Our efforts to reconstruct the lives of our pre-Victorian ancestors are all-too-often thwarted by the lack of available source material. In an era before the decennial censuses and the (virtually) comprehensive civil registration system, our reference points can be severely limited. We should (in theory at least) have a record of birth (usually in the shape of an entry in a baptismal register), details of a marriage and, perhaps, records of the births of some resultant children, followed, forty or so years later, by a single-line entry in a burial register.
If we’re lucky our ancestor may have left a will providing us with some clues about his life through mentions of his trade or occupation, the names of relatives beyond the immediate family, or of friends, neighbours and work associates. Parcels of land or properties in urban areas mentioned in wills can point us towards other useful sources (e.g. land tax and manorial court records) and there may even be mentions of bequests received by the testator from his parents, uncles and aunts or even grandparents.
The wills of our female ancestors can prove to be enormously rich in content, with personal possessions being left to favourite grandchildren or nieces and nephews and bequests being made to friends and neighbours. All of this can help to provide a canvas on which we can begin to paint a more detailed picture.
Unfortunately, most of our ancestors didn’t leave wills and, more often than not, we end up with a life story that does little more than give us some basic details about their birth, marriage and death. Those at the two extremes of society (the rich and the very poor) are most likely to have left a paper trail; for the majority of people in between these extremes, records can be quite thin on the ground.
This is particularly true of one group of people; middle class women who never married. One of my favourite ancestors (and, yes, we’re allowed to have favourites!) fits into this category, but thanks to a number of inter-related events, I’ve been able, over the years, to piece together a fairly comprehensive life story. This is the first part of that story…
Mary Ann Port was born in London on 2 August 1788. Her father, Samuel Port, was a well-to-do wine merchant who had moved from his native Oxfordshire to London in 1769, to take up an apprenticeship with Jonathan Granger, his great uncle by marriage. Jonathan died in 1775 and Samuel was ‘turned over’ to William King to complete the last year of his apprenticeship.
Samuel Port became a Freeman of the City of London on 21 November 1776 and in the same year, he married Elizabeth Truman at the parish church of St Olave, Southwark. They were married on 9 June 1776, by Licence, and both signed their names in the marriage register with clear, firm signatures, suggesting at least a degree of education and a comfortable background.
Samuel and Elizabeth went on to have seven children, all baptised at the City of London parish church of Allhallows, Barking-by-the-Tower. The children were born between 1777 and 1791, but the first three (two Samuels and a Thomas) died young and the fourth, Elizabeth, died in 1796, when she was just 12. The three youngest children, Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas, all survived to adulthood but despite their comfortable middle-class upbringing, were to experience a difficult childhood.
Samuel Port can be found in the London Land Tax records from 1777, at an address in Red Cross Court, which we can find on Richard Horwood’s 1792 Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster the Borough of Southwark…, marked as ‘Red + Sq’ and running off the north side of Tower Street, just to the west of the parish church of Allhallows, Barking-by-the-Tower. Samuel is listed at Red Cross Court in each of the annual Land Tax registers from 1777 to 1798.
On 13 February 1799, Samuel Port wrote his will, describing himself as ‘Samuel Port of Savage Gardens in the City of London Wine Merchant’. He added a codicil, a few weeks later, on 1 April 1799. Savage Gardens (part of which still survives today, although with none of the original buildings) was a few hundred yards north of Red Cross Court, in the parish of St Olave, Hart Street. Samuel isn’t listed at Savage Gardens in the 1799 Land Tax register (there’s an empty property which may be the address that he moved into) and by the time that the next year’s register was drawn up, he was dead.
Samuel died on 4 April 1799, just three days after writing the codicil to his will, and the will was proved on 21 May 1799. We don’t know the cause of his death and we don’t know where he died, although it was almost certainly at his new house in Savage Gardens. All we have is a simple entry in the Allhallows parish register recording the burial of Samuel Port on 14 April 1799.
Samuel’s will makes fascinating reading and it’s clear that he had done well for himself. He left everything to three trustees and instructed them to ‘sell dispose of collect receive get in and convert the same into Money’ and, after paying his debts and funeral expenses, to buy sufficient annuities to set up a trust fund to the value of £1092 for the benefit of his wife and children. If he had no children surviving him at the time of his death, he instructed his trustees to make payments of £50 each to seven of his wife’s nieces and nephews (all clearly named in he will) with the remainder to be left in trust for the children of his brother James and sister Ann. His codicil set up an annuity of £10 8s to be paid to his mother, Jane.
It’s a genealogical treasure chest but with one shortcoming. Although he set up a trust fund for ‘all and every my child and children lawfully begotten who shall be living at the time of my decease or born alive afterwards’ he omitted to mention any of them by name in his will. Fortunately, there’s a remarkable source that does name his children and allows us to reconstruct the next period of their lives.
Why Samuel decided to appoint his three friends (or colleagues?) Richard Hovill, Aaron Morgan and Bishop Hull as the executors and trustees of his will, I will probably never know. There were a number of suitable candidates to do the job within the family, notably, his wife’s nephew by marriage, James Lawson, and his own brother, James Port.
Whatever Samuel’s reasons, his family must have cursed his decision. His instructions, as set out in the will, were quite clear. His trustees were to sell his goods etc. ‘within one Calendar month next after my decease’, purchase the necessary annuities and start making the payments. But it seems that Hovill, Morgan and Hull didn’t do what they were supposed to. At least that was what was alleged by Samuel’s widow, Elizabeth who, together with her ‘infant’ (i.e. aged under 21) children, Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas (the Plaintiffs), started a case in the Court of Chancery in an attempt to recover the money that they felt was owed to them.
The Plaintiffs were represented by James Lawson, the husband of Elizabeth’s niece, Mary Ann Truman (the daughter of her brother, Joseph). In legal terms, and throughout the documents created in the course of the case, James was known as their ‘next friend’. This is a standard legal term used for a person who represents someone who is unable to represent themselves.
James is a fascinating character and will definitely be the subject of a future blog post. He and his son, John Joseph Lawson, were, successively, printers of The Times and became embroiled in some landmark legal cases. This was a time when the printer of a newspaper was responsible for its content and culpable in law when it came to accusations of libel. James was also a 1/16th shareholder in The Times.
The case (or ‘suit’), known in the conventional Chancery shorthand as Port v. Hovil, was started on 5 June 1806, with the issuing of a Bill of Complaint by the Plaintiffs. In true Jarndyce v. Jarndyce fashion, the case dragged on, and to the plaintiffs, much like the young wards in Dickens’ Bleak House, it must have felt like it would never end. After a flurry of activity in the winter of 1806/1807, it all went quiet and for the next ten years or so, apart from the occasional entry in the Decree & Order books, not a lot happened. Elizabeth died in April 1816, without the case being resolved, and another year passed before the final Order was made in the suit on 4 March 1817, nearly 11 years after it had begun.
When their father died in April 1799, Ann was aged 13, Mary Ann was 10 and Thomas was just 8. The suit was started seven years later and by the time it ended they were 31, 28 and 26 respectively.
It must have been emotionally and mentally draining for the three young Ports to spend almost eighteen years of their lives struggling to claim their inheritance, but from a genealogical standpoint, the records created in the course of the suit are gold dust.
I have a list of 24 documents relating to Port v. Hovil and despite discovering the existence of the Chancery case more than 12 years ago, I haven’t (yet!) got around to transcribing them all, never mind the more involved task of interpreting and understanding exactly what they’re all telling me. Much like the suit itself, it’s a marathon, not a sprint! It seems that Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas eventually received around £600 each, a not inconsiderable sum at the time, but it’s clear that they all continued to work for a living, and that the inheritance didn’t fundamentally change their lives.
In the next part of the story, I’ll take a closer look at the Chancery documents to see what they can tell us about Ann, Mary Ann and Thomas’s teenage years, in the first two decades of the 18th century. Butcher’s bills, mourning rings, wicker chairs, a patterned Wilton carpet, hats and shoes, and journeys to Portsmouth, Oxford and Buckingham; it’s all coming up in Part Two.
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 18 July 2020
 Baptism of Mary Ann Port, 1788, Allhallows, Barking by the Tower, City of London – London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) reference: P69/ALH1/A/01/004 p.84
 Corporation of London, Freedom Admission Paper of Samuel Port, 1776 – LMA reference: COL/CHD/FR/02/1046
 Marriage of Samuel Port & Elizabeth Truman, 1776, St Olave, Southwark – LMA reference: P71/OLA/024 p.74
 Marriage Bond of Samuel Port & Elizabeth Truman, 1776, Archdeaconry of Surrey – LMA reference: DW/MP/091/056
 Burial of Elizabeth Port, 1796, Allhallows, Barking by the Tower, City of London – LMA P69/ALH1/A/01/004
 Land Tax Assessment Books, Tower Ward, 1777-1798 – LMA reference: CLC/525/MS11316
 Will of Samuel Port of Savage Gardens in the City of London, Wine Merchant, 21 May 1799, Prerogative Court of Canterbury – The National Archives reference: PROB 11/1324/189
 Burial of Samuel Port, 1799, Allhallows, Barking by the Tower, City of London – LMA P69/ALH1/A/01/004
 [W1806 P24] Port v Hovill. Bill and two answers. Plaintiffs: Elizabeth Port and others – TNA reference: C 13/70/5
 Chancery: Reports and Certificates, 4 Mar 1817 – TNA reference: C38/1145