The history of this remarkable family is quite fascinating.
It is intriguing to find an employee in the house of Nell Gwynn named Mary Woolstonecraft, but to discover a possible family link is very exciting. Eager to learn more about Arnold, I consulted the Index to Process Register of Indictments for the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace. The records are held at the London Metropolitan Archives under their reference, XO 71/006. There I found Arnold listed with his wife, Martha, in 1683/84.
Martha Woolstonecraft is shown in the parish register for St Botolph, Bishopsgate, buried on 4th January 1715/16, aged sixty-nine. She could well have been Arnold’s wife and Edward’s mother.
It is quite a coincidence to learn that each Mary earned her living as a governess. I wonder whether Mary born in the eighteenth century knew about her namesake born one hundred years earlier. If they were related, was she told her great, great-aunt had been tricked out of her money and possessions by a false promise of matrimony? Family history was important to our forebears and I can imagine this story being passed from generation to generation.
Was Mary told about her Aunt Britannia, whose death had taken place not very many years before Mary was born? Her half-cousin once removed was christened with the same name. Maybe the "reproach", expressed in Britannia’s pathetic note, kept the sorry event a secret from the next generation, a pitiful ‘skeleton in the family closet’. The shame would have been keenly felt in Britannia’s own family. Later investigation reveals she was the
"only Daur of ……Wood, a Surgeon, by Rebecca his wife only daughter of Tho: Bland of Mary-Land Point, Westham in Essex".1
Britannia’s tale is very sad. She was a victim of the poverty that surrounded her in the City of London at that time and the harshness of the penal system. Her life was considered so insignificant to those in authority that her fate cannot be clearly determined. Did she succumb to fever and die in a squalid gaol or was she transported? Her name can be found in both the burial register and amongst the list of felons put aboard the ship bound for Virginia. The solution to the mystery lies in the pedigree submitted to the College of Arms. Edward John recorded her death in the parish of Christ Church and burial there on 10th November 1740. She was not forgotten. Over the next seventy-five years, her name was given first to her granddaughter, then to her great-granddaughter and later to her great, great-granddaughter.
Whilst investigating her death and examining the Bills of Mortality, I found the following additional figures, although not directly related to my quest, are nevertheless rather curious.
Whereas it is not unexpected to see the majority of deaths in London were amongst the very young, I found the numbers who had survived to over one hundred years of age, at that period in history, quite surprising.
Even if perhaps inaccurate, it does indicate that a small proportion of the population of London did live to a very great age.
I have endeavoured to resolve some confusion about the relationship between the various members of Mary Wollstonecraft’s immediate family. It seemed very unlikely that two people within a family group alive at one time should be given the same, somewhat unusual, name of "Edward Bland Wollstonecraft".
If one assumes this was Mary’s brother’s name, then the bequests in her grandfather’s will would look very unfair, he being adequately remembered and Mary not mentioned at all. However, nowhere have I found any record that Mary’s brother had a middle name. Additionally, if there had been two with the same name, to avoid ambiguity, a legal document, such as a will, would require specific definition regarding the beneficiary’s identity.
There seems to have been only one Edward "Bland" Wollstonecraft. He was given that middle name after his mother’s family and was the son of Charles, grandson of Edward and half-cousin of Mary Wollstonecraft.
Edward was in fact very fair in the distribution of his wealth. He divided it largely between the three of his children who survived into adulthood to bear children of their own. Where one, Charles, had predeceased Edward, his son, Edward Bland Wollstonecraft, received what would have been his father’s share. Edward took particular measures to ensure his daughter had the benefit of her legacy and Edward’s generosity and kindness is demonstrated in his bequests to those confined in jail.
Dying at the age of seventy-six, he had guided his family through times of great hardship and had lived to reap the rewards of his toil and industry. As a weaver of London, in his later years he was in a good position to make his business profitable. One grandson was sailing to the Far East and able to bring back the silk, while another was apprenticed in the craft of turning the raw material into thread suitable for the weaver’s use. However, with the fluctuating fortunes of the weaving industry, he appears, shrewdly, to have made wise investments. The rent from the property and the interest from the loan under mortgage agreement would hopefully provide a steady income at times when the business might have been facing difficulties. Edward died a wealthy man and was, no doubt, proud to pass the fruits of his labour on to his descendants.
I will be very pleased to learn more about the earlier history and trace records of Arnold and his parents. It will be interesting to discover whether they were amongst the immigrants who flocked into that part of London. They may have come from elsewhere in the country or even abroad.
The Great Fire of London caused so much devastation and totally disrupted the lives of the citizens of the City. People, whose families for many years had lived and died in the same small area, were forced to disperse into the surrounding districts. Means of earning a living were lost, the homeless drifted from place to place in search of work and a roof over their heads. It is quite a challenge trying to trace the movements of a family during this period.
In the late sixteenth century, not far from where Arnold and his family resided some years later, there lived Arthur Wolstoncroft, his wife Elinor and their children. Elinor died in 1607, three years after her husband. A line in her will reads, "the brewhouse where I dwell". She mentioned her sons, Arthur and William, together with her daughters, Jane and Sara. Sara died four years later and William, "alebrewer", three years after that in 1614.
There may be a connection with Arthur Woolstoncrofte, goldsmith, who died in 1654/55. His father’s name was Arthur, also, and it is interesting that Edward mentioned the Goldsmiths in his will.
There may even be a link with William Wolstoncrofte of London, priest, who died in 1518.
Research into family history is never complete; the jigsaw never finished. Clues, lying waiting to be uncovered, may reveal that vital shred of evidence, threads to weave into and enrich that fascinating tapestry, depicting the tale of your family’s past, your ancestry, how you and your children came to be.
Copyright ©Daphne Johnson
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