused with Vivian’s Visitations of Cornwall, 1887.) Yet despite his evident ability and success in antiquarian and other matters there is no indication in the source material that he had attended a university and his name is absent from the published lists of alumni of Oxford and Cambridge.
The subject of his. main work, the deanery of Trigg Minor, contained 21 parishes and is roughly square in shape, with St Minver, Lesnewth, St Breward and Bodmin at the corners. Like many similar works of the time Trigg Minor was published by installments, subsequent binding to be arranged by the subscribers. The installments were based on parishes, though Bodmin required several installments, and some of the smaller parishes were dealt with together. The whole was to be bound in three indexed volumes. It was the result of twenty years work and was issued between 1868 and 1879. Thereafter the whole work could be purchased for £5 14s 3d.
Lists of subscribers were included at intervals. There were about 240 subscribers for the whole work, with more for particular parishes. The Queen and the Prince of Wales headed the list, the latter getting two copies, presumably as Duke of Cornwall. Many names linked with Cornish history and genealogy are included: C.W. Boase, W.C. Borlase, L.H. Courtney, J.B. Curgenven, Dr Drake and E. Glencross, though not J.L. Vivian. Also included were some War Office colleagues, among them another Cornishman, Thomas Brontë Branwell who was a cousin of the Brontë sisters. **
The text of Trigg Minor includes descriptions and histories of the parishes, their churches, manors and families. There are tinted lithographs of the churches and some of the original drawings, which show no mean ability, were by Maclean himself. Monumental inscriptions are recorded and there are elaborate pedigrees of many of the principal Cornish families, some having only a remote connection with the deanery. It is significant in respect of what follows that Maclean listed the earlier surnames in the various parish registers. A standard pedigree giving two questionable royal descents for Cornish families is reproduced in Vol.1, p.317. The Petits are shown as being descended from Isabel la Blanche, daughter of King John. This could not have been his legitimate daughter Isabel and his biographers record no illegitimate daughter of that name. The later Carminows are shown as being descended from Joan Plantagenet, the Fair Maid of Kent, whose second husband was the Black Prince. A fold-out tree at page 683 states that this descent was by her first husband Thomas Holland. Her son-in-law is shown as Sir Oliver Carminow who died in 1345. She was then aged 17.
John Lean changed his name in the belief that he was descended from a branch of the Maclean family of Dochgarroch that had settled in Cornwall and dropped the Gaelic prefix to leave the ‘raw’ clan name. He saw fit to replace it. The only thing in favour of this belief lies in pronunciation. The preferred pronunciation of ‘Maclean’ is given in the spelling used by some branches of the clan, ‘Maclaine’. Similarly the Cornish name ‘Lean’ often appears in the forms ‘Lame’ or ‘Layne’ and in fact some of the early Leans of the Blisland register are shown with the latter spelling.
It is evident from references to his name change that Maclean supposed that the clan name was indeed Lean, and so founded by a Lean, with ‘Mac’ added in the usual way. But, as accounts of the clan in Burk s Landed Gentry show, ‘Maclean’ is a contraction of ‘Macgillean’. The clan was founded in the thirteenth century by the warrior Gillean of the Battleaxe, so that the raw clan name was Gillean. This was well known to the Macleans, who continued to use Gillean as a Christian name. (The name is said to mean Ian’s gillie – attendant – or the like.) The beginning of the Dochgarroch line is shown in the section of Burke dealing with the Westfield branch. This section did not appear until the 1892 edition, but as Maclean was aware of the line he should have known when it began. In 1555 Farquar Maclean, while still a minor, was inveigled into selling the ancestral estates to an unscrupulous kinsman, in consequence of which he was known as Silly Farquar. He purchased Dochgarroch with the proceeds and so founded the line. His sons were Alexander and David.
The name Lean and its variants were widespread in Cornwall, and this is consistent with its origin as commonly supposed. According to G. Pawley White, Cornish Surnames, it represents a common place or field name denoting a strip of cultivated ground, so that it could have been adopted as a surname by different families in different places. In the Blisland register the name first appears, as Layne, with the marriage of Pentecost in 1567. The earliest Lean entries in the register of St Breward are for the marriages of Henry 1609, Nicholas 1610, and Roger 1611, with the name spelt as Lean, Layne and Lane. The timing suggests that these were brothers, possibly the sons of Pentecost though there is no firm evidence for this. Henry was John Maclean’s ancestor. The date of Pentecost’s marriage shows that he was too old to be a son of the first of the Dochgarroch Macleans, who was a minor in 1555. Furthermore, his Christian name is characteristically Cornish. Timing would allow Henry and his supposed brothers to be the founder’s grandsons, but none of their children was given Maclean Christian names like those mentioned above. The first Leans of Blisland and St Breward appear to have been very ordinary Cornishmen with a very ordinary Cornish surname. They could have come from any of the several Lean families who were living not more than ten miles away.
Maclean must have realised by the time that he was writing Trigg Minor that his theory about his name was improbable. He knew of the Macleans of Dochgarroch and, as we have seen, he examined the Trigg Minor registers while preparing his book. As a keen genealogist he would have worked out his likely ancestry from these. Confirmation comes from the fact that there is no word about a Scottish ancestry for the Blisland and St Breward Leans in Trigg Minor, even though the families are mentioned. A descent from a Scottish family, and a distinguished one at that, would have been sufficiently unusual at the time of its supposed occurrence to have been worth a mention.
Sir John Maclean was undoubtedly a man of great ability and an expert in his field. The moral is that one should not accept the opinions and conclusions of experts without question. There are many experts in genealogy.
* A notable member of this Billing family was Loveday or Lowdy, d. 1682, wife of William Hamlet’, of Tregangeeves, St Austell, who helped to establish the Quaker movement in Cornwall – see A Quaker Saint of Cornwall by L.V. Hodgkin, Longmans, 1927.
** Thomas Brontë Branwell, 1817-1887, was born in Penance, the son of Joseph Branwell who had married his cousin Charlotte Branwell. Charlotte’s sister Maria had been housekeeper at the newly established Woodhouse Grove School in Yorkshire where her uncle by marriage was the headmaster. From there she married Patrick Brontë, a local clergyman, so to become the mother of the novelists. (Brontë a noted eccentric, was another name changer, having been born Brunt y. He made the change shortly after Nelson had been honoured with the Neapolitan dukedom of Brontë.) It was exceptional for a child to he christened with an aunt’s married name. The aunt lived over 300 miles away, and the name had yet to acquire its ultimate prestige. The reason perhaps was that in the year before the birth of Charlotte’s son Maria Brontel had named her own daughter Charlotte.
(Source: Alan Kent, Cornwall FHS journal, March 1993)