At the National Archives at Kew (formerly the Public Record Office) is preserved a vast archive of original documents relating to equity cases heard in the Court of Chancery in past centuries. It consists mainly of complaints by men and women, ranging from those of humble status to wealthy aristocrats, together with the responses to these complaints, and perhaps depositions made in support of one side or the other. Where the case was pursued to a conclusion there is a Court Order. The documents, which are in English, abound in vivid sketches of daily life, particularly disputes over inheritance, land and debts. They help to put colour into a career which otherwise may only be outlined in parish registers, wills, etc. They may be a vital means of distinguishing two people of the same name. Potentially they are a gold-mine for the family historian.
Of course there are snags attached to research in this archive. The documents relating to a case are not filed together and some may not have survived. The indexes and calendars are not ideal. The papers are often difficult to read because of age or past faulty storage, or because they are written in a variety of scripts by more or less proficient clerks. And the outcome may be disappointing. As in Jarndyce vs Jarndyce the wheels of the Chancery Court ground slowly, and where money was at stake there was sometimes little left by the time the Court pronounced. However once a relevant case has been found it is usually interesting to pursue it. Bigger and better examples of the value of these records can be found but the case of Richards vs Holdich below is illustrative in a small way.
On 13 February 1737/8 Abraham Houlditch of Wandsworth, Surrey, was taken to court by Ann Richards of Stepney in Middlesex, widow. Ann made a complaint against Abraham in the Court of Chancery, to defend herself from an action recently commenced by Abraham against her in the Manorial Court of the Manor of Stepney. It is said that attack is the best form of defence, so Ann accused Abraham of “combining and confederating with diverse persons unknown” to her, in order to “injure her”.
Ann maintains that for several years she has been lawfully possessed of a messuage at Mile End in the parish of Stepney, held of the Crown, under Tithe of Crown, the rent being payable to the Exchequer. The messuage formed part of the lands of the Crown called Savoy Lands and she has always paid the rent regularly to HM Receiver, and Abraham Houlditch has “no right title or interest in the said messuage”. But, maintains Ann, Abraham has lately commenced an action against her in the Manor Court of the Manor of Stepney, pretending that she held the messuage of him as Tenant at Will, has even compelled some of her friends to pay him, on her account, £8 or £9, and has threatened to evict her.
Ann continues that Abraham says that he has in his possession a paper “purporting an Attornment” signed by Ann, and a consent to pay her rent to him, and she has thereby made herself his tenant. Ann gains at least the modern reader’s sympathy when she insists that if she did sign any such paper it was not read over to her, who is illiterate, and not acquainted with the contents. Moreover, Abraham and his Attorney have threatened her that if she did not sign a paper they produced, she would be immediately turned out of doors, and being intimidated, she signed. She believes that her only remedy lies in a Court of Equity, and begs for an injunction to stay Abraham’s proceedings at law.
Abraham maintains that he does not know that Ann has been lawfully possessed of the premises for many years, has paid rent during this time, and that they form part of the Savoy Lands, belonging to the Crown. He says that he caused a Declaration of Ejectment to be served on Ann, for which he got judgement signed, and on 20 June 1737 possession of the premises was delivered to him by the Sheriffs of Middlesex. Ann then signed a paper, stating that “I do hereby agree to attorn Tennant to Mr Abraham Houlditch for the house I now live in, and of which this Day possession was delivered him by the Sheriffs of Middlesex”.
Ann agreed to take the house for one week, continues Abraham, and to pay one shilling a week’s rent, and signed the paper. By this, she made herself his tenant; she was informed of the paper’s contents and freely signed without any compulsion. He denies that he threatened to eject her, but believes he may have declared that he would bring an action for rent payable weekly as the Court was still in possession of the premises. Ann continued possession under the agreement for 18 weeks, and the 18 shillings rent due to him has not been paid.
So in November he commenced an action of debt for the rent in the Court of Record in the Manors of Stepney and Hackney, and the Court passed a verdict for him. The sum of 18 shillings was given by the Jury in damage to him: the cost including damages amounted to £7 and 3 pence, which was paid by Ann’s attorney to his attorney.
Who was this Abraham and how did he acquire a claim to the property? The clue to the answers lies in his description “of Wandsworth”.
The Wandsworth parish register records an Abraham Houlditch as the father of several children baptised in the 1730’s. His date of baptism/birth has not been found but an earlier Abraham (1674-1724/5) married an Elizabeth Johnson on 4 February 1695/6 and their children included Elizabeth, Mary, Thomas, Edward, Susanna and Anne. Elizabeth Johnson was a daughter of Thomas Johnson whose son and heir was Edward Johnson, who became Governor of St Helena.
Administration of the will of Edward Johnson was granted to Abraham Houlditch and his two brothers, Thomas and Edward, in 1724. The will helpfully included bequests to Edward’s nephews and nieces – Abraham, Thomas, Edward, Elizabeth, Mary, Susannah and Anne. Abraham of Wandsworth married Elizabeth Heath on 1 October 1724 and they gave the second name Johnson to three of their sons. Thus despite the lack of record of his baptism there can be little doubt that he was a son of Abraham and Elizabeth (Johnson) and therefore a grandson of Captain Abraham (1639-1678) and Elizabeth (Morecock).
There are further links between the Heath, Houlditch and Johnson families. Thomas Heath was a director of the East India Company and influenced the appointment of Edward Johnson as Governor of St Helena, at which ships of the Company regularly called. In a Chancery case he described Abraham as a seafaring man who set sail for East India in October 1725. In another record an Abraham, presumably he who lived in Wandsworth, appears as a purser of the Drake, an East India Co vessel, in 1724/5. In addition to being a close friend of Edward Johnson, Thomas Heath was probably a relation of Abraham’s wife, and before sailing in October 1725 Abraham deposited £250 with him to pay bills while he was abroad.
The property question remains and a search in the Court record book for the Manor of Stepney does not reveal the answer. However Victoria County History Vol XI (Early Stepney and Bethnal Green) records that the estate of the Hospital of the Savoy, which had passed to the Crown in 1702, was leased to Mary Johnson in 1692 (the year her husband died) and that part of it, i.e. a property in Mile End, passed to Edward Johnson, Governor of St Helena. It further records that although no rent had been received by the Crown for some years the executors of Mary Johnson were responsible for payment from 1741.
Thus Abraham who, with his brothers and sisters, inherited his grandmother Johnson’s estate and succeeded Edward Johnson as administrator of it, emerges with a claim to the rent from the property in Stepney. Disputes over Edward’s estate lasted until 1729 at least and it may well have been later when Abraham obtained possession of the property. Meanwhile absence at sea may explain the absence of baptism of any children of his in the Wandsworth register before 1729. Abraham’s claim seems to have been endorsed by the Chancery Court when it dismissed Ann’s claim and awarded costs to Abraham. It seems clear that the unfortunate Ann had been duped by some fraudulent rent collector.
Our thanks are due as usual to Deborah, Jim and Charles for past research which has contributed to this piece. Specific references include C11/1293/6 (Richards vs Holdich), C11/2570/16 (Boteler vs Heath and Houlditch) and C11/2615/36 (Houlditch vs Harrison et al); PROB11/526/72 (will of Mary Johnson) and PROB11/595/35 (will of Edward Johnson); and C33/372 (Chancery Decrees and Orders) – in The National Archives.
This article was written by Bill and Faith Keymer and first appeared in Issue 27 of the HFHS Journal in Dec 2004