This is the story of my third Bicester John Smith. He was born around 1765 in the vicinity of Bicester. Somewhat surprisingly, there is a shortage of likely John Smith baptisms and I have not yet found his. I suspect he might be the son of John Smith and Catherine Gulliver, who were having children at the right time and have a suitable gap between other children that he would fit into, but have no proof yet.
I do know that John Smith’s father was a gardener working for a Mr Stratton who lived in the former grounds of the Priory of St Edburg. Bicester parish church is dedicated to St Edburg. I know about his father because, in 1816, a John Dunkin published a book, “The History and Antiquities of Bicester, a Market Town in Oxfordshire”. One of John Dunkin’s sources on the ruined priory was a letter from John Smith, explaining about some of the ruins he and his father had dug up while gardening. I always think it is exciting to find the actual words an ancestor spoke or wrote, so here is a quote about a well:
“My father and Master Hudson repeatedly tried to empty it; but after they had reached a depth of seven feet the water flowed so fast that they were compelled to desist. Close to the present building, my father also discovered a very neat coffin about two feet long; the bones were so small that he could not ascertain what they were, and there was no inscription visible.”
It sounds like they were not very successful amateur archaeologists. The well they were trying to dig up was possibly one much visited in medieval times because it was believed to have healing properties.
On the domestic front, John Smith married Anne Bowden 1 Nov 1790 in Bicester and one of the witnesses was Martha Smith, perhaps his sister. John and Anne had six children between 1792 and 1805, Harriet, Catherine, James, my ancestor John, Thomas and Mary Ann.
At some point, John Smith changed careers, becoming a school teacher. He was school master at the Bicester blue coat school, a charity school for boys. There were many blue coat schools around England and they got their name from the distinctive uniform worn by the children. I have a photo of a former blue coat school in Hatton Gardens, London, showing statues of two children in their blue uniforms. The Bicester charity school was supported by local gentry.
|Blue Coat School, Hatton Gardens, London|
John’s wife Anne died in November 1821. The following year, probably on 2 December 1822 (I don’t have a reliable source for this date) John Smith married Mary Moore in Bicester. John had at least another six children with Mary, taking his total to twelve: Benjamin, Mathilda, Emma, Eliza, Henry and Kezia. Kezia was born when John was about 71 and so he might be the oldest father I have found so far in my family tree, although to be honest, this is not something I have taken much note of. As well as his twelve children, who I think all survived to adulthood, he had over 30 grandchildren, although he did not live to see them all. He did live to see some great grandchildren, including my ancestor Harry Smith.
Bicester in the 1820’s and 1830’s was an interesting but possibly not safe place to live. In 1826, according to an extract from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868), there were riots in the main street that destroyed the town hall. In 1832, the same source says there was a cholera epidemic that infected 70 people. I have no record of any of the Smith’s suffering from Cholera, though.
By the time of the 1841 census, as well as being a school teacher, John Smith was a parish clerk. As far as I can work out, a parish clerk was something of a jack of all trades, supporting the clergy with administrative and other tasks, possibly including leading the singing. Also in 1841, John’s family were living in New Buildings, Market End, Bicester, near his son John.
In 1851, John Smith was an elderly man and the census says he was blind, although he is still listed as a parish clerk. He, wife Mary and some of their children were still living in New Buildings.
In his will, John Smith seems to have owned two properties, one in New Buildings and one in Crockwell, another area in Bicester. Curiously, John wrote his will in 1829 before all of his children were born, so they are not all named however there was a clause to cover this eventuality.
John Smith died 17 March 1858, age 93. Did miraculous water from the well he and his father dug up contribute to his long life?