James Aunger (1812–1878)

James Aunger was baptised 16 May 1812 at St. Stephen’s Church, Exeter. He died on 01 June 1878 in Exeter, aged 66.

James Aunger’s family

His father was James Aunger (born 1785) and his mother was Anne Thomas (born 1785) who were married at Pitminster, Somerset in 1810. They had two sons, James and George.

His brother George William Aunger was baptised at St. Stephen’s Church, Exeter on 13 July 1813, and died in New South Wales, Australia in 1877.

Their uncle was George Aunger (1780- 1859). According to his descendant John Lewis, George Aunger was a sailor who served on the HMS Victory under Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805).

On 9 June 1834, Aunger married Louisa Hadley (1812-1902) at Holy Trinity, Exeter. Their daughter, Louisa Augusta Aunger, was born in 1837 in Exeter and died 18 February 1894 in Exeter.


According to the 1851 UK Census, James Aunger (aged 38) lived in a cottage in Clifton Road, Exeter, with Louisa (aged 39) and Louisa Augusta (aged 14) in the parish of St. Sidwell in the City of Exeter. James’ occupation is a ‘Smith, fitter and turner’ and Louisa is a ‘Laundress’. Also at the address is Elizabeth Hamlyn (age 3) and two servants, Betsy Cockwell (aged 43) and her daughter Elizabeth Cockwell (aged 17).

In the 1871 UK Census, James Aunger’s occupation is a ‘Smith’. His family reside at 13 Codrington Street, Exeter. Also at the property are Elizabeth Hamlyn (niece and milliner) and Sarah Dean (tailoress), a visitor. Codrington Street matches the information given at the time of his donation of an arch harp and geologocal specimens from South America to the Albert Memorial Museum.


Aunger’s occupation of ‘smith, fitter and turner’ indicates an industrial type of ‘smith’ rather than an artisan such as a ‘goldsmith’ or ‘silversmith’. Smithing is one of the oldest metalworking occupations. It was a skilled occupation essential to a variety of trades for support and repair work.

During the nineteenth century, England’s dockyards were self-contained communities of highly skilled craftsmen. It is therefore likely, though unproven, that Aunger was employed in the local Devon shipbuilding industry. He may have worked at a foundry, shipbuilders or docks in Exeter or Topsham, or employed as part of a ship’s crew to travel for hands-on engineering maintenance and repair support.

It is a well-known fact that some anti-slavery ships of the Royal Navy’s West Africa squadron sailed from ports in Devon.

A map showing the volume and direction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Volume and direction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa to all American regions (David Eltis and David Richardson (2010). Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, New Haven.

Connections to the slave trade?

James Aunger’s donation of a West African-made arch harp to RAMM in 1870 tentatively links him to the slave trade. This musical instrument was collected in Cartagena, Colombia and was brought to England. The instrument’s biography is unknown, but it is associated with the Mende people of Sierra Leone. The journey follows the traditional trajectory of the slave trade ‘triangular’ route. Aunger’s involvement, if any, is currently unknown.

Cartagena (Cartagena de Indias) was a primary slaving port in the transatlantic slave trade since the sixteenth century. It held a monopoly on trade in African slaves as it was a major port of entry in mainland Spanish South America. At least a million slaves entered the port of Cartagena. During the eighteenth century Colombia held one of the largest populations of slaves in Spanish America.

It is also worth noting that emancipated Africans may have worked as crewmen on sailing ships. This includes slave ships and might also explain how the arch harp travelled from Cartagena to Britain. How Aunger acquired it remains unknown. It’s possible it was used as part payment, or even gifted to him.

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