Happy Birthday George Browning – 200 today..!!

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This story of Browning history was originally written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of my great, great grandfather, George Browning. Since then information has snowballed, suspicions have become facts, and new leads keep popping up everywhere. Time now to bring you up to date with, ‘the Ancient History of the Brownings’.

Almost exactly six years ago while sorting through some old papers I came across a couple of names I had scribbled on the back of a tatty brown envelope. I only had the name and approximate date of birth of my grandfather, Arthur Browning and the name of someone I believed to be a ‘great uncle’, but actually turned out to be my great grandfather. Since then there have been regular bursts of information, followed by periods when I believed I had exhausted all avenues of research, only for a fresh clue to turn up, and off we go again.

George Browning appears in the baptism register of St Nicholas Church, North Bradley, Wiltshire, for 17th January 1809. He is recorder as the baseborn child of Lydia Browner, one of many contradictory facts which confuse the issue. Lydia continues to be an elusive and mysterious woman because I can’t still find a birth, marriage or death record for her, which is almost unique in over 10,000 individuals on the master copy of my family tree.

As the church cleric has written the name Lydia Browner, some people might question whether I am researching the right people, but other documents clarify the matter. We are fortunate in having several documents, which prove that George and Lydia are, indeed, the forerunners of our Browning line.

There is a ‘bastardy order’ which names James Brewer as the father of George Browning and the court order instructs him to pay North Bradley parish a sum of money, every week, for the upkeep of his child. Thirteen years later, in 1822, it is clear he has paid nothing as a second order is served by the courts, for arrears totalling the 13 years of payments. This would suggest that Lydia and George were still living in North Bradley in 1822, but that James had long since flown the nest.

The next piece of documentary evidence to show this is the same man is a ‘removal order’ served on George Browning, while living in Frome, in 1832. George was unable to provide for his wife and family, and they were all ‘removed’ from the town and taken back to his ‘home’ parish of North Bradley.

Finally, in census returns for 1851 and 1861, George gives North Bradley as his place of birth, although his date of birth is given as 1806 and 1808, not 1809. This is definitely the right George Browning and if James had done the decent thing and married Lydia, our name would now be BREWER and not Browning.

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Normally, the first place to look for family roots is the town or village where the individual was born, but in George’s case there was a distinct lack of Brownings and Brewers in North Bradley at this time, and so there is no obvious family to connect with the errant couple.

The parish of North Bradley, situated on the southern edge of Trowbridge, on the road to Westbury has been in existence since the Domesday Book, but in 1809, with a sizeable population of about 2000, it was an unremarkable place. The parish included the village of Southwick, which occupied a similar position on the road to Frome and both villages were just on the Wiltshire side of the border with Somerset and so acted like sentry posts for travellers to the south and west.

In the 16th century North Bradley grew in size as it attracted workers from far a field, who wanted to share in the spoils of the wool trade. The itinerant workers became hand loom weavers, living in squatters’ cottages that had been hastily erected on the common land of the area. From this time home spinning and weaving were as important as agriculture to the parish. There seems to have been a transient feel to the place, as North Bradley did not have the same established mills and infrastructure that was found nearby in prosperous Trowbridge, and remained very much reliant on agriculture for its regular employment and income.

When the cloth trade hit hard times, North Bradley was badly affected and the unemployed became a heavy burden upon the poor rate, which was largely paid by the local farmers at a fixed amount per acre farmed. There was no village poor house, but in 1830, over 100 people were housed in cottages belonging to the parish. So, the village seemed to be a magnet for the outcasts of the nearby towns of Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon and Frome, and so would have been a natural place for our runaway couple to seek refuge.

There were no Browning records of note in Wiltshire and so the most obvious place to look for Lydia’s origins was in Frome, which at the time was the largest town in Somerset.  Her son, George and his family, lived there for thirty years, from 1830 to 1861, and there were several other Browning families living in the town from the early 18th century and through to the early years of the 20th century. It would make sense that Lydia was the errant daughter of one of these respectable folk.

Several of these Browning families shared the same first names, lived in close proximity to each other and almost all were involved with the cloth trade. However, Frome was a compact town and cloth-making was the main business, so occupation and address were not necessarily diagnostic of a family relationship, but that was the place that kept drawing me back, again and again.

Common sense also pointed to these other Browning families being descended from one group, which had expanded during the 1700’s. Frustratingly, it has also been difficult to confirm the origins of these families, despite their obvious affiliations. Some also have gaps in the family tree at about the same time as Lydia’s potential birth date, between 1770 and 1790.

The missing records are probably linked to the strong thread of Non Conformist religion which ran through both the people of Frome and the Browning family. Several Non Conformist Churches were built in the early years of the 18th century, the most important of which were the Badcox Lane Baptist Church in 1711, and Rook Lane Congregational Church in 1707. The Rook Lane Church split in 1773, to form an evangelical wing, named the Zion Congregational Church. All these churches were riddled with poor record keeping, and although it improved later, the period we need to plug the gaps, from 1760-1795, has very few records.

There is a William Browning, who appears in the records as an influential member of the Badcox Baptist Church in the late 1700s. Much later, in 1830, our George Browning was to become a member of that same church and he remained so, during his time in Frome. Other members of George’s own family were also members of the Baptist church.

Perhaps of particular relevance to the missing Browning records is that Baptists do not baptise infants into their church. Becoming a Baptist has to be a conscious decision made by the individual themselves, and only takes place when the person is old enough to understand the teachings of the church. Therefore, children of Baptists, who did not join the church later, would not have their birth recorded anywhere as a national registration system didn’t begin until 1837.

In 2008 I began a ‘one name’ search of the Brownings of Frome, identifying every possible birth, marriage and death record. The excellent ‘Frome Research’ site also has records of other small scale censuses, trade directories and legal records, such as land tithes and wills, and they add small but vital pieces to the jigsaw of people, places and occupations.

This Frome Browning tree funnels back to just two people, John and Charles Browning, probably brothers, who were born between 1715 and 1720. The tree does go back further to George, William and Thomas, born in the 1670s, with the earliest Browning in the records being Thomas, born in 1589 but there is then a gap to William born about 1650.

New discoveries

Two important events happened for me in the same week, which moved the story forward. The first was a trip to the brand new Wiltshire register office in Chippenham. The main purpose was not Browning research, but to look for connections to the Cooper family who lived around Salisbury Plain.

Whilst I was there I checked the Lydia Browning reference in the North Bradley parish records and much to my delight I also noticed on the same page in the index an earlier family of Brewers. To my delight there was a James Brewer, although he wasn’t a young man and would have been 52 in 1809. Perhaps more importantly in my quest, James’ grandfather, Nathaniel, had been the Vicar of North Bradley from 1720 to 1727 and Nathaniel’s home town was given as FROME.

I looked for a son of James Brewer, 1757, hoping he might also be called James, but there was nothing. There were marriages in North Bradley, in the late 1700s, for two Brewer girls and interestingly there is no record of a baptism for either, so it is possible James Brewer (1757), might be the father of our George, but it could be his unrecorded son, also called James.

The following Sunday was my father, Hugh’s, 80th birthday and I had promised to take him back to Frome to repeat the visit we made three years previously. My research was now much further forward and there was much more to tell. However, the main purpose of the trip was to meet eminent Somerset historian, Michael McGarvie, who has written many books about Somerset, but is a particular expert on Frome and adjoining parishes. Michael has given me plenty of guidance and reassurance that my research is heading in the right direction.

I told him of my visit to the Wiltshire record office and my discovery of the Brewer, who became Vicar of North Bradley. He knew this Brewer family well, and said they had status in the town and went back several generations. The Brewer family’s home parish was actually in the village of Beckington, on the road from Frome to Trowbridge.

I had also long wondered how an illegitimate boy from North Bradley could end up, many miles away. Marrying as a young man in Nunney, and then having his first child in the hamlet of Tytherington, a farm that was part of the Marston Estate, family seat of the Earls of Cork. These were small, rather closed communities, on the ‘wrong’ side of Frome, and so I needed to find a route that allowed George to make that journey and in doing so solve the puzzle of George’s early life.

Marston Bigott is a curious parish in that it is split into several, unconnected pieces. The main bulk of the parish lies two miles south of Frome, but there were two tiny parts, right in the town centre and a largish chunk of land to the north. The strange geography is explained because the parish was created to reflect the land holdings of the Earls of Cork, which were diverse and included properties in the centre of Frome. Michael told me that, despite the obvious geographical problems, these isolated parishioners would frequently travel worship at the parish church of St Leonard, adjacent to Marston Hall, up to three miles away.

The northern section of Marston Bigott parish included Spring Gardens Mills, situated on the River Frome, between Frome and Beckington. A survey in 1811, of the Frome cloth mills mentions ‘Messrs Browning’, as being clothiers in the Spring Gardens Mills. Unfortunately the initials are missing but these are likely to be John Browning and his son, James, who also owned houses and land elsewhere in the urban area of Frome. This is John Browning, born in 1737, but he is unlikely to be a candidate to be Lydia’s father, as his last child was born in 1775 and the children were all well recorded in St John’sChurch records. George never used John as a name in his own family, although there is a James, but way down the pecking order.

Lydia could have been the daughter of one of the four other Browning families listed in the Frome census of Heads of Household in 1785. None have a Lydia Browning in their family tree and only one has a George Browning but there are plenty of other snippets of evidence that offer a solution.

After considering hundreds of clues, taken from a two hundred year period, the favourite to be Lydia’s father has to be Charles Browning, born 1749. He had a large family stretching over 20 years of the relevant period, and several of Charles’ children are missing from the baptism records.

Charles Browning lived in Welch Mill Lane on the north side of Frome and worked as a shearman in the cloth industry. The shearman was involved in the final part of the cloth making process, removing all the loose threads and preparing the cloth for sale. The heads of two of the other Browning families, William and James, were also shearmen.

Lydia is not a traditional Browning name, and is generally uncommon in the population as a whole, but it was present in the family of Betty Wilshire, Charles’ wife. Her uncle, Joseph Wilshire had married Lydia Cook and so this would have been a familiar name to Betty. The Cook and Wilshire names can be traced back to the late 1600s, in the Frome records and the Cook family play an important part in other branches of the Browning family in Frome.

Samuel Browning was probably another of Charles children,  and again there is no baptism record. He was born around 1773 and married Rachel Cook. The family tree now gets very complicated, as they have a son, another Charles Browning (1809), who again married into the Cook family.

Charles’ (1809) wife, Mary Cook was the product of a marriage between George Cook and Rachel Browning, although I believe that Mary may have been an illegitimate daughter of Rachel Browning. Rachel was also a daughter of Charles and Betty. Whatever the truth, the links between the Cooks and the Brownings were interwoven in an extreme way. Charles and Betty also had a son Isaac, again with no baptism date and he had sons, James and George.

So the names associated with Charles’ family also gives us the full list of the boys in George and Ann’s family; George, Charles, Samuel, James and Isaac. Names were so important in families at this time and this seems to me to be strong evidence for placing Lydia Browning in the heart of this family.

Whilst the Browning family in Frome were heavily involved in the cloth trade, only one branch had reached above the basic grades of cloth worker, to become successful land owners and clothiers.

The Brewer family

The Brewer family were also heavily involved in the cloth business, but they were in a totally different league to the Browning family as they had a record of success and reputation for innovation that spread nationwide. Their home base was the villages of Lullington and Beckington, a couple of miles north of Frome. William Brewer, born around 1600, started his cloth business in Lullington, but only made his name after transferring to Trowbridge in 1640. Later his son, also William, developed the business further, and gained a reputation as producing some of the ‘finest medley cloths in England’.

Trowbridge was one of the most important cloth towns in England and in the medieval period manufactured the standard white, undyed broadcloth. This was superseded by the manufacture of medley cloth, which consisted of a mixture of different wools, including finer wools from continental Europe, particularly Spain. Medley cloth wool was dyed before it was woven and so produced a much more attractive and higher quality product.

By the 1670s, William Brewer and his son had developed in Trowbridge, what was said to be “the greatest trade in medleys of any clothier in England “. Within half a century Daniel Defoe wrote that in the area “…the finest medley Spanish cloths, not in England but in the whole world are made”. The great wealth generated by the medley cloth paid for the many fine clothiers’ houses in the town. William Brewer, famously, brought twenty three skilled Dutch cloth workers to Trowbridge in 1673, to improve the quality of his products.

One of the sons of the younger William, was Nathaniel Brewer, and it was he who was Vicar of North Bradley from 1720-27. Nathaniel also held a number of other clerical posts in the area from 1710 till his death in 1750. He had nine children, and it was the youngest of these, James Brewer, who remained in the village and had his own family, including James Brewer, in 1757.

Members of the Brewer family who remained in Beckington were also successful clothiers. Amongst those was Christopher Brewer, who at one time owned BeckingtonCastle, a grand house that had been rebuilt in the 1600s. Later, another Brewer became the publican of the main coaching inn in the village.

So circumstantial evidence points to ‘our James Brewer’ being the product of this renowned family, but more of a ‘black sheep’, rather than the cultured stock of his ancestors. There is no record of where James Brewer went after 1809. It was the time of the Napoleonic Wars, so he may have been a casualty of that conflict. He just disappeared without trace.

The 1822 court order for arrears of payment for the bastardy order might indicate Lydia and George were still living in North Bradley at that time, but the next confirmed sighting of George is when he got married in 1827.

George Browning married Ann Cooper at All Saints Church, Nunney. He was eighteen years old and Ann had only just reached her seventeenth birthday. Witnesses at the marriage were, Lysimachus  Knapton, who was Ann’s cousin, and William Hoddinott.

Nunney parish is sandwiched between Frome and Marston Bigott, and All Saints was also the parish church for the nearby hamlet of Trudoxhill, where the Cooper family of carpenters had their home.

George and Ann had nine children.

Lydia (1829), born in Tytherington, on the boundary of the Marston Estate. This had been acquired from Lord Bath and was part of the Longleat estate before it came into possession of the Earl of Cork in 1824.

The remaining eight children were all born in Frome.

George (1830), Charles (1833), Sarah (1835), Mary Ann (1839), Samuel, (1841), James (1843), Isaac (1846), Mary Ann (1854).

There are two Mary Anns. The elder one died in March 1853 and George and Ann seem to have immediately replaced her as the second was born in late January 1854, giving a 25 year spread between the oldest and youngest children.

In February 1832, George and Ann, together with their two young children, Lydia and George, were served with a ‘removal order’, by the parish of Frome, sending them back to North Bradley. This was an extreme measure, dealt out to families who could not support themselves, and who were not native of the parish. The removal order was signed on 14th February and executed on 21st February 1832, when a carrier was paid the sum of five shillings to take them back to North Bradley. In the same weeks cholera first reached London, Charles Darwin was touring South America in the Beagle and in March the Great Reform Bill was passed, which gave votes to those who owned property worth £10 or more but did nothing to enfranchise the working classes. Perhaps of more relevance to George and his family were the changes that were being proposed into the Poor Laws. There had been riots in 1830 because of starvation caused by low wages and high food prices, but it wasn’t until 1834 when the Poor Laws were amended and workhouses appeared on the scene s the only source of relief for the poor.

However, curiously, a year later, their next child, Charles, was born back in Frome. It seems that removal orders were not always carried out, and they could be appealed, but that once finalised few people would attempt to return to a place that had expelled them. So for George and family to return after a carrier was paid to remove them seems quite exceptional.

My only explanation is that someone stepped in to overturn the order and possibly act as a guarantor for the family. The obvious Browning and the only one who fits the bill is James Browning, clothier and property owner. It is of course possible one of the Brewer family might have stepped in to help them, but there is no evidence of later connection between the Brownings and the Brewers, after 1809.

The other person who may have helped is the Earl of Cork, who was actually the magistrate who signed the removal order. Several of the Cooper family worked on his estate and would have been known to him. The Cork family crops up frequently throughout the Browning story in the 19th century and I’m sure there is an essential piece of information about the early life of George Browning and the Marston Estate, which still hasn’t come to light.

The other possibility is that North Bradley parish paid for them to return to Frome. The parish were already overburdened with the ‘poor’, and records for 1830 show over 100 homes occupied by people receiving parish handouts. It was known for parishes to reach an amicable, financial agreement when a family had split loyalties between places.

The first confirmed address we have for George and Ann, is seven years later, when in 1839 they were living in Milk Street, Frome, on the north side of the town. There were three other Browning families, also with addresses in Milk Street in the 1830s.

By 1841, George and his five children had moved to a newly refurbished parade of shops and apartments called ‘Behind Catherine Hill’, now known as Paul Street. This is in the very heart of Frome and adjacent to one of these outlying pockets of Marston Bigott parish. Samuel, James and Isaac were all born there. All three were recorded in the official birth registrations, but no baptism records have been found for them.

By 1851 the family had moved to Matthews Barton (also known as Sun Street), adjacent to the chapels of the Zion Congregational and the Primitive Methodist movements. The BadcoxBaptistChurch was also nearby on Catherine’s Hill. All three of George’s residences were near the centre of the town and although the early census returns don’t give street numbers, both ‘Behind Hill’ and Matthews Barton were short streets and each had properties previously owned and let by the clothier, James Browning.

George joined the BadcoxLaneBaptistChurch in 1830, and Ann joined a year later. As stated earlier the BaptistChurch do not baptise children and it is in 1844 that Lydia was baptised as a fourteen year old. Strangely, in 1837, there are baptisms in the Anglican Church, for Charles, then aged four, and Sarah, aged two and in 1839 Mary Ann was also baptised in the Anglican Church, only a month after her birth. There is no record of baptism in either faith for Samuel, James and Isaac.

Charles and Lydia both married their partners in the BadcoxBaptistChurch, in 1851 and 1854, but in later life Charles seems to have become more evangelical as his younger children were baptised in the Congregational Whitefield Memorial Church in London. George, junior, had his children baptised in the Wesleyan tradition, another evangelical movement.

George and Ann remained with the BadcoxBaptistChurch throughout their time in Frome, and the church record indicates they were ‘dismissed’ to Bristol in 1861. The term is somewhat confusing, but indicates there were transferred, with the approval of the church, possibly sent as missionaries to pastures new. So, after thirty years George Browning decided his time in Frome was over and together with the remaining members of the family, he moved to Bristol.

In Bristol they seem to have renewed acquaintances with John and Mary Twitcher and their two children, also called John and Mary, who were all born in Frome. The parents were described as ‘city missionaries’ in the census returns, whilst the youngsters became established in the printing and stationery business. Several of George’s youngsters ended up working in this trade, quite probably for the Twitchers. George describes his occupation in 1861, as a warehouseman but perhaps he also went to Bristol with ‘missionary’ intent, in this bustling, cosmopolitan city.

George and Ann Browning’s children

Lydia Browning was the first child, born in 1829, and the only one not born in Frome. Her birthplace was described in the 1851 census as Tytherington, which was known locally as Tytherington Farm or sometimes the Home Farm. This farm underwent a number of transformations and modernisations but when Lydia was born there were a number of smallholdings as well as the main farm. This may have been George and Ann’s first home after their marriage.

Lydia was baptised into the BadcoxBaptistChurch in 1844 and married William Read in 1854, again in the same church.  William was a labourer in the Fussells’ iron foundry, which specialised in making ‘edge’ tools, such as scythes, billhooks and axes. Nunney and Trudoxhill were traditionally where the wooden handles for these implements were made and the Cooper family were carpenters in this trade. Fussells’ also made gas pipes, and this led to Frome having gas lighting from as early as 1830. Lydia and William had no children and continued to live in Frome all their lives. William died in 1896, but Lydia lived to the age of 80, and died in 1909. Sadly the 1901 census describes her as a widow and living in the Frome Workhouse.

George Browning was born in 1830, joined the army in 1846, and served with the Northumberland Fusiliers in foreign service in Mauritius, and then with great bravery and distinction in the bloody conflict known as the Indian Mutiny. He returned to England in 1861 and soon afterwards married Sarah Louisa Cooper, who was fourteen years younger than him and his first cousin once removed. George continued in military service with postings to Aldershot, Ireland, Tower of London and Shorncliffe, near Folkestone.

He spent the last eight years of service as a Colour Sergeant, and retired in 1869 after 22 years service. His wife, Sarah Louisa, stayed with him during these postings and they had the first five of thirteen children during that period. The baptisms of the ‘army’ children were all carried out by a Wesleyan minister. After retirement they moved to Whitechapel, or more accurately Mile End New Town, where George became the Building Superintendent in the HowardBuildings. This accommodation was very basic but provided innovative social housing for working people. George lived there with his family for the rest of his live and died in 1904 at the age of 74. I have written a separate, more extensive, record of George Browning’s remarkable life.

Charles Browning was born in 1833 and married Martha Cannings in 1851, also in BadcoxBaptistChurch. They had three children in Frome before moving to St Pancras, London, around 1857, where a further seven children were born. Charles’ occupation was originally a cloth worker both in Frome and in London but this changed in 1871 when he gained a similar position to George, as a Superintendent & Rent Collector in a block of social housing. George gained his position first, so he may have suggested that Charles apply for the job, and probably recommended him.

Charles four youngest children were all baptised at the WhitefieldMemorialChurch, in Tottenham Court Road, in London. This was an evangelical Congregational Church and again shows the strong ties between the Brownings and Non Conformist religion. Four of the ten children died in infancy, and it may have been the early deaths in Frome, of the infants, Martha in 1855 and Charles in 1857, which prompted the move to London soon afterwards. We know only a little about the fortunes of the remaining six children and I expect there are a large number of cousins out there waiting to be found.

Charles and Martha returned to Frome for their final years, living in the High Street and were the only ones in the family to retire to their place of birth. Charles died in 1900, whilst Martha lived another twelve years, running a confectioners and tobacconist business, with her daughter and widowed son. In the 1901 census Martha was still at the same address in the High Street and living next door to her are Henry and Georgina Smith. Georgina’s maiden name was Browning. Was this just a massive coincidence or was Martha living next door to a close relation? Georgina’s line is easy to trace back and takes us to the Samuel and Charles, mentioned earlier, who had complicated relationships with the Cook family. This does add extra weight to my earlier speculation about where Lydia fits into the Frome family group.

Sarah Browning was born in 1835 and married the stone mason, Stephen Adams, in 1857, not in the Baptist church but in ChristChurch, the newly built Church of England building. The couple had two children, Sarah and Edward. Sarah died at the age of eleven, but Edward married Alice Pickford in 1885, and they had seven children. They moved to Wells, Somerset, where Edward joined the army and won awards for his shooting skills. He later became a gas fitter and plumber. One of their children, Beatrice, married into the Dixon family and their descendent, David Dixon has provided valuable information about the family.

Mary Ann was the first of George’s children born when registration was required and certificates of birth were issued. I have copies of hers and the four subsequent children. Mary Ann was born in 1839 but tragically died of typhus in 1853. This must have had a devastating effect on George and Ann as almost immediately afterwards Ann became pregnant again, at 44, after a seven year gap, and they again named the girl, Mary Ann.

Samuel Browning was born in 1841 and married Elizabeth Pulling in London in 1881. Samuel must have had a long army service as he is absent from the 1861 and 1871 census and then reappears as an Army Pensioner, at the age of 40. There is a Samuel Browning, who was a sergeant with the 19th Regiment in Bhutan, India in 1868, and this looks likely to be our Samuel. He returned to England for the last twenty years of his working life, as a foreman in a cardboard box manufacturer in Bristol.

James Browning was born in 1843. He married Ellen Cooper, another of the same Cooper clan as his mother and his brother’s wife Sarah Louisa Cooper. Ellen was James’ first cousin. They had a remarkable family of six boys and three girls. The six boys all spent many years serving their country on active service in the Boer Wars and the Great War. An article appeared in a Bristol newspaper in 1938, telling of their military exploits and their great service to the country. The military life seems to have curtailed their procreative skills and I only have a record of one child from these six brave gentlemen.

Their sister Emily, tried to make up for their short fall with nine children. She married Thomas Ford and their family moved to South Wales. Joan Pressly is a descendent of that family line and she has provided me with the information about the family’s time in Bristol and South Wales.

James spent the rest of his years in Bristol, working as a ‘stationer’s cutter’, quite possibly in the stationery business of the Twitcher family. Both James and Ellen died in middle age, Ellen in 1887, at 46, when several of the children were still very young, and James in 1898, at the age of 54. The early death of their mother, making them orphans, provided the stimulus for the boys to leave home and join the Army.

Isaac Browning was born in 1846 and moved with the rest of the family to Bristol. I can find only one other Isaac in the extended Browning family of Frome, and he is a likely candidate to be the missing Lydia’s brother. Isaac married Mary Goodman and they had six children. He worked as a bookbinder in Bristol and continued the trade after moving to Tottenham in North London. Isaac later moved to Walthamstow, where a large gathering of the extended Browning family seemed to accumulate in the early 20th century. Isaac died there in 1926. Two of his boys died in infancy but the twins, Charles and George, born in 1881, both married and one led a most interesting double life..

Mary Ann was the final child, born in 1854 and it must be a difficult stigma to bear knowing you have the name of an unknown deceased sibling. Mary Ann lived in Bristol with her parents till George died in 1869 and Ann in 1872. Mary Ann married Edwin Whitworth in Bristol in 1878 and in the 1911 census they were still living in Bristol. They had no children. Edwin worked as a marine engine fitter, whilst Mary Ann was a ‘stationer’ and later a ‘storekeeper’. Edwin died in 1928 and Mary Ann in 1930. The only thing to add here is that in 1879 George and Sarah Louisa Browning had a son, who they named Philip Whitworth Browning. We always wondered where the Whitworth came from, but now we know.

More detail about later generations of these children is known, but telling their story is for another day. Some of their stories are covered in the account of the life of George Browning, Colour sergeant.

Ancient History

Now it is time to look back into the distant past, and the origins of the Browning family in these islands. My search for the parents of ‘Lydia Browner’, took me much further a field than I expected and I have made some interesting and intriguing finds.

I am indebted to John Browning Reeve for passing on a letter sent to him by his uncle, Frank Ronald Browning, some years ago. It contained a short summary about the more recent family history, but then concluded with this extraordinary paragraph.

‘as you probably know the family started in 900 or 950AD, when two Viking raiders sailed up the Bristol Channel, one landed in Wales the other in Somerset. The brother who landed in Wales had a successful time and sailed away. The brother who landed in Somerset had his boats burnt and so stayed.’

This is a rather simplistic account, which you might have written in a first year history lesson at school. My father, Hugh, says he has memories of a similar story, although he can’t remember its origins. Ronald’s letter pre-dates the wealth of internet based information now available and indeed any of the scientific methods of researching family history.

One of these recent methods has been the compilation of ‘surname maps’. These are statistical charts showing the prevalence and distribution of individual surnames across the United Kingdom. These have been compiled for 1881 and 1998, and show that even the most common name has hotspots, and even seemingly national surnames, like Smith, Jones, Brown and Cooper still have a strong regional bias. I’m sure maps are being compiled for earlier periods, which will undoubtedly show an even greater localisation of surnames.

In the 1500s the total population of England was about four million and by 1700 had only reached five million. Most people lived in villages, which numbered about 250 people, and prior to 1800AD, very few towns had a population in excess of 10,000.

Surnames were first formalised, in 1538 by Henry VIII, when the parish registration scheme for births, marriages and deaths began. Therefore, originally one surname in a village referred to just one family group. One specific surname might have had its origins in a single village in Somerset or Gloucester, but 500 years later there could be tens of thousands of descendents, spread around the world.

Uncle Ronald’s letter also pre-dates the massive increase in knowledge and understanding we have of life in Britain prior to 1066. Documents, which have been lying in storerooms for hundreds of years, have now been transcribed and translated, and made available to public gaze. The history of that period is no longer as ‘dark’ as it was when school history books were written in the 1940s and 50s.

Quite amazingly, Ronald’s story of the origins of the Browning family stands up pretty well, using 21st century scientific analysis.

The Browning name is concentrated in the southern half of England, particularly Gloucestershire, Somerset and Kent. The greatest concentration, by far, is in Gloucestershire and these families also go back the furthest, to before 1300. The Browning name in Gloucestershire is found primarily on the banks of the Severn Estuary, but they did spread inland, up the valley of the River Stroudwater and into the Cotswolds.

Details of the Danish/Viking occupation of Britain is now well documented, and their presence in the Severn estuary began with raids from 875 onwards. The Danes signed for peace with the Saxon English at the Treaty of Wedmore, in 892, when King Alfred (of cake fame) signed a treaty with Guthrum, King of the Danes. England was then split between Wessex, in the south and west and the Danelaw, in the north and east.

Gloucester and the lower Severn valley were in Wessex but the upper reaches of the river catchment area crossed the border into Danelaw. A later treaty was signed in 1016, at Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, dividing England between the Danish King, Cnut and Saxon King, Edmund Ironside. Suspiciously, Ironside died very shortly after signing the treaty and King Cnut took control over the whole country.

Curiously, the first mention of the Browning name in England is at Deerhurst and in Somerset, it is at Wedmore.

The spelling of the Browning name has changed over the centuries, with Browninge, Brouninge and Brunning, the most frequent early variations. Browning is now firmly established, and there are relatively few spelling variations. The name does have a Danish origin, which does again support the idea of the family arriving prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

However, the first Browning arrival could have been later, as the Normans, who were really French Vikings in disguise, allowed friends and relatives from their old homelands in Denmark to settle in some areas. The Fitzharding family, originators of the Berkeley family, were supposed to have descended from the King of Denmark, who sent his son, Robert, to England during William the Conqueror’s time. Robert was given lands around Bristol and despite much political uncertainty, the family established their presence in the small town of Berkeley. The Berkeley family are one of only three noble families to maintain the male lineage unbroken from 1066 to the present day.

Berkeley Castle plays an important in English history, and is said to be the scene of the brutal murder of Edward II. Later there are records of various monarchs staying in the Castle when visiting the West Country. The Berkeley family continued to be the most important in the region, and inter-married with most of the important families across England during the next 1000 years.

It may be that the first Browning family arrived with the Fitzhardings, but there is no documentary evidence to substantiate that idea. However, Brownings did have a close association with the Berkeley family during the medieval period and it could well be that they shared the same Danish ancestry.

Early mentions of the Browning name are often associated with people of status, landowners, yeoman farmers and there are frequent connections with the nobility of the medieval period. The description, ‘minor ranks of the local gentry’, used by one writer seems to encompass where the family fitted into society prior to 1600, although at one point they were destined for much greater things.

The Brownings from the west of England seem to be all one family. Their geographical spread was very small right up until 1800, they used a relatively limited number of first names and like most families they passed on their names through the generations in predictable patterns. It is noticeable that the Browning name elsewhere in Britain is found primarily in coastal locations, perhaps indicating a maritime connection, with seafarers moving from port to port, before settling down in a new place.

Remarkably, despite finding no genealogical links between the Kent Brownings and those from further West, they also use very similar first names – rather like identical twins meeting after many years and turning up with identical clothes. The Kent line is much later, so this could be a maritime deserter from the SevernValley or the Bristol Channel.

Family Trees

Some family researchers want to be 100% certain of their findings and insist on a written record for each individual on their tree. This is just about possible for the period 1837 onwards, but prior to that there is increasing uncertainty, as parish records often have gaps or give little detail of people or place. The problem is made more difficult as the same names keep appearing. In the case of the Browning family, many lines lead back to a William or a John, and then it usually becomes impossible to distinguish one from another. Unusual names often help, and the name, Anselm, has helped link several family groups, who otherwise would have just been unconnected branches.

What I do know is that at some point in family research a map becomes a more important document than a parish record. Professor Bryan Sykes, geneticist and genealogist has shown that the same surname in the same place means that the family are almost certainly related. Rural communities were usually quite stable and many people stayed in the same parishes for several generations. When increasing numbers of children survived some would be forced to move to find work. However, the root of the family, particularly if they had land, property or a skilled trade, might remain in situ and so mapping the spread of a family is a valuable tool for tracing pre-1837 genealogy.

I tried a ‘one name’ search, optimistically hoping to create one large, extended tree of Brownings.  I had been successful in this tactic with other branches of my family, but they were easier to trace as their common root was in the 1600s, not the late 1200s. I had partial success because the multitude of Browning lines led me back to the same places in Gloucestershire, but I was hampered by the prevalence of the same first names, John, William and Thomas. Eventually, I realised I couldn’t join them up with any confidence and abandoned the task for another day.

Instead I decided to trace the earliest records and bring them forward, to see where they led. It was easy to track the early prominent members of the family and to observe the spread of the name from village to village as the decades and centuries passed. It is interesting that the ‘common’ people bearing the family name also appeared in the same places at about the same time as the landowners and gentry.

The earliest record is for John Browning, born about 1300, in Leigh Deerhurst, a small rural parish north of Gloucester. The parish has a Saxon church, built by 804, one of the largest and finest Saxon churches in the country. Deerhurst was mentioned above as being the site of the King Cnut treaty, in 1016. The population of Leigh Deerhurst in 1327 was less than 50 people and it was part of the estate of Deerhurst Priory. What position John Browning held in this community is unknown but it must have been significant because his son, also John, married Alice Maltravers, who was from a notable Dorset family. Her father, John Maltravers, was one of those complicit in the murder of Edward II in BerkeleyCastle, in 1327. The union with Alice Maltravers gained John Browning a title and lands at Melbury Sampford, Dorset. The Browning coat of arms, with horizontal blue and white wavy banners, dates from this period.

Alice and John had a son, another John Browning, who married four times. Firstly to Agnes Rodborough, abt 1385, who was the heir to Notgrove Manor. After Agnes died in 1390 and John in 1416, Notgrove ended up in the hands of their daughter, Cecily Browning, who married into the Whittington family (‘Dick’ was a relation), and the estate was lost from the Browning family name.

John’s second wife, Katrina died soon after the marriage, and in 1400 he married Elinor FitzNicholl, a blood relation of the Berkeley family mentioned previously. The inter-relationships are too complicated to completely unravel but at this time the Brownings were certainly very close to the Berkeley and FitzNicholl families. This John Browning was a Knight and represented Gloucestershire as a Member of Parliament on several occasions.

The Brownings seem to have the ability to marry into the best families and this is a pattern which carried on for many centuries. This trait applied to both the male and female side, and so the enhanced status earned by the family usually resulted from marriage to the heir of a substantial estate, rather than receiving the land as the gift of the monarch, after some glorious deed on the battlefield.

Often we know of only one or two Browning children in a generation, but there may have been others, particularly as spouses died young and there was often remarriages on both sides of a new partnership. Three wives or husbands were not that unusual. The Browning name always becomes more common in a new area after a Browning had married a new ‘landed’ spouse. The younger members of any family had to fend for themselves as they would not inherit the main estate.

Tradition in landed families at the time was that the eldest son would inherit the estate and title, the second son would take up arms for the monarch, and the third would join the Church. Later sons would be given small amounts of land to farm, and the daughters married off to local gentlemen. There were winners and losers, and it was possible for unlucky branches of the family to go from manor house to gatehouse to agricultural labourer, in a couple of generations if circumstances didn’t go your way.

Keeping on the right side of changes in monarch or religion was key to maintaining wealth and influence. High ranking members of the court or church might lose their lands or their head if they made the wrong friends at the wrong time. Only the most skilful political animals kept their power and influence from one generation to the next.

Mortality was high at all stages of life, and those that survived birth and child birth might be killed by disease or on the battlefield, in their twenties and thirties. Average life expectancy was around 35 in the medieval period, 1400-1600, but that disguises the fact that if you survived the difficult years you could live to 60 or 70 years of age. It did mean that members of both sexes, way down the pecking order of inheritance, might find themselves inheriting a Manor or small estate. It also meant that a healthy parent might outlive all the offspring and so marrying in old age, for the third or fourth time would prevent the family estate from returning to the Crown.

Inter-marrying of the landed classes was seen as a way of protecting and, indeed, increasing the size of estates. An untimely death of a son or two might see the family lands pass to a daughter, who had already married a neighbouring Lord of the Manor. Inter-marriage amongst the landed classes was the norm and it was extremely unusual to bring fresh, commoner blood into the family. One member of the Berkeley family, who ‘married beneath himself’ was disinherited and so began a court case, between different branches of the family, which was unresolved for nearly 200 years.

All the present-day English ‘noble’ families gained their power, influence and large estates in this way, over five hundred years ago. This means that anyone who links somewhere into the line of heredity of the ‘noble classes’, also has a link into our current Royal family, and back to William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great. It is thought more than one million descendents of William are alive today.

The two most aristocratic Browning lines died out, with no male heir. This happened to John Browning’s descendents at Melbury Sampford, where the Maltravers inheritance ended up with a marriage into the Strangeways family, and at Notgrove Manor, when Cecily Browning married Guy Whittington. These two substantial estates had both slipped from Browning hands by 1500.

What we do see between 1350 and 1600 is the arrival of Brownings as yeoman farmers, (landowners of farms), which in some cases were quite sizable, with the largest landowners rising in status from ‘yeoman’ to ‘gent’, and hold a responsible position in local society, as magistrate or councillor.

As the family grew in number so the range of occupations of the Browning family also expanded. There was a continued connection with farming, and in those days, this meant sheep. The prosperity of Gloucestershire in the middle ages was derived from its sheep farms and particularly the wool they produced. The processing of the fleece into wool and cloth made Gloucester a wealthy county. This became one of the most important places for the wool trade in England, and together with neighbouring counties of Somerset and Wiltshire produced over 80% of England’s cloth.

So, Brownings, who had been farmers, produced sons who became clothiers. Others moved into a variety of occupations, including carpenters and masons, and for those close to the River Severn, some became boatmen. Although these other occupations were important for individual families, it was the wool and cloth trade which dominated the lives of many Browning families, from 1500, right through to the Victorian era.

When researching the Browning name I can become overwhelmed by our American cousins trying to trace their name back to England. There are thousands of them and they all want to take their ancestry back to Capt John Browning, who was one of the early settlers in Virginia.

Their commonly held believe is that, ‘Captain John Browning was born in England about 1588 and sailed from Gravesend, England in the ship “Abigail” in 1621. His ship landed on “College Lands”, later known as Jamestown, York   County, Virginia. His known children (with wife Elizabeth Dameron) were George, William, and Joseph Browning, who were all born in England. George and William came with their father Captain John on the “Abigail” to America.’

The American tree is extensive, but compiling a full and accurate version has proved difficult because of the loss of many early records, destroyed in a fire during the American Civil War. There is also thought to be another, slightly later, emigrant family which complicates the tree. However, the majority of American Brownings do seem to originate from Capt Browning’s family line, including current US President, Obama, who is related on his mother’s side.

Like so many original American settlers they seem to have left their past behind them. Despite the time and money spent by so many researchers the earlier family history of Capt John Browning has still not been fully established. His father was supposed to have been a clothier from Gloucestershire, but others link him to the East of England, where many of the earlier, ill fated, expedition of 1607, were born.

Further research seems to discredit the biography quoted above, as there was a William Browning mentioned on an earlier ship, which puts him at an age to be Capt John’s brother. Capt John is also mentioned in one ‘muster’ roll, in 1625 as being 22 years old. This would conflict with him being a married man with children in 1615, the supposed date of his youngest child. However, he must have had some status because he was elected to the governing body of Virginia in 1628. The early adventurers consisted of a high proportion of the landed gentry, trying to seek a fortune, and so there was no place in the government of the new country for the lower or middle classes.

Without an original source in either England or America, it is difficult to be sure who he was or where he came from. John is a common Browning name, and there are several other candidates, including one who was closely related to the organisers of the 1619-22 expeditions to Virginia. There is more about him in a moment.

Linking them all together

In the summer of 2010 I decided to make yet another effort to discover the origins of the Frome Brownings and also join together as many of the Gloucestershire mini trees, as possible. I also tried to connect the many Welsh Brownings, who inhabited the South Wales coalfields during Victorian times.

There was great success with the Welsh family, and although I couldn’t link them all together I did manage to trace them ALL back to the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel, and along the banks of the River Severn. As ever they all led back to a John or a William, or sometimes a Thomas, and then the trail becomes impossible to continue. My theory about just one Browning family radiating out from Gloucestershire was still holding up.

On the Gloucestershire side of the river the Browning name appeared in Berkeley and especially Coaley( previously Cowley), which really seems like ‘Browning Central’. There are more Browning names in the Coaley area than anywhere else, and the generations follow through for several hundred years. The timing of their arrival seemed to coincide with the marriage between John Browning and Elinor FitzNicholls at Nympsfield, and thereafter the name is firmly entrenched in the nearby villages of Coaley, Dursley and Cam.

Tracking the families became rather repetitive. The family christian names had a familiar ring to them, but they weren’t leading anywhere in particular. Nothing of note had leapt from the many pages I scrutinised and I gave up in despair when I came to a Mary Browning married to a John Smyth. That had to be the most unpromising combination I could imagine. The Coaley records carried forward to the 1700s and overlapped my Frome family dates. Now was the time to stop. My plan to go forward in time was proving as fruitless as going back.

Several days later when reading through some details about the Berkeley family, and the very early Browning connections with the death of Edward II, I noticed a reference to a John Smyth, and his history of the Berkeley family, called ‘Lives of the Berkeleys’, written about 1620.

I had stumbled upon one of the most important historical documents of the period and written by one of the most influential men of his time and this was the same John Smyth, who had married Mary Browning. John Smyth of North Nibley was steward to the Lords of Berkeley and their estate from 1596 to 1640. He was born in 1568 in Leicestershire and his father was Thomas Smith of Hooby, Leicestershire, who was second son of William Smith of Humberstone in Lincolnshire. Thomas Smith married Joane Alleyne, daughter of Richard Alleyne of Derby and John Smyth, born 1568, was their son. John had no brothers and only one sister.

John Smythe was educated at a free school in Derby, to the age of 16 and his education continued when he went to live with Thomas Berkeley, son and heir of Lord Henry Berkeley, at Callowden House, near Coventry. It was the practice for sons and daughters of good pedigree, to become members of great households to further their education and to raise their standing in society. John Smyth became teaching companion, as well as attendant to the nine year old Thomas Berkeley. Later, they both, graduated from MagdalenCollege, Oxford, but John Smyth continued his studies further gaining a degree in Common law at the MiddleTemple in London.

After completion of studies, in 1596, Smyth returned to the Berkeley household, becoming personal steward to Henry Berkeley and his household and later he was promoted to steward of the ‘hundred and liberty of Berkeley’. John Smyth married Grace Thomas in 1597 but she died in 1609, without producing any children. Smyth’s educational companion, Thomas Berkeley died in 1611, two years before his father, Henry and the line was carried forward by Thomas’ young son, George Berkeley.

Almost immediately after Grace’s death, John Smyth married Mary Browning who was described as:

daughter of John Browning of Cowley, descended from Nicholas Berkeley, second son of Robert Fitz Harding, who was one of the original Berkeley family.’

John and Mary had three sons, and three daughters, including another John Smyth, who carried on his father’s work, as steward to the Berkeley family.

According to the preface, in the beginning of ‘The Berkeley Manuscripts’;

‘John Smythe had charge of the Muniment Room in Berkeley Castle, sometime in the early 1600’s, which led him to write the history of the twenty-one Lords of Berkeley, extending from the Norman Conquest, down to year 1628. He also traced the numerous lordships, manors, and lands, which, for five centuries, the family held.’

This made him an expert on everything ‘Berkeley’, and indispensable to the family. Smyth must also have realised that marrying a direct descendent of the Berkeley line would strengthen his position as steward. Some of the lesser members of the family resented the influence this gave him, but they were powerless to curtail his activities.

‘John Smyth wrote two major books, ‘Lives of the Berkeleys’ in about 1618, and ‘The Description of the Hundred of Berkeley’, which was dedicated  to his son John, who succeeded him as estate steward to Lord Berkeley. It was written over many years, the final revision apparently occurring in 1639. It combines information that would be useful to his son as estate steward with the antiquarian gleanings of four decades spent in the Vale of Berkeley. Smyth was born in Leicestershire, took up residence in Gloucestershire when around 30 and spent a significant part of most years in London.’


John Smyth also had his own private business ventures. His legal training and influence with people in high places meant he acted as a consultant and lawyer to many friends and family in the purchase of land and negotiation of business agreements. He became a wealthy man, as he acted not only as lawyer but also a partner and shareholder in many of the deals he brokered. He is known to be an influential person of his time, but my research would indicate his influence stretched further than most modern historians realise, perhaps even further than the Lords of Berkeley realised!

John Smyth also played a key part in the Berkeley sponsored plantation in Virginia.

“Sir Walter Raleigh’s two attempts to establish a settlement in Virginia, the first in 1585, and again in 1587, were not successful: the support of such a settlement was found to be beyond the means of any one individual, however well-off or well-connected.

 Yet interest in such a project remained high and, early in the next century, the Virginia Company of London was formed to exploit the resources of the country. The first expedition in 1607 met with limited success as a large proportion of the migrants died soon after arrival. In 1618, as the wool trade foundered in England, a group of local Gloucestershire merchants and gentlemen came together to form ‘The Berkeley Company’. These pioneers were know as ‘adventurers’, rich men who often had never done a day’s manual work.’

 The principal backers of the enterprise were John Smyth of Nibley, agent to, and historian of, the Berkeleys, Richard Berkeley, George Thorpe of Wanswell Court, Sir William Throckmorton. They negotiated a grant of land on the James River in Virginia, some 8000 acres, on which to form a private colony to be named the Berkeley Hundred. This was somewhat of a rival to the Virginia Company and history shows they seem far better prepared than other expeditions.

On the morning of 16th September 1619, 38 voyagers, under Captain John Woodleaf set sail on the Margaret, of “Bristow” (47 tons), to cross the Atlantic and establish the new settlement. On the 4th December the settlers arrived in America and celebrated what has now become recognised as the first Thanksgiving.”

These four partners and others who later entered into the project were all related in some way. William Throckmorton was married to Lord Berkeley’s sister and another of those given responsibility on the first voyage, Ferdinando Yate, was married to another of the Lord’s sisters. Frequently in letters and dispatches, there is mention of, cousins, uncles and in-laws.

John Smyth not only wrote his two major books about the Berkeleys, but he also kept a careful record of all his administrative and legal transactions and correspondence. This became one of the greatest archives of the period and those records still exist today. The collections are split between the National Archives in England and the Thomas Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress in America. Over 2000 documents have been catalogued and there may be many more.

Readers of this article might well now be wondering why I am going into so much detail about this man, who although a key player in the Berkeley family and the settlement in Virginia has little to do with the Brownings and Brewers of Frome and North Bradley.

Well you have to realise that the driving force behind the exploration of Virginia was money. Religion had driven the migrations to New England, but further south it was about wealthy men trying to increase their wealth even further. These were young, noble, adventurers, aiming to make their fortune in a golden age of opportunity.

The driving force behind the rise in importance of Gloucestershire in Tudor England was the wealth accumulated from the wool and more importantly the cloth trade. The Elizabethan age had seen England grow dramatically in power and wealth and it was families, like the Berkeleys, who had been big winners during this period. This was also an age of merchants and the rise of ‘big business’, with clothiers building small factories, rather than relying totally on homeworking.  King James, in 1604, abolished many tariffs and restrictions, which was supposed to encourage trade with France and Holland. This backfired as the continent didn’t want to buy our rather boring white cloth, and instead imports increased and the price of English cloth slumped. Not only was the cloth plain it was also much coarser than the fine, multi-coloured materials coming from Spain, France and Holland. English cloth went into decline and so the new wave of entrepreneurs from Gloucestershire needed to look for new ways to make their fortune.

The move to Virginia was not to further their textile interests, but to search for gold (which the Spanish had discovered in the South), and to mine iron ore. The Berkeley family already had mining interests beside the SevernValley, in the Forest of Dean, and in the Cotswolds. The early voyages, to the New World, sponsored by the four man cartel, included miners and mining engineers.

The 1607 expedition had found no sign of gold, but they did discover tobacco grew easily and realised that this could be a lucrative business if plantations were established. John Smyth had a better idea, as he could see no reason why the plant should not be grown in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and his one and only instruction to the leader of the first expedition was ‘to bring back tobacco seed’.

His plans to turn the Severn valley into one large tobacco plantation were quashed, when the government made it illegal to grow tobacco in England, as a protectionist measure for the benefit of the Virginia Company. Illicit tobacco crops were grown by some farmers, but troops were sent from London to destroy the ‘weed’, despite the protests of the locals.

This was all interesting stuff but, yet again, I had been diverted from my main research. However, John Smyth was a fascinating character, who seemed rather larger than life, and I decided to explore a little further. I started to search for some of John Smyth’s papers in the National Archives on-line website.

Immediately I found a collection of over five hundred papers stored in Birmingham Museum. Only the index was available for inspection, but half way through the list my draw dropped, as I saw the names, Browning and Beckington, referenced on a couple of papers. Further down were further references to Beckington, John Smyth himself, and several members of the Webb family.

Letter from John Browninge to Mr. John Smythe of Nibley, co. Glouc. his son-in-law, concerning the wardship of Mr. Web and the Manor of Beckington co. Somerset8 March 1610/11

 Letter from Robert Webb of Medbourne Wilts, to John Smith, esq., of Nibley co. Glouc., and his brother Mr. John Browninge of Cowley ? co. Glouc. concerning the wardship of the manor of Heckington and Beckington. co. Somerset5 March 1610/11

 Letter from Robert Webb to his brother, Benedict Webb of  Ryngeswoode Kingswood, co. Glouc. concerning the wardship of the manor of Beckington co. Somerset. 6 March 1610/11

 Letter from Robert Webb to John Smithe, esq., and Mr. John Browninge, concerning the drafting of a conveyance. 9 March 1610/11

 Draft copy of demise for 40 years from Elizabeth Sherington of Midburne Medbourne, Wilts, widow of William Sherington, gent., deceased, Alexander Webbe and William Webbe, sons of Robert Webbe of Beckington, co. Somerset, gent., to John Browning of Cowley, co. Glouc., gent., and John Smyth of  North Nibley, co. Glouc., gent., of the manors of Beckington and Beckington, co. Somerset, with messuages, land and appurtenances in Beckington, Rudge, Standerwicke and  Berkeley, co. Somerset.  11 March 1610/11

Could this be the link I had been looking for between the Brownings of Frome and their namesakes in Gloucestershire. The Frome Brownings didn’t really get going till the early 1700s, although there was one family recorded in the late 16th century. These John Smyth records were contemporary with the earliest mentions and might explain how the Browning family had arrived in Frome.

The other exciting part of these ‘headlines’, was that there seemed to be strong family relationships between all the people mentioned. But it didn’t stop there, because the relationships came not from John’s side, but his wife, Mary Browning, via her brother John, and her mother, Christian Webb.

The Webbs were an extremely successful family of Gloucestershire clothiers, and Mary’s uncle, Benedict Webb, born 1563, claimed to be the first person to introduce medley cloth to England. It became known as ‘Webb’s cloth’. Benedict had been apprenticed to a linen draper in London, who sent him for extended periods to France and Italy. There he learnt the skills of creating finer and more elaborate cloth by mixing different threads and dying the wool before it was woven. English cloth was universally white, or dyed to just one colour. The finer wools were not available in England, where the sheep produced coarse wool, but the Spanish threads were ideal, and his medley cloth became known as ‘Spanish cloth’.

The Smyth papers show the link between the Webb family and Beckington, and it can be no coincidence that Beckington also became known as a centre for medley cloth. There is also evidence of ‘sharp practice’ in the village, in the 1630s, when some clothiers tried to create cheap copies of the original Spanish Cloth, by using a say-dyed process, which tried to imitate the more expensive product.

So my research into the life of John Smyth of Gloucestershire was bringing me into familiar ground, and this now gets even closer to home because the Brewer name now reappears in the story.

It was the Brewer family of Beckington and Lullington were the pioneers of this cheap imitation. They didn’t invent the cheap medley cloth, but rather like the Webbs, they were good at spotting a business opportunity and exploiting a new development. Cloth making was highly regulated and initially these say-dyed copies were made illegal. There were even attacks by other local clothiers and their workers on the Brewer business. However, by 1640, in spite of protests and prohibitions, the making of say-dyed cloth had spread over much of the old white-cloth area, and in that year the Privy Council in London finally legalized its production if it was clearly distinguished from true Spanish medley cloth.

So now we have joined the circle because it was the same William Brewer, making fake medley cloth in Lullington, who moved to Trowbridge and became the ‘greatest medley clothier in England’.

The inter-relationship between these various clothier families is also very complex. Inspection of only a limited number of wills, shows that, just like the landowning families of the medieval period, the Gloucestershire clothiers extended their influence by marrying into other clothier families.

The wills also show how widespread their influence became, as individuals married spouses from new areas, or took over failing business of competitors in nearby towns. The influence of the Brewer and Webb clothiers spread throughout the south west and all the way to London. The Browning clothiers had more limited success, but their genes were well mixed with the other families.

The wealth was not to last though, as the early decades of the 19th century brought food shortages to the West of England, as the cost of basic provisions increased and the wool and cloth trade declined. There were riots and protests in many towns, with troops brought in from London. The textile industry had moved north, to much larger mills, processing wool in Yorkshire and imported cotton in Lancashire. The urbanisation and industrialisation of Victorian England saw the end of Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire as important manufacturing centres, and even today, some would say, that the Industrial Revolution still hasn’t quite reached this part of England !

So, are these entrepreneurs and adventurers our direct fore-fathers? Do our blood lines reach back to the successful clothiers and landed gentry of the middle ages. Well the circumstantial evidence points heavily in that direction. Statistically, it would seem to be unlikely that James Brewer and Lydia Browning were not related to these successful clothier families of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The next stage is to delve into the original papers of John Smyth and see what they can tell us. It would be wonderful to find the ‘missing link’, with Brownings from Gloucestershire living in Beckington .

The other exciting aspect about these particular papers of 1610/11 is the reference to ‘brother-in-law’, John Browning. This John is the right age and has the right background to be the very same man who went to Virginia on the ‘Abigail’ in 1622.

In 1601 and 1607 Thomas Berkeley lent money to John Browning, gent, to finance trips to Constantinople and later Jerusalem. These documents are in the Gloucestershire record office. This seems to be the future father-in-law of John Smyth, as his son would have been only 13 or 14 at the time, and couldn’t really be described as a ‘gent’, at that age.

‘Sir Thomas Berkeley of Caludon (Warks) to John Browning, gentleman: bond for payment of £102 by Berkeley to Browning on the return of the latter from Constantinople ‘Comonlye taken & reputed to bee under the dominion of the great Turke’.

 ‘Receipt for £70 accepted by Browning in full discharge of the bond, with note announcing his impending departure for Jerusalem and expressing the hope that Berkeley will again help him financially on his return.’

However, we can imagine that if John the elder was making pilgrimages to the eastern Mediterranean in his 40’s then his young son, as a thirty four year old, might be keen to join an expedition to Virginia in 1622. This was also a crisis point in the early colonisation of Virginia, as March 1622 had seen a massacre of over 400 settlers by the local Indian population. This amounted to a third of the total number of emigrants and caused a reassessment of policy by both the Berkeley and Virginia Companies.

The ‘Abigail’ was one of the first ships sent in response to the massacre. Brother-in-law, John Browning would seem to be an obvious choice to be part of that expedition as he would have had the backing of John Smyth and could be trusted to carry out the wishes of the Berkeley Company.

Some American researchers do suggest that Capt John was the brother-in-law of John Smyth, but none seem to have looked too deeply into his background. Therefore, research into the John Smyth. ‘Beckington’ papers, should tell us more about John Browning’s life in 1610, and whether this could be the man who became an adventurer in the New World twelve years later.

So, if the mysterious Capt Browning is the same man who was brother-in-law of John Smyth, and therefore had dealings with the Webb family in Beckington, it opens the possibility that our family has connections there also.

Poets corner

There is one famous Browning who has long been speculated to be a blood relative, but despite over 100 years of investigation no link has yet been discovered. Members of various branches of the family have thought we might be related to the great poet, Robert Browning, who lived from 1812 to 1889. Family members have provided photographs, which seem to show their relatives as almost clones of Robert and his son Penn. I have researched the Poet’s line extensively and although we are probably both part of the wider Browning tree, there is no link after 1700.

The Poet’s great grandfather, Thomas Browning, (1721-94) was the tenant of the coaching inn in the hamlet of Woodyates, in Pentridge parish, Dorset. Woodyates was on the main road south from Salisbury to Weymouth, and close to the Dorset/ Wiltshire. These isolated properties seem to have been under the tenancy of the local lord of the manor, Lord Shaftesbury, whose family seat was three miles away, at Wimbourne St Giles. This was an important route from London to the coast and the Duke of Monmouth had reportedly stayed at this inn, as he fled the soldiers of King James II, after his failed rebellion of 1685. Monmouth was caught at Horton, near Ringwood, the next day.

The earliest family event recorded in Woodyates was the birth of Robert Browning in 1719, son of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Petherbridge. They had two more children, Elizabeth and Thomas.

The Browning family were given the tenancy of the Little Inn for ‘three lives’, by the Earl of Shaftsbury. Whether this started with Thomas Browning or his father Robert is unclear, but as Thomas was born in the parish his father may have already been the publican by 1720.

The youngest son, Thomas, married Jane Morris and had six children. Robert, the eldest, (1749), was the grandfather of the poet, and he became a successful banker. He made the break away from rural isolation in Woodyates at the age of 20, when he obtained a position of clerk in the Bank of England, thanks to the influence of Lord Shaftesbury. He served for fifty years, and rose to the position of Principal of the Bank Stock Office, then an important one, and which brought him into contact with the leading financiers of the day. He also became a lieutenant in the Honourable Artillery Company, and took part in the defence of the Bank in the Gordon Riots of 1789.

His brother, Reuben, (1755) and sister, Christian, born 1757, remained in Woodyates and she married William Shergold, in Salisbury, in 1776. Christian and William took over the tenancy of the Little Inn, after her father, Thomas, died in 1794. William died a couple of years later, but Christian retained the tenancy of the inn and she remarried, to W. Rose. He also died and Christian continued to run the inn until her own death in 1812. Reuben is mentioned in a newspaper article in 1813, at the sale of his sister’s household belongings, as still being a tenant of a neighbouring property. The ‘three lives’ tenancy, had by now run its course.

The name William Shergold has other significance in the Poet’s family, Robert Browning’s grandfather remarried, and the first child of the second marriage was called William Shergold Browning. He was the Poet’s half uncle. It is the William Shergold Browning descendents who jealously guard their relationship to the poet, and rather dismissed my suggestions that we might all be part of a wider Browning family from Gloucestershire..!!!

The Browning Society, which celebrates the life and works of the Poet, can’t trace the family before their time in Woodyates.  Browning historians mention a possible connection with the defunct line of the illustrious Browning family from, nearby Melbury Samford, although that line died out in 1500.

There is also mention in an early official history of the Poet being related to Capt ‘Micaiah’ Browning who broke the siege of Derry in 1689. This story illustrates the problems of family history research from over 300 years ago. The biography calls him ‘Micaiah’ and because the history is well known this spelling is often repeated. There is a plaque to Capt Browning on the Derry city walls to commemorate the event and this calls him Michael Browning, a native of Londonderry. However, the National Archives has a probate document, dated 1691, for Micah Browning, a native of Bristol, who died in Ireland. My money for the correct provenance is with the probate document.

Micah may have been one of the many English families ‘planted’ in Ireland to keep a strong Protestant influence over the Ulster province, or he may have just been a Naval captain from Bristol, serving his King and Country.

The Poet’s biography also suggests a connection to Captain Browning, who commanded the ship `The Holy Ghost’, which conveyed Henry V to France before he fought the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415. We don’t know his Christian name but he would have been a contemporary of John Browning, Knight and MP for Gloucester. It is very possible this was the same person as John Browning died in 1416.

The assumption of the Browning Society is that the family is one of some pedigree, although ‘inn keeper for three lives’ doesn’t seem to reflect their optimism. However, Thomas Browning did believe his family came from ‘good West Country stock’, which does support my research into the wider Browning family, and a family seal was passed on by means of a signet ring.

There are no other Brownings for many miles in each direction around Woodyates, and as you increase the limit of the catchment circle you quickly come to Frome. The Poet’s family must have come from somewhere, before they arrived in Woodyates. They could have travelled north from a variety of coastal ports or south from Gloucestershire, Somerset or London.

Robert is a relatively rare Browning name in the early records. There is one, who was born in 1664 and died in 1735 in Coaley, Gloucestershire, but there is no record of his children. This is also a Robert Browning, born in Tetbury Gloucestershire in 1695. There is yet another Robert Browning born in Northam, Devon in 1701. This is a coastal town and was a major trading port of North Devon.

I did some research into Elizabeth Petherbridge, the wife of the earliest of the Poet’s family and that threw up some interesting data. Petherbridge is a very rare name and found almost exclusively in Devon. There was an Elizabeth, born in 1681 in Dartmouth, the daughter of Robert Petherbridge and Christian. This is one of those records that jumps out of the page, as the name Christian also appears in the Browning family in Woodyates. This cannot be the correct Elizabeth, but as Christian does appear in other Petherbridge families of the period, this looks as though it could be the correct family group.

Robert Browning, from one port in Devon, marrying a girl from another port in Devon would make a lot of sense. This also brings other facts together, such as the Browning link with the River Severn and the Bristol Channel, Captain Micah at Derry and Captain Browning taking the King to Agincourt. This then takes us back to the Berkeley and FitzNicholl families in the 1300s.

The believed connection to seafarers, by the Browning Society, does have merit, as my experience with family rumours is that they nearly always have some basis in fact. Again it would make some sense that a family with seafaring connections, who had their roots amongst the gentry of Gloucestershire might well end up running a coaching inn under the tenancy of Lord Shaftesbury, on the main road from London to the ports of Poole and Weymouth.

Conclusion and the future

I now have a much improved understanding of the early Browning history and it would seem certain we fit in there somewhere. There are now several new places to explore and they are historically very exciting. The key man is now John Browning, brother-in-law of John Smyth, who might or might not be the father of one of Virginia’s first families. He might also provide a link between the Browning family of Gloucestershire and those who lived in Frome. The links to Virginia and the poet also need progressing, and even if they don’t show a close relationship with our branch of the Brownings, further discoveries would have wider historical importance. The Brewer family of Beckington also need more research, as that really is our male descendent line.

Anyone who has information, especially photos and original documents please feel free to contact me. I’m still woefully short of information about the family in the past 100 years.

Keith Browning    June 2012                              Kbrow5121@aol.com

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