By 1783 thousands of Loyalists had congregated in the New York City region, the last British stronghold in the rebellious colonies. Rather than face hostile neighbours, pledge allegiance to a state which they had fought against or return to ruined property, they chose to leave. Some Loyalists returned “home” to England or sailed to other British colonies in the Caribbean. Most, however, migrated to what remained of British North America, with many arriving in Nova Scotia which included present-day New Brunswick. For the most part, the Loyalists were ordinary folk – small farmers, labourers, servants, skilled craftspeople and in some cases, slaves. Some were prominent and wealthy, most were not.
Leaving most of their property behind, the Loyalists embarked from New York as part of several fleets from the spring of 1783 until the spring of 1784. A few prized possessions made this journey as well including a brass warming pan with Long Islander Elizabeth Robinson Merritt (c. 1731 – after 1802). Family tradition states that Elizabeth Robinson was born in Londonderry, Ireland, the daughter of Patrick Robinson and brought the pan from England to New York prior to her marriage to Robert Merritt (10 March 1731 – 8 December 1802) about 1750 at Hempstead, Long Island, New York. Robert Merritt was the son of Thomas Merritt and Mary Underhill. In New York, the Merritts had six, possibly seven children and in 1783, they migrated first to Shelburne, Nova Scotia, then to New Brunswick, settling at Hampstead. The children: Annie, Mary, Robert, Caleb, Gilbert Robinson, Israel, and possibly John. Several other Merritt families were also Loyalists, settling in Kings County at Greenwich, Clifton Royal and Hampton.
The children of Elizabeth and Robert Merritt inter-married with other local Loyalists. Annie married John Golding, Mary to Philip Heustis, Robert to Effie Palmer, Caleb to Mary Perley, Israel to Mary Ann Peters and Gilbert to Phoebe Birdsell on 18 July 1790. Phoebe Birdsill (1771-1868) was the daughter of Loyalists Benjamin Birdsill (1743-1834) of Salem, Massachusetts and Rachel Carpenter (1737-1834). The Birdsills settled along the Jemseg River as Loyalists. The children also spread out from Hampstead with Israel, for example, settling in Johnston Parish.
Gilbert (1765-1846) and Phoebe Merritt lived at Hampstead, near present day Queenstown, and had eleven children. Their eldest son, Abraham (1797-1872) married first Ruth Peters and then Sally Hendry Vanwart, a widow, and had children with both women. The warming pan then passed to Ruth Merritt, a daughter of the first marriage, who married George Clarke. The pan then descended to Ruth Merritt Clarke’s daughter, Phebe Elizabeth Clark who married Reid Slipp; to their son, George Bayard Slipp who married Phebe Eveline Vanwart; and finally to their daughter, Ruby Elizabeth Slipp who married Reverend Randolph Braman, 28 September 1929. Mrs. Braman, the 7th generation to own the warming pan, very kindly donated it to Queens County Heritage in 1988.
Warming pans were used to warm beds prior to sleeping. Hot coals from a fire would be placed inside the pan, the lid closed, and then holding the mahogany handle, the pan was run between the bed sheets to take out the winter chill. While not unusual, warming pans were owned by people of some means and refinement and obviously, the more decoration, the more means. The pan itself is lathe turned with the lathe marks clearly visible on the reverse. The finely decorated lid demonstrates the work of a talented 18th century craftsperson and thus the status of Elizabeth Robinson at the time of her 1750 marriage. And the fact that it was saved by the family and passed through seven generations also demonstrates its value.
But the warming pan almost didn’t make it to us! Another family story is that when the Loyalists first arrived, they often built their homes close to the river, the primary source of transportation. The settlers did not realize, however, the magnitude of the spring flooding. In the 1790s there was a tremendous flood in the lower river valley, the Merritt house was inundated and many of their possessions were swept away, including the warming pan. Later that summer, the pan was discovered down river, caught up among the grasses of the shoreline. How very fortunate! Not only were the Merritt’s, Clarke’s and Slipp’s toes kept toasty in the 19th century, we are able to admire a fine piece from the 18th century with an incredible story.
For more information about the warming pan or to see it in person, visit the Loyalist Legacy exhibition at the Tilley House, Gagetown.