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Tuesday 24 October 2023

A Family History Mystery

The mystery of John Price, and our part in its solution.  

Neil Price: Dickens’s Favourite Blacking Factory
Neil Price: Dickens’s Favourite
Blacking Factory (The Conrad Press, 2023)  

 

I have mentioned before that my wife is descended from Henry Francis Lockwood, the architect of Bradford Town Hall and the mill and town of Saltaire. Much of her family history was pieced together by her father trawling through archives in the 1950s and 1960s, then a painstaking and laborious task demanding patience and perseverance.  

After retirement I filled in more details. It was much more interesting than my own family history, and I spent months on it like a full-time job, placing a lot of information on genealogy web sites.

One of Henry Francis Lockwood’s uncles was Charles Day, the boot blacking manufacturer, who made the kind of fortune that would easily place him alongside today’s richest rock stars. When he died in 1836, one estimate valued him at £450,000, the RPI equivalent of £40-£50 million today. But in terms of property price inflation, the value of his holdings in London and elsewhere would now be astronomical.

It was widely believed that Charles Day had just one daughter, Caroline, with his wife, Rebecca Peake. However, at the very end of his life, he added a codicil to his will:

    “I Charles Day of Edgware and Harley House being of sound mind so desire that the three Post Obit Bonds for £5000 cash which will be presented at my decease may be doubled that is made £10000 cash and that the same may be invested for the benefit of my three natural sons ...”

That was quite a revelation. Wills are public documents and the existence of three, secret, illegitimate sons would have been a real scandal. He left them each the equivalent of around £1 million today, producing incomes of perhaps £45,000 per year.

I tried hard to identify who these three natural sons might be, without success, but left a summary of the will and other details in various places online. This turned out to be crucial.

Around the same time as my father-in-law was busy with his research, a certain Hugh Price was struggling with his own family history. One could fancy them together in Somerset House (then the genealogical archives), two gentlemen, strangers, each unaware of the other’s connection, brief nods of acknowledgement, departing their separate ways, never again their paths to cross.

Hugh had long been troubled by his great-grandfather, John Price. He knew that John had had three boys with Sarah Peake, and that their names had been Henry, Alfred and Edmund Price; Alfred being his grandfather. But otherwise John remained a mystery. Indeed, some records named him as Charles Price rather than John. 

Hugh died in 1986 and the quest was taken up by Hugh’s son, Neil, who had been intrigued by the problem since boyhood. Like me, he soon had the immense power of the internet at his disposal, but this only added further questions. It revealed that the three brothers had lived quietly but very comfortably at the best addresses in London and Edinburgh, without ever having worked or followed any profession other than “fundholder”. Where had these funds come from? And John/Charles Price remained elusive as ever.

Very late one night in 2015, Neil was following up links to his great-great grandmother’s Peake family. You may have noted that the surname of Charles Day’s wife was also Peake. Neil had been tipped off that a family member had been extremely wealthy, and wondered whether this could be the source of the brothers’ funds. He came across my summary of Charles Day’s will:

    “After about 20 further minutes of scratching about and fumbling for more information as to how John Price fitted into all this (if at all), the penny suddenly dropped. It was about 1am and my shriek of recognition certainly woke [my wife] and probably some of the neighbours! The “Three natural sons” – it was too much of a coincidence – they had to be Henry, Alfred and Edmund Price! But how?”

Indeed they were. John/Charles Price and Charles Day were one and the same. The reason for the deception was that Day’s wife knew nothing of the boys’ existence, and even more explosive, their mother was her cousin, Sarah Peake. Furthermore, Day’s assistant and confidente in all of this was none other than his wife’s sister. The boys may later have known their father’s identity, and that they were illegitimate, but they maintained the secrecy and kept it from their own children. Illegitimacy was seen as a shameful stain on the character until very recent times.  

Their identities emerged only because the will was subject to lengthy litigation, in which Henry, Alfred and Edmund Price of Regent’s Park are sometimes named among the many respondents. Along with several other possibilities, I had even wondered whether they might be the three natural sons, but they were almost impossible to trace. Price is a very common name, and where I did seem to find them they appeared to be associated with Peakes rather than Days. You would have to be an unusually obsessive genealogist to delve into an ancestor’s brother’s wife’s cousins.

When Neil contacted me, I said he needed to look at the court papers at the National Archives. I had only seen newspaper reports. The initial case concerned an unscrupulous attorney who had attempted to write himself into the will as co-Executor on highly favourable terms, but this was ruled invalid. He contested the ruling, resulting in the boys being named, but their mother’s identity was never revealed. The ramifications went on for decades and the case became celebrated for its length and complexity. Dickens used it as the model for the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in ‘Bleak House’, in which he pokes fun at the Court of Chancery, its lawyers and the enormous costs involved.  

The Court papers provide a window into the lives of Day and his family, and how the three boys were hidden from Day’s wife, the rest of the family, the prying public, and the shame of illegitimacy. This, and how the firm of Day and Martin built up their business and became so successful, is a tale of Regency London, ruthless competition, inspired marketing, shameless counterfeiting, an eligible heiress and a vacuous playboy, and no end of other fascinating and entertaining detail.  

One uncanny coincidence was this. For his last two decades, Charles Day was blind. You can see this in the portrait on the cover of Neil’s book. One of Day’s many acts as a benefactor was to found a charity called The Blind Man’s Friend. Eventually, the charity and the portrait passed to the Clothworkers’ Company. Neil Price, during his working life, sat through many meetings in the Clothworkers’ Hall, never aware that, there, all the time, on the wall above, the portrait of his mysterious great-great grandfather, John Price, i.e. Charles Day, had been watching over him.  


If anyone is interested in Neil's book I can pass on his contact details if you email me via my profile page. 

20 comments:

  1. It is totally absorbing family ancestry, the juicy bits of the family caught for evermore in old ledgers and books. A lovely legacy though. I think it is hard work though trying to marry up the various relatives. My DNA survey just shows up 5th cousins scattered all over the world.
    Tonight Andrew is going with his friend, an architect, who is revamping Bradford Odeon cinema. It will eventually become a venue site. Also it is on the cards that we will move to Saltaire some time in the future, so I should be able to explore the town a bit more.

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    1. I have always resisted having a dma test.
      The names of the streets are interesting at Saltaire - named after Salt's relatives and associates. There is a Lockwood Street and a Mawson Street.

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  2. You have described complicated processes as lucidly as possible. I am thinking both of the historical trails and the more modern business of pursuing those trails. I admire the sleuthing tenacity that was shown both by yourself and by Neil Price. In those mazes it seems that when ever a question was solved new questions would crop up.

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    1. The post was twice this length before I cut it down. There is so much more but I have tried to concentrate on our role in the solution to Neil's mystery. It was my summary of the will that did it, which meant when Neil found it, he had the answer. Genealogy web sites are like spiders' webs - you put in what you know to catch what you don't.

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    1. It worked out really well. See responce to previous comment.

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  4. That is amazing and Thelma said totally absorbing. My cousins had worked on our family 'tree' years ago and nothing even a 10th so interesting came out of that. And I love that Dickens' novel was inspired by that court case. (I loved Dickens and read everything Dickens just after I left school.)

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    1. My own family is quite ordinary, but my wife could have a whole series of Who Do You Think You Are? just to herself.
      Dickens was sent to work in Warrens' blacking factory as a child, and consequently mention blacking several times in his novels. In Pickwick Papers he takes a swipe at Warrens and implies Day and Martin blacking was superior.
      “... [he] brushed away with such hearty good will, that in a few minutes the boots and shoes, with a polish which would have struck envy to the soul of the amiable Mr. Warren, (for they use Day and Martin at the White Hart) had arrived at the door of number five.”

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  5. Genealogical research is time-consuming and frustrating in equal measure. As YP says, one answer leads to more questions.

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    1. I've been doing it for 30 years at least, and would hesitate to count up the time and money I have spent on it.

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  6. What a story! You cannot help but feel sort of sorry for Mrs. Day though. To have her own sister involved in that betrayal would be a heartbreaker. The mother of those boys was her cousin. I guess that's what you call a family affair.

    I'm glad that he took care of those boys though.

    I have also found a new aspiration. I've decided that I want to be a fundholder.

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    1. We would all like to be fundholders.
      The marriage between Charle Day and Rebecca was more of a convenience for them both than a love match. She had no interest in or understanding of Charles's business, and he worked all the time. She made her own life in her family circle but became deaf and increasingly withdrawn. Her younger sister, Susannah, was treated like a Cinderella character, and they disliked each other. Susannah did understand business and was of enormous help to Charles, especially after he became blind from syphilis (the high life of Regency London!) but it seems she avoided getting into a relationship with him. Her cousin, the mother of the two boys, was also very bright, and unfulfilled in her home town, so Susannah arranged for her to be engaged as Charles's servant. Niel imagined her guiding the blind Charles around the house with a little more touching than strictly necessary. However, the main facts are revealed in the court papers (over 1000 pages). Rebecca Day probably never knew that her cousin was the mother.

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  7. I am impressed, but would need an illustrated family tree to grasp it all (not really, just saying).

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    1. You really would not. There are so many cousin marriages it's a real jumble.

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  8. This is so fascinating and a complicated story lucidly described. I've tried to trace my family tree and have reached the 1700's. Nothing and no-one remotely exciting so far but there are a few family names that I would have used for my daughters had I known of them at the time. Most on my father's side were involved in the Yorkshire woollen mills and lived for generations very close to where I was born and brought up, something that I didn't know until I started my research. You have inspired me now to go back and dig a little deeper.

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    1. Most of my own family lived in the same area back to the 1700s, which made things easy. My wife's could not have been more different. There are new resources being added to the genealogy sites all the time, so there are always new angles to delve into, but let my subs expire some time ago.

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  9. Mrs D certainly has a fascinating family history

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