We are fortunate that the Museum has been given copies of various old documents relating to the Eley family. From these we know that James Eley was born in Broadstone House in Pembridge which is a small place about 7 miles from Leominster in Herefordshire. Based on his age on his gravestone, he would have been born about 1762. The I.G.I. has a record of the baptism of James Eley in Etnam Street Baptist Chapel in Leominster on 17th April 1762. His parents were James Eley and his wife, Ann (nee Taylor). James’s father was a Revenue Officer or ‘Exciseman’ as they were often called. In a journal written by James (Junior) in 1808 when making a return visit to Leominster he recalled meeting an old acquaintance of his father’s who described him as being ‘as honest a man who ever carried a gauging stick’. Apparently excisemen carried a gauging stick for measuring the quantity of liquor.
At an early age, James’s family moved into Leominster. James was apprenticed to a Mr Sayer who was a staymaker in Leominster. The family notes say that James moved to Thornbury in 1790 at the age of 28, but Scribes Alcove website has a record of his marriage in Thornbury in 1787. He married his first cousin, Elizabeth Greenwood, on 19th April of that year. Elizabeth was the daughter of William Greenwood the younger, a baker and his wife, Mary. We understand that the framed silhouettes above show James and Elizabeth.
We were delighted to hear from Lois Hants, a descendent of the Eley family. Lois has inherited a silver watch which was made for James Eley by a Thornbury watchmaker called ‘Collins.’ We believe that this refers to one of the well known family of watchmakers called ‘Collings’, possibly Samuel Collings. Lois has kindly sent us several mages of the watch and the inserts stored inside the watch.
The outside of the watch is plain as can be seen from the image on the right. There are no markings to indicate any Thornbury connection on the face or rear of the watch case. The markings inside the case indicate that it was made by a silversmith Nicholas Thomas Wood of St John’s Square Clerkenwell. Click on the thumbnails below however and you will see from first one the obvious quality and intricate decoration of its mechanism. The name of ‘James Eley Thornbury’ is clearly engraved on the brasswork. The second thumbnail shows two of the handwritten inserts stored in the back of the watch. These say that the watch was made in 1786 by Collins of Thornbury and detail how the watch was passed from James Eley down through the family eventually reaching Lois’s mother, Joan Hants, in 1965. We assume that Collins (or Collings as the family was later known) made the mechanism which was then inserted into a case made in London.
There are other inserts bearing the marks of four different watch and clock makers who have serviced the watch at various times during its life. It is interesting to see that these include J. Frewin of Sodbury.
We assume from this evidence that James Eley was indeed in Thornbury at this time.
The family notes show that they don’t know the reason for James’ move to Thornbury, although it is suggested that there might be a connection with the family solicitor, Richard Scarlett. We note however from earlier records of Thornbury that James’s father had come from Thornbury and he was buried in the Thornbury Baptist Church on 13th January 1803 aged 63. There is a record of a marriage in Thornbury on 10th February 1760 of James Eley and Ann Taylor. We feel this is likely to be the same James and Ann Eley, who were James’s parents. The connection with the Scarlett family is explained by that fact that James’s sister, Hannah Eley married a Richard Scarlett in 1747 and there seems to be a close link between the two families as shown in the family notes.
From our own records of land tax in Thornbury, we know that James Eley owned and occupied a house in Thornbury in 1800 and he also owned the house next door, which we know to be numbers 1 and 2 The Plain. It is possible that these properties were previously owned by Elizabeth’s parents as the land tax records show that they owned two properties in this area of the Town. James continued to own the two houses and to occupy one of them until at least 1832 when the land tax records finish.
We’re puzzled that James’s children, at least most of them, were baptised at the Baptist Chapel in Wotton Under Edge. James and his wife, Elizabeth had at least 7 children although several of them died young. Note the following ‘dates of birth’ are taken from the IGI and we are suspicious of the date shown against Mary and suspect it may relate to the baptism date rather than birth date. Martha born 13th January 1788, Selina born on 28th August 1791 who died 12th June 1812 aged 18, Thomas born 14th January 1794, Ann born 20th March 1796 who died on 2nd December 1823 aged 27, Elizabeth 12th October 1798, James born in 1803 and died on 24th October 1803 aged 5 months, Mary born 24th March 1805 and died 14th May 1822 aged 21 and James born 31st October 1805.
James was a staunch Baptist and he had the honour of laying the first stone for the building of the Baptist Meeting House on 15th August 1788. We understand that he often conducted the services there. Many of the family members were buried in the Chapel grounds and we understand that James’s daughter, Elizabeth, gave some land for the building of the Baptist Chapel at Morton.
Apart from his work as staymaker and linen draper (as shown in his will), James had several other interests in the Town. The family notes show that James became Overseer of the Poor and Clerk to the Magistrates in Thornbury. His obituary in the Bath Chronicle mentions he was clerk to the magistrates for many years. We also see from our own records that James became Mayor of Thornbury 1812/1814. The trade directories show that James was an actuary at the Savings Bank in 1830 and he was was also listed as a fire office agent in the same directory.
We don’t know much about James’s wife Elizabeth except she died on 16th July 1814 aged 51. James’ journal of his visit to Pembridge in 1808 shows he held his wife in high regard and esteem. Whilst listening to a matrimonial case at the Sessions, when a husband was sent to prison on the complaint of his wife, he thought, “That was a fine specimen of matrimony, and hugged himself to think that the pear he had chosen was not of that pot!”
James died on 6th December 1831 aged 70. In James’s will dated 3rd May 1831, James was described as a linen draper. He left the two houses on The Plain to his daughter, Martha. He left various closes of land to his sons, Thomas and James and his daughter, Elizabeth. The will mentions that some, if not all, of these closes of land had been left to James by William Osborne. James also gave sums of £100 to Thomas and Elizabeth, and gave James his silver watch and acknowledged that he had already advanced James £40.
Following James’s death, his two daughters, Martha and Elizabeth, continued living at number 1 The Plain. In 1834, Martha was charged with possessing four defective weights at the Petty Sessional Court held at the Swan on 22nd December. She was found guilty, her weights were forfeited and she was fined six shillings with eight shillings costs. James’s son, Thomas, died on 7th February 1837. The 1840 Tithe Survey shows that Martha owned three plots, Plot 200 the house in which she lived, Plot 201 the house rented out to George Rice, a butcher and Plot 199, the garden which she was also shown as being the occupant.
In the 1841 census shows Martha and Elizabeth living in the house at 1 The Plain. Martha was a stationer aged 53 and Elizabeth was a milliner aged 42. There seems to be two other people in the house, Jane Bevan, a shoe binder aged 30 and Eliza Bindon, a female servant aged 20. The trade directories list Elizabeth as a milliner and straw hat maker in 1830 and 1842. Martha is listed as a bookseller and stationer in 1849 and 1852. She also took over as ‘Fire and Life Assurance Agent Agent’. We know from a notice placed in the newspaper following her death that Martha ‘kept the depot of the Bible Society and the Religious Society for several years and was much beloved by a large circle of friends’.
Both Martha and Elizabeth died in 1850, Martha on 9th January aged 63 and Elizabeth on 1st March 1850 aged 52. In Martha’s will she left the houses for the use of her sister, Elizabeth, but after her death they were to be left to her brother James who is shown in the photo on the left.
James (junior) became a saddler. In 1829, James had married a lady called Ann who was born in Horton in Hampshire. They had settled to live in Canonbury Street, Berkeley where they had a large family of 12 children. They appeared to keep the ownership of the two houses in Thornbury and rented them out. The Rate Book of 1876 shows that the two houses were owned by ‘Mrs Eley’, James having died in 1861. The Bristol Mercury of March 25th 1865 announced the death on March 11th of that year of Alice, the fifth daughter of the late James Eley. Alice was only nineteen and died at Berkeley where the family still lived at that time. In 1867 on September 7th at the Registrar’s Office in Bristol Henry Eley, second son of the late James Eley, married Harriett Fletcher Collings the the eldest daughter of Harris Collings of Thornbury. Alice, “the fourth daughter of the late Mr James Eley,” married George Chesterfield of London in the Union Chapel in Berkeley on October 1st 1867. The 1871 census shows Ann was living with her son, James, in Ryde, Isle of Wight. By the 1878 Rate Book the two houses on The Plain had been sold.
Of James’s other children: Thomas became a farmer and he settled in Morton with his wife, Sarah who was born in Kingswood.