Female blacksmiths and natural daughters

Today I discovered exactly how compulsive family history research can be when I went down a census rabbit hole after finding records of what appeared to be a female blacksmith in the Bodleian’s archival collections.

The Bodleian holds the Barham family papers which came here with the extensive Clarendon family archive thanks to Lady Katherine, the Countess of Clarendon (1810-1874), who married the 4th Earl after the death of her first husband John Foster Barham, a Member of Parliament for the rotten borough of Stockbridge in Hampshire and the son of Joseph Foster Barham, a prominent Pembrokeshire landowner who also owned substantial numbers of slaves in Jamaica. [You can find slave inventories and estate accounts in the Barham Family Papers.]

Top half of a bill for blacksmithing costs owed by William Barham to Mary Hulbert, 1834, Clarendon Archive (Earls of the 2nd Creation), Bodleian Libraries

Top half of a bill for blacksmithing costs owed by William Barham to Mary Hulbert, 1834, Clarendon Archive (Earls of the 2nd Creation), Bodleian Libraries [click to enlarge]

The portion of 4th Earl of Clarendon’s papers which I am currently cataloguing, however, includes some additional Barham-related letters and papers such as this tantalising invoice of payments owed by William Barham, Lady Katharine’s brother-in-law, to Mary Hulbert, blacksmith. The invoice is a long list of work completed between April and November 1834, totalling £3 1s 1d, and is marked as unpaid.

Having learned five years ago that a woman smith worked on Blenheim Palace in 1708, I was particularly interested in the identity of this blacksmith: Mary Hulbert.

A plain search for Mary Hulbert on Ancestry produced a haystack’s worth of results, but I took a punt on the Stockbridge connection, and found that there was, indeed, a Mary Hulbert listed in the 1841 census in Stockbridge and that the Hulbert family included a blacksmith. But disappointing my hopes that she would be labelled a blacksmith in her own right, that blacksmith was her husband, George. And in fact, I soon found lower down the small stack of William Barham’s invoices (which include a bill for two nights away from home that tots up the cost of a bed, half a pint of best brandy, another bottle of brandy, and a bottle of gin) yet another 1834 blacksmith’s invoice, this one from…George Hulbert, also unpaid.

This was a useful reminder to always check related records before going down rabbit holes, but I was still curious about Mary Hulbert of Stockbridge, who, assuming she was the Mary Hulbert named on this invoice, was at the very least involved in her husband’s business. In fact, given that the jobs and dates on the two blacksmithing bills are different, it remains possible that Mary really was doing work on her own account, and more of it and at a greater value than George, whose bill only lists jobs on 29 May and 7 June 1834 worth the comparatively small sum of 4s 11d.

Interestingly, birth and marriage records show that Mary was 16 years older than her husband: he was 22 when they married in 1822, and she was 38. I wondered if perhaps Mary’s father had been a blacksmith and George Hulbert his apprentice, but in fact, no, a quick and dirty search suggests that her father Thomas Young was a maltster, while a 1784 Hampshire directory lists another George Hulbert as a blacksmith in Stockbridge, so it looks like smithing was the Hulbert family trade.

Although it seemed more than likely at this point, I still couldn’t be certain that the Mary and George Hulbert sending bills to William Barham were the Stockbridge Hulberts. I thought it would be worthwhile to have a look at William Barham’s records to see if he had a direct connection with the town, given that he himself was never Stockbridge’s MP.

And that’s where things got intriguing.

William Joseph Barham did in fact, have a direct connection with Stockbridge – he died and was buried there, in 1840, unmarried at the age of 36. More interestingly, his short Last Will and Testament, which was written on 7 August 1839, leaves £2000 to his two sisters and £5000 in trust for his natural daughter, Harriet Plasket.

This illegitimate child was living under the care of a Miss Holland of Spring Terrace, Wandsworth, and the £5000 was to be invested in 3% annuities and used for her care and then transferred to her when she reached the age of 21. If she died before then, the money was to be folded into the residue of his estate, which was inherited by William’s brother Charles, one of Harriet’s appointed trustees. This is a good set-up for a not-particularly mysterious murder story but it seems that the Reverend Charles Barham was worthy of the trust, because Harriet Plasket lived a very long life.

But who was her mother? Presumably not the Miss Holland of Spring Terrace?

I could not find a convenient birth registration for Harriet Plasket that lists William Joseph Barham as her father but there is a record of a Harriet Plasket being born in Stockbridge in January 1839, a few months before William Barham changed his will, and there is a Plasket family living in Stockbridge in the 1841 census. Agricultural labourer John, and Elizabeth Plasket, both aged 20, with their daughter Harriet, aged two, and a one month old baby, interestingly also named William. There is a late baptismal record for little Harriet from 6 February 1842 that lists John as her father, which could mean that I found a red herring, but could also be a discreet lie. So, is it Elizabeth, who if the census is correct would have been about 17 at the time she got pregnant, who was the mother of then 34 year old William Barham’s child? Intriguingly, in the 1851 census, the Plasket family has grown to include two more children, but Harriet is no longer listed. I could not find a relevant death record for her between 1841 and 1851. Did she return to Wandsworth, to the care of Miss Holland of Spring Terrace, some time after her baptism in 1842?

If she was the daughter of Elizabeth Plasket from Stockbridge, she must have returned to London at some point because the earliest definitive record I found for Harriet is the 1863 marriage of Harriet Plasket of 12 Spring Terrace, Wandsworth to Trevor Hunneman Nixon, a shipping agent from Islington, and the son of a solicitor. Quite a step up for the daughter of a farm labourer. The marriage record lists Harriet’s father, perhaps sheepishly corrected, as William Henry Plasket Barham, Gent.

Harriet and Trevor Nixon had nine children, eight surviving to marry, and were married for thirty two years until Trevor died in 1895, leaving his effects and the rather small sum of £36 5s to his widow. Thereafter, Harriet is listed in the census (with a variety of birth dates) as living on private means – perhaps her father’s £5000 legacy continued to pay dividends. The latest plausible record for her that I found, in fact, is from 1939, when a widow Harriet Nixon born 21 Mar 1840 is living, incapacitated, in Nottinghamshire, at the ripe old age of 99; or 100 depending on which record you believe.

And there I stopped, because there is only so far you should go down the rabbit hole. (Although I still wish I knew more about Miss Holland and Elizabeth Plasket!)

I can only hope that Mary and George Hulbert, blacksmith(s?), eventually got paid by William Barham, who did at least care enough–or had enough of a guilty conscience–about his illegitimate daughter to leave a legacy that transformed her life.


These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.

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