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BURGUM FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY


CHAPTER TWO

Sir Benjamin, Thompson, Count Rumford (1753-1814)

Count Rumford is not directly related to the Burgum family. It was his daughter, Sarah Thompson, who adopted Emma Gannell who married into the Burgum family. However the story of Count Rumford is, quite simply, too fascinating to ignore. The man went from American school teacher to British spy, and from scientist to head of the Bavarian Army. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, was "one of the three greatest minds America has produced." (The others were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson). Praise indeed.

Benjamin Thompson was born of unremarkable farming stock in Woburn, Massachusetts, part of the American Colonies of the British Empire, in 1753. (The house still stands as a National Historic Landmark and a museum). After the early death of his father, his mother remarried, bringing up a large family. Education was not always readily available in farming communities at this time, but Ben was lucky enough to receive some schooling. He showed little interest in the drudgery of farm life and took several jobs under apprenticeship, but failed at them all. His attention was always elsewhere.

At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a retail merchant, John Appleton, at Salem some 15 miles away. There he learned a trade and received further tuition in various subjects including algebra and science. Science proved to be Benjamin Thompson's major interest and as a youth he conducted many experiments. Ben's heart was probably not in retailing and he left his job after blowing himself up while experimenting with gunpowder. Ben drifted into several other jobs, but found neither success or satisfaction in any of them.

In Boston, Ben took employment with Mr Hopestill Capen, a dry goods dealer, but a boycott of British goods in 1770 made him redundant. The shop where he worked still stands in Union Street, close to Quincy Market. It is now called Ye Old Oyster House and claims to be the oldest restaurant in Boston. Ben continued to practice self-education and made a point of associating himself with other would-be intellectuals, in particular his friend Loammi Baldwin. Later. He took several temporary teaching postions, a traditional way of improving one's own education.

In 1772, Thompson went to teach at Concord, New Hampshire, at the invitation of the Reverend Timothy Walker. In Concord, just a few years earlier, a wealthy, leading citizen, Col. Benjamin Rolfe took as his bride a young woman named Sarah Walker, the Reverend's daughter.. He was sixty years old; she was thirty. Within two years Rolfe was dead, leaving Sarah Walker Rolfe a rich young widow. Benjamin Thompson entered Concord to take up his teaching job in 1772 and within four months months the poor teacher and the rich widow were married. He was nineteen; she was thirty-three.

Benjamin Thompson now had wealth and position and he began to nuture some important friends including the Governor of New Hampshire, Governor Wentworth. At his own leisure, Thompson was able to indulge himself in the newly developing sciences, while enjoying the life of a country gentleman. The 1770's in Colonial America were, of course, a time of unrest and many bad feelings were rising against Parliament and King George III. This was the time of the Boston Tea Party and ultimately the American War of Independence. As a friend of Governor Wentworth (and, indeed, the Governors of some other States), Thompson felt duty -bound to inform the Authorities of the increasing unrest and of deserters from among the British Army Ranks. Indeed, he became a Major in the Governor's New Hampshire Militia. Eventually his liaisions with the British-appointed Governor had him branded a spy.

By the end of 1774, Benjamin Thompson was forced to flee, leaving behind his wife and a two month old daughter, also called Sarah. He continued his spying activities for a further year, but in March 1776 the British finally abandoned Boston and Thompson fled with them. He settled in England, where is allegiance to the King was rewarded with a senior Civil Service position serving Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies. Further scientific work, mainly in the military field, provided him with a Fellowship of the Royal Society.

Thompson's successes in political and military affairs continued, although he did come under suspicion during the famous La Motte spy trial. (The Frenchman was found guilty of spying against the Navy and was hanged, drawn and quartered!). No proof exists to my knowledge to indicate whether Benjamin Thompson did spy for the French, or not, but he was one of many highly placed figures considered as a "mole". Soon afterwards Thompson commanded his own regiment, the King's American Dragoonsm with the rank of Lt. Col. And experienced some success against the American rebels in South Carolina and New York. As the war grew to a close, he returned to England looking for his next conquest.

Benjamin Thompson travelled around Europe and while visiting Munich, offered his services to the Elector of Bavaria. These were eagarly accepted and King George III endorsed the new appointment by granting Thompson a Knighthood. Sir Benjamin Thompson was employed for his military expertise and organisational skills and he spent the next years modifying the Bavarian Army. He converted it from a rabble to an efficient fighting force, at no extra cost, by such measures as producing its own food. In addition, he transformed the beggar-ridden cities (where crime was a major problem) by placing the street-poor into workhouses producing uniforms for the Army. By paying the beggars with food, shelter and money, he retained most of his cheap work-force.

Science was never very far away from Thompson's mind and he experimented with different clothing fabrics and different food products. Lighting and heating also took his attention for the garrisons and workhouses. As his power increased, so did his influence and in 1789 he built the "English garden". This major park, the Bavarian equivalent of Hyde Park in London, still dominates the centre of Munich to this day. Then, in 1792 Sir Benjamin Thompson was made an Imperial Count of the Holy Roman Empire.

It was then that Count Rumford (as Sir Benjamin Thompson came to be known) receiced a bolt from the blue. It was aletter from his daughter Sarah. She wrote to say that her mother had died and only then had her father's whereabouts been revealed to her. With pressure from political opponents in Munich, and further threat of war, Count Rumford went on a tour of Europe. In England, he invented the chimney flue, to spare the smoke damaged rooms of his friend Lady Palmerstone. He invented new stoves and ovens which became celebrated all over Britain and Europe. In 1796 he invited his daughter Sarah to England, but was disappointed with the result. She lacked the finesse of London Society and was soon dispatched to a finishing school.

Soon, however, the Count was recalled to Munich. Wars raged across Europe, threatening Munich, and Rumford returned with his daughter to find the city in chaos. The Austrians and the French, at war with each other, were both approaching Munich from different directions, each determined to take the city or destroy it. Munich was neutral and the Austrians reached the city first, laying seige to it. The French were not far away. Count Rumford took charge of the Bavarian Army and organised their defence. Then he rode out of the city and spoke to the Austrian commander. His overtures worked, for the Austrians withdrew.

Count Rumford became the hero of the hour. A monument was put up in the English Garden (it is still there to this day) and, in his honour, Sarah was made a Countess of the Holy Roman Empire. The Author, March Cost, wrote a fictionalised book in 1963, based on Sarah's life, called "The Countess". Over the years the Count had built up a number of enemies and finally he decided to leave Munich. However, Bavaria owed the Count a great debt and he was made Bavarian Ambassador to the Court of St James. However, on his arrival in England, the appointment was rejected by King George III.

The United States, meanwhile, had forgiven Thompson for his past deeds and offered him a military position. Rumford considered it, but then declined. Instead, in London, the Count set about another of his projects and in 1800 founded the Royal Institution of Great Britain. It still stands in Albermarle Street. It continues to aid science to this day and is particularly known for its televised Christmas lectures for children, which are broadcast all over the world. Meanwhile Sarah, now a Countess, returned to the United States. Count Rumford intended the Royal Institution to be a school for artisans (craftmen, etc) and workingmen. However, others involved in the project wanted to keep it the preserve of the upper classes. Humphrey Davy was hired to work and lecture at the Royal Institution and, of course, went on to invent the Davy Miner's Lamp. Thomas Young was also employed there. He was an expert on light, but was probably most famous for translating the "Rosetta Stone". Perhaps most celebrated of all was Michael Faraday, whose experiements at the Royal Institution, led to our understanding and use of electricity.

While on a vist to Paris, Count Rumford was presented to Napolean Boneparte, who took an immediate liking to him. As a result, Rumford was treated very well and many doors were opening for him. In Bavaria, too, the Count was treated very well. However, in England, he faced opposition from the politicians and the King. Even his Royal Institutuion was causing him problems. Finally in 1802, Rumford had finally had enough and sailed away from England never to return.

In 1805 the Count married Madame Lavoisier, widow of the famous guillotined French chemist. However the marriage was not a happy one and in 1809 they seperated. In 1811 Sarah arrived in France and there she came to realise that the Count, her father, was living with a woman called Victoire. In 1813 Victoire bore Rumford a son. This was too much for Sarah and she left Paris, spending the next year touring around Europe. Not long afterwards, on August 21st 1814, Count Rumford died suddenly of a "nervous Fever".

Count Rumford was buried in Auteuil Cemetery, France. His gravestone carries the inscription - "Benjamin Thompson, Conte De Rumford. The celebrated physicist and enlightened philanthropist, whose discoveries on light and heat made his name illustrious and whose work to help the poor will always be dear to the friends of humanity". A soldier, a spy, a Whitehall civil servant, Commander of the Bavarian Army, World Scientist and founder of theRoyal Institution of Great Britain; Benjamin Thompson was all these things and more.

Strange, therefore, that Benjamin Thompson is barely known in his native America or in the United Kingdom. In Germany, of course, it is a different story and Munich still celebrates Count Rumford, sure of his place in German history. Rumford's Memorial stands in the English Garden and his statue, commissioned by the King of Bavaria in 1867, stands proud in Maximilian Strasse, in the city of Munich.

Not everyone in America has forgotten Benjamin Thompson and the Rumford Historical association was formed in 1877 and is based at Elm Street, Woburn, Massachusetts. It maintains Thompson's birthplace as a site of historical interest and contains many models of his scientific experiemnets and inventions, paintings and a library. An exact replica of the Maximillian Strasse bronze statue of the Count was given to the citizens of Woburn in 1900 and stands in front of the historic Woburn Public Library. A Rumford Professorship exists at Harvard University. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, was "one of the three greatest minds America has produced." (The others were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson).

More about Sarah Thompson, Countess Rumford
Sarah was born in Concord, New Hampshire, on 18th October 1774 . At the time of her birth, her father Benjamin was just twenty-one years old, while her mother was aged thirty-five. Paul, a son from sarah Walker Rolfe's former marriage was three years old. She was just two months old when her father left. Sarah was brought up in New England by her mother in privileged surroundings. The Rolfe inheritance had not left the family wanting and Sarah's grandfather, the Rev. Timothy Walker, was also on hand. Sarah was educated locally and in Boston, but she lived in the shadow of her father's treason. Then in 1792, when Sarah was seventeen, her mother died.

Sarah continued her schooling. Paul, her half-brother, got married and now owned the Rolfe Estate. Sarah was told of her father's amazing exploits and achievements in Europe and was encouraged to write to him by Colonel Baldwin, a life-long friend of the family. Benjamin Thompson's first letter to Sarah largely consisted of advise conduct and personal hygiene ! In a subsequent letter, the Count invited Sarah to Europe. The meeting between these two strangers must have been daunting for them both. Sarah was now twenty-one, educated and used to "Society". However, the Count was experienced in the Courts of European Nobility and felt that Sarah lacked finese. He was now escorted by a daughter he had deserted and never known and is is easy to speculate that his misgivings about her were partly prompted by his own discomfort and quilt.

Sarah was in Munich to see her father resist the might of the Austrian and French Armies and witnessed the adulation of a nation. Sarah spent the next few years in Munich and, in honour of her father, she was made a Countess of the Holy Roman Empire. Life in Munich was not all leisure and parties for the young Countess. Her father took full responsibility of his charge and engaged tutors of French, Italian, Music and Art to attend Sarah's education. Sarah had several suitors during her lifetime.

Captain Count Taxis was a young officer in the Bavarian Army who acted as aid-de-camp to the Count and came from a wealthy family. However, when Rumford realised there was an attraction between Taxis and his daughter, he sent Sarah away for a long holiday. On her return, well-meaning friends brought the couple together at a dinner party. Rumford learned of the encounter and, finally, when Taxis made an informal proposal of marriage, Rumford reacted by transferring his regiment away from the city. Taxis was later to die in Napolean's Russian campaign.

In 1798, Sarah and her father left Munich and returned to London. For a year, Sarah lived at 45 Brompton Row where the Count owned a house. However, the Count immersed himself in work, in particular the creation of his project - the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Sarah suggested a visit to America. The Count thought that this was a wonderful idea and affirmed that he would join her later. He never did. Neither realised the time they would be apart. While the Countess proved to be a curiousity in New England, the Count built his Royal Institution, moved to France, married then seperated from Madame Lavoisier.

It was not until July 1811 that Sarah took the decision to return to Europe. She travelled to Paris and there came to stay with her father at Auteuil. It took the Countess sometime to realsie that the Count had a female companion, ostensibly the housekeeper, but was horrified and indignant. She first went to Switzerland and then returned to Paris, attempting to ignore the situation. The city remained Sarah's home for two years until she could no longer ignore events. Victoire was expecting a baby! Sarah could not stand the disgrace and scandal and decide to "take the air at le Havre". Incredibly she remained there for well over a year. Meanwhile, Europe was at war.

In August 1814, Sarah received a letter from Paris. Her father was died. The Countess immediately returned to Auteuil. The Count's funeral had already taken place and the death itself had been sudden; a nervous fever. Sarah found it difficult to come to terms with her father's death and imagined he might have simply disappeared. Finally Sarah made her peace with Victoire and her new born son. Soon afterwards she returned to London and busied herself arranging for the refurbishment of her Brompton Row house. Several years passed before Sarah could bring herself to return to Paris. There she stayed for a further three years, spending some of her time with Victoire. Then, in 1823, it was back to England again.

Sarah again settled into her Brompton Row home. In 1824 Sarah's maid, Mary Grove married a silversmith named Henry Gannell. Their first child Emma was born two years later. Two boys and another daughter were born to Henry and Mary, but the Countess adopted Emma, their first child from an early age and became completely absorbed by her.

In 1835, when Emma was nine, the Countess returned to America. However America had changed and many of her friends had passed away. The Countess opened up the old house in Concord, New Hampshire, but within three years the house was closed up again. Sarah returned to Paris, taking Emma with her.

Chapter 3, John Burgum (1826-1907). Click here ->

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