What’s in a name?

A few notes on the Mitchell/Witchell family

St Mary the Virgin, Wotton

The church of St Mary the Virgin, Wotton under Edge

Among my ancestors are George Mitchell and his son, Henry who both lived in Bath and Bristol at various times, yet hailed from south Gloucestershire. On Census returns Henry gave his place of birth as either Wotton under Edge or Uley whereas George always stated Wotton. Evidence as to the birth or baptism of Henry (around 1819) has proved elusive, and  there is no record of a George Mitchell  (about 1795) being baptised in Wotton either. Other descendants of this family have indicated that George might be the George Witchell, son of  John and Mary who was baptised in 1803; at first this seemed doubtful to me as the ages that George gives in the Census don’t fit. However, on examining the parish records, which have recently become available online it now appears to be the case. Against the baptismal record dated February 23rd 1803 the entry gives a birthdate of May 3rd 1794, which exactly fits  the Census ages.

1816 marriage George Mitchell Uley copy

I have only one example of George’s signature, on the occasion of his marriage to Harriet Moore at Uley in 1816, and it clearly shows his surname as Mitchell. However a witness to that marriage was George’s sister, Lavinia and her signature is ambiguous; it could read either Mitchell or Witchell, and at her own wedding in 1820 (with the identical signature) the incumbent has certainly described her as Lavinia Witchell. To complicate matters, at the baptism of George and Harriet’s eldest child, Elizabeth the following year, the name has reverted to Witchell. Was there a conscious changing of spelling, I wonder? It is of interest that George’s son Henry signs Mitchell on his marriage certificate but I am told that when he witnessed his son-in-law’s will in 1883 the signature reads Henry Witchell.

The parish registers of Wotton under Edge are, in the main, well kept and full; there are one or two missing years, but these can often be filled using the Bishop’s Transcripts. The later years of the Commonwealth are patchy, as is often the case, with obvious gaps and poor script at times. The Witchell family and its connections inhabited the town for many centuries so it is possible to take them back almost as far as the beginning of the registers in 1571. My reconstruction of the line is to be found on my complete tree on Heredis and commences with a William Witchell whose birth would appear to be c1590 (as yet not found). Of interest are the two Williams who were the son and grandson of this individual.

We know a little more about William Witchell (1621-1683) than the others of the family as he and his widow both left wills. It is quite likely that most of the family were involved in the cloth trade in one way or another, as this was the dominant industry in Wotton. William, in his will states that he was a clothier, that is a trader in the material rather than being involved in the process of woollen weaving, treating or dying. Sadly his will does not have an inventory of his possessions, and after the usual cash bequests to his children and grandchildren he left everything to his widow. The probate document records his estate as being in value £96 6s 4d. He had married Jane Brunkett, the daughter of Edward Brunkett, a tailor (whose will also exists) in 1646, and the will of Jane (who died in 1694) also survives, together with an inventory. The Witchell household was not a substantial one, although much (including property) may have already been passed on to the children. What remains is obviously the personal property of Jane and includes a flock bed and its appurtenances, a table board and a chest and two coffers; also assorted brass iron and pewter, the whole coming to about £7 in value. In addition she has £3 5s worth of clothes and £200 in ready money. So the family was fairly prosperous. In both wills sons are given nominal sums (£10 each from each parent) and were expected to make their own way in the world; the bulk of the cash and belongings was left, as was normal, to the daughters, especially unmarried daughters. The sons may have inherited business interest of course.

The other figure worth mentioning is William and Jane’s eldest son, another William. He is certainly a man of mystery. He can be identified firstly from his parents’ wills, and secondly as the father of various children he had baptised at St Marys. The names of his children tie in with the names in William senior and Jane’s wills when referring to their grandchildren. However, I can find no baptism for him, no marriage and no burial in Wotton under Edge. He was most likely born in the early 1650s when the registers are a problem, and he could well have married outside the parish, but his missing burial is odd. He was still alive in 1704 when a grandson of his is buried, and the father of the child is referred to as “William Witchell jnr.”. As no marriage has been found for him, and the register at this time does not record mother’s names at baptism, we do not know the name of his wife, although it is likely she is the “Anne, wife of William Witchell” who was buried in 1710; William junior had a wife Anne, but the couple were to have more children after this date, so it cannot be her. There is a burial of a William Witchell in 1721, but if this is him, there is no burial apparent for William junior.


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Stephen Bumstead

I'm retired and live in Devon, England. I have been researching my family for forty years and am also the OPC (online Parish Clerk) for Chewton Mendip in Somerset. I have helped transcribe registers for FreeReg and wills for Oxfordshire FHS.

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