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The Smerdon Link

uncletomtheserpentSometimes research provides a name that is alluring, a favourite, particularly when so many different family lines are followed, and Wilmot Smerdon is certainly one of them. The thought that the popular rhyme ‘Uncle Tom Cobley and all’ may well include a Smerdon ancestor is certainly worthy of mention, however unlikely. Surnames like Brown and Smith, indeed even Hardy, besides all featuring in this book, are very plentiful but the surname Smerdon is rare, with only 402 people over the age of 18 of this surname listed on the March 2000 electoral role for the UK.

With this extraordinarily rare name Wilmot Smerdon comes the fact that I have three to tell you about, over a period of three hundred years.

Anyone sifting through the records for births, deaths and marriages back to 1837 would see quite how few Smerdons there are and the untrained eye could easily conclude that a common ancestor, that distant link, is not too far from discovery. For me, however, there is only ever one relevant path in the research of any family, son, father, grandfather, daughter, mother and so on, and finding a common ancestor has neither been my purpose and nor the reason for my study.

Having said this, there could be no better chapter in this book to mention the genealogists that conduct ‘one name studies’; they are generally referred to as GOONS, as being members of The Guild of One Name Studies. GOONS faithfully, and sometimes very usefully, scoop up all persons of the same surname and find the links. Simon Begent, one such genealogist, has published a very useful source website on the Smerdons who are closely entwined with his own family [1]. There is also an extremely good small publication entitled ‘Family History & Genealogical Notes on the Smerdon Family’ researched and written by Mike Brown and published in five booklets by Dartmoor Press. The author has identified almost every Smerdon[2] from 1538 to 1837 and contends that every single Smerdon in the world can ultimately trace their roots to the heart of Devonshire’s bleak and often-mysterious Dartmoor and the four parishes on the fringes of ‘High Dartmoor’, namely Buckland, Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Ilsington and Ashburton. These villages had surrounding farm hamlets occupied by the Smerdons back to the 16th Century, with names like Higher and Lower Venton, Pitten, Tunhill and Bunhill (or Bonehill), Dukes and Peeps Binnamore. These places have probably changed little in the last few hundred years.

Our story actually starts with our most recent Wilmot Smerdon in the City of London at the beginning of the great Victorian era, with my wife Celia’s great grandmother and Wilmot’s mother, Susan Smerdon. Susan was born on 4 May 1842 at 95 Bishopsgate Street, in the heart of the city, and was the daughter of William Smerdon and Mary Anne formerly Harris. William was a tobacconist and cigar manufacturer at the address. Interestingly, during the 1840s, Mary Ann Smerdon was listed in the Trade Directories for 95 Bishopsgate Street (‘without’) as a Straw, Leghorn and Tuscan hat manufacturer; William was not listed [3].

The story was later related [4] that John Mack, John Arthur Joseph Mack, was a young bank cashier in The City of London and he would call at Smerdon’s tobacconist shop on his way to or from work. Eventually he would fall in love with Susan as she worked in her father’s shop. One can certainly picture the dashing banker chatting up the shopkeeper’s pretty young daughter; she was eight years his junior. Susan Smerdon and John Arthur Joseph Mack were married on 19 September 1864 at The Parish Church in Hackney, and both fathers, John Mack and William Smerdon, were declared as gentlemen on the certificate of marriage, very much an upper class title. Present at the wedding were William and Mary Ann Smerdon, as well as Emma Smerdon and Eliza Warburg. Susan and John were to have seven children, Arthur William born in 1866, Roselle Bertha born in 1867, Cecilia Louise born in 1869 [5], Edward Percy born in 1871, Alice Claire also born in 1871, Wilmott Smerdon born on 17 June 1875 and Cecil born in 1877. They were wealthy enough to employ domestic servants, a cook and a housemaid.

For descriptions of their time, Victorian London, you should look no further than those portrayed in the books of Charles Dickens, a man described as the quintessential Victorian author. His writing is unequalled in the depiction of contemporary life and social commentary through his epic stories and vivid characters, many dramatised in film and television. Even by 1815, London was the largest city in the world, and by 1860 the centre had grown three-fold with over 3 million people, more than a third of whom were people born somewhere else, either immigrants or those from other towns and villages in Britain all seeking the ‘streets paved with gold’; it was a sprawling mass of humanity.

Growth during this period resulted in overcrowded slums where the poor had no education or healthcare and poverty and crime was rife. Gangs of young pickpockets, like those in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, could get six pence for a stolen cotton handkerchief whilst a silk one might fetch six shillings – enough cash to keep you in hot food for a week. Manufacturing to satisfy the consumer needs of the upper classes took place in the sweatshops of every quarter and it was the era of the street traders, barrow boys and flower girls. Travelling and fixed pitch carts and barrows offered every comestible imaginable saving customers the trouble of going to market by taking the market to them. In fact, the streets of London were completely congested and very dangerous. By 1865 London was grinding to a halt with an average of 76,000 omnibuses, hansom cabs, carriages and trades vehicles, all horse drawn, entering the Square Mile of the City of London everyday. The pavements were obstructed with traders often forcing pedestrians to walk on to the carriageway at risk of their lives. It would take a number of Royal Commissions and many years to resolve the social problems in this period of English history resulting in many reforms and extensive reconstruction.

Is it a coincidence that a Wilmot Smerdon was christened at Widecombe-in-the-Moor on 1st May 1570? She was the eldest and only daughter of Richard Smerdon of Bonehill and Wilmot also had four brothers Richard, Edward and twins Arthur and Averye also christened at Widecombe in the Moor on 30th January 1572, 15th August 1575 and 14th October 1578, respectively. Wilmot Smerdon married Richard Man on 27th September 1596 in Widecombe.

And is it another coincidence that a Wilmot Smerdon of Widicombe in the Moor was amongst those swearing Oaths of loyalty to King George I at The Chapple of St Lawrence, Ashburton, 11 November 1723 before the Justices of the Peace, Richard Reynolds and William Bogan Esqs [6].

No three persons with such a rare and particular name, even given that the first was of female gender, over a three hundred years period, could possibly be unconnected. Names are invariably perpetuated through the annals of a family history.

Our Victorian, Wilmott Smerdon Mack married Marianne Lena Firth, born 21st September 1875, on 1st January 1898 at The Registry Office at Richmond Surrey in the presence of William Watson and Charles Baily. They were both living at addresses in Kew and John Arthur Mack, his father, was described as a retired bank manager, whilst Marianne’s father, Henry Firth, was an Army Captain deceased. On 5th February 1898 Wilmott and Marianne had a further church ceremony to solemnize the marriage at The Parish Church of Kew, this time in the presence of Frederica Augusta Firth [7], Sidenham Firth and Wilmot’s older sister Roselle Mack. They were to have a son Percy Wilmot Blyth Mack [8], born in May 1898.

But there are mysteries afoot! Gerald Mack, born 24th February 1903 at 14 Camberwell New Road, Kennington (Celia’s father), was the son of Wilmot Smerdon Mack by Prudence Eleanor Cook and not by Marianne Lena Firth. At this time Wilmot is describes himself as a commercial clerk. When Prudence Eleanor Mack died on 20 Nov 1922 at Sydenham, she was described as the widow of Wilmot Mack, Artist Painter, and present at her death was son Gerald.

Wilmott and Prudence had another son, Norman Mack, who was born on 1st April 1907. He died in suspicious circumstances after falling off the 80-foot cliff at Ovingdean near Brighton on 13th June 1939; a brown trilby was lying on the ground nearby. Nobody could explain why Norman was in Brighton because he lived in Bayswater, London W.2., and had returned on leave, three months earlier, from British Guiana in The West Indies where he was a Sugar Plantation Overseer. One fact emerged from the ensuing investigation. His manservant, Rupert Taylor, said that he had a regular caller called Miss Betty Davies and he occasionally stayed away at The Hindhead Hotel at Bray on Thames. Did he fall or was he pushed? Who was Betty Davies? It was always thought by family members that he was mugged for his money and pushed off the cliff, and the coroner’s inquest returned an open verdict [9].

When Gerald Mack married Millicent Lillian Brian (Celia’s mother) on 29th June 1940 his father was shown as Wilmott Smerdon Mack, a commercial artist. I have never resolved what happened to the marriage of Marianne Lena Firth and Wilmott nor have I found a marriage for Wilmott to Prudence Eleanor Cook. Prudence, born 27th February 1864 at 2 Clarendon Street, Camberwell was the daughter of Livett Cook, a master printer, and Prudence Abercrombie. She was eleven years older than Wilmott and when she died on 20th November 1922 at 390 High Street, Catford she was described as the widow of Wilmot Mack an artist painter. Present at the death of his mother was Gerald Mack (son) of 66a Highclere Street, Sydenham. The death of Wilmot Smerdon Mack about 1911.

This chapter gives us an opportunity to consider the contrasts in Victorian England. Many country folk lived in towns and villages where farming and all the associated trades had prevailed for centuries, places like Widecombe-in-the Moor, the established origin of The Smerdons. It is a beautiful little village in the heart of Dartmoor where the graveyard of St Pancras Church has many headstones bearing Smerdons past. It is a grand church, which was built in 14th Century, known as the Cathedral of the Moor, reflecting its relatively large size for a small village, having a tower that is visible from miles around. The village’s greatest claims to fame, however, are the annual Widecombe Fair and the familiar old tale of Uncle Tom Cobley and All, namely Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon and Harry Hawk, all local characters from around 1800. I am disappointed that Wilmot Smerdon was not included.

On Friday 25th October 1850, as Victorian London suffered from its daily congestion and misery in the slums of the impoverished, Widecombe was holding its first Fair on the Village Green. The Woolman’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the time reported:

‘There was a large show of cattle, 75 score and 7 fatted beasts plus 4 bulls, and 736 Moorland sheep were offered for sale and about 50 Dartmoor ponies were driven in. The breed and character of the Widecombe stock was highly appreciated by a large attendance of yeomen and gentlemen of the district and good business was done.’

For Widecombe-in-the-Moor, it was a resounding success and organisers agreed that the village had an ideal site with The Village Green where it should hold an annual fair. It has taken place, most years since, on the second Tuesday in September.

The reader may expect some conclusion to The Wilmot Smerdon Mystery, particularly a resolution of the  links between Wilmot Smerdon of Widecombe-in-the-Moor in 1570, Wilmot Smerdon of Widecombe-in-the-Moor in 1723,  to Wilmot Smerdon Mack in 1875; there is a further chapter entitled The Enigmatic Wilmott Smerdon Mack that details yet more mystery. Please don’t be disappointed when I tell you, as yet, the links cannot be provided. This story of diversity only goes to show what complex family histories we have and how many unsolved challenges remain; the link could and may be found one day, but I ask the reader to consider whether it is that important to do so.


Notes and acknowledgements

[1] Simon Begent’s website http://www.begent.org/smertree.htm publishes no less than 3,204 Smerdon descendants and is a great source for this surname.

[2] There are over 1100 Smerdons identified in Mike Brown’s research – my compliments!

[3] The Bishopsgate Institute holds many records including the Trade Directories. Bishopsgate Street ‘within’ is the part from 61 Cornhill to 158 Leadenhall Street; Bishopsgate Street ‘without’ continues beyond. It is simply known now as Bishopsgate.

[4] Much of the valuable hearsay is Millicent Lillian Brian’s memories of stories told in the family

[5] Louise Cecilia Mack – Chris Broadhurst is a direct descendant of Louise and therefore a 2nd cousin once removed to Celia. Chris has a great family history website – http://www.broadhurst-family.co.uk/ and he  can be contacted  by email on chris@broadhurst-family.co.uk

[6]  Devon and Exeter Oath Rolls, 1723: (Devon Record Office in Exeter)Simon Dixon (ed.), “Devon and Exeter Oath Rolls, 1723”, Friends of Devon’s Archives http://www.foda.org.uk/oaths/QS17/2/4/6d.htm published 26 March 2007

[7] Frederica was actually recorded as Frederick on the Marriage Certificate – See all the Birth, Marriage & Death Certificates relating to this chapter on Documents

[8] Percy Wilmot Blyth Mack – see The Enigmatic Wilmott Smerdon Mack

[9] A copy of Inquisition on an Inquest into Death of Norman Mack – is available on request