Foreign Office Diplomat

Joseph Reffell (1795-1829), Colonial Secretary of Sierra Leone

Joseph Reffell (1795-1829) was in His Majesty’s Foreign Service as the Colonial Secretary of Sierra Leone in the early 19th century. He died childless and unmarried during the fever epidemic in that country. His start in life was quite lowly, and his father John was later stated to be ‘a man without education and in a low situation in life…’ 

It is not yet known how Joseph came from these beginnings to hold such a distinguished position in the Foreign Service.

Joseph was born on 22 February 1795 to John Reffell (1764-1840) and Mary North (1784-1861). He was baptised at St James Piccadilly on 18 March 1795.

In 1808, the British Crown Colony of Sierra Leone was founded, with Freetown serving as the capital of British West Africa. The city’s population expanded rapidly with freed slaves, who established suburbs on the Freetown Peninsula. They were joined by West Indian and African soldiers who settled in Sierra Leone after fighting for Britain in the Napoleonic Wars.

The service record of Joseph Reffell as is currently know so far is summarised below:-
1814 – Arrives at Freetown Sierra Leone
1826 – Colonial Secretary and Superintendent
1828 – Secretary to the mixed British & Brazilian Commission at Sierra Leone
1829 – Dies in a fever epidemic

When Joseph died on 3 July 1829, it was believed by his family that he had left a large estate in Sierra Leone. During the Easter legal term of 1833 his father John, mother Mary, brother Thomas Richard and sister Mary Ann (who was then married to James Partridge) went to court over who was the rightful claimant to it. It later transpired that in fact there was no great land holdings in Sierra Leone and the total estate was actually limited to a small amount of bank shares.

There is today a sizable branch of the Reffell family that originates in south west Africa, particularly Sierra Leone and Liberia. It is believed that their surname is taken from this Joseph. It has been stated in a number of publications that the freed slaves (who were generally not given the decency of a surname) were quite likely to adopt the surname of someone that they knew in real life. Due to his public position, they may well have known of this surname through him. Therefore it is believed that this could well be the origin of the branch of the family bearing the Reffell surname in Africa.