The Wells family

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When Louisa Stephenson died in 1846 was she a happy woman? Her death certificate described her as the 72 year-old widow of 'John Stephenson, artist' which was fairly accurate, although he was more an interpreter of other people's art than an artist himself, as he was a successful chart engraver. Both through his own skills and various inheritances, he and Louisa had led a comfortable middle class life, and one of their two daughters was doing the same, nearby in London. On the surface, therefore, she had been wanting for nothing. However her other daughter, Rosa, had emigrated to Australia and then faced some major problems. Although one of Rosa's sons would go on to achieve national importance as a politician, her husband had died shortly after arriving in Australia and the first few years in the new country had been very difficult, with the family living in tents as they sought to establish a new town. Louisa herself had also not had an easy life. She was John Stephenson's second wife, several years younger than he was, but there were good reasons why she would have been keen to marry someone, despite the age difference and the fact that he probably had young children from his first marriage. [1] When she married John in 1805 Louisa signed the register in a firm, educated hand; so why would a literate woman of twenty-one marry a man seventeen years her senior?

Lewis Wells' engraving of a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds
The 1788 marriage entry showing John Wells' signature and Elizabeth Waugh's mark
A fan made by Lewis Wells

When Elizabeth Wells died as a widow in 1801, she left a will leaving her money to her two children, Louisa Wells and Benjamin Barns Wells, who were both under twenty-one and were clearly to be under the care of a Mr Joseph Wells of Rathbone Street; although a Mr Lewis John Badville Wells, an engraver of Leadenhall Street, was also named as an executor. The relationship to these men is not stated; but the surname indicates that they were relations. Louisa is always referred to as Louisa 'Wells or Waugh', although the will makes it explicitly clear that she was the daughter of Elizabeth's late husband John. This is confirmed by the register entries which show that Louisa was baptised in 1783 as Louisa Wells; Elizabeth and John married in 1788; and then Benjamin was baptised in 1789. The only other people mentioned in the will are Elizabeth's brother's son, Thomas Waugh, and her husband's brother's son, Samuel (although neither brother is named). [2]

When she died Elizabeth lived in Shoemaker Row, Blackfriars where, three years earlier, a coroner's report showed how John had ended his life at only thirty-six. Andrew Emery, a carpenter who lived next door to the Wells' gave witness that he had answered the door to a tearful Mrs Wells, who had been unable to open the door to her bedroom after her husband had failed to come down to supper. Taking a chisel up to the bedroom, Andrew Emery had broken down the door to find John hanging by a silk scarf. His body was still warm, but he was clearly dead. The report suggested that he had suffered from bad headaches which he had tried to cure by putting a 'blister' on his head (medicine at that time believed that removing liquid from the body, either by draining off some blood or by creating blisters on the skin using suction cups, helped most ailments!), but he had become deranged and killed himself. His children would have been fourteen and eight. In 1806, therefore, when Louisa agreed to marry John, she was living with a guardian, was twenty-three and was possibly tainted by her own illegitimate birth and her father's suicide. The widowed John Stephenson, an engraver like 'Mr Lewis John Badville Wells', probably knew the family already, so the marriage would have suited everyone.

The gap between Louisa's baptism and her parents' marriage is rare; but their marriage entry also hints at an unusual match as John has signed in an educated manner, while Elizabeth has simply put a cross. It is also odd that John, a shoemaker when he died, should have relations like the Joseph Wells mentioned in Elizabeth's will. Joseph paid land tax on a house in Rathbone Street, St Marylebone and was, for many years, the secretary of the Westminster General Dispensary in Soho. Foundations like this were set up to look after the poor and much of Joseph's time was spent organising fund raising events for the hospital, such as the annual dinner, and a service in St Martin in the Fields attended by the Prince of Wales; hardly the life of a shoemaker's relative.

The other executor to Elizabeth's will, Lewis John Badville (or sometimes Badwell) Wells is easier to trace. He was a skilled craftsman producing fans and engravings, as well as trading gold and silver paper. He was soon to emigrate to Philadelphia, where he died in 1823, and had been baptised in 1768, the son of John Cooper Wells and Anna M [3]. John Cooper Wells, although always referred to as a gentleman, seems less responsible than that title might suggest. Banns were called for his marriage to a Martha Gunn, but there is no evidence that it ever took place. He did marry a Jane Keeble, with whom he had a son, John Keeble Wells, of whom nothing is known other than his baptism. More interestingly he was imprisoned in 1768 in the King's Bench when he was described as 'formerly of Rhodleys in the parish of Lidney in the county of Gloucestershire, late of Dublin in Ireland, gentleman'. What he was doing in these places is unknown, but it raises the prospect that he (and therefore John) was related to the extensive family of Wells from Cheltenham, who were clerks, lawyers and mainstays of the London Gloucestershire Society, some of whom had moved from Cheltenham to London (see blelow). It also raises the tantalising prospect of John being the John Wells who was tried in 1783 for stealing a large amount of money from a London lawyer. The prosecution alleged that John had worked for a successful lawyer on a salary of £20 a year but had been sacked. Some time later he had visited the son of the lawyer he had worked for (at the request of the son's wife) but had then stolen some jewels, a few pounds in cash and cheques worth over £200. The jury heard a dramatic story of a chase across southern England before a box, addressed to John Wells was found which contained the stolen goods. John Wells (and the box) were headed for Cheltenham, John's home town; and the prison records in Oxford, where he was held before going to the Old Bailey, show him to be twenty-two, the same age as the John who committed suicide in 1798. In fact the trial delivered a verdict of not guilty, but is it possible that John was unstable and/or never recovered from the charge, went on to have a relationship with a woman below his own class, and then eventually committed suicide? The evidence is very slim, but it's a possibility. But before being too seduced by this story, we need to return to what is known for certain.

Ezra Wells was a hatmaker from Warwickshire who moved about twenty-five miles south to marry a woman from Cheltenham in 1708. He was sufficiently sure of his place in society to buy a licence, rather than have his banns read out in public, and appeared to have been successful at what he did. In 1725, for instance, he took on two apprentices at the same time and, a few years later he contributed to a fund to improve Cheltenham. The mineral waters in the town had been discovered in 1716 but the owner of the well, William Mason, had done little to promote their healing qualities. However, when his daughter married a retired master mariner, Henry Skillicorne, everything changed. Skillicorne was an experienced merchant who had travelled widely and saw the potential in his well. He had arrived in Cheltenham in 1738 and quickly built a pump to regulate the water flow, together with a well house to surround it which included a ballroom and billiard room to entertain the guests. He decided that a genteel town needed tree lined avenues so, within a year, he had organized a subscription to which the middle class of the town could contribute, presumably in return for access to the facilities at the well. His diary shows hundreds of contributions from 1730 onwards - including Ezra Wells in the first year - together with descriptions of the planting programme. Some dry summers meant that the trees kept dying, but Skillicorne persevered and news of the healing power of Cheltenham's waters spread rapidly. Ezra died in 1853, some years before the king had visited Cheltenham, but his estate was assessed at £500, so he was clearly not just a hatmaker.

At least two of Ezra's sons became hatmakers [4] (or feltmakers), but Samuel became a writing master, and then ran his own school. Although Samuel wrote a grammar book for schools in 1760 ('The construction of the English language') he had more of an influence with his non-conformist views. In a biography of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, Samuel is described as '...the headmaster of an extensive seminary: he was a man of deep piety and, having tasted of the richness of the Gospel, opened his house whenever the pulpit of the church could not be obtained.'. His two children continued what he had started with Mary marrying a non-conformist minister, and Samuel (jr) being a friend of John Wesley. This son had decided to become an itinerant preacher in 1779 when he was probably only about twenty, starting on the Oxfordshire circuit and then transferring to the Sussex one. He had written several letters to John Wesley, who always replied, referring to him as 'Sammy'. In December 1779 John Wesley wrote in a letter that 'Sammy Wells died last Saturday!' and at the Conference the next year he was described as 'Samuel Wells, a sensible, honest, upright man, who put forth all his strength in every part of his work. He was particularly zealous in observing discipline, and in exhorting believers to go on to perfection.' He had died in Sussex and his early death was devastating for his father whose 1783 will described Mary as his 'now only child' with a sadness that can still be heard.

Joseph's eldest child was John, whose only known appearance is on a document relating to Ezra's will in 1753; but it is the third son, Joseph, who is the direct ancestor. Having been born in 1719 he is next heard of in St Botolph's, London, when he appears on a marriage licence in 1746 as a twenty-six year-old hatter. He (or someone else) put up £200 for the licence, which he would forfeit if he didn't marry Jane Barnes. What sequence of events led to his living there will remain unknown, but he and Jane were living close to (perhaps even with) her uncle, John Barnes, who may have been a friend of Joseph's mother as he left her £10 in his will. Shortly after they had married, John Barnes died, and divided his estate between his brother's children. A namesake and contemporary has an impressive monument in the churchayrd of St Michael and All Angels in Bishop's Cleeve, but it is not the same man. However, sJohn was a wealthy man, and Jane (and Joseph) appeared to receive more than any of the others. Leaving money to the mother of your niece's husband seems unusual, but Joseph himself was given £300 in the South Sea Company. At some stage Joseph and Jane moved back to Cheltenham but, as non-conformists, it is difficult to find out where their children were born. When Jane's brother, Benjamin Barnes, wrote his will in 1757, he gave half his estate to two of Jane's children: Joseph and Benjamin. The assumption must be that they were the only children to have been born by then, but perhaps he just singled out two. In 1757 Benjamin Barnes had just joined the marines. Marines had been around for a long time, but there had been no permanent units until fifty companies were recruited in 1755, Benjamin joining one of them the following year. Given that he had died by January 1759, he may have died in battle; but he had inherited a lot of his uncle's land, much of which was now passed on to his two nephews. All of which meant that, while their father (Joseph) was a hat maker, these two sons would become a solicitor and banker (Benjamin helped found the Cheltenham Bank). Joseph died in 1771 (as a hatter) and Jane fllowed him the following year. She mentioned only four of her eight children in her will (presumably the youngest four) asking joseph's brother Samuel to be their guardian, in whom 'she had the greatest trust'.

One of the mysteries of the Wells family is trying to place them in the hierarchical world of the 18th and early 19th century. Were they craftsmen (hat makers and shoemakers), or gentry, or both? Benjamin and Joseph, the eldest two sons, would end up having houses in Cheltenham and London, were churchwardens and influential people in a rapidly expanding Cheltenham, and moved amongst royalty at some of their dinners. And yet their younger siblings would become apprentices to wire drawers and shoemakers. Did Nathaniel, for instance, do an apprenticeship where he learned to draw out silver and gold wire, in the knowledge that he would actually run a business later; or did he just improve himself as he went through life? Certainly by the time he died fairly young in 1801 he had acquired the trappings of middle class respectability, and his son would be classed as a gentleman. And what did the siblings think of each other? Their wills have some interesting gaps, with only Sarah mentioning Ezra, for instance (and yet she left money to Nathaniel's son without mentioning Nathaniel's name).

Of most interest is John, the youngest son. Is he, in fact, 'our' John or not? Two things suggest strongly that he is: he named his only son Benjamin Barnes Wells; and his brother Joseph was named as the children's guardian in his widow's will (see above).

(To be continued)


  1. I cannot be certain that the Louisa Stephenson who died in 1846 was the Louisa Wells who was born in 1774, but the evidence is strong. We know that John Stephenson married Louisa Wells in 1805 after his first wife had died. He was nearly forty, possibly with two young children to look after as he and Ann had two children, and I have found no evidence to show when they died. There are not many baptisms for any Louisa Wells, but one is the Louisa Wells born to John and Elizabeth Wells in 1774 which fits her age at death exactly. As a small piece of further evidence, Louisa called her two daughters Louisa Martha and Elizabeth Rosa.
  2. In both cases the will rather confusingly says 'brother's children' before then naming just one son; but this is just legal language
  3. Given that Lewis Wells named one of his daughters Anna Maria, this seems the most likely name of John Cooper Wells' wife
  4. We can't be quite sure how many children Ezra had as he, like many in the family, appears to have been a non-conformist. Those children that do appear in the register have 'born' next to their name rather than 'baptised' but at least one (Samuel) doesn't have an entry at all, and it seems likely that Ezra was another son without an entry. The facts behind the above account can be found here: Research behind the Wells story