Analysing the will of John Mortimer of Shelf

In my last post I reproduced a transcription of the will of John Mortimer of Shelf, Yorkshire, who died in 1742, and who might turn out to be my 7 x great grandfather. In this post I want to explore what this will tells us about John Mortimer, and about the connections between the Mortimer and Holdsworth families.

'Clothiers' by George Walker (1814)

First and foremost, the will provides us with important information about John Mortimer’s occupation. He describes himself as a ‘clothier and wool stapler’. According to the Spartacus website:

In the 18th Century the production of textiles was the most important industry in Britain. Most of the work was carried out in the home and was often combined with farming. Most cloth was made from either wool or cotton, but other materials such as silk and flax were also used. 

The woven cloth was sold to merchants called clothiers who visited the village with their trains of pack-horses. The clothiers then took the finished cloth to the nearest market town. The largest market in the England was held in Leeds. Some of the cloth was made into clothes for people living in this country. However, a large amount of cloth was exported.

The website quotes from Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1724, in which he writes:

Generally speaking, the spinning work is performed by the poor people who live in villages and scattered houses. The clothiers, who generally live in the towns, send out the wool weekly to the spinners. At the same time, the clothiers’ servants and horses bring back the yarn that they the spinners have spun and finished. 

Each clothier must keep a horse, perhaps two, to fetch and carry for the use of his manufacture, to fetch home his wool and his provisions from the market, to carry his yarn to the spinners, his manufacture to the fulling mill, and, when finished, to the market to be sold. 

Some time ago I wrote about the landowning Hattons of Barkingside, Essex (near neighbours and probable employers of my Londors ancestors), some of whom were (like John Mortimer) wool staplers, in other words dealers in wool, and I reproduced this picture of dealers at a wool exchange:

Not only does his will reveal that John Mortimer was a cloth merchant, but it also shows that he must have been quite a wealthy one. He bequeaths three separate properties in Shelf and Clayton to his eldest son Richard, a property in Lightcliffe to his son John, and a further property in Lightcliffe to his son William. All of these seem to be occupied by tenant farmers (named in the will) who presumably paid rent to the Mortimers. Giles Hill, the location of the first property inherited by Richard Mortimer, is just outside the village of Shelf and there is still at least one farm there today. Clayton is a few miles to the north of Shelf and is now a suburb of Bradford. Lightcliffe is about five miles south of Shelf and to the east of Halifax.

The will also supplies useful information about John Mortimer’s immediate family. His wife is not mentioned, so we must assume that she predeceased him. John appears to have had six surviving children: three sons and three daughters. Richard is said to be the eldest son, and on the covering document accompanying the will he is described as a ‘yeoman’, a term generally used to describe a man who owned his own farm. The parish records confirm that Richard, son of John Mortimer, was christened at Coley on New Year’s Day, 1705. The other two sons are named in the will in order of age. John Mortimer junior was baptized at the church of St John the Baptist, Halifax, on 21 May 1711, and William at Coley on 18 September 1723. (It’s possible that John junior was also christened at Coley: the village church seems to have been a satellite chapel of St John’s, Halifax, and its registers were amalgamated.) They would thus have been 37, 29 and 19 years old respectively at the time of their father’s death.

John Mortimer senior’s will gives us not only the Christian names of his three daughters – Martha, Mary and Sarah – but also (either directly or indirectly) their married names.  We already knew that Mary married John Holdsworth (in 1725), but we now know that Sarah’s married name was Hobson and that, by implication, Martha’s must have been Fletcher: since the will mentions a granddaughter, Matty Fletcher, and Martha is the only remaining daughter who could have been her mother.

St John the Baptist, Coley (copyright Bill Henderson,

Mary was christened at Coley on 3 June 1707, Martha on Christmas Day in the following year, and Sarah on 30 December 1717. According to the Northowram Register, Martha married a Mr Fletcher from Horton (another village not far from Shelf, now also a suburb of Bradford) on 23 February 1727. A daughter Martha (Matty?) was born to James Fletcher of Great Horton and baptized at St Peter’s, Bradford, on 6 June 1730. Sarah Mortimer married John Hobson on 9 November 1738 in Bradford.

Most interestingly, from my point of view, the will also gives us the names of John Mortimer’s five Holdsworth grandchildren: the offspring of his daughter Mary and her husband John Holdsworth. No Holdsworth granddaughters are mentioned, so we must assume that (at this date, anyway), John and Mary only had surviving sons: John, Josiah, Richard, James and Joseph. Having this list of names is invaluable, enabling us to track their father, John Holdsworth’s places of residence – and also to discover his occupation.

Contradicting the order in which they are named in the will, the parish records suggest that Josiah was the eldest of these five sons (unless this first Josiah died and another son of the same name was born later). A Josias or Josiah Holdsworth was christened at Coley on 23 April 1730. He was the son of John Holdsworth of Hipperholme, a village just west of Lightcliffe and south of Coley. John Holdsworth junior was baptized on 16 April 1732: he was born at Southowram, a few miles further south. If this is indeed the same Holdsworth family, then it is the first record to provide us with information about John senior’s occupation: if the parish register is to be believed, he was a clothier, like his father-in-law. Richard Holdsworth was christened on 5 January 1735, William on 278 February 1736 and James on 10 September 1738, all at Coley. No address or occupation is given on these occasions.

Frustratingly, I’ve yet to find a baptismal record for Joseph (my 5 x great grandfather), who seems to have been the youngest Holdsworth brother. If his burial record is to be believed, then Joseph Holdsworth was 60 years old at the time of his death in South Weald, Essex, in 1795, meaning that he was born in about 1735. There are a number of possibilities in the West Yorkshire parish records, none of which seem to match what we know about ‘our’ Holdsworths. Some family trees at Ancestry suggest that Joseph might be the person who was baptized at St Peter’s, Bradford, on 26 December 1735. This Joseph was born at Bowling, at that time a village to the south-east of Bradford and about five miles north-east of Shelf. However, although his father’s name is given as John, the latter’s occupation is given as ‘carter’, which seems incompatible not only with his earlier career as a clothier but also with the wealth and status of his wife’s Mortimer family. Moreover, if this Joseph turns out to be the son of ‘our’ John Holdsworth, then he would be the only one of his children not to be christened at St John’s, Halifax, or its satellite chapel at Coley.

I’ve found evidence of at least two other possible Holdsworth children in the parish registers. Thomas, son of John Holdsworth of Shelf, was christened at Coley on Christmas Day, 1739. If he belongs to ‘our’ John Holdsworth then he must have died in infancy, before his grandfather’s will was written. A daughter Sally seems to have been born to the same father and baptized at the same church in April 1750.

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4 Responses to Analysing the will of John Mortimer of Shelf

  1. jacquie webb says:

    Hi I also have Mortimers in my family> My GGRt grand father married a Ellen Rosina Mortimer, here in Nz. Also in saying that the Corslands and Mortimers have been linked together for generation. Ellen was born in 1884. Mt ggrt grandfather was Edward Shaw Crosland born 1883, here in Nz. His father was a Shaw Crosland born in Huddersfield England. Another Brother married a married Ethel maude Carry Mortimer.around the same period.

  2. jacquie webb says:

    Also the croslands in huddersfield were cloth merchants

  3. Cindy Mitchell says:

    I am doing ancestry research and I am trying to find my ancestors on the other side of the pond.
    If you could shed some light on the Mortimers that dealt in the textile industry 1755 to 1830 in would be greatly appreciated.
    John Mortimer (My 4th great grandfather)
    Birth 1775 in Yorkshire, England ???
    Death 12 Sep 1846 in Kings Co, New York
    Spouse: Anna Louisa
    Birth Abt 1777 ??? in England ????
    Death 15 July 1857 in New York
    Sarah Mortimer 1796 – 1869
    John H Mortimer 1799 – 1875 (the H possible stands for Hodgson is in his son’s name)
    Mary Mortimer 1805 – 1857

    John was listed on Passenger Lists & Censuses as a merchant of Men’s Fancy Goods, Woolen Merchant, Importer of Cloth.
    His multiple stores in NY, Philadelphia & Boston supplied cloth for fine tailoring.
    His son John H. Mortimer continued the business after his death.
    John or his son John H. invested and served as a director of the Atlantic Pacific Telegraph company from it’s founding.
    His younger brother Richard Mortimer
    Birth 1790-92 in Yorkshire, England,
    Death 30 May 1882 in New York City , New York, USA)
    came to the US in 1816 and was a woolen merchant. He had amassed a great deal of wealth and retired in 1833. His spouse was Harriet Cordelia Yates
    1800 – 1883

    John & Richard’s father was John. Thank You if you would be able to identify their father or point me in the right direction.

    • Martin says:

      Thank you for your comment, Cindy, and for the interesting information about your Mortimer ancestors. It does seem likely that your Mortimers are related to my own ancestors, given that they came from Yorkshire and worked in the textile industry. Unfortunately, I haven’t traced my Mortimer family tree much further forward than the middle of the 18th century. If you are a member of Ancestry, then look up my ‘A1 Martin Robb’ family tree, where you will see that I have plotted the descendants of John Mortimer of Shelf (1681 – 1742), who had three sons, born in the early decades of the 18th century – who in turn had a number of sons each, born in the middle years of the century – and they in turn had sons of their own in the later years of the century…It’s likely that one of these was your ancestor John, born in 1775. Is he the John Mortimer who died in Nassau Street , Brooklyn in 1846 (brother of Richard, father of John)? If so, the newspaper report says he was 77 years old, which means he would have been born in 1769/1770, not 1775, I think.

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