Another alias, alas

Hailey Chapel copy

 

In researching family history one continuously comes across the problem of “how much proof do I need” to be sure one is making the correct connections and relationships. This is particularly true the further one delves back when the only source of information are often parish registers with perhaps the occasional will or other document to help. Even the registers cannot be relied upon as they were frequently copied up once a year from notebooks (if you’re lucky) or even scaps of paper notes made by a clerk or sexton. There are many omissions and mistakes in them which can rarely be checked. All these problems lead to an increasing number of “brick walls’ where one may have an inkling as to the truth, but no real proof. Which brings me to the Godfrey family of Hailey, near Witney in Oxfordshire.

My ancestor, Edward Flexney married Mary Godfrey at St Marys, Witney on March 12, 1815. They had a family of ten children and, following Edward’s death in 1853, several of them moved to Bristol where Mary is also found in 1861; she died in 1878 and was buried at St Mary Redcliffe. Mary was the illegitimate daughter of Merlin Godfrey and her baptism is recorded at Witney in August 1796. We can be confident that this is correct baptism as Mary named her eldest daughter Merlin and the name is used by other members of her family. It is a rare name, occurring just a few times in the 17th century in Oxfordshire and more often in the 18th. It is variously spelt Marlin, Merlin or Marlyn and is probably a pet-form or diminutive of Mary; it is the forerunner to the more recent Marilyn.

Merlin was the daughter of William Godfrey of Hailey and baptised at the chapel of St John in Hailey on June 25th 1780. This record and the baptism of her daughter Mary are the only records I can find of Merlin. So far I have not been able to discover a marriage or a burial for her. It is with her father, William Godfrey that we start to encounter problems. Several children are baptised in Hailey or Witney to a William and Elizabeth Godfrey and the confusion with names begins with what appears to be their eldest son who was baptised as John-Godfery son of William and Elizabeth Smith of Hailey. There is also presumably an elder sister, Tabitha baptised the previous year as Tabitha Smith. This led me to a marriage on August 13 1776 between Elizabeth Leveridge and William Smith alias Godfery at St Marys, Witney. William signed the register as William Smith. All their other children were baptised as either Godfrey, Smith Godfrey or some form indicating an alternative name of either Smith or Godfrey. Not finding any earlier form of the alias or double-barrelled name, and there being several possible baptisms for either a William Smith or a William Godfrey I let my research lapse for many years.

Making contact recently with someone else looking at this family, I resumed my efforts in trying to take this line further back and finding out why the alias might have come into use. Life has been made a little easier in recent years as the parish registers and wills for Oxfordshire have now come online. Searching the latter for Godfreys and Smiths I came across the will of John Godfrey, yeoman of Hailey who died in October 1782 (for a transcription see here). In it he leaves some cash bequests to various nephews and nieces, mostly named Godfrey but the bulk of his estate is left to two brothers who are rather uniquely described as “Thomas the son of Ann Harris (heretofore Ann Smith Spinster) which she had before her Intermarriage with her present Husband John Harris the younger of Hailey aforesaid Yeoman” and “William the Son of the said Ann Harris which she likewise had before her Intermarriage with her said Husband the said John Harris”. William was to receive all John’s property, buildings and land in Hailey as well as all his personal possessions and money, whereas Thomas was to be paid £500 within one year of John’s death. This sum was to come from the estate and William was appointed sole executor. What does this lead us to conclude? To begin, William the executor at probate, swore an oath as “William Harris”, but it may be that was what was required owing to the wording of the will, which gives neither brother a surname. Could this therefore be William Smith alias Godfrey; if so it would provide an obvious solution to the problems with his surname.

From here on we are in the area of conjecture, but there are other pointers that may help. There is will of a Thomas Smith Godfrey made in 1809 and proved at London (in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury {PCC} – the highest probate court in England) on June 10th 1820 (for transcription see here).Thomas looks a good fit for the man mentioned in the will of John Godfrey. He was a butcher of Witney and the reason for the probate being granted at the PCC rather than Oxford was that he held government securities, Consols, which were deemed to “reside” in London; should an estate hold property in more than one diocese, probate could only be granted in the higher court. This Thomas left his estate to his wife, Elizabeth and son Daniel, but with the proviso that if both predeceased him it should go to his “reputed brother William Smith Godfrey of Woodgreen near Witney”, and failing that to William’s children. So it would appear even more likely that we are looking at the the two sons of Anne Smith/Harris named in John Godfrey’s will as the surnames fit the situation – the use of an alias can often indicate illegitimacy – and Woodgreen in Witney was at the time in the parish of Hailey rather than Witney itself, thus tying in with the location of John Godfrey’s farm.

In due course research into the manorial records of Hailey may help to provide further information and possibly proof of all these supposed connections, but to summarise, I will lay out what I consider the most likely narrative to explain the history of the Smith Godfrey family:

Baptism William Smith 1757

Baptismal record of William Smith in 1757

John Godfrey, the son of Daniel Godfrey of Hailey was born in 1707 and no record of his marrying exists. At some point he contracted a relationship with Anne Smith also of Hailey resulting in the birth of three children, William baptised 1757, Mary 1763 and Thomas 1765. The first two are shown in the register as “base born” but I think Thomas was the child baptised in June 1765 as Thomas Harris, the son of John and Anne. This marriage is the one referred to in the will of John Godfrey and took place in April 1765. My belief is that Thomas had already been born before the marriage but was baptised shortly afterwards as John Harris’ child. What the latter thought of this one can surmise, but it was not uncommon for men to marry a wife who was pregnant by another man and perhaps there was some financial inducement by John Godfrey; John Harris was a labourer when he married Anne Smith but is later described as a yeoman. I think both brothers would have normally been referred to as Smith (or possibly Harris in Thomas’ case) and nothing would have changed until possibly the point when William found out about his origins and was told he would inherit John Godfrey’s estate. This may have been at any time before John’s death in 1782, but I’m inclined to think it was in the late 1770s and was the cause of William beginning increasingly to use the Godfrey name. I can find no positive trace of Mary, the sister of William and Thomas. She may be the Mary Smith Godfrey buried at Hailey in 1796, but then it would be unusual for her not to be mentioned in John Godfrey’ will – unless of course she was not John’s daughter after all.

William Godfrey and his wife Elizabeth had a large family, twelve children in all including Merlin, and it may be that his social position declined in time. He looks likely to be the William Godfrey who was buried in Hailey in 1821 where he is described as a labourer. Possibly he was not a good farmer, or that the £500 he had to pay his brother in 1783 saddled the farm with debts it could not service. Agricultural depression following the Napoleonic Wars would not have helped. Thomas however prospered. There is no knowing what his estate was valued at in 1820 when he died, but it sounds substantial and his only son, Daniel went on to become a very prosperous solicitor.

 

Note: transcriptions of the wills of John Godfrey and Thomas Smith Godfrey are now  available on the Oxfordshire FHS site of transcribed wills (here) along with those of the ancestors of John Godfrey.

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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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