Where there’s a will, there’s a way

The people in this story are ancestors of Mary Ann Lowe who married Samuel Gundry and emigrated to New Zealand in the mid-19th century.

Family historians love scandal. It’s the colour that can turn an ordinary, monochrome person into someone exciting. When researching your family, details about a person’s life (other than birth, death and marriage dates) can be few and far between, so you have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Finding information that puts ‘flesh on the bones’, especially a hint of scandal, feels like winning the lottery. While researching this particular branch of our family we found more than just ‘a breath of scandal’. It had everything – family rifts, broken marriages, love affairs – all wrapped up in one person’s will.

This is the story of the Lowe family in eighteenth century London. The Lowes included several generations of wealthy craftsmen. Most of the men became turners, but a few branched out as gold and silver smiths. Turners used a lathe to carve objects from wood or ivory. They made a lot of luxury goods as well as everyday items. Handles, spools, fans, and chess sets were all part of a turner’s repertoire.

Turner from The book of English TRades 1818

A turner in 1818


Turned ivory chess pieces, made early 19th century

Turning was a highly skilled occupation. It also seems to have been a prosperous one, as many members of the Lowe family owned property and left significant amounts of money in their wills. Wills are a great source of information about a family (if you’re lucky enough to have an ancestor who had money or property) but most wills don’t contain as much information as those in this story.

The main characters in this tale are all from the same generation of the Lowe family – two brothers, John and William Lowe, and William’s wife, Jane (William and Jane being my 7x great-grandparents). The will that is pivotal to the story is that of the elder brother, John, who died in 1787.

John was an unmarried, childless, wealthy man in his late 50’s. He made his final will less than a month before he died, and had to leave his estate to someone, but why did he leave most of it to someone else’s wife? And not just anyone’s wife, but the wife of his younger brother, William, who was still alive. This is intriguing, to say the least, and in order to better understand the way this story ends, we need to go back to the beginning.

In 1751, William Lowe married Jane Hesters in Bristol, when they were both teenagers. William had been apprenticed to his father at age 14 and apprentices bound to a master were not allowed to marry. An apprenticeship usually lasted till the apprentice was 21 (the legal age for marriage without parental permission), so most boys apprenticed in a trade wouldn’t marry till after that. William (for some reason) broke the rules. It’s possible his apprenticeship to his father had already been terminated, or maybe transferred to another master, because at the time of his marriage William was living in Bristol – a long way away from his family in London. He may have been living with and/or working for an uncle who was living there at the time. Either way, William and Jane met and married when William was 18 and Jane just 16. Teenage marriages were not unusual, but were certainly not encouraged. It is highly probable that Jane was pregnant when she married William, as this was often the reason a couple would marry so young. After their marriage the pair returned to London and had several children together.

Apart from the christening records of their five children, in the central London parishes of Holborn and Cripplegate, we have no records of William and Jane’s life for the next twenty years. On the christening records of his children, William’s occupation is given as ‘turner’.


Cripplegate, 1831

The couple next appear in the records in 1772, twenty one years after their marriage. Jane was the keeper of “a broker’s shop in Whitecross Street”. She appears in a court case where a woman was charged with stealing a tea chest from Jane’s shop window. The only reference to William in the court proceedings is that the chest was his property, therefore he was the owner of the shop. It seems, however, that Jane was the one running the business. She is the one who appears in court, not William, which is strange since he was the owner of the stolen goods. Regardless of how much or little William was involved in their business, the fact that they owned a shop at all seems to indicate that they wanted – or needed – to supplement their income.

Jump forward fifteen years to 1787 and the will of William’s brother John. William and Jane are both still alive and, even with Jane’s curious shopkeeping, we would have assumed all was peaceful in the Lowe household – but the terms of John’s will blow that idea right out of the water.

John was a turner, like his father and brothers. Because he was single and childless, he leaves legacies to many different members of his family and some of his friends. He owned several properties in central London and also in the countryside. To give a sense of how wealthy John was, the total amount of money detailed in his will – £2,849 – was, at the time, more than a regular tradesman could earn in a lifetime, and this did not include the value of his properties.


Cripplegate, early 19th century


To family historians, most wills follow a familiar pattern when it comes to the beneficiaries. Married women didn’t tend to have wills as, by law, everything they owned belonged to their husband. So the only people who had wills were men, and women who were unmarried or widowed. There would often be one main beneficiary who inherited most of the estate. It was usually a spouse or a child, or possibly some other close relation.

John divided his estate between several members of his family, including nieces and nephews, but his choice of main beneficiary is surprising.

It was not unusual for men to leave a small amount of money to a widowed sister-in-law, especially if they had not been particularly well provided for by their own husbands. But for John Lowe to name his sister-in-law as his main beneficiary while her husband, his brother, was still alive is quite extraordinary. Jane Lowe, the shopkeeping wife of John’s brother William, was the main beneficiary of John Lowe’s will. Jane inherited all of John’s household goods and money owed to him at the time of his death. She was also given an income in the form of rent from three properties (John left a fourth property to his other brother, Edward). All this meant that Jane was well provided for. When she died, ten years later, she was living at one of the addresses John Lowe mentioned in his will.

Whether John was simply fond of his sister-in-law and wanted to make sure she had security, or whether their relationship had become more than familial, we will never know. The way Jane is looked after in his will is the way you would expect him to treat his wife, if he’d had one. And the next part of John’s will adds another dimension to the family dynamic.

As well as leaving property to his brother Edward, John also leaves him £1000 and his “two best suits”. But his brother William is treated very differently. John leaves William the remainder of his apparel but the other ‘gifts’ are less than generous. He does leave £500 in trust with Jane for William, but with the following instructions – William is to receive twelve shillings of this money every week, on the condition that he moves “to some place not less than 50 miles” from Jane’s residence and that he does not “by any means molest or disturb” Jane “in her business or employment or in any other…manner howsoever”. John firmly states that if William fails to meet with these conditions the weekly payments are to permanently cease. In other words, William was being paid, by his brother, not to go near his own wife.

When reading these instructions, one cannot help the feeling that John didn’t think much of his brother. The word “molest” did not always have the sinister sexual connotations of today, but it would still have had the implication of hostile intent, so John’s use of this word has particular weight. It is not hard to imagine there could have been some domestic violence occurring in William and Jane’s marriage. Why else would John put into place what was, in effect, an eighteenth century ‘restraining order’ against his own brother?

There are many possibilities for what really was going on – perhaps William’s mental health was unstable or maybe he just had a taste for liquor. Jane married him when they were both so young, in a society where couples didn’t spend a lot of time together before marriage, so she could be forgiven for not knowing exactly what kind of man she was marrying.

We have no way of knowing if William stuck to his brother’s conditions, and received his twelve shillings a week, or not. Twelve shillings was less than a week’s wages for a carpenter or other similar job, so this allowance was not intended to be William’s sole income, but merely an incentive to stay away from his wife. We have not found a will for William, but when Jane died in 1797 her will indicates that she was a wealthy widow. Well provided for, but not by her husband.

An indication of Jane’s position in society, by the time of her death, can be found in some of the items she left to one of her granddaughters, which included her gold watch, miniature pictures, rings and gold trinkets. These were not the possessions of a woman struggling to ‘make do’, and in her will she also names her “maid servant” so it seems John’s legacy had kept her going well.


A typical example of a miniature painting from the 18th century

Jane left most of her estate to her two sons, Edward and John. She seems to have been concerned that her late husband, William, had wrongfully bequeathed to their youngest son, John, property which was legally hers. She states that, in order to receive her legacy, John must release all claims to such property. It looks as though the two sons may have taken sides in the separation of their parents. Jane left £100 to her eldest son, Edward, which she instructs to be paid to him no matter what he may owe her. But the money she left to her younger son, John, is conditional and the reference to his possible agreement with her late husband has a note of bitterness to it.

We will never know the details of William and Jane’s marriage. Whether William was violent or just irresponsible; whether Jane had an affair or even cohabited with her brother-in-law or not; and what impact the fracture of the family had on future generations is left for speculation.

One thing we can be sure of is that John Lowe used his last words to try to protect a woman he cared about, as a lover or simply as a brother. He also did a much better job of leaving her provided for than her husband did. In her old age, Jane did not have to worry about money or having a place to live, and she was also given a means by which she could achieve some independence from her husband.

Eighteenth century society did not allow many women the opportunity to be independently wealthy and, as divorce was incredibly rare, getting out of an unhappy or violent marriage was not an easy task. John Lowe not only recognized a woman in difficulty but he chose to use his resources to do something about it. A will, being a binding legal document, was the most effective way to achieve his goals, and his choice of this method meant the evidence is still there – 250 years later – for us to find!


The Gardening Vicar

John Laurence (b. 1668 d. 1732) was the 3x-great-grandfather of Henry Edward Goodeve (who emigrated to New Zealand), through his Godmond and Dale ancestors.

Most of us would not associate horticulture with eighteenth century English clergymen. But in the case of my 7x great-grandfather, John Laurence, his contribution to the world of gardening and horticulture could be considered greater than his contribution to the church. In his lifetime he published four books on horticulture which are still considered important and influential. It may seem like an odd combination, but a life spent half in the church and half in the garden was more compatible than you might think.

Born in 1668, John Laurence lived in an age when most men who worked as gardeners were, if not completely illiterate, certainly lacking the skills to write a book on the subject in which they were so knowledgeable. For this reason most of the early writers on horticulture were also clergyman. A university education was the only pathway to a life in the clergy, so all the men who followed this career were capable of writing a book on any subject should they see fit.

In becoming a ‘man of the cloth’, Laurence was following in his father’s footsteps. Becoming a vicar was a very respectable career as well as one that provided a relatively secure income. It seems as though it was a logical choice for Laurence, and it no doubt would have pleased his family, but a life devoted solely to the church was clearly not satisfying enough for him.

We have no source that tells us where Laurence’s interest in gardening came from but it was probably in him from a young age. Possibly one of his family members was a keen gardener. By the time he was 46, in 1714, his interest had developed into a passion. He wrote a book called ‘The Clergy-Man’s Recreation’ in which he encouraged his fellow clergymen to have a garden of their own. He called on his “observations and experience of above twenty years” and provided details on laying out a garden, preparing soil, and growing various plants, especially fruit trees. He urged his readers to spend time outdoors by saying:

“For my own part, I must own that tis the best and almost only Physick I take: and if through the rigour or wetness of the season, I am denyed the benefit of my Garden for some days, and labour under indispositions; God Blessing with a warm and sun-shiny day that invites me out, soon sets me to rights again”.

His first appointment as vicar was to the Northamptonshire village of Yelvertoft, in 1700. In his first book Laurence gives us a glimpse into the beginnings of his garden there:

“Adjoining to my house, I found what they used to call a garden, of about 32 yards square, mounded round with low mud-walls, quite over-run with couch or twitch-grass, nettles and gooseberry-bushes; and, which was a great deal worse, upon a wet white clay, lying within half a foot of the surface. The earnest desire I always had to have a garden made me look on with grief; but I instantly resolved to be doing something, that no time might be lost, towards getting wall-fruit if possible.”

His wish was granted and within a couple of years he had a large quantity of productive fruit trees. He also set about creating a nursery in which he grew cuttings and graftings from plants so that he not only had enough to populate his own garden but also to share with friends and neighbours, which he said was “no small part of my pleasure”.

He clearly had a passion for the outdoors and commented in his books how he found being in his garden very relaxing. It seems he spent every spare minute there and one can imagine him using gardening as a way to reduce his stress when he had difficult parish problems to deal with.

‘The Clergy-Man’s Recreation’ was so well received that four years later he published another book entitled ‘The Gentleman’s Recreation’, in which he addressed himself to the nobility as well as the clergy. This book was more in depth than the first and Laurence seems to feel that the success of ‘The Clergy-Man’s Recreation’ gave him licence to instruct his readers in a more detailed manner in his second book.

Gentlemans Rec web

Title page of ‘The Gentleman’s Recreation’ (second edition 1717)

Two years later, in 1718, he published a third even more extensive publication – ‘The Fruit-Garden Kalendar’ – in which Laurence describes what should be done in one’s garden during every month of the year.

It is apparent that fruit trees were his true passion. They were the primary focus of all three books and his knowledge of how to grow all varieties of fruit is plainly visible. In ‘The Gentleman’s Recreation’ Laurence discussed a way of protecting fruit trees that grow along a wall. He said that when building a wall for trees to grow against, adding a row of large tiles high up that stuck out over the trees allowed the fruit and tree to be protected from frost and other harsh weather. He called this method “horizontal shelters” and it seems he was the first to document it, if not the person who invented it.

Laurence’s writings were influential in his day and he clearly felt that part of his calling was to share his love of horticulture. He also seems to have known that his writings were important. His final publication on the subject (1726) notes that when he wrote his first book he had “the honour of being the first and almost only writer in this last century who had revived the spirit of gardening” but that since then there had been many follow in his footsteps. However in ‘The Fruit-Garden Kalendar’ he suggests that his contemporaries tended to merely copy ideas from other writers on the subject and in turn copied “their errors and mistakes, as well as their useful rules”. Here he implies that his writings are based on his own personal experience and not on the work of others.

We can see how much Laurence’s popularity as an author grew by how much his publisher paid him for his first three books. ‘The Clergy-Man’s Recreation’ earned him the sum of £5, the second book £16 and the third £36. In the early 1700’s it would have taken a carpenter or other tradesman nearly two years to earn the total amount Laurence was paid for these books. This was a sizable addition to his clergyman’s salary and it is possible that this is what enabled him to have life size portraits painted of him and his wife in later life. We don’t know where the portraits are now, or even if they still exist, but the one of Laurence himself was made into an engraving which was included in later editions of his books.

JL web.jpg

Engraving of John Laurence (unknown date)


The changes his success brought to his social life are referred to in a letter Laurence wrote to his brother Charles, also a vicar, in 1714 (the same year his first book was published). He apologises for not having written sooner because he had “been upon the ramble these last 3 weeks”, and then goes on to describe all the people he met on his travels around the county. He names several Lords he visited and jokingly says his brother must be surprised he “deigned to write to a vicar”, with him “being so taken up with the nobility”. He then lists a few other Sirs and Majors he dined with recently, but adds “These are little folks to those other great ones my book of gardening has made me acquainted with”.

After two decades at Yelvertoft, Laurence was appointed vicar of Bishopwearmouth, in county Durham. This was a larger parish, with a greater income, but over 200 miles north of his home county, Northamptonshire. In ‘A New System of Agriculture’ (1726) he talks about how he had to adjust to new soil and climate. He says that his Durham garden was “upon a hill unguarded” which made it too exposed to successfully grow the fruit trees he so dearly loved, but he found the produce of his neighbours’ better situated gardens to be the best fruit he’d ever eaten. The rest of his garden flourished and in later years he also discovered the joys of a flower garden.

Bishopwearmouth web.jpg

Bishopwearmouth (c.1800)

‘A New System of Agriculture’, published six years before Laurence’s death, was his most ambitious work. Here he chose to tackle not only his previous subjects of orchards and kitchen gardens, but also those of the flower garden and working the fields in husbandry or farming. It was a lengthy publication and would have been a very comprehensive guide to anyone wanting to engage in horticulture in any form. The book contains detailed lists of plant varieties and how to grow them successfully.

Laurence’s writings stood the test of time, with the Journal of Horticulture stating in 1876 that “anyone even now taking his ‘Clergyman’s Recreation’ and ‘Gentleman’s Recreation’ for his guides would not be led into faulty practice”. Even today, 300 years later, Laurence’s name is found in writings on early horticulture and his methods are still considered reliable.

His career in the church was necessarily an important part of his life, but clearly not as important as his beloved garden. His career choice gave him the leisure and the literary skills that enabled him to acquire such fame as an author and authority on the subject, but it is clear that in his literary pursuits he was just following his passion.

We could all take a leaf out of John Laurence’s book (no puns intended!) when it comes to what we do with our lives – do what gives you pleasure and satisfaction. Just follow your passion and you never know where it might lead you!

A Country Carpenter Meets the Industrial Revolution

William Rayner was the elder brother of our ancestor Catherine Rayner. She married John Fox in 1873 and they emigrated to New Zealand.

When William Rayner was born, in 1828, England was on the brink of the Industrial Revolution.

The past few generations of males in William’s family had all been carpenters working in various Norfolk villages. Sons would learn the trade from their fathers and there must have been enough work to keep them all in business. Young men in this position would often move to a neighbouring village when they married and start their own business there. But as the 19th century progressed it became harder for those employed in these trades in the country to keep going.

William’s father, Thomas, had lived in the village of Scole since childhood. He worked as a carpenter most of his life, until he ended up in the local workhouse and died there in 1873. A workhouse was an institution designed to help support the poor people of a particular area. During the 18th and the first part of the 19th century workhouses were seen as a last resort for the local poor, once they could no longer support themselves. Earlier in his life Thomas had been able to support himself and a large family, so the fact that he spent his final days in the workhouse indicates an illness, lack of money or both.

William Rayner, however, was willing to travel to find work. He married a local girl, Sarah Ann Thurlow, in 1848 and had two children baptised in Scole. These baptism records tell us what William’s occupation was at the time. When his son George was born in 1849 William was simply a ‘labourer’. Two years later, when his daughter Emma was born, he was a ‘carpenter’. In the 1851 census the little family is still residing in Scole, and William now has a job working as a ‘Rail Plate Layer’. The introduction of a railroad passing through nearby Diss, on its route from London to Norwich, would have provided work for many local labourers. For a young man like William, who had more skills than the average labourer, thanks to his father’s carpentry training, the railways opened up a lot of employment opportunities.

During the decade between the 1851 and 1861 census records there were many changes for William Rayner’s family. They moved 146 miles to Birmingham and the birth of their third child, Mary Ellen, was registered there in 1853. It seems likely that William was able to move his family to the fast growing industrial city by working on the railways. Whether it was a gradual move over 18 months, or an instant move over a couple of days, we don’t know.

Once they arrived in Birmingham it seems William turned his hand to whatever work he could get. After Mary Ellen’s birth, William and Sarah had 3 more sons – Sidney (1855), Frederick (1857) and Alfred (1859). On Alfred’s baptism record William is recorded as being a ‘labourer’, but when his elder children got married 10 and 20 years later they gave their father’s occupation as ‘Engineer’ and ‘Fitter’.

From this we can assume William was involved with engines. An ‘engine fitter’ was someone who assembled locomotive engines, and the British rail system employed many of these workers. Anyone involved in the production of engines was often referred to as an ‘engineer’ – not at all how we would interpret that occupation title today. As opposed to the work of ‘un-skilled labourers’ these jobs required a certain level of skill, and as a result the wages would’ve been marginally higher. In an industrial city like Birmingham there would’ve been no shortage of work for someone with these specialized skills.

Unfortunately these industrial jobs were often not the safest, with lots of heavy machinery around and no Heath & Safety regulations.

On the 7th of April 1860 this appeared in the Chester Chronicle:

“FATAL ACCIDENT AT BIRKENHEAD – On Monday, a man named William Rayner, belonging to Birmingham, was engaged in superintending the removal of some machinery in the ship-building yard of Messrs. J Baird and Sons, Birkenhead, when he was accidentally crushed between a boiler and a wall, and sustained injuries of a fatal nature. He was removed to the hospital in Hamilton-street, where he died shortly after admission.”

William had died on the 2nd of April, and he was buried back in Birmingham on the 5th. He was only 32 years old.

His wife, Sarah Ann, would’ve been left in a very miserable and unfortunate position. Her son Sidney had died a year before at the age of three, and only 2 months after William’s death she lost her youngest child, Alfred, at the age of ten months.

It was difficult during the Victorian era for women to obtain employment and they had very limited options. If you were unmarried you could ‘go into service’, as a housemaid, housekeeper or cook for example, and most servants were expected to live with their employers. Alternatively, if you were married or widowed, you could take in work in your own home as a ‘laundress’ or ‘washerwoman’. Young women with even a basic education were more desirable as servants than older women with families. So, as an illiterate widow with four young children to support and care for, Sarah’s prospects wouldn’t have been very good. It is not very surprising therefore to find her remarrying within a year of William’s accident. Remarriage was often the only way for a widow of the lower classes to be financially secure and be sure that her children would be provided for. Sarah married Ephraim Clarke, a clerk, and she went on to have 4 more children.

William and Sarah’s fifth child, Frederick, died when he was only 17, but the eldest 3 survived to adulthood and all had large families. All 3 of them were literate, so must have been able to attend school in their youth. The two sisters, Emma and Mary Ellen, worked as servants before they were married, while their brother George worked as an ‘Engine Turner’ – a fairly skilled occupation that involved creating metal parts for machinery, or doing fine metal engraving work on luxury items.

The siblings lived their whole lives in the Birmingham area and some of their descendants still live there today.