Alexander Hamilton and the Wendover Connection

With the publicity of the musical ‘Hamilton’ the close connection between Wendover’s 18th century Lord of the Manor, John Barker Church and Alexander Hamilton should be recorded. Hamilton, appointed by George Washington as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, and John Barker Church were brothers–in-law. In 1804 Hamilton, using pistols owned by John Barker Church died in a duel with the future vice-president Aaron Burr. The pistols, bought in London by Church were unusual in that they had a concealed hair trigger – what a modern marksman would call a single-set trigger. It has been said that Hamilton booby trapped himself by setting the trigger and firing too soon, before taking good aim with these very sensitive pistols.

John Church, an Englishman, was born in Lowestoft in 1748 into an affluent merchant family and was later set up in business as a London dealer by his wealthy uncle John Barker. At the age of 22, however, speculation on the Stock Exchange, gambling and rumours of duelling resulted in him fleeing to America under the assumed name of John Carter. In Boston he became a well-respected and wealthy marine underwriter and supporter of the cause for American independence. In 1776 at the age of 28 he was sent to Albany, New York to audit the accounts of General Philip Schuyler’s Continental Army. The Army led by George Washington, was formed to coordinate the military efforts of the 13 Colonies in their revolt against the rule of Great Britain. A year later he eloped with Angelica, Philip Schuyler’s eldest daughter. Angelica was a beautiful, intelligent, witty and flirtatious woman whose name was later linked with many scandalous affairs. Alexander Hamilton married Angelica’s sister Elizabeth in December 1780 but rumours of an affair between Angelica and Hamilton scandalized New York society for decades. Despite this, Church and Hamilton were friends, business partners and political colleagues. Hamilton named his second son John Church Hamilton after his brother–in-law.

In 1780 John and a partner were commissioned to supply provisions to the French Army and later to the whole American Army. France, Spain and the Dutch Republic supported the aims of the War for Independence.

After peace had been signed in September 1783, John and Angelica went to Paris to settle his accounts with the French government, and for the next two years travelled between Paris and London. Angelica never failed to enchant the famous influential men she met and in Paris soon became a favourite of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, both American ambassadors in France. In London, Church secured his release from bankruptcy and bought a town house in Sackville Street and a country seat, Down House near Windsor Castle. They entertained lavishly and John became a member of the Carlton House Set, known for their love of wine, women and gambling. Gambling would have been Church’s interest. He left his American banking and land investments in the care of his brother-in-law Alexander Hamilton.

Established in England, Church turned his attention to politics as a Whig and contested a seat at Maldon, Essex in 1787 but without success, gaining only 13 votes out of a possible 224. His political ambitions were realised when in 1789 he was able to buy the Wendover Estate from Earl Verney for £25,600. Wendover was a good choice because at that time Wendover was a “rotten” borough where the 150 voters were able to elect two members to Parliament. As most of those lived in cottages owned by the Lord of the Manor they would have been made well aware for whom they should vote. A plan in the Verney Archive at Claydon House shows Wendover in 1792 naming the tenants of the Borough cottages and gaps where Mr Church had houses pulled down. The Grange on the corner of Aylesbury Road and Wharf Road is labelled Mr Church’s house and premises. It is not known if he actually lived here but as most of the houses were owned by him it seems this was something special. Church did become active in the House of Commons and held advanced views on Parliamentary reform. In 1794, Church needed to return to America and sold the estate back to the Verney family heir for £35,000 who then sold it on to the Smith family who still have interest in the town.

The bankruptcy of a friend and creditor required Church to return to take over the security of 100,000 acres of undeveloped land in Western New York State. He was at times fabulously wealthy but continued to speculate and lost heavily in claims against the French Government. His close friendship with Hamilton was maintained until the duel in 1804. The pistols used in the duel were sold to the Chase Manhattan Bank and displayed in their museum. Church returned to England in 1818 where he died after a few days illness. He is buried in St James, Piccadilly and left only £1,500.

© Val Moir Nov 2017