John Parsonson 1772 – 1842 The Rebel

From a family of basket-makers, he wasn’t. He was a brazier, and quite obviously proud of it. Whilst I have no actual evidence of his life it can be recreated from the dates and times of his children. As a brazier he worked with brass. And his dates place him in the Napoleonic wars. We surmise that he worked on boats as his children were born in port towns. So probably on the cannons. He lived at Garden Row in 1841. His son Richard Woodlow founded the Shoreditch family of carvers and gilders. Bill Parsonson

John’s branch of the Parsonson family were cordwainers, (shoe makers), and the trade persisted for several generations. Thomas (senior) and Thomas (junior) Parsonson became Freemen of Sudbury in 1772. Another Thomas Parsonson who followed the same trade was admitted on July 10th, 1778 by birth. At the time it was common practice for son to follow father and John would have been expected to follow his father and become a cordwainer.

His parents, Thomas and Sarah, had a large family but not all the children survived infancy. Diversification into a different trade may have been essential if the shoe and boot making business had declined. His father must have been delighted when an opportunity arose for John to take up an apprenticeship with a new firm of braziers.

John was 15 in 1787 when two of Mr. William Humphry’s late workmen advertised their new business in ‘The Ipswich Journal’

The Ipswich Journal, October 27th, 1787

William Humphry was elected Mayor of Sudbury six times between 1771 and 1784. He was a member of one of the leading families of late 18th century Sudbury. The lucrative office of Stamp Distributor enriched him and his son Joseph but the family had traded as braziers since at least 1686 when Thomas Humphry had purchased the freedom.

William Ransom and Thomas Brackett worked for William Humphry as braziers until his death in October 1787. No sooner had he died than his former employees saw an opening for them to set up their own business making and mending all kinds of brass and tin goods. They obtained a shop in Friars Street near the Anchor Inn and William Ransom took the precaution of purchasing the Freedom of the Borough in order to avoid the restrictions on trade likely to be imposed on someone establishing a new business in Sudbury who was not a freeman. There was no need for Thomas Brackett to purchase the freedom as he had acquired it by birth in 1780, despite coming from Peckham in Surrey.

Image from the Historic Photo Archive for Sudbury showing the Anchor Inn, Friars Street, c. 1914

Having opened their new shop, William Ransom and Thomas Brackett needed an apprentice to learn how to work with brass and tin. John Parsonson’s father would have paid some form of premium for the transmission of skills through a seven year apprenticeship – perhaps as much as 10 or 12 guineas. Apprenticeship to a freeman in Sudbury could have led to the freedom although John was entitled to take it up by birth.

The UK Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures records that on February 29th, 1788, Messrs. Ransom & Co., braziers of Sudbury, paid the tax for their new apprentice’s indenture. After completing his servitude, John would have been an expert in manufacturing and mending coppers, brass washing kettles and tea kettles, saucepans, candlesticks, locks, hinges and spades etc.

John may have hoped to continue working for his masters but news of their business disappears from the local papers so perhaps, like Daniel Studd the Sudbury ironmonger and brazier, the business failed to prosper.

John Parsonson moved away from Sudbury. He may have worked in Norwich as his name appears on a register of Freemasons in December 1800 with the profession ‘brazier’. John married Susannah Woodlow and another move, to Great Yarmouth this time, saw the birth of a son in January 1808 but the little boy died in April of the same year. A daughter, Maria, was born the following year.

By 1815, John had returned to Sudbury with his wife and daughter and another son was born, named William after the baby who had died in Great Yarmouth. John Broadhurst was born in 1819 and Richard Woodlow in 1822. Both William and Richard grew up to be carvers and gilders, (specialising in picture and looking glass framing ), and did not carry on their father’s brazier business.

John was late to take the Freedom of Sudbury. It was not until 1818, an election year, that he was admitted by birth on June 18th together with 51 other candidates who were the sons of freemen and 4 candidates who had earned the right to the freedom through servitude. (The day before 38 men had been admitted by birth and 4 by servitude.) The election took place a day later on June 19th. John Broadhurst and William Heygate, who had been canvassing in the Borough for some weeks, promising to support trade and manufactures, were elected as Members of Parliament representing Sudbury. Both men had taken an independent line in Parliament and were prepared to spend considerable sums of money to tempt the freemen to vote for them. (Between 1818 and 1826 Heygate spent £8,000 in the Borough.)

A Sudbury election

John’s son, born the following year, with the middle name ‘Broadhurst’ can only have been named after the Member of Parliament for Sudbury. Never was a candidate more popular amongst the Sudbury freemen than John Broadhurst of Foston Hall, Derbyshire. However, Broadhurst stood down when Parliament was dissolved in 1820 on the death of George III and did not offer himself as a candidate in Sudbury again. As for his namesake, John Broadhurst Parsonson, his life was short and he died in 1825 at the age of 6.

Having enjoyed the lucrative benefits of voting in 1818, John Parsonson continued to exercise his right as a freeman to take part in elections. His name regularly appears in the surviving Poll Books for the Borough of Sudbury.

Image from the Sudbury Town Archives

John and Susannah’s children were baptised at St. Gregory’s Church and the entry for Richard Woodlow’s christening in July 1822 recorded their residence as ‘The Croft’. However, the Poll Books from 1826 until his death in 1842 consistently give John’s address as Garden or Gooseberry Row. Condemned as slums after the Second World War, the cottages would have been regarded as very comfortable and convenient in the 1820’s.

Garden/Gooseberry Row photographed in 1960 before demolition. Image from the Sudbury Photo Archive.

Garden/Gooseberry Row, according to the great Victorian historian of Sudbury, W.W. Hodson, was built by the Rev. Henry Watts Wilkinson. Mr. Wilkinson was ‘Perpetual Curate’ of St. Gregory and St. Peter in Sudbury and was of the Evangelical School. For more than 40 years he held the incumbency and was so respected in the Town that he was presented with the Freedom of the Borough for his ‘zealous, conscientious and faithful performance of the duties of his said office’. He was famous as an eloquent preacher.

Rev. Henry Watts Wilkinson

His income was not large but Hodson tells us that the houses in Garden/ Gooseberry Row were built by Mr. Wilkinson on what was then a field. (Hodson notes in ‘The Suffolk and Essex Free Press’ that in 1893 Garden Row still belonged to the Executors of Mr. Wilkinson who died in 1851.) Garden Row was a brick built terrace of cottages, 3 stories high, with a big room on the first floor lit by large windows at the front and the back to provide as much light as possible for the weavers working on their looms. There were long narrow gardens behind the terrace.

John Parsonson was not a weaver unlike the majority of tenants in the terrace who made their living at the loom. He probably had his own workshop and forge nearby. The 1841 Census records 4 other members of his family living at Garden Row – his wife Susannah and 3 sons – William, Richard and Thomas, (so far, it has not been possible to find any other reliable records relating to Thomas).

John died in the following year and, as his name appears in the index to death duty registers, it must be concluded that his estate was sufficiently large to incur an inheritance tax. John had saved enough money from his life as a brazier to provide some support for his family after his death.

The extent of his wealth became apparent after the death of his wife, Susannah Parsonson, aged 61, in October 1843. A few weeks later, the following notice appeared in local papers advertising six cottages for sale on December 1st at the White Horse in Sudbury – two at the entrance of North Street from Melford Road and four in Oliver’s Yard, half way down North Street. A row of four cottages on the west side of Hedingham Lane in Halstead was also up for sale on November 28th at the George Inn, Halstead.

Richard Woodlow Parsonson may have served an apprenticeship to a London carver and gilder before starting work in Sudbury. In White’s 1841 Description of Sudbury Richard and his brother William were described as ‘carvers and gilders’. The 1844 edition of the Suffolk Directory repeated the information.

Richard had great hopes of a new business venture in Bury St. Edmunds in April 1846 when he promised to manufacture frames for looking glasses and pictures ‘cheaper than it ever was carried on in Bury, as cheap or cheaper than any shop in London and as equal in quality.’ He described himself as ‘R. Parsonson of London’ and promised to work on the premises ‘if required’.

Business in Bury St. Edmunds was possibly not as brisk as Richard had hoped and he moved his growing family to London sometime after 1851. In the 1861 census he was running a pub in Kirby Road, Holborn, called ‘The Hole in the Wall’ but his two eldest sons were working as carvers and gilders. By the mid-1860’s he had given up his career as a publican and reverted to carving and gilding.

Although he did not follow his father’s trade as a brazier or belong to the basket making branch of the Parsonson family, Richard established a successful business and a family tradition of carving and gilding that was to continue for several generations into the 20th century.