The Blacknall family
The Blacknall family
The sixteenth century was a period of economic upheaval which provided great opportunities to the able and ambitious. The Blacknall family is a case in point, moving in four generations from obscurity in a Buckinghamshire village into the landed gentry of the same county. On the way, their activities were highly beneficial to Abingdon, providing the town with industry and employment and helping it to recover from the shock of the dissolution of its Abbey and the abolition of its guilds.
William Blacknall was from a family long settled in Wing, Buckinghamshire. By 1545, when his son was born, he had married and moved to Hambleden, near Henley, and it was probably there that he acquired the knowledge of milling that he would later put to good use.
In 1548, John Wellesbourne, leaseholder under the Crown of the Abbey site in Abingdon, died. He had done nothing to develop the site, and the fulling mill that had operated there had been allowed to decay. The body that administered the properties of the dissolved abbeys was the Court of Augmentations, and this, through its Berkshire agent Roger Amyce, was responsible for the town’s well-being. It is not clear whether Blacknall took the initiative or whether Amyce invited him, but Blacknall now came to Abingdon to take over the mills. The two men would work closely together.
The Court of Augmentations arranged a series of back-to-back deals whereby Blacknall ended up with effective ownership of the Abbey site and the fulling and corn mills. He also gained control of the waters that powered the mills and monopoly rights of fishing in them. Blacknall and Amyce jointly tested the arrangement in a court case, and it was confirmed in great detail in the municipal charter that was granted to Abingdon in 1556.
The court did not provide money but Blacknall was able to set up a consortium to raise the capital he needed. His greatest talent seems to have been in putting together finance for expanding his affairs. Once he had obtained the Abbey site, he raised money on it from within his family and bought an interest in mills at Sheepbridge near Swallowfield where he went to live for three or four years. Swallowfield was a Wiltshire enclave in Berkshire, south of Reading. For many years thereafter Blacknall was ‘a miller of Swallowfield’ in legal documents, although in fact he returned to Abingdon, becoming active in municipal affairs and serving twice as mayor. By the time he died in 1585 he was a rich man, with property in various parts of Berkshire and neighbouring counties.
Blacknall’s son, William jnr (1545-1614), continued on his father’s path, managing his milling and fishing interests and purchasing more property. He married a member of the Ayshcombe family of Lyford, local gentry, which added to his money-raising abilities. The family was now moving decisively up the social scale. William jnr’s son, John, born in 1583, married a daughter of the Blagraves of Bulmershe, a gentry family high in the Berkshire pecking order. He studied at Oxford and read law at the Middle Temple, but would not demean himself by practising. He continued to acquire ever more land, but industrial management held no interest for him; as soon as his father died in 1613, the Abbey mills were sold off. He and his wife both died in the plague of 1625 – they have a memorial in St Nicolas church – leaving two young daughters, one of whom followed them soon after. The survivor, Mary, sole heiress to a fortune of £16,000, was married to the son and heir of Sir Edmund Verney of Middle Claydon, Bucks. She has an article of her own on this website.
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms
© AAAHS and contributors 2017
The Blacknall family looms large in any history of sixteenth-century Abingdon. It was they who took the lead in helping the town overcome the trauma of the loss of its Abbey and guilds; it was their commercial skills which converted the physical remains of the Abbey into productive industry and provided employment for those thrown out of work by the dissolutions.
Yet the story told in this way can be misleading. The Blacknalls of Abingdon were merely one branch of a family based in Buckinghamshire, and were resident in the town for only three generations. For reasons that will be explained below, the sources available to Abingdon historians concentrate on their Abingdon interests to the exclusion of others, yet these were only a fraction of their business activities. It will be more correct to regard the story as one of the social ascent of a family in three or four generations from relative obscurity as yeomen in a Buckinghamshire village to marriage with the head of one of the premier gentry families of that county. The Blacknall patriline would be extinguished in Abingdon, but collateral branches would continue to flourish in Buckinghamshire and elsewhere.
The Blacknalls were deeply rooted in Wing, Buckinghamshire. An unreferenced mention in Ancestry.com speaks of a Thomas Blakenhall of that town, born about 1393. John Blacknall, giving information much later to the Berkshire Heralds’ Visitation of 1623, traces his ancestry to Henry Blacknall and his wife Agnes, who died respectively in 1460 and 1489, and who were important enough to rate a memorial tablet in Wing church.
Memorial brass to Henry and Agnes Blacknall in Wing Church
© Ruth Weinberg 2017
Nonetheless, the family was not conspicuously wealthy; none of them appear in the Buckinghamshire muster rolls of 1522 or in the subsidy rolls of 1525.
Henry had a son and a grandson, both named Richard. According to the 1623 visitation, a Richard Blacknall, presumably the younger of the two, received a grant of arms in 1541, and these arms are proudly displayed in the visitation record. However, the heralds, once their fees had been paid, were rarely over-scrupulous in examining the claims made to them, and suspicion must be aroused by the absence of the Blacknalls as an armigerous family from the 1566 Buckinghamshire visitation. Their only mention in that document is that a Richard Blacknall of Drayton, Buckinghamshire, had married Anne Moore of a gentry family at Grove. Drayton and Grove are both within a few miles of Wing. Thus, the William who came to Abingdon in or about 1548 will have been a son of the younger Richard and son or grandson of Anne. He had two younger brothers, John and Robert, who stayed in or close to Wing, and the John Blacknall who would be master of Christ’s Hospital in 1600 and mayor of Abingdon in 1603 was William’s nephew, Robert’s son. This John had a son Robert who died young in 1631, and his line did not continue.
We know little of William’s wife, née Alice Iles, but their son, William jnr, was born in or about 1545. He was, according to his contemporary, the Abingdon politician and local historian Francis Little, “bred up in learning”. This is in distinction, no doubt, to his father, who couldn’t sign his name and made a mark like an inverted W. In or about 1579, William jnr married a daughter of the Ayshcombe family of Fyfield. The Ayshcombes were gentry, albeit minor, and the social ascent of the Blacknalls was now under way. William jnr’s son John was the first Blacknall actually born in Abingdon. He was educated at Roysse’s school, studied at The Queen’s College in Oxford, and was called to the bar from the Middle Temple. But the family wealth by now was such that he had no need to practise. Management of the family fortune probably took up all his energies. His marriage was more brilliant than that of his father, for he was able to ally himself with the Blagraves of Bulmershe, high in the Berkshire pecking order. Mary Ayshcombe had brought £400 to the family fortune; Jane Blagrave’s portion was three times as large.
John Blacknall and his wife both died in the plague of 1625, as did a baby son. There were two young daughters, one of whom died a year after her parents. The other, Mary, was sole heiress to a fortune of £16,000. She was competed for by various gentry families, and finally won by Sir Edmund Verney of Middle Claydon, Buckinghamshire, to be married to his son and heir Ralph. This last and perhaps most interesting of the Blacknalls has her own article on this website, but it is as a result of her marriage that the Blacknall archives were preserved at Claydon. In 1907, the Abingdon politician and historian A E Preston arranged for Sir Edmund Verney to present to the Abingdon council a large collection of documents concerning the town. This article is based largely on these documents and on Preston’s reading of them.
What brought William Blacknall the elder to Abingdon, and how was the family’s ascent achieved?
In all probability, the attraction was the opportunity opened by the death in 1548 of John Wellesbourne, the courtier to whom the care of the Abbey’s properties had been entrusted after its dissolution. Wellesbourne had taken personal leases on much of the property lying in and about Abingdon, but had done nothing to maintain or develop it. The duty of care now devolved upon the Court of Augmentations, in the person of its Berkshire agent, Roger Amyce. Amyce was concerned for Abingdon’s economic recovery. We do not know whether it was Blacknall who saw his chance or whether Amyce invited him, but the two would work closely together in the ensuing years.
Unlike his brothers, William Blacknall had left Wing to marry. His wife Alice was from Hambleden, between Henley and Marlow, and he had been living there for at least several years before 1548. He may have worked there as a miller, since he certainly had knowledge of that industry. The Abbey had had corn mills and a fulling mill, and the latter had been allowed to fall into decay.
Blacknall took up Wellesbourne’s now vacant leases and petitioned the Duke of Somerset for a change in the terms to give him more incentive for rebuilding the fulling mill. The Duke of Somerset was Lord Protector of the realm, regent for the young Edward VI, and also held the stewardship of the dissolved Abbey. Amyce had had various contacts with him over the years. Blacknall seems to have put together a syndicate of five men in addition to himself, all named in the petition and described, perhaps untruthfully, as local people. The petition was carefully worded to include rights to the watercourses that would power the mills and to the fishing in them. It was granted. There may have been some doubt over the fishing rights, but Amyce and Blacknall jointly brought what was probably a test case in the Court of Augmentations against Thomas Reade of Barton and, unsurprisingly, won.
Blacknall’s empire began to expand in 1553. The Court of Augmentations brokered a complex set of back-to-back deals which saw John Mason, the courtier and politician who was Abingdon’s patron, relinquish his rights to the site of Abingdon Abbey to his colleague Thomas Wroth, who promptly sold them on to Blacknall. Blacknall was now the outright owner of the Abbey site, although at that time he still had only a long lease of the mills.
According to a document in the archive, Blacknall then sold his interest in the corn and fulling mills to Thomas Kent, father-in-law of his brother Robert of Southcott, near Wing, for £330. This must be understood as collateral for a business loan. Such fictitious sale contracts could be brought into play in the event of default, when the creditor would take over the property, much as in a modern mortgage. The £330 no doubt went towards financing Blacknall’s next acquisition: he left Abingdon and moved to Sheepbridge near Swallowfield where there were mills and a Mill House which became his residence. The situation there was very similar to that in Abingdon; there were two mills, one of them a fulling mill, and he had the lands surrounding them and rights, including fishing rights, in the waters that powered them. He was for some time thereafter referred to not as a yeoman of Hambleden but as a miller of Swallowfield, causing generations of Abingdon historians to believe mistakenly that that was his place of origin. Blacknall must have been undecided where to make his permanent home, but by 1557 the Sheepbridge mills had been leased out and he had returned to Abingdon to become one of the first bailiffs in the new Corporation. He made his home in The Garner, an old Abbey building facing on to Thames Street, now the Unicorn Theatre. He never gave up his interests at Sheepbridge, and late in his life was able to extend his holdings there by purchase from the old manorial family.
William’s brother, Robert Blacknall, died in 1562. In his will, he left his part in the Sheepbridge mills to William, with a requirement to pay £600 out of their proceeds as portions to Robert’s five surviving children. William was no soft touch. He wanted a reduction of £36 on the grounds that his legal costs had proved heavier than expected. In the end, the children received £116 each, a total reduction of only £20.
Blacknall worked on his local contacts. He was a member of the Corporation, though never a governor of Christ’s Hospital, and was mayor in 1565-6 and 1572-3. He bought the buildings of St John’s Hospital, at the entrance to the Abbey site opposite St Nicolas Church, and passed them on to the Corporation for its own use. The other side of the deal was that he received from the Corporation the reversion of the lease of the mills, making this leasehold perpetual at a rent of £20 a year (which was paid by successive owners of the property until 1939, when it was redeemed for a lump sum of £550 6s 9d). The cooperation with Amyce continued. The final amendments made to Amyce’s map of the Thames up and downstream from Abingdon – the so-called Monks’ Map now in Abingdon Museum – seem expressly designed to support Blacknall’s interests in the waterway. The Court of Augmentations had brought to England a Breton, Francis Owdery, to teach the techniques of sailcloth manufacture. In 1558, no doubt with Amyce’s involvement, Owdery moved from Ipswich to Abingdon to set up a new manufacturing operation for which Blacknall got government funding in the form of a £100 loan. Abingdon was not an obviously favourable site for sailcloth manufacture and the venture failed, but Blacknall was able to get away with repaying only £60, and then only after a delay and by instalments.
We have no letters or personal information on William Blacknall, but the indications are that he was a tough character where matters of money and business were concerned. The water supply to the mills was a source of continual trouble. By 1570 his penning of the waters higher and higher at the Abingdon lock had submerged grazing land upstream at Radley. The Radley tenants tried to build a dam, which hampered the fishing of Blacknall’s licensee, Richard Tesdale. There was friction, and some of Tesdale’s employees were beaten up. The manorial lord of Radley, George Stonehouse, complained to the court of Star Chamber of an attack on his tenants by a dozen named toughs led by Blacknall and Tesdale in person and fearsomely equipped “… with billhooks, pikes, javelins, swords, bucklers, pitchforks, great long staves, guns, body armour, bows and arrows, two bushels of stones and divers other arms and weapons”. We must allow for a large degree of exaggeration – Stonehouse had friends in Star Chamber, and it was a court especially concerned with breaches of the peace – but this looks remarkably like a punitive expedition.
We don’t know what Blacknall started out with, but by the end of his life he was a rich man and a substantial landowner. Apart from the Abbey site in Abingdon, he held several parcels of land in and around Swallowfield, some of which he had acquired about 1550 and some in 1580. Other estates were at Goring, at Shinfield, and at South Stoke in Oxfordshire.
William’s son, William jnr, lived at Banbury Court in West St Helen Street and from 1592 at the house in the old Abbey precinct known as Mr Stone’s Lodging (now part of Old Abbey House) which he rebuilt. He is described by Francis Little as living “a private life, without intermeddling with the town’s affairs”. It is true that he seems never to have been a member of the Corporation, but the records show him as no less obstinate than his father in defending what he believed to be his rights. The conflict with the Stonehouses of Radley over water and fishing went on through the generations. William jnr took it from tribunal to tribunal, ignoring verdicts that went against him, to the extent that in 1590 he was adjudged “a contentious person bringing suit for the annoyance of his neighbours”, and in 1593 he was committed to jail in London for contempt of court. The matter wasn’t settled until early in the next century, when the water rights were resumed by the Crown and William jnr took a new lease on them on reasonably favourable terms. There was also a long-running contention in the 1580s and 1590s with Guy Dobbins, rector of St Nicolas, over ownership of the vicarage house. This was within the Abbey site, and William jnr was irate when Dobbins presumed to lease it out. There were accusations of illegal entry and damage, and fisticuffs between the putative landlords and the tenants put in by their rivals. Dobbins finally gave up, probably having run out of money, and William granted a fresh lease to, of all people, Francis Little. In 1599, William jnr was in dispute with the churchwardens of St Nicolas and the Corporation over the poor rates he was refusing to pay.
In spite of the many conflicts in which he was involved, William jnr later in his life was frequently employed by the government as tax commissioner for Abingdon and for other parts of Berkshire. He was able to provide security bonds reaching into thousands of pounds. There is no evidence of any wrong doing or that any of the bonds were ever forfeited.
The younger William continued to add to the family landholding. He died in 1613 with all the lands his father had left him plus further estates in Northmoor, Longworth, Cumnor, Abingdon and Shippon, and he had rents coming in from Chiselhampton, Sulgrave and Hardingstone.
John Blacknall was the son of William jnr. Born in 1583 when the family was already affluent, John mixed easily with the Abingdon élites and was a great patron of the church of St Nicolas. In spite of his legal training he seems to have been more inclined to prevent conflict than to engage in it. Little describes him as giving free counsel to the poor and “attempting to make peace between parties that were at variance”. There is at least one known case where he and a kinsman John Ayshcombe settled a controversy by arbitration. Unlike his forebears, John was no aggressive entrepreneur; the only known divestment in the Blacknall story was in the year of William jnr’s death, 1613, when he sold the Abingdon mills to Richard Clerke for £700. It may be that the active management they needed was more trouble than they were worth to him.
This does not mean that John neglected his business interests. He seems to have worked closely with John Ayshcombe of his mother’s family and with Charles Wiseman of Steventon who was a brother-in-law of his wife. His main acquisitions included the Berkshire manor of Wasing and surrounding lands, bought in 1619 for £1460 from the Forsters of Aldermaston, and, between 1619 and 1623, the neighbouring manors of Preston Crowmarsh and Fifield in Oxfordshire for £2550 and £2060 respectively. There were also multiple purchases of lesser properties, rights and rents in a number of counties.
John Blacknall and his family lived a life of considerable comfort. Their residence was what had been the Cosener’s House in the old Abbey (not the present Cosener’s House), and the probate inventory values their household goods at over £200. The family of four owned ten feather beds and eight flock ones, which suggests frequent entertaining. Sadly, John and his wife both died relatively young in the plague year of 1625. They were buried in St Nicolas Church and are commemorated there by a monument erected in 1684.
Loaves set out for the poor of St Nicolas according to John Blacknall's bequest. Photo of c.1940. The practice continued into the 1970s.
From a photograph by W J Vasey
John Blacknall’s will is remarkable for the substantial legacies left for the benefit of the parish and church of St Nicolas. There was to be a weekly distribution of bread to the poor on condition of hearing the Sunday sermons, and there would be special services in the testator’s memory on the anniversaries of his birth and death and on two other fixed days of the year at which additional sums would be laid out in charity. The church’s funds had previously run only to an inadequately paid lay reader, but were now increased to a level where, between a regular stipend and occasional additional payments, they could attract a well-qualified curate. After John’s death, his legacies to the church were confirmed by a Chancery commission which favoured the anti-puritan tendency in the Church of England. The commissioners insisted on conditions that accorded with their principles, and St Nicolas would continue throughout the Civil War and the Interregnum as a bastion of traditional religion in Abingdon.
John’s executors were Ayshcombe and Wiseman together with Walter Dayrell, the Abingdon recorder. The family’s landholdings went with the marriage of his daughter and heiress, Mary, to swell those of the Verneys of Middle Claydon, and after the death of his cousin Robert in 1631 no further Blacknalls are recorded in Abingdon.
See Glossary for explanations of technical terms
© AAAHS and contributors 2017
Berkshire Record Office (BRO), Preston Papers, D/EP7 93/23.
 http://person.ancestry.co.uk/tree/71622585/person/40258017686/facts (accessed 25/08/2016).
 W. Harry Rylands (ed), Four Visitations of Berkshire (2 vols, London, Harleian Society 1907-8), Vol 2 p. 71; W. Page (ed), ‘Parishes: Wing', in A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 3 (London, 1925), pp. 449-458. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/bucks/vol3/pp449-458 [accessed 16 August 2016].
 W C Metcalfe (ed), Visitation of the County of Buckingham 1566 (Exeter, 1883), p. 26.
 A C Baker, Historic Abingdon, Parliamentary History (Abingdon, 1963), p 43; Middle Claydon, Calendar of Verney Archives (unpublished), 2/1436A.
 BRO, Preston Papers, D/EP7 93/20.
 BRO, Preston notes 1940, D/EP7 93/23
 BRO, Preston Papers, Transcript of Inq, p.m. II Vol 208 no 195, D/EP 7/17.
 BRO, Preston Papers, Preston notes 1916, D/EP7 93/23 .
 http://www.abingdon.gov.uk/history/people/mary-verney-nee-blacknall (accessed 28/08/2016).
 http://www.abingdon.gov.uk/history/people/john-wellesbourne (accessed 06/11/2016)
 http://www.abingdon.gov.uk/history/people/roger-amyce (accessed 25/08/2016).
 BRO, Catalogue of Verney Deeds, D/EP7 87, p. 3 No 6.
 Manfred Brod, Abingdon in Context (Peterborough, 2010), p. 169; A E Preston, ’The Demolition of Reading Abbey’, Berks Archaeological Journal Vol 39 (1935), pp 107-44; Letters & Papers Hen VIII, Vol 12 Part 2 Item 12 where the Lady Oughtred referred to was Somerset’s sister.
 The National Archives (TNA), “Petition of Wm Blacknall re fulling mill in Abingdon”, SP 46/2/ffs 200-206
 The National Archives (TNA), E 321/41/136 and 188.
 Berks Record Office (BRO), ‘Blacknolls (sic) lease of the fisheries of Abingdon water granted 3 Ed6’ with handwritten note by A E Preston, D/EP7 93/1; BRO, A E Preston typescript notes on the Blacknall family, 1940, D/EP7 93/23.
 BRO, Preston notes 1940, D/EP7 93/23.
 BRO, Preston notes 1940, D/EP7 93/23; BRO, Catalogue of Verney Deeds, D/EP7 87, No17; Middle Claydon, Calendar of Verney Archives prepared by S R Ranson, 1994, 2/1509-1516.
 Eg in BRO, Catalogue of Verney Deeds, D/EP7 87, p. 13 No 34 which dates to 1565.
 BRO, Preston Papers, D/EP7 93/23.
 BRO, Transcript and translation of Inquiry post mortem, D/EP7 17; BRO, Catalogue of Verney Deeds, D/EP7 87, pp 21-2 Nos 59-60c; BRO, Preston Papers, D/EP7 93/20.
 Middle Claydon, Calendar of Verney Archives, 2/1436A; BRO, Catalogue of Verney Deeds, D/EP7 87, p. 17 no 49; p. 20, no 58; p.22 no 61; p. 25 no 72.
 BRO, Preston notes 1940, D/EP7 93/23. Mieneke Cox, Peace and War, the Story of Abingdon Part Three (Abingdon, 1993), pp. 11, 16
 Manfred Brod, ‘New Light on the Abingdon “Monks’ Map”’. Oxoniensia 78 (2013), pp 87-98
 BRO, Preston Papers, D/EP7 93/24.
 TNA, STAC 5/S76/26. The wording has been modernised.
 BRO, Catalogue of Verney Deeds, D/EP7 87, pp 21-2 Nos 59-60c.
 BRO, Preston Papers, D/EP7 29/81.
 C D Cobham (ed), A Monument of Christian Munificence … by Francis Little, 1627 (Oxford, 1873), p. 79.
 BRO, D/EP7 93.
 BRO, D/EP7 87, 93.
 A E Preston, St Nicolas Abingdon and other papers (Oxford 1929), pp 208-9.
 Bromley Challenor, Selections from the Municipal Chronicles of the Borough of Abingdon (1898), p. 131.
 BRO, Catalogue of Verney Deeds, D/EP7 87, pp 31 No 86 and passim..
 BRO, Transcript and translation of Chan Inq. p.m. Series II Vol 334 no 54, D/EP7 17.
 Cobham (ed), A Monument, pp 79-80.
 TNA Catalogue, Ward 2/17/65/6.
 BRO, Catalogue of Verney Deeds, D/EP7 87, p. 38 no 123, p. 41, nos 132-3, p. 44 no 145.
 Middle Claydon, Calendar of Verney Archives, 2/1426 (1614).
 Middle Claydon, Calendar of Verney Archives, 2/1518-20, 2/2083-97, 2/2098-2137.
 Middle Claydon, Calendar of Verney Archives, passim; TNA, Will of John Blacknall, 1626, PROB 11/147
 BRO, Catalogue of Verney Deeds, D/EP7 87, p.39; Middle Claydon, Calendar of Verney Archives, 1/44B and C.
 TNA, Will of John Blacknall, PROB 11/147; Cobham (ed), A Monument, p 81-4; Preston, St Nicolas Abingdon pp 214-5
 Christ’s Hospital, St Nicolas Old Church Book , ff 10-14, Book of Presentments (unnumb); Peter Heylin, Cyprianus Anglicus (1668), p. 171; Manfred Brod, ‘Dissent and Dissenters in Early Modern Berkshire’ (Oxford DPhil thesis, 2002), pp. 74-5; Cox, Peace and War, p. 68; Brod, Abingdon in Context, p. 64; Preston, St Nicolas Abingdon, p 216-8