Last week I wrote about the petitioning of Parliament by my 6 x great grandfather John Gibson, a coal factor, who was seeking release from the Fleet Prison and relief from debts resulting from a fraud against the Crown. I’m grateful to Marcus Bateman, who is also researching ancestors involved in the eighteenth-century coal trade, for leaving a comment directing me to a number of other legal disputes involving John Gibson.

Merchant ships on the Thames

The National Archives have records of three Chancery cases in which John’s name appears to be mentioned. In 1725, John Gibson, merchant of London, and William Gibson, merchant of Rotterdam, were plaintiffs in a case in which the defendants were James Greive, his wife Elizabeth Greive, John Crawford, Robert Dennett Esq and Arthur Cox. In 1733, John Gibson, merchant and factor of London, was the plaintiff in a case where the defendant was Peter Barker. Finally, in 1735 John Gibson, merchant of London, was the plaintiff in a case in which the defendant was Ann Furrs, widow and administratix of Nicholas Furrs, deceased.

I’ve requested copies of these documents and hope to view them in due course. Only a close examination of the full documents will reveal whether the John Gibson named in these cases is my ancestor. However, even the short descriptions at the National Archives site are intriguing. For example, who was William Gibson, merchant of Rotterdam? Was he a relative of John’s, perhaps his brother or father, and will exploring this case throw some much-needed light on my ancestor’s origins? I’m almost certain that the John Gibson in the third case is my 6 x great grandfather, since we know that Nicholas Furrs was his business partner. In the very first sentence of the pamphlet, setting out his case for release from prison, John Gibson writes that in 1721 he ‘entered into a Partnership with Nicholas Furs, who was then, and had long been, a Coal-Factor at the Port of London’. Writing about himself in the third person, John goes on to give details of his business relationship with Furrs, concluding:

From Christmas 1720, to Christmas 1729, Gibson carried on the Business in Partnership with Furs, and the Partnership being then expired, Gibson agreed with Furs to give him 300l. a Year for 12 Years, on Condition he would quit the Business wholly to Gibson, and never act in it more; which Annuity was paid, and that together with Furs’s Stock, then drawn out of Trade, amounted to several thousands Pounds.

I’ve managed to discover a fair amount about Furrs and his family from parish and other records, which I’ll share in another post. Suffice it to say here that Nicholas Furrs died in 1732, and obviously John Gibson was still pursuing his widow Ann three years later, though we’ll have to wait for full details of the case to discover the basis of his action against her.

‘The Court of Chancery in the Reign of George I’ by Benjamin Ferrers

In my search for more information about Furrs, I came across a puzzling entry in the Treasury records. On 21 April 1743, at the Treasury Chambers in Whitehall, with the Earl of Wilmington, the  Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a number of other government officers present, a petition was read ‘from John Gibson, late of West Ham, merchant, concerning his coal bonds with Nicholas Furrs, a coal merchant.’ What’s puzzling about this brief reference is John Gibson’s address. As far as we know, my ancestor lived at Tower Hill, in the parish of St Botolph’s, Aldgate, and maintained the country estate of Woodredon, at Waltham Abbey in Essex. This was the first time I had come across any mention of him living in West Ham.

However, this was not the only document to make the connection. In the previous summer, two issues of The London Gazette had included references to John Gibson’s bankruptcy, and both gave his address as West Ham. Here is an extract from the edition of 22nd – 26th June:

Whereas a Commission of Bankrupt is awarded and issued forth against John Gibson, of West Ham, in the County of Essex, Merchant, Dealer in Coals, and Chapman, and he being declared a Bankrupt, is hereby required to surrender himself to the Commissioners in the said Commission named, or the major Part of them, on the 10th and 17th of July next, and on the 7th of August following, at Three of the Clock in the Afternoon on each of the said Days, at Guildhall, London, and make a full Discovery and Disclosure of his Estate and Effects ; when and where the Creditors are to come prepared to prove their Debts, and at the second Sitting to chuse Assignees, and at the last Sitting the said Bankrupt is required to finish his Examination, and the Creditors are to assent to or dissent from the Allowance of his Certificate. All Persons indebted to the said Bankrupt, or that have any of his Effects, are not to pay or deliver the same but to whom the Commissioners shall appoint, but give Notice to Mr. Hooper, Attorney, in Threadneedle-street, London.

And this is from the edition that appeared on 7th – 10th August:

Pursuant to an Order made by the Right Honourable the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, for enlarging the time for John Gibson, of West Ham in the County of Essex, Merchant, Dealer in Coals and Chapman, a Bankrupt, to make a full Discovery of his Estate and Effects for Forty nine Days, to be computed from the 7th of August instant; This is to give Notice that the major Part of the Commissioners named in the said Commission will meet on the 25th Day of September next, at Three in the Afternoon, at Guildhall, London, when and where the said Bankrupt is required to surrender himself, and make a full Discovery and Disclosure of his Estate and Effects, and finish his Examination; and such of the Creditors of the said John Gibson, as have not already proved their Debts, may then do the same, and the Creditors are to assent or dissent from the Allowance of his Certificate.

What are we to make of this? My first concern was that the John Gibson who was convicted of fraud, made bankrupt and imprisoned in the Fleet might not, after all, be my ancestor – but a completely different John Gibson residing, not in Aldgate or Waltham Abbey, but in West Ham. This sent me back to the document that first alerted me to John’s misfortunes: the ‘declaration instead of a true and perfect inventory’ drawn up after his death by his widow Mary. Written in 1764, Mary Gibson’s declaration clearly places her husband in the parish of St Botolph, Aldgate, and also mentions her mother Mary Greene, as well as referring to property in Rosemary Lane, an address that was definitely linked to ‘my’ Gibson ancestors. So there seems little doubt that the John Gibson mentioned in this document was my ancestor.

How sure can we be, though, that he is also the John Gibson who worked as a coal factor and was convicted of fraud against the Crown? Mary’s declaration states that ‘in or about the year 1742’ the Crown issued an ‘extent’ against her husband and that some time after this he was declared bankrupt. He was later ‘arrested at the suit of the Crown under the said Extent and lay in Prison several Years til he was released from thence by an order of Parliament on giving security for his appearance whenever called on by the Crown’.

Mary Gibson’s account of her husband’s travails closely matches the details in the case of ‘the King against John Gibson’ which came to court on 3rd February 1743. The report of that case refers to an extent issued on 17th June 1742, a second extent on 7th July that year, and then a commission of bankruptcy issued against the defendant. The document informs us that John Gibson was ‘indebted to the King in a large sum of money in several bonds for the duty on coals’.

Now, of course, it’s entirely possible that there was more than one John Gibson who had an extent issued against him by the Crown in 1742, and was then made bankrupt. But it seems rather unlikely. On the basis of the information we have available, I’m inclined to draw the conclusion that my ancestor, John Gibson of St Botolph’s, Aldgate, was in fact the coal factor convicted of fraud, to whom this and other legal documents of the time refer.

West Ham and surrounding area, in 1786 map

But if that’s the case, then how do we account for the reference to West Ham in the documents cited above? I think there are two possible answers to this question. One is that my ancestor did actually purchase property in that part of Essex, despite already owning Woodredon at Waltham Abbey. In a history of Essex written in 1814, I found the following reference:

The manor of Woodredon was sold by the trustees before mentioned to John Gibson, to whom it belonged in 1742; it then became possessed by his wife’s mother, Mrs. Mary Greene, from whom it was purchased in 1765 by sir John Henniker, afterwards created lord Henniker, whose grandson, John Minor Henniker, esq. is the present proprietor.

We already knew that Mary Greene was the original purchaser of Woodredon: she bought it from the Duke of Bedford in 1738 (the year after the death of her husband, goldsmith Joseph Greene, and presumably using money that he left her) and ‘immediately conveyed it to her daughter and son-in-law, Mary and John Gibson.’ In an earlier post, I wondered how we could reconcile John’s bankruptcy and dire financial situation with his possession of an extensive country estate, and I speculated that he might have signed over ownership to his mother-in-law, as we know he did with other property, to prevent it being seized by his creditors. This new source appears to confirm my hunch. The date of 1742 is significant, it being the year in which the extent was issued against John Gibson by the Crown; ‘it then became possessed…’ suggests that the transfer of ownership to Mary Greene happened around this time.

Perhaps John Gibson purchased another country property – this time in West Ham – after surrendering ownership of Woodredon, while at the same time maintaining his London home at Tower Hill? However, the Treasury record from 1743 describes John as ‘late of West Ham’, suggesting that he no longer lived there. Or might this be a reference to John’s ‘violent rescue’ from the first attempt to arrest him, and a subsequent period ‘on the run’?

At first, the possibility that the Gibsons lived, at some point, in West Ham, looked as though it might help to solve one or two remaining mysteries surrounding the family. Firstly, John’s pamphlet appealing to be released from prison makes reference to his ‘nine small children’, whereas I have only been able to find baptism records in the St Botolph’s register for seven children. As far as I can tell, no Gibson children were christened at Waltham Abbey. However, I have now searched the West Ham records and can find no Gibsons baptised there during the period in question. Secondly, I wondered if the West Ham connection might help to explain how Frances Collins, the daughter of John Gibson’s daughter Elizabeth by her first marriage, came to be living in nearby Romford at the time of her own marriage to John Godfrey Schwarz.

However, another, more mundane solution also suggests itself. What if the reference to West Ham in these documents is a mistake? What if the first clerk who wrote that John Gibson was from West Ham got it wrong – and meant to write Waltham instead? ‘John Gibson late of Waltham’ would make perfect sense if, in 1742-1743, he had recently signed over the ownership of Woodredon to his mother-in-law and was no longer living there. Repeated references to West Ham in other documents could be explained by other clerks copying the original mistake, and by the fact that John himself was not available – since at the time he was evading arrest – to correct the error.

I’m hoping the records of the Chancery cases from the National Archives might throw some light on this matter.