Family historians visiting Mersea Museum's new Resource Centre, on Saturday open days over the last few months, have made a beeline for the new computers. Here, if successful, they can 'meet their ancestors'. On the computers, are hundreds of pages of information and images, where a simple search on a family name can yield some surprising results. A click on the link 'People in Census and Registers' from the Search page will identify islanders who were living here from as early as 1600, when 'Good Queen Bess' was still on the throne. The most complete records date from the early 19th century when ten-yearly censuses produced lists of every man, woman and child living in every parish in the kingdom. These and other registers can now be consulted in the museum and also on the Mersea Museum website: www.merseamuseum.org.uk
When Henry VIII established the new Church of England, he ordered that every parish should keep registers recording baptisms, burials and marriages. Sadly, many of the original books have been lost, including those of East Mersea, whose surviving registers date only from 1813. West Mersea is more fortunate, with marriage and baptismal registers from the reign of King Charles I, and burial registers from1678. Frustratingly, some early entries are indecipherable, and pages are missing or out of order. During the Civil War, West Mersea's vicar was ejected for Royalist sympathies, and the registers were not kept up regularly. However, we can trace many early family units, such as that of Richard Dunning, whose three marriages in 11 years are all recorded. Perhaps his first two wives succumbed to the perils of childbirth, or the marsh ague for which Mersea Island was notorious. Between them, the three wives produced only one living child, Mary Dunning, baptised on 28th July, 1639.
Regular readers of the Courier will remember the history articles of Sylvia Wargent, in which she painted a vivid picture of life in Elizabethan Mersea, using information from wills in the Essex Record Office. Many Essex wills and parish registers have now been digitised and can be seen online (go to www.essexarchivesonline.co.uk/ and search for names or document references). Mersea Museum's website now includes a 17th century database which combines personal details from local wills with information from parish registers and other records such as the Quarter Sessions, Assize Courts, Conveyances or Hearth Tax assessments.
Putting all available information on the same database gives a fuller picture of many individuals, and provides references to documents which can be consulted for further research. In a will, reference D/ABW 66/31 , we learn that Richard Dunning's daughter, Mary, mentioned above, received a bequest of £15 'of lawful English money' from her uncle, William Dunning. He was an illiterate seaman whose will, made in 1670, is signed with a 'mark'. William Dunning himself does not appear in the parish registers, but his will provides evidence of his property and relationships. Various bequests show that he had married into the Cooke family, and also had a 'very true friend', a spinster named Frances Gunn, to whom he left £25. If the executors failed to pay Frances Gunn her legacy, she was to have all his half-yearly interest in his 'Sea-Vessel commonly called the William and John wherein I have usually dredged.'
William Dunning's 'mark' - before universal education, many adults were unable to sign their names
We can find out about the homes of many islanders by looking at Hearth Tax records for 1662 and 1671. This was a primitive rating system, by which every householder had to pay one shilling twice a year for each fireplace or stove in their home. The surviving lists give an idea of relative wealth and size of house. Only 48 houses were listed in West Mersea in 1662, ranging from the substantial 8-hearth home of William Smyth, to the 20 cottages where the only heat or cooking facility for the whole family was a single hearth. East Mersea is listed as having 34 houses, the largest being the 8-hearth home of the wealthy widow, Rosa Mathews. The Lord of the Manor of East Mersea, living in the 6-hearth East Mersea Hall, was Robert Bellamy, a wealthy London fishmonger who had supported Parliament in the Civil War, and is commemorated in East Mersea Church.
The Essex Quarter Session records in the Essex Record Office show that Mersea Island was a less tranquil community than today. In 1610, John Harvey of East Mersea was indicted for mortally wounding his son, John Harvey, with an axe. The miller of West Mersea, John Turner, was accused in 1628 of raping Mary Gardner, a spinster aged only 12. Perhaps inevitably, she was the only witness, and after a spell in Colchester Castle gaol, John Turner was acquitted. Local feuds often ended in court: in 1647 the butcher, Mathew Damon, was acquitted of stealing 5s 6d from the alehouse keeper, Thomas Saunders. Damon then appeared as sole witness to indict the same Thomas Saunders for allowing excessive drinking. Even the vicar of West Mersea, John Woolhouse, was summoned to appear at court in 1657 with six of his parishioners, for refusing to pay their share of the Highway Rate. Since the 'highways' consisted of muddy tracks, any maintenance or repair simply consisted of filling up potholes with stones!
Documents in the Essex Record Office, which can be searched by surname or placenamme on the Essex Archives website, reveal valuable information about the lives of some ordinary people who have otherwise vanished from history. For example, we know from a Marriage Settlement of 1676 that 'a parcel of land or marsh called The Rey' in West Mersea, was 'formerly in the tenure or occupation of John Sengar at a yearly rent of 21 shillings'[£1.05p]! Sadly, we know nothing else about John Sengar.
If you are interested in discovering more about your Mersea ancestors, log on to Mersea Museum website, click Search, then 'People in Census and Registers' and look for your family name. Further searching under the term '17th century' will establish if your forbears may have lived here over 300 years ago. There you will see 8 entries under the surname 'Cooke' and 13 under Smith or Smyth. Surprisingly, however, the registers for that period have no examples of some traditional Mersea names, such as French, Musset, de Witt or Pullen, who probably arrived on the island in the 18th century.
The research is continuing: we are currently working on further wills, census, tithe map and Methodist baptism records, and will soon include East Mersea names on the 17th century database. We hope that every year more historical records, images and information will be available to residents and visitors who come to Mersea Museum's new Resource Centre.
Published in Mersea Courier, 4 March 2011.