Saints and Sinners – The Finches, the Abbot of Colchester and the English Reformation

There are few families that can show that they are related to a saint. A selection of papers I recently found in the National Archives show that our family – the Finches of Redbourn – were related to the Abbot of Colchester, who resisted the English reformation and paid for it with his life. Subsequently, the Abbot was canonised for his support for Catholicism against King Henry.

The Decree Roll of 1552 which contains the ruling in the case of Locke versus Clare

What are the Documents?

The documents are an equity suit – a dispute in court where one party claims redress against another – and the case was heard in late 1552 or early 1553. The case was brought by John LOCKE who was claiming ownership of the manor of Brightlingsea in Essex. The manor had been – prior to the dissolution of the monasteries – part of the lands of the Abbey of St John the Baptist in Colchester. However another man – John CLARE – also had a deed that stated he had ownership of the same land. The Court of Chancery was asked to decide which claim was valid.

The story that the documents outline is as follows. In 1538, Henry VIII was pressing ahead with the break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. Although many churchmen of the time acquiesced – however great their personal misgivings – a vociferous few refused to recognise Henry’s authority. Prominent among these was John BECHE, the Abbot of Colchester. He had been a continual thorn in Henry’s side by vigorously opposing the break with Rome. When Henry sent emissaries to demand the keys to the Abbey, John BECHE replied he would give in “but against my will and against my heart for I know by my learning that he cannot take it by right or law; wherefore in my conscience I cannot be content”. As a result, Henry decided to make an example of the troublesome Abbot and towards the end of 1538, it was clear that the game was up. Henry forced the dissolution of the Abbey and seized its lands; John himself was accused of treason for which the penalty was death. However, John BECHE tried one last attempt to foil Henry’s seizure of the Abbey lands. He quickly drew up a series of deeds, selling all the Abbey’s lands at knock-down prices to trusted folk that he felt would return the lands after (as he expected) the break with Rome was reversed. And therefore John BECHE sold the Abbey’s manor of Brightlingsea to ‘his near kinsman’ John FINCH, the son of John FINCH of Redbourn in the Co Herts deceased. But Henry was wise to this ploy and so he retrospectively nullified all deeds actioned by the Abbey that had taken place up to one year prior to dissolution. So as John BECHE sold the Abbey’s lands, he dated the sale one year earlier than that date on which it had actually taken place. This meant that John FINCH of Redbourn held what appeared to be a valid deed for the ownership of the manor of Brightlingsea.

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Detail of the decree roll mentioning ‘the said John FFYNCHE the sonne

It appears that John kept the deed quietly in a safe place and did not draw attention to its existence. In the interim, John BECHE was captured, tried for treason and hanged, drawn and quartered on the 1st Sep 1539. Henry seized the Abbey’s lands and passed the manor of Brightlingsea to a John LOCKE as a ‘pension’, possibly meaning a payment for his involvement in the dissolution of the Abbey.

13 years later, in 1552, John FINCH died intestate and without children. His brother Nicholas (from whom I am descended) inherited the deed and sold it to John CLARE who owned several other manors in the vicinity. It was then that the existence of competing title deeds were recognised. Locke’s grant from Henry appeared valid but so too did Clare’s which predated Henry’s dissolution of the monastery and nominally bore a date prior to the period over which Henry had nullified the Abbey’s land transactions. John LOCKE took John CLARE to court, asking the court of Chancery in London to decide in his favour and outlining the irregular way in which the bond had been drawn up.

The notes made at the time record that the court doubted the validity of Finch’s bond suspicious of the fact that Finch was the Abbot’s ‘near kinsman’. The asked Clare to provide better proof that the date on the grant was valid, which he was unable to do. The court therefore issued a decree (which survives) deciding the case in Locke’s favour. The court also required that Clare’s deed be brought to the court so that it could be destroyed.

How were the Abbot and John Finch related?

We know from other documents that John and Nicholas FINCH were the sons of John Finch of Redbourn. John the father married Elizabeth BECHE about 1505 and their children were born over a period of 20 years. It is almost certain that the Abbot, John BECHE, was closely related to Elizabeth. The youngest son of John and Elizabeth FINCH, Alban, was born as a posthumous child in 1524, after the father John had died (his will is 1524). If Elizabeth BECHE was giving birth to Alban after ~20 years of marriage, she was probably about 40 years old when her youngest child was born and about 20 when she was married. This puts her date of birth to be ~1485.

It is estimated that Abbot John BECHE was about 60 when he was executed in 1539. This puts his date of birth ~1480. We can therefore suppose that John and Elizabeth BECHE were brother and sister, and therefore that John and Nicholas FINCH were the Abbot’s nephews.

Abbot John BECHE’s Legacy

John BECHE’s refusal to give in to Henry was widely respected. His pectoral cross, apparently worn when he was executed, was subsequently revered and is now held at Buckfast Abbey. He was made a Catholic Saint in 1895.



The grave of Frederick, Eliza and Marian Ward

I and my cousins Sandra and Adrian Grater spent some time cleaning up the grave of our ancestors Frederick and Eliza Ward. They are buried with their daughter Marian in the graveyard of St James, Hampton Hill near Twickenham. The grave was overgrown with thorns and brambles, but it took just a few minutes to clean the grave up sufficiently that the inscriptions could be read. The grave is in area B and is located as grave 9B 3.


Sacred to the memory of of Eliza WARD who died Nov 1st 1909 aged 65. And also Frederick Ward, husband of the above, who died Jan 4th 1925 aged 75 years. And Marian Ward who died Dec 2nd 1894 aged 7 years.

Adrian & Sandra at Hampton ii)I and my cousin Sandra, 9th October 2017, at Hampton Hill.


A life in the workhouse – Elizabeth FINCH

Elizabeth Finch is my great-great-great-great-grandmother. She was born on the 20th February 1790 in Roehampton, which was then in Surrey and part of the parish of St Mary’s Putney (nowadays it is in Greater London and a separate parish). Her parents were Thomas Finch, a shoemaker, and Elizabeth nee UMNEY. She was the eldest daughter and had an elder brother John Thomas FINCH born two years earlier. She would become the eldest sister to a further three brothers and three sisters. Her parents, as far as we can tell, remained in Roehampton for all of their lives.

Like many of her era, Elizabeth went ‘into service’ when she was old enough to work. We know that by 1813 she was working for a butcher in East Sheen called Charles PAYNE, in whose household she lived and worked for an annual wage of £7. She first appears on the records in 1815 when she became pregnant. At that time, the father of children to unmarried mothers were sought out by parish officials and coerced into providing for the child. Elizabeth was examined by the overseers of the Poor of Putney on 8th February 1815. In this case, the child was mentioned but no father was given – it is not clear why. The outcome of the examination was that Elizabeth would reside with her parents at Roehampton, and therefore there appears not to have been any suggestion the child would become chargeable to the parish. The child was a boy, probably born in his grandparents house in Roehampton, and was baptised ‘George FINCH’ at St Mary’s Putney on the 14th May 1815, having been born probably in April 1815. Sadly the baby died in December 1815 and was buried in St Mary’s churchyard on the 23rd December.

The Examination of Elizabeth FINCH

This examinant upon her oath saith that she is a singlewoman and that in the month of April in the year 1813 she lived as a yearly servant to Charles PAYNE of East Sheen in the parish of Mortlake in the said County, butcher, under which hiring she served for one year and nine months in the said parish of Mortlake and received the yearly wages of seven pounds after which service she dwelt at home with her father and mother at Roehampton. And the examinant further saith that she is now with child and expects to be delivered almost every day.

Her Mark: Elizabeth X FINCH

Sworn the 16th Day of August 1817                                                  Fred REEVES

                                                                                                                 William PEARSON LLD

Elizabeth fell pregnant again in 1817. On this occasion she was examined by the Overseers of the Poor in both Mortlake and Putney parish on the 16th of August. The entry for Putney parish merely records that her last place of employment was in East Sheen, part of Mortlake parish, hence any costs associated with her unborn child were to be met by Mortlake parish. However the entry also includes the name of the father as “a man named George… is the father, he worked for Mr MARCH a carpenter at Roehampton and has a mill on Wimbledon Common where the said George worked“. The fact that a dispute between Putney and Mortlake broke out indicates that the child was to be chargeable to the parish and that Elizabeth was no longer living with her parents. The circumstances of her leaving here parents are unclear, but Elizabeth had not worked formally since her employment in Charles Payne’s house in 1815 and by 1817 was a resident of Mortlake Workhouse.

The second child was a daughter who was baptised Elizabeth Finch from Mortlake Workhouse on the 18th September 1817. The assignment to the workhouse suggests that the child had been delivered in there. Sadly this child also died as an infant and was buried on the 19th August 1818. The burial does not have an abode and hence it is unclear if Elizabeth was still in Mortlake Workhouse.

Elizabeth appears on the records again in 1824. She was again pregnant with a child, but this time the parish of Putney appears to have been liable. One can infer therefore that Elizabeth had worked within Putney parish since leaving Mortlake workhouse, otherwise this child would also have been chargeable to Mortlake. The father of this child, identified in the examination on the 8th of May 1824, was Henry HIGLEY, a servant of Charles PAYNE in East Sheen. Elizabeth had worked for Charles PAYNE 11 years previously, but she clearly had kept up connections with that household, even if she had not worked there herself. This child was another daughter, who was baptised ‘Eliza’ at Putney on the 8th September 1824. We do not know the fate of this child. No burial corresponds to her birth and she may have lived to adulthood (although the records are sparse). Her place of birth is given as ‘Putney’ but it is not clear if this is the workhouse or a private residence.

Elizabeth fell pregnant for the fourth time in 1830, aged 40. The examination documents for this child are unfortunately lost, but a summary of the content has survived. It gave the child as a boy and the examination took place in August 1830. The father’s name was William ROBERTS of Bedford Court, White Hart Yard, Drury Lane, London and he was sought by the parish officials. The father to the child was never found.

GLRO-P85-MRY1-427 resized

The Summary of the birth of her fourth child in 1830. The Examination was the 7th August 1830 and the father of the child was ‘William ROBERTS of Bedford Court, White Hart Yard, Drury Lane’.

The child, a boy, was born in July 1830 as ‘St George Frederick FINCH’ and baptised at St Mary’s Putney on the 25th July 1830. The examination is dated on the 7th August by which time the note is given ‘child in the workhouse’. In all later documents, this child, my ggg-grandfather, was referred to as ‘George FINCH’. George was probably born in the Putney workhouse building. Elizabeth now appears to have spent all her subsequent life within the workhouse. It may be that she was discharged for short spells (the admission books are all now lost), but the only records we now have of her until her death are within the workhouse system.

In 1834, plans were drawn for the workhouses of Battersea, Clapham, Putney, Streatham, Wandsworth and Tooting to amalgamate into the ‘Wandsworth and Clapham Union’ with a longer term plan to create a single, large workhouse from the several smaller buildings spread across the parishes. In 1836, the new Union was created and one of its first actions was to sell the building that housed Putney workhouse. Elizabeth and 53 other inmates were moved on the 11th August 1836 to Clapham Workhouse. Putney workhouse must have seemed relatively small and personal compared to the much larger institutions in which she would now live her life. In addition to creating much larger workhouses, stricter regimes were created within the building with regulated diets and heavily structured daytime activities. By 1836, George was 6 (if Eliza were still alive, she would have been 12). By now George would have lived separately to his mother with the other pauper boys. Parents were only allowed to mix with their children for a few hours on every Sunday before religious service. A few months after the move to Clapham, Elizabeth was returned back to Putney workhouse with three other inmates to assist with the preparation of the building for sale.


George and Elizabeth were moved on the 22nd December 1836 to Streatham Workhouse as “Elizabeth FINCH aged 51 and her bastard boy George aged 5” (note: there is no mention of Eliza FINCH, if she survived).


In January 1837 a note appears that the Guardians were considering moving Elizabeth FINCH back to Clapham workhouse, but that this was overruled. For the interim, Elizabeth and George were in the same institution, if not the same ward. In early 1837 an outbreak of ‘the itch’ became prevalent among the boys at Streatham Workhouse and those children unaffected were transferred to Tooting Workhouse. It is not clear whether George was moved.

By 1838, the new combined workhouse building on St John’s Hill in Wandsworth was ready. The first inmates were transferred shortly afterwards. A sense of the diet is given by a ‘Bill of Fare’ that was posted giving the diet that could be expected.


By the time of the 1841 Census, Elizabeth and George were in the new building. Elizabeth is shown in women’s ward and George amongst the boys – they are living apart. The new combined workhouse was also accused of mistreatment of the inmates. In 1843, some of the inmates made a complaint. The depositions from one inmate shows that “There are 4 warden misses, 2 women Finch and Keene 2 men Mansell and Wotton. They have an allowance of beer, the allowance of two of them Finch and Keen has been stopped. Keen’s allowance was stopped for going upstairs to get the keys from me to go to the workhouse for hot water. She sits up at night with a woman who has fits. She told me the master stopped her beer in the last week of fortnight the Master has visited frequently the infirmary the 1st 7 weeks duration did not come so often; sometimes he came once a day to, sometimes the Schoolmistress.” By now it can be seen that Elizabeth is working as an orderly within the Workhouse Infirmary. This complaint led to an enquiry by Dr WJ CONNOR, the doctor to the workhouse, which showed that inmates were in some cases living in the same clothes for up to three months and that lice and bodily infections were rife. This was reported in the local press.

By 1844, George would have been 14 years old and the workhouse regulations required pauper children to be apprenticed in a trade at that age. Although the name is not recorded, in 1836 it is recorded that a suitable master should be recruited to train the elder pauper boys in bootmaking. Since George FINCH was in later life a bootmaker, we can infer that he was trained by this master.

In 1851, Elizabeth is still found within the workhouse but George, now 21, had left and was living in Clapham. George was a journeyman bootmaker and in 1853 he married Mary Clara SHARMAN at St John’s Church, Clapham. He gave his father’s name as ‘George FINCH, bootmaker‘, a fabrication presumably to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that he did not know his father. Elizabeth did not witness the marriage and it may be that she was unable to attend, being an inmate of the workhouse and not strictly at liberty (potentially jeopardising her living in the institution). Since Elizabeth had only seen her son for a few hours every week, it is possible that she and George had little in common. George set up a family in Clapham but, perhaps in recognition of his mother, his first daughter was called Elizabeth. The 1861 Census returns for the workhouse are now lost, but she appears in a national survey of paupers who had been in a workhouse for more than 5 years. By this time she was 71 years old and the document states she had been in the workhouse for 20 years, but it is almost certain that she had been there longer. Elizabeth remained in the workhouse as she grew older. She died in the workhouse infirmary on the 22nd August 1866 and buried a week later (28th August 1866) in a pauper’s grave in Putney.

Elizabeth spent upwards of 50 years in the workhouse system. Her earlier life may have involved relatively short periods, entering and being discharged from the workhouse system, but the latter half of her life was spent entirely as a workhouse inmate. She lived through a period which saw the industrialisation of social care provision and endured some its excesses in the largest workhouse in London. Victorian Workhouses were engineered to be so unpleasant that only those in the most dire of need would subject themselves to it, and in the 1840s, the conscious drive to make the environment unpleasant let to instances of outright cruelty. Elizabeth witnessed (and possibly experienced) some of those excesses. Some, such as Elizabeth appears to have been, were trapped within the system, unable to gain the independence to move out of the workhouse, irrespective of the pressures to leave. Elizabeth’s is not however entirely a negative story. Despite the hardships, Elizabeth brought up a son who was trained sufficiently to leave the workhouse and start in his own career. Although the family were never affluent, subsequent generations avoided the grinding poverty that Elizabeth experienced.


The Elusive Ellen WILEY

I am trying to trace a direct ancestor who is something of a mystery. Ellen WILEY is my ggg grandmother. She married my ggg grandfather Robert WARD in 1839 by licence and from the various Ages she used on the census she must have been born about 1815-1818. They lived in Marfleet in Yorkshire, on the North side of the Humber overlooking Lincolnshire, which was Robert Ward’s parish at the time and where he had been born.

Her earlier roots are the problem. They shouldn’t be. She has coverage on 6 censuses and she has two marriage certificates; the church records prior to formal certificates for the whole county are all complete. But here’s the problem: we have her on 6 censuses each of which has a different place of birth, and she was married twice, and for each she gave a different father’s name. There is no baptism for an Ellen W(H)ILEY at any of the places she identified as being her parish of origin.  Her birth places have some consistency in that some are around Friskney and Wainfleet, where WILEY families lived. On her first marriage, she claimed her father was Edward WILEY, but no-one of that name is mentioned at all – he seems to be a red herring. But in her second marriage, she said her father was William WILEY, and there is a William in Friskney.

What we know:
1815-1818 Ellen WILEY born
9 Jan 1839 Ellen WILEY married Robert WARD in Marfleet by licence, father named as Edward WILEY
1841 census birthplace Yorkshire age 20
1851 census birthplace Lincs Foston (sic meant to be Boston?) age 33
1861 census birthplace Lincs Rangle (Wrangle?) age 43
1871 census birthplace Lincs Wainflit (Wainfleet?) age 53
1881 census birthplace Yorks Preston aged 66
23 Apr 1888 Ellen WARD married Edward HUNTER, father named as William WILEY aged 71
1891 census birthplace Lincs Boston age 74
Died 1891 Marfleet
Robert and Ellen used several names not present in earlier generations of the ward family and some of these might be indicative of names from Ellen‘s family. Having said that Robert’s brothers used unusual names without a precedent, including the unique name ‘Energy’ for one of their sons.
Her children were:
William, Arthur, Mary Tweed, Jesse, Frederick, James, Sarah Jane, Phoebe, Charles.
The Ward family tree uses and would account for the choice of:
William, Mary, Jane, Robert, Elizabeth, Joseph, Peter. Tweed was Robert’s mother’s maiden name.
Leaving potentially
Jesse, Frederick, James, Sarah, Phoebe and Charles as indicative of names in Ellen‘s family.
Why would someone not know where they were born, or change their father’s name? We might imagine that a registrar might enter the father’s name incorrectly, and neither Robert nor Ellen could read so they might not have known the name of Ellen‘s father was mistaken. Ellen might have been born to wandering labourers who moved to the area for summer work and then back to their home parish later, and Ellen just knew that she was born somewhere in that part of Lincolnshire.

Let me hazard a hypothesis. I wonder whether my Ellen WILEY is the Elizabeth WHILEY baptised in Friskney in 1818. She was the daughter of William WHILEY and Betsy, William was an Innkeeper who hanged himself in 1838, a scandal which at the time might have been widely reported. When getting married just a matter of months later, she did not want to be associated with the event, so she fabricated a different father’s name for the certificate. She may have even called herself my a new name, Ellen not Elizabeth, although she might be called Ellie either way. When asked her place of birth on the census, she may not have wished to be associated with that area. It was a poor area, and Robert Ward was a professional upwardly mobile working man in a prosperous area along the Humber! Perhaps she did not want the neighbours to know she was the daughter of an alcoholic from a rough part of rural Lincs.

This might explain the extraordinary range of places of birth, ages and fathers names. One way we might test this hypothesis is via DNA although this is at the range of the resolution. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who is descended from the WHILEY family of Friskney to see if we can find a DNA match.