Conjectures, traditions and the search for the truth…

Sir Denner Strutt, Knt., was of Little Warley, of which place he was created a baronet in 1641; he suffered severely from the arbitrary exactions of the parliament in the time of King Charles the First, being compelled to pay £1,350 for the redemption of his estates, which had been seized; and he was afterwards slain in battle, fighting in the royal cause. Sir Denner leaving no surviving offspring, his brother was the ancestor of the present family.

The History & Topography of the County of Essex by Thomas Wright, Esq. (London, 1836) p.240

It’s always nice to find a reference to the person you’re researching in a printed source and thanks to websites such as the Internet Archive, Google Books and the HathiTrust Digital Library, it’s now possible to search the texts of millions of books, journals and periodicals and to find mentions of our ancestors in places we would never have thought of looking before.

Obviously, we’re more likely to find references to people from the nobility and gentry – landowners, Lords of the Manor, Knights and Baronets – than we are to labourers or tradesmen. But the way in which the books have been digitised means that any reference, however buried it may be in the most unexpected place, can make its way to the surface, and turn up in the results of a well-formulated web search.

I came across the above reference recently while researching the life of Sir Denner Strutt, who was believed to be the ancestor of a client I was working for. He’s an interesting character; Lord of the Manor of Little Warley in Essex, and, as indicated here by the antiquarian Thomas Wright, a Royalist who was compounded (i.e. fined) by Parliament during the Commonwealth Period as a ‘delinquent’. But I was somewhat stopped in my tracks by the reference to Sir Denner ‘leaving no offspring’; if that was the case, he could hardly be my client’s ancestor.

Little Warley Hall. Engraved by Henry Adlard from an original study by William Henry Bartlett. Originally produced for “The History and Topography of Essex” published in parts from 1831 onwards.

The evidence from British genealogical historiography tells us that our now easily-accessible and popular hobby was, for many hundreds of years, the preserve of gentlemen antiquarians.

Almost exclusively white, male, and of the leisured classes, antiquarians were at the forefront of the study of genealogy throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Their works were generally held in high esteem, and treated as authoritative texts and their beautifully bound County Histories were printed and reprinted; an essential addition to any gentleman’s personal library.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion we meet such a gentleman in the person of Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire. Sir Walter “was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage” where “he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

Sir Walter liked to ‘improve it’ by adding the dates of more recent events in his family’s history but what he was particularly interested in was “the history and rise of the ancient and respectable family … how it had been first settled in Cheshire; how mentioned in Dugdale, serving the office of high sheriff, representing a borough in three successive parliaments, exertions of loyalty, and dignity of baronet, in the first year of Charles II…

The Dugdale mentioned here is Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686), an antiquarian and the author of The Antiquities of Warwickshire, published in 1656 and one of the earliest examples of a County History. Dugdale’s pioneering work was to play an important role in the development of genealogical research.

The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw the rise of the antiquarian and a outpouring of ‘scholarly’ texts. It seems like almost every village had its own keen amateur antiquary who took an interest in the history of the local families – by which I mean Sir Walter Elliot’s “ancient and respectable” families. The families of those who were sometimes referred to as ‘the submerged‘ were of little or no interest to our gentlemen antiquarians.

There were exceptions, and we meet one of them in the opening pages of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Parson Tringham, the antiquary of Stagfoot Lane, tells Jack Durbeyfield about the discovery he made while “hunting up pedigrees for the new county history.

Illustration for the 1891 Serialised Version of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. From http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/tess/gallery1.html

Plain old Durbeyfield, the haggler, was, it seems, “the lineal representative of the ancient and knightly family of the d’Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d’Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror, as appears by Battle Abbey Roll.

Tess and Persuasion are, of course, works of fiction. The problem is, as you’ll soon find out when you start to explore these waters, that the text quoted at the top of this page, along with countless other similar passages in the respected and venerated works of our antiquarian friends, is also little more than a work of fiction.

Far from dying in battle, fighting for the royalist cause, Sir Denner was buried at Little Warley in 1661, ten years after the last battle of the English Civil War was fought. And the statement that he had no offspring can be quickly disproved with reference to a number of sources (including the text on a vast monumental inscription erected in memory of his second wife, and Sir Denner’s own last will and testament) which showed that he actually had had at least five children, two of whom (both daughters) survived to adulthood. And furthermore, there is no evidence whatsoever that Denner had any brothers from whom later members of the family could claim descent.

The burial of Sir Denner Strutt, recorded in the register of St Peter, Little Warley on 8 September 1661. Essex Record Office D/P 66/1/1

Thankfully, there are (and always have been) enough people around with the confidence to question the stories published in County Histories like Wright’s History & Topography of Essex. And I was delighted to come across an excellent example of critical, evidence-based research putting these myths to bed, while I was searching for more details of Sir Denner Strutt’s life.

In the process I got to know a little bit about Henry William King, an inhabitant of late 19th century Leigh in Essex and a man after my own heart.1 Volume 5 of the Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, published in 1873, contains a summary of a talk about the ancestry of Sir Denner Strutt, given by King at a meeting of the society in Braintree. King began, as all good historians should, by giving credit to a “learned associate”, Colonel Chester, whose research had led to the discoveries that he was about to divulge. We quickly get an indication of the general tone of the talk, when King uses phrases such as “documentary evidence” and considers the need to “destroy the vague traditions and fictions to which historians and genealogists have given currency…”. This is my sort of language!

And it gets even better; after discussing what was then known about Sir Denner Strutt and his ancestry, King (known locally as ‘Antiquary’ King) went on to mention the “modern writers of some popular repute” who “had not only assumed for Sir Denner a distinguished foreign ancestor, but had created for him a younger brother.” King promised to “assign to him a more humble and less remote origin” and to “prove that he was an only son.

He continues:

Others, again, in defiance of the clearest evidence, have slain the gallant cavalier long before his natural dissolution. Burke in his “Extinct Baronetage” tells us that, “in 1240, when the charter of freedom was obtained by the Helvetic Confederacy, Godfried Strutz de Hinkelred, of Unter Walden, chief of the Swiss Auxiliaries, received the honour of Knighthood, but in subsequent dissensions, being upon the less fortunate side, was obliged to seek an asylum in England, where it appears he took up his permanent abode, and from him descended Sir Denner Strutt, Bart., of Little Warley Hall.” And this grave assertion of a descent is advanced in a book of some popular authority, without supplying us with one link in the chain, which must include at least twelve generations of men, without affording one scrap of tittle or evidence in support of it, and without the power of telling us even who Sir Denner’s father was.

Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, Volume V (1873) p.149

King asks “why any one should have sought a remote Swiss ancestor for a man bearing a plain English surname, and sufficiently common in Suffolk and in the parts of Essex bordering on Suffolk…” and then, in a phrase which is as relevant today as it was when it was written down nearly 150 years ago, he suggests that…

The conjectures of one age usually become the traditions of the next, and are often recorded as facts in that which follows…

As we might say in today’s Twitterverse…

I found several more examples of this phenomenon in my quest for information about other generations of Sir Denner’s family. His second wife’s great great grandfather, Thomas Wodehouse, was the son of Sir Roger Wodehouse of Kimberley House in Norfolk and another fascinating subject to research.

The eminent antiquarian, Francis Blomefield, writing in his early-19th century history of Norfolk2, begins his section on Thomas Wodehouse quite promisingly by stating that he was never knighted “notwithstanding what is said in the Baronetage” but quickly undoes this good work by putting together what was later described by John Wodehouse, the 1st Earl of Kimberley and a descendant of this Thomas, as a “remarkable statement”. To quote the 1st Earl, according to Blomefield’s account, Thomas Wodehouse “was slain at Musselburgh in 1547 … and was afterwards Sherriff and Member of Parliament in the reigns of Philip & Mary and of Elizabeth.3

We owe a lot to researchers such as John Wodehouse and Henry ‘Antiquary’ King who give references for their sources and explain, using reasoned arguments, the conclusions that they’ve reached, but the sloppy efforts of others continue to cause problems right up to the present day.

Thomas Bennett married Sir Denner Strutt’s daughter, Blanch (one of the offspring that he allegedly didn’t have…). He and Blanch appear in a number of Ancestry Public Member Trees (well over a hundred) and in at least 83 of them, Thomas is said to have been the son of another Thomas Bennet; his date of birth is given as 1640 (in Wiltshire) and he is supposed to have died in Buckinghamshire in 1703.

Unfortunately, at some point, someone has confused two people of the same name; two people who came from similar social classes and who were both born in Wiltshire. It’s easily done, but by choosing to adopt one of them as the person we’re interested in without, as Antiquary King would put it, “one scrap or tittle of evidence in support of it” we’re more than likely to end up adopting the wrong ancestor. In this case, we can use the text of a Chancery Decree Roll4 and the evidence from an apprenticeship indenture5 to show that Thomas was a) the son of Andrew Bennet and b) dead by December 1685. I’m pleased to say that 58 Public Member Trees have accepted this (correct) view of events.

The danger comes with the repetition; whether it’s antiquarians repeating the stories written in earlier works, or modern family historians blindly accepting the ‘research’ of others and tacking it onto their own family trees, it’s easy to see how, over time, the conjectures become traditions and how those traditions, eventually, become accepted as facts. In our modern, virtual world, the process is speeded up so that the mistakes or false assumptions of one researcher can quickly be taken up by others and, due to the way that the websites present these things, soon become the new ‘truth’. Thousands upon thousands of these conjectures are out there right now, waiting to be thoughtlessly tacked on to yet more online family trees, repeatedly multiplying the problem.

It’s our job as family historians to see beyond this; to constantly ask questions and to seek evidence for the findings of other people’s research.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 10 January 2021

1 Henry William King’s manuscript collection is held by the Essex Record Office. https://www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/Result_Details.aspx?DocID=102933
2 An Essay towards a Topographical History of Norfolk, Volume 2 (1805) p.552
3 The Wodehouses of Kimberley, by John Wodehouse, 1st Earl of Kimberley (Privately printed, 1887)
4 Chancery Decree Roll. The National Archhives reference: C 78/749. Accessed via http://aalt.law.uh.edu/
5 Apprenticeship indenture for John Bennet, 1685. City of London Freedom Admissions Papers. London Metropolitan Archives EL/JL/66/12. Accessed via https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/collections/2052/

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