Written before the mast: the last will and testament of Alexander Curtis

Earlier this week I wrote about the daughters of William Greene, the 17th century Stepney chirurgeon who may turn out to be one of my ancestors. By researching his family, I’m hoping to discover whether William was a relative (perhaps even the father) of my 8 x great grandfather, Captain William Greene.

17th century naval battle

17th century naval battle

I believe that at least two of William’s daughters married mariners: Elizabeth married Richard Benson in 1658, and in 1662 her sister Mary married Alexander Curtis. In my earlier post I noted that Alexander’s father was John Curtis, a mariner and gunner, while he himself worked as a purser, initially on the ‘Monck’ and then on the ‘Newcastle’. Both were ships of the English navy, firstly under Cromwell’s Commonwealth and later in the service of the King. Alexander Curtis was serving as a purser on ‘his Majestie’s ship Newcastle’ when he wrote his last will and testament in 1677, at the age of 35. In fact, we can tell from the will itself that it was actually written at sea: Alexander asks to be buried in the next ‘Christian dock or place’ that his ship comes to, and stipulates that his personal belongings should be ‘sold before the Mast’.

There is no mention in the will of Alexander’s wife Mary, so we must assume that she had died before this date. However, the names of the children mentioned align with what we know of the family of Alexander Curtis and Mary Greene. Only William, born in 1668, does not appear to have survived until 1677.  As for those who are mentioned here: John would have been fourteen, Alexander junior twelve, Thomas eight, and Mary four, when their father died. It’s interesting that Alexander names his father John as one of his executors, since the latter must have been at least seventy when this was written and (unusually for the times) would outlive his son.

Greenville Collins' mapping of the British coastline

Greenville Collins’ mapping of the British coastline

Alexander Curtis appoints two other executors of his will. One is Captain Bernard Ludman, who was commanding officer of Alexander’s previous ship, the ‘Monck’, and then the ‘Victory’, though one source claims that he had died in 1673: either this is a mistake, or Alexander was not aware of it, or he was not (as he claimed) ‘of perfect memory and remembrance’ when he wrote his will. In the early 1670s Ludman commanded the ‘Monck’ in various engagements against the Dutch navy, in which Alexander Curtis was presumably also involved. The third executor of the will was John Ansell: could he be the buccaneer of that name who sailed with the notorious Admiral Henry Morgan and died in 1689?

Alexander asks the Newcastle’s ‘master’, Greenville Collins, who also witnesses the will, to take an inventory of his effects. Collins would later become commander of the ‘Charles’ and a noted map-maker: in fact, he was appointed by Samuel Pepys to survey the coasts of the British Isles, the results of which became enormously influential, and he was later made ‘hydographer to the King’ (see image above). Benjamin Walter(s), described here as the steward of the ‘Newcastle’, would go on to become a naval captain and commanding officer, serving in a number of battles against the French in the Nine Years War.

Part of Rocque's 1746 map of London, showing Cock Hill, Ratcliff

Part of Rocque’s 1746 map of London, showing Cock Hill, Ratcliff

Alexander Curtis’ will gives us some idea of where his family lived. He mentions the house currently occupied by his father John, but owned by himself, at ‘Cockhill’ in the hamlet of Ratcliff. Cock Hill was at the western edge of Ratcliff, extending southwards from Upper Shadwell (where we know Alexander and Elizabeth Curtis lived at one point) to Lower Shadwell and the riverside.

My transcription of Alexander Curtis’ will follows: 

In the Name of God Amen: The eighth of December in the yeare One thousand six hundred seventie seven according to the Computation of the Church of England I Alexander Curtis Purser of his Majestie’s ship Newcastle being of perfect memory and remembrance, Praised be God, doe make and ordaine this my last Will and Testament in manner and forme following (viz) First I bequeath my Soul into the hands of Almightie God my Maker hoping through the meritorious Death and passion of Jesus Christ my only Saviour and Redeemer to receive free pardon and forgiveness of all my Synns, And as for my Bodie to be buried in Christian Buriall at the first Christian dock or place his Majestie’s said Shipp Newcastle shall come at: Item I give unto my Sonn John Curtis my Sonn Alexander Curtis my Sonn Thomas Curtis and my daughter Mary Curtis All those moneys Goods houses Lands and Chatells which I have owing unto mee or shall be myne at any maner of tyme or tymes whatsoever to be equally distributed betweene all my said Children before exprest, making and ordaining by this my last Will and Testament John Curtis my deare Father Captaine Bernard Ludman and John Ansell my Executors, to see all my Children have all that is myne equally distributed betweene them, and likewise that my daughter Mary may have that house which my said Father John Curtis has nowe in his possession, and which is myne for her bringing upp to maturitie, which house lyes scituate by Cockhill in Ratcliff in the Countie of Middx; And likewise all those Cloathes and Sea-necessaries which are myne I desire may be sold before the Mast, and an Inventary taken of all by Greenvill Collins master and Benjamin Walter my Steward of the Newcastle to be delivered to my Executors before exprest for the use of my Children; And in witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and Seale the day first above written. Alex: Curtis. Signed sealed in the presence of G. Collins: Benj. Walter: John Powell; J. Hunton; Since the signing and sealing of the Will before-writt I Alexander Curtis give unto my Sonn John Curtis one watch, and a Seale Ring, And one small Ring to my Sonn Alexander Curtis, And another to my Sonn Thomas Curtis, And likewise a Gold Watch with all lynnen, which belongs to women, and which is in England I doe desire that my daughter Mary Curtis may have: Alex: Curtis:.

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