Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Out Of Their Trees : Michael Dillon

Caribbean pirates, Imperial barons, Canadian senators, Irish bishops, Australian settlers, and Sir Christopher Wren. There can’t be many ancestries as varied as this! We come across all of these in the ancestry of today’s subject, the first transgender person to have female to male reassignment surgery. He is Michael Dillon (1915-1962).

There’s no better place to start than with Michael’s paternal family, the Dillons. The Dillons are an archetypical Anglo-Irish family who settled in Ireland as a result of the “Irish troubles”. That’s the “Irish troubles” of the 12th century, when bad Prince John was sent across to conquer Ireland for the English.

Even though several branches of the family acquired British hereditary titles they weren’t originally British. Or were they? Michael’s earliest male-line ancestors came from Brittany and today we’d call them Breton. Brittany and Cornwall share a lot of heritage and language and regard each other as parts of the same Celtic nation.

Henri de Leon, a British/Breton knight, accompanied Prince John to Ireland in 1185 and was given vast estates there, founding the dynasty that has lived in Ireland ever since. The name de Leon eventually became, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, Dillon.

As well as British titles the Dillons acquired titles from other European countries. A distant cousin was created a French count, and Michael’s own great-great-grandfather was created a baron of the Holy Roman Empire in 1783. This first Baron Dillon, Joseph, was grandson of Ralph Lambert (d.1732), Bishop of Meath. Lambert was a rival of Jonathan Swift (author of “Gulliver’s Travels”) for various Irish ecclesiastical appointments. Several times Swift was recommended for deaneries and bishoprics, and lost out to Lambert every time.

I’ll jump to Michael’s mother’s family before I continue with the Dillons. Michael’s mother Laura was Australian. She died of sepsis ten days after Michael was born, and in remembrance of her Michael’s original baptismal name was Laura. The family, the Reeses, arrived in Australia in the mid-1800s, with Laura Reese’s grandfather emigrating there from Germany. Her father married the daughter of an Irish immigrant, so Michael Dillon has Irish blood on both sides of his ancestry.

Returning to the Dillons we encounter British colonial settlers from another part of the world – Canada. Michael’s grandfather, Baron Robert Dillon, married Minerva, the daughter of Hon. Samuel Silvester Mills (d.1874), Senator of the Canadian Upper House.

Senator Mills’ parents were born in the USA and settled in Hamilton, Ontario in 1800, though Samuel’s maternal grandfather, Michael Hess (1740-1804) was actually from there originally. Michael Hess married an American girl of Dutch ancestry called Gertruidt. No-one has proved it, but lots of websites claim she was a daughter of Johan van Cortlandt. If so, then Michael Dillon is descended from Stephan van Cortlandt, the first American-born Mayor of New York City.

We’ll return to Joseph Dillon, the first Baron Dillon. His mother-in-law was Mrs. Jane Drake (née Long). She came from another British colonial family – one which brings the dark shadow of slavery into Michael’s ancestry.

The Long family’s association with Jamaica began in 1655 when Samuel Long accompanied the expedition to secure the island for the British (as Michaels’ Dillon ancestors did in Ireland several hundred years beforehand). Like the Dillons the Longs were given large estates. The main residence was called Seven Plantations, and that means there were many African slaves working for the Longs.

Through his influence with the Governor (or Lieutenant-Governor) of Jamaica, Samuel Long acquired the position of Chief Justice. They soon found themselves at odds with each other. The Governor wanted the Jamaican constitution to follow a form that would allow the Governor’s Council to decide the laws and not the elected Assembly. Naturally, the Assembly refused to accept this, as did Chief Justice Long and he was briefly imprisoned for his opposition. The Governor dissolved the Assembly and sent Long and the Speaker of the Assembly, William Beeston, to England to answer for their actions. The king, however, supported Long and Beeston and sacked the Governor.

Chief Justice Long’s only surviving son Charles married (as his second wife) Jane, Speaker Beeston’s daughter, who had by this time been recently deprived of the Governorship of Jamaica himself over financial matters. Charles Long’s first wife was also the daughter of another Governor. There’s quite a web of family connections at this time which links the Longs with yet two more Governors of Jamaica. Like today, marrying into your own social class and political circle was common.

Before I move on to William Beeston again I must tell you of a personal link to Chief Justice Long. His mother Jane was the sister of Rev. Henry Brunsell, Vicar of Clayworth. Clayworth is a village just 3 miles from where I was raised and my father has ancestry there – they were baptised by Rev. Brunsell! Another religious link comes in the person of Rev. Brunsell’s wife Anne. Her brother was Sir Christopher Wren, designer of St. Paul’s cathedral.

Back to William Beeston. Before he was Speaker he was a judge. Several times he was appointed to lead negotiations with Spanish privateers and pirates who were threatening the security of various settlements around the Caribbean. He seemed to have been successful each time, and he secured the release of a few prisoners the pirates had captured. In 1675 Beeston was appointed a Commissioner of the Admiralty with the former English pirate Sir Henry Morgan.

Michael Dillon’s ancestors travelled the world and became leaders in their communities. Michael could easily have become part of the Establishment by being married off to a politician or diplomat. Instead he chose to disregard the expectations of his class, first by escaping the high life to work in a garage, and then by successfully transitioning to male. His route in life was to escape, leading him in his last years to a remote Buddhist temple and finally to India where he died in 1962.

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