Holywell Priory

As you may have seen in one of my previous blogs, I have registered a One-Place Study for King John’s Court, Holywell Lane, Shoreditch.  My Monksfield ancestors resided at the address in the early 1800s, and the local area was home to my family for many generations.  Holywell Lane has a fascinating history, some of which I detail in my previous article; but today I would like to tell you about Holywell Priory, which stood on the site from the early-mid 12th Century (the exact date being cause of contentious debate between historians), until it’s Dissolution on 10th October 1539.

Holywell Priory was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and became home to an order of Augustinian nuns. A complete record of the Prioresses of Holywell is not yet established, but the Survey of London: Volume 8, Shoreditch, The Augustinian Priory of St. John the Baptist, Holywell,1 presents the following list, created from various sources:

  • Magdalena, circa 1185 or circa 1210
  • Clementia, 1193 – 1203
  • Maud, 1224
  • Agnes, 1239 – 1240
  • Juliana, 1248 – 1261
  • Benigna, ?
  • Christina of Kent, 1272 – 1283
  • Alice, 1293
  • Albreda, circa 1320
  • Lucy of Colney, 1328 – 1330
  • Mary of Stortford, 1330 – 1334
  • Theophania, 1336
  • Elizabeth Montacute, 1340 – 1357
  • Ellen, 1362 – 1363
  • Isabella Norton, 1387 – 1392
  • Edith Griffith, 1400 – 1409
  • Clementia, 1440 – 1444
  • Joan Sevenok, 1462
  • Elizabeth Prudde, 1475
  • Joan Lynde, 1515 – 1534(?)
  • (Clemencia?)
  • Sybil Newdegate, 1535 – 1539

(more about these Prioresses in a future blog)

Due to the lack of extant records, there are many disparities among historical texts regarding the origins of Holywell Priory, but it is largely accepted that the founder was Robert Fitz Generan (or Gelran) the second known holder of the prebend of Holywell or Finsbury in St. Paul’s Cathedral, who ‘… gave the nuns the site for their monastery, being the ‘moor’ in which the spring called Haliwell rose; it was reckoned to contain 3 acres, and a rent of 12d. a year was payable for it.’.2

The priory played an integral role in the community, not least by caring for the poor, as we can learn from historian John Stow. Following the Great Fire of London, the ecclesiastical historian and biographer John Strype published a new, expanded version of John Stow’s Elizabethan classic A Survey of London, describing the dramatically transformed landscape of the capital. In a chapter devoted to the Life of John Stow, Strype tells of Stow’s resentment of a property developer who converted some almshouses once owned by the priory, ‘Where was a Place, called Rotten-Row, consisting of small Houses with Gardens; which belonged to the Priory of Haliwel: Who placed there a great many Poor that dwelt there freely, only paying a Peny as an Acknowledgment to him at Christmas; who then feasted them all at the Priory with good Cheer. Afterwards, when that Priory was dissolved, these Houses, with the rest of the Revenues, were swallowed up; and came at length into the Hands of one Russel: who bought them a good Penyworth; and new builded them. And now was the Case quite altered; and there, where Charity and Relief was exercised, now became a Place of Rigor and Covetousness. For this Man made his Bargains so hardly with his Carpenters, Bricklayers and other Workmen, that they were undone by it: and then so rented these Buildings, and took such large Fines of the Tenants, that it came to near as much as the Houses cost him. And yet the Place was now from Rotten-Row, called Russel-Row, in Honour of his Name; as Stow smartly reproacheth him.3

As was common practice during the medieval and early modern period, in order to absolve your soul of sin and secure your place in heaven, you would make bequests in your will to gift property to the Church upon your decease. Royal charters reveal the priory inherited lands across the south east of England, within the counties of Bedfordshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Cambridgeshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk and the City of London. By the time of the Dissolution, the priory had scattered holdings in no less than 40 city parishes.

It was rather interesting to learn that for five years after the priory was dissolved, the nuns were permitted to continue living in a portion of the broken estate, and were in receipt of pensions.  In 1544 however, King Henry VIII granted the nun’s share of the precinct to Henry Webb, gentleman usher to Queen Catherine (Parr). The site was demolished over time to make way for London’s rapidly growing population, and by the end of the 1700s, all that was left of the priory were fragments of ruins.

Conjectural plan of the Priory showing the location of the site and ELLP (East London Line Project) trenches in relation to the modern street plan http://www.layersoflondon.org/ compared with a map of Shoreditch in 1950 http://www.theundergroundmap.com/

The Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) has conducted excavations of the area, and discovered some rather interesting finds including Neolithic/Bronze Age and Roman artefacts, 16th Century German stoneware jugs, and a Witch Bottle. ‘The red brick floor tiles had been removed and a large hole dug in the doorway of a basement or latrine. The bottle was then upright placed in the hole and the hole backfilled with earth. The tiles were then carefully relaid, but on a slightly different alignment, so it was clear the area had been disturbed. This ritual placing or concealing of an ordinary household object alerted the archaeologists to the probability that this was folk magic. It could be a charm or witch-bottle, used to protect and ward off evil.‘.4

Witch bottles were used throughout the 17th Century (the height of witch hunts and trials), and are believed to have contained remedies to protect against witchcraft.  They often contained nails, pins, thorns, human hair, even urine, and were placed beneath floors or in hearths. This bottle held a number of very fine bent copper alloy pins with wound wire heads, the remains of rusty nails and what may be a piece of wood or bone.

Picture from MOLA https://www.mola.org.uk/blog/holywell-witch-bottle

There are many more stories to tell of Holywell Lane, and I look forward to sharing my discoveries with you in the future. In the meantime, if you have any information about this little corner of Shoreditch, please do get in touch.


1The Augustinian Priory of St. John the Baptist, Holywell‘; pages 153-187 of Survey of London: Volume 8, Shoreditch; Ed. James Bird; Published by London County Council, 1922; accessible via https://www.british-history.ac.uk/

2Religious Houses: Houses of Augustinian canonesses‘; pages 170-182 of A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century; Ed. J. S. Cockburn, H. P. F. King and K. G. T. McDonnell; Published by Victoria County History, London, 1969; accessible via https://www.british-history.ac.uk/

3‘The Life Of John Stow‘; Preface 5, page 42, paragraph 2 of A Survey of The Cities of London and Westminster; by John Strype; 1720; Electronic version; accessible via https://www.dhi.ac.uk/strype/index.jsp

4Holywell Witch Bottle, Museum of London Archeology, blog post, 01.07.2008, accessible via https://www.mola.org.uk/blog/holywell-witch-bottle

The header image at the top of the page is a sketch of Holywell Priory circa 1540, from Wyngaerde’s Panorama of London

Expect the Unexpected

Through my time as a Professional Genealogist, I have come across many clients who were adopted, seeking the truth to who they are.  There are numerous laws and regulations concerning the adoption process, and also the practice of finding birth family, but I shan’t delve into those now.  I’d like to ponder for a moment about the emotional aspect of discovering where you come from.

The choice of whether to delve into the unknown is deeply personal.  I know some adoptees who are quite happy never to open Pandora’s Box, and some who have become obsessed with wanting to find out more.  From those who had extremely happy, warm, loving adoptive families, to those who spent troubled years in the care system, each story is unique; and the decision to investigate the past is equally individual.

When an adopted person does choose to explore their roots, quite often it’s not for an explanation of why they were parted from their birth family, but more a quest to understand who their ancestors were – who they are made of.  I strongly believe that the greatest gift of genealogy is the feeling of being part of something bigger, a sense of belonging.  This can of course come from exploring the family history of the adoptive parents.  Recently, a client reveled in the discovery of her adopted mother’s early years, and how they (quite astonishingly) mirrored her own children’s interests and aptitudes.  Thus, prompting the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture.

Exploring family history can be enormously rewarding; however, researching that of an adopted individual presents a higher risk of encountering sensitive issues, so it’s vital to consider who may be affected by the findings.  You never know what you might uncover, and the ripples from revelations can have a far-reaching effect.

Genealogy brings frequent surprises (some more welcome than others) hence you should always remember to expect the unexpected.  You may discover living relatives completely unaware that an adoption took place, who find the news emotionally disturbing.  Though you might be thrilled to locate long lost siblings, aunts or uncles, they may not be quite as enthused.  The impact of unveiling secrets can be painful, it’s not always the happy ending you see on tv.

Excitement, and a thirst for answers, is often overwhelming so it’s rather disheartening when you hit a brick wall.  Missing information, a change of name or address, can cause the search to be painstakingly slow.  The exhilaration when you come across a DNA match, might quickly fade if there’s no immediate reply from a message to a cousin.  But with a lot of patience, good research skills and a little luck, you may well find that elusive evidence to prove identity and relationships.

For an adoptee, having the knowledge of where they come from can be a lifelong quest.  Establishing an affinity with ancestors is fulfilling – irrespective of a positive response from close, living relations.  Whether it’s learning a half-uncle shared a musical talent, or a second cousin twice-removed was skilled at a favourite sport, that bond can satisfy a deep need for connection.  The most treasured find for one of my clients was a photo of her biological grandparent.  The likeness was uncanny, and even though she had the most wonderful adoptive parents, having a picture of someone that looked like her was the first time she felt ‘recognition’.

My advice for those exploring adoption ancestry: take your time, tread carefully, be prepared for ups and downs, keep an open mind, be patient and respectful of all those involved, and enjoy making those discoveries – no matter how small.

Historic Holywell Lane, Shoreditch

For a very long time, I have been slightly obsessed with a particular ancestor of mine – Rebecca Monksfield. She was convicted of Larceny in 1829 and subsequently transported to Tasmania. I’ve been slowly writing her life story, and at some point hope to publish it. Recently, I started a course with the brilliant Joe Saunders at Pharos Tutors on the subject of Local History. I’ve always fancied conducting a One Place Study (if you don’t know what they are, check out BALH.org.uk and One-Place-Studies.org), but was never sure where to start, or even which ‘place’ to choose. Joe’s course required me to focus on a particular area to practice the skills being taught, and after much deliberation I finally settled on the rather specific King John’s Court, Holywell Lane, Shoreditch. Yes I know that is quite precise, but to study the whole of Shoreditch seemed rather daunting, so I though I’d start off small and perhaps expand my study over time.

My choice of place came from an article relating to Rebecca’s parents, Joseph and Rebecca Monksfield. In 1824, Rebecca senior gave birth to triplets, a boy and two girls. The family home was reported as 7 Blinksford Buildings, King John’s Court, Holywell Lane, Shoreditch.

Morning Advertiser Wednesday May 19 1824
Birth of triplets, born to Rebecca and Joseph Monksfield.

I will reveal more about the Monksfields another time, but for now I’d like to concentrate on my place. There are innumerable resources out there to help you with studying a place – one of my favourites is maps. TheUndergroundMap.com is a project creating street histories within London, and has some wonderful maps of my place from 1750 to the present day. It’s an interactive map, with pins marking various points of interest, offering further details and history when you click on them. One of the best things about maps is the ability to compare a place over time. Here are two maps, a century apart, showing Holywell Lane.

Holywell Lane, Shoreditch, 1750 and 1850 TheUndergroundMap.com

As you can see, not much had changed; but just a few decades later in 1880, a map of the area shows the new train line ploughing straight through King John’s Court. (The address still exists today, but I suspect it has been moved slightly to make way for the railway).

1880 Map of Shoreditch

When researching a place, in addition to maps (and the treasure trove of records lurking in local archives), there is plenty of information to be found online in the form of news reports/blogs/photos etc. I will be continuing my one place study over the next year, and look forward to sharing my findings with you. However, I’d like to end (for now) with a little taster of the history of art and culture in and around King John’s Court.

According to TravelAndLeisure.com ‘Shoreditch is one of London’s trendiest neighborhoods, attracting young Londoners and visitors alike with its ever-expanding art scene and vibrant nightlife. Here, you’ll find endless street art, clubs, bars, and restaurants featuring cuisines from across the world.’ A great blog from TheCultureMap.com details lots of Shoreditch street art, including this (in my actual place of King John’s Court) which is one of the largest murals in London.

One of the largest murals in London.  This piece of street art is at King John's Court, Holywell Lane, Shoreditch.
Street Art in Shoreditch.

This image was one of many I discovered on Geograph.org.uk. You can explore their map to find/view photos from locations across Britain and Ireland.

Over 400 years ago, artistic culture was just as much the centre of the community when local resident James Burbage built the first ever permanent theatre in England (a mere minute’s walk from King John’s Court). From 1576-1598, ‘The Theatre’ staged productions from various playwrights including The Bard himself – William Shakespeare! Following financial difficulties, and disagreements with the landlord over terms of the lease, The Theatre was closed and dismantled; much of the timber was reconstructed to form part of The Globe theatre.

The Theatre by Walter C. Hodges (Courtesy of Cambridge University Press)

I have been thrilled to discover so much about the place my ancestors once lived, and can’t wait to find out more about King John’s Court, Holywell Lane, and the wider community of Shoreditch. If you have anything you’d like to share with me about this place, please do get in touch. And if this blog has inspired you to start your own One Place Study, I’d love to hear all about it.

The amazing illustration at the top of this blog is by Adam Dant. A narrative of his map can be found at the wonderful website Spitalfields Life

The recollections of Betty Jane Bush

You may have noticed from my previous blogs that I tend to write a lot about my paternal ancestors, particularly those on my paternal grandmother’s line.  This is mostly due to the fact that my dad’s family are the storytellers.  Whenever we get together, there is always talk of the past and how life was ‘back in the day’.  But today, I am going to tell you a little about my maternal line.

I’ve written about my grandparents, and how they met (in my blog Chance Encounters of the Past Generations) and even told the story of my maternal grandfather’s mother Christina Perry née Vinton/Wilkinson, but I’ve never really had much to say about the Bush line of my family tree.  This is mainly because my maternal grandmother doesn’t remember a lot from the early part of her life.  My Nanna and I are very close, chatting every week over the telephone, but whilst she is always happy to talk about the good ol’ days, she just doesn’t have a great memory for these things.

I am extremely lucky to still have both of my grandmothers; and in recent years, when visiting, I have recorded conversations (with their permission of course) not just to document what they have to say, but also because I know that one day in the future I will find great comfort in hearing their voices again.  During these conversations I don’t ask the standard questions such as ‘What were your grandparents’ names and dates of birth’ but things like ‘Did you like school? What was your favourite dinner? What did your home look like?’. Unfortunately, my Nanna says it just wasn’t important to remember stuff like that – however, I am ever hopeful that I will jog her memory one day and something will pop into her mind! So until then, here are a few recollections from my Nanna’s life that I’d like to share with you.

Betty Jane Bush was the first child born to Alfred John and Ellen Mary Ann Bush (née Bennett). Ellen had had quite a few miscarriages, and following the problematic birth of Betty, was told by doctors not to have any more children as next time could prove fatal. Alfred and Ellen didn’t listen to this advice, and went on to have five sons: Michael John (Mickey), Barry James, Robert William (Bobby), John David (Johnny) and Richard Alfred.

Alfred and Ellen were very good friends with a couple named Albert and Ada Sandrof (née Medson) – their daughter Joyce and my Nanna became best friends. In fact, they were evacuated together during WWII, to a farm in Wales. Nan didn’t like it all and was rather glad to be home three weeks later. Joycie married Godfrey (Geoff) King, and she and Nan remained good friends throughout their lives, but sadly lost touch a while ago.

Alfred and Ellen Bush circa 1955

Nan remembers going to the station every morning to greet her dad after finishing his nightshift working at Fords. She recalls how he limped down the road back to their home in Cromwell Road, East Ham because he ‘suffered with his feet’. Alf was a hard worker, who was always tired. He worked in garages fitting parts on cars, drove heavy goods vehicles, and during a time before Health and Safety as we know it, frequently sustained injuries. He once had a near-death experience when a very large, heavy garage door fell on him.

My great grandmother Ellen (affectionately known as Nell) would often send Nan to Green Street butchers to ask for a cooked sheep’s head for Alf, who would request that the eyes be left in. They kept rabbits and a couple of chickens, but didn’t have enough time, or space, to grow any veg.

In her teens, Nan looked forward to going to the pictures on Sunday afternoons. She and her friends would draw lines up the back of their legs with an eye pencil, and being good looking girls, would often attract attention from boys, who would inevitably ask them out. She remembers once being saved from a rather enthusiastic young man who had offered to walk her home. As he attempted to gently steer Nan towards a nearby alley, Mrs Puck’s dog barked madly and frightened him off. Nan didn’t find the experience upsetting, he was just a nervous, naïve lad trying his luck – she found the incident rather laughable.

I hope to have more stories about the Bush/Bennett families to share with you soon, but in the meantime, I implore you to speak with your living relatives and record their stories before it’s too late. All too often I hear the comment “I wish I’d listened more“. When you do discover something new, I’d love to hear about it, so do please get in touch.

They Were Human Too

Recent events in my life have made me think about the personal ups and downs of my ancestors.  Two very dear friends have lost parents, a cousin got married, and someone close to me finally brought their adopted children home to stay forever.  Similar moments of immense joy and deep sadness, were undoubtedly experienced by those who came before us.

We might feel rather disconnected from our family who lived hundreds of years ago. They lived in a world unrecognisable to us in terms of transport and technology, but fundamentally we are the same – humans experiencing the same stages in life, facing the same emotions. It’s very easy to build a family tree with names, places and dates – even occupations and hobbies – but unless you are fortunate enough to obtain private diaries or letters, it’s difficult to truly know the personal feelings and thoughts of an individual. However, if we just pause for a moment and consider what we discover in documents, we might be able to empathise and acknowledge how they might have responded emotionally to such experiences that shaped their lives.

Many of my ancestors were poor and illiterate, hence no secret memoirs were kept and handed down; nor have I found any obituaries in local newspapers.  This has often left me wondering about their experiences. If I had a time machine, there are innumerable questions I’d ask them.

How did Rebecca Monksfield snr. feel after surviving the birth of her triplets in 1824?  She and the babies survived, but how did that impact the family?  Now a household of 9 – was she concerned about how she would feed them all?

How did East Londoner James Perry cope with the new culture (and weather!) of South Africa, during his missionary work with the Congregational church?

Was Jean Rondeau frightened, arriving in England in the late 1600s barely speaking a word of English?  Did he know any other Hugeunots in London?

William Hogarth, Four Times of the Day, Noon

Did Amelia Mary Ann Tage miss her home in Germany when her father brought the family to London in the mid-1800s?  Did she make friends easily?

How did Jane Elizabeth Gowlland manage the distress of losing both her husband and son to suicide?  Did they suffer with depression?  How did that affect the rest of the family?

We could never truly understand exactly how our ancestors felt, because we will always, no matter how hard we try, distort our empathy with a 21st century perspective. However, I implore you to stop for a minute the next time you look at a document referencing your ancestor, and consider what might have been going on in their life at that time. Do you think they were joyful, angry, excited, sad, scared, ashamed, anxious, relieved, or perhaps a mixture of emotions? Take that moment to connect with the name in your tree, and remember them as a person.