William Greene, chirurgeon, and the map-making Cumberfords of Ratcliffe

In my last post, I explored the possibility that William Greene of Ratcliffe in the parish of Stepney, chirurgeon, who died in 1656, might have been the father of my 8 x great-grandfather, Captain William Greene, who died in 1686 and was also from Ratcliffe. As part of my continuing research into this possibility, I’m now trying to find out more about the family  of the first William Greene.

In his will of 1654, drawn up two years before his death, William Greene of Ratcliffe, chirurgeon, names ‘my loving cosin Thomas Cumberford of Ratcliffe … plattmaker to be my executor of this my last will and testament’. In my initial account of William’s will, I made two mistakes in relation this statement. The first was in taking ‘cousin’ far too literally: I now realise that the word was used during this period to mean any relative (see, for example, the obviously loose interpretation of the word by Elizabeth Greene, who died a few years before William and whose will I discussed here). This obviously makes it more difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to determine the precise connection between Thomas Cumberford and William Greene.

My second mistake was to interpret Thomas Cumberford’s occupation -‘plattmaker’ – as having something to do with either rope-making or straw-plaiting. I now realise that ‘platt’ was another word for map or chart, and that Thomas belonged to a family of mapmakers – in fact, his father was one of the most famous cartographers of his day.

But let’s start with what we know for certain about Thomas Cumberford. If we look in the parish registers for evidence of a man of that name and occupation in Stepney, around the time when William Greene was writing his will, then we find that on 11th September 1654, Thomas Comberford (the spelling of the family surname is notoriously variable) of Ratcliffe, ‘platmaker’, and his wife Elizabeth, had a daughter, also named Elizabeth, christened at the parish church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney.

On 24th January 1659, Robert Cumberford was buried at St Dunstan’s. He was the son of Thomas Cumberford, Ratcliff plattmaker, and his wife Mary, but it’s almost certainly the same family. On 17th August of that same year, another child of the same name (but this time spelt Comerford) was christened at the same church: his parents were Thomas and Elizabeth. A year later, on 21st August 1660, Nicholas Camberford, son of Thomas and Elizabeth, was buried. Two years later, on 11th September 1662, the same couple had another child of that name baptised.

It seems almost certain that Thomas Cumberford (or Camberford or Comberford or Comerford) is the person of that name who was christened on 14th January 1626 at St Dunstan’s church. He was the son of Nicholas Cumberforde of Ratcliffe, plattmaker, and his wife Mary Kithin, who were married on 10th June 1624.

Nicholas Cumberford’s 1651 map of the North-East Atlantic

It is Nicholas whose work as a mapmaker is of interest to historians. In what follows, I am indebted to the Comerford Family History website and especially to this fascinating article by Patrick Comerford. Patrick makes the case for Nicholas being born in Kilkenny, Ireland:

In recent decades, the 17th-century work of Nicholas Comberford has come to the attention of many scholars. His works have been catalogued in the British Library and can be seen in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, the New York Public Library, and the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, and some other museums and libraries. Nicholas is a widely-acclaimed, leading and important member of the London group of chart-makers, who used similar colours, patterns and techniques, worked on vellum, and lived close to the dockyards at Stepney and Wapping on the Thames. They have come to be called the Thames School.

Other leading members of the Thames School included John Daniel, to whom Nicholas was apprenticed, and Nicholas Comberford’s own apprentice, John Burston. Although Daniel was admitted to the Drapers’ Company in 1590, his earliest known chart is dated 1614: “A chart of the South Atlantic.”

[...]

Nicholas Comberford of Stepney remained a member of the Drapers’ Company throughout his life. In a case at the Surrey assizes, he is referred to as “Nicholas Comberford of Stepney, citizen and draper.” His maps charted the world from the East Indies and India to Brazil and the coast of North America. However, unlike the other members of the Thames School, he was not an Englishman, but a Kilkenny-born Irishman, who, as well as being overlooked until recently by cartographers and art historians alike, has been overlooked too in his native county.

This Kilkenny-born artist appears to have lived in a garret in squalid conditions, working in obscurity as a map maker in the Wapping area. His main work appears to cover almost half a century, from 1626 to 1670, and is now highly acclaimed. But in the 1650s, at the height of his career, he was poor and was paid little for his work. Although he had charted much of the world, he never travelled much further than the journey from Kilkenny to London, a journey that he appears to have regretted in the closing days of his life, when he longed to return to Ireland once more.

[...]

Nicholas Comberford was probably born around 1600 and moved to London in his teens and completed his apprenticeship to the mapmaker John Daniel in the London Drapers’ Company in 1620. The record of Nicholas’ marriage of 1624 describes him as ‘of St Katharine’s’ [presumably St Katharine’s by the Tower – see here and here – MR] but he became active in the vestry of St Dunstan’s.

We know from the signature on more than one of Nicholas Comberford’s maps that he lived ‘at the signe of the platt neare the west end of the school house in Ratcliffe’. According to John Rocque’s much later map, the Ratcliffe school house was in School House Lane, which ran north to south between Brook Street and Broad Street, parallel to Cutthroat Lane, which I believe was home to my ancestor Captain Greene.

Section of Rocque’s 1746 map, showing part of Ratcliffe, including the school house

Interestingly, Nicholas is mentioned in a diary entry by Samuel Pepys on 22nd July 1663, when he journeyed ‘by water to Ratcliffe, and there went to speak with Cumberford the platt-maker, and there saw his manner of working, which is very fine and laborious.’ This was a quarter of a century before Pepys would find himself working alongside another Ratcliffe resident: my 8 x great grandfather, Captain William Greene.

Patrick Comerford’s site has helped me to fill in some of the details of Thomas Cumberford’s family. Thomas seems to have been Nicholas’ only, and certainly his eldest, surviving son – another son, John, was born in 1625 but died in the following year. Thomas was born in 1626 and married Elizabeth Soane in Wandsworth on 13th July 1648. They had four sons and two daughters (see above).  Whether Thomas Cumberford became as well-known for his map making as his father Nicholas, I’m not sure.

Nicholas Cumberford’s 1657 map of the south part of Virginia (now North Carolina)

As for Thomas’ relationship to William Greene: given that the two men had different surnames, the connection might be through one of their wives – either Elizabeth Soane or William’s wife Agnes, whose previous name seems to have been Hursh or Hurst, though we know she had been married before, so this was not her maiden name. It will take some more digging around in the seventeenth-century records before I can determine the precise link between William Greene, chirurgeon, and his neighbours, the cartographic Cumberfords.

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