The Stephenson family

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The Stephenson family has played a larger role in my genealogical research than might be apparent. Firstly, it was an important part of getting me interested as a boy: three of my grandparents liked to talk about their families, but one kept a small tree showing her descent from John Stephenson, brother to George Stephenson of railway fame. Several of her family had Stephenson as a middle name in honour of this connection and it inspired me as a thirteen year-old to do a school history project on George Stephenson (with tree included!). It turned out that my grandmother was indeed descended from a John Stephenson but, as is the fate of so many family legends, not the John whose brother George had built the Rocket.

The second reason I like the Stephensons is that they show why one should never give up. When I first found Louisa Martha Stephenson's baptism (1806) it simply stated that her father was called John; not a great lead in London with a common surname. As Louisa married in 1829, before civil registration, the prospect of finding out more about her father seemed remote. A lucky break meant that her sister, although born in 1810, was not baptized until after 1812 when the entries were required to show the father's occupation: John was an engraver. When Louisa's parents married, John was described as a widower; but comparing his signatures on two marriage entries, and finding that one of the witnesses at his first marriage was William Heather, a well known chart maker, meant that the family portrait was increasing rapidly. Suddenly everything snowballed and apprentice records, livery freedoms and wills, showed a much fuller picture of the family.

Did John Stephenson acquire his wealth as a staymaker? Hogarth's 1744 painting shows an exact contemporary measuring a client
The known family starts with a John Stephenson, whose occupation remains elusive, although the references to him suggest a man of means. The strongest candidate is the John, staymaker, who with Mary had a son called Thomas in 1732 in Southwark. [1] The land tax records show that he moved into a house in Boar's Head Court, just off Fleet Street, by at least 1743 [2] and remained there for the next forty years. Opposite where John's alley opened onto Fleet Street was another court: Bolt Court, where Samuel Johnson and James Ferguson, a prominent Scottish astronomer and mathematician would later be John's neighbours, although Boar's Head Court was not quite as spacious. John's immediate neighbour in the courtyard was Robert Brooks, a moneylender with one leg shorter than the other, who had spent £40 on a 'cure' - probably a prosthetic extension to his leg. In 1745 he accused a gentleman from a prominent landowning family in Lincolnshire of attacking him outside his house and then stealing seventeen and a half guineas that he had on him at the time. The attack took place late in the evening, around 11pm, so John may have witnessed what happened, although he was not one of the many witnesses called at the Old Bailey trial. Those that were called show that the courtyard contained people of all classes with the educated middle classes living opposite a washerwoman and a servant. The trial transcript suggests that Robert was a man with his own problems and the (unnamed) gentleman who supposedly attacked him was found innocent. The transcript ends by saying:

After such a Cloud of Witnesses appearing in Behalf of the Prisoner at the Bar, his Innocence was manifested with peculiar Glory, and Gladness was seen in every Countenance; and, in Consequence, he was honourably Acquitted , and had a Copy of his Indictment granted him by the Court.!

Boar's Head Court a hundred years after John Stephenson died, but probably little changed
John and Mary Stephenson's last child, Maria Ann, was baptised at St Dunstan in the West, close to their house on Fleet Street, in 1741 and died within a year; but any other children they had were born elsewhere. At the time of the baptism (and burial) their address was Bolt and Tun Alley but, as this is part of Boar's Head Alley/Court/Passage, it was probably the same house they lived in later. Thomas, their only other known child, would have been about eight or nine when they moved as, in 1746, he was apprenticed to Hammond Beaumont. Nearly twenty years later, in 1765, he was granted his freedom of the city, although he would have long since finished his apprenticeship. The apprenticeship papers show that Hammond Beaumont was a freeman of the wheelwright's livery company, but this was in name only, as he was actually a surgeon, as Thomas went on to become. The papers also make to clear that, while his father, John, was described as a 'gentleman of St Dunstan in the West', Thomas was a 'poor child' of the parish and the £20 fee was paid by a charity, which remains something of a mystery, given John's apparent later wealth. Surgeons were becoming a much more respected occupation at this time, with the surgeons breaking away from the barbers in 1745. Some fashionable surgeons charged as much as £200 when boys were apprenticed to them, but the fee paid for Thomas suggested that Hammond was not at that end of the market. Thomas would have moved in with the Beaumont family who lived very near his parents, in Fa(u)lcon Court, further along Fleet Street. In 1750, less than four years into Thomas' apprenticeship, Hammond died, so a man called Charles Maxwell took over as Thomas' master.[3] Charles Maxwell lived in the same street as Hammond, so Thomas would not have had to move far, and was described as an apothecary, going on to be a Liveryman of the Society of Apothecaries. In 1749, while Thomas was his apprentice, there is a reference to Hammond Beaumont, apothecary of Audley St so, with both masters described as apothecaries, it may be that Thomas is the Thomas Stephenson, apothecary and chemist in the 1770s, whose calling card now resides in the Prints and Drawing Room of the V & A Museum. If apprentices accompanied their masters when they worked then Thomas would have witnessed a scene in 1751, shortly after he had changed masters, when Charles Maxwell was asked to attend a man who had died following an argument in King's Bench Walk, just south of where they lived. His testimony in the court case gives some idea of the level of medicine involved:

Charles Maxwell . I am a surgeon : On Wednesday was se'night, about half an hour after ten o'clock, I was call'd to bleed the deceas'd in the Temple, where I found him lying insensible. After I had bled him I sent for another surgeon, and we agreed to lay the scull bare ; there we found a breach about an inch long above the temple bone, and likewise a depression on the right side the head. I apprehend that fracture was the cause of his death.

Thomas married Deborah Coleman in 1763, witnessed by his father, John, and a Mary Stephenson, presumably his mother. He and Deborah had three children, all baptised at St Sepulchre in Holborn: Maria Ann, Elizabeth and John Gascoigne Tomlinson, but Elizabeth appears to have died as a child. As, many years later, Deborah described herself as from Holborn, we can assume they lived there for several years; but Thomas had died by the time John was apprenticed in 1781, so it was his mother who put him forward, paying £11 of the £16 fee herself, but relying on a charity to pay the rest. It is not clear why she needed this support as, when John's grandfather died two years later in 1783, he left everything to his second wife and his grandson, John Gascoigne Tomison (sic) Stephenson. John G T's share was 4 guineas as mourning and a further £100 in South Sea annuities, so the family was far from poor. Whatever the reason originally (possibly that Thomas' mother had just died) they were clearly no longer a 'poor family of the parish' if, indeed, that was any more than a technicality. As John was only about sixteen when his grandfather died, he would not have inherited the money immediately, but he would probably not have expected the tangled mess of relationships that followed. Following his father's death, his widowed mother had married a well-to-do tailor, Charles Dallman, with a number of grown up children of his own. When he died in 1798, he left money for his wife, Deborah, but passed on most to his own children. When Deborah herself died, she divided her estate between her surviving children, John and Ann Maria, as one would expect. John would probably not have lived with his mother again, but she was close enough to visit.

John's grandfather's death led to a more puzzling set of circumstances. He had remarried in 1778, late in life, to a younger woman, and had left her some money which would pass to John (jun) when she died. Shortly after her husband's death, in 1784, a marriage licence suggested that she was going to marry a 'doctor in physicke' called Augustus Frederick Ledumotte who lived in Islington. Given his occupation, it's possible that he was a friend of Thomas Stephenson, although the evidence suggests Thomas had died before Augustus moved to London. This mysterious man had previously married in Durham [4], where he had baptized two children. The marriage between Augustus and Isabel never took place but, in 1786, Isabel moved up to Durham where she married the widowed father of Augustus' first wife! Whether Augustus' marriage to Isabel didn't happen because he died, or because he was found to be married already, remains unsolved. What Isabel's married did mean, though is that John had to wait until 1804 before receiving his grandfather's legacy. [5]

In 1781, two years before his grandfather's death, John had become apprenticed to Charles Downes, a map engraver and, as his later engravings show, he was a talented engraver. Although Downes was not a sea chart specialist, that became John Stephenson's area of expertise. In 1790 he was engraving for John Hamilton Moore but two years later he had started his long relationship with William Heather and later, William's successor, John William Norie. William Heather was clearly an important figure in his life, signing his freedom papers (through the wheelwrights) and then acting as a witness to John's first marriage in 1796 in Lambeth to Ann Girton. John re-married - to Louisa Wells - in 1805 in the same parish, so had probably lived in Lambeth in the intervening years. There are two children born a John and Mary Stephenson, in Lambeth (William in Dec 1796 and Mary in 1798) but, as neither an be traced after those dates we have no way of known if they are their children; or if they survived. There is also a burial for an infant Thomas, son of John Stephenson, in 1798 in nearby Southwark, which would make sense if John was naming a child after his father. Otherwise nothing is known of John's life until he moved to Bethnal Green.


  1. There are very few Thomas Steph/vensons born to a John at about the right time. Thomas' apprenticeship suggests a birth date around 1732, as apprentice surgeons normally started at around fourteen. Apart from the Thomas in Southwark, there is one born in 1734 at St Leonard, Shoreditch to John and Sarah; although, in terms of occupation, the best is the Thomas born to John and Elizabeth in 1731 at St Giles, as John was a barber (surgeon). This couple had several children, so it seems unlikely that John would only mention Thomas in his will. The Southwark Thomas seems the best fit as he is the only one with a mother named Mary and they appear to have had only one other daughter. John was a staymaker which doesn't suggest wealth, but there is a John Stephenson, staymaker, of St Mary le Strand, who bought a marriage licenece in 1735 to marry Mary. The dates don't fit but the rest does. The facts behind the question can be found here:Research behind the Stephensons
  2. The baptism mentioned later suggests they had arrived by 1741
  3. Hammond Beaumont had a son, also called Hammond, who followed in his father's footsteps, despite his father's early death. In 1761 he became the surgeon to the 26th Regiment of Foot and, in 1777, Surgeon-General to the British Army in America. A year later he was crossing swords with Lafayette and Washington as he was arrested on his way to minster to wounded soldiers, but it seems that his fame in America rested more on his acting skills than surgical: there are several references to his starring in comedies as well as Shakespeare, and his name features strongly in the early history of American theatre.
  4. Thanks to jmcd967 on Rootschat who spotted the earlier marriage under a different spelling of his surname. Apart from the appearances in 1780 (Leidemit), 1781 (Leideanit), 1782 (Leidemit) and 1784 (Ledumotte) he cannot be found anywhere else. He clearly had problems spelling his own name as the surnames are spelled differently in two signatures
  5. Isabel's second husband, George Denham, died as a widower in 1801, so Isabel must have died before that. However the addendum to John (sen) Stephenson's will, stating that Isabel had died - so that John (jun) could inherit - was made in 1804. perhaps it was just the distances involved that made communication slow.