15 July 2020

Finding Matthew Comberford,
elegant comb maker among
the Pirates of the Caribbean

Two combs by Matthew Comberford and Paul Bennett … sold by Bonham’s earlier this year

Patrick Comerford

Between 1671 and 1692, Matthew Comberford and Paul Bennett were the key figures in the tortoiseshell industry in Port Royal in Jamaica. It was a key industry in Port Royal in the late 17th century, although the place is better known for its pirates who roamed the Caribbean at the time, as a centre of the slave trade, and for its rum and debauchery.

Port Royal, at the mouth of Kingston Harbour in south-east Jamaica, was founded by the Spanish in 1494 and was once the largest city in the Caribbean. It was the centre of shipping and commerce in the Caribbean by the second half of the 17th century, until it was destroyed by an earthquake and a tsunami on 7 June 1692.

Port Royal was once home to privateers who were encouraged to attack Spanish vessels at a time when England and other smaller European powers dared not make war on Spain directly. As a port city, Port Royal was notorious for its gaudy displays of wealth and loose morals. It was a popular home-port for the English and Dutch-sponsored privateers to spend their treasure during the 17th century.

The town was captured by England during the invasion of Jamaica in 1655. By 1659, 200 houses, shops and warehouses had been built around the fort, and by 1692 five forts defended the port.

The English initially called the port Cagway, but soon renamed it as Port Royal. For much of the period between the English conquest and the 1692 earthquake, Port Royal served as the unofficial capital of Jamaica, while Spanish Town remained the official capital.

Combs and comb cases of turtle-shell and tortoiseshell were made by Matthew Comberford and Paul Bennett of High Street, Port Royal, from 1673 until 1692, when Port Royal was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.

These cases and combs have been described as being among ‘the earliest art objects made in the British West Indies displaying European influence.’ The business has been described in detail by Philip Hart in his paper ‘Tortoiseshell Comb Cases: a 17th century Jamaican Craft’ in Jamaica Journal, the quarterly journal of the Institute of Jamaica, Vol 16, No 3 (August 1983), pp 13-20.

Paul Bennett and his successor Matthew Comberford ran Workshops on the High Street in Port Royal, cutting and engraving the shells of the local hawksbill turtle. A spectacular example of their craft was a comb in a case inscribed ‘Port Royal in Jamaica’ and dated 1688. It sold for $22,000 at Sotheby’s in New York in 2018.

Two turtles-hell combs made in Port Royal by Comberford and Bennett in the last quarter of the 17th century were sold at auction for £1,657 (€1,825), including premium, by Bonham’s in Oxford earlier this year (19 February 2020).

The decoration on their surviving comb cases seems to suggest there were two distinct phases of production, possibly following the death of Paul Bennett and when the business was the taken over by Matthew Comberford, who was living in Port Royal from 1673.

The first of the combs sold by Bonhams this year, has well-spaced long teeth, engraved with a coat of arms between flowers and leaves. It measures 24 cm wide x 14.5 cm high. The second comb was double-sided, measuring 21.5 cm wide x 13 cm high.

The catalogue noted that the coat of arms engraved on one of these combs is most unusual. Coats of arms are usually found on comb cases, but more rarely on the combs themselves, and this coat-of-arms has not been identified.

British settlers in Jamaica in the last half of the 17th century brought with them coats of arms to which they were not necessarily entitled. These were often the rightful arms of unrelated armigers with the same surname. Others invented their own arms, often using the exotic flora and fauna of Jamaica. The tree on this comb may well be a palm, native to Jamaica.

Elegant comb-making, with fine art work and heraldic embellishments, seems an unlikely refined business in a Caribbean port associated with pirates and privateers, slave trading and sugar plantations, rum and excessive debauchery. But it caught the imagination of even the most famous pirate of all.

Sir Henry Morgan, better known as a pirate or privateer, was Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica from 1674 to 1682, while Matthew Comberford was living and working in Port Royal. Morgan sent a present to Sir William Coventry in 1676 of ‘two large turtle-shell combs in a case of the same,’ describing them as of ‘no value’ but possibly of interest. Perhaps they too were made by Matthew Comberford.

Matthew Comberford was living in Port Royal from 1673 to 1692. But I have yet to establish his family background.

Was he a member of the Comberford family from Staffordshire?

Was he a member of a branch of the Comerford family in Ireland?

Did he survive the earthquake and tsunami in 1692?

I am being merely speculative when I wonder whether he was related to Nicholas Comberford, the 17th century Stepney cartographer, who was born in Kilkenny and a member of the London Drapers’ Company.

Other researchers ask about the details of Matthew Comberford’s cartoon. Was he a comb-maker, an engraver or a craftsman in tortoiseshell?

As for Port Royal, after the disaster in 1692, its commercial role was steadily taken over by the nearby Kingston, which was designated the capital of Jamaica in 1872. Severe hurricanes have regularly damaged Port Royal, and there was another severe earthquake in 1907.

Port Royal was the one of the settings for the film Captain Blood (1934) starring Errol Flynn. More recently, Port Royal has been featured as a location in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, although much of the location work for Port Royal was actually carried out on the island of Saint Vincent and not in Jamaica.

Plans were put forward in 1999 to redevelop the small fishing town as a heritage tourism destination to serve cruise ships. The plans envisaged Port Royal capitalising on its unique heritage, with archaeological findings from pre-colonial and privateering years providing the basis for possible attractions.

Sir Henry Morgan … pirate in Port Royal and a contemporary of Matthew Comberford

Saint Editha’s Day is on
15 July; but who was
Saint Editha of Tamworth?

Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth, one of the largest and oldest parish churches in the English Midlands … but who was Saint Editha? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church in Tamworth is one of the largest and oldest parish churches in the English Midlands. Today [15 July] is Saint Editha’s Day … but who was Saint Editha?

I was in Saint Editha’s Church last year [9 May 2020] at the invitation of the Tamworth and District Civic Society to speak about the Comberford Family, Comberford Hall and the Moat House.

That visit also provided an opportunity to hear again the story of Saint Editha, and to take time to view the three windows telling that story.

A set of three windows on the south side of the chancel, high above the High Altar, tell the story of Saint Editha and how she became the town’s patron saint.

But, who was Saint Editha?

And why did she give her name to the parish church in Tamworth?

Saint Editha represented in a statue in the south-east corner of the chancel in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Editha is said to have been the devout Christian daughter of Athelstane, King of Mercia, the expansive Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the Midlands that had its ecclesiastical capital in Lichfield and its civic and political capital in Tamworth.

However, the historical identity of Editha or Edith (Ealdgyth) and the dates of her lifespan are uncertain and questions about her historical identity are fraught with difficulties. Some sources say she was a daughter of King Edward the Elder, others say she was the daughter of Egbert of Wessex, while yet other traditions say she was a sister of King Æthelstan.

Saint Editha was to be given in marriage by her father, or her brother, in the year 925 to Sigtrygg, the Norse ruler of Northumbria in the North of England. It was not exactly a love marriage; instead, it was planned as a symbol of peace between the two kingdoms. Fifty years earlier, the Vikings had invaded Mercia from the north, and had ransacked Tamworth.

Legend says Editha refused to marry Sigtrygg unless he agreed to convert to Christianity. The marriage took place in the church in Tamworth, but Sigtrygg reneged on his undertaking, and returned north without Editha. The marriage was never consummated and was annulled.

Saint Editha, who always wanted to be a nun, then joined a convent near Tamworth at Polesworth, which may have been founded by that other Staffordshire saint, Saint Modwen, or Saint Modwenna, a female hermit who lived near Burton-on-Trent.

Editha later became the Abbess of Tamworth, and was known for her charitable deeds. She died in 960, and the memory of her inspired great devotion to her in Tamworth.

In yet another Danish invasion of the Staffordshire area three years later, Tamworth was destroyed once again. King Edgar of England rebuilt Tamworth, and at the same time Editha was declared a saint. The parish church has been dedicated to her ever since.

After the invasion of England in 1066, William the Conqueror gave the lands around Tamworth to the new lord, Marmion. One day after hunting in Hopwas Wood near Tamworth, Marmion fell into a sleep in which he dreamt that Saint Editha had struck him with her crozier of office, causing a deep wound. When he awoke, he found he had been badly wounded indeed.

When the wound refused to heal, Marmion decided to restore Saint Editha’s former nunnery to the Benedictine nuns, who built a new convent on the site.

In the late 19th century, Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), one of the great Pre-Raphaelite painters of his day, was commissioned by a Mr Willington to design the windows telling the story of Saint Editha. These magnificent windows, high up in the clerestory on the south side of the chancel, were made at the studios of William Morris (1834-1896), a Pre-Raphaelite and a member of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The Willington family in Tamworth included Waldyve Willington, Parliamentarian Governor of Tamworth in 1645, John Willington, steward of the Townshend estate at Tamworth Castle in the early 19th century, who lived at the Moat House, the former Comberford family home on Lichfield Street, and Francis Willington, Town Clerk of Tamworth.

The first of three window tells the story of the marriage of Editha of Mercia and Sigtrygg of Northumbria (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

From the east, the first window represents the marriage of Editha of Mercia and Sigtrygg of Northumbria. The left panel shows Athelstane taking Editha by the right hand to give her away in marriage. In the two centre panels, Sigtrygg is seen placing a wedding ring on Editha’s left hand. The pane on the right shows Ella, Bishop of Lichfield, blessing the marriage.

At the top of the window is a Norse galley as an emblem of Sigtrygg. At the foot of the window is the heraldic arms of Athelstane, the Willington family, Sigtrygg and the Bishop of Lichfield. The Willington arms are used here as Saint Editha had no arms herself.

The second window shows Saint Editha and her nuns witnessing a vision of the Virgin Mary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The second window represents Editha, whose nunnery was in Tamworth, as an Abbess with a crozier in her right hand in the first panel, and her nuns with her in the two centre panels, beholding a vision portrayed in the fourth panel of the Virgin Mary, patron of the Benedictine Order to which the nunnery belonged, with the Christ Child.

At the top of this window is panel with the tower of Saint Editha’s nunnery. The nuns had no heraldic arms, so the four panels at the bottom of the window depict the arms of the Willington family, Guy de Beauchamp (1272-1315), 10th Earl of Warwick, and the Bracebridge and Waldyve families, who all claimed descent from King Athelstane of Mercia.

The third window tells the story of the Marmion family of Tamworth Castle and a vision of Saint Editha (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The third window deals with two subjects. The two panels to the left show William the Conqueror resting on a mighty sword, presenting Tamworth Castle to Marmion. The two panels to the right depict Saint Editha striking Marmion with her crozier for banishing the nuns. When he awoke and his wound failed to heal, he allowed the nuns to return.

The panel at the top of this third window shows Tamworth Castle.

The four heraldic panels at the foot of the window depict the arms of William the Conqueror, the Marmion family and their successors at Tamworth Castle, and the Willington family.

Other churches dedicated to Saint Edith include Church Eaton in Staffordshire, Amington Parish Church near Tamworth, Saint Edith’s Church in Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, and a number of churches in Louth, Lincolnshire.

Her feast day is today, 15 July.

The Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth, was the burial place of the Comberford family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)