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UNSUNG HERO: History student campaigns for memorial to famous explorer in Abbots Langley

 Published on: 8th July 2024   |   By: Annabel Stock   |   Category: Uncategorized

A Dutch history student is campaigning to install a new memorial to a famous explorer at a church in Abbots Langley.

Fabiënne Tetteroo, who is from The Hague, has been researching the life of British Royal Navy officer and explorer James Fitzjames for three years. She is writing a dissertation about him as part of her Master’s degree in Naval History. She is also working on a biography of Fitzjames’ life, which she hopes to publish along with a collection of his letters.

Fabiënne first discovered Fitzjames and his connection to Abbots after watching the TV series The Terror, a fictionalised account of the failed British voyage to the Arctic. The voyage was led by Captain Sir John Franklin and involved two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which departed England in 1845. Fitzjames was Captain of Erebus and third in command of the mission. Tragically, everyone on the expedition perished after their ships became stuck in pack ice. Fitzjames’ remains have not yet been found or identified.

Fitzjames was born on July 27, 1813, as the illegitimate son of diplomat Sir James Gambier.

At an early point in his life, Fitzjames was adopted by Robert and Louisa Coningham, a couple who settled for long periods of time in Abbots Langley and Watford during Fitzjames’ youth. Around 1820, the family lived at the Manor House in Abbots Langley and, in 1832, they acquired the Rose Hill estate in the village.

After tracking down the Coninghams’ descendents, Fabiënne was able to read many of his letters which were still in the family’s possession.

Speaking to ABBOTSnews, she said: “In his letters, Fitzjames looks back very fondly on the time he spent in Abbots Langley. He says at one point: ‘Sweet Herts — I love it and all connected to it.’

“Abbots Langley meant so much to him and he deserves to be commemorated like some of his fellow officers. Nobody ever did that for him because his illegitimacy was considered scandalous, and his family didn’t want to draw too much attention to their connection to him.”

Reading letters and journals in the family’s personal archive has given Fabiënne a unique insight into Fitzjames’ story. She now believes she has identified who Fitzjames’ biological mother is, something which has been shrouded in mystery until now and whose identity Fabiënne will reveal in her upcoming biography.

She said: “I’m so pleased. I had given up hope of ever finding out who she was.”

Fabiënne also tracked down a collateral descendent of Fitzjames who was a suitable candidate to have his DNA compared to various Franklin expedition remains found by search teams. She is still waiting to hear whether it is a match.

She said: “He was 32 when he went on his final expedition. He was so full of hope and it’s so sad that it ended in such tragedy. They made so many avoidable mistakes and it’s such a shame that so many young people died.

“Fitzjames was beloved by his family and many friends and was considered a universal favourite in the Navy. He was a soldier who fought bravely in the Syria War and the First Opium War, but he was also a poet and fond of pranks.

“His letters show him to be a charming, funny, intelligent and sensitive man. While he was a 19th century man, he seems very modern and like the kind of guy I would love to go for a glass of wine with!”

As Fitzjames attended St Lawrence’s Church in Abbots Langley, Fabiënne feels it would be the perfect home for a memorial to the enigmatic explorer. She has already submitted a proposal to the church and, after deciding on design and cost, will set up a crowdfunding campaign.

On Saturday, July 27, Fabiënne will lead a Fitzjames historical tour of Abbots Langley, Watford and Rickmansworth. The tour is free but signing up is required and places are limited. You can sign up at www.jamesfitzjames.com/news

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2 Comments

  1. Sophia July 9th, 2024, 12:58 am

    Wow! Such a great idea, it would be amazing to keep Fitzjames story alive in this place he loved!

  2. Sylvia Wright July 9th, 2024, 7:15 am

    What a brilliant idea!
    James Fitzjames is my great something uncle.

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