Uncovering the tragedy of an ancestor, mother of a young child, facing death amidst the horrors of Newgate Gaol, revealed the grief brought upon the family at that time. Further examination of earlier incidents disclosed an intrigue, a likely link with a governess employed in the house of Nell Gwynn and deceived by a false promise of matrimony.
This is the history of the Wollstonecraft family, the family of Mary Wollstonecraft, courageous pioneer, far in advance of her time, who revolutionised attitudes towards the female role in society.
For generations they lived and worked in the busy, vibrant metropolis of London, going about their daily business amongst the teeming thousands in that city, together facing good times and bad, crisis and misfortune. Unforeseen events touched the lives of ordinary people whose welfare depended largely upon decisions, made by those in authority, affecting the prosperity of the whole nation.
Trading with the Far East brought wealth and benefits to many. It enriched the lives of those who could afford the exquisite luxuries that the East Indiamen brought home. Fortunes could be made by those who braved the seas, but there was a high price to pay. Many lives were lost amongst the seamen away for such long periods of time. There was the ever present threat to sailing ships from storms, the notoriously poor diet of the seamen, little resistance to unknown tropical diseases and pirates were always ready to exploit any vulnerability. At home, the increased competition brought hardship to those who could no longer find a market for their locally produced goods.
Detailed information about the health, longevity and numbers living in London up to four hundred years ago have been recorded in the Bills of Mortality. They contain a wealth of data, ready for analysis, revealing the causes of death, the numbers and ages of those dying in each parish and how migration affected the total population of the City.
As is the custom when tracing your family roots, I have commenced with the most recent history and worked backwards in time. In so doing, I hope I am able to acquaint the novice in ancestral research with the resources that are available to assist. Perhaps I am also able, thereby, to share some of the excitement I have experienced in finding clues along the way and piecing scraps of evidence together.
I have included a number of reproductions of the records, some hundreds of years old. They are fascinating, particularly to those with an interest in palaeography. I have been privileged to handle the original documents myself and have found it quite thrilling to be presented with them. They are all carefully preserved, sometimes parchment rolls complete with the dust of centuries, and I have enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the writing to expose the secrets within.
The reader will find a number of changes in the spelling of names. I have copied the variations as they appear in the documents. Differences can be understood when considering that, many years ago, few people were literate and clerks wrote, phonetically, what they heard said to them.
Amongst the alternatives, the name, ‘Wollstonecraft’, can be found written as ‘Woolstonecroft’, ‘Woolstoncroft’ or ‘Wolstencroft’. Occasionally, it can be found as ‘Wors(t)encroft’, ‘Wosencroft’ or even ‘Wozencroft’. The ending is, normally, ‘croft’; ‘craft’ is somewhat unusual.
The derivation is from the Saxon name of ‘Wulfstan’, which later developed into ‘Wol(f)stan’. It means ‘wolf stone’ and is one of a number of names based on ‘Wolf’. In mythology, the wolf was held in high esteem, sacred to the god, Woden. Woden’s wolf was symbolic of power and freedom. As an animal to be feared in the forests of Europe and the aura of mystique surrounding it, the wolf features in many folk tales and legends. ‘Tun’ refers to enclosed ground or a town. The addition of ‘croft’, similarly, relates to an enclosed parcel of land.1, 2
There is a high incidence of the surname occurring in Lancashire, particularly around Manchester, although with the ending ‘croft’ and not ‘craft’. In order to assist in identifying a person, it was common practice to give him or her a second name denoting the town, village or area from which that person came, where they were ‘of’. There are several places around the country called Woolston(e) and, to the north of Warrington, there is a town with this name. The ancestors of those nearby with a surname based on ‘Woolstoncroft’ could have originated from this town.
As I proceeded to study the history of the family of Mary Wollstonecraft, I became aware of a certain amount of confusion that seems to exist regarding the relationship between the various family members, particularly those bearing similar first names. In order to settle any controversy, I have attempted to establish precisely how each was related to each other.
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