It was a bit of a shock, having moved to Essex quite by chance over 40 years ago, to find that my Essex roots go back to at least the 17th century, and probably quite a bit further. Such is the case with the Skinners: “John son of John & Dorothy Skinner was born January 25th (being St Paul's Day) between 11 & 12 o'clock at night 1651”. This is the first record in the earliest surviving register for Witham, and it had been written in as a memorandum on the flyleaf. It is, of course, good practice to start with the most recent known facts and work backwards, and so the investigation began 200 years later and some 40 odd miles south down the A12 in Stratford. My great great grandparents were John and Mary Skinner (née Holbrook) who had married in Leyton on the 20th April 1827. They had six children born in West Ham and Stratford between 1827 and 1838 and they seem to have had a rather haphazard approach to their children’s baptisms: Emma and Alfred James, born in 1827 and 1828 respectively, were baptised together at West Ham All Saints in 1828. John, born in 1832, and Henry born in 1838, were baptised together at St John Stratford in December 1838 after the death of their father John in October that year. That left Ann, born in 1830, and Sarah born in about 1837, as far as I could tell, unbaptised. Ann was 15 when she was baptised on the 22nd March 1846 at St John in Stratford and the register gives her birthday as the 13th August 1830, and confirms her parents as John and Mary Skinner (both deceased), residing in Stratford, with her father’s occupation as Shoemaker. So far I haven’t traced a baptism for Sarah. In 1841 the Skinner family is living in Chapel Street in Stratford in Essex. The household consists of the widowed Mary Skinner, aged 35, and her five children; Alfred had died before his first birthday. Mary Skinner died in 1842, and her mother, Mary Holbrook, who’d been holding the family together, died in 1847. As a result the children are scattered at the time of the 1851 census, with the three girls all in various kinds of service in the Stratford area, and their son John, aged 16 (19 actually), working as a shoemaker; he would have been six when his father died so he must have served an apprenticeship with someone else.  Surprisingly though, Henry the youngest, born shortly after his father’s death in 1838, is a scholar in the Witham Union House, and knowing how picky parishes generally were on whom they’d support, I guessed there must have been some kind of family connection. (Henry remained confused by this, and his military records give his place of birth as Stratford, near Witham, in Essex.) In Stratford in 1841 and 1851, there was another Skinner family, and the father, William was also a shoemaker. He was born in Witham in 1800, and was running a large and successful business in Stratford by 1841. He had married his wife Harriott Elizabeth Hall in Leyton on the 6th February 1825, in the same church where John Skinner married Mary Holbrook on the 20th April two years later. The facts are gathering to suggest that William and John are brothers, and that William had a hand in the support of John’s children after their parents’ deaths, by taking on John junior as an apprentice, and sending Henry to Witham, and later training him up in shoemaking too. Perhaps he also sponsored Ann’s belated baptism. So back to the Witham parish records and a helpful will. The only William Skinner born around the right time in Witham was baptised on the 15th June 1800, having been born on the 6th April to John Skinner and his wife Mary Davies. They had been married after banns in Witham on the 25th December 1799, and were both single and of Witham parish. They did not have any subsequent children baptised in Witham however, and for John to be William’s brother he needs to have been born in about 1806. Here’s where the Essex Wills Beneficiaries Index, 1505-1916, on FindMyPast, came in useful, for John Skinner and Mary Davies are both named in the will of John Hagger junior, surgeon of Little Waltham (though at his burial on 30th June 1800 he is referred to as an apothecary). John Hagger wrote his will on the evening of 1st October 1799 with no named executors or administrator, and Mary Davies, his servant, was the only witness to both the writing and placing of the document. By the 8th August 1800 when all the legal problems are beginning to be sorted out Mary is described as “the wife of John Skinner of Witham … shoemaker” in an affidavit. It seems likely that John Skinner grew up in Little Waltham, for a Samuel Skinner was well-established there during the 1780s and 1790s as a master cordwainer; with his wife Elizabeth, he had ten children baptised in the village. John is not among them, for he was born in Chelmsford in 1779 when Samuel was a shoemaker in Moulsham. Samuel Skinner had married Elizabeth Outten in St Mary’s in Chelmsford on the 6th July 1778. John Skinner and Mary (née Davies) moved back to Little Waltham after their marriage and the birth of William in Witham, and had two daughters born there: Mary Ann in 1802 and Sarah in 1805. They then moved to Great Waltham, where they had a son John born in 1806, and two more daughters born in 1808 and 1815. Mary died in Great Waltham in January 1854; in the 1841 census she is 75, and the widow of a shoemaker, in 1851 she is, more correctly 76, and a pauper. The Samuel Skinner who married Elizabeth Outten was a native of Witham. Born on the 16th December 1753, he was the second son of Samuel Skinner and Mary Finch who had married on the 7th May 1747 in Great Dunmow. Samuel senior is described as a Bay Rougher of Chipping Hill in Witham in his mother-in-law Elizabeth Finch’s will of 1766. He’d been born in Witham on the 8th August 1725 to Samuel Skinner and his wife Anne (née Cracknell) who’d married in Ulting in 1721. I’m not sure of the exact date of thir marriage as the Ulting parish registers for this period are lost, but I have a copy of the Marriage licence bond and allegation dated 19th October which says they are both single and from Witham, and that he is 30 years old and she is 28. It’s useful that his age is given on the licence allegation as there were two Samuel Skinners born in Witham between 1685 and 1690; if he is 30 in 1721 that sets his birth year as 1689 or 1690, which makes him the son of John Skinner and Mary who was baptised in Witham on the 10th April 1689. John and Mary Skinner presented six children for baptism in Witham between 1677 and 1692, so this is probably the John mentioned in my opening paragraph. The two John Skinners (the elder died in 1679. and the younger in 1731/2) both worked in the cloth trade as baymakers, weavers, clothiers and tailors and lived in Chipping Hill. Samuel born in 1689 and his son Samuel born in 1725 continued in this trade, but the next Samuel born in 1753 became a cordwainer, and this became the trade of his descendants, right down to John’s sons John and Henry living in Stratford and East London in the second half of the nineteenth century. As for the Charles Skinner who appears in the 1841 census living “near the turnpike” in Stratford, born in Essex and working as a journeyman shoemaker, he is most likely the cousin of William and John Skinner, who was born in Little Waltham in 1803, the son of their uncle Charles Skinner. I can find him on no other censuses and he appears to have been buried back in Little Waltham on the 21st December 1848. Stratford Holbrooks - Church or Chapel A snapshot of a family in the 1841 census doesn’t tell you very much about their origins especially if the older family members didn’t make it to 1851. This is the case with my Skinner family living in Chapel Street in Stratford in Essex. The household consists of the widowed Mary Skinner, aged 35 and not born in Essex, and her five children aged from 13 to 2 years old. Also there are her mother Mary Holbrook, a nurse aged 65 not born in Essex, and her brother Robert Holbrook, aged 22 and a smith. Her youngest child, Henry, born on the 2nd November 1838, was the only one to get his birth registered, and that confirms Mary’s maiden name as Holbrook, and his father as John Skinner, a shoemaker, deceased. So Mary Holbrook and her daughter Mary are not Stratford natives: between the birth of her daughter Mary in about 1808 and son Robert in 1819 Mary and John Holbrook had moved into Essex. It is more than likely that there were other children and the baptism registers for West Ham All Saints do show a John and Mary Holbrook presenting six children for baptism between 1804 and 1819, including a Mary, born on the 17th September 1810 and Robert born 11th December 1819. Some, if not most of these, - excepting Robert - are probably the children of John Holbrook and Mary Maxwell who married in West Ham on the 23rd January 1803. In the 1841 census Mary Holbrook is sure her daughter Mary was not born in Essex - after all she was there at the time, and when she registered her death on the 4th September 1842, she gives her age as 34, so born in 1808. Now the search moves west a few miles across the River Lea out of Essex and into Middlesex where a Mary Holbrook was born on the 9th February 1808 in St Anne, Limehouse, with parents John and Mary, living in Limehouse Causeway. She appears to have had two brothers, John born on the 25th December 1805, and William born on the 19th July 1810. Unfortunately the most likely marriage of a John Holbrook to a Mary took place at St Leonard’s church in neighbouring Bromley on the 10th February 1807, where the bride’s surname looks like Motin - variously transcribed as Morton, Molton or Motton, though I quite fancy a mis-hearing of Mountain. Of course it wasn’t unheard of for people to get married after the birth of a child ... and these locations would certainly fit with John’s occupation of rigger, carpenter and shipwright as given on various certificates. The dates also make it possible that the George and Thomas Holbrook born in West Ham in 1813 and 1817 respectively also belong to my John and Mary. So I needed to find two Holbrook couples, both called John and Mary, in Stratford or West Ham in the 1830s and 1840s, and the clue seems to lie in the churches they attended: mine seem to be Chapel, the others seem to be Church. The Mary Holbrook who died on the 29th December 1841 aged 66, and a pauper was buried at West Ham All Saints on the 2nd January 1842; her abode is given as the Union House, Leyton. She appears there on the 1841 census, where her birthplace is given as Essex. She is, I hope, Mary Maxwell. Another Mary Holbrook died on the 1st August 1847, aged 66, in Stratford; she is described as the widow of John Holbrook, carpenter, and the informant is Emma Skinner, her granddaughter, from Angel Lane, Stratford. She was buried in the Brickfields Chapel graveyard on the 8th August 1847, aged (annoyingly) 62. So this one is the mother of Robert Holbrook and Mary Skinner, the family living in Chapel Street at the time of the 1841 census. John Skinner had died on the 1st October 1838, aged 33, and Mary Holbrook, his mother-in-law registered his death; his burial on the 7th October is also recorded in the Register of Births and Baptisms of Brickfields Chapel or Stratford Congregational Church. A John Holbrook, aged 64, was buried at West Ham All Saints on the 5th May 1833, so hopefully the husband of Mary Maxwell. Another John Holbrook died in West Ham, aged 49, in 1832, and he was buried in the Brickfields Chapel graveyard, so this would certainly suggest that he was the father of Robert and Mary. A Thomas Holbrook married Mary Plaistowe in Leyton on the 6th October 1839. He gives his own occupation as stocking printer, and says his father was John Holbrook, deceased, a shipwright. Now this could possibly apply to either John Holbrook; however the combination of rigger, carpenter and shipwright is plausible, and as one of the witnesses is Mary Skinner, I suspect he is a brother to Robert and Mary. To further muddy the waters the West Ham baptisms only give father’s occupation after 1813, so for George baptised that year John Holbrook is a labourer; for Thomas baptised in 1817 he is a shop keeper; and for Robert in 1820 he is a dealer. In 1841 a Thomas Holbrook, a stocking dresser is living in Chapel Street with an Ann - is it an error on the part of the enumerator? Or is that how his wife was known? Perhaps there were too many Mary Holbrooks! When Robert Holbrook married in Stepney in 1843 he says his father was John Holbrook, a Rigger. The two witnesses are Thomas Holbrook, Robert’s brother, and Mary Holbrook, who makes her mark, and who could be Thomas’s wife, or perhaps their mother. A fair proportion of the above is speculation as is clear, I hope, from my use of “probable” and “possible” and so on. It is however a more likely account than one I found on an Ancestry family tree, where Mary Holbrook was born in Westminster, had acquired a middle name of Elizabeth, had children in Stratford, and was buried in Clapham two years before she died in Westminster!
Bradley families: the Skinners The Skinner family from Witham in Essex: baymakers and cordwainers
Click on map to enlarge. Ordnance Survey Old Series East London 1805. Showing how close West Ham, Stratford, Bromley and Limehouse are to each other in reality; a fact that gets lost in modern day, overcrowded maps. A scan from the Timeline Historical Map 177 which now seems to be out of print.