William Greene: a chirurgeon in 17th century Stepney

In my continuing search for the origins of my 8 x great grandfather, Captain William Greene of Ratcliffe, in the parish of Stepney, I’ve been exploring the family of yet another William Greene, who lived in the same area some years earlier. Whether or not he turns out to be related to my ancestor, his story is interesting in its own right, and provides additional context for understanding the lives of my forebears in 17th century Stepney.

On 29 December 1606, a year after the Gunpowder Plot, and three days after Shakespeare’s King Lear was first performed before King James in the Banqueting House at Whitehall,  ‘Wm Grene of Ratcliffe’ married Agnes Hurle or possibly Hucks (the record is difficult to read), a widow, at the church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney.

It’s unclear whether this is the same William and Agnes Greene of Ratcliffe who would have three children together before Agnes’ death in 1625. The time between their marriage and the birth of their first known child seems rather long, but on the other hand I’ve been unable to find another marriage that is such a close match.

Margaret Greene was christened at St Dunstan’s on 14 November 1619, Sara in March 1621, and William on 14 March 1623 or 1624 (the parish register is imprecise). The record of William’s baptism is the only one to give an address for the Greene family. They lived in Cow Lane, which was a short road running from east to west between Farmer Street and New Gravel Lane, a little to the south of Ratcliffe Highway and Upper Shadwell (see map below, though we need to take account that this was drawn up more than a hundred years later: for example, the church of St Paul, Shadwell, wasn’t built until 1657).

Section of John Rocque's map of 1746

This record is also the first to mention William Greene senior’s occupation. He was a chirurgeon, the closest 17th century equivalent to a surgeon. According to medical historian Lindsay Fitzharris (of the fascinating website, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice):

Surgeons are amongst the highest paid professionals in the medical world today. They are the ‘miracle-workers’ of the 21st century, providing blood transfusions, heart transplants and prosthetic limb replacements in order to save and transform the lives of their patients.

Nevertheless, the place of the surgeon amongst today’s medical elite was not always guaranteed. At the beginning of the 17th century, ‘chirurgeons’ [surgeons] were closely related to barbers and other craftsmen who learned their trade through apprenticeships. After the Restoration, however, chirurgeons broke from their medieval role and began participating in important medical debates. Their advocacy of ‘practical’ medicine and experimentation distinguished them from their university-educated counterparts, the physicians, and helped elevate their role in the medical marketplace.

On 26 August 1625, five months after the death of King James and the accession of Charles I,  Agnes Greene was buried at St Dunstan’s. We can’t be absolutely sure that this was William’s wife, but less than three years later, on 17 January 1628, William Greene of Ratcliffe, ‘barber and chirurgeon’, and his wife Anne, had a son Emmanuel baptised at St Dunstan’s. I assume this is the same William, married now to his second wife, though I’ve yet to find a record of their marriage. Emmanuel died in infancy and was buried on 16 July 1632.

William and Anne Greene would have four more children: Mary, christened at St Dunstan’s on 21 October 1631; Elizabeth on 24 January 1633; Ellen on 14 October 1636; and Abigail on 1 July 1639.

The Civil War, which broke out in 1642, is supposed to have interrupted the keeping of parish registers, though those kept by St Dunstan’s seem to be fairly continuous. Given the names of their children (Emmanuel, Abigail), and the area where they lived, I would guess that the Greenes (like their seafaring namesakes, and possibly relations, in the same area) were Puritans, though records for local Dissenting congregations don’t begin until the mid-1640s. Did William, or any of his relatives, fight for the Parliamentary side, perhaps for the Tower Hamlets ‘trayned bandes’?

The only other definite record I can find for the family is, intriguingly, the report of a marriage on 28 July 1645 (the year of the Battle of Naseby) between William Greene of Ratcliff, chirugeon, and Anne Roades of Brooke Street, a widow. Was this William’s third marriage, presumably at quite an advanced age? Or is it evidence that his son, also William, who would have been about 21 by this time, followed his father’s profession?

Of course, William Greene the younger, son of William and Agnes, is a possible candidate to be my 8 x great grandfather, Captain William Greene. His birth date of March 1623 or 1624 would mean that, if he survived, he would be 62 or 63 in January 1686, when Captain Greene was buried in Stepney churchyard. But is it likely that a mariner and Trinity House Elder Brother would be the son of a barber and chirurgeon, rather than a member of the seafaring Greene family of Ratcliff?

Update 11 October

I’ve had a reply from Joy Thomas, archivist at the Worshipful Company of Barbers, who keep records of barber-surgeons. According to Joy, a William Greene was admitted to the Company on 17 January 1631. He was the apprentice of one Thomas Smith. Unfortunately, the records don’t indicate where either man was resident. However, Joy adds that William was admitted on to the ‘Lecture Bill’, which apparently means he was almost definitely a surgeon, not (just) a barber.

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