As often happens, an email from a distant relative has prompted me to revisit a neglected branch of my family tree. Gareth Sanger is, like me, a descendant of Stepney bootmaker Frederick French (1810 – 1887) and his wife Sarah Elizabeth Bull (1813 – 1857), who were my 3rd great grandparents. Gareth is descended from Frederick’s son Charles (1852 – 1932), whereas I trace my descent from another son, Frederick French the younger (1847 – 1917). This Frederick French married Emily Hindley (1847 – 1918), and their daughter Mary (b. 1873) was my great grandmother. Mary French married George Webb (b. 1874): their daughter Mary Emily Elizabeth Webb (1898 – 1965) married Arthur Ernest Robb (1897 – 1979), and they were my grandparents.


My great great grandmother Mary Webb née French, in old age

Prompted by Gareth’s email to review my research into the French family, I realised that it’s almost ten years since I last wrote about them on this blog, and even then I didn’t tell their story in chronological order, or in very much detail. I hope to put that right in this and in forthcoming posts.


What do we know of the origins of the French family? My late Auntie Grace (my father’s older sister) wrote in a letter: ‘Gran [i.e. Mary Webb née French] used to tell me that her ancestors were French smugglers who settled in England and changed their name from De’rench (?) to French.’ Gareth was told a rather different story by his grandmother: that the Frenches were landed gentry who fled to England to avoid persecution at the time of the French Revolution, and that their original name was Laroche, or similar.

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Old photograph of Dorchester, Dorset, birthplace of Frederick French

Whatever the truth of these family stories, census records tell us that Frederick French the elder was born in Dorchester, Dorset, in about 1810, while the record of his marriage provides the information that his father’s name was William and that, like his son and grandsons, he too was a shoemaker. So far, I’ve failed to find a record of Frederick’s birth or baptism in the Dorset parish records. The closest I’ve come is the record of the christening on 15th April 1810 at Wincanton, about 30 miles to the north of Dorchester, of Frederick French, son of William and Jane French.

As I’ve noted before, there is a long-established firm of shoemakers by the name of French in Southampton, with its roots in Dorset, and with a number of Williams and Fredericks in their family tree. The website of W.J.French and Sons, ‘shoemakers of distinction, est. 1803’, includes the following information:

The French name originated in France and traditionally the French family were shoemakers in the reign of Queen Anne and also connected with the American French’s […]

Francis French began his apprenticeship with shoemaker Richard Wareham at Dudsbury, Parish of Hampreston in Dorset, and in 1803 began their business from a house in Kingsland Place, Southampton.

However, at this stage, any connection between the Frenches who migrated from Dorset to Southampton and the French family who moved from Dorset to East London must remain a matter of speculation.

Frederick French and Sarah Elizabeth Bull

The first clear sighting of ‘our’ Frederick French in the official records occurs at the time of the 1841 census. This finds Frederick French, said to be 31 years old, and Sarah French, 25, living with their three children, Sarah, 9, Seth, 7, and William, 2, at Parnham Street, close to Salmon Lane in Limehouse. At this stage, Frederick is described as a labourer, rather than a shoemaker. Both he and Sarah are said to have been born outside the county (Middlesex), while their children were all born within it. From parish records, we know that their daughter Sarah had been baptised at the parish church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, on 22nd July 1832. Seth Frederick was christened at the same church on 21st August 1836: the parish register describes his father as a cordwainer (i.e. shoemaker) and states that the family home is in Mile End Old Town. I’ve found a record of William Henry’s birth in the Civil Registration Birth Index for 1839, but I’ve yet to trace a record of his baptism.

1868 map Salmon Lane Limehouse

Limehouse, from Edward Weller’s 1868 Map of London (via

More children followed in the next decade: Sarah Jane in 1841, Eliza in 1844, Frederick junior in 1847 and Caroline in 1850. The 1851 census finds the family living at 5 Wilson’s Place, a little to the south of Parnham Street. From this record we learn for the first time that Frederick senior was born in ‘Dorsetshire’ and Sarah in Horsleydown, Surrey. Frederick is working as a shoemaker with Sarah alongside him as a shoebinder. We also learn that Sarah junior and Seth were born in Stepney, while the younger children were all born in Limehouse.

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Record of the marriage in 1853 of Frederick French and Sarah Elizabeth Bull (via

Frederick and Sarah’s eighth and youngest child, Charles, was born in 1852. The following year saw the publication of the most puzzling and intriguing record in the couple’s history. On 10th July 1853, at the parish church of All Saints, Poplar, Frederick French and Sarah Elizabeth Bull, both said to of ‘full age’, were married. How are we to explain this anomaly? I’ve always assumed that the couple had lived together without being married, but at some point after the births of their children, they decided to legitimise their status. The fact that they gave separate addresses – Frederick at No. 9 Mary Street, Sarah at No. 14 – suggests an attempt to pretend that they were not actually cohabiting. (Mary Street was off Salmon Lane, and not far from the Rhodeswell Road area where the family would eventually settle.)

However, new information shared by Gareth Sanger has suggested another possible explanation. Gareth believes that his ancestor Charles French, the youngest son of Frederick and Sarah, was brought up as a Catholic. If the Frenches were originally Catholic, then perhaps my 3rd great grandparents were originally married in a Catholic ceremony, and their Church of England wedding in 1853 was a way of regularising their status in the eyes of the Established Church at a time when Catholics still suffered from many social disadvantages?

The Bull family

Complicating the matter further is the suggestion, also from Gareth, that Frederick French’s wife Sarah Elizabeth Bull, was a Quaker. We learn from the record of her 1853 marriage to Frederick that Sarah was the daughter of John Bull, a cooper. She was born on 9th November 1813 in Horsleydown, a small parish close to the southern bank of the Thames, opposite the Tower of London, and baptised in the parish church of St John on 10th April 1814. Born in Southwark in 1778, Sarah’s father John was said to be the son of Job Bull, a butcher, and his wife Mary. On 21st August 1803, at the parish church of St Mary, Newington, in Southwark, John Bull married Sarah Jobber. John and Sarah Bull appear to have had eight children: John William (1805), Charles (1807), William (1808), Henry (1811), Sarah Elizabeth (1813), Seth (1816), George Frederick (1818) and Caroline (1820).


Portrait of Elizabeth Fry, by Charles Robert Leslie (via

I haven’t yet found any evidence of the Bull family’s Quaker affiliation. Gareth Sanger reports the curious story that Sarah Elizabeth Bull ‘was said to be a companion to Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer’ who apparently gave her two brass jugs which were passed down through the French family. How this activity aligned with her marriage to Frederick and raising eight children is not clear.

Some years ago, I was contacted by Annette Sutton from Queensland, Australia, who is a descendant of George Frederick Bull, who also went by the surname of Goodwin. According to Annette, the Bulls moved across the river to Whitechapel in 1813 or 1814 (soon after Sarah Elizabeth’s birth), where they lived in Gower’s Walk. By the time of the 1841 census, John Bull had died (probably in 1833) and his widow Sarah was living with their daughter Caroline, now married to Thomas Curtis, in Church Street, Stepney. Sarah Bull appears to have died in 1843.

George Bull alias Goodwin was transported to Australia in 1837 for the seemingly trivial offence of stealing a handkerchief.  Here’s an extract from the record of his trial at the Old Bailey:

GEORGE GOODWIN, alias Bull, was indicted for stealing, on the 26th of November 1 handkerchief, value 2s., the goods of James Hunter, from his person. 

JAMES HUNTER . About four o’clock in the afternoon of the 26th of November I was in the Commercial-road, and observed the prisoner and another walk as close after me as they could—I looked over my shoulder, and saw the prisoner and another walking fast—I then walked slowly till we came to Albion-street, where they turned down—I felt, and my hand kerchief was gone—I called the police, and pursued them—they parted—the prisoner was taken—one of them threw something into a passage of a door, but my handkerchief has not been found. 

WILLIAM CLAY (police-constable K278.) I was called about four o’clock—the prosecutor said, “I have lost my handkerchief, come with me”—the prisoner and another saw me coming, and the other one got into a house about six doors down Albion-street—the prisoner attempted to go in, and chuckedin a dark handkerchief, and when I came opposite the door it was shut—I pursued the prisoner, and he ran me down Albion street, till he came to a court in Duke-street—I then caught him, and brought him back—I found one handkerchief on his person, which I produce—I asked the gentleman if it was his—he said, “No “—this is a silk handkerchief—the house he threw the handkerchief into is a bad house—the girl he cohabits with lives there.

Prisoner. I was sent on an errand for my mother, and was standing at this house—the policeman came and took me—I never had any handkerchief but this, which is my mother’s. 

GUILTY. Aged 18.— Transported for Ten Years.

Marriages and deaths

In December 1856 Frederick and Sarah’s son Seth died, at the age of twenty-two. His mother, Sarah Elizabeth French née Bull, died in the following year – on 20th April 1857, at Copenhagen Terrace, just off Salmon Lane in Limehouse – and was buried at the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery. She was 43 years old.

The 1861 census finds her widower, Frederick, aged 51, living either in, or just off Rhodeswell Road in Limehouse. Of his children, five are still living at home: William, 21, Sarah, 28, Frederick, 14, Caroline, 11, and Charles, 9. The older three are working in the family trade: William and Frederick as shoe makers, like their father (and presumably with him), and Sarah as a shoe binder. Susan Jane, who was now 18 and working as a laundress, can be found visiting a family in Bethnal Green at the time of the census. Her sister Eliza, who was a year younger, was working as a cook for a family in Bromley-by-Bow.

Later in 1861, Frederick’s son William Henry married Katherine Marney, daughter of Stepney warehouseman William Marney, at St Thomas’ church in Stepney. In the following year, his older sister Sarah Caroline married John Scully, a Dublin-born smith and ‘hammer man’, who had been lodging with the French family at the time of the census. In 1867, Frederick French junior married Emily Hindley, the daughter of ship chandler William Hindley, at All Saints church in Poplar.

By the time of the 1871 census, only 19-year-old Charles French was left at home, still living and working with his 61-year old father Frederick, in Mary Street. The head of the household was now Frederick’s son-in-law John Scully, who lived in the same house with his wife Sarah and their three young children. Frederick French junior and his brother William, together with their young families, were sharing a house in nearby Rhodeswell Road, and presumably working together in the same shoemaking business.

The three younger French sisters were all working away from home as servants at this time: Caroline for a retired builder and his wife in Limehouse, Eliza with the family of a naval architect in Mile End Old Town, and Susan in the household of an auctioneer and estate agent in Hampstead. As far as I can tell, Caroline and Eliza would never marry, but later in 1871 Susan would marry colliery worker John Watoff Tomlinson, in his hometown of Seagrave, Leicestershire.

On 12th September 1872 Charles French married Charlotte Jane Kayley, daughter of blacksmith James Kayley, at All Saints church in Poplar. It’s believed that Charlotte’s family were Quakers.

In 1877 Eliza French died at the age of 32 and was buried in the City of London Cemetery. Her address was given as 64 Coutts Road, Stepney. That was the address (now apparently buried under Mile End Stadium) where her father Frederick, now 71 but still working as a shoemaker, could be found at the time of the 1881 census. As before, this address was also home to Frederick’s daughter Sarah Scully, her husband John, and their four children, including 16-year-old John junior, who was working as a shoemaker, almost certainly with his father-in-law. Another of Frederick’s children, Caroline, had moved back home and was working as a tailoress.

In 1881 Frederick French junior and his brother William and their families were still living in Rhodeswell Road and working together as shoemakers. Their sister Susan was with her husband John Tomlinson and their five children in Pentrich, Derbyshire. Meanwhile their younger brother Charles and his wife and young family had moved to Alexander Street in West Ham, where Charles had set up his own bootmaking business.

Frederick French senior died in 1887 at the age of 77 and was buried on 27th March at Manor Park Cemetery in East Ham, even though his last abode was said to be 59 Coutts Road in Mile End. Perhaps this was because the funeral arrangements were handled by Charles?

In future posts, I’ll explore the lives of Frederick French’s children.