Harriet’s brother John

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May 20, 2017 by auntkatefirmin

I have looked at the life of Harriet (Blackford) Hall, and why she might want to leave Swindon. I have the feeling that she and her daughter Emily (Hall) Firmin retained strong connections to the Swindon area and remaining family there. In this post I will take a look at her oldest brother, John Blackford, who remained in Swindon and continued family traditions such as competing in backsword (singlestick) competitions.


View from Old Swindon by M E Sargent in Old Wiltshire Market Towns and Villages (1896) via the British Library on flickr.

John Blackford was baptized in Swindon on 29 September 1778, just over ten months after the marriage of his parents Robert and Rebecca; he was their first child. It seems likely that John learned his trade as his father Robert’s apprentice and assistant, as John was apparently as successful butcher in Swindon. Butchers did take formal apprentices in rural areas in the 18th century as John Wayt of Wootton Bassett, grandfather of John Blackford, is recorded as taking an apprentice in 1749. Perhaps it was John Wayt who taught Robert Blackford the trade of a butcher. I suspect that were were a number of informal apprenticeships that were not recorded but I’m not certain as to all the reasons why.

Rowlandson's 1792 view of a butcher's shop. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Rowlandson’s 1792 view of a butcher’s shop. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

John Blackford had enough education to be able to sign his name when he married Sarah Woodham, spinster, by banns in Swindon in November 1804. Did Rebecca have enough education to teach the children basic skills so they could keep their accounts? Did the family pay for the children, or at least the boys, to attend a local day school?

If Sarah and John had any other children after the birth of their son Robert in September 1805, that information has not turned up. An inscription for Sarah Blackford, wife of John, in Holy Rood Church in Swindon gives her age at death as 76 in 1840 – making her birth year 1764* and thus 14 years older than her husband. If this is all correct, would be a tad unusual but it would explain why John and Sarah had only one child.

Church of the Holy Rood in Swindon a century after the baptism of Harriet Blackford. As depicted in the book Jeffries' Land.

The Church of the Holy Rood in Swindon was still an active church when Robert Blackford was baptised in 1805. As depicted in the book Jeffries’ Land via the British Library.

John’s father Robert died in 1802, leaving the family finances in a dire state. It seems logical that John would inherit his father’s tools, if not much else. In another post it would be useful to try and follow the various locations used by the Blackfords in selling their wares. It is not clear to what degree John might have supported his mother and siblings after 1802 – his mother did eventually go on parish relief, at least while the children were young. Since nothing definitive has turned up about Sarah’s family we can only guess that John married Sarah to advance his business in some way, particularly given the timing of the marriage.

John was noted as being a Wiltshire gamester who “saved his head” in a match against Somerset held in Trowbridge in 1809; thus he carried on the family legacy in more ways than one.

By 1819 John was apparently a respected member of the community because he was a tythingman in the 1819 Wiltshire Quarter Sessions. Generally speaking a tythingman in that era was akin to an unpaid neighborhood deputy constable. He would not have carried arms and did not have all the duties that we now consider to pertain to a policeman. The root of word is not “tithe” in the sense of an obligation to pay a sum to the church, but “tything” from the Anglo-Saxon legal sense of a unit of households  – a meeting or “thing” of ten men or a group of households that reside on ten “hides” of land that form a sub-jurisdiction in the larger unit of a “hundred.” (Swindon is in Kingsbridge Hundred, which is irrelevant to modern adminstrations.) The tything was originally intended as a group of heads of households that would take responsibility for the actions of all members of the group when called to do so by a higher administrative authority; it’s an interesting reflection of the self-reliant concepts behind the judicial framework.

Nothing remains to tell us what might have caused the death of John in 1825 at age 46, leaving Robert (age 20) to support himself and his mother. Robert was also a butcher and a tythingman; the financial troubles that plagued other branches of the family seem to have been less of a problem for those that remained in Swindon. Swindon’s economy did not experience its largest boom until the arrival of the railway works in 1841; the building of the Wilts and Berks Canal which established a wharf a bit north of what was then the town center about 1804 did bring more business to the town in John and Robert’s day.


Swindon towards the end of John Blackford’s life, after the canal came to the north of the town.

Before the railway reached Swindon, Harriet (Blackford) Hall’s trips to visit family there would have been limited by the fact that she had young children making the journey a large commitment of time and money. Still, there is evidence that Harriet and her sister Dorothy (Blackford) Sylvester did return to spend time in Swindon – displaying the value they placed on keeping in touch with family. Was it their nephew Robert’s family that they primarily came to visit? I hope to continue to explore the lives of the Blackford and other relatives in and around Swindon.


*A younger Sarah Woodham born in Colerne, Wilts, in 1783 to Henry and Hannah appears to have remained there and married Richard Tidmarsh in 1804 – despite some hopeful online trees. It would be worth investigating the possibility that the older Sarah was related to the Henry Woodham who was a cordwainer in Swindon in 1730.

Further reading:
Tythingmen at HistoricRomance



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