Grace Benham, MA History student at the University of Essex, has recently embarked on a twelve-week placement with the Essex Record Office. She is working with a collection of oral history interviews in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, which documents the establishment of domestic refuges in London and the East of England (Acc. SA853).
When I chose to apply for a work placement as a part of my MA programme, applying to the Essex Record Office was an easy choice. As a Colchester resident born and bred, being able to engage with local history on such a practical level, working with an institution that holds interviews of my own grandmas on their lives – it was incredibly exciting to be accepted. I wanted to do a work placement as I wish to pursue a career in history, particularly archives, exhibitions or museums, and so such an experience is invaluable, as well as simply just really interesting.
Due to the unfortunate circumstances which have affected us all, I was unable to participate in the original placement project which required collecting oral history interviews. I therefore had a choice on which archives I would like to engage with remotely. It, again, was another easy choice: to get involved with the ‘You Can’t Beat a Woman’ collection of oral history interviews and to research, catalogue and produce blogs about it. A subject dear to my heart, I have found the study of the founding of women’s refuges in Essex and London is as inspiring as it is difficult to listen to. I have chosen to start this project by homing in on Colchester specifically, as the collection is vast and a geographical focus was the most obvious and compelling place to start.
What is immediately apparent in listening to these interviews is the incredibly dedicated and tenacious people who founded Colchester Refuge from the ground up. The practical, legal, economic, societal and emotional work required to provide a safe place and an abundance of resources for female victims of domestic violence is extremely evident and it is nothing less than admirable the way in which these predominantly women, with little to no previous experience in any related fields, fought for, and eventually founded, the refuge against the odds. I even had the honour to talk with Dr June Freeman, a key founding member of Colchester Refuge, author, and lecturer who compiled these interviews and who was the subject of several of these interviews. June made a great emphasis on what an uphill struggle they faced, as domestic violence was not even known as it is today. It was seen as a problem that should be kept private and within families, a problem which held little support from the police, courts, doctors and even social workers. The founders had to work tirelessly to convince Colchester Borough Council of the importance of a refuge and to finance such a venture without help.
Sadly, another recurring theme in the interviews is a feeling that at the time of the interviews (2017) a loss of funding and interest in domestic violence is occurring in Essex and across the country. This rings unfortunately true as current circumstances have led to a rise in domestic violence. Domestic abuse charity Refuge reports that calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have increased by about 66% since lockdown began in March, while the website received a 700% increase in visits in one day. As such the opportunity to listen and learn from these oral histories is more important than ever.
We are grateful to the Friends of Historic Essex and the University of Essex for their financial support in making this placement possible.
If you need support to deal with domestic abuse, please call the helpline below or check out the following guidance.
Julie Miller, a masters student from University of Essex, has taken up a research placement at the Essex Record Office, conducting an exploration into the story of John Farmer and his adventures, particularly in pre-revolutionary America, and has been jointly funded by the Friends of Historic Essex and University of Essex. Julie will be publishing a series of updates from the 12-week project.
In part 8 of this series, we change tack to explore the life of John’s wife Mary Farmer.
There is an old saying that
behind every great man there is a great woman.
In the case of John Farmer, wool comber, Quaker, traveller and slavery
abolitionist, this is certainly true, in that he had an unusually independent
Mary Wyatt was born 8:9mo 1665 (8th
November 1665) to Thomas and Etheldered Wyatt, the eldest of twelve siblings.
An annotated list of the births of her numerous brothers and sisters, and sadly
the deaths of four of them in infancy, is held in the Essex Record Office
archive, an unusual survival of a complete family list from the time.
The Wyatt family appear
throughout the Thaxted and Saffron Walden Quaker archives, a large family who
left a lasting mark on the records of their community in the 17th
and 18th centuries.
of Wyatt siblings ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle of birth & burial notes Thaxted
Mary Wyatt married Samuel Fulbigg
of Haverhill in 1689. Their only
daughter, also called Mary was born on 16th day of 5th
month 1690 (16th July 1690) in Saffron Walden.[ii]
Birth Record of
Mary Fulbigg : ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle I.1 of birth & burial notes Thaxted
Tragically this marriage was not
to last long. Another note in the
archives tells us that on 1st of 10 mo 1692 (1st December 1692)
Samuel was buried, having been killed when the funnel fell from his brewing
copper the previous Monday (2nd Day). This awful accident left Mary
as a widow at 27 years old, with an 18-month-old baby to look after.
Burial Record of
Samuel Fulbigg : ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle I.1 of birth & burial notes
Originally from Somerset, John
Farmer came to Saffron Walden in late 1697 or early 1698. I first find him in a Monthly Meeting at
Thaxted in April 1698 showing as donating a shilling for the relief of a Quaker
in need[iii]. He was an itinerant wool comber, as was
fellow Quaker Zacharias Wyatt, the younger brother of Mary Fulbigg. It is possible that as they shared a common
employment, perhaps Zacharias brought John Farmer to Saffron Walden. Or perhaps they met when John Farmer joined
their Quaker meeting, but at some point it is likely that Zacharias introduced
his widowed sister Mary to John Farmer.
Mary had not been idle since
being widowed. According to a comment in
John Farmer’s journal she had travelled 1400 miles in the ministry before he
met her, and she had “a gift of prophesy
or preaching given her by ye Lord before she was my wife”.[iv]
Marriage was a welcome gift to John Farmer who had agonised in his diary about
the fears of giving into temptation and vanity.
Farmer wrote in his journal that when they married 27:5mo 1698 (27th
“Ye Lord preserved mee in many Temptations from being destroyed by them. In & by his advice and help I took an honist Friend to bee my wife in ye way of marriage used amongst us”.[v]
Married life does not appear to
have stopped either Mary or John from traveling. In July 1700, Sampford Women’s
Meeting heard from Mary Farmer that she intended to take a journey along with
another Friend, Elizabeth Spice of Saffron Walden “upon the sword of truth through Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire to
visit meetings there” and permission to travel was granted. A month later
the Thaxted Women’s meeting received 15 shillings from Mary, perhaps collected
on her journey. [vi]
Ten months later John and Mary Farmer’s only daughter Ann
was born 1:3 mo 1701 (1st May 1701).[vii] Now having two young children one might have
expected Mary to settle into domestic life.
But Farmer’s journal comments that by 1714 she had travelled a further
1700 miles in her own ministry.
In December 1702 Mary Farmer was
asked by the Monthly Meeting to work with two other women Friends to sell the
property of deceased widow Elizabeth James and settle her funeral expenses,
bringing any residue back to the Meeting.
Clearly this was a task which required someone to be held in the utmost
trust and seems to have gone well.
In 1704 Mary went on an extended five-month long journey
travelling in the South and West of England, recorded in John Farmer’s journal, while he
was left at home to care for the children:
“In ye year 1704 my wife was moved & inabled by ye Lord to travel 5 months in his service in ye west & south of England. Shee had a good journey & did service for ye Lord in it. & came well home to mee & our children wch bee also well. Blessed bee God for it. Before she went shee told ye monthly meeting of it & recived a ceirtificate from them to carry with her.”[viii]
However her husband’s description
of Mary as an ‘honist friend’ was
possibly a little dubious. A significant
issue had hung over the Farmer family both before, and for some years after,
their marriage and related to a legacy for Mary Fulbigg (Mary Farmer’s daughter
from her first marriage) from Grace Fulbigg, her grandmother, and it came to a
head in 1705.
John Farmer commented in his
“In ye year 1705 the enemy strove to destroy severall of us in & by a difference about Earthly things. But blessed bee ye Lord for his making use of our friends called Quakers to save us whereby also by his Spirit in us hee ended ye difference & saved us from disstruction.”
It was noted in the Monthly Meeting on 26th
July 1698 (the day before the Farmers got married) that the permission was
granted “Depending on the resolution of
£10 owed to Mary Fullbigg Junior from her grandmother’s will”.[ix] At the time £10 was worth £1070 in today’s
money, the equivalent of 4 months work for a skilled tradesman at the time[x].
It seems this issue remained unresolved until
1705 when the matter was raised by John Mascall who noted in the Monthly Meeting
on 20th March that he “desires
ye judgement of ye said meeting concerning JF”. At the next meeting on 24th April
John Farmer himself raised the subject, asking if the £10 given for the use of
his daughter in law (step daughter) could be placed in his own hands against
him offering his house as surety. In
June the Monthly Meeting asked John Farmer to sign a double bond of £16 for the
use of Mary Fulbigg, and trustees were appointed, one of whom was Thomas Wyatt,
Mary Farmer’s father. But at the meeting
on 28:6mo 1705 (28th October 1705) the whole
family dispute came to a terrible head when Thomas Wyatt and his son Zacharias came
to the monthly meeting and publicly accused Mary Farmer of destroying Grace
“The case of difference being …the said Mary of destroying a widdows will made by the advice of her relations before marriage to the said John and left in her own hands to address wherein was ten pounds given to a daughter which the said Mary had by a former husband.”[xi]
The meeting insisted this “mischief” be resolved immediately and at
the first meeting of 1706 the Friends gathered at Henham to witness a bond
given from John Farmer to John Wale of ten pounds by the direction of the
quarterly meeting for the use of Mary Fulbigg.
The Meeting directed that Henry Starr should keep it for her and John
Farmer eventually confirmed to the Monthly Meeting on 25th February
1706/7 that the bond was signed and sealed, and now in the hands of Henry
Starr. Having sorted out the mess his wife appeared to have caused, at the same
meeting John Farmer then advised them he would be heading off on his travels, but
not surprisingly the somewhat irritated meeting advised him to request
permission of the Quarterly Meeting first.
Perhaps the reluctance to allow
him to travel was because in 1703 Zacharias Wyatt had to advise the Meeting
that John Farmer had “gone forth a journey into ye Northern parts” [xii]
and he had not waited to get a certificate, but asked Zacharias to procure one,
and get Mary Farmer to send it on to him.
It seems clear John Farmer was always going to be a rule-breaker and
Mary Farmer was something of a willing accomplice. Perhaps it was Farmer’s need to travel that
had prompted the Friends to pin down the details of Mary Fulbigg’s legacy
before he took off again.
When John Farmer travelled north eventually in 1707 Mary
accompanied him to Nottingham and then came home to wait for him. When he reappeared in September 1708 he
immediately moved his family to Colchester where they then resided for three
years, him working as a wool comber and she as a nurse before he decided to go
travelling again, this time on a 3-year trip to pre-revolutionary America. John Farmer moved Mary and her daughters back
to Saffron Walden and the Monthly Meeting accepted them back on 20th
September 1711. He noted that Mary was working as a nurse and she had decided
to be amongst Friends at Saffron Walden while she nursed her now lame daughter
Despite her husband being in
America Mary did not stop performing the ministry work she also felt called to
do, and in March 1713 she requested and was granted a certificate to visit
churches in Suffolk and Norfolk. In July
1714 she appeared in the records again having returned a certificate for
travelling in the North and had acquainted the Friends that she now intended to
go to Holland[xiii].
John Farmer arrived back in the Thaxted
Meeting records on 30:9mo 1714 (30th November 1714) and they were
delighted to receive the many certificates he had collected from America. However at the same meeting he announced he
would be returning immediately to America and they drafted a lengthy
certificate allowing him to go.
Interestingly although several women did sign the certificate, Mary
Farmer was not one of them.
Before he travelled back to
America John Farmer wrote out in full his journal, from the notes he had
gathered on his travels, and attached to it an epistle with instructions that
the Journal was to be published. It
seems this never happened, and we have to wonder with whom he left the
document. A tantalising clue lies on
page 6 of the document. Farmer is
discussing financial matters and mentions when he married Mary “Her estate was valued at upwards of …” and
the next word has been neatly cut out of the page. Then he mentions “I saved for my selfe by my labour and God’s blessing upwards of …”
and again the word had been cut out of the page. It’s only a theory, but my hunch is that Mary
may have removed this personal information – she did after all apparently have
previous for destroying financial information! [xiv]
John Farmer’s Journal showing excisions – Essex Record Office A13685 box 51 – page 6
A couple of letters from John
Farmer to Mary survive at the Essex Record Office. One particularly poignant
one is from him in Virginia dated 1st of 4mo 1716 (1st
June 1716) instructing Mary to send her belongings to Philadelphia, via Anthony
Morris and detailing how she and the children were to travel to him, as he now
planned to settle in America. But for
some reason, which we do not know, she never went, and never saw her husband
After a number of adventures in
America detailed in my previous posts John Farmer died in 1724 and in his will
he left all his English possessions to Mary Farmer. He left his American
possessions to his daughter Ann. Mary
promptly sent Ann to America to claim her inheritance and Mary began her own
foreign adventure, travelling to Holland and Denmark in the ministry in 1725. She
also left a handwritten account of her journey, where alongside her testimony
she revealed encounters with pirates, fierce storms and other adventures. [xvi]
Mary Farmer’s Journal 1725 ERO A13685 Box 51
John’s stepdaughter Mary Fulbigg
stayed in Saffron Walden and kept a notebook for many years. Her book noted that
her mother Mary Farmer had died 13th of 2nd month 1747
(13th of April 1747) at the extraordinary age of 82. [xvii]
Extract – Mary
Fulbigg’s Journal – ERO A13685 Box 51
So far I have found no record of
what finally happened to Mary Fulbigg. The last entry in her notebook is dated
3mo 24 1762 (24th March 1762).
She would have been nearly 72 years old so perhaps she died not long
afterwards. Hopefully the record lies somewhere still to be found. Both Mary Fulbigg and Mary Farmer’s handwritten
books are here in the Essex Record Office and will be part of my future study
Ann Farmer finally travelled to
America in early 1725. The daughter who hadn’t seen her father for ten years
applied to the Thaxted Friends Men’s Meeting for a certificate to attend
Philadelphia Meeting on 23: 12th 1724 (23rd February
to claim her inheritance. Her certificate also indicated helpfully that she was
clear of any attachments in England and free to marry, should she wish to. Ann went on to become a small part of the
American founding story. She married
Benjamin Boone, uncle of the frontiersman Daniel Boone, on 31st
October 1726 and had one son, John Boone born in December 1727, but sadly Ann
died very shortly after of complications from childbirth, at the age of only 26[xix]. John Boone was reported to have been brought
up at his Uncle Squire Boone’s house alongside his cousins including the famous
Daniel (b 1734), until his father remarried in 1738. John Boone went on to have 9 children, founding
a Boone dynasty in Hunting Creek, Rowan County, North Carolina the eldest of
whom, Benjamin Boone became a Baptist Reverend [xx].
I am not sure John Farmer would
Thus we come to the end of the
story of the Essex Quaker and his family for now. It is by virtue of the fact that the Thaxted
and Saffron Walden Quakers kept such comprehensive records that the family’s
adventures, squabbles and dedication to their faith have come down to us in
such glorious detail and nearly 300 years after John Farmer died we can still
hear his voice, in the twenty-thousand-word journal that he laboured over, “Written in obedience to God for ye
good of souls in this and future ages” [xxi]. If only he could have known just how far into
the future his words would travel.
ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle of birth & burial notes Thaxted
ERO A13685 Box 49 Bundle I.1 of birth & burial notes Thaxted 1665-1745
Adrian Corder-Birch is
retired; he has interests in local history, genealogy and industrial
Where is your ‘office’? I prefer to call it a study rather than an office and it is situated on the ground floor. It contains part of my reference library, a laptop, computer and printer. My wife, Pam, has her study in the balcony room on the first floor.
Do you have a view out of a window when you are working? What is it and is it a distraction? I am fortunate enough to have two windows. One, where my main desk is, faces west towards the drive. The other, where my computer is located, faces south across our front garden where magnolia, cherry and other trees are in full bloom, with azaleas and rhododendrons just beginning to come out.
What Essex research are you catching up on? Will this result in something published? I am currently completing research for a book about the history of the Portway family and their foundry in Halstead where tortoise stoves were manufactured. Pam is compiling a separate book about the history of Bois Hall (now demolished) which was a former home to the Portway and many other families. It is our intention that both books are published and launched simultaneously, when circumstances permit.
Do you set yourself a strict timetable to work to or just pick up your research as and when? I no longer work to a strict timetable as I am retired.
Do you have a favourite online resource? I use several online resources and it is difficult to suggest a favourite. Those I use regularly include Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive, Free BMD and of course Essex Archives Online including Parish Registers. I also keep an eye on EBAY and sometimes purchase items relating to Essex history.
your favourite research beverage and snack?
A cup of tea and this time of the year a hot cross bun.
Apart from the news, is there anything that distracts you from your research? I am sometimes distracted by wildlife in the garden including squirrels climbing everywhere, noisy partridges, green woodpeckers and occasionally a spotted woodpecker. I am very fortunate to see this wildlife, which is well worth being distracted. The main disturbance this time of the year is from rooks, building a rookery in our oak trees and making quite a noise.
What are you most looking forward to when you are able to visit ERO again? One of the benefits of the lockdown is that I am beginning to sort through documents and photographs, which should be deposited at the Essex Record Office. I am looking forward to normal service being resumed so that I can deliver these records, which will undoubtedly help historians in the future. This will provide an opportunity to see the archivists and archive assistants again, many of whom I have known for some years and have become good friends, quite apart from being extremely helpful and sharing their extensive knowledge.