Monday, 15 April 2019

The Story of John LittlejohnS

First of all ... what a fabulous name!  This is the story of my paternal Great Great Great Great Grandfather, John Littlejohns  (1772 - 1865).

I'll start by talking about that surname!  In the long list of my ancestors' surnames, this particular one certainly stands out.  Compared to all the other surnames in my family tree, this one does feels out of place.  There's an immediate association that comes to mind when hearing this surname ... Robin Hood's rather large companion!

Little John was Robin's lieutenant, his second-in-command, and his name was one of three mentioned right at the start of the story-telling, in the earliest ballads about Robin Hood.  His surname was simply a whimsical reference to his size.

So what about the surname of my ancestor, and his father before him?  The information is scant on the topic of the origin of this surname, other than mentioning that it's one of a large number of surnames dating from the Medieval Period with the prefix 'Little'.  It supposedly was used as a means of endearment or explanation, to suggest a younger son or daughter who was much loved.

Another interesting point is that apparently those with the surname Littlejohns (with an 's') lived mostly in the West Country of England; whereas those with the surname Littlejohn (without the 's') resided in Scotland.  My ancestor has the 's' on his surname and did indeed hail from the west country.

There is one other fascinating fact that I can't resist sharing.  The year of my 4x great grandfather's birth was the same year that Captain Cook began his second voyage aboard the ship The Resolution in search of Terra Australis ... the great southern continent where I was born!

A rare photo of the old Church of Saint Mary Major

When my 4x great grandfather John was born in 1772, his father Henry Littlejohns was 31 and his mother Sarah Cleave was 27.

John was baptised in February of 1772 at the original Church of Saint Mary Major in Exeter, Devon, England.  It no longer stands, as it was demolished in 1865.

There was only one sibling alive at that time of John's birth.
Elizabeth had been born in 1767.
Sally came along in 1769, but had died in 1771.

When John was aged 4, another sister Sarah was born in 1776.  Sadly, she died the following year.
In 1778, Mary was born, when John was 6 years old.
So it seems that John grew up with just one older sister, and a younger sister.

Exeter sits on the River Exe in Devon, south-west England.

At the time of John's birth, it was an economically powerful city based on a history of strong trade in woollen cloth.  This industry employed thousands of people.

In the early 1770s, Celia Feinnes (A Scotswoman who kept a journal as she journeyed on horseback around England) remarked on the "vast trade" and "incredible quantity" in Exeter, recording that "it turns the most money in a week of anything in England", between £10,000 and £15,000.  

Celia stated that the "whole town and country is employed for at least 20 mile around in spinning, weaving, dressing and scouring, fulling and drying of the serges (woollen cloth)."

This was certainly true for John.  By the age of 13, the U.K. Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices' Indentures (1710-1811) record shows an entry for John Littlejohns in February of 1785.  He was apprenticed to a man named Edward Pim in Exeter, Devon as a 'fuller'.  John had followed in the footsteps of his father Henry, who was also a 'fuller', and (according to family stories) worked right up to the day of his death when he was aged 89.

According to Wikipedia:  "Fulling was a step in woollen cloth making which involves the cleansing of cloth (particularly wool) to eliminate oils, dirt, and other impurities, and to make it thicker. The worker who does the job is a fuller."

Fulling Mill 1764

A quote taken from the website 'Exter Memories: Exeter's Woollen Industry'.

The Fulling Mills
The finishing of the cloth was centralised at Exeter - the abundance of water power in a small area allowed the mills to finish the cloth, ready for export. Before fulling, the cloth was soaked in stale human urine, which contains ammonia and fuller’s earth to aid the process. This process would cleanse the wool of oils, dirt and other impurities and thicken the fibres by matting the surface texture. Every night, urine was collected from taverns, inns and houses by men from the 'piss cart'. The wool was pummelled with large square wooden hammers, or fulling stocks, tripped by wooden cams, directly driven by the water wheel. 

The more I read about the occupation of 'fuller' (sometimes referred to as 'tucker'), the more I became convinced that it would have been hard, laborious work in an environment that would have reeked with the stench of urine.

In 1788, when John was 16 years old, his mother Sarah died.  She was only aged 43 at the time.  It must have been a devastating blow for John's father Henry, as well as John's sisters Elizabeth (aged 21) and Mary (aged 10), and indeed John himself.  I imagine the small family became even closer.

It seems John was still apprenticed to Edward Pim (spelt Pym this time) in 1792, at the age of 20!  That does seem like rather a long apprenticeship, but perhaps that's how it was back then.  The record states that John Littlejohns was of the St. Edmund Parish in Exeter, Devon.

St. Sidwell's Church, Exeter

Just a few years later, John married Mary Ayears at St. Sidwell's Church in Exeter, on the 19th of December 1797.

John was 25 years old, and his bride was 27.

I have found records for four children born to John and Mary.  All four were baptised at St. Sidwell's Church.

Jane was born on the 15th of June in 1800, but sadly passed away a mere three months later.
Anne (known as Nancy), my great great great grandmother, was born in November of 1801.
John was born in May of 1803, but sadly, he too died in 1804 when he was less than a year old.
Another son, named John Edwin, was born in July of 1807.  At that time, my 4x great grandfather was aged 35.

I know very little of John's adult life beyond these facts.  I have not yet been able to find evidence of his year of death, or where he was buried; nor have I found out what happened to his wife Mary, or his only surviving son John Edwin.

His only surviving daughter Anne, my 3x great grandmother, emigrated to Australia with her family in 1840, and the immigration record indicates that both her parents were alive at this point.  John would have been in his late 60s by that stage.

I'm joining Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks 2019 project / challenge.

The prompt for Week 16 of 2019 is 'Out of Place'.

You can join by blogging or posting on social media with the tag #52Ancestors.

Check out this FB page:  Amy Johnson Crow

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations, your blog has been included in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    Thank you, Chris


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