Elizabeth GREENHILL, Abbots Langley, 1615-1679

September, 2003



Abbots Langley


Thomas Greenhill (Surgeon)

Doug Greenhill (genealogist @t greenhill39.com) of  Houston, Texas, USA, said  Family folklore has it that my family is descended from the seventh son and 39th child of Elizabeth and William Greenhill. Early on in my research I came upon the fact that Thomas William Greenhill b 1669 was the seventh son and 39th child of Elizabeth from a book called Genealogical Gleanings in England. If I have all my research right I am 90 years away from connecting my family tree with Thomas.  I am waiting on a Marriage Certificate to tell me more about the marriage between Thomas Greenhill and Mary How in Little Gaddesden that took place 27 Nov, 1757.

You have a book featured called Hertfordshire Yesterdays that appears to have a  whole chapter on Elizabeth Greenhill, the mother of 39 children. I am wondering if you can tell me more about that chapter. I would be interested in Genealogical and background info. I have seen some books say that her parentage is unknown and in question although the Gleanings book lists her maiden name as Dwight. Obviously I am most interested in the Descendents of Elizabeth.

Before I was carefully documenting my sources I came across this bit of information but I have lost the source. - Descendants of William ( b: Bef. 1610 d: 1668) and Elizabeth Greenhill (b: Abt. 1615 m: 1631 d: 1679)

The book contains 5 pages describing Elizabeth, including an alleged portrait. It includes the text of a letter from Thomas Greenhill in 1798  claiming to be the 7th son and 39th child, and other information. You should have no difficulty in finding a second hand copy if you are interested. 

I think we need to be careful - I hope you don't mind if I am a bit controversial. 

1)    My first reaction is not to believe that she had 39 live births on biological grounds. I am too lazy to brush up my statistics but 7 sons and 32 daughters (when you would have expected approximately equal numbers) seems to make the story even more unlikely.

2)    The book Hertfordshire Yesterdays  says "Unfortunately, for the years when her children were baptised the Abbot's Langley parish registers are missing."  In contrast the Abbots Langley Local History Society web site says: 

"In fact, the Parish Registers are of uncommon antiquity and completeness, beginning in the year 1538, as ordered by Henry VIII. The early registers are very beautifully written on parchment. The records are now housed in the County Archives at County Hall, Hertford."

The HALS listings of the registers it hold shows a gap between 1653 and 1680, suggesting that one volume (which partly overlaps with the relevant dates) is missing. However it also has the Bishops Transcripts between 1570 and 1867. I have not looked at the registers but I am sure that if there was any evidence from the registers of ANY series of annual baptisms or burials (even if they didn't total 39) this evidence would have been picked up by someone researching the story in the last 150 years. 

Maybe the confusion about the registers arises because because the Gazette web page mentioning Elizabeth states that "all the church’s records were destroyed in a devastating blaze in 1969" - but it would seem that the registers were already at HALS and therefore safe.

3)    So what was the Greenhill connection with Abbots Langley? I have therefore looked in some other books to see what they say, although where they agree they may have copied each other. The books examined include the county histories by Chauncy (1700), Salmon (1728), Clutterbuck (1815) and Cussans (1881). Summarising:

The first reference I found was that Francis Combe married Anne, daughter of Thomas Greenhill, and held the manor of Abbots Langley. He died in 1641. Salmon (in 1728) quotes extensively from the monument. 

There is some disagreement about when the Greenhill family first held the manor but in 1675, and possibility quite a bit earlier the manor was leased to Thomas and William Greenhill, and Thomas has a son Henry. There arms, as given by Chauncy (writing in 1700) was "Vert, two bars argent, in chief a leopard proper". The appear to have still been connected with the manor until the 19th century. However there are also references to London (as it then would this would have excluded most of Middlesex) and Harrow, Middlesex

Clutterbuck (1815) refers to Henry Greenhill of Green Hill, Harrow, Middlesex, his son William and grandson William who married Elizabeth, daughter of William White of London. William and Elizabeth had several sons and daughters (no mention of 39!) and their son Henry sold the manor in 1715. 

There is, of course, no need to live in a manor to own (or lease) it, and while the "modern" accounts refer to Abbots Langley, none present definite evidence that all (or any ) of the children were actually born there.

4) Apart from the quoted 1698 letter (which itself was nearly 50 years after the event, and whose current location is not stated) the earliest published account mentioning the huge family I have found in a Hertfordshire history  is Cussans (1881). Hertfordshire Yesterdays  gives at its earliest dated source an item in Notes & Queries for 1878. She is not mentioned in Memoirs of Remarkable Characters which is a book that belonged to my gt-gt-gt-gt-grandfather that was published in 1822. However I am sure that her "freak" story was one which would have been commonly reported in such books in the 19th century and earlier. Such stories often acquired imaginative additional detail in the telling and retelling - see The Wicked Lady of Markyate Cell - and it is difficult to know what is true.

5) Finally a couple of points on your own research. In terms of the family names you quote I am suspicious of a 17th century Hertfordshire family which includes both a William and a Thomas William - as giving children two Christian names at that date was virtually unknown in the county at that date. In addition having two living sons with the same name is also unlikely.

The second point is that you may not be descended from Elizabeth, but from a cousin branch. See The Inheritance of Single Christian Names and Right Name, Wrong Body for why you need to be careful.

December, 2003

Doug Greenhill (genealogist @t greenhill39.com) reports: I have found your website to be very informative and have been slow in letting you know my appreciation. I purchased both Hertfordshire Yesterdays by Frank Ballin and Abbots Langley by S.G. Thicknesse based on comments from your website. Both were easy to find on the used book market.

In this case you were lucky - a lot depends on how many were published, and how long ago - I recently acquired some books which I had been looking for for years.

I have not yet chased down my Elizabeth Greenhill with her alleged 39 children but I did want to add that the Abbots Langley book mentions a gap in the church records running from 1653 to 1680. The exact years I need for documentation. Church records so the book says for 1653 and 1680 are on facing pages. Either the book was not in use during that time or the pages were carefully cut out of the bound volume. The Abbots Langley book suggests that records and or baptisms were discontinued at Abbots Langley when Cromwell came into power. For twenty years after 1680 the church records list a high number of adult baptisms.

There was disruptions in the registers of many parishes during the period of the Commonwealth, but usually they return to normal after 1660. In some cases records may have been kept elsewhere and may have been lost. In the case of Abbots Langley there were many changes at the church. Clutterbuck lists the vicars and I extract the following:

John King [during the Commonwealth]

Thomas Wright, clk. on 29th January 1662 upon the no-conformity of John King.

Benjamin Lovell, M.A. on 4th February 1663, upon the death of Thomas Wright

Nathan Nicolls, clk. on 7th December 1664, upon the resignation of Benjamin Lovell

Richard Ward, M.A. on 25th February 1679, upon the death of Nathan Nicolls.

Clearly there was a potential for a lack of continuity over the period of the missing register entries - and one of the vicars after 1660 may have started a new register which was lost on the death of Nathan Nicholls. As Lady Day (March 25th) was New Years Day at this period, Richard Ward would only have been in post a month before 1680 started - and perhaps he could not find his predecessor's baptism records. He therefore added his baptisms to an old register, starting on the next free page. I mentioned the Bishops Transcripts earlier, and it may well be that they exist for this period - you will have to ask HALS.

The other item I need to mention was that between my original E mail and your posting you list the William Greenhill from my Elizabeth being married to Mary Combe. I think the William married to Mary Combe had to be earlier in time than any William born to Elizabeth. Uncle or Cousin maybe.

In a case like this it is possible to waste a lot of time discussing secondary records, which may be unreliable, and it is important to find out what contemporary records exist, and what they say. Cussans reports that in 1641 Francis Coombe left the Manor of Abbots Langley to Sidney College, Cambridge, and Trinity College, Oxford. Under the will the Greenhill family had been leasing the property for over 200 years at a reduced rent - and a court case on 24th March 1869 judged that the Greenhill claim was invalid.

I have no further information on the case, but the results may have been reported in The Times - a daily newspaper which is available on microfilm in many major libraries worldwide. (There is also an index, available on CD). However it is possible that the Greenhills had used a faulty or forged genealogy to establish their claim. Maybe the story about Elizabeth's 39 children emerged at this time because, as mentioned earlier, the earliest dated public report of this story located so far was in 1878, several years after the trial. Was the story of the 39 children based on evidence (discredited by the court?) that was presented in the dispute? Did the Greenhill family try to promote the story to strengthen their claim? Of course this is speculation but means one must be very careful of jumping to conclusions based on history books rather than original surviving documents.

July 2010

Following the news on the July Blog that this page had been accessed 48 times in one month from the Wikipedia page for Thomas Greenhill, Doug Greenhill (genealogist @t greenhill39.com) wrote updating his email address, saying

I was surprised to see that the Elizabeth Greenhill web page was one of your top linked pages, even if it might have been a classroom project. I am still 90 years away from connecting my Greenhill line to that of Thomas Greenhill, 39th child of Elizabeth Greenhill. I have not had any success at ferreting out Thomas Greenhill's descendants or in following my own line further back than 1780. 

Most documentation says that Thomas Greenhill was born in 1669 and that his mother Elizabeth died in 1679. Then the trail jumps to King Street Bloomsbury in 1700's. My own family line begins with William Greenhill marrying Sally Tompson in 1805 in Hemel Hempstead
(see TOMPSON, Hemel Hempstead, 1750-1850). Even that is suspicious as the marriage license has William Greenhill's mark and Sally Tompson's signature. William Greenhill's occupation is listed as that of a Cooper. The cooper occupation can then be followed into the Census records where the next generation can be followed.  William Greenhill is also listed on your TOMPSON name page. I have a number of speculative hints at information in the gap but nothing solid.

One warning - "trying to close the gap"  can waste a lot of time as in many cases people struggle for years when there is no direct connection.  This might be because the link is via cousins, There is nothing suspicious about William Greenhill being unable to sign his name - most people (including some of quite high status) could not read or write. Even some of the clerks who recorded some of the documents were not very skilful and might spell the same word in several different ways on the same page. I did a quick check of some 18th century transcript relating to Hertfordshire (the Hertfordshjire Militia Ballot Lists) and found the following spelling variants of people who we might now record as Greenhill:

Gounell, Greenel, Greenell, Greenhil, Greenhill, Greeniell, Greenile, Greening, Greenill, Greinhill, Grenel, Grenhill, Grennell, Grinel, Grinell, Grinnell, Gronell, Grunel, Grunell, Grunhill, Grunill, Grunnell, Gurnel

If you are suspicious of William being illiterate "because you think that all descendant of Thomas Greenhill should be able to read or write" you may well be missing something.

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