William Blackford, Dealer in Pigs

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May 15, 2017 by auntkatefirmin


One interesting aspect of researching ancestors is that those who didn’t do well often leave more of a paper trail that those that were only moderately successful. The really well-to-do show up in property records and were more likely to leave wills. The misfortunes of William Blackford, grandfather of Harriet Blackford, have allowed us to confirm many speculations about the extended family connections because of the details that have survived as a result of his arrest and imprisonment for debt. This post will summarize the life of William, leaving the financial details for another day.

William was the fourth son of Robert Blackford and Jane Wayt (or Weight), born about 1721 in Lydiard Millicent. As many as seven Blackford children may have reached adulthood but it’s hard to be certain – I have erred on the side of inclusion as to who was part of the family. William’s mother, Jane, died when he was only six. I will suppose that his father was in a position to hire servants to care for the growing children, or relatives were able to lend assistance, as there is no evidence that he re-married. Based on their location, any income his father had was very likely related to dairy farming – perhaps producing butter or cheese or raising animals to sell. So far it’s not clear what status Robert held as a young man, as his occupation was left off his marriage bond application.

Robert Blackford, William’s father, has left very little in the way of a paper trail. It’s not clear if Robert was alive in 1738 when William’s brother John was the bondsman for a license bond taken out for the marriage of Sarah Blackford and Isaac Drew (post in progress). If their father was healthy I would have thought that he would be the bondsman rather than her brother. I could easily be wrong about that – it could simply have been more convenient for John do to the traveling. It’s also within the realm of possibility that Sarah was the daughter of a different Robert Blackford, who lived in Purton in 1708. Sarah was baptised only two months after Robert and Jane were married – but that’s not William’s story.

It wasn’t until he was 27 that William felt he was of an age and in a position to marry. Lydiard Millicent was a small community; the family must have had a good reputation and connections to the surrounding area or William wouldn’t have married Dorothy Seymour, from a yeoman family, who was living with relatives in Wroughton at the time of their marriage. William had four older brothers and there’s no way of knowing what financial start in life he might have been given by his family, especially as I’m not certain how many of the brothers reached adulthood. Dorothy may have had assets to bring to the marriage.


The church of St John and St Helen in Wroughton which Dorothy Seymour would have attended prior to her marriage to William Blackford. Copyright Brian Robert Marshall, Creative Common License.

Like his parents and sister Sarah, William had enough money at the time of his marriage to marry by license rather than having the banns called in the local church. In the bonds he called himself a yeoman. The bondsman was John Edwards, a yeoman of Lydiard Tregoze. So far, no direct family connections have been found between John Edwards and the Blackfords.

I will assume that William grew up learning how to raise and care for animals on his father’s property and hoped to use what capital he had (either in cash, animals, or grazing rights) to support his own family. In 1752 he styled himself a yeoman of Lydiard Millicent when he stood as bondsman for Margaret Allen of Chiseldon to Thomas Turner of Marlborough. As a younger son, unless his father had extensive property, he probably would not have inherited any real estate. Research on the local Wiltshire economy in this era would possibly shed some light on his situation.

Based on the 1761 paperwork William carried on his business in Wroughton/Overton at least part of of the time; he was 40 years old. Wroughton was not far away from Lydiard Millicent, his wife had relatives there, and perhaps he saw more economic opportunities there. On the other hand all six baptisms for children of William and Dorothy were recorded in Lyddiard Millicent. Even if they lived in or near Overton they might have baptised the children in Lyddiard for sentimental or family reasons.


Wroughton is not marked on this map of 1720, however the included hamlet of Overton is visible just south of Swindon. Shaw (part of Lyddiard Millicent) would be just below Bradon Forest between Wootton Bassett and Swindon. Excerpt of map from the David Rumsey collection.

The manner in which William’s crime was handled dates back to the “shire” system of county justice  – our word sheriff is derived from the office of shire-reeve. By this I mean that his crime of unpaid debts was handled at what we would consider “county-level” rather than “city-level.” Anyone who has read much by Charles Dickens will have a mental picture of the plight of imprisoned debtors – although transportation to Australia for theft and similar crimes did not begin until 1788. Fisherton Anger, in Salisbury, was (in American terms) a “county jail,” where convicted felons and those who had committed commercial crimes were placed. Some counties also had a separate house of correction where moral, religious, or political criminals, or vagrants were housed. In 1805 Rebecca (Wayt) Blackford was held in a local “bridewell” for the moral crime of deserting her minor children.

The gaol in Fisherton Anger was built for the purpose in 1578, thus it was not quite 200 years old when William stayed there. The Victoria County History contains just a brief mention related to the conditions: “When Howard visited the prison about 1776 he found a building of two stories, in which the debtors were housed above the felons.” Lacking detailed accounts, we will simply have to imagine whether or not William received any special assistance from his family to supplement any food that might have been provided. In the era prior to 1800, prisoners were generally held together in large room rather than personal cells. Fisherton is now as suburb of the town of Salisbury.

By 1771, William may have recovered financially. Two men named William Blackford were included on a jury list for Lydiard Millicent, but it’s not clear which two of the three possible William Blackfords were on the list. If the two potential jurors were William’s son and (probable) nephew, was he still in Overton?

After his stint in gaol, the evidence runs out … it seems reasonable to assume that he died in May 1783 at age 62, that Dorothy died in July 1783 at age 58, and that the pair of them were buried in the churchyard in Lydiard Millicent. It’s just possible that William survived to 1791 (age 70) but given other evidence the William Blackford buried in Lydiard Millicent in 1791 seems more likely to be either this William’s son or (probable) nephew.

Many of William and Dorothy’s known grandchildren were not yet born in 1783 – which was not a good year for the family. In addition to William and Dorothy, their daughter Mary (Blackford) Price was buried in July 1783 as was Mary’s infant son Thomas.

Before I can get a handle on how many grandchildren there were, and thus how many cousins Harriet (Blackford) Hall had and whether they remained in Swindon, I need to sort out the relatives with identical names including the younger generation of William Blackfords.

Lydiard Millicent, All Saints.

All Saints’ Church, Lydiard Millicent church from the northeast. © Copyright Jonathan Billinger and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Further reading:
English Prisons: An Architectural History has a great deal of information on early justice systems.


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