Three Sisters and a Lunatic

What sort of sources do you use for your Family History, and how much can you trust them? If you are researching Rugby’s local history you will rely on the writings of Matthew Holbeche BLOXAM (1805-1888) the antiquarian, whose home was the building now known as the Percival Guildhouse – home of Rugby Family History Group. But can you trust him? I recently had cause to doubt his word.

Earlier this year I attended Who Do You Think You Are? Live at Olympia and spent a couple of hours manning the FFHS stand. One of the many questions that we received concerned Rugby, so I tried to help. Laura Hunt was trying to locate the Manorial Documents of Hillmorton. One of her ancestors, Thomas Penn VERNON, was named as Lord of the Manor there. Since I live in Hillmorton this was of particular interest to me, so after taking her details, I promised to look into the matter.

On my return it was obvious that Laura’s information had come from the Victoria County History of Warwickshire, which stated that: “The last ASTLEY to hold interests in Hillmorton was Sir Edward, who was lord in 1764–5. He presumably sold it to one of the YARDLEYs, as in 1784 the manor was held jointly by Thomas Penn VERNON and Mary his wife, and Alice and Martha YARDLEY”

I then checked Bloxam’s Account of the Parish of Hillmorton, which had been published in one of the Rugby Almanacs. What a shock to discover that he said something completely different. He said that the Manor had been sold by Sir Edward ASTLEY, in 1771, to James VERE, a London merchant (for £10,120). James VERE died in 1778/9 and left the manor to: “William GROVE  and Richard BURGH, of the city of Coventry, Esquires, and Jeremiah LOWE, of the same place, gentleman, their heirs and assigns, upon trust for sale, after the death of certain persons in his will mentioned.”

In 1797 the only surviving trustee was Richard BURGH and more trustees were appointed, Charles NEWCOMB and John WOODCOCK. In 1808 changes were made: “under the provisions of an Act passed in the second year of George the Second to enable lunatic trustees to convey trust estates, the Manor was conveyed to Robert BAXTER, his heirs and assigns, to the use of Charles NEWCOMB, John WOODCOCK, and Peter VERE, the latter a new trustee, their heirs and assigns for ever.”

The Lunatic was Richard BURGH and Bloxam said “At one time he was legally, though a mere trustee, sole Lord of the Manor of Hlllmorton. He was under the care of Mr FOSBROOKE, a medical gentleman, at Rugby, who lived where Mr J. MORETON now lives. Mr BURGH used to ramble about with an attendant always accompanying him”  He also gives a vivid account of his funeral in 1813. Bloxam witnessed this event himself, the grandest he ever saw in Rugby, from “a first floor window of the house now occupied by Mr. BILLINGTON”

So who to believe and how could I find the truth?

Luckily a quick look at the TNA website showed that most of the people named had their Wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) and on the next trip to Kew I was able to print most of them off. Also in the Catalogue was a Chancery Document of 1806 concerning “Richard Burgh, esq of Coventry, Warwickshire: commission and inquisition of lunacy, into his state of mind and his property.” so I ordered this and made a copy.

The first Will I looked at was that of Thomas BURGH (Richard’s father) proved in 1771. He was a Doctor of Physick, of Coventry. He mentioned no property in Hillmorton (or Rugby) and his executors were his wife and son Richard.

Richard’s Will (written in 1803 and proved in 1813) described him as Esquire, of Coventry and he left property in the County of Stafford, in Wolscott in Warwickshire and in Coventry. Would there be any mention of Hillmorton in the Lunacy document?

This inquisition took place at the Kings Head Inn in Smithford Street, Coventry on the 3rd April 1806 and was: “directed to inquire (amongst other things) of the Lunacy of Richard Burgh of the said City of Coventry Esquire upon the Oaths of Joseph SMITH, Robert BUNNEY, George LANT, Thomas MORRIS,, Thomas EWBANK, Joseph NEWCOMB, Thomas OSMOND, William Ward EAGLE, John CARR, Charles LILLY, Charles RADFORD, Joseph SADEN, William SEALE, Thomas TEASDALE, William NEWCOMB and George ELD good honest and lawful Men of the said City and County of the same City who being Sworn and charged upon their Oaths say, That the said Richard Burgh is at the time of taking this Inquisition insane and not capable of managing his own Affairs and has been so for thirteen years now last past” It lists the property owned by Richard – the same as mentioned in his will, plus a house and farm in Radford Semele in the county of Warwick. This property was valued at more than five thousand pounds, but Richard had sold it one Isaac DODD for three thousand pounds. This was the sign of his insanity!

All very interesting, but there was no mention of the Manor of Hillmorton, so I turned to the VERNON and YARDLEY wills.

Thomas Penn VERNON was an apothecary, of Coventry. His will (written 1805 and proved 1806) mentioned property in Coventry “wherein I dwell” and elsewhere in Coventry, plus more property in Bewdley, Worcestershire. Nothing in Hillmorton.

Alice YARDLEY (1803/1805) was the spinster sister of Thomas’s wife Mary and lived in High Street, Coventry, with her other sister Martha and also owned a coach house in Cow Lane, Coventry. She mentioned “The estate of the late James VERE esquire at Hillmorton”

Martha YARDLEY (1805/codicil 1809/ 1812) the third sister was also a spinster, now living in Earl Street, Coventry, though she still owned the coach house in Cow Lane. She gave a bit more detail: “Money which will arise from the sale of a certain Estate at Hillmorton in the County of Warwick late the property of James VERE Esquire deceased and by him devised In trust to be sold at the decease of the Survivor of myself and my late sisters” was to be divided between children of Thomas Penn VERNON.

We can assume that this “certain estate in Hillmorton” is the Manor, although it doesn’t say so directly. How could I confirm it, and what was the relationship between James VERE and the three YARDLEY sisters?

Surveying the documents I had obtained, I realised that I had omitted to get the vital one – the PCC will of James VERE. By now the next trip to Kew was not until next autumn, so I decided to pay the £3.50 at TNA documentsonline. This will was worth every penny – it was fifteen pages long! Thankfully the information I was looking for was on the first page.

James VERE, Citizen and Merchant Taylor, of London left, to “Joseph VERNON, son of Thomas Pen VERNON and my niece, Mary his wife”, a parcel of land amounting to 21 acres “which I purchased of Edward DAY of Lutterworth in the County of Leicester Gentleman now in the Tenure or Occupation of Richard PETEVER and his Son of Hillmorton aforesaid” This was not the Manor, that was mentioned next “And I hereby give devise and bequeath my Manor of Hillmorton in the County of Warwick with the Rights Members and Appurtenances thereunto belonging and all other my Estates in the said County of Warwick or elsewhere except the said parcels of Land  therein before by me given and devised to my said Nephew Joseph VERNON  unto William GROVE and Richard BURGH of the City of Coventry Esquires and Jeremiah LOWE of the same place Gentleman their Heirs and Assigns Upon Trust from time to time to pay the Rents and Profits of my said Manor and other Estates (Except as aforesaid) unto my Nieces Mary the Wife of the said Thomas Pen VERNON Alice YARDLEY and Martha YARDLEY” After several pages of the details of this trust at also mentions the “present Lease to William LOVETT  of Hillmorton aforesaid Yeoman of the premises”

With this and other information included in the will (James VERE seems to have been unmarried and very rich, so mentions many other relatives) Laura was able to identify the relationships, which, together with the appearance of the family in Burkes Landed Gentry, enabled her to extend her family back several generations back to 1650. It turns out the family originally came from Cester Over House, in the parish of Monks Kirby. Perhaps with more research she will get even further.

And I have discovered more about the Manor of Hillmorton, although we still haven’t tracked down the Manorial Documents (the details of where they are, should be at TNA).

I don’t know enough about the legal Ins and Outs of Trusts to be able to say exactly who was the Lord of the Manor of Hillmorton for this period, whether it was the Three Sisters or the Lunatic, but the Victoria County History and Bloxam’s account have been reconciled. In the end they were both right.

Christine Hancock

Various PCC Wills
C 211/3/B204 – Inquisition of Lunacy
Burkes Landed Gentry (Google Books)
Victoria County History of Warwickshire (online at )
Rugby Almanac (in Rugby Library)