Elders and Fyffes and Atcherley – Part 1

Robert Atcherley, born 1868 in Liverpool – my second cousin three times removed – was easy to find on the censuses of 1871 and 1881, when he was a child living with his elders. But my searches for Robert as an adult on the census schedules from 1891 to 1911 proved fruitless – had I slipped up somewhere? I had not, there was no genealogical banana skin, but in this case it turned out that where there are bananas, kin can be found. Even when a person evades the census, details of their life can still be revealed by other records – if you keep your eyes peeled.

Robert Atcherley [] was the first child of Shropshire-born couple Samuel Atcherley and his wife Helen (née Brookes). The record of Robert’s baptism, which took place at Wavertree Holy Trinity (pictured below) on 16 February 1868, shows that the Atcherley family was then living in Smithdown Road and that Samuel was a clerk.


By 1871 the Atcherleys had moved to Highfield Road in Walton on the Hill. Three year old Robert now had a baby sister, Helena (named as Eleanor on the census schedule) and his father Samuel was still a clerk, to a linen merchant. Ten years on and the family were living in Green Lane, Maghull, where Samuel and Helen would spend most of their remaining years together. Robert (13) and his sister Helena (10) were at school, and the latest (and last) addition to the family was Samuel junior, aged 3. After which, Robert Atcherley disappeared. Or so it seemed.

Robert ‘reappeared’ on 20 June 1921, forty years after he was last enumerated on a publicly accessible UK census, when he married his first cousin Gertrude Elizabeth Brookes [] at High Ercall, Shropshire (see Kissing Cousins). The marriage register (a copy of which I viewed at Shropshire Archives) showed that Robert, 53, was a resident of the parish, living at Poynton. It also recorded his occupation as “fruit merchant (retired)” and his marital status as “widower”. This vital record revealed vital clues which would help to solve the mystery of Robert’s four decade long ‘absence’.

Another valuable piece information resulted from one of my many internet searches for the Atcherley surname. Tucked away in a 345-page PDF document entitled A Guide to Sources of Information on Foreign Investment in Spain 1780-1914 I found details of a record relating to Elders & Fyffes Ltd. That record, held at Archivo del Banco de España, was summed up as follows:

Sucursales, Tenerife: correspondence relating to its current account in the Banco de España branch in Tenerife; letters of procuration 1901-07; Sucursales, Las Palmas: letters of procuration given to Henry Wolfson 1901; and to Robert Atcherley 1902.”

Elders & Fyffes Ltd was formed by the merger of two existing fruit and vegetable businesses which, according to a notice in The Times of 10 May 1901, had been “carried on by the firm of Elder, Dempster, and Co., and by Fyffe, Hudson, and Co. (Limited) at London, Liverpool, the Canary Islands, and elsewhere”. As Campbell McCutcheon noted in his book Elders and Fyffes, A Photographic History: “Elder Dempster had the shipping and banana importation experience while Fyffes could sell fruit. It was a match made in banana heaven.”

The Directors of the new company were Sir Alfred Lewis Jones, Arthur H Stockley, Alfred Roger Ackerley (known as Roger), Edward Cecil Barker, Henry Wolfson, John Milberne Leacock – and a fruit merchant named Robert Atcherley.

Fyffe, Hudson & Co Ltd was itself the result of a merger. E W Fyffe, Son and Company, headed by Edward Wathen Fyffe, first imported bananas into the UK, from the Canary Islands, in 1888. The firm entered into partnership with Hudson Brothers (their distributors) in 1896. Fyffe left the company which traded under his name the following year; a notice published in the London Gazette shows that his involvement with the business ended on 30 June 1897.

It seems likely that Robert Atcherley came to Elders & Fyffes from Elder, Dempster & Co. This operation was formed in the latter part of 1868 by Alexander Elder and John Dempster, who acted as agents for the newly created British & African Steam Navigation Company. Elder and Dempster were more than just shipping agents however – when a sale of shares in British & African Steam Navigation Company was advertised in 1883, it was stated that “An agreement exists between the Company and Mr. Alexander Elder and Mr. John Dempster, under which those gentlemen act as Managers of the Company.” This agreement had been set out in the British & African’s Articles of Association in November 1869.

Elder, Dempster & Co was another business which traded under the names of its founders long after they had retired from the company. In this case, Alexander Elder and John Dempster departed on 31 December 1884, leaving their firm in the very capable hands of Alfred Lewis Jones, plus William John Davey. 1884, coincidentally, is said to be the year in which Elder, Dempster & Co began to bring bananas back to Britain.


The importation of bananas to the British Isles in any quantity only became feasible because of the invention of the steamship. Even then, trade in this delicate and highly perishable fruit was only possible from plantations which were no more than a week’s voyage away from our shores. The banana plantations situated on the Canary Islands – where Elder & Dempster’s steamers stopped to take on water and coal – were ideally situated.

A column in the Inverness Courier of 17 May 1892 stated:

The Plantain industry, that is the supplying of the English markets with bananas, is of comparatively recent origin […]. The taste for the banana is an acquired one, but it is one that seems to be very quickly acquired, for since a Liverpool line of steamers some six or seven years ago began taking home bananas from the Canaries on their return voyages from the West Coast of Africa—at first as a speculation but now as a most paying freight—the demand for this rich luscious fruit has increased by leaps and bounds till now our imports may be counted by the thousands of tons, to produce which the cultivation of other products is being set aside, and these islands are being transformed into market gardens, and miles of land now grow bananas for our markets and tables.

I have yet to discover exactly when Robert Atcherley’s association with Elder, Dempster & Co., and the Canary Islands, began. However I suspect that it was before 1891, which would explain his absence from that year’s census.

The first real clues as to Robert’s residence and line of work come from the records of his first marriage. This was an event which I had some difficulty tracking down when I first tried, a few years ago. Nowadays however, with the proliferation of online digitised records, it is a simple task. The addition of Irish civil registration indexes to FamilySearch provided the breakthrough I needed, and more recently the Irish newspapers at the British Newspaper Archive (which I access through Findmypast) have added greater detail with this report from the Derry Journal of 15 September 1893:

Atcherley & Johnston—September 7, at the Parish Church of Ballyboy, King’s County, by Rev. T. L. O’Flaherty, rector of Clonoulty, assisted by the Rev J. A. Ford, Vicar of Eyrecourt, Robert Atcherley, Telde, Las Palmas, Grand Canary, to Helena Anastasia, daughter of the late Robert Johnston, Cashel, county Donegal.

And now, images of Irish Civil Registration records can be viewed online, including that of Robert and Helena’s marriage. This shows that Robert Atcherley was a bachelor and a shipping house agent, and gave his address as Green Lane House, Maghull, Lancashire (the home of his parents), while Helena Anastacia Johnston was a spinster who resided at Ballyboy Rectory in Frankford, King’s County (now County Offaly). It also shows that at the end of the ceremony there were two ladies by the name of Helena Atcherley present – Robert’s new wife, and his sister, who signed the register as a witness!

Helena Johnston was born on 1 April 1857 at Cashel in the parish of Tullaghobegley, County Donegal, and baptised in the parish church on the tenth day of the following month. The record of this event named her parents of Robert Johnston and Catherine Dick (who were wed in 1848 at Omagh). 1857 was, coincidentally, the year in which Griffith’s Valuation of the Union of Letterkenny in County Donegal was published, which included Robert Johnston in the listing for Tullaghobegley parish. Robert then held a house, office and land, totalling more than 60 acres, in fee. He also leased houses and land to Robert Lackey, Margaret McCullagh, Margery McConnell and Margaret Curran.

I know little about Helena Johnston’s life before her marriage. It appears that she had three brothers: Robert George Johnston, the Rev John Wybrants Johnston, and Thomas Johnston. When the 1881 census of England and Wales was taken, Helena was residing with her uncle and aunt, James and Elizabeth Dick, in Deptford, Kent.

Did Helena meet Robert Atcherley while she was in England? Or did this couple became acquainted on Grand Canary, or perhaps on one of Elder Dempster’s steamships? However they met, they would spend most of their married life in and around Las Palmas, and share a number of trips to and from England. Their second voyage together as Mr and Mrs Atcherley (after a trip from Ireland to England), was aboard the British & African Steam Navigation Company’s Loanda. This began at Liverpool on 23 September 1893, just over two weeks after their wedding. The ship was heading for the West coast of Africa, but the Atcherleys’ destination was Grand Canary.


On to Part 2.

Picture credits. Wavertree Holy Trinity: From a photo by and © copyright Sue Adair, taken from Geograph and adapted, used, and made available for re-use under a Creative Commons licence. Canary Islands’ Bananas: Photo by Frank Vincentz, taken from Wikimedia Commons and adapted, used, and made available for re-use under a Creative Commons licence. Map of Western part of the Canary Archipelago: Adapted from an image on page 65 of Medeira and the Canary Islands (published 1896), taken from the British Library Flickr photostream; no known copyright restrictions.


[1] Birth of Robert Atcherley registered at West Derby, March quarter 1868; volume 8b, page 277.
[2] 1871 census of England and Wales. Piece 3831, folio 77, page 55.
[3] 1881 census of England and Wales. Piece 3744, folio 89, page 20.
[4] Marriage of Samuel Atcherley and Helen Brookes registered at Wellington, Shropshire, June quarter 1867; volume 6a, page 1327.
[5] Holy Trinity, Waverton, Lancashire, baptism register covering 1868: entry for Robert Atcherley. Copy viewed at Ancestry – Liverpool, England, Church of England Baptisms, 1813-1906. Transcript at Lancashire OPC website (Baptisms at Holy Trinity in the District of Wavertree, Liverpool … 1857 – 1870). Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch I00595-4, Film2147886, Ref. No. 454.
[6] Marriage of Robert Atcherley and Gertrude E Brookes registered at Wellington, Shropshire, June quarter 1921; volume 6a, page 1563.
[7] High Ercall, Shropshire, marriage register covering 1921. Entry for Robert Atcherley and Gertrude Elizabeth Brookes. Copy viewed at Shropshire Archives.
[8] Teresa Tortella (2000), A Guide to Sources of Information on Foreign Investment in Spain 1780-1914. PDF copy downloaded from International Institute of Social History website.
[9] The Times, 10 May 1901, page 4. Copy viewed at The Times Digital Archive.
[10] Campbell McCutcheon (2013), Elders and Fyffes: A Photographic History. Introduction. Previewed at Google Books.
[11] J R Ackerley. Formerly at: The Knitting Circle (website). Archive copy viewed at archive.is.
[12] Peter N. Davies (1990), Fyffes and the Banana: Musa sapientum. A Centenary History, 1888-1988. Pages 54 – 60 and 99. Snippets viewed at Google Books.
[13] The Blue Label. At: Fyffes (website). Note: Page content changed since originally viewed in 2014.
[14] London Gazette, issue 26890, 10 Sep 1897, page 5072.
[15] Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser, 22 Oct 1868, page 2. New Line of Steamers Between Glasgow, Liverpool and the West Coast of Africa. Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[16] Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser, 7 Jan 1869, page 2. West Coast of Africa. Steam from Liverpool to Sierra Leone, Direct. Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[17] Gore’s Liverpool General Advertiser, 24 Jun 1869, page 2. British & African Steam Navigation Co. Steam from Liverpool to West Coast of Africa. Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[18] London Evening Standard, 9 Apr 1883, page 1. The British and African Steam Navigation Company (Limited). Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[19] Gordon Myers (2004), Banana Wars, The Price of Free Trade. Page 5. Copy previewed at Google Books.
[20] London Gazette, issue 25429, 2 Jan 1885, page 39.
[21] Inverness Courier, 17 May 1892, page 5. The Fortunate Islands. Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[22] Derry Journal, 15 Sep 1893, page 1. Marriages. Copy viewed at Findmypast (search term Atoherley).
[23] Ballyboy, King’s County (Offaly), Ireland, marriage register covering 1893, entry for Robert Atcherley and Helena Anastacia Johnston. Copy of General Register Office (Oifig An Ard-Chláraitheora) copy viewed at IrishGenealogy.ie (completion of Captcha and provision of name required to view index, then click to view image 2).
[24] Tullaghobegley, County Donegal, Ireland, baptism register covering 1857. Entry for Helena Anastacia Johnston. Abstract viewed at ROOTSIRELAND.ie (subscription required).
[25] Drumragh Parish (including Omagh) Marriage Announcements 1785-1849. At: The County of Tyrone Ireland Genealogical Research Website.
[26] Richard Griffith (1857), Union of Letterkenny: Valuation of the Several Tenements comprised in the above-named Union, situate in the County of Donegal. Page 47. Copies viewed at Ask about Ireland and at Findmypast – Griffith’s Valuation 1847-1864. Indexed at the Donegal Genealogy Resources Website.
[27] Nancy Barginear (2002), Robert Johnston m. Catherine Dick, abt. 1848, IRE. At: Ancestry Message Boards.
[28] Nancy Barginear (2011), post to County Donegal Historical Society forum.
[29] 1881 census of England and Wales. Piece 714, folio 43, page 30. 5 Wickham Road, Deptford, Kent, England. Head: James N Dick, 49, Medical Inspector Hospital [“Practitioner” added by enumerator], born Ireland. Wife: Elizabeth M Dick, 36, born Scotland. Son: George Dick, 11, born Alverstoke, Hampshire. Son: James D Dick, 9, born Alverstoke, Hampshire. Dau: Helen Dick, 8, born Alverstoke, Hampshire. Dau: Ethel Dick, 5, born Ireland. Dau: Maud A Dick, 3, born Ireland. Son: Robert N Dick, 1, born St Paul’s Deptford. Niece: Helena Johnston, 24, born Ireland. Plus a nurse and a general servant.
[30] The National Archives, Kew. Item ref BT27 132 (Outwards Passenger Lists). Passenger list for the SS Loanda, departing Liverpool, England, 23 Sep 1893. Copy viewed at Ancestry – UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960.