Friday, 25 March 2016

#9 Mary Mitchell - The Reverend's Wife

Writing about women in the context of family history can be somewhat challenging. Their doings rarely feature in the sorts of sources that can often give us so much detail of the business of the menfolk and beyond the bare facts of family life, such as having their children baptised, it can be difficult to flesh them out. Even when we do discover something about them it is often in the context of their fathers, husbands or male children.

I have for some time known that My 6x great grandmother, wife of the Reverend George Stokes, was called Mary. It is only in the last week that I have learnt a little more about her, with my acquisition of another volume of Ralph Bigland Esquire's Historical Monuments of Gloucestershire. (Bless him!) As I skimmed through the records for Cheltenham an entry caught my eye - "Mary Stokes, wife of the Rev Mr George Stokes". Excitingly, the inscription continued "Daughter of the above Edward Mitchell died Jan 7, 1778 aged 75 years." At last I had a family name to work with.

Mary was born in about 1702 and baptised in Cheltenham on the 28th October of that year. Her father was Edward Mitchell and her mother Martha Bridges, the third of his four (yes four!) wives. At the time of her birth, three of her six previously born siblings were still alive. Mary's mother died in March of 1703/04.

Sometime in about 1730, Mary married George Stokes. George had studied at Jesus College, Oxford University; been ordained a priest in 1728 and had been appointed as curate for Cheltenham in about 1729. Looking through the parish register images I have been able to find his name signed many times, although I have been able to discover little else about him. At about this time she also received a bequest from her half-brother John Mitchell who died unmarried and childless at the age of 36.

Between 1730 and abt 1740 Mary gave birth to nine children, six of whom survived infancy. Her daughter Jane our ancestor, baptised in 1734, is the earliest baptism record I can find for any of her children. Michael, baptised in 1739 is the latest.

I have not yet been able to find any details of the death of her husband George but I do know from the will of Thomas Kemble of Tewkesbury that he had died before 1770. For I long time I have been wondering what the Kemble connection to our family is and, in fact, devoted an earlier post to it. I now believe that Thomas Kemble of Tewkesbury's  mother Elizabeth was a much older half sister of Mary's. Elizabeth was born in about 1680 and I think she is the daughter of Edward Mitchell and his first wife Ann Carter, who is incidentally also a 2nd cousin to me! Thomas Kemble would therefore be a half-nephew of Mary's and it would be likely that he would feel some family obligation to remember her in his will.

In 1777, Mary wrote her own will. She bequeaths to her widowed daughter Jane Holland £448 as well as the bond for a debt of £140 that she had previously lent to Jane's husband David Hughes Holland. She also leaves £180 to be shared between the five children of her deceased daughter Martha Jordan. She notes that in the past she had advanced about £400 to Martha and her husband Thomas and so her bequest to the children makes this amount up to be roughly equal to her bequests to her other children.All her household goods go to her daughters Mary Stokes, a spinster, and Dorothy Wynne, wife of Robert Wynne. Lastly the rest of her estate is to be divided equally between Mary, Dorothy and her only surviving son George.

Mary died in Cheltenham on the 7th of Jan 1778 and was buried on the 16th Jan at the church of St Mary in Cheltenham. Her memorial inscription is recorded as having been on a flat stone in the south aisle and transept of the church near those of her father, her half-brothers John and Edward, three of her father's wives and her own daughter Martha Jordan.

St Mary's Minster, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

#8 William Sheaf - Cut from a Reforming Cloth

To get to this week's ancestor we have to go back, way back to about 1543 when William Sheaf was born in the town of Cranbrook in Kent. His grandfather Thomas Sheaf is the earliest recorded Sheaf in this area and William was born to Richard Sheaf and Elizabeth Andrews. William was the sixth of nine children born to this wealthy family of clothiers.

The Weald of Kent, where Cranbrook is situated, was known at this time for its excellent grey broadcloth. Many families in the area were involved in the cloth trade at all levels; either raising sheep for wool, milling the cloth or providing material or labour to use in the process. Edward III had encouraged Flemish weavers to move to England in order to break the Flemish monopoly over the wool trade. Many of them settled in the Kentish Weald and Cranbrook became a centre for the manufacture of a fine, woollen broadcloth called Cranbrook Grey. When Queen Elizabeth I visited the town in 1573, she is said to have walked along a mile long piece of Cranbrook Grey made specially for the purpose. There is certainly a possibility that this cloth may have been made by the Sheaf family or their many connections.

In 1569 William married Katherine Courthoppe, the daughter of another wealthy Cranbrook family involved in the cloth trade. There were several marriages between these two families, including one between William's sister Margaret Sheaf and John Courthoppe. Although William and Katherine both lived long lives, they had no children.

The next we hear of William Sheaf is in about 1575 in the midst of a religious squabble between the vicar of Cranbrook, Richard Fletcher and John Stroud a dissenting preacher. According to one source William Sheaf sympathized with Stroud who as well as being a radical preacher was operating an illegal printing press somewhere in the parish of Cranbrook. In order to quell the brewing parish troubles Richard Fletcher (son of Richard Fletcher the vicar of Cranbrook and also a preacher) came from Rye to caution the people against ideas of reformation, but his sermon "did not calm the troubled spirits and a fierce contention followed, whereupon William Sheaf, one of the Church wardens, met the noisy disclaimers in a true John Bull-like manner with his feet firmly set and his head erect, and uttered these decided words "We WILL have Mr. Stroud to preach to us."

As William aged, we learn from the sources that he did not enjoy the best of health. On 17th July 1598 a jury of Cranbrook worthies were all indicted for contempt because on 3 May 1598, being sworn as jurors at a hundred leet held at the market cross in Cranbrook, they elected William Sheaf of Cranbrook, yeoman, to serve as hundred constable "although they knew him to be an infirm man incapable of discharging the office." The hundred constable was a parish law enforcement officer, usually part time and usually unpaid! The motives of the jury in electing William to this office can only be suspect, given his inability to perform the duties required. William would have been about 55 years of age.

William lived for almost another 20 years after this and died in December 1616. Interestingly we learn a lot about William's lifestyle from his very detailed will and his many bequests to his brother and sisters, nieces and nephews. We know for instance that living with him at the time of his death, his wife Katherine having died in 1611, were two sons of his cousin Peter Courthoppe. He was also in a position to be lending money as he bequeathed the above named Peter Courthoppe "the £20 I lent unto our Sovereign Lord James (King James 1 of England), and the privy seal which I have thereof." This presumably allowed the money to be given to Peter Courthoppe should the King ever decide to pay back his loan. As well as other numerous bequests of money, William left silver cups, spoons and salters; his book of martyrs and two bibles; feather beds and other furniture and pots and glasses. He also held significant amounts of property around Cranbrook and neighbouring towns which he distributed among his relatives. One of these properties was 'Old Wilsley', a beautiful timbered Wealden hall house and cloth hall, probably built in the 15th century. There is some suggestion it may have been built by the Courthoppe family. Certainly it is known that in 1569 Richard Courthoppe’s widow Anne married the Revd Thomas Lawes, whose will in 1594 left ‘Wylsley in Cranbrook’ to his daughter Katherine and her clothier husband William Sheafe. William left it to his nephew Edmund Sheaf, son of his brother (our direct ancestor) Thomas.

Old Wilsley, Cranbrook, Kent.
William was buried inside the church of St Dunstan in Cranbrook and a brass plate was placed in his honour. "William Sheaf after he had lived godly and christianly the space of 73 years he departed this life the 21 of December, 1616, and his body lies here buried"
Brass plate for William Sheaf, St Dunstan, Cranbrook.