Hertfordshire Genealogy

Answers to Questions


ABBOTT, Lewesford House, Hitchin, mid 19th Century

March 2003




Gerry Burke (gerry.burke @t btinternet.com) writes: I am very new to genealogy having started from scratch to seek the origins of this house only two months ago. I was fortunate to find your site early on and found it extremely informative.

I write because I needed to find data relating to a previous (c. 1850) occupant named Benjamin Abbott who ran a Quaker school in Hitchin. LDS found a christening record (1793) in Whitechapel and there the trail stopped. Local information suggested he had come to Hitchin from Lewes but no proof. Local historical records were very sparse.

Being a moderately experienced website searcher I used my favourite search engine (Google based) on the BBC site after limiting it to the UK and found immediately a Quaker website in Lewes which showed he had been head of their school there in the 1830's. Not just that, but that he was a friend of Michael Faraday the eminent scientist of the day. So a second search for "Benjamin Abbott" AND "Faraday" was right on target. It opened up the RI and IEEE archives and all of a sudden I had references to all the information I needed. This allowed me not only to be sure to be sure that the initial LDS search had revealed the right Abbott but also the full data on Abbott's life before he came to Hitchin. Subsequently I have used search engines several times on a name and this has opened a private family genealogical tree which has included the name I was looking for as a minor element of the search, thus confirming my initial datum.

I realise I will not be teaching you anything but thought this approach might be brought to the notice of others, like myself, new to the subject, who get stuck.

Although I now have a wealth of data on Abbott's family down to his children and grandchildren his own history stops with the 1851 census. The school closed in 1860 and the only other reference is in a biography of Michael Faraday  by a Dr Frank James that indicates Abbott died in 1870. Should there be any information on him between that decade years from any source I would welcome it as it leaves one small gap in my story of the occupants of Lewesford House.

Thank you again for your own pages which really do set a very clear course for newcomers.

You seem to have made very good progress - and have demonstrates how much can sometimes be achieved using www.google.co.uk or other search engines. Some thoughts on how you might continue:

The trade directories available to me merely reinforce what you say. The 1846 Post Office Directory does not list Benjamin - and the teachers listed as living in Tilehouse Street are Samuel Choat (music master) and  John Sugars (Academy master, Free Grammar School). The 1851 Post Office Directory for Hitchin shows Benjamin Abbott, classical boarding school, Tilehouse Street. The 1866 Post Office Directory does not mention Benjamin Abbott. It might be worth looking in the directories for 1855, 1859 and 1862.

The book Religion in Hertfordshire 1847-1851 includes Upton's survey of 1847 in which he records "A Town Missionary reader of the Scriptures is supported principally, though not wholly, by the Friends. He holds Sabbath Evening Service in the 'Ragged School' room." and "The 'Friends', who are numerous her, take much interest in Education." As you say that Benjamin Abbott was a Quaker it would be well worth looking to see what records exist of the Hitchin meeting - and at Friends House, Euston Road, London. The booklet My Ancestors were Quakers could be useful.

Reginald L. Hine wrote some important history books on Hitchin, the  most relevant of which are not readily available to me. It is worth checking them to see if there is any mention of Benjamin Abbott or contemporary references to the school or the Society of Friends.

As you understand that he died in 1870, it should be possible to locate his death certificate - which would at least confirm where he died. It seems quite possible that he also made a will - which could be an interesting document.

If there are any rate books, etc., surviving from this period you may be able to find out when he first and last is recorded as paying rates. Try HALS.

I would be interested to know what you find out.


June 2003

Hine's Worthies of Hitchin has a very limited index and it was by chance I found the following text and illustration in the chapter on William Dawson 1805-1889:

... Then in 1835, on the foundation of the Hitchin Mechanics' Institute, [William Dawson] was appointed librarian and instructor in the classes held for Grammar, Arithmetic, Geography, Geometry and Astronomy on five nights of the week. By day he taught as an assistant master at Bristow's school in Bancroft, at Issac Brown's Quaker Academy in the Triangle, at Benjamin Abbott's Quaker Academy in Tilehouse Street and in John Lingen Seager's school in Stevenage. For fifteen years (1845-1860) he was private tutor to the family of William Lucas, and read Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian and Spanish in many other Hitchin homes. ...

The sketch is one by Samuel Lucas (1805-1870), brother of William Lucas.

Gerry Burke (gerry.burke @t btinternet.com) provided a progress report on his work saying: My recent investigations have concentrated on Abbott's life before he became a schoolmaster. namely in the years from his birth in 1793, to around 1818 to 1823 when he set up his first school in Bermondsey. Although this is an Alice rabbit warren it has revealed a considerable amount of relevant information. The IEE archives hold some 50 original letters from Michael Faraday to Abbott acquired from Abbott's descendants. (but none from Abbott to Faraday seem to exist) These reveal that Faraday, who was relatively poorly educated compared with Abbott, considered him to be his mentor. Surprisingly Abbott, although employed as a City clerk, was giving lectures on subjects such as electrolysis to audiences of London philosophical societies in the period 1812 to 1820.  Faraday was occasionally in the audience and several of his letters refer to the content of Abbott's lecture with both encouraging and critical comment.

After 1823 some years of running Grange Road Academy, Bermondsey, Abbott took up the post of schoolmaster at Lewes Quaker (Friends) School.   He had married a (birthright) Quaker in 1831 in an Anglican ceremony and the Quaker fraternity disowned his wife because she had married a non-Quaker. However this situation changed later when Abbott was admitted to the Society of Friends in 1834 presumably before taking up his new post. From around 1845 to 1860 it is well documented that he was in charge of the 'School for Sons of Friends in Hitchin' namely Lewesford House Academy. The school is known to have closed by 1860 because there is sale documentation for the house which failed to reach the reserve price , It was occupied, by one of the Lucas family (Francis) but on being sold again nearly 40 years later in 1896 the vendor was 'the executors of Stafford Allen (A local Quaker of substance and a life long friend of Francis Lucas's father - this suggests Francis Lucas leased the house and one can guess so did Abbott and the house was bought by Allen to be the premises of a Quaker school. This is stretching things but as Abbott, a City clerk is unlikely to have around 2000 to purchase the premises in 1845 it is not far fetched - but conjecture nevertheless).

There is no recorded information on Abbott's later life until he published an obituary on Faraday's early life in the Friends Quarterly examiner in 1868, the year after Faraday's death, and his own recorded death in December 1870.  His son, Robert, (but recorded in the Lewes Quaker Record of Births as Benjamin Aston Abbott and also as such in the 1851 census of Hitchin) is also missing from any record I have searched other than his death in 1821 recorded in one of Faraday's  letters expressing his sympathy to Benjamin Abbott. Other earlier records suggest Robert Abbott was travelling abroad but details are lacking. He died after completing one such journey by sea on returning home in 1821. Benjamin Abbott had three daughters, two were spinsters when they died, and the married daughters family donated/sold the Faraday letters to the IEE. Other than this bald data no further information is available except one died in Lewes and the other in Hitchin after both lived for some years in the home of the married daughter.

I therefore have a black hole on the male elements of the Abbott family. I have been in contact with the equivalent to HALS in Bermondsey as it is likely Benjamin returned to his roots after Lewesford House Academy closed. But I await any response from the Local Studies group there.

I also have another black hole, namely, the occupants of the Hitchin house from 1798 to 1845. The vicar of Great Offley, the Rev. Lynch Salusbury, apparently built it. But he was from a long line of Salusbury clerics in the Anglican Church, notably in N Wales. He lived in Offley Place, an imposing local building and it is not reasonable therefore to think he never occupied Lewesford House. One has to conjecture if it was either built for a relative or as a commercial proposition. The local museum suggested in 1977 that an early owner (1817) was one Daniel Cotton and later (1844) one William Nash but confirmation of this has not yet been possible. I shall be seeking information from HALS on Tithe records and the like in the coming weeks in an attempt to fill out this period. In addition I hope to visit Friends House in London to find further details on Abbott family from their records.

Finally I have started to write up my eventual 'History' which will be much broader based than I imagined when I started. I do not see a completion date before the year is out - but I will aim for that! I therefore cannot see myself repeating another progress report before the summer is out.

You appear to have made very good progress in quite a short time. Your speculation about Abbott's finances and renting the property may be correct but you must be careful. My own great-grandfather, Jacob Reynolds, was the son of someone who may have lost the family farm by gambling, and possibly drinking. Jacob worked for a time in his Uncle's firm in Norfolk and later in London. In the early 1860's two deaths, with associated legacies, brought in enough money for him to take on the tenancy of a 200 acre farm in Sandridge.

One source you may find useful for tracing the early occupiers of the house is the Land Tax. In towns this is normally ordered along the roads, in the same order from year to year. The information given is the owner's name (hopefully the Rev Lynch Salusbury), the occupier, and the tax - based on a valuation, but usually not the address. As valuation does not change from year to year (unless properties merge or are subdivided) and most properties do not change their owners and occupiers very often, it is sometimes possible to identify a change because its valuation, and the details of its neighbours have not changed. I have used this approach to identify changes in occupiers of farms in a large village - which was complicated because (a) the names were in alphabetical order so the property moved in the list when the occupier changed (b) nearly all the farms had the same owner, and (3) occasionally fields were transferred from one farm to another. However with a little patience quite a lot can be gleaned from superficially unpromising material. 

If you can add to the information given above tell me.