James Hingston of Holbeton d 1756

The happy chance of the survival of a copy of James' long and detailed will amongst family papers, despite the destruction of the Exeter registry in a 'Baedeker' air raid in 1942, has provided us with a much fuller picture of James than we could glean from any other known source. Nevertheless, the totality of our information is small, and offers more questions than answers.

This page discusses three questions:

James and his relatives

There is no known record of James' birth. Allen and Dymond suggest that James' father may have been the James born at Holbeton in 1652 (another source has the date of baptism as 1654), son of James and Alice. But there was another James Hingston born to a Jonathan Hingston in 1655, and we do not know if Allen and Dymond had any other basis for their assertion than the coincidence of name.

There is a possibility that the absence of any record of the baptism of James in the Holbeton register was simply the result of error. But if so, and if we assume that the James in our story was born around 1680 (plausible, since it would place his first marriage when he was in his early 20's, and his death in his mid 70's) then the only obvious Hingston to whom children were being registered at Holbeton is a John Hingston (usually but not always described as of Scotscombe and so there might have been two of them), who had at least ten children, including two named Andrew, baptised between 1676 and 1683. But there is no sign of a son named James or William.  That John may have been the one baptised in 1656, son of Walter, whom Allen and Dymond place in a different part of the tree. On the basis of names alone he does not have a particularly strong case to be identified as parent of James. James did call a son John, but it was not until 1737, and his eighth son, who was almost certainly being named after his second wife's father. So Allen and Dymond may well have been right in this.

The second possibility is that James was not baptised at all. Intriguingly there is the case of William and Margaret, who had a son Josias Hingston who was born on 4 March 1685/6, but not baptised until 1705. William was James' second choice of name for his son, after James, and this couple would be much stronger candidates to be parents of James if he had chosen to call one of his daughters Margaret! A decision not to baptise is not as surprising as it may seem, given the Quaker connections of various Hingstons in south Devon (see below). But neither William and Margaret, nor their children, appear in the Quaker meeting registers of the time either.

The third possibility, of course, is that James was born elsewhere.  This should not be ruled out, but I know of no direct evidence of any connection between James and any other place apart from Holbeton, except that he married his first wife in Plymouth and his second came from Kingsbridge.

As to the wider question of how many other Hingstons there may have been in Holbeton at the period, there are no birth records at Holbeton of Hingstons through most of the eighteenth century except to James and his descendants, not even to descendants of John of Scotscombe. The burial register contains a number of entries for Hingston, at least some of whom are probably children of John, and the most interesting of these is the death of Mr Francis Hingston in 1743. This was probably the Francis born to John in 1690 (he had an earlier son Francis in 1680), and the use of the title is very unusual in the Holbeton register, suggesting that he may have had a high social status. Another son may have been the Ralph who suffered in the fire of 1754, and died 1755.

James and his money

A number of points in James' will seek explanation.

First, James describes himself as a mercer. Surprisingly, it is not clear what this means, since at this period that could indicate anything from a merchant in silks and other fine cloth, to what in a later period would have been called a draper or even keeper of a general store (see glossary). There is nothing in the will to offer any clue, and since Holbeton is an unlikely base for a silk merchant it would be reasonable to suppose that James was simply a village shopkeeper. Certainly there is an entry in the 1704 register for the burial of his son that may well be describing James as just that. Unfortunately the microfiche copy is too poor to be sure. But there are some problems with that theory. Firstly, James' will also uses the terms 'shopkeeper' and 'grocer' in relation to others named, which suggests that mercer was probably intended to have some distinct meaning. Secondly, James ended up a fairly prosperous man despite the demands of a large family. Holbeton was not large and probably not very wealthy, and a village store would not be a sound basis on which to found a fortune. If on the other hand he inherited his wealth, why would he choose to be the village shopkeeper in the first place? Being a Quaker at the time of writing his will, he may have been proud to claim an honest profession but there are known to have been strong Quaker connections with the Devon cloth trade and James may have been involved in that in some way we do not know.

The other title appearing in the will is that of 'Lord of the Manor' of Holbeton which he is said to have purchased in his lifetime. That might need some explanation. Under the medieval feudal system the local lord had great responsibility and power, but that had long gone. Although a vestigial manorial system survived in some places, and there might be the right to financial dues from manorial tenants, the lordship already had more form than substance. Even today such titles come up for sale, usually to people from the English-speaking diaspora who are content to pay for the sheer pleasure of ownership. A clue as to how the Holbeton lordship came to be available may be contained in White's directory of 1850 (on the GENUKI site), which records that the Hele family, who would appear to have been the principal family of Holbeton, died out in 1716. At that point the estate was probably broken up and no doubt James bid for what he could, either then or later. The rest of White's account needs to be read with caution, however. He would have obtained his information from members of the families mentioned, who would notoriously have tended to exaggerate their own family's antiquity and landed connections even though the reality might be quite different. For example, one would not guess from the account that as recently as 1830 Mr Bulteel had bought the remaining Holbeton property of Andrew Hingston (1776-1855), which came to him from his father and uncle William, for something short of £3,000 [source bills from Andrew's solicitor]. That property will not have included the lordship of the manor, which passed to others in the Hingston line, but no doubt the Bulteels acquired it in the same way.

The property listed in the will does not amount to a great deal, nor are the monetary bequests large. It is notable however that the  bequests are very uneven, for example most of them go to younger members of the family who would probably still be dependent on him, and almost nothing goes directly to William his eldest son. It would be normal for a Quaker to distribute his estate fairly evenly, and given that James must have been elderly, and his eldest son was already middle aged, he had probably begun to hand it out. That could easily explain the codicil reducing his daughter Alice's inheritance  from £30 to £10, if she had obtained an advance that Christmas. All that makes estimating James' true worth during his lifetime very difficult, but it looks as though he was prosperous if not truly rich.

That leaves the biggest uncertainty of all. Where did the wealth come from? Had James stood from birth to inherit substantial family land it is likely that he would have been a farmer, or perhaps aspired to join the ranks of the gentry. If he chose instead to become a mercer, whatever that term implies, it suggests that this was not the expectation with which he started out, whatever Hingston inheritances he may have picked up in the event. Some of the money may well have come to him from the Brooking family through his second wife Elizabeth. We know that John Brooking was a prosperous merchant. I have been unable to trace his will, though I believe it to exist, but Elizabeth almost certainly inherited something though she did have several older brothers. I doubt that it was substantial enough to account for much of James' estate.

James and the Quaker connection

The Quakers (later the Society of Friends) began as a dissenting sect in the Commonwealth period and were at first vigorously persecuted. The society's most notable characteristics were a complete rejection of ritual and hierarchy in religion, a strict code of morality in conduct, and a distaste for vanity and frivolity. They had a very strong sense of community, and until the mid-nineteenth century were disowned if they married out. Their high point in England was the 1680's, when there were around 60,000 members.

There was a strong Quaker community in south Devon, centred in Plymouth and in Kingsbridge, and it was a William Hingston and his wife who hosted the Kingsbridge meetings at their home in the early years and donated a site for a burial ground. This land in Sugar Lane, Kingsbridge may have been used as a burial ground for perhaps 30 years before its conveyance to the Society in 1693, and it is probably where James was buried though it went out of use at around the time of his death. William seems to have been a member of the Society by 1659 when he was a witness at a wedding, and he married a Sarah Tripe in 1666; he died 1695 and his wife in 1704. According to Allen & Dymond William was James' great-uncle, but note (above) that we do not know how reliable their claim concerning James' parentage really is. William and Sarah had a son Henry, who was another prominent member, and a son William said by Allen & Dymond to have died in America.

In Plymouth, too, there were prominent Hingston Quakers at the turn of the century. The best known are Richard (1661-1711), whom Allen and Dymond have as the son of Walter of Holbeton and brother of John, and his sons Andrew and Richard who moved to Penryn. But there is also a James Hingston, intriguingly, who was a leading member in 1704, and in 1718 Gertrude (probably the widow of the older Richard), James and Andrew Hingston are amongst the eighteen signatories of a testimony. Since the James who died in 1756 was living and producing children in Holbeton, and having them baptised, we can probably rule out the possibility that he and the James of the Plymouth meeting are one and the same. But it is a reminder that our picture is far from complete.

Within a relatively small religious community the connections were often close and not necessarily those of blood, though intermarriage frequently followed in time. For example the Kingsbridge Quakers at the beginning of the century included in their leading members, and apparently close friends, Henry Hingston, John Brooking (father of James of Holbeton's second wife), and William Cookworthy. Cookworthy was the father of the William Cookworthy of Plymouth, the chemist and pioneer of English porcelain manufacture, who in turn had a famous friendship and correspondence with the younger Richard Hingston.

James of Holbeton must have had some contact with the Quakers before his marriage in 1730 to Elizabeth Brooking, the daughter of John. He was certainly a Quaker by September that year when they married, and there were occasional small meetings at private houses in Holbeton though these may have been after that date. At least two of his children by Ann, Alice and Henry, became Quakers, and Elizabeth's children were apparently brought up as such.

Our picture of eighteenth century Quakers is of severe and humourless people, dressed in conspicuously old fashioned clothes in plain black or grey, and addressing each other as thee and thou. There may be an element of truth in that, but a look at the possessions in the will reminds us that this simplification may have been moderated in practice.

Elizabeth's clothing Three items of clothing are listed which may be conventionally plain in colour but, as befitted the wife of a mercer, they appear to have been of fine quality.  By the end of the 18th century Quakers had indeed adopted a uniform style of dress, but that developed slowly, and the chief requirement was that it should not to be too showy. Quaker Women's Meetings sometimes went into a great deal of detail about how far current fashions should be adopted, the main offence being too many extravagant extras such as frills or ribbons. Whilst many Quakers would have disapproved of fine clothes of any sort, the association between Quakers and the Devon cloth trade probably led to a more relaxed attitude there.

Tea furniture A Yorkshire Women's Meeting minute of 1714 was as follows:    

"It is the judgement of Friends that we should ....... refrain from service; and that Friends keep clear of the superfluous part in drinking tea, we think that some of the time and money that's spent thus might be made better use of. It's advised that Friends should not have so much china or earthenware on their mantelpieces or on their chests of drawers, but rather set them in their closets until they have occasion to use them; and likewise to keep from using painted calicos &c."

Furniture Even that could be controversial. Looking glasses were an invitation to personal vanity. Many Quakers famously eschewed the use of easy chairs even in old age. It is notable that the Holbeton house had both, but arguably the fact that they were itemised was evidence that they were not necessarily available to all the family.