A captain of obscure origins

Brigham family reunion on Holy Island
Brigham family reunion on Holy Island

Descendants of an 18th-century ship builder from Holy Island have travelled from across the globe to meet at a special homecoming event.

Thirty people from the UK, the US, Canada, Germany and Australia – all descendants of John Brigham, a ship captain who settled on Holy Island in the early 1700s – came together at the place their ancestors called home for hundreds of years.

John Brigham and family, circa 1915'From left to right, Alice Brigham, John (Jack) Brigham, John Brigham, Francis Stanley Brigham, Isabella Brigham (nee Purvis), William Brigham, Mary (May) Brigham

John Brigham and family, circa 1915'From left to right, Alice Brigham, John (Jack) Brigham, John Brigham, Francis Stanley Brigham, Isabella Brigham (nee Purvis), William Brigham, Mary (May) Brigham

The special homecoming event was the culmination of year’s of research by London-based Rob Liddle, who explained: “If your surname is Brigham and your family comes from Northumberland or Durham, then the chances are that you share a common ancestor with me.

“He is Captain John Brigham, merchant and ship’s master, a Yorkshireman who sailed the seas and settled on Holy Island in the early part of the 18th century.”

“I’ve been researching my family for quite a long time and have been in contact with a few people over the years through internet forums and things. One lady who got in touch was Marina Beacock, the instigator of this event that brought us all together.”

Marina, who lives in Ontario, Canada, said: “The Brigham get-together has been named the Holy Island Homecoming as we were all coming to the place our ancestors called home for hundreds of years.”

Marina’s great, great grandfather, John Simpson Sr, was born on Holy Island in 1813. He married Isabella Brigham, the older sister of Rob Liddle’s ancestor William Brigham.

“Mom’s grandfather was John Simpson Jr, born 1846 in Norham, probably on Ebenezar Black’s farm in Grindon, as his father John Sr was the farm steward there,” Marina said.

“John Jr became a civil engineer and some time in the 1860s or early 1870s he was contracted by the then Russian Czar to design the tributaries to the main Russian railway lines.”

After the contract was complete, John Jr stayed on in Russia and married a woman from Leeds, Anne Whittaker, who had left England to visit her mother’s sister who was living in St Petersburg.

John and Anne married through the British Chaplaincy in St Petersburg, Russia, in the mid 1870s and later settled in nearby Novgorod, where most, if not all, of their 13 children were born.

Marina said: “My grandmother, Valerie Simpson, was one of these children, a British subject with a British passport, but never in her life was she able to travel to England.”

At their special homecoming reunion on the island last month, the Brigham descendants shared information and swapped stories and on the Sunday morning there was a special homecoming service in the parish church.

“It was a magnificent effort on Marina’s part, organising the event,” said Rob. “I travelled up from London with members of my family, but there were Brigham descendants there from the US, Australia and Germany.

“We had a connection that wasn’t obvious at first glance, but through research we knew we were all connected to a ship captain who settled on Holy Island. It was great to see all those people and to hear their stories.”