Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thomas James Burley

I don’t pretend to understand how things once worked among the Yorkshire gentry, but I’d like to think that all this began at a party, perhaps thrown to honour the accomplished vocalist Thomas James Burley who appeared there in Scarborough in 1872. He’d trained in Italy and sung at La Scala, but his eyes settled that evening on the lovely Priscilla Harris Tindall, heiress to the Tindall shipbuilding fortune, and by June they were married. Two of their children died prematurely, but the third would survive to become my great-grandfather, thus ensuring my children would have music on both sides.

The last I’d looked at my family tree was back in school when we all had to do it for our grade-nine history class. One girl discovered J. M. Barrie, the novelist, among her relations; and another found Mackenzie King, the tenth Prime Minister of Canada, who had actually mentioned seeing her mother as an infant in his famous diaries. I was desperate for a story worth telling, but while my mother and grandmother whispered together of a scandalous divorce long ago among the Tindalls, they’d only tell me those bits of the family history they had first carefully pruned.

It took the great-great-grandson of Thomas Burley’s brother (my fourth cousin, according to those who track such things) to blow the lid off our big family secret. My great-great-grandfather, the opera singer, was a wife-beating drunk, who carried on affairs with the servants, and drove my great-great-grandmother to the exceptional step in 1879 of divorcing the bastard, paying him off, and reclaiming her family name . . . which really could’ve been an empowering story to hear as a teenager were it not clear from the record that I am in fact descended from a long line of unfaithful husbands and failed marriages.

Photo of Thomas James Burley (AKA Senor Burleigh Tesseman)
from A Souvenir of Musical Toronto, 1898. You can read the sad end to his story here.


  1. That is good, especially in those times, that your great great grandmother had the strength to get out of such a bad marriage. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

  2. HA! Well, my great-grandfather on my father's mother's side, was this really pious man. Only when he died - in my early lifetime, so I remember him - did they discover the porn and the booze.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  3. I guess there are skeletons in many closets.
    Haven't heard of any in mine but maybe they are just hidden.
    Interesting post for G.

  4. I am just reading of Effie and John Ruskin, and her bravery in seeking an annulment. My husband's ancestor was fined for dancing in the streets!!!!

  5. I admire those people who take the trouble to find out who their ancestors were.. It's so complicated.
    Have a great day.
    Wil, ABCW Team

  6. Hi Roy, my family and I are in the middle of typing up some family letters dating back to the 1870s written by Hannah Tindall who is my great-great-great-grandmother. We were trying to work out the name of her daughter, Priscilla's, husband and thanks to your blog we have more details. We are particularly intrigued by this "wife-beating drunk" and the "scandalous divorce". We would be very interested to hear more and we would gladly send you copies of the letters. In case you're interested we think that you and I are 4th cousins!
    My email address is
    Thanks, Hannah


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