Francis Mewburn was an apothecary/surgeon in Durham towards the end of the 18th century and later had the good fortune to inherit a small estate at Danby on the North York moors. Francis had three sons:
Francis, the first railway solicitor and Chief Bailiff of Darlington.
John, a surgeon, who emigrated to Canada.
Bowyer, a successful London solicitor.
Each has left a distinct mark on our world; their efforts continue to resonate today.
The Danby years though are marked by an unassuming memorial inscription in the graveyard of St Hilda at Danby, North Yorkshire that reads:
“To the memory of James MEWBURN who d. Jul 29 1802 in 85 yrs of his age. Also Francis his son who d. Sep 19 1833 in 85 yrs of his age. Also Eleanor his wife who d. Mar 26 1836 aged 75 yrs.”
St Hilda’s Church, Danby, North Yorkshire
The Danby inheritance is noted in a contemporary obituary from The Gentleman’s magazine:
At Durham, at the house of his friend Mr. Mewburn, apothecary, Tho. Bowyer, esq, of Tudhoe-hall, only son of the late worthy and learned Printer; by whose death, unmarried, 3000l. Reduced annuities, bequeathed by his father contingently to the Company of Stationers for the benefit of six aged printers becomes secured to them in perpetuity. He has bequeathed almost the whole of his property of every kind to Mr. Mewburn, by a will which (we are informed) will be contested by the friends of his father.
How did all this come about?
Francis’s father had been a prosperous yeoman farmer near Durham and had apprenticed his son in 1765 to an apothecary. The Indenture is held at the University of Alberta in Canada. It was between James Mewburn and Thomas Hornsby of Durham for the usual seven years. Hornsby is described as a ‘fuller’ and a practising apothecary. This meant he was a member of the Guild of Fullers – unusual as apothecaries, having early on doubled as spicers, belonged typically to the Grocers Company. The Register of Apprentices has a matching entry.
He gained his diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons in London, qualifying around 1772. He then continued with medical studies under Joseph Else, a noted surgeon and anatomist at St Thomas’ Hospital, in London and a Fellow of the Royal Society. We know this because a manuscript of notes taken by Francis during Else’s lectures is held at the University of Alberta. Other notes from lectures by William Saunders, a physician at Guy’s Hospital, in London, must also be his.
Alberta also holds certificates gained by Francis in London:
“These are to Certify Francis Mewburn attended one course of lectures on the Theory & Practice of Physick.
Signed by William London, June 29 1776.”
“Midwifery. This is to certify that Francis Mewburn has diligently attended six courses of our lectures in real labours on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery & also attended & delivered in real labours. Witness our hands at London this 25th day of June 1776.
Francis had extended his range and skills. This explains how he could describe himself as an apothecary/surgeon. The title surgeon did carry more of a cachet than apothecary. By the end of the century the apothecary/surgeon was occasionally known as a general practitioner – the start of today’s usage.
Soon after qualifying he was practising in Durham where he was listed in the Medical Register for 1779 under:
“Durham: Surgeons and Apothecaries”
“Mr Francis Meaburn”.
There is a marriage in Durham in 1773 between a Francis Mewburn and an Elizabeth Hornsby. This was a year after Francis had qualified. Elizabeth was the daughter of John Hornsby of Dalton-le-Dale and may have been related to Francis’s master, Thomas Hornsby. A girl, Ann, was born 1777 in Durham to Francis but died the following year. Francis recorded the death of Elizabeth in his accounts in 1783 and she was buried three days later. He subsequently married Eleanor Johnstone who, Mewburn Levien claims, was an actress. A record for that marriage has not been traced but the diary has a date 31 March 1784 in it with, uniquely, no explanation of its significance though we may guess it was the marriage. Eighteen months later the first of their 11 children was born at Newcastle.
The tree for Francis and his children is as follows:
Francis Mewburn (1748) Tree
We know a little about his subsequent life from his grandson:
“[Francis] went [to Bishop Middleham] from Durham after his friend the late Mr. Smales gained his suit, and obtained a family property. They then went to Trimdon, and subsequently to the Howe near Castleton [the Danby property], where ancient people still remember the grandfather of the present generation as a cheery old gentleman who lived, like his father, to 85, and practised road making and drainage, then unknown in that neighbourhood.”
In 1782, when the Bowyer will was written, Francis was living at Claypath, a street in Durham.
His business as an apothecary was apparently thriving. That can be judged from the first of his account books where there are a good many receipts listed simply as “Till”. The twelve months from the opening of these accounts in April 1782 show till receipts amounting to £254 10/4d. The value of that relative to wages of the time equates to about £343,000 today – a substantial income (and only about 80% of the total). Also, in October 1782 he purchased the house in Claypath, for £410. It was a year later on 28th October 1783 that his first wife, Elizabeth, died.
Thomas Bowyer died on 27th December 1783 leaving the now doubly bereaved Francis as his principal inheritor. Francis left for London on 29th January 1784 presumably to arrange probate, which was granted on the 3rd February, and did not arrive back at Durham until 17th March. The will was however disputed.
Prudom v Mewburn, 1785
A group of Prudom descendants brought a complaint against Francis Mewburn in 1785 alleging that Thomas Bowyer’s will was invalid having been made by deception or coercion. A record of the case has been found at The National Archives. The pleadings cover six sheets of vellum each about a metre square, so have not been fully transcribed. Key points have been abstracted.
The diplomatic is typical, beginning with the Prudom side who:
“… Humbly complaining shew unto your Lordship your orators and oratrixes Thomas Prudom of Danby in the County of York Yeoman, Henry Sowley of the City of London Merchant, James Deason of the City of Durham Clerk and Eleanor his wife, Mary Thornhill of Kingston Lisle in the County of Berks Widow, James Cutbert of Brotton in the County of York Yeoman and Thomas Audas of Stokesley in the said County of York Yeoman, Your orators except the said James Deason and your oratrixes being the coheirs at law of Thomas Prudom late Citizen and Fishmonger of London deceased and being so the coheirs of John Prudom, Ann Audas, Eleanor Talboyes, Marielle Cutbert, Alice Dowson and Margaret Audas the Brother and Sisters of the said Thomas Prudom deceased …”
The parties are all two or three generations on from Thomas Bowyer, so have to explain how they are related to him. From this the following tree has been constructed:
The Prudom tree from litigation
Francis Mewburn and Thomas Bowyer are highlighted in blue, Complainants in red.
The complainants asserted that Francis Mewburn had inveigled Thomas Bowyer into his house, got him drunk, persuaded him to sign a will, and then kept him drunk until he died. Thomas’s character was blackened to show that this scheme was practicable:
“… Charge that the said Thomas Bowyer was a very Wild and Extravagant Person and led a very Dissolute Life … disobliging his father … lived in an obscure place in the country … at Tudhoe near the City of Durham and went by a feigned name … and served three year in the Militia”
In response, Francis Mewburn recited the indentures and wills involving Thomas Prudom, William Bowyer and Ann Prudom demonstrating how the estates passed to Thomas Bowyer. Detail of the parcels of land and various tenants are included.
Francis insisted that Thomas was the one who had first contacted him, claiming cousinship and demanding acquaintance, and that thereafter he had treated him for his “Gout and Gravel”.
On 19 October 1782 Francis was summoned to Tudhoe to treat a severe attack of gout. Several hours later Thomas dictated a will to him (in terms similar to the final will) – apparently fearful he was on the brink of death – and had it witnessed by three locals.
The following day Thomas insisted on being taken by chaise to Francis’s house at Claypath so Francis could look after him. Later that day Thomas, apparently concerned about the legality of the first will, sent for Francis Smales, the attorney, and spent some hours instructing him. Smales returned on the 21st with a newly drafted will that was then signed and witnessed by John Patrick of Durham, woollen draper, William Henderson of Durham, grocer, and Francis Smales, Durham, attorney at law. The will seems quite normal and rational, with various bequests to servants, to the people of Tudhoe and to John Nichols, his father’s partner in the printing business. It even includes money for a memorial service and specifies the subject of the sermon. If it was the work of a crazed drunkard then Smales must have colluded to a remarkable degree in creating such a normal document.
Thomas then lived for another 14 months, mostly at Tudhoe, so the story about keeping him drunk seems far-fetched. There was apparently ample opportunity for the will to have been revoked had he so wished.
Thomas’s will was proved at Canterbury on the 3rd of February 1784 and Francis took possession in February and March that year. No challenge was mounted at that point.
In Francis’s answer to the complaint it also emerged that Deason had a history of threatening Thomas if he wouldn’t leave most of his property to him. Deason had also harassed Thomas with claims that he knew him to be illegitimate.
The complaint was not upheld; Francis retained the benefit of the estates and, much later, chose to live at Danby.
Francis at Danby
Although Francis took possession of the Bowyer estates in 1784 he did not move into any of the properties. His accounts show that he continued the medical practice but now with estate business also to deal with. It seems possible that he married Eleanor Johnstone on 31st March 1784. She certainly had their first children, the twins Francis and Eleanor at Newcastle in November 1785 – going to her parents’ for the birth. The remaining children’s births tell us the family was in Bishop Middleham from about 1787 to 1792, then at Trimdon Grange in 1793 and 1794, and Danby from 1795. Quite why the family should have been so peripatetic is unclear. It almost resembles modern practice with people moving progressively further from the city as their family increases, to give them better facilities to grow up in. There can be little doubt that Trimdon Grange was a suitable place for a new landowner to live.
Trimdon Grange from a distance
It is not clear where exactly he lived in Bishop Middleham (about 10 miles south of Durham) with his young family. However the accounts books show that he bought Trimdon Grange (about 8 miles south east of Durham) on 18th February 1792 for £1,350. Francis had taken possession of the Danby estate early in 1784, but the appeal over the will was not settled in his favour until March 1787.
The family moved to Danby finally in 1795 and he started a new account book with a flourish, saying “Came to the Howe Friday 15th May 1795” – the Howe being his house on the Danby estate. Danby and Castleton, where his properties lay, are on the North Yorkshire moors but in sheltered valleys and some thirteen miles from Whitby. Whitby then was one of the most important seaports in the north of England, a busy thriving place.
The Howe, Castleton, North Yorkshire
Francis was now a country gentleman but he re-established his medical practice in Whitby and played an active part in local affairs. He was able to vote for parliamentarians, a rare privilege at that time, and became an officer in the Whitby Volunteer Infantry – a militia force recently raised to resist the threat of Napoleonic invasion.
His status and long friendship with Durham lawyer Francis Smales, enabled his eldest son, Francis, to be articled and eventually gain lasting fame as the ‘first railway solicitor’ and Chief Bailiff of Darlington. Francis could also fund the education of his other sons in medicine and law, as befitted sons of a gentleman at the start of the 19th century. Bowyer was able to establish himself respectably in London while John practised in Whitby and engaged in gentlemanly pursuits there.
The estate was finally disposed of by his son Francis, the railway solicitor, who specified in his will of 1867 that it should be sold and the proceeds divided between his 10 surviving children. Navestock had been sold in 1788 and the farm at Great Broughton was sold in 1813.