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Keeping it in the Family

T W Brooks portrait

Solicitors’ collections contain lots of documents useful to family historians such as settlements, divorce case papers and wills. Sometimes these are very dry with little personal detail, at other times accompanying correspondence puts more meat on the bones; such as the details of the elopement of the niece of Thomas William Dell Brooks’ (above), in the Hoburn of Woburn collection [HN] “The cool deliberation in her finally leaving our house on the early morning of July 8th for no obvious reason whatever … was the feature in the case which distressed us most…It must have been for some time premeditated by them both – as we now discover that packing had been going on for some time beforehand and a waggonette ordered to convey them to the station, with 2 carts for the heavy luggage including all May’s plate, china & furniture…” [HN2/B3/71/3]. On a more pleasant note the same client’s son-in-law relates that he would have replied sooner ‘…but that I have been busy, and also I went to Portsmouth yesterday to see the Czar arrive and to see him leave this morning. I had a successful trip, and the sight was pretty…’ [HN2/B3/70/14].

This level of personal detail is even more likely where the solicitor was also a member of the family. Thomas James Hooper came to Biggleswade when newly qualified in 1854 and took over the practice of Edward Argles. In 1868 a crisis hit the family of his eldest sister, Henrietta, when her husband, William Robins Matthews, a grocer and merchant of Newport, Monmouthshire, died leaving her with ten children between the ages of two and twenty. Henrietta turned to her brother for advice and assistance and, while we may assume that purely personal letters remained with the family, letters of business were filed in the company archives [HF90] and contain much information about the family and its fortunes.

The eldest son, Willie, gave his mother much cause for concern. In April she sent his brother John to stay with Fanny, another of Hooper’s sisters, “to be away from Willie’s influence” and later she wrote “Since Sept Willie has been out shooting a great deal and neglecting his business”. Many letters are concerned with the education of John, Henry, Fred, Tom, Frank and Mary. In April 1868 John was preparing to take the civil service exams. He wrote to his uncle “Dear Uncle, In answer to your kind letter I am 16 years of age left school last Xmas have passed an examination in English & Latin have also a slight knowledge of French.” His Aunt Fanny writes “We are endeavouring to carry out all the directions you so kindly send about John’s studies. He wishes me to ask if he need attend much to Asia & America (in Geography) – also could you send him a skeleton atlas (about 1/-) …”. John failed the exam. In February 1873 he wrote “My dear Uncle, The kind exertions of Colonel Foquett have secured for me the vacant place of assistant to the Borokai Tea Company, I leave this situation in a fortnight’s time & shall leave England as early in March as possible as the extreme hot weather will soon set in.”

On 31 December 1874 Henrietta reports “I have had quite a house full this Xmas, having had seven at home some part of the time; Frank & Charlie return to school on Monday next & Mary and Flora leave on the 27th Tom ... seems to like his present situation and Fred is going on all right at Mr Baker’s”. 

By 1876 Mr Matthews’ estate and remaining nine children (Henry died in Australia in 1875) were sufficiently settled for the business correspondence to cease. Then in 1902 the death of Henrietta herself caused a flurry of letters to Hooper. From this we learn that the family had become scattered to all corners of the globe. Four of the then eight surviving children were in England: Willie and Bessie were in Barnet, John in Sydenham and Flora in Blackheath. Mary was with her husband in India, Fred in Australia, Frank in New Zealand and Charlie in America. Willie was far from well at the time of his mother’s death and as the months go by his writing becomes shaky; at times his sister Bessie is called upon to write letters for him. He died before his mother’s estate was settled and John was called upon to conclude the business, taking the opportunity to thank Hooper for all his help over the years. “My dear Uncle now that my father’s affairs are settled, I wish to thank you very much for all your care and trouble on behalf of my mother & all of us. At the time of Father’s death we were too young to fully appreciate & value what your assistance at that time really meant, but Willie and I have often spoken of it since, and of the very successful way in which you dealt with the farm and the other complicated matters. Your guidance & management of affairs has been invaluable.”

While most of a solicitor’s business may be centred on the local area, they often include details about other locations. Apart from occasional visits to Hooper the Matthews family had nothing to do with Bedfordshire. Henrietta and some of her siblings were born in Calcutta but the rest of the Hooper and Matthews families came from Gloucestershire and continued to own cottages and land there until 1902. Henrietta and William Matthews ran their business from Newport and Cardiff but also bought a farm in Llantrissant, Monmouthshire. We learn about Henrietta’s house hunting in Newport “…I was looking for apartments in town, but most persons object to children” and of the unfortunate state of the drains at Henrietta’s properties at Moreton-in-Marsh. A tenant reports “I was compelled to have [the drains] opened or we should have been poisoned, as it was we all left home for nearly three months and I have a heavy doctor’s bill…” .We even find out what it was like to live in Suffolk in 1868 as Henrietta made enquiries when considering moving there to make two of her boys eligible for free places at the Framlingham Middle Class College. R Green wrote to her that “…inhabitants are generally healthy, myself being now an Octegenarian without an ache or a pain in any shape and my wife, who was born in the house I reside in, is heading close (as folks say) upon my heels…”

William Frederick Ashby Fletcher, the solicitor who took over Hooper’s business in 1904, came from Cumberland. His personal papers in the Hooper & Fletcher archives include details of the difficulties of the family’s Allerdale Coal Company, which was unfortunately in partnership with a German company when war broke out in 1914 [HF97].

These gems of family and local history can be well hidden within far flung solicitors’ collections. After cataloguing the archivist tries to raise awareness of them by advising the local record office of their existence. In the case of the Matthews’ papers we will be sending notification to Gloucestershire and Gwent once the catalogue is finished. However, it is worth the family historian who has come across a solicitor in the family checking where that solicitor’s business archives may be held, to see whether these add to the picture of a family’s affairs.  Pamela Birch

The full catalogue lists for HN2 & HF90 & HF92 are available online