J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 08, 2018

The Life of Owen Richards, Customs Man

Owen Richards was born in Wales, according to what he testified to the Loyalists Commission in 1784. Two years earlier he had told the royal government he was “now near Sixty Years of Age,” meaning he was born in the mid-1720s.

In 1744, again by his own account, Richards came to Boston. He had been “bred a Seaman” and made his living as a mariner of some sort. On 14 Dec 1745 the Rev. Timothy Cutler of Christ Church, the Anglican congregation the North End, married Richards and Rebecca Sampson.

Owen and Rebecca Richards had three children baptized at Christ Church, as preserved in its records:

  • Elizabeth on 26 Apr 1752.
  • James on 15 Feb 1756.
  • Joseph Prince on 26 Feb 1758.
In addition, there were two older sons in the family: William and John Lloyd.

Owen Richards became a steady part of Boston’s Anglican community. At some point he bought pew #75 in Christ Church. He sponsored four baptisms at King’s Chapel between 1750 and 1769 and stood godfather to three babies at Christ Church in 1766 and 1767. (Notably, the third of those North End babies appears to have been the son of John Manley, America’s first naval hero.)

In 1759, Richards bought a house on North Street, showing that he had earned some money at sea—and in his thirties he was getting ready to settle down. That deed listed his profession as “rigger,” someone expert in rigging the ropes and sails of ships. In February 1761 Richards was one of two executors for the estate of another rigger named William Prince, whom Joseph Prince Richards might have been named after.

In early 1764, the Boston News-Letter ran a series of ads in which Owen Richards promoted his services as an auctioneer. At the “North End New-Auction Room” he offered “Sundry sort of Goods”: new and secondhand clothing, cloth, a mahogany table, tobacco, and so on. He promised people with goods to sell, especially in-demand “Checks and Linens of all Sorts,” that he would get them the best possible prices and prompt payment.

It wasn’t a good time to enter business. There was a postwar recession. By February, Richards had to assure customers, “The Small-Pox is not anywhere nigh to the North End New Auction-Room.” In January 1765 Nathaniel Wheelwright’s bankruptcy shocked the Boston business community.

At some point, Owen Richards gave up his own business and took a steady, if unpopular, government job: he went to work for the royal Customs service. Exactly when he became a Customs man isn’t clear in the sources.
  • In 1782 Richards wrote that he had “been in the Service of his Majesty by Sea and Land near Thirty Years, the greatest part of that Time in his Majestys Customs at Boston.” That might have included some naval or privateering service during the 1750s, and he probably counted the Revolutionary War years when he wasn’t really able to do the job.
  • Customs Commissioner Henry Hulton wrote that Richards “had been many years Tidesman in this Port” before 1770.
  • However, in 1784 the earliest documentation for his Customs work that Richards could supply was an “Appointment & Deputation dated 8th of April 1768.” Now that might have been after a promotion or a new appointment under the Commissioners, who arrived in 1767.
As a Customs officer, Owen Richards became significant in the development of the American Revolution, as I’ll start to discuss tomorrow.

Returning to Richards’s personal story, his wife Rebecca died on 1 Sept 1758, leaving an infant and a two-year-old. Less than three months later, Owen remarried to Elizabeth Tucker at the Brattle Street Meetinghouse.

In February 1771, Richards, now listing himself as a “gentleman,” deeded the house he was still administering for the estate of William Prince to his sons William, John Lloyd, and James, the last then fifteen years old.

(As for daughter Elizabeth, she had married a man named Charles Perrin at King’s Chapel in August 1768, when she was sixteen. Their first child, George, was born the following June but died at four weeks. Their daughter Mary was baptized in 1771.)

On the list of Loyalists departing Boston in 1776, Richards appeared among other Customs employees as a “coxswain.” No family members were listed as leaving with him. However, in 1782 he told the government he had “a helpless Wife & four Children” to look out for.

The Loyalists Commission awarded Richards £120 in compensation for his property lost in Boston, plus a pension of £30 per year. He collected that until 1800, when he presumably died.

TOMORROW: Owen Richards and the Lydia.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

According to the historian Oliver M. Dickerson, on 10 Apr 1768 the Customs Collector Joseph Harrison wrote a detailed report on the Boston Customs office, listing employees, their length of service, and their salaries. That’s in the Treasury Department papers of the British National Archives. So there is presumably solid evidence of when Owen Richards went to work for the department.