Historical Gossip from a Hertfordshire Village
William Branch Johnson
William Branch Johnson was a talented local historian and this book contains an informative selection of short articles relating to the history of Welwyn.
One of Dr Edward Young's incidental gifts to historians of Welwyn is his allusion to the earliest known post office in the village. Writing from Barnet in 1740, he declared: "I dare not write from Welwyn, for the Mistress of the Post there is a fine lady and a great prier into secrets."
Where exactly did this fine lady pry into secrets?
From the first establishment of a regular postal service a century and a half before, the Government had made use of reputable inns as stages at which post boys could change horses or lodge the night with their bags in security. Gradually these inns became themselves, first unofficial, then official, centres of letter collection. In the Welwyn of 1740 three inns in the middle of the village were eligible for this service - the Swan (now Wellington), White Hart and Rose and Crown. But the licensee of the Swan was Thomas Bell, of the White Hart William Persey. At the Rose and Crown Henry Ward had died in 1739, leaving his widow to carry on in his place. The Widow Ward was, in fact, the only female licensee in the whole parish. In the next year, however, she had gone, her place being taken behind the bar by Richard Baker, who had been owner of the house for twenty years.
In short, if Young had written his letter a year later, when all Welwyn licensees were males, the situation of the post office would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, to determine. The great prier into secrets was pretty clearly Widow Ward of the Rose and Crown.
At that time the Rose and Crown was a century old in its building and more than a century in the age of its licence; it had been a going concern in 1633 when it changed ownership. In Widow Ward's day a signpost stood in front, facing High Street - it had possibly been erected a few years before, when there are documentary suggestions of an enlargement of the premises. Behind it stood - and still stands a fine red brick barn, with stabling for seventeen or more horses in 1756 but stated in some sale particulars of 1841 to have stabling for 30 horses. More recent interest may attach to the house as one of the early acquisitions of the Home Counties Public House Trust, which later developed into Trust Houses Ltd. ... ...
Recent outcrops of building on the Danesbury estate recall ancient memories of this formerly attractive site, probably Welwyn's first settlement area, where the Belgae lived before the coming of Caesar in 55 and 54 B.C. - it may be that a steep hollow alongside the track leading upwards from the Codicote road is part of the boundary ditch of the original Welwyn. But after the Belgae the hilltop remained for centuries unbuilt on.
In 1775 there came to the village the wife of Captain the Hon. Henry St John, R.N., son of the tenth Baron St John of Bletsoe, Bedfordshire, who shortly afterwards built herself a large house here. Before marriage she had been Mary Schuyler of Albany, New York; one of the historic houses of Albany, now a museum, is the Schuyler mansion built by her cousin, Philip, about 1760. In the War of Independence, which began in 1775, Philip, like other Schuylers, fought on the American side; he rose to be a Major General, member of the Confederacy Congress and father-in-law to one of George Washington's leading ministers. But his cousin, Mary, had married into the British Navy, one of her brothers (dead before the war opened) had been in the British Army, and on its outbreak a younger brother was taken to England by Captain St John and put into the British Navy. Thus it was that family allegiances were strained or broken during that tragic struggle.
Mary St John called the mansion she built in Welwyn St John Lodge. From a drawing made in the I790s and now in the County Record Office it appeared not unlike the Danesbury of today. In 1780, only two years after its completion, her husband was killed while fighting the French off Guardeloupe and six years later still Mary St John herself died.
Captain St John's will left "all my messuages lands and tenements in either America or England" in trust for Mary during her life and after her death to their son, Henry. Young Henry may well have been a minor at this time - he did not die until 1834. At any rate, after his mother's death St John Lodge was occupied not by him but by a member of his father's family, Frances StJohn, who died there in 1794. It was during her occupation that a series of entries in a surviving score book of the Swan, now the Wellington, records visits by Lord St John, who hired horses or chaises to Bedford, Shefford, Hitchin or Barnet and on one occasion ate a snack at the Swan, of which the food cost 2s. and the drink 3s.
Frances St John appears to have been not merely the occupier but also the owner of the mansion. At her death she bequeathed it to Thomas Forsyth of Marylebone, London, in trust to sell, paying legacies out of the proceeds.
To explain its next owner we must re-cross the Atlantic, to the American colonies of the seventeenth century, when there settled in Albany a Dutchman, Philip Schuyler, and his brothers. In descent from one of phi lip's brothers came Mary St John; but Catalynje Schuyler, great-granddaughter of another of his brothers, Johannis, married an American of German descent, Cornelius Cuyler, a prominent business man and Mayor of Albany. Nor was this the only union of the two families, since several previous Schuylers had married Cuylers and more were to do so later. The son of Catalynje and Cornelius - who was another Cornelius - entered the British Army, distinguished himself in various fields, became a Major General and in 1814 was created Baronet. In the War of Independence other Cuylers fought in the American army.
The two St John owners of St John Lodge had been content with the mansion itself and a small area of surrounding land in Welwyn and Codicote. In the absence of Welwyn parish Vestry records of that period, the first arrival of General Cuyler can be traced in the rate lists of Codicote in 1795 - "Mr Chyler for St Jolms place." The spelling of his name by a rustic parish officer possibly gives a clue to its pronunciation. In the following year we read: "Mr Chyler for land" and in the court rolls of Welwyn's two manors, the Rectory and Mardley, we can follow his steady acquisition of one bit of ground after another in the creation of a modest, if more adequate, estate. In Codicote, however, most of his acquisitions lay in the small manor of Sissivernes, of which no records survive. In all, he collected a total of rather over 500 acres, which remained intact until 1919.
General Cuyler's wife was Ann, daughter of Major Richard Grant, though I have not been able to trace her story; she died in 1816. There was, however, another Mrs Cuyler, described in the Memoirs of an East India Company's servant, William Hickey, as "a great jack whore, without pretensions to manners or beauty of face or person and only an under strapper at one of the London theatres," who about 1780 lived under the protection of a Mr Metcalfe in Calcutta. When the General became a Baronet the lady, if she was still alive, may well have been an embarrassment to him; yet who would expect moral niceties from most of England's Indian colonisers 1
After his death in 1819 - "surrounded by his sorrowing children, having taught them by his example in what peace a Christian could die" - he left mansion and estate to his eldest son, Charles, also an army officer. A second son became a Colonel in the Bengal Staff Corps and a third son, Frederick, was a parson. In 1824 Charles disposed of both mansion and estate to the sitting tenant, William Blake, himself retiring to Cheshire. It was Blake, banker and water colourist (a pupil, I believe, of J. M. W. Turner), who largely remodelled the mansion and renamed it Danesbury, under the then current but now discredited belief that its hill was the site of a great Danish defeat in the year 1002.
Thus for good and all Danesbury passed out of American hands. But there is one further link with America in Welwyn. A close friend of the Cuyler family was Isaac Low, of Fitzroy Square, London, whose wife, Margaret, is buried in Welwyn Church. On a tablet to her he is described as "formerly of New York, an American loyalist whose large possessions were in consequence confiscated."
At the time this page was last updated a second hand copy was available online
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