'Joe Biden will be the first US president to have Sussex ancestry'

A Sussex-based historian has discovered that Joe Biden, president-elect of the United States, has links to the county.

Friday, 13th November 2020, 12:06 pm

As noted by Eddy Greenfield, from Horsham, the recent election victory of Joe Biden will be remembered for its many historic milestones, with Kamala Harris becoming the first female, first black and first Asian-American US vice-president-elect. Joe Biden also becomes only the fourth candidate to oust an incumbent president since the Second World War, receiving the most votes of any president-elect in history.

"Perhaps of more immediate local interest, however, is the fact that Joe Biden is also to be the first president to have Sussex ancestry," writes Mr Greenfield.

Here, the writer and historian reveals all about Mr Biden's links to the county:

President-elect Joe Biden (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It is not uncommon for American presidents to be of British descent, with almost all of the forty-five previous incumbents having English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish ancestry. For example, Surrey can claim links to two of the twentieth century and more controversial figures.

Christopher Hussey, the eight- times-great-grandfather of Richard Nixon, was a native of Dorking, having been born in the town in about 1599 before later becoming a founding member of the Massachusetts town of Nantucket.

Ronald Reagan's maternal grandmother, Mary Ann Elsey, was born in Epsom in 1843.

Until now, Sussex could only claim some fairly tenuous connections to one of the most powerful offices in the world. For example, Ulysses S. Grant became the first former president to visit Britain in 1877, and spent three days in late October staying at No.6 Eastern Terrace as the personal guest of the town and then MP, James Ashbury, although he had resigned his presidency some seven months earlier.

Then, in 1944 the future president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, stayed at Chichester's The Ship Hotel for a few days in April as he met with his advisers in the lead up to the D-Day invasion on June 6 (although he wouldn't become president until 1953).

More recently, in June 2019, Donald Trump was presented with the Sussex Declaration – an original copy of the American Declaration of Independence held at the West Sussex Record Office – during his reception at 10 Downing Street.

Perhaps the greatest link Sussex has been able to claim to a serving president thus far was John F. Kennedy's one-day visit on June 29, 1963 – just five months before his assassination in Dallas, Texas, and his only official visit to the UK.

After arriving at Gatwick Airport in Air Force One, the president was taken by car to the then Prime Minister's private house at Birch Grove, near Haywards Heath for a meeting to discuss what would later become known as the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited all above-ground and underwater testing of nuclear weapons.

Horsted Keynes' Crown Inn became the headquarters for the American Secret Service agents. Being a Sunday, the president also attended Mass at Our Lady of the Forest Church in nearby Forest Row.

Joe Biden's English ancestry has been a matter of some dispute, with varying claims that his paternal great-great-great-grandfather, William Biden, was born in either Sussex or Cambridgeshire.

The Cambridge advocates cite the discovery of the grave of a John Biden in St Mary's Church, Houghton (not to be confused with the Sussex Houghton), and reference to a son named William Henry Biden, who became a sailor. They believe that this is the same William Biden who lies buried in Baltimore (although others claim that he died in India), but cannot offer any evidence to prove a connection.

However, aside from these discrepancies, there is another piece of evidence that leads me to conclude that Joe Biden's ancestry originates from Sussex, not Cambridgeshire.

It is known that Joe's great-great-grandfather, Joseph Biden, was born in Maryland around 1828 and married Lydia Ann Randle in Baltimore in December 1852. In 1868, Joseph was visited by an English relative by the name of Henry Biden, who was born in Westbourne in 1834, and left a diary of his travels in America – a diary in which he mentions Joseph's father: William Biden.

This William was Henry's uncle, and was christened at St John the Baptist Church, Westbourne on 8 March 1789. He was the second child of James Biden and Ann Silverlock, who had married at Westbourne on 16 May 1785.

William had four known siblings: John Biden, christened at Westbourne on November 17, 1786; Hope Biden, christened at Westbourne on September 11, 1791 and buried in the churchyard just fifteen days later; Hannah Biden, christened at Westbourne on January 20, 1793; and James Biden (Henry Biden's father), who was christened at Westbourne on July 27, 1800. He married Ann Pitney at the same church on January 1, 1826, and later became a master builder living in Portsea, where he died in 1874.

Little more could be discovered about the Biden line. James (Joe Biden's great-great-great-great-grandfather) was christened at the church of St Thomas à Becket in Pagham on November 15, 1767, and was the son of Richard and Susan Biden. Nothing could be found as to the identities of James' parents, or of any siblings he may have had.

However, James' wife, Ann Silverlock, was known to have been christened at Holy Trinity Church, Bosham – the oldest known place of worship in West Sussex – on March 2, 1766. She was the third child of Joseph Silverlock and Sarah Horn, who had a total of eight children.

All were christened at Bosham, beginning with William Silverlock on March 14, 1762. He died and was buried in the churchyard on October 2, 1763. Next was Martha, who was born in March 1764. After Ann came the second William Silverlock, christened in 1768 and buried at Bosham on December 5, 1815.

Next was John (1771), James (christened July 1773, buried January 1774), Joseph (christened February 1775, buried August 1780), another James (1777), and finally Elizabeth Silverlock, who was christened at Bosham on January 10, 1780.

As with the Biden line, the Silverlock line comes to a sudden halt, with it being impossible to determine any more details for Joseph's parentage. He may have been the illegitimate son of

Elizabeth Silverlock recorded as having been christened at Alton in March 1731. Nonetheless, it is known that Joseph married Sarah Horn at Bosham on December 27, 1761, and it is via the latter that we can step back another generation in Joe's Sussex ancestry.

Sarah was christened on March 23, 1739 at St Mary's Church, Chidham, as the third child of John Horn and Sarah Purdue. They married at Chidham on May 7, 1732 – one of only three marriages to take place there in that year – and went on to have four children: John (1733), Thomas (February 1734, buried April 1735), Sarah, and Richard (1744).

Sadly, no more information could be found with any degree of certainty for either John Horn or Sarah Purdue, although given the large gap between the births of Sarah and Richard, it is likely that there were several other pregnancies that most likely resulted in stillbirths.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Joe Biden has his English roots firmly in Sussex, and the county can finally lay a proper claim to a President of the United States of America. And if this honorary Sussexonian makes a future visit to the UK, I'm sure many would be delighted if he were to make a stop-over in his ancestral homeland. What do you say, Joe?

Eddy Greenfield is a Sussex-based writer and historian. He is also a keen genealogist and has traced his own Sussex roots back eleven generations. Eddy's latest book, Secret Arundel, was published by Amberley Publishing in September 2020. His next book, Battle of Britain: West Sussex is due for release by Pen and Sword in 2021.