Friday, January 1, 2010

The Mystery of Ball Hughes name and birthdate Solved?

A recent email inquiry from a researcher in Australia got me thinking again about the discrepancy in Ball Hughes middle name and his birthdate. I didn't know when and how Robert acquired the middle name “Ball” since it didn't appear to be a family name. His birth year has been widely reported as 1806 instead of 1804 as reported by his wife Eliza and the family genealogy. This makes a difference because he was so young when he entered the Royal Academy in 1818. Then I realized that I had a clue all along. A copy of the record of marriage for Robert and Eliza Mary Wright on November 2, 1828 from All Souls Church, in the Parish of St. Marylebone, in the County of Middlesex, held the clue.

The copy of the marriage record was obtained by a descendant of Ball Hughes in 1891 and passed down through the Brown family. It lists Robert's name as “Robert Balls Hughes” from the parish of Saint Martin in the Fields in the County of Middlesex. I thought that “Balls” may have been misspelled in transcription. Every reference to Robert Ball Hughes in articles and books has his middle name spelled “Ball.” I didn't think anything about the name of his parish at the time.

I assumed that Robert added the middle name “Ball” sometime before he entered the Royal Academy. An account of Ball Hughes in London by John Neal gives us a rare account of Ball Hughes early works and personality. According to Hughes the Sculptor by John Neal (1793-1876) from American Phrenological Journal Vol. 49.--No. 8, New York: March 1869, p. 98: “This eminent artist, generally known here, through a strange misapprehension, as “Ball” Hughes, was a man of great originality and fine genius; but wayward, whimsical, and capricious.” The quote marks around Ball are in the article.

Neal's comment in his article above about the name “Ball” made me wonder if Ball Hughes acquired this name for himself by a misunderstanding or for some other reason unknown to us. The Royal Academy listed Robert Balls Hughes as his name when he entered the Academy in 1818. I wondered if his name was misspelled twice (on the RA records and the marriage record) since he was never known as Robert Balls Hughes after his marriage record in 1828. His name is recorded by the Royal Academy as Robert Ball Hughes in 1819 and 1822, when he won silver medals. After arriving in New York in 1829, he was widely known as Robert Ball Hughes.

Regrading the discrepancy in Ball Hughes year of birth, most sources since one in 1843, quoted by Orcutt in Good Old Dorchester, cite Jan 19, 1806. Only The American Cyclopedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, Volume IX by Ripley and Dana, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874, cites 1804 as his year of birth. According to a family genealogy prepared by his Grandson, George Edward Brown (1857-1933), Robert's date of birth was Jan. 19, 1804. Ball Hughes grave monument in Mt. Auburn Cemetery also shows his date of birth as Jan. 19, 1804.

One family document shows 1804 crossed out and 1806 written in. His fathers name was John Hallett Hughes (1773-1824/1827) and his mothers name was Amelia. He was born Jan. 19, 1804 and his father was a carriage maker of Long Acre (street), Middlesex according to the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes by Mrs. E. Ball Hughes. His mothers maiden name is believed to be Amelia Susannah Rogers, who was a cooper in London according to a court record from 1796.

Ball Hughes daughter, Georgina, was quoted in article about Ball Hughes in the (Boston) Sunday Globe, March 1907 as saying that her father was born in 1806. You would think that his family would have known his actual birth year. To add more confusion, a death notice from The New England Historical & Genealogical Register For the Year 1868, Vol. XXII says he died at age 62. That would have him born in 1806.

According to the Royal Academy of Arts Archivist, Mark Pomeroy, “Robert Balls Hughes entered the schools 3 Sep 1818, aged 14, as a sculptor...Fourteen is a young age at which to enter the Schools. Among the students entering at roughly the same date were William Bewick, William Boxall, Edwin Landseer (who was 16) and Richard Westmacott Jr. the sculptor.” If 14 was young, 12 would have been very unlikely. This was still not the proof I was looking for. I thought that a baptismal record from a church in London, England might help settle the birthdate question, but which church?

And now we have the answer. The clue was the name of Robert's parish on his marriage record. I contacted the parish of Saint Martin in the Fields, located in Trafalgar Square in London. I was referred to the City of Westminster Archives that keeps parish records from the London area. According to his baptismal record on 17 Feb 1804, Robert Balls Hughes was born on 19 Jan 1804, making him 14 when he entered the Royal Academy and almost 19 when he won the gold medal in 1823. We don't know how his birth year became recorded as 1806 in many reference works or why some members of his own family thought he was born in 1806 after his death. We don't know why his parents gave him the middle name “Balls” or when and why he changed it to “Ball.”

One mystery solved and another partially solved. Ball Hughes was born on Jan. 19, 1804 and was baptized Robert Balls Hughes on Feb. 17, 1804. The baptismal record was uploaded to the International Genealogical Index by the City of Westminster Archives after my inquiry. I don't think I ever would have learned this information without Robert's parish name on the marriage record. See the Biography webpage at to view the baptismal record and the copy of the marriage record.

Rev. 1/4/2010

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