A brief biography of Frances Morrell (c. 1771 – 1854) & Thomas Robinson (c. 1771 – 1848)

St Andrew’s Church, Aldborough, 2023. Own photo.

What lovelier question could there be to ask a family historian on her birthday weekend than “What churchyard do you want to visit today?” “Kirkby Hill” I responded promptly, as I’d long wanted to go and find the gravestone of my great, great Uncle Walter, who was killed by a shotgun at the age of seven. “Along the way we could call in and see the Roman mosaics at Aldborough?”. We found the gravestone in question, bumped into my Aunty Sue in the Oxfam in Boroughbridge (which led to a whole new set of discoveries), visited the mosaics and found ourselves unexpectedly enjoying tea and cakes on the village green of Aldborough. I left Mum and Joe chatting with strangers on the next door table and wondered off to mooch around the old church. A perfect day.

Aldborough (“old town”) feels like somewhere time stopped. Trade had long since moved to its upstart neighbour, Boroughbridge (when the Roman’s built a bridge there). By the 1700s, it had become a rotten borough, controlled by the local landowner, with parliamentary seats available for a price, more lucrative than investing in the village itself. St Andrew’s Church, though, remained the centre of a significant parish, including Boroughbridge, as late as 1866. The church was rebuilt around 1330 after being destroyed by Scottish raiders, with a chancel and tower built in the fifteenth century. The stained-glass windows were a much later addition, but it looks, and feels, largely as it would have at the end of the eighteenth century.

Largely as it did, I discovered later that week, when my 5xG Grandparents, Frances (Morell) and Thomas Robinson were married there on 25 August 1796, two hundred and twenty-seven years and four days before I walked through the same heavy oak doors.

Thomas was an agricultural labourer and although this is a potentially iterant profession, the family appear to have settled in Boroughbridge where children arrived at regular intervals to be baptised at St Andrew’s: George (11 June 1797), Thomas (27 October 1799), Mary (my ancestor) (17 December 1802), Sarah (10 February 1805) and finally William (21 March 1812).

Unlike with many other of my lines, this was not to be the start of a generational connection to Boroughbridge, for the children scattered. George moved to Marton cum Grafton where he followed in his father’s footsteps taking up agricultural labouring work, Thomas moved to Colne, Lancashire, although returned to marry Mary Dickinson in 1821 and, potentially, became a soot merchant. Mary moved to Leeds and then, following her marriage to John Howson, to North Rigton. Sarah did marry a local man, George Johnson, in 1829, but he appears to have died before they had any children, as she too, moved to Leeds where she married John Kerton in 1838. Of William there is, as yet, no sign.

THE Shelves for Bread to be distributed to the Poor of Aldborough every Sunday from the Bounty of Mark Smithson Esq

St Andrew’s holds a potential clue, a Georgian bread shelf, indicating the necessity of charity for the parish poor. Work, at least work which paid sufficiently well to support a family, was likely in short supply. The growing towns and cities of the industrial north provided a solution.

1841 census for Boroughbridge showing the Robinson household including their granddaughter, Jane Howson, the national archives via ancestry.

I’ve often wondered how, or even whether, illiterate families from the nineteenth century stayed in touch once children moved. This was too early for the train, so travel would have been expensive and time consuming, and if the parents couldn’t read, and the child couldn’t write, what was the point of a letter? In this case, it seems they must have done, for in the 1841 census, Thomas (68) and “Fanny” (56) had visitors, John Robinson (8) and Jane Howson (14), two grandchildren sent to live with and support their elderly grandparents. I am grateful they were not alone, and even more grateful that it was my 3xG Grandmother, Jane, who was there because it was her presence, together with the birthplace of her mother, Mary, which had led me to identify Frances and Thomas in the first place.

Thomas Robinson’s death certificate. Note age and place of death. General Registry Office.

Not that grandchildren took away the need to work. By his seventies, Thomas would have been struggling to find employment, yet still he laboured. For on the 16 August 1848, he died, of a palsy fit, in Spring Field in Hutton Conyers. In his death certificate, an illiterate co-worker gave Thomas’s age as sixty-six. In his burial record, at Aldborough two days later, his more likely age of seventy-seven was listed. It was harvest time, when any physically able ag lab should be able to find work and yet Thomas was working nearly eight miles from home and, it appears, had felt it necessary to knock a decade off his age in order to secure the position.

Frances struggled on alone in Boroughbridge, which is where we find her in 1851, aged 76, her occupation listed simply as “poor” perhaps struggling to make the weekly service at St Andrew’s in order to claim some bread for the week. Eventually though, she must have moved in with her son George, for it was in his home in Marton cum Grafton where she died, aged 83, of nothing more specific than “old age” on 19 July 1854. I like to hope that she is buried back at St Andrew’s, with Thomas and where her records start, but her burial remains untraced.

Despite records surviving from the 1770s in Aldborough, there are no obvious baptisms. Morrell should have been a traceable family, especially as George also married a Mary Morrell, but I have found nothing that fits. Thomas was an agricultural labourer and, with only the 1841 census to go on, could have been born anywhere in Yorkshire. Illiterate, it is no surprise that the ages given in the various records are not entirely consistent. So, I’ve called it. They are not a brick wall but can be celebrated and written about as an end of the line, being as far back as I am expecting to trace. With much gratitude to my 5xG Grandparents, Frances Morell, Thomas Robinson and their granddaughter Jane Howson for being together on 6 June 1841 and to my Mum’s husband who suggested a spontaneous trip to Aldborough which supported the writing of this story.

Swinsty Hall – from seventeenth century ancestors to Euro2020

Norwood School’s seventeenth century day at Swinsty Hall. I am in the middle holding my baby brother, David. My sister Helen is to the left having been chosen to represent the wealthy owners, my oldest friend, Andrea, is just behind her to the left. The head teacher, Miss Robinson, is at the back. Own photo, 1985.

On 3 July 2021, as England were preparing for their quarter final match against the Ukraine, I was in Fewston – catching up with my oldest friend, Andrea (featured in the photo above), traipsing through knee high grass in the graveyard with my third cousin, Paul, and reliving childhood memories gazing across the adjoining reservoir towards the gabled rooftop of Swinsty Hall.

Later I was idly wondering whether we were related to any of the five Yorkshire-born players and Google, being Google, gave me an answer. It turns out our family connection to the England team is not with the players, but with the manager, as the gabled rooftop I was reminiscing over is the current home of Gareth Southgate and this being the Washburn Valley there was bound to be a family connection.

Back in 1985 my sisters & I were all attending the tiny village school of Norwood. What do I mean by tiny? I had two fellow pupils in my year group (one being Andrea). My sister Helen had none, she was the sole person in her school year. When I left the following summer there were twenty-seven pupils and when the school closed a few years later there were just sixteen. By contrast, I was walking with a London-born friend last week. As we passed one of the ubiquitous four-story Victorian London primary schools, he commented that he had long thought everyone went to schools of this kind where sixty plus pupils were admitted every year.

When one or two teachers are trying to effectively educate children ranging in age from four to eleven you have to be creative and engage with the whole community and that’s how we ended up at Swinsty Hall re-enacting the seventeenth century studying clothing, food, dancing & the English civil war. We were joined by parents (well, mothers), younger siblings and even the local vicar all dressed in seventeenth century garb. Lunch was served on the massive oak table in a wood panelled dining room and afterwards there was square dancing on the lawn surrounded by old flower beds.

Swinsty Hall taken from “The Old Halls and Manor Houses of Yorkshire” Louis Ambler, 1913

By 1985, Swinsty Hall was somewhat neglected. It had been owned by the Leeds Corporation & the Yorkshire Water Authority since the reservoir had been built in the 1870s, at times having multiple occupancy at others having large sections boarded off. Perhaps as a result of that neglect my memories accord with much of William Grainge’s description in his 1895 book “The history & topography of the townships of Little Timble, Great Timble and the hamlet of Snowden in the West Riding of the County of York”.

The front of the hall is simple, yet elegant, consisting of a centre and projecting wings, the latter like square towers, finished with gables and pinnacles at the angles and apex…..On the right is the great hall, a spacious room twenty-one feet square. The beams supporting the upper floors throughout the building are splendid specimens of oak timber, resting on corbels springing from the walls. The floor of this room has been originally laid with lozenge-shaped flagstones, some portions of which yet remain near the walls…… A door leads from this into the drawing-room, or dining-room;…..The doors are all made of oak, without nails; the battens; four in number, being fixed by wooden pins, with the heads projecting a little by way of ornament on the inner side, the two middle ones with three rows, and the top and bottom with only one each. This room is wainscoted with panelled oak, finely carved at the upper border and around the fireplace…… The window is of twelve lights, the upper six of which yet retain their antique glazing, being variegated with stained glass; on one piece are the letters H.R.G. and the date 1627, the initials of Henry Robinson, the first owner of Swinsty of that name, and his wife. In this room is preserved a piece of the original furniture — a dining table, 17 feet 6 inches in length, by 3 feet in breadth, and the same in height, made of planks of solid oak, two inches thick, with massive frame and legs of the same material. This table has doubtless played its part in many a hundred feasts, and it is yet as strong, and clean, and bright, as when the wealthy owner of Swinsty, in the day of its highest greatness, sat at its head and dispensed hospitality. The forms, or benches, on which the feasters have been perched also yet remain; they are of such height that those seated on them would have to rest their feet on the lower frame, as they could not reach the ground……In the garden, a few old-fashioned plants remain, such as the Robinsons cultivated when they dwelt here ; roses red and white, aconite, rosemary, balm, lavender, peony, box, and golden rod ; while the wall is partially hidden by the green and golden masses of stone crop, and the walls of the old mansion are coated over with grey and golden lichen”.

Swinsty Hall’s heyday WAS the seventeenth & early eighteenth centuries and what i wasn’t aware of back in 1985 was that I was highly likely to have been feasting & dancing in the footsteps of my ancestors.

For much of the rest of this blog I have to thank my third cousin, Paul for his research. The same third cousin who was wading through knee-high grass in Fewston church. Paul & I first connected through a DNA match site, which is kind of strange as we grew up in the same village (albeit a few years apart) and he knew my uncle from primary school. He even appears on the wallpaper charts I drew up with my Grandma back in the 1980s. We are third cousins through Amelia Bradbury & Michael Houseman (the parents of Jesse Houseman, the father of my Grandma, Mary Houseman). Such is the inter-related nature of small Yorkshire villages I have since discovered several more distant connections. One of these connections is the Hardisty line which leads us back to the Robinsons the owners of Swinsty Hall for nearly two hundred years. Or rather almost……

Swinsty “old” hall was built for the Wood family in the first half of the sixteenth century. The far more substantive “new” hall was added in the 1570s, a wedding gift for Francis Wood & Ellen Sutell from Ellen’s father, Henry. However, Francis seems not to have had the means to maintain such a grand property. By 1590 he was in such debt that he signed over the property to Henry Robinson in exchange for writing off a debt of £2,000. Thus, Henry became the first Robinson to own Swinsty Hall.

The Robinsons of Swinsty Hall

Henry left Swinsty Hall to his son John. That is relatively straightforward.

John divided his estate up early. He gave Swinsty “old” hall to his son John, who then sold it to his older brother Henry for a nominal sum of just five shillings in 1681. John then deeded the “new” hall to Henry in 1683 thus re-uniting the two parts.

Henry had no heir and so left Swinsty Hall to his nephew, also named Henry. Henry then sold the property to his father, Edward, in 1725 and his father also inherited the remainder of the estate when this Henry, too, died childless.

Edward decided to bypass his children and bequeathed Swinsty Hall direct to his grandson John. And whilst John had one son, he died before John and the Hall was left to his daughters Mary & Ann, finally ending Robinson ownership after 182 years.

Meanwhile, Mary & Ann’s cousin, another Ann Robinson married Samuel Hardisty & they had a child Anne Hardisty in 1782. Anne is Paul’s 4 x great grandmother. Knowing I was related to Paul via the Hardistys I naively thought that meant that I too was related to the Robinsons and thus to the owners of Swinsty Hall. It turned out to be a little more complicated. Anne married another Hardisty, William, whose grandparents, Robert Hardisty & Ellen Kirton were my 7 x great grandparents. Whilst the Hardistys and the Kirtons were both established Fewston families it seems that they may have only been feasters at that grand oak table rather than the ones sitting at the head dispensing hospitality and it is not beyond the realms of imagination that they might have danced in the very same gardens my immediate family did in 1985.

So, whilst my connection to the Euro2020s seems somewhat tenuous, I can perhaps say that both my seventeenth century ancestors and my more immediate family have eaten in the grand panelled dining room of the current England manager’s home.

Images from www.ukhomesearch.org.uk showing the gardens we danced in and the hall in which we ate, Swinsty Hall

With much gratitude to my third cousin, Paul, Norwood County Primary School and my Hardisty ancestors.  `