History of the Mortimer family


The Mortimer Family, 1700-1860

The family descends from William Mortymore, who married Grace Pool (1696-1756) in her home parish of Combeinteignhead, Devon, in 1728.

Grace was the daughter of a line of local husbandmen and mariners. Her great-grandfather James Pool (b1579) had been a sailor in the adjacent parish of Stokeinteignhead, and had married his wife Lychorus Cade two weeks before their son Robert was born... there are no prizes for guessing that James and Lychorus were dragged into church just as she was about to go into labour. The consequence of this lack of family planning was Stephen Pool, Grace's father, who moved to Combeinteignhead on the death of his first wife at the end of the seventeenth century. He was a well-respected man who became a churchwarden of the parish, and was eventually buried inside the church.

Of William Mortymore little is known for certain except that he was illiterate, had five children, and was buried in 1780 in Combeinteignhead churchyard. It is probable he is identical with the William Mortimore of Kingsteignton, born 1699, son of William Mortymore and Joan Cose, but conclusive proof is lacking. (see family history 1600-1700)

The five children of William Mortymore and Grace were Mary, John, William, Joane and Frances. Another son, and earlier William, died in infancy. John (1733-1797) was a sailor, but it is possible he changed his occupation in or about 1773, for the family firm of fullers and dyers was founded, according to tradition, in that year (see below). He married a girl from Stokeinteignhead, Rose Terry, in 1764, changing the spelling of his name to Mortimer at this time.

John and Rose had two sons: John (1768-1825) and William (1773-1823). (You might notice a preponderance of the name John over the next two hundred years: most male members of the family were called John.) John Mortimer the elder sold his remaining freehold tenement in Combeinteignhead in 1780, the year his wife died and the year he married a widow, Sarah Barnes. Nothing else is known of him except that he died in 1797.

It is with the next generation that the family history can be filled out with such documents as the family has itself preserved. Papers and printed books of John Mortimer (1768-1825) and his brother William (1773-1823) survive, although not in any great quantity. Such survivals are in marked contrast to papers from the period before 1790, of which we have none. The only document in my possession relating to an event before 1790 is the certificate noting John Mortimer's baptism at Coombeinteignhead in 1768, which was copied up by the parish clerk in 1806. Since a baptismal certificate from this time is something of a rarity, I have transcribed it below:

Baptisms Anno Domini 1768 Sept 9th: John, son of John and Rose Mortimer Baptized. This is to Certifie that the above is a true Copey taken from the rejester of Baptisms kept in and for the parish & of the parish of Coombintinhead in the Diocese of Exeter. Coombintinhead this 9th Day of Febuary 1806 By Me James Metherell Parish Clerke.

At about this time John Mortimer drew up a list of the dates of birth of his children in the family bible. Today this consists of a single sheet, the title page, of The New Evangelical Family Bible. On the reverse he began proudly to set down the names and dates of birth of his children: 'Elizabeth Mortimer was Borne June 21st 1792, Rose Mortimer was Borne July 17th 1794, John Mortimer was Borne August 23rd 1797, Ann Mortimer was Borne Febuary 13th 1799, William Mortimer was Borne March 21st 1801...' Then the organised, neat hand is forced to make an irregular insertion: 'William Dyed Janry 13 1803 on Thursday one o'clock after noone'. The same hand goes on, ever more shakily, to record subsequent events: 'A Girl still borne June 17 1803, William was born July 20 Friday Morning 5 oclock 1804, William died Wednsday Morn 8 clock July 8 1807, Samuell was borne Thursday August 21 Half past 4 oclock after noone 1806, A Boy still Born February 28 1808'. From this point on, the hand is not that of John Mortimer. He stops short of recording the death of his wife, Patience, in 1813. Including a still birth in 1791, she had given birth to a total of ten children, of whom three had been still born and two had died as infants. She was 47 years of age.

Patience was buried in a wall grave in the churchyard of St Andrew's, the same church in which she had been married. John Mortimer himself was later buried there too. However, this was a legal necessity, the parish church was not their spiritual home. John and Patience were living in a rapidly changing world and did not have to accept the traditional church. Their choice of place of worship was the Independent Chapel on Princess Street, Devonport, or (later) the New Tabernacle in Plymouth, as shown by the baptisms of their children at these places. John was a Deacon at the New Tabernacle in 1817.1 His books also indicate his serious attitude to religion. Apart from his The New Evangelical Family Bible already mentioned, he also had a copy of James Usher, A Body of Divinity, or the sum and substance of Christian Religion (1702),2 and John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, or a system of evangelical truths (1795).3 His brother William (1773-1823) showed a similar leaning towards the new nonconformist sects attending Presbyterian and independent chapels, including the New Tabernacle, and having his children baptised at those places of worship. In addition, the inventory of William's possessions made on his death records a preponderance of religious works, including The Evangelical Magazine (6 vols), The Baptist Magazine (4 vols), Howell's History of the Bible, Westlake on Baptisms, The Power of Religion, Tillotson's Sermons and Milton's Paradise Lost.

Another point which John and William had in common - and a most important one for the prosperity of later generations of the family - was that they were both masters of the craft of fulling and dyeing. John's name appears in Plymouth trade directories from as early as 1795 as a fuller and dyer, and within a few years William appears too. A letterhead bearing William Mortimer's name states that he, as a dyer and scourer, undertook to dye 'silks, satins, woollens, bombazeens, tabinets, feathers, chip and straw hats, veils, lace, crapes &c... in all the various colours, on the most reasonable terms' while John was described as a 'fuller and dyer' on his son's apprenticeship indenture (1812). How they both came to be engaged in this trade is not clear. It is possible that their father put them apprentice to a master dyer during his years at sea, but there are no entries in the registers of apprenticeship duty in the Public Record Office for fullers and dyers called Mortimer.4 Alternatively, it is a possibility that their father had learnt the trade himself after his seafaring days were over and passed on his knowledge to his sons. This last possibility might explain why the traditional date of the founding of the family firm is 1773.

The Mortimer brothers prospered in the dyeing trade. In 1811, Holden's Directory mentions John Mortimer as being a dyer in Old Town, Plymouth. In later years each brother had a works with shop attached and another shop at Devonport. In John's case, his Devonport shop was situated at 109 Fore Street and his residence and works at Mill Street, Plymouth; William's Devonport shop was at 36 Fore Street and his residence, Plymouth shop and works at 2 Drake Street. It is possible that they gave work to a few of the large numbers of unemployed men who found themselves in ports such as Plymouth at the end of the Napoleonic War.

William died in 1823, leaving a large number of children (at least seven) by his wife Jane Pearse. His business passed in time to his son William, who is mentioned in the 1844 Pigot's Directory as a dyer and cleaner; however it would appear that there was some linking of the two businesses, since the wallet of John Mortimer junior (1797-1834) gives his address as the elder William's Plymouth premises at 2 Drake Street. This must relate to a later business partnership or sale of premises and cannot relate to John's apprenticeship as John was apprenticed to his father in 1812. William's death also resulted in the making of the most interesting family document that survives: an inventory of all his effects. This inventory, which is an unusual for its time in that it is exceedingly detailed, sheds much light on the way that he (and presumably his brother) carried on their trade. William's facilities for dyeing and cleaning were based around two dyeing houses, each equipped with several large coppers, up to 100 gallons, vats, mortar and pestle, buckets, rakes and pails. In addition he had a drying loft, a framing loft, a washing house, a store room, a press room (with cast a iron press worth 20) and his two shops. The shop at Plymouth had rush seat chairs stained black, long counters with painted fronts containing many drawers for cleaned clothes and linen waiting for collection, cabinets with many more drawers around the shop, shelves in the window of the shop, and a small gilt letter sign also in the window. The shop in Devonport was similar but on a smaller scale. The total value of William's dyeing stuff, including the shop fittings, was 117 2s - nearly half the total value of all his movables (244 18s 7d).

Other parts of William's inventory shed much light on the way a dyer and fuller lived. His house contained a parlour, three bedrooms, a servants' room and two kitchens. Furniture was virtually all mahogany, which had become fashionable at the beginning of the century. In the bedrooms were a total of eleven beds. Nearly all of these, including those in the servants' room, were feather beds. His own bed, a four-poster with mahogany cable pillars and cornice with chintz coverings, was valued at 7. Nor was this the most valuable bed in the house. Whether or not he was any better-off than his brother John is not clear but it is obvious that a dyer and fuller could live in some luxury in Plymouth in the early nineteenth century, even when the trade demanded much hard work and was, as yet, unmechanized apart from the cast iron press.

To illustrate how William and John Mortimer might have appeared in the street, we can turn to the inventory of William's clothing. For day to day wear William had a choice of blue, green or black coats, with another black coat for best and a great coat. He owned five cotton shirts, four pairs of blue trousers, two pairs of light mixed trousers and a pair of grey trousers, three black waistcoats, four coloured waistcoats, two pocket handkerchiefs, three flannel shirts and four pairs worsted stockings. He also owned a single pair of drawers. This last detail might seem surprising; a man who was obviously very comfortably off, you would have thought, would have been able to afford himself the luxury of more than a single pair of drawers. Indeed, he might have done, but it might well be that his other items of underwear were considered of no value and consequently left out of the inventory. Or maybe his wife hid them from the appraisers.

John Mortimer junior (1797-1834), the eldest son of John and Patience, was apprenticed to his father in 1812 for the term of seven years. During this time he learnt the craft of a fuller and dyer. Following his apprenticeship he probably continued to help his father in his business but on his uncle's death in 1823, as pointed out above, he appears to have taken over that business. When his father died in 1825, he consolidated both businesses into one, concentrating on building up his father's Mill Street works.

A few of John Mortimer's business records survive from this time. These, together with the dyeing utensils listed in his uncle's inventory, give a picture of how the trade was conducted. Firstly it should be noted that much knowledge was required to deal with the chemicals and processes required for cleaning.6 Secondly, an invoice dated 1825 for 15 16s 5d worth of dyestuffs bought from James, Wood & James of Great Trinity Lane, London, shows that John Mortimer was dealing with companies as far away as London. Also there is a small leather account book which details payments, presumably from his late uncle William's Drake Street works since it covers the period 1823-1825, to one J Rowe, chemist and druggist of Plymouth. John Mortimer sometimes sent to this one supplier a dozen orders per month for items such as sugar of lead, distilled vinegar, isinglass, best gum, fine gum, tar, Brazil dust, acetic acid, muriatic acid, cochineal, alum, starch, amatto, furmuric, sulphuric acid, oil vitriol, madder, copperas, pearl ash, London glue, soft soap (by the barrel), chipped ebony, red wood, fustic, fullers' earth, pyroligneous acid, castor oil, linseed oil and white paint.

The fact that as early as 1825 John Mortimer was obtaining chemical supplies from London is particularly interesting when one considers the local character of the trade at this time. I have already mentioned that in 1830 John Mortimer had a Plymouth shop in Drake Street and a Devonport shop in Fore Street. His rivals Thomas Hazlewood, John Holloway and George Tricket also had shops in both parts of town. In addition there were two further dyers in Plymouth (Collom and Robins)and two more in Devonport (Burt and Dawe), one of whom (Dawe) also had a shop in Stonehouse. But there were no big companies poaching the local custom, no agents, no inter-town rivalry. It was very much a local trade, run by local men.

The same conscientiousness John Mortimer showed in his business he applied to his domestic life. Together with his wife, Rachel Bramble,7 whom he had married in 1823, he took on the responsibility for the young family which his uncle had left behind. This is made clear by the only personal letter from this time to have survived.8 This was written by William's daughter, Mary, and addressed to Mrs John Mortimer, Mill Street, Plymouth. It must have been sent about 1830 since it mentions John's and Rachel's children, Rose Bramble (1825-1894) and John Forrester Mortimer (1827-1900) and before 1832 since it mentions John's brother Samuel, who died that year. Because it is the only personal letter between two members of the family to have survived from the early nineteenth century, it is transcribed here in full:

My dear Cousin,
You no doubt have expected to hear from me before this time but I am sure you will forgive me when I tell you that want of time has been the only reason why you have not done so. I have only heard from my dear brother twice since I left Plymouth but I can willingly excuse him - I dare say he has ought else to think about.
I am longing to see my dear friends at Plymouth again. It appears years since I was parted from them. I was much disappointed that I could not see you and Agness before I left Plymouth. I fully expected to have done so as I was so long there after my time.
I dare say you are anxious to know how I like Miss Tilly? I think I may say that I am as comfortable as I could have expected among strangers. I cannot but expect difficulties go where I will; one thing absence will teach me to value the comforts of home.
How are my little favourites Rose and Forrester? Dear little creatures, I am longing to hear little Forrester's prattling tongue again. How is my Cousin John? I hope very well. Give my kind love to him. I hear Samuel is still with you. I hope he will procure a situation shortly.
How did you leave Mrs Berry and [?Trowt] when you were at Exeter? They have given me a kind invitation to spend my midsummer vacation with them. Do you still receive boxes from Falmouth? I suppose I could send you any time that way. I went to Falmouth last week & saw Miss Bond and Mrs Walter Clatworthy - they both desire to be kindly remembered to you & Cousin John.
You must not think me unkind that I do not write to you oftener for my time is very much occupied. I heard from Susan Small last week and from Agness Heller today. She says you felt hurt at my not begging to be remembered to you in my letters. I really do not think that I have written one letter home without begging my very kind love to you. I hope you do not suppose that I could have forgotten you and shall always remember with gratitude the happy hours of former years when I was blessed with the love of a dear affectionate parent. But their recollection altho' so dear is painful - and it is when I recall them that I feel myself truly an orphan. Never did I feel the loss of that dear parent more than now. But I ought not to murmur; I have no doubt but that he was taken for some wise end. You know as well as I do what an affectionate father he was - you must then fancy how in moments of reflection I feel his loss. But I am sure I cannot dwell on this subject without doing violence to your feelings as well as my own; therefore I will drop it. But I must once more beg you not to fancy you are forgotten - your kindness to my inestimable parent during his last illness will prevent me from doing that and also his attachment to you.
I hope to see you all again in less than 10 weeks. You must suppose the anticipation of it makes me very happy. I will endeavour to write to you again before then. Give my kind love to Mr & Mrs Small and family & my Aunt Mortimer9 and Mrs Bramble & all friends. I suppose your mother's strength is failing. I shall be very glad to hear from you the next time William sends. He can send every Monday by the carts so may I expect a letter very soon? If it is ever so short I shall receive it with pleasure. Again begging you to remember me to Mr M & kiss the dear children for me.

I will say adieu and believe me yours affectionately
Mary Mortimer
Give my every kind love to Mr & Mrs Pearce - I hear I have another little cousin: is it a boy or a little girl?
Adieu once more

With a succesful business, two children and a devoted wife, it seemed that John Mortimer was indeed a fortunate man. A measure of how far the family had come since the Coombeinteignhead years can be gauged from the fact that John had his portrait painted, a full length view, with his hand resting on his writing case.10 One cannot imagine his illiterate great-grandfather, William Mortymore, having his likeness done. However John Mortimer was not destined to enjoy his good fortune for long. Two years after the death of his younger brother Samuel (at the age of twenty-four), John was himself struck down by cholera. Family legend states that he died at the Mill Street works and, in compliance with the order regarding cholera victims, was buried in the nearest consecrated ground. Thus it was that he was hastily interred in a common grave in the Ebenezer Chapel (Wesleyan Methodist) cemetery on the other side of Mill Street. He was thirty-six years of age.

Rachel Mortimer cannot have found it easy being a woman with a young family to support and a dyeing master's business to continue. She had not been through an apprenticeship and had probably little idea of how the processes worked. Moreover the business was rapidly becoming mechanized, requiring heavy investment. The competition was hotting up too: by 1850 there were eight dyers and cleaners in Plymouth, and another eight in Devonport. The Hazlewood, Burt, Holloway and Tricket dyeing and cleaning firms were still going strong and the advent of the railway threatened to bring in competition from further afield. But she had no choice. A woman in her position could do little else than carry on her husband's trade. Besides, she was not without support. Her own sister11 lived nearby and the business employed a number of men and women who were able to direct her. A couple of these shared her house and could help with looking after her children. Nor was she the only woman carrying on the business of dyeing and cleaning in Plymouth, although she was the only woman managing a Devonport shop as well. Priscilla Hoare and Harriet Burt were each running similar, if smaller, businesses in Plymouth and Devonport respectively.

Looking at the records which survive, one can still see that Rachel rose admirably to the challenges of mechanization and competition. Bills for dyestuffs survive from John Giles Pilcher & Jeremiah Pilcher & Sons, importers of oils, of London; from Lediard, Jones & Mortimer, indigo merchants, dry salters etc, of Bristol; from William Manning & Co of Bristol; and from R Evans, Son & Hodgson, wholesale druggists, of Exeter. In addition, it is clear that she had a sound head for investments in other fields. An 1843 poster shows she held 200 of shares in the Plymouth, Devonport & Exeter Railway, before the railway had even reached Exeter from Bristol.12 She also invested in property. A the time of her death she had houses let at 12 Saltash Street, 36 and 37 Cobourg Street, 3 Cobourg Place, 11 John Street and 1 Windsor Place. Thus, in 1853, at about the time she handed direct management of the family firm to her son John Forrester Mortimer, her income was assessed at 160 per annum and the demand for income tax that year was for 4 13s 4d - not great wealth but a very comfortable income indeed for the mid-nineteenth century.

In April 1852 Rachel agreed the plans for a new house in Cobourg Street. It was the end of what had been something of an odyssey around Plymouth. Originally Rachel shared her husband's lodgings in Drake Street. In 1841 she was living in Mill Street. John Forrester and Rose were away at the time of the census (presumably at boarding school) and Rachel was sharing her house with Elizabeth Hore, a dyeshop maid, and John Gillard and Mary Edwards, apprentice dyers. By the time of the census of 1851, the family had moved to Bedford Street, some several streets away from the dyeing works, and were sharing their house with Elizabeth Hore and Mary Giles, dyeing assistants, and Grace Blatchford, a servant.13 John Forrester at this time was twenty-four years old. It was possibly Mary or Grace who was the unlucky girl whom John Forrester made pregnant and despatched to America to cover his indiscretion.

The new house stood at a corner of the triangle of land which formed the site of the Cobourg Street works. Standing on Cobourg Street, with one's back to Rowe Street, the house appeared on the left hand side of the shop, to the right of which was the gate of the dyeing works itself. Four of the architect's drawings mentioned in an agreement of April 1852 survive, although the agreement itself does not. One is of the street outside, marking the borders of the land owned by Rachel Mortimer. Another represents the basement and ground floor. The other two represent the first and second floors of one design and the first and attic floors of another design. It seems that there was some doubt as to whether to build a second floor or whether to leave it as an attic.14

The house was a typical mid-Victorian town house, made slightly odd by the triangular shape of the site. Entering one passed into a lobby which had a concave wall on the left hand side and a door to the front parlour on the right. There were partition doors beteen this front parlour and a back parlour. Proceeding straight on, a visitor passed the door to a closet and came to the foot of a smart, oval, winding staircase. A window at the foot of this staircase looked out over the dyeing works. As one looked out, to the left was a breakfast parlour. Going down stairs one would have found a wash house (as if they needed one with a dyers and cleaners in the back garden) which led on to a small courtyard. Down here also was a large kitchen, a pantry and a coalhouse. Below ground level, it must have been dark in winter, cooking down there in the gloom. Going back upstairs to the first floor, the intial design provided for a large drawing room looking over Cobourg Street with a closet and bedroom behind, with a toilet off the stairs, and further bedrooms on the second floor.

Until 1990 my grandfather had a regency sofa on which Rachel was said to have died. She collapsed in front of it, I was told, and was lifted up on to it before she passed away. Her death certificate confirms the likelihood of this. Having made her will in 1857, she died in 1860 of a second attack of apoplexy, which lasted three hours. Her son, John Forrester, was with her. In her will she left all her household goods to him, worth nearly 600, and care of all her rented accommodation which she intended to pass to her daughter's children. She was buried in a new family vault in Plymouth Cemetery.


1. I have a letter about the removal of the organ from this church, dated 1817, addressed externally to John Mortimer, Mill Street, Plymouth, and internally to the Deacons of the New Tabernacle. Back

2. Inscribed: ' John Mortimer, his book, 1809'. Back

3. Inscribed: John Mortimer, his book, given him by Susanna Liverton, 1811'. Back

4. It is quite possible that they were apprenticed at a rate below the threshold at which registration was compulsory. Back

6. It is worth noting that William's own son, William junior, did not take on his father's business, presumably because he had not served a dyer's apprenticeship and did not have the required knowledge. Back

7. Rachel Bramble was baptised in Dolton in North Devon in 1797, she being the daughter of John and Susanna Brimble. Back

8. It was given by John Stuart Mortimer to my father when I was about twelve years of age. Back

9. "Aunt Mortimer". This can only refer to a second wife of John Mortimer (d1825). I have not found any reference to her apart from this and the fact that two 'Mary Mortimer' signatures appear in the marriage register of John Mortimer and Rachel Bramble in 1823. Back

10. The picture used to hang at the Cobourg Street offices of Mortimer's (Plymouth) Ltd until destroyed in the war. Back

11. Rachel Bramble's had at least one sister, who married John Berry, gutta percha manufacturer, as shown by her will. Back

12. The extension to Plymouth took a further six years to build, opening in 1849 and having cost 1,900,000. Back

13. Elizabeth Hore and Mary Giles were aged 50 and 23 respectively in 1851. Grace Blatchford was aged 30. Back

14. The copper engraving of the 1880s shows only one window at this level and so it is not possible to tell which plan was adopted, if either. Back

Last updated 26 April 2001