Chester, Joseph Lemuel (DNB00)

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CHESTER, JOSEPH LEMUEL (1821–1882), genealogist, was born at Norwich, Connecticut, in the United States of America, on 30 April 1821. His father, Joseph Chester, was a grocer, who, dying at Norwich in 1832, left but little property to his family. His mother was Prudee, a daughter of Major Eleazer Tracy; she married secondly the Rev. John Hall, of the episcopal church, Ashtabula, Ohio. At an early age Chester became a teacher in a school at Ballston, New York, and in 1837 clerk in a land agency office in Warren, Ohio. In 1838, in his seventeenth year, he went to New York and commenced the study of the law, but soon abandoned it for the mercantile profession, and was employed as a clerk by Tappan & Co., silk merchants. His literary tastes were early developed; while in New York he contributed articles to the newspapers and magazines of the day, chiefly of a poetic character. The ‘Knickerbocker’ for January 1843 contains a poem by him, entitled ‘Greenwood Cemetery,’ and signed Julian Cramer, his best known pseudonym. The same year his first volume, ‘Greenwood Cemetery and other Poems,’ was published at New York and Boston. He also lectured and visited many of the States as an advocate of temperance. About 1845 he removed to Philadelphia, where he obtained a situation as a merchant's clerk. In 1847 and for some years subsequently he was commissioner of deeds. From 1845 to 1850 he was also the musical editor of Godey's ‘Lady's Book.’ In 1852 he became one of the editors of the ‘Philadelphia Inquirer’ and of the ‘Daily Sun;’ and on the consolidation of the city of Philadelphia in 1854 he was elected a member of the city council. During several sessions of Congress at Washington he visited that city as corresponding editor, and a portion of the time of his residence there he was an assistant clerk in the House of Representatives. He was appointed by the Hon. James Pollock, who was governor of Pennsylvania 1855–8, one of his aides-de-camp, with the military rank of colonel, an appellation by which he was afterwards always known. While at Washington he was employed to sell in England some patent rights, and leaving his native country landed at Liverpool on 6 Sept. 1858. Various causes prevented him from succeeding in his undertaking, but he settled in London and made it his residence thenceforth till his death. For a time he kept up his connection with the newspaper press, and for about three years furnished a weekly letter from London to the ‘Philadelphia Inquirer.’ His first work in his new home was ‘John Rogers, the Compiler of the First Authorised English Bible, the Pioneer of the English Reformation, and its First Martyr,’ 1861, a book of much labour and research. The civil war had then broken out, and while he was thinking of returning to America ‘he received a commission from the United States government for a service which he could render in England,’ and he decided to remain in that country. In the following year he obtained free access to Doctors' Commons as a literary inquirer to examine all wills recorded previous to 1700 and to make copies, and he continued for twenty years to collect materials illustrating the ancestry of American families. In the meantime he made special searches for clients and investigated the English descent of noted Americans. Some of these monographs have been printed by himself or others, but probably the greater number remain in manuscript in the hands of his clients. He unfortunately did not live long enough to publish a pedigree of President Washington, a favourite subject with him for many years; he was unable to satisfy himself as to the actual emigrant whence the American family descended. In pursuance of his genealogical labours he made most extensive extracts from parish registers, and at his death left eighty-seven folio volumes of such extracts, each of more than four hundred pages, seventy of the volumes being carefully indexed. The matriculation register of the university of Oxford, another source of his information, was copied by him between 1866 and 1869. He next made extensive extracts from ‘The Old Marriage Allegations in the Bishop of London's Register,’ extending from 1598 to 1710. His greatest work was the editing and annotating ‘The Marriage, Baptismal, and Burial Registers of the Collegiate Church or Abbey of St. Peter, Westminster,’ dedicated to the queen, London, 1876, 8vo, pp. xii, 631. On this book he spent ten years' labour, and then generously allowed the Harleian Society to issue it as one of their publications. In recognition of his valuable work Columbia College, New York City, conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D. in 1877, and on 22 June 1881 the university of Oxford granted him the degree of D.C.L.

Chester was one of the founders of the Harleian Society in 1869, and a member of the first council of the Royal Historical Society in 1870, and member of many other learned societies both in England and in America. He generously spent half his time in replying to the inquiries of his numerous correspondents. Incessant work at last told on his constitution. He died at his residence, 124 Southwark Park Road, London, 26 May 1882, and was buried in Nunhead cemetery, 31 May. Chester had not the advantage of any early antiquarian training. Till he arrived in England in his thirty-eighth year he had not attempted anything in the line in which he afterwards distinguished himself. Yet when he died he had no superior as a genealogist among English-speaking people.

Chester's literary executor, George Edward Cokayne, Norroy king of arms, sold to Leonard Lawrie Hartley the manuscript of the ‘Matriculations at the University of Oxford’ for 1,500l., and 5 vols. of ‘Marriage Allegations in the Bishop of London's Register,’ &c., for 500l. On the death of Mr. Hartley, these manuscripts were purchased (1885) by Mr. Quaritch. They were printed, the ‘Matriculations’ in eight volumes (1891), and the ‘Marriages’ in one volume (1887), under the editorship of Mr. Joseph Foster. The Harleian Society also printed in 1887 the ‘Marriages’ from a duplicate copy of Chester's manuscript. Chester was the author, editor, or compiler of the following works: 1. ‘Greenwood Cemetery and other Poems,’ 1843. 2. ‘A Treatise on the Law of Repulsion,’ 1853. 3. ‘Educational Laws of Virginia, the Personal Narrative of Mrs. Margaret Douglas,’ 1854. 4. ‘John Rogers, the compiler of the First Authorised English Bible,’ 1861. 5. ‘The Marriage, Baptismal, and Burial Registers of the Abbey of St. Peter, Westminster,’ 1876, which, besides being brought out in the ‘Publications of the Harleian Society,’ was also ‘Privately Printed for the Author.’ 6. ‘The Reiester Booke of Saynte De'nis Backchurch parishe,’ 1878. 7. ‘The Parish Registers of St. Mary Aldermary, London,’ 1880. 8. ‘The Visitation of London,’ 1880, in which he assisted J. J. Howard, LL.D., in editing. 9. ‘The Parish Registers of St. Thomas the Apostle, London,’ 1881. 10. ‘The Parish Registers of St. Michael, Cornhill, London,’ 1882. He was also a contributor to the ‘Register,’ the ‘Heraldic Journal,’ the ‘Herald and Genealogist,’ ‘Transactions of Royal Historical Society,’ ‘Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society,’ the ‘Athenæum,’ the ‘Academy,’ ‘Notes and Queries,’ and other publications.

[Latting's Memoir of Col. Chester, 1882; Dean's Memoir of Col. J. L. Chester, 1884, with a portrait; Marshall's Genealogist, vi. 189*–92* (1882); Athenæum, 3 June 1882, p. 699; Academy, 3 June 1882, pp. 394–5, by W. P. Courtney; Biograph and Review, May 1881, pp. 455–8; Palatine Note-book, ii. 156.]

G. C. B.