Sir Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner

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Sir Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner

Hilgrove Turner.jpg

This biography by Mike Bisson was first added to the site in 2011. It was not until ten years later that Sir Tomkyns' involvement in the slave trade became public knowledge

Lady Hilgrove Turner

General Sir Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner (1764-1845) was Lieut-Governor of Jersey from 1814 to 1816.

Slave owner

His reputation was considerably tarnished by the revelation in a 2021 report commissioned by Jersey Heritage that he was heavily involved in the slave trade.

His attitude to slavery seems to have been somewhat ambivalent. He was Governor of Bermuda from 1826 to 1832. There were approximately 4,000 enslaved people living there during his tenure. He wrote many letters and reports to the Colonial Office about their emancipation. In October 1826 he wrote to the Colonial Office giving options on stages of emancipation. In November 1828 he oversaw an act which enabled enslaved people and people of colour to give evidence in Court. In December 1828 he wrote that he hoped a bill would soon be passed 'for the freedom of all children born of a coloured female slave and a white man'.

But at the same time he was the owner of slaves in Jamaica. When slavery was made illegal in British colonies he claimed compensation in 1834 for the 485 slaves he had owned there.


He was long recognised as a Jerseyman, but although his mother was undoubtedly born in the island, it now seems likely that her son was born in or near London.

His father was Richard Turner MD, and his mother, Madeline Hilgrove, daughter of Jurat Charles Hilgrove, who was son of Charles, Constable of St Helier from 1697 to 1703, the son of Thomas, licensed taverner in St Helier in 1645, in turn the son of William Hilgrove of White Parish near Salisbury, a soldier in a regiment stationed in Jersey, who had settled in the island, and married Alice Romeril.

The future General was born, according to his tombstone at Grouville, on 12 January 1764. When he died, both the Chronique and the Jersiais described him as "a native of this isle". In his first speech after his appointment as Lieut-Governor in 1814 he said that he was proud to be able to say that he was a Jerseyman. In 1815, when the States passed a vote of thanks to him, the mover said: "Our country should congratulate itself on having given birth to so distinguished a man".

So George Balleine concludes in his A Biographical Dictionary of Jersey: “His birth in Jersey may be accepted as a fact, though his name does not appear in any baptism register. Perhaps his father disapproved of infant baptism.” [1]

Subsequent genealogical research indicates that he was actually born in Uxbridge, Middlesex, where his father was a surgeon, on 12 January 1764, as shown in the Dictionary of National Biography.


He obtained a commission in the 3rd Foot Guards in February 1782, and was promoted Lieutenant and Captain, in October 1789. He went to Holland in February 1793 with the Brigade of Guards, and fought in the Battle of St Armand and at the capture of Valenciennes. Here he found his wife, Esther.

Elizabeth Wordsworth, principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, whose family intermarried with the Turners, tells the story:

"He was present in 1793 at Valenciennes at an attack on a convent, whence two youthful sisters, not nuns, were being torn to be given over to some red republicans. One of these sisters, Esther by name, charmed him so much that he offered to marry her himself, and did so. She was but 17. No one knows what became of the other. A portrait of the former still in existence represents her as a beautiful young girl with wayward little curls of dark hair and a lovely pose of head. Her eldest daughter, Madelon, was baptized in a cellar by a priest in a smock frock".

For the next 14 months Turner's regiment was continuously in action, at the siege of Dunkirk, the battles of Cateau and Tournay, and the retreat behind the Waal. He specially distinguished himself at the Capture of Fort St Andre in October 1794.

He was promoted Lt-Colonel in November 1794, and Brevet-Colonel in January. 1801. In this year he went to Egypt. In March his regiment landed at Aboukir under heavy fire, and captured the French guns at the point of the bayonet.

After five months strenuous fighting he was present at the capitulation of Alexandria in September. For his services he was made Knight of the Order of the Crescent by the Sultan and Knight of the Order of St Anne by the Czar.

Rosetta Stone

One article of the capitulation required all curios collected by the French Institute to be handed over to the British. Turner was a keen antiquary, and the reception of these museum treasures was entrusted to him. Among them was the famous Rosetta Stone, discovered by French troops when demolishing a wall, which provided the clue to the deciphering of the hitherto unreadable Egyptian hieroglyphics. Menou, the French General, tried hard to retain this, saying that it was his private property, but Turner insisted. He wrote:

"When first I saw the stone in General Menou's house in Alexandria, it was covered with soft cotton cloth and double matting. When the French understood that we were to possess the antiquities, the covering of the stone was torn off, and it was thrown on its face, and the excellent wooden cases of the rest were broken off. I made several remonstrances, but the chief difficulty was on account of this stone. Lord Hutchinson gave me a detachment of artillerymen and 'devil-cart' with which I went to General Menou's house and carried off the stone amid the sarcasm of numbers of French officers and men. We were the first British soldiers who entered Alexandria. Having seen the other remains of Egyptian sculpture sent on board the Madras, I embarked with the Rosetta Stone, determined to share its fate, on the Egyptienne, and arrived at Portsmouth in February 1802". The stone was placed in the British Museum.

In 1803 Turner was Assistant-Quartermaster-General of the Home Forces, and in 1804 was promoted Brigadier-General. In 1807 he was sent to South America to help in the attack on the Spanish Colony of Buenos Ayres, but before he arrived the attempt had failed. In 1808 he became Major-General, and was given command of a Brigade in London. In 1811 he was made Colonel of the 19th Foot (Yorkshire 1st Riding), a post which he held until his death. In the same year he became Private Secretary to the Prince Regent (later George IV), one of his duties being to take charge of foreign royalties who visited the country.

Jersey appointment

In May 1814 Oxford made him a Doctor of Civil Law. On 23 June 1814 he was appointed to succeed General Sir George Don as Lieut-Governor of Jersey. On 28 July he was knighted by the Prince Regent, and on 8 October was sworn in before the Royal Court. One of his first duties must have pained him as an antiquarian. The military authorities considered the mediaeval chapel of Notre Dame des Pas on Mont de la Ville a danger to the newly-built Fort Regent as affording cover to an attacking enemy, and he was ordered to blow it up. Before doing so he sent a sketch of it to Archaeologia.

A ticklish problem arose in the Militia. General Don had appointed a Philip Mourant Lieutenant of the Town Batteries. For some reason, probably connected with party politics, his fellow-officers published an advertisement in the local papers:

"The officers having been informed that Mr Philip Mourant has obtained a commission in the batteries, it has been unanimously resolved never to acknowledge, receive, or act with the said Philip Mourant as an officer of the corps".

Exactly how Turner solved the problem does not seem to be recorded, but his settlement gave general satisfaction. On 19 December 1815, the Parish Assembly of St Helier passed by a large majority a vote of thanks to him for "his firmness in maintaining the royal prerogative and supporting Mr Mourant", and on 27 December the States unanimously thanked him for "the moderation, wisdom, and firmness" he had shown, and expressed a hope that "under his conciliatory and liberal rule the unhappy political dissensions, which have so long divided the island may for ever disappear".

In 1816 the Government decided that, now that peace was secured, a Lieut-General (Turner had been promoted to that rank in 1815) was no longer needed in Jersey, and in spite of strong petitions from the States he was recalled.


In 1825 he was made Governor of Bermuda, and remained there for six years. In 1830 he was promoted General, and on his return to England was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order and a Groom of the Bedchamber of the Royal Household. About 1835 he returned to Jersey, although his name does not appear in the 1840 census, together with that of his wife and two servants.

Twenty years before, while still Lieut-Governor, he had bought from Josue Falle a house with grounds on the Fief de Vaugaleme, Grouville. From time to time, as opportunity offered, he had bought adjoining strips of land. Now he and his wife made this their home. In 1835 the Board of Ordnance put him in charge of Mont Orgueil. He appointed a veteran artillery-sergeant caretaker, made a charge of sixpence for admission, and used the proceeds for repairs.

He cleared away the debris surrounding St George's Chapel and discovered the coffins of two 16th-century Governors. He died on 6 May 1843, and was buried at Grouville. His wife survived him for 20 years, and died, blind but vigorous to the last, on 13 September 1863. His eldest son, Frederick Henry, became Colonel of the 3rd regiment of Guards. His second daughter, Charlotte, married Henry Octavius Coxe, Bodley's Librarian.

Notes and references

  1. It was by no means uncommon for Balleine, one of Jersey's most respected historians, to accept the Jersey birth of a prominent 'islander' in the absence of any documentary proof. He did the same for celebrated Victorian artist Jean Le Capelain, who was subsequently revealed by Jerripedia editor Mike Bisson to have also been born in London
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