Agnes Houlditch 1671 – 1749


by Tony Holdich - May 16, 2013

Family Background

Agnes was the 4th child of Abraham Houlditch of Totnes and his wife Elizabeth. She was baptised at St. Mary’s Rotherhithe on 12 October 1671. Her parents had been married by licence at St. Magnus the Martyr on 13 November 1661. Her father was then Captain of HMS Sophia and he continued to serve in the Navy until 1666. Elizabeth was the daughter of Nathaniel Morecock, a mathematician, and his wife Elizabeth Heard who had been married at Stepney on 13 December 1638. On leaving the Navy Abraham joined the Royal African Company as a sea captain. Later he became the Company’s Agent in West Africa, and finally was appointed to the Court of Assistants. He left the Company in 1677 when he was appointed Chief Searcher of London Port, but after barely three months in his new post he died at the age of forty and was buried in Stepney. Agnes was only six.

In his Will made on 1 February 1677/8 Abraham divided his estate into 32 parts and appointed Elizabeth as his executrix, bequeathing eleven parts to her. He left the remaining 21 parts to his surviving children: five to Abraham, four each to Richard and Elizabeth, three each to Ann and Agnes and two to the child or children his wife was carrying at the time. The value of the estate is not known, but it is unlikely that Elizabeth was left in poverty. She was however left, at the age of 34, pregnant and with five young children, and it was not long before she found herself a husband or a suitable widower found her. The man in question was John Chambers, a scrivener, and it is possible they met in connection with the administration of Abraham’s estate. Alternatively they may have met in Rotherhithe or Stepney where he owned property and she and Abraham had lived.

Early Years

Elizabeth married John Chambers in December 1679, and Agnes entered a new world at the age of eight. Her stepfather lived in Lombard Street and did business with bankers and goldsmiths. At the time he made his Will in 1703 he owned property in London, Middlesex, Essex, Herts and Surrey, and he employed several servants. He had lost his previous wife, Mary, in 1673 and none of their children had survived, but he and Elizabeth soon had a growing family to set alongside her existing five children. Mary was born in 1681 and was followed by Elizabeth, John and Jane. By the time Jane was born Agnes was fifteen. Unhappily Elizabeth and Jane both died in infancy and Agnes began to learn about the sorrows of motherhood.

As her child bearing age passed, Elizabeth’s mind must have turned increasingly to the future of the children from her marriage with Abraham – to marriage for the girls and careers for the boys – and in this she was able to look for advice not only to her husband but also to the overseers of Abraham’s Will, i.e. to Captains Richard Goodlad and Thomas Stanton. With six younger children in the family Ann and Agnes were no doubt well educated in childcare. In December 1688 Ann married Jonathan Mayllam at St. James, Duke’s Place, and was given away by Captain Goodlad. Elizabeth presumably decided against the sea for the boys, who in due course were apprenticed to trades in the City. But a seafaring husband was found for Agnes.

Marriage

It seems unlikely that either her stepfather or, at the age of 18, Agnes herself would have chosen John Strong as her husband. He was a widower age 35 or so, with a stepdaughter Elizabeth about the same age as Agnes. But he had achieved fame and some fortune and no doubt seemed acceptable, even attractive. In addition it is possible that he was a relation. A John Strong had married Barbara Houlditch in Totnes in 1640 and Agnes’s John may have been a son of Barbara. It would have been natural to look for a match within the family. From John’s point of view, the matter was probably urgent. His stepdaughter, who had no doubt been keeping house for him since his wife died, was about to be married to Captain John Thomas.

John Strong’s claim to fame arose from being chief mate on the James and Mary under Captain William Phipps and from finding the wreck of ‘La Capitana Jesus Maria’ a Spanish treasure ship off the coast of Hispaniola. A warrant for the treasure hunt had been issued by James 11, and the sponsors of the enterprise included the Duke of Albemarle and Viscount Falkland. The wreck yielded a hoard of gold and silver worth over £200,000 of which John’s share was about £1,000. He gave an account of the expedition in a deposition in a Chancery case in 1687. A silver medal was struck to commemorate the success and issued to the crew. John’s medal was handed down by Agnes to her descendants and was in the possession of her great grandson Thomas Harwood when he made his Will in 1833. John succeeded William Phipps as captain of the James and Mary when Phipps was appointed to a post in New England from which he went on to become Governor of Massachusetts.

John and Agnes were married in July 1689 and this was a very busy month in their lives. He had to appear with her mother at the Faculty Office to obtain a licence for the marriage; and he had to attend the marriage of his stepdaughter Elizabeth in St. James, Duke’s Place. Moreover he had been chosen by Viscount Falkland and others to command the Welfare on a trading and privateering voyage to the west coast of South America where some 30 years earlier another Spanish treasure ship had sunk. For this purpose he also had to appear before the High Court of Admiralty to obtain his Royal Commission for the voyage which, as we were at war with France, licensed him to capture French ships. In addition, a suitable crew had to be recruited. And of course the ship had to be properly stocked not merely with provisions but also with goods to trade and with guns and ammunition. Agnes would have had mixed feelings about all this. Pride at the preferment of her husband and hope for future wealth would have jostled with anxiety about the actual outcome.

THE TREASURE HUNT

Although there was great haste to get the Welfare ready to sail it was not until 12 October that she got away from the Downs, where ships customarily assembled before major voyages. Agnes probably said good bye to her husband there. Presumably they had a few days together, perhaps on board, before his ship sailed, but John was a prudent man who was embarking on a long and hazardous voyage, which called for careful preparation, and the circumstances were not consistent with a carefree honeymoon. Poor Agnes, a young bride of a few weeks, had to bid her husband farewell fearing she might never see him again.

The Welfare was a ship of some 270 tons, with 40 guns and a crew of about ninety. John’s log can be seen today in the British Library, together with a journal kept by Richard Simson, who travelled with him. From these accounts we know that on 27 January they reached a group of islands in the South Atlantic then known as Hawkins Land and uninhabited except for animals and birds. Simson records that the penguins, mustered in infinite numbers, seemed to salute them with graceful bows expressing their curiosity and good breeding. John gave the name Falkland Sound to the channel between the two main islands, and the group subsequently became known as the Falkland Islands.

The Welfare entered the Strait of Magellan on 10 February and for three months and twelve days battled against violent storms and adverse tides before finally emerging into the Pacific Ocean. John noted in his log that he would advise no one to try the passage at that time of year. The slow progress through the Strait enabled him to study the local Indians whom he described as poor and naked, painted all over with red ochre, having nothing but a skin about their shoulders and bearing bows and arrows. They lived principally on limpets, mussels and fowls. A little trade was done with them, but in John’s view they were treacherous and not to be trusted.

On leaving the Strait the Welfare was still some 4000 miles south of the point, about latitude 25, where it was believed the treasure ship had been wrecked, and the story of the journey can hardly be described in this article. It must suffice to say that the voyage was marred by sickness and death.. At one stage fifty men were down and not capable of service. Rats, of which they had a prodigious number on board, damaged the cargo and were no doubt a source of disease. The sea and the coastal area provided food, but they were often short of fresh water. The Spanish coastal settlers tended to be suspicious and unfriendly, if not hostile, and reluctant to trade.

The Welfare reached the area of the wreck in August, but alas John and his crew were frustrated. The wreck, unlike that found off Hispaniola, was apparently buried in deep sand and despite their diving equipment and extensive searching they found nothing. Reluctantly they turned south and began the long journey home. Recently, with the aid of modern technology, a Norwegian diver has apparently found the wreck, with treasure estimated to be worth over £2 billion. John and his crew would have been well pleased with a fraction of that.

The journey south was marked by a tragic incident in November at a settlement whose inhabitants at first seemed friendly and ready to trade. A small party therefore landed and initially they were entertained with food and drink. Suddenly however some fifty Spanish horsemen appeared and attacked them. Only one of the party escaped to their boat and though wounded was got away by the two men who had remained with it. Their eleven comrades were either killed or captured.

John assembled the crew to decide whether to take revenge, but the consensus of opinion was that trade was impossible, the prospect of a French prize was negligible, they were not strong enough to achieve anything by force of arms and they needed to get through the Magellan Strait before the weather turned against them. The Welfare therefore continued her southerly course. She entered the Strait on the 5th, and emerged on the 12th, December -in marked contrast with her passage west, especially as she spent four days at anchor taking on wood and water.

John then made for Barbados, which he reached on 17 February. On the orders of the Governor he spent some time in the vicinity searching for a French privateer, but without success. Finally he weighed from Bridgetown on 4 April 1691 with a load of sugar. In the final weeks of the voyage the Welfare captured two French ships, but these prizes were poor consolation compared with a share in a substantial treasure. However most of the crew returned home alive, unlike twenty two of their ship mates; and Agnes was mightily relieved to see her husband after a journey approaching 40,000 miles on an expedition taking nearly two years. In some respects it was an unusual trip, but it does throw light on conditions at sea endured by our 17th century mariner ancestors.

WIDOWHOOD

John no doubt made a Will before he left for South America, but he made his last Will and Testament on 22 August 1693, the day he set out on what was to be his final voyage. He bequeathed £50 to his step daughter Mrs Elizabeth Thomas and smaller sums for mourning to a number of Agnes’s relations, i.e. her mother and stepfather, her sister Anne, her brothers Abraham and Richard and her half-sister Mary. He left the residue of his estate to Agnes and made her his executrix.

On this final voyage John was bound for the West Indies as captain of the James in company with other ships. The fleet, with the permission of William II, sailed under the King of Spain’s commission and it appears that a further treasure hunt was in prospect. The preparations for the expedition included hiring crew who signed bonds to serve at least eighteen months, and Agnes was present when the bonds were executed. The fleet sailed from the Downs, where Agnes said goodbye to John before returning to London, and reached the Groyne, Corunna, on 27 September, where unhappily John died on 11 November. News of his death reached Agnes quickly and she proved his Will in the P.C.C. on 2 December. Thus after four years of marriage she was a widow at the age of 22.

The size of John’s estate is not known, although Agnes certified it to be not less than £1000. However she was not to enjoy it all. Problems soon arose over its administration. Captain John Thomas, who commanded another ship in John’s fleet, alleged that on 8 November John made a codicil to his Will which increased the legacy to Elizabeth Thomas (his wife) to £500. Captain Thomas gave this document, which was in Spanish, to the Consul at Corunna, who transmitted it to England.

A long legal wrangle followed. Agnes took the view that the codicil had been forged by Captain Thomas who, in order to make it, had moved into John’s cabin when he was dying. She pointed out that John had not mentioned it to his friend Captain John Humphries with whom he had discussed his Will shortly before he died; and that neither had Captain Thomas -in letters he had written to her on 11 and 22 November. Moreover the codicil was not in her husband’s handwriting, nor in that of his purser whom he usually employed to write his letters; he neither spoke nor understood Spanish; and on 8 November was too ill to make himself understood. Thus she was not prepared to prove the codicil.

The resolution of this dispute was complicated by the absence of witnesses who remained at Corunna, whence came reports of mutiny in the ships there. The fleet owners alleged that Captain Thomas and other captains would not obey orders and they feared the ships would sail away as pirates. These reports cast doubts on the integrity of John Strong’s circle at the time of his final illness.

The case dragged on until 1695 and Agnes made several depositions questioning the validity of the codicil. These are preserved in the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and bear her firm clear signature. Another deponent alleged that she, supported by her mother, had declared that she would spend £500 or more to ensure that Elizabeth Thomas never received the £500 in question. It is not clear whether this deposition reflected the view of the two women that the codicil was not valid, or revealed a deeper hostility towards Elizabeth Thomas.

Unfortunately the outcome of the dispute is not clear. On 18 December 1694 the PCC decided that the codicil was valid, but apparently Agnes did not accept this decision and did not immediately prove the codicil. The case was then taken on appeal to the High Court of Delegates and finally by Elizabeth Thomas to the Court of the Arches which considered it on 15, 21 and 22 June 1695. However no decision is recorded in the Court’s Act Book. Elizabeth Thomas may have dropped the case or it may have been settled out of court.

Agnes was professionally represented in these proceedings, but otherwise seems to have been very much on her own. Her brothers had not long started their apprenticeships and were probably too young to help her much in litigation; and Thomas Stanton and Richard Goodlad had died in 1691 and 1693 respectively. Her mother however was no doubt an invaluable source of advice, and she may have been able to look to her stepfather for help. In any event the process, which revealed her as a very determined young woman, was no doubt very costly and would have made a large dent in John’s estate. It would also have made a lasting impression on Agnes.

RE-MARRIAGE

It is not known where Agnes lived as a widow. Abraham did not marry until 1696, and Richard was still an apprentice, so her brothers were not likely to have provided a home. She may have shared a house with her sister Ann, who had been widowed in 1692, or gone back to her stepfather’s house. In any event she would have wanted a home of her own, which presumably meant finding another husband – preferably perhaps not a mariner.

Her father had served in the Navy with Captain Thomas Harwood, who had later fought on the St. Andrew against the Dutch at the Battle of Sole Bay in 1672. Thomas had married Mary, the daughter of Admiral Richard Swanley, in 1661 – the year Agnes’s own parents had married; and it seems likely that her mother would have known both the Harwoods and the Swanleys. Thomas’s own son Thomas, who had been born in Stepney in 1664, had been educated at University College, Oxford, and in 1690 had been appointed Rector of St. Mary Magdalen, Littleton, in Middlesex. It is noteworthy that the manor was conveyed to a Thomas Goodlad in 1648, but it is not clear whether a Goodlad was patron of the church in 1690. Thomas must have seemed very suitable: a well-educated young man with the sea in his blood but with a safe job ashore.

LIFE AT LITTLETON

Agnes and Thomas Harwood were married by licence on 19 September 1698 at St. Mary Aldermanbury. She was 27. Two days earlier Thomas had made a marriage settlement, which may imply that Agnes, despite the costs incurred over John Strong’s estate, brought significant funds to the marriage. Their son Thomas was born a year later. Littleton was a small parish running down to the Thames and must have seemed very quiet to Agnes. However she had a house to run and an increasing number of children to rear. Richard was born in 1702, Dorothy in 1703, Elizabeth in 1705, Abraham in 1707 and John in 1711. There would have been social occasions, including marriages. Her brother Richard and Jane Williams came to Littleton to marry in 1701, and five of her servants were married in the period 1706-10. And of course there were funerals. Her mother was buried in Stepney in 1702 and her mother-in-law in 1703. Sadly she lost her daughter Elizabeth at the age of 7 months and her sons John and Richard in 1728 and 1730 respectively. Her stepfather was buried in his own parish in 1706; and her brother, Abraham’s wife and her father-in-law, Captain Thomas Harwood, were buried in Stepney in 1712. Some of these events would have taken her and Thomas out of Littleton.

It is hard to believe that Thomas’s parish duties stretched him, and although the Thames yielded plenty of salmon and trout at that time there is no suggestion he spent time fishing. He and his neighbour, Robert Wood, who was a doctor of law, no doubt exchanged views on cultural and political matters, and the bequest in his Will for the benefit of the education of the children of the parish indicates a concern for their welfare, which may have manifested itself in a practical way which involved Agnes. She would certainly have been involved in the planning of the new rectory, which Thomas provided for them in Littleton. In addition however Thomas was no doubt immersed in his study of books with all his papers and pamphlets which he bequeathed to his son Thomas, and was pursuing his theological studies: in 1714 he was awarded the degree of doctor in divinity.

As her own children grew up Agnes would have become more interested in her grandchildren. Her son Thomas had married in 1727 and before his wife died in 1738 she had borne him six children. In 1731 he was instituted as Rector of the adjoining parish, Shepperton, of which her brother Richard was patron, and it was only a short walk for Granny to visit her grandchildren or vice versa. The Shepperton patronage was later acquired by her husband.

LATER YEARS

Agnes’s husband did not die until 10 November 1744, but he made his Will in 1731 nominating Agnes his executrix and life tenant of much of his estate. He made various bequests to his son Abraham and daughter Dorothy and named his son Thomas as his residuary legatee. It is noteworthy that Thomas chose Agnes not his son Thomas to administer his estate. She proved his Will in the PCC on 12 January 1745.

Agnes did not make her own Will until 25 October 1748, probably shortly after her daughter Dorothy died. In it she bequeathed £5 p.a. to her son Abraham, who was a Captain in the service of the East India Company, and the residue of her estate to her son Thomas whom she appointed executor and who proved the Will in the PCC on 14 November 1749.

Agnes died at the age of 78 on 12 October 1749. She is buried with her husband in the chancel of the parish church. Unfortunately the inscription tells us nothing of her character or the life she had lived. The character of an ancestor is usually elusive. Research may throw some light on it, but inevitably any assessment depends on interpretation of records. There can however be little doubt that by the time of her death Agnes had had a great deal of experience. She was the daughter of a naval officer and her first husband was also an experienced mariner. Her brothers were City merchants. Her second husband was a clergyman who had a strong mariner background. She had experienced contact with people in many other occupations, including lawyers, while living in town and country. She had survived both husbands, whose Wills she had administered, and also survived all but two of her children. She had lived under seven monarchs in stirring times, which had included the Glorious Revolution, the 1701 Act of Settlement, the War of the Spanish Succession and the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745. But what was she like? Perhaps her character is best reflected in her signature reproduced below – consistent, clear, firm, straightforward and confident. She is so far my most interesting 6 x great grandmother.

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