By Richard Shiell and Dorothy Anderson, Melbourne, Australia.(Revised February 2005)


We have no direct evidence of the birth date or parentage of James Phipps Shiell. It is presumed, on fairly good circumstantial evidence, that he was the 3rd son and one of the 7 children of Queely and Ann Shiell(nee Gordon).[1]


Although we have no birth records it is likely that he was born in 1790. This would be two years after his older brother John and, assuming that the minimum age for this important post was 21 years it would fit in with his later appointment as a Customs Search Officer in 1811.[2] The use of the middle name Phipps for their 3rd son is of interest. The surname Phipps was very prominent in the West Indies but no direct connection between Phipps, Shiell or Gordon has been found to date.[3]


The circumstances that lead to the Irish colonization of St Kitts and Montserrat is fairly well known  and had much to do with the transportation of Irish convicts to the West Indies as cheap labour on the plantations after the English Civil War.  It was soon realized that blacks survived much better than white skinned labourers in tropical climates and the slave trade from Africa began in earnest.[4]

Nothing is known of the early life of JPS but it may be presumed that, as the son of a moderately wealthy white planter, he would have been sent to boarding school in England and perhaps given further opportunities in the Navy, Military or the Law. We know that he was proclaimed a Customs Search Officer on Montserrat in 1811.[5]


In 1826, James Phipps Shiell was a witness at the wedding of William Shiell to Mary Cabey Semper [6]  and around 1826 he married Elizabeth Carey.[7]  The couple were the parents of Henry, born 1826, and Mary Ann Shiell born 1829.[8]


James Phipps Shiell was Acting Comptroller of Customs from 1828 [9], and later became                  Comptroller, a position previously held by his father Queely since 1805.[10] He served on the Montserrat Assembly (Lower House) from 1823 until his death.[11]

James Phipps Shiell died in 1834 [12] but his descendants do not appear in their grand-father’s Will of 1847.[13] JPS’s son Henry died childless in 1886 [14] but his line lives on in Australia through the descendants of his daughter Mary Ann. There is also a possible illegitimate male line descended from Matthew Dowdy Shiell, born 1824.[15]


Some additional references to JPS in historical documents


1824. JPS is listed as Attorney for James Neave (deceased).[16]


1825, Sept 18.  Birth date of Matthew Dowdy Shiell.[17]  


1828. JPS was recorded as “absent the whole year by leave HM Customs”. James Clark appears to have been his deputy over this period.[18]


1929,  March 30. JPS has returned and signs document on Montserrat.[19]


1831, Dec. 22. JPS signs a document as “Tide Surveyor”.[20]


1833, June 22. Last recorded attendance of JPS at the Legislative Assembly.[21]


1834. James Clark was appointed Acting Collector of Customs [22] so presumably James Phipps Shiell has died (precise date of  death is at present unknown).  A new Comptroller of Customs is noted in June, he is William Alexander Allan.[23] (He was possibly married to Eleanor Shiell and thus the son-in-law of Queely Shiell, who had been Comptroller prior to JPS.


1841.  William Shiell noted as managing Broderick’s Estate.[24] (This had previously been the responsibility of JPS).


1852, August 1. The Customs House on Montserrat was abolished.[25]


Appendix I.  Certificate dated 30th January 1824.

To the Collector of Customs, Montserrat, in regard to the runaway child slave Priscilla - signed by Michael Joseph Semper, Deputy Provost-Marshall.


Montserrat, 30th January 1824.

I do hereby Certify that Priscilla a Negroe Child Slave, the Property of Mrs Sarah Dowdy, was sold by me at Marshals Sale and Purchased by Dudley Semper Esquire on the 4th day of September 1822.


(signed Michl Jos. Semper      Dep. Pro. Marshall


Appendix II. Letter from the Governor of St Eustatius, regarding the return of several runaway slaves.

                                                                                                            27th January 1824

Government House St Eustatius.


I have delivered over to Captn Allers of the British Sloop “Dasher” four Slaves by name Simon, Ino Matthews, Ned and William which it appears are the same of whom Your honor gave me Notice under date the 24th July last and which were at the time searched for in vain.


The three first were concerned with nine other Slaves of this Colony in cutting out of the Road  of the Dutch Sloop “John and Anna” in the Night of the 30th November last. They were pursued and fortunately taken by an Expedition, fitted out by this Government, off Porto Rico, and brought back to this place where they have been tried and punished according to our Laws.


William did not go with them and returns without having been in anywise punished. Three Slaves complain much of ill treatment and some of them bear evident marks of the truth of their assertions.


There is likewise aboard the “Dasher” a female Child, Slave to Mr. D. Semper of your Island, whom it appears, had been clandestinely brought here by Her Mother, a Slave formerly of Mrs Dowdy. She is sent up to her Master by his Attorney here.


Capt Allers has my direction to report to Your Honor immediately on his arrival and you will direct him farther how to proceed.


I have the Honor to be

Sir, Your Honor’s Most Obedient Servt

(signed) J. M Saba

Post Captain in His Netherland Majesty’s Navy

Governor of St Eustatius


Appendix III. Certificate acknowledging the receipt of runaway slaves from St Eustatius and signed by Edmund and Dudley Semper and James Phipps Shiell.


Montserrat  30th January 1824


Mr Dudley Semper, Edmond Semper Junior and James Phipps Shiell of the Island of Montserrat. Do swear. That the Negroe Slaves just arrived in the Sloop Dasher Ino D.Allers Master are truly and Bonafide the same Slaves as are described in the several Certificates of Registration herewith produced. And that the said Slaves did in the Month of July last 1823. Elope without leave, from this Island taking with them the Boat the Property of a Mr John Brambles of this Island. And upon receiving advice from a

Mr Martine of the Island of St Eustatius informing us of the Arrest and Detention of the said Slaves did Hire and dispatch the Aforesaid  Sloop for the Purpose of bringing them to this Island.  So help me God.


(signed  and sworn)

Ed. Semper

James Phipps Shiell. (Attorney to the Representatives of James Neave, Deceased)

Dudley Semper


 Appendix IV.   Letter from Dr Norman Griffin to Dr Richard Shiell  (August 1974)

Dr Griffin’s sources are still unknown and his two letters contain a number of important errors and omissions indicating that he may have been writing quickly from memory. The letters have, nevertheless, proved a valuable starting point for our later researches.


25th August 1974

Richmond Hill,  Montserrat, West Indies.


Dear Dr Shiell,

I was interested in reading your letter asking for information about your Montserrat family published in the “Montserrat Mirror” of 16th instant. It happens that William G. Shiell, who seems to have been the first on the scene came out from Ireland at much the same time as my great-grandfather, John Griffin who was born in Hutchin, Hertfordshire, England, in 1784 and married in Montserrat in 1815.


William G. Shiell, was born in 1784 and married in Montserrat in 1826 to Mary Caby Semper, daughter of Michael Joseph Semper.  This was in June 1826 and in August (2 months after) a son was born and named William.  We have no further record of this son and it could be that he was your great-grandfather who arrived in Australia as Mate on the brig Gazelle in 1853; maybe he ran away to sea from school either in Montserrat or in England.


Of the other children of Wm G. Shiell we have few records. Several seem to have died as children; the family lived at The Grove or at Richmond ( these two estates probably even then run as one). Another son Henry was born in 1827; John Ross was born in 1834, James Phipps in 1836, Queely in 1837, and the last, born in 1850, was also given the name of William but died at 5 months.


When Queely was born William G Shiell was President of  the Council of Montserrat; in 1848 he owned one estate called Morris’ in the South of Montserrat (small and unimportant in comparison with many others), but was Attorney for about 10 others including a number shown on a list of Montserrat estates as owned by Queely Shiell; he was also Executor, Lessee or Receiver in Chancery of another 14 estates. Presumably as President of the Council he had to divest himself of some of his properties, giving his son the titles. Wm G. Shiell died in 1853 as did his wife Mary.


In 1849, Henry Shiell, Bachelor, married Mary Ann Wilcox, and we have reasons to believe that he emigrated to Australia but have no idea as to whether he was in touch with any of your family. In 1851, Thomas Masters Howes (of Yorkshire England) who had come out from England in 1835 married a Mary Ann Shiell (relationship not defined) and in 1879, 2 years after her husband died, she went out to Australia with her 2 daughters, one of whom married a McMaster whose son Shiell McMaster became a landowner and sheep farmer in New South Wales. It is thought that Mary Ann was some relation of Henry’s and went out to him in Australia.


Sorry that this Aerogramme does not lead room for more. There is a long story about another family named Shiel (with one l) starting with one Matthew Dowdye Shiel who came out from Ireland and claimed descent from ancient kings of that country. If you are interested I will write again.

Norman Griffin M.D. (Mc Gill 1922)


Appendix V.   Letter from Dr Norman Griffin  to Dr Richard (  Oct. 1974)


29th October 1974.

Richmond Hill,


West Indies.


Dear Dr Shiell,

Thanks for your letter of 17th September received on 25th. I agree generally with some of your deductions from information available and in particular about the likelihood that your William Shiell may have been the son of the original William before his marriage to Mary Cabey Semper. Sorry I cannot check on the 1823 dates as all records of the births before 1829 have been lost.


As regards the economic conditions of Montserrat in the 1840-1860 period, the effects of emancipation of slavery which took place in 1834 was becoming felt and the labour situation was difficult. Many estates were sold for indebtedness or changed hands to newcomers at a fraction of the value at which they were rated a few years earlier.


It seems that Queely Shiell was the only one of the original William who like his father was interested in agriculture; he followed his father as a Member of Council and in charge of the Richmond and Grove Estates.  It is suggested that the other brothers followed some other calling, either in business or in Government, though we have no records to confirm this assumption. Certainly none of them produced a family in Montserrat.


The family history would not be complete  without the story of  the Shiels  (spelt with one “ l “) written up by Charleworth Ross six years ago in the Caribbean Quarterly, a publication of the Extra Mural Department of the University of the West Indies.  It begins with Matthew Dowdye Shiel who claimed descent from the ancient Kings of Ireland and was living in Montserrat in 1865 and trading between Montserrat and the neighboring islands. He had had 8 daughters before producing a son named Matthew Phipps Shiel born shortly before that date.  This son went to live in England where he became a novelist and got to know many celebrities such as Robert Louis Stephenson and Wilde; he was quite a linguist and once had a job as interpreter to the International Congress of Hygiene and Demography.


Charlesworth Ross, himself a West Indian, whom I know very well went to visit him in his later years when he was living in an Alms House near Horsham on a Civil List Pension, and had a very interesting conversation with him. He afterwards wrote up his story describing him as the first West Indian Novelist. He discovered that his Grandmother was one of the Shiel sisters. Of his other sisters we know little, except that the last surviving one was still alive in 1935 and living in St Kitts with a niece. She was in looks much as you describe other Shiell descendants in Australia. It may well be that Matthew Dowdye Shiel was an illegitimate son of the original William Shiell in Montserrat.


 I hope this is of interest to you


Norman Griffin.





Copyright © 2004 By Richard Shiell and Dorothy Anderson.

Used with permission of the authors.

Return to M.P. Shiel

[1] (a) “ My  late father raised a large family of 7 children…” from a  letter written by William Shiell to the Rt Hon Earl Grey, Principal Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1850  (CO 7 97)

(b) As far as we have been able to detect to date there were no other white Shiell families around the West Indies except the descendants of Queely

(c) JPS was a witness at the wedding of William Shiell in 1824, so surely a relation or close friend.

(d)   As they became available, JPS gradually took over several of the positions previously occupied by Queely Shiell. These positions were lucrative and “kept in the family” if possible.


[2]     In 1823 PJS and Queely are both listed as Customs Search Officers at an income of L200 p.a. (Presumably Queely continued to draw his salary as Comptroller as well). This makes it very likely that they were closely related as these were very good jobs indeed.


[3](a) The Phipps families were prominent in the West Indies, and were to be found in abundance on St Kitts. In 1746, six Phipps brothers,( including a James Phipps ) and their nephew, comprised half of the Assembly of St Kitts. Good genealogical material has been published on people of that name in Carobbeana” and elsewhere,


(b) Queely’s first and second sons William  and John, born in the late 18th century  do not appear to  use middle names on documents but a Montserrat historian, Dr Norman Griffin, claimed that William’s middle initial was “G” (letter to the author in 1974, authority unknown)  This possibly  was the initial letter of “Gordon”,  his mother’s maiden name.)


[4] (a) Lt. Lucan Shiell of Ballinderry, County of Westmeath mentioned in “King James Irish Army Lists (1689) pub. Dublin 1855 (ed) J. D’Alton.


(b) A man of Irish descent, Luc  (or Lucan) Shiell is mentioned in the book “The Slave Trade” by Hugh Thomas  (Picador Press 1997. He was a prominent slave-trader based in Nantes, France in the early part of the 18th century and two of his daughters married well known traders.  Marie married Antoine Walsh an Irish Catholic immigrant who was one of the most powerful figures in the French slave trade, sending altogether 57 slaving expeditions to Africa. Walsh was a romantic Jacobite, his father had carried James II from England to France on one of his ships when he fled in 1688 and Antoine had accompanied “ Bonny Prince Charlie” to the highlands on another of his ships in 1745.                                                                                                                                          


[5] 1811, May 8th. JPS is first listed as Searcher and Landing Waiter of Montserrat. (CO 10 6).  He may have served a time in the British navy as a midshipman whilst in his teens. His father Queely was certainly wealthy and well connected enough to have arranged this and the nearby island of Antigua contained a major English naval base at the time. Further research is needed on these points.


[6] The June 1826 wedding of William Shiell to Mary Cabey Semper, daughter of Dudley Semper, was mentioned in two letters from Montserrat historian Dr Norman Griffin to the author in 1974. (see Appendicies IV & V). He provided additional information regarding children of the couple but his sources are unknown.  Where it has been possible to check his data over the subsequent years he is generally quite reliable.


[7] 1827,  JPS married Elizabeth Carey (from McMaster family documents in Australia). In 1836 George Stanley Carey received a large payment as slave compensation on St. Christopher (BPP H of L 1838, Vol 15). He may possibly have been the father of Elizabeth as a match between these two wealthy families would have been considered appropriate.


[8] ( a ) The birth dates are derived from later marriage and death certificates and  Henry’s newspaper obituary which are in the possession of the authors.  We have also received material from the descendents of the Howes family of Montserrat. Nothing is known of the early life and education of either child but a Henry Shiell is recorded as marrying on Montserrat in 1850 and he and his wife Mary Ann (nee Wilcox)later migrated to Australia in the year 1853 (Australian death certificates). He was immediately appointed Clerk of Petty Sessions in Deniliquin, then Police Magistrate in Hay, New South Wales, and later the Sydney Coroner, so it is probable that he had some legal training. He married twice but there were no children.


 ( b ) Mary Ann Shiell (Annie) married a Dr. Thomas Masters Howes in 1853 and  had a son and two daughters. Lilian, the younger daughter, went to Australia in 1877 to visit her Uncle Henry and in 1883 married the widowed grazier John McMasters. Annie’s husband had died in 1857 and she and her oldest daughter Florence went to Australia in 1883. Florence never married but Lilian had 6 children and leaves many descendants. Her son Seymour also has many descendents. (see separate biographies on Henry and Annie Shiell  hhtp:www.alangullette.com/lit/shiel/#family.


[9] (CUST 34 502).  JPS  was Acting Comptroller of Customs  from 17th June 1828, at L 300 p.a.              ( Presumably because Queely, aged  72, had been pensioned off in 1827)


[10] CO 10 6 . First reference to Queely as Comptroller of Customs (4th December 1805.)


[11] (CO 177 21 )  Nov 22nd 1823.  JPS was first noted as a member of the Montserrat Assembly (Lower House).


[12] - death of JPS


[13] Neither JPS or his wife or children were mentioned in the 1847 Will and Testament of Queely Shiell ( see biography of Queely Shiell on the website hhtp:www.alangullette.com/lit/shiel/#family ). James died relatively young in 1834 and perhaps Queely had fallen out with his wife and surviving children or alternatively he had paid for their maintenance and education and felt that no further contribution was necessary. On the other hand no provision was made for the children of John and William either, while Queely’s grand-daughters by his daughters Eleanor received a large inheritance. Son William was left with the almost worthless, debt-encumbered  sugar estates on Montserrat.


[14] See separate biographies of Henry Shiell and Mary Ann Shiell by the present authors( see website hhtp:www.alangullette.com/lit/shiel/#family )


[15] James Phipps Shiell was possibly the natural father of Matthew Dowdy Shiell, born 18th Sept 1825. This would make him a grandfather to the celebrated West Indian novelist Matthew Phipps Shiell, born some 40 years later in 1865. MPS does not hint at  these events in any of his biographical writings but seems to prefer the fiction of a titled Harley Street doctor,  Sir James Phipps Shiell, as “great-grandfather”. This fiction was no doubt  preferable to the sordid truth of a liason between a Customs Officer and a runaway child slave returned to Montserrat on 30th January 1824.  It is clear that MPS had been kept in the dark about his origins and writing to his sister Augusta many years after he left home he said “By the way, I want to know the name of my father’s mother, and also the  maiden name of our old Granny. Will you write and let me know, and if you yourself don’t know, try and find out for me”.More details of these speculative points are provided in the biographies of both Matthew Dowdy Shiell and Matthew Phipps Shiell  by the present authors  (see the website hhtp:www.alangullette.com/lit/shiel/#family) and letters in the Appendicies I, II and III below.


M.P.Shiel  had  had  a daughter Ada Phipps  from his marriage to Carilina Gomez . He also had a son Caesar from an out-of-wedlock  liason with Elizabeth Price. MPS never acknowledged paternity of Caesar. The son later married and his son Dr Paul Shiel currently practices as a veterinarian in Queensland, Australia.  Perhaps understandably, he refuses to have anything to do with this ongoing research.


[16] CUST 34 502


[17]  Reynolds Morse, “The Quest for Redonda”). His parentage is not known for certain but JPS and Dudley Semper’s runaway slave Priscilla Dowdy are two very likely candidates ( See letters relating to this event -Appendix I, II & III)


[18] CO 178 2. 


[19] BT 107 497  


[20] BT 34 503. Perhaps this was another “great  little earner” for a member of the privileged white minority.


[21] CO 177 22 and CUST 34 502.


[22] CUST 34 501


[23] CUST 34 503


[24] CO 7 69


[25] CO 7 101