Elizabeth Gibson and John Collins: a secret marriage?

I wrote here about the will of Elizabeth Holdsworth, my 5 x great grandmother, who died in 1809, and about the inscriptions on the family tomb in Stepney churchyard where she wished to be buried. I mentioned then that my fellow researcher Ron Roe had finally untangled the complex relationships between the Holdsworth, Greene, Gibson and Bonner families suggested by these inscriptions, and had solved the mystery of why, at the time of her marriage to Joseph Holdsworth in 1763, Elizabeth’s surname was Collins, when we know that her grandfather was Joseph Greene and her father was John Gibson.

Before going any further, it might be useful to recap the ‘story so far’ in some kind of chronological order. Elizabeth’s great grandfather, Captain William Greene, was a mariner, born some time in the 1620s, who lived in Ratcliffe, Stepney, and whose wife was also named Elizabeth. Their son Joseph, who was born in Stepney in 1677, worked as a goldsmith at Tower Hill and was a Citizen of the City of London. Joseph and his wife Mary had four children: Joseph, who was born in 1703 and died in 1736; Ann, who was born and died in 1705; Mary, born in 1710; and Elizabeth, who was born in 1711 and died in 1725.

Joseph Greene’s surviving daughter Mary married Lieutenant John Gibson in 1729. We know about John Gibson’s rank from Joseph Greene’s will, which was written in 1737, the year of his death. It’s unclear whether John was a military or naval officer, but we know from their children’s christening records that he and Mary also lived in Tower Hill. I’m unsure exactly how many children they had, but of most interest to us are their daughters Elizabeth, who was born in 1733, and Frances, born in 1735. Frances married Michael Bonner in 1761 and their son John William Bonner is also buried in the Stepney vault.

The Tower and Mint, from Tower Hill

Ron’s theory, which I have no reason to doubt, is that John and Mary Gibson’s daughter Elizabeth is our ancestor – the person who would marry Joseph Holdsworth in 1763. The puzzle of how she came to bear the surname Collins at the time of her marriage to Joseph is solved by the fact that the parish register describes her as a widow, and Ron has discovered a first marriage that seems to fit the bill.

On 21 February 1753, an Elizabeth Gibson married a John Collins at St George’s Chapel, Mayfair. If this is ‘our’ Elizabeth, then she would have been 19 or 20 years old at the time. But if this is indeed the right marriage, then some of the information given in the parish register creates further problems. John Collins, who is described as a ‘gentleman’, is said to come from Epping, Essex, while Elizabeth Gibson is described as being from Waltham Abbey, also in Essex.

Mayfair Chapel in the 18th century

Then there is the question of why Elizabeth and John were married at St George’s Chapel. The record of their marriage can be found in a collection on the Ancestry site, to which is attached the following note:

This database contains a transcript of the baptismal and marriage registers of St. George’s Chapel, in Mayfair, London, that were kept by Reverend Alexander Keith and his assistants. Baptismal records extend from 1740 to 1753, while marriages extend from 1735 to 1754.

Edward Walford’s Old and New London, written in 1878, provides this additional information about Dr Keith and his chapel:

The fashionable locality now known as May Fair, in the days of George I and George II […] enjoyed, on other grounds than that of the annual fair, a celebrity almost unique, and rivalled only by the Fleet Prison […]Here was a chapel for the celebration of private and secret marriages, which stood within a few yards of the present chapel in Curzon Street. It was presided over by a clergyman, Dr George Keith [a possible error: should be Alexander?], who advertised his business in the daily newspapers, and, in the words of Horace Walpole, made ‘a very bishopric of revenue.’ This worthy parson having contrived for a long time to defy the Bishop of London and the authorities of Church and State, was at length excommunicated for ‘contempt’ of the Church of which he was a minister; but he was impudent enough to turn the tables upon his superior, and to hurl a sentence of excommunication at the head of his bishop, Dr Gibson, and the judge of the Ecclesiastical Court. Keith was sent to prison, where he remained for several years. His ‘shop,’ however, as he called it, continued to flourish under his curates, who acted as ‘shopmen'; and the public was kept daily apprised of its situation and its tariff, as witness the following advertisement in the Daily Post of July 20th, 1744: ‘To prevent mistakes, the little new chapel in May Fair, near Hyde Park corner, is in the corner house, opposite to the city side of the great chapel, and within ten yards of it, and the minister and clerk live in the same corner house where the little chapel is; and the licence on a crown stamp, minister and clerk’s fees, together with the certificate, amount to one guinea, as heretofore, at any hour till four in the afternoon. And that it may be the better known, there is a porch at the door like a country church porch.’

Does this mean that the marriage of Elizabeth Gibson and John Collins was clandestine? And did this have anything to do with Elizabeth being a minor at the time? Or perhaps there were other reasons why the wedding had to be secret, such as family disapproval? At present, we have no way of knowing, and perhaps this is something we’ll never know.

An old photograph of Waltham Abbey, Essex

If this is ‘our’ Elizabeth, then who was John Collins, and how did she come to meet him? I’ve been unsuccessful in finding definite records for John, but a search in the National Archives turned up the will of a Richard Collins, gentleman of Epping, from the same period. Having studied this will, I’m almost certain that Richard was John’s father.

Richard Collins’ will, written in 1748, reveals him to have been a man of some wealth. His main property appears to have been Colports, otherwise known as Colworthyes, in Lindsay Street, Epping, to which were attached ‘barns, stables, cowhouses, outhouses, yards, gardens, orchards’, but this was by no means his only property, with other similar farms, pastures and parklands being mentioned elsewhere in Epping and in nearby Great Parringdon or Parndon. The main beneficiaries of the will were Richard’s children, among whom is a son named John. At some point, I will need to transcribe the whole will, which is long and difficult to read.

Having found this will and come to the conclusion that this could be the right Collins family, I went in search of other records, from which I’ve pieced together the following family history. The Richard Collins who died in 1748 was born in about 1693, the son of another Richard Collins of Epping and his wife Sarah. He married Jane Stoker on 6 April 1727. Interestingly, there are some similarities with his son’s marriage to Elizabeth Gibson a quarter of a century later. First, there is the London location: Richard and Jane were married in the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal in the City of London. Then there are their birthplaces: Richard is said to be of the parish of Epping, Essex, while Jane is ‘of the parish of Waltham Holy Cross in the same county’. Waltham (Holy) Cross is about three miles from Waltham Abbey, and both are within ten miles of Epping.

Old map of Epping, with Lindsey Street at top left

Seven surviving children are mentioned in Richard Collins’ will, all of them born in Epping, of whom the eldest was his son, another Richard, born in about 1730. John seems to have been the second son, born in 1733: if he is the person who married Elizabeth Gibson, this would mean they were about the same age. There were two other sons, William who was born in 1739 and David in 1740. Richard and Jane Collins also had three daughters: Sarah, born in 1735,  Elizabeth, 1737, and Jane, date of birth unknown.

The family habit of marrying in London was followed by Richard Collins junior – John’s older brother – who married Ann Champain at St Peter Cornhill on 15 September 1747. I discovered this marriage by googling ‘Richard Collins’, which led me to a record in the Essex County Archives. This relates to a marriage settlement of £1200 made on 14 September 1747. The description reads as follows:

(i) Richard Collins of Epping, gent.; (ii) John Champain of Tower Street, London, citizen and wine cooper and Philip Martin of Theydon Garnon, gent.; (iii) Ann Champain, daughter of John Champain

On marriage of Richard Collins and Ann Champain

In trust for purchase of estate

It would be interesting to view the actual document at some point, despite the fact that it is said to be ‘damaged by damp and rodents’. It suggests that the marriage between Richard and Ann involved some kind of financial and/or land transaction between the Collins and Champain families.

Interestingly, the actual marriage record describes Richard as being ‘of Epping’ and Ann or Anna Champain as being ‘of the same’. This suggests that Ann’s father John, as well as being a citizen of London with business in the heart of the city, also had property in the country: a pattern that I noted in my discussion of the will of John Rodbard, who married Maria Blanch.

Tower Street and St Dunstan in the East, from Rocque's 1746 map

Although I haven’t found any further records for the appropriately named Thomas Champain, it appears that he had a son James who took over the family business. A number of trade directories, including Kent’s Directory for 1755, list James Champain as a wine cooper in Tower Street, London. I’ve also found marriage records for James, who was married twice. His first marriage, which took place at the church of St Anne and St Agnes on 28 May 1744 (three years before that of his sister Ann to Richard Collins) was to Hannah Hawkins from Abingdon, Berkshire. James was said to be of the parish of St Dunstan in the East, the church that is located close to (Great) Tower Street. James and Hannah Champain had at least three children: Elizabeth, born in 1748;  John, 175o; and Ann, 1755. It seems likely that Hannah Champain died either in childbirth or shortly after giving birth to Ann, who was born in January. On 1 June of that year, James Champain married for a second time to Ann Andrews of Surrey, also a widow, at St Giles Cripplegate.

Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but the fact that John Collins’ brother Richard married into a family with premises in Tower Street, a stone’s throw from Tower Hill, where Elizabeth Gibson was born, might provide a clue as to how John and Elizabeth met. As for Waltham Abbey, it might have been a convenient fiction, of a piece with a secret marriage in Mayfair.

Ruins of the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey

On the other hand, consider these facts: Elizabeth’s father John Gibson was a lieutenant, possibly in government service, who lived close to the Tower of London. Elizabeth’s nephew, John William Bonner, would later work for His Majesty’s Ordnance Office, which was based in the Tower. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Waltham Abbey was known primarily for its gunpowder mills, though these were not acquired by the Crown until 1787. Might it be that Lieutenant Gibson, like John William Bonner, had a job connected with ordnance and worked in Waltham Abbey at some point?

Of course, it should also be noted that neither Waltham Abbey or Epping are very far from South Weald, where Joseph and Elizabeth Holdsworth would live after their marriage. Does this help us to understand how Elizabeth Collins nee Gibson met her second husband? As always, further research will be needed in order to shed further light on these questions.

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One Response to Elizabeth Gibson and John Collins: a secret marriage?

  1. Bart says:

    [John Collins of Tower Street, London, Gent., Widr, about 36, & Martha Austin, Spr, abt 21; consent of father William Austin, Esq., of St. Margaret's Westminster or Lincoln's Inn Chapel, 19-01-1622/3].

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