Admissions to the Freedom of the Borough of Sudbury in the 19th century

The Vincent family

Vincent, Baker, of Hoxton, Middlesex, carpenter, apprenticed to James Jones, admitted 10.06.1826

Vincent, William Hayward, chemist, admitted 7.05.1812

A very unlucky Sudbury Freeman: The story of William Hayward Vincent

When William Hayward Vincent became a freeman of Sudbury on May 7th, 1812, aged 19, he would have been looking forward to a contented and prosperous future. He was the son of Phillip Vincent, a wealthy farmer from Little Waldingfield, near Sudbury.

He borrowed from his parents in order to set up a business as a chemist and a hatter in Sudbury.

Some of the money would have been used to buy the Freedom of Sudbury for 30 guineas. Becoming a Freeman of Sudbury could be lucrative during elections as Sudbury was notorious for bribery and corruption but it was also an essential purchase for anyone who wanted to open a shop in the town if they had not inherited the Freedom through birth. The Corporation of Sudbury, (self-elected), made a considerable sum of money this way and would impose a fine of three shillings per week to anyone in business who did not purchase the Freedom.

From the Sudbury Photo Archive : N.E. view of the Church of St. Peter’s, Sudbury, Wm Ruffell

William’s business did not prosper as, when the Napoleonic Wars came to an end in 1815, the peace caused more economic distress and trading conditions were bad. William was forced to borrow more money in in 1815. He married Miss Elizabeth Baker of Dedham Hall, Essex, in the same year, and it is likely that a sum of money was given as a marriage settlement. A daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1816 but his wife died in August 1817.

More misfortune followed in 1818 as his two-year old daughter died in May and, in early August at one o’clock in the morning, a fire was discovered in the back of his house which soon spread to the property next door. The prompt assistance of neighbours and the town engine prevented any loss of life or serious damage, but it must have led to more financial problems as he later admitted that he was ‘embarrassed in his circumstances’ for several years before 1820 and owed between £700 and £800.

This was despite another marriage and a large settlement of £500 – £300 in cash and a promissory note for £200. His second marriage took place on October 28th,1819, to Miss Sarah Ann Girling of Great Bromley, Essex, and a son, William, was born the following year. A year later he was arrested as a bankrupt and taken to the King’s Bench Prison in London.

Meanwhile, his brothers, Phillip and Henry, tried to carry on the business in Sudbury and managed to remove much of his property out of the shop, including the tools of his trade as a chemist and hatter. The brothers also did their best to collect any debts owed to him and made ‘alterations’ in his account books by scratching out some of the debts which had dates with a penknife. They also visited him in prison to discuss ways of clearing his debts and bought some land from him.

William unwisely made a new friend in prison. He was sharing a cell with another bankrupt, John Kneller, who quickly gained his confidence. He also helped him arrange his accounts. William was released on February 27th, 1821 and returned to Sudbury. John Kneller was also released, and William invited him to Sudbury and offered him a job. He was placed in a position of trust with the Vincent family in Sudbury and in Little Waldingfield and was able to watch William disguise figures in his account books with spirit of salts. He was also aware that a large quantity of valuable furniture, china, glass and plate, materials for making hats and patent medicines were brought to William’s house in Sudbury very late at night. William told John Kneller that it was his own property.

Something went wrong with the friendship and John Kneller was asked to leave and he did so but a short time afterwards, in May, threatening letters started to arrive, demanding compensation from William for the help that he had been given whilst in the King’s Bench Prison. The letters also threatened to reveal that he had hidden property from his creditors and had kept a private still. He was faced with ruin.

The Vincent family ignored these letters so John Kneller made a very long sworn statement to the Court of Insolvents in November 1821, charging him with concealing property from his creditors by transferring it to his family. In January 1822, William was once again called before the Court of Insolvents and, on the testimony of John Kneller, his discharge was revoked, and he was sentenced to remain in prison for three years. The judgement of the Court was that William’s fate should be a warning to any other bankrupt who was contemplating the grossest fraud on his creditors by concealing property. Fortunately for William, he eventually obtained his discharge again on a technicality.

William and his father, Phillip, were so enraged by the threats and bribery from John Kneller, that they took him to court on July 3rd, 1822. The trial, at the Middlesex Sessions, lasted the whole day and John Kneller was found guilty by the jury, (who deliberated for 10 minutes), and indicted for wilful and corrupt perjury.

Phillip Vincent was almost 80, blind and infirm, and died a year later. William and Sarah went on to have two more children, Sarah Ann in 1822 and John Joseph in November 1826. John Joseph was born in Stratford St. Mary and baptized in the Old Meeting House at Dedham. (The scandal had been covered by most of the national and regional newspapers so William may have decided that it was best to leave Sudbury.) The register at Dedham noted that John Joseph’s father had died before his birth. Perhaps the strain of bankruptcy contributed to his death or the bleak conditions in the King’s Bench Prison? A sad end to a life that had seemed to offer so much promise.

King’s Bench Prison in London as drawn by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson for Rudolph Ackermann’s ”Microcosm of London”. (1808-11)