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Anne Coperthwaite – a family brick wall

West Horsley Place
Photo by Colin Smith via Wikimedia Commons

When you hit a brick wall with one of your ancestors it can be helpful to write down their story as if you are telling it to an interested family member. By recording the facts you do have, together with the sources for them, you can be sure of what you know, and by making clear where the blanks are it will help you decide where to look for the answers.

Here then is my current mystery – my four times great grandmother Anne Coperthwaite[1] who married Henry Weston in 1747 when she was nineteen and he was almost seventy.

I have written before about Henry’s adventurous sister Judith Weston who travelled to India in search of a husband. Their father John Weston of Ockham in Surrey had fallen on hard times, having become hugely indebted as a collector of taxes under Queen Anne, and been compelled to sell off the family estates in 1710. [2] Henry gradually rebuilt the family fortunes and inherited valuable legacies from his friends Sir William Perkins of Chertsey (died 1741), from his brother Matthew Perkins (died 1749), and from William Nicholas (died 1750).

So, when Henry married Anne he was already wealthy and soon to be much more so. He was described as being ‘of Chertsey’ on the marriage licence, which also indicated that Anne was marrying ‘with the Consent of John Brown her Guardian appointed by the High Court of Chancery’.[3] The licence recorded that Henry was aged fifty and upwards, but in fact he was probably baptised on 21 November 1678,[4] making him about sixty-nine – fifty years older than Anne!

There may be two possible explanations for the marriage – either Henry was marrying in order to acquire further estates, or he was marrying to protect Anne and her property (perhaps at the request of her natural father) since she could reasonably have been expected to outlive Henry and she or her children would then inherit all his estates. Both could of course have been possible, as could genuine affection between Anne and Henry.

So what do we know about Anne?

I have not found a record of her baptism but when her mother Jane Coperthwaite made her Will soon after Anne’s birth, and shortly before her own death in 1727, she ensured that her property and the lands she owned in Kent were protected for her daughter.[5] On the basis of Jane’s Will and the date of Anne’s marriage licence, I calculate that Anne was probably born between 26 March and 16 May 1727.

Although her burial record refers to her as Mrs Jane Coperthwaite it also records her as a spinster, so ‘Mrs’ was a courtesy title indicating her social and economic, rather than her marital, status. [6]  At the time Jane was probably thirty-nine as there is a baptism at St Andrew’s Holborn on 19 December 1687. Her father was John Coperthwaite and her mother Jane Brodnax. The Kentish property that Anne inherited had come to Jane through the Brodnax family of Godmersham (who, incidentally, were later connected to the family of Jane Austen, but that’s another story).

So Anne’s mother was independently relatively wealthy, and might have been more so for it appears that her uncle Matthew Coperthwaite, Gentleman of the parish of St James, Westminster, probably cut her out of his Will (written in February 1727) on hearing of her pregnancy. He left her ‘one shilling and no more in full satisfaction and Bar of all demands’, but left £500 a year to her only sister Elizabeth.

Perhaps it is on the basis of the legacy of West Horsley to Henry Weston, that it has been assumed that William Nicholas must have been the father of Jane Coperthwaite’s daughter Anne. However, the Will was not a random legacy to a friend, for William and Henry were distantly related by marriage and importantly the transfer of West Horsley was effectively a sale that funded the many legacies left by William to relatives, servants and charity.

Having no male heirs himself, William left various properties to the heirs of his grandfather Sir Edward Nicholas (1593-1669). This explains the inclusion of Sir John Abdy (also an executor) whose grandmother was a granddaughter of Sir Edward Nicholas. The Will left property at Winterbourne Gunner and Bishop Cummings to Sir John Abdy, and William’s London house at Old Spring Gardens in St Martin in the Fields, London to his Compton nephews and niece (children of his sister Penelope Nicholas).

In total a large number of cash legacies came to over £4,600 and it appears that this was mainly funded by the transfer of the West Horsley estate and house to Henry Weston in return for a payment of £4,000, (which was equivalent to an income value of about £10.5 million at 2020 values) [7]. Henry also received a gold cup and cover, a valuable personal bequest.

William’s executors were Sir John Abdy and Richard Turner a London physician who received £1,000 of Million Bank Stock (effectively lottery tickets).[8] The two executors were also the residuary legatees.

Typical of the network of associations of their social class, Henry Weston was not simply a friend or business associate of William Nicholas. His aunt Katherine Weston was the first wife of Sir Richard Heath whose grandson (another Richard Heath, whose son Nicholas received £1,000) married Bridget Nicholas, daughter of William’s brother John Nicholas.

I have found nothing to indicate how Jane Coperthwaite might have met William Nicholas, but she was buried at Weybridge which is only about 12 miles from West Horsley, and implies she was probably living in the area and so could have known both John and William Nicholas. Chertsey where Anne Coperthwaite and Henry Weston were both living in 1747 is even closer to Weybridge. Jane’s mother and sister were later buried in the Brodnax family vault at Godmersham although Elizabeth was living in the parish of St George the Martyr, Holborn when she wrote her Will in 1738 just over a year after the death of her mother.[9] [10]

I have not been able to find a Will for Anne Coperthwaite’s grandmother Jane, nor her grandfather John Coperthwaite. Both were involved in various legal disputes relating to issues of property and inheritance and hence may be assumed to have been well to do. Indeed, a John Coperthwaite, almost certainly this one, stood recognisance for William Hussey of Highworth who was indicted for murder in 1688 and convicted as an accessory, having been present at the fatal brawl. He was later reprieved, but ‘John Copperthwaite of St. Andrew’s Holborn gentleman’ was one of several who put up £500 as security before the trial. [11]

So having found out something about the protagonists in this mystery, we are left with a crucial unanswered question. As William Nicholas was unmarried and had no heir, why would he not have married Jane Coperthwaite on learning of her pregnancy, if he was indeed the father of her child?

Was there some unresolved and implacable family opposition relating to the sides taken by the two families during the Civil War? It’s not impossible.

On the other hand, might the father of Anne Coperthwaite have been William’s married brother John Nicholas (1663-1742) from whom William inherited West Horsley?

William Nicholas in his Will seems to have been tying up a lot of loose ends, perhaps the arrangement with Henry Weston after his marriage to Anne was just another attempt to do the right thing by the family.

This is not a mystery that is ever likely to be solved, but if it was not someone else entirely, on balance I would put my money on John, not William, Nicholas as the father of Anne Coperthwaite.

Sometimes in family history research you just have to accept there may be no answer to your brick wall question, but it’s always worth looking.

Sadly Anne died in childbirth after the birth of her second child Henry Perkins Weston and, incidentally, if you think you recognise the Nicholas/Weston property of West Horsley Place it has featured in a number of TV and film productions, notably the BBC comedy Ghosts.

[1] There are a great many variants of the name Coperthwaite, including Copperthwaite, Copperthwayte, Copperwait, Copperwite and Cowperthwaite.  Generally, the family seem to have favoured Coperthwaite.


[3] Faculty Office Marriage Licences. England., 20 March 1746/47. WESTON, Henry and COPPERTHWAYTE, Anne. Society of Genealogists, London.

[4] Baptisms (PR) England, All Saints, Ockham. 21 November 1678. WESTON, Henry. Ancestry Collection: Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812. Image No:17. : accessed 31 October 2017.

[5] Testamentary records. England., 11 July 1727. COPERTHWAITE, Jane. Will. Prerogative Court of Canterbury: Will Registers. PROB 11/616/214. The National Archives, Kew, England. : accessed 30 December 2022.

[6] Burials (PR) England, Weybridge, St James. 01 July 1727. COPERTHWAITE, Mrs Jane. Surrey Burials. 2384/1/2. : accessed 17 December 2022.

[7] Testamentary records. England., 10 August 1749. NICHOLAS, William. Will. Prerogative Court of Canterbury: Will Registers. PROB 11/776/158. The National Archives, Kew, England. accessed 17 January 2023. and

[8] Possibly Richard Woodroofe Turner, son of Daniel and Isabella Turner, baptised 12 November 1693 at St Ann Soho. This would suggest a possible relationship to the Heath family as the second wife of Sir Richard Heath was Lettice Woodroffe.

[9] Burials (PR) England, Godmersham, St Lawrence, Kent. 04 January 1736/37. COPERTHWAITE, Mrs Jane. Canterbury Cathedral Archives U3/117/1/2. : accessed 02 January 2023.

[10] Burials (PR) England, Godmersham, Kent. 27 March 1739. COPERTHWAITE, Elizabeth. Find My Past [Transcription]. England Deaths & Burials 1538-1991. : accessed 10 January 2023.

[11] British History Online [accessed 3 January 2023].

A Christmas Tragedy

On Saturday the 28th of December 1907 several national newspapers carried a letter from George H. Gibson, Surveyor and Inspector to the Radstock Urban District Council in Somerset, telling of a Christmas tragedy at the hamlet of Foxcote (shown below from the six inch Ordnance Survey map for 1885 courtesy of the National Library of Scotland) .[1]

Taking five of his eleven children for a walk on Boxing Day, Gibson came across a thatched cottage where during the previous few days three children in one family had died of diphtheria. According to Gibson the family had only recently moved to Foxcote, and but for his intervention the children’s father would have had to bury his children unaided. Gibson clearly thought that the poor condition of the cottage, bad drains and a suspect water supply were responsible for the deaths and went into action with a public appeal for aid for the family.

I found this account because I had been asked to investigate a tombstone in Foxcote churchyard which had puzzled the viewers. Because of the current pandemic they were not able to return to photograph it, but they had given me enough information to uncover the sad story of the Short family, and to explain the puzzling references on the tombstone to its having been funded by donations from far afield.

Diphtheria is fortunately rare now, thanks to vaccination, although outbreaks do occur when vaccination is reduced, such as after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a droplet borne bacterial disease and quite simply causes a horrible death by suffocation when a foul smelling pseudo-membrane closes the throat. No wonder it was often known as a ‘putrid sore throat’. Moreover the illness can release a toxin into the system of the sufferer. Readers of the Little House on the Prairie books may remember that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband both contracted diphtheria as adults and that he suffered life-long after effects, having gone back to work too soon. An anti-toxin was developed in the early 1890s, and in 1925, in an heroic mid-winter effort, the ‘Great Serum Run’ by dog sled to Nome, Alaska, saved many lives threatened by a diphtheria epidemic.

Following the publication of George Gibson’s letter a generous public came forward with donations for the family, headlined by the London Daily News as ‘Readers Save the Situation’. In total over £25 was raised, equivalent to average wages of about £9,630 now, and the charitable Mr Gibson telegraphed the newspaper to say that he intended to deliver blankets, bedclothes, nightdresses and ‘other necessaries’ and to obtain the services of a trained nurse for the remaining children to give their mother some relief.

One consequence of all this generosity  was the eventual erection of the tombstone to commemorate Gilbert George Short aged ten, and his sisters Lilian Maud aged seven and little Sarah May aged twenty-one months.

A further result was a considerable local row, expressed through the columns of local newspapers, as the authorities sought to deny any suggestion the family had been without help.

Part of the problem was that Frome Rural District Council did not have an isolation hospital, which would normally have been the destination for patients from Foxcote requiring quarantine and nursing. Moreover the cottage which had only two downstairs rooms and two interconnected bedrooms upstairs was unsuitable for billeting a nurse.

The ensuing furore involving the Local Board of Guardians (responsible for poor relief) and the Frome Rural District Council was described by The Somerset Standard. On 3rd January it reported that a ‘want of kindness’ towards the Short family had been firmly denied.[2] In fact the cottage, which was isolated and about 800 feet from the nearest other building, had been recently renovated. The farmer, John Edgell, had paid the children’s father George Short a week’s wages of fourteen shillings to help the family and had told him to ask for anything he needed. The Board of Guardians had supplied mutton and milk to the family before it was realised the children were suffering from diphtheria. The local vicar had sent beef tea and brandy, and Mr Edgell sent eggs and milk, while the Frome District Council Inspector had paid the children’s mother Lucy Short fourteen shillings to act as nurse. A local woman had offered to assist in nursing the children, but Lucy Short had declined her help, later agreeing to a qualified daily nurse who was billeted at Writhlington.

There was clearly a great deal of resentment that the Radstock Inspector, George Gibson, had suggested the authorities were delinquent in their duties. The critics expressed themselves astonished that a father of eleven children should have risked entering a house with diphtheria cases, and also heavily criticised his remarks about the drains and the water supply which had in fact been inspected and were in good order.

“There is too much writing to the papers by people who do not trouble to verify the facts”, said the Chairman of the Frome Rural District Council.

They agreed to send a stiff letter to Mr Gibson and the Chairman was recorded as saying, “I should like myself to have told Mr Gibson to mind his own business” ! The affair rumbled on into February and a further meeting of the Frome Rural District Council, by which time the other two Short children who had become ill had recovered.

And who were the Short family?

Lucy Jane Mogg, from Cossington in Somerset, had married George Short, from West Kington in Wiltshire, in 1891, when she was seventeen and apparently already pregnant with their first child. By 1907 she had had nine children, and until the diphtheria outbreak had lost only one, a girl called Clara May born in 1904 who died in 1905. The first three children – Beatrice Ellen (1891), Annie Dorothy (1894) and Hilda Hester (1895) – were born at Cossington; Gilbert George (1897) at Puriton; Alice Mabel (1898) at Woolavington; Lilian Maud (1900) at Yatton, and Francis Charles (1902) at Claverham. Clara May’s birth was registered at Clutton in 1904 while Sarah May was registered at Frome in 1906. In other words Lucy Jane had nine children between 1891 and 1906 by which time she was still only twenty-eight! Moreover the uncertainty of agricultural employment had seen them move house a number of times during this period.

You might have thought this was the end of the Short family story, but subsequently Olive Gertrude was born in 1910, Harold John (who may have been her twin) died before the census in 1911; Millicent Margorie (sic) was born in 1912; Lucy May was born and died in 1914; Lilian Alexandria was born in 1915 and Joyce Kathleen in 1919 when their mother was about forty-six. Lucy Jane had had fifteen children in twenty-eight years. Nine lived to grow up, marry and have children of their own.

The Short family settled for good in Foxcote where George Short was employed as a waggoner on the farm, and several were still there or nearby when the 1939 Register was compiled.

George Short died in 1950 aged eighty, and was buried at Foxcote. Lucy Jane joined him in 1966 at the great age of ninety.[3]

[1] A Christmas Tragedy. London Daily News. Saturday 28 December 1907. : accessed 01 April 2020.

[2] Distressing Occurrence at Foxcote. Somerset Standard. Friday 03 January 1908. 7a. : accessed 02 April 2020.

[3] I would normally send for birth and death certificates to confirm these dates, but during the current pandemic the General Register Office have asked that ordering is delayed for now.