Joseph Downing: How My Family Came To Essex

Joseph Downing, 1742-1819

Collarmaker of Southminster, Essex, and my 6th great grandfather

My majority of my research has centred on my mother’s family, the Downings, who lived in Southminster, Deepest Essex (and later Southend-on-Sea).  This lively family were always up to mischief and rarely off the pages of the Chelmsford Chronicle.  But I knew they weren’t always from Southminster.  Every Downing that I had researched was descended from the same man, Joseph Downing.  According to his burial record, Joseph was 77 when he died in 1819, meaning he had been born around 1742.  But there was no baptism for Joseph in Southminster, or indeed of any other Downings prior to him.  Where did he come from, and why?

St Leonard’s Church, Southminster.

The first evidence I have of Joseph being in Southminster was his first marriage to Mary Bowerman in 1772.  There then follows the baptism of two children, Samuel (1774) and Mary (1776).  Unfortunately, the corresponding burial register for Southminster was lost, but we can conclude that Mary senior and possibly Mary junior died in the 1770s, for neither were ever seen again, and in 1780, Joseph married Mary Wright (nee Newton), a local widow.  (For some time I thought Samuel must have been in this death register too, but this was not the case – you can read what actually happened to him here).


Joseph and his second wife had a total of nine children, but only three of these survived infancy: two daughters named Sarah (b. 1781) and Elizabeth (b. 1789) and one son, my direct ancestor John (b. 1784).  (One son, William, born 1796, disappears entirely after his birth – no sign of any burial but no other record of his life either.  An unsolved family mystery.)  There are plenty of references to Joseph in the Southminster rates and accounts, and from 1780 to 1790 he is described as “a stranger”, meaning that Southminster was not his parish of settlement (the place that was financially responsible for you, and to which you could be removed if you became a burden).  He appears on the 1798 land tax assessment, renting from someone called Jon Patrick, who on further examination is the owner of the Smiths shop on North Street.  Prior to 1780, however, there is nothing on Joseph at all.  I searched all the nearby parishes for his baptism and any likely relatives, and looked online throughout the whole country for a Joseph Downing born in 1742.  I found nothing.

Joseph’s will is in the Essex Record Office.  This gives the most important piece of information about Joseph, his occupation: he made collars for horses.  This gives us a concrete motive for Joseph to have come to Southminster – with its large horse market, taking place in the square behind the Kings Head Pub (now a car park), this would have been a good place for Joseph to make some money – and indeed, he appears to have made enough to buy his own home and have something of substance to leave to his family.  Sadly, the will only mentions his wife and children, and no siblings or other relatives “back home” that could give us a clue as to his origins.

My breakthrough came when I found an apprenticeship record on Ancestry.  In 1757, a Joseph Downing was apprenticed to a Peter Ingham in Saxmundham, Suffolk.  Peter Ingham was a collarmaker.  But the trail soon went dead again – there was no trace of a Joseph Downing (or likely family members) in Saxmundham.  I started to look at nearby parishes.  One marriage caught my eye: on 12th June 1743, in nearby Rendham, a Samuel Downing had married an Elizabeth Hollis, both were listed as “of Cranford”.  In those days, it was traditional to name your children after your parents, and Joseph had a Samuel and an Elizabeth amongst his children.  Elizabeth’s sister was also married to Bartholow Ling, another collarmaker, who had previously been the master of Peter Ingham.  1743 was a little late, but perhaps Joseph’s age was wrong on his burial record?  Next I looked at the baptisms for Cranford and found something which made everything fall into place.  A Joseph Hollis, the son of unmarried Elizabeth Hollis had been born in March 1742/3 (this being the old calendar system, where March was the last month of the year).  This made perfect sense – Joseph was born three months before his parents married, his parents were possibly forced to marry as a result, and there may have been a question as to whether Samuel was even Joseph’s biological father.   But with some indication of a hostile environment at home, it is not surprisingly that Joseph was farmed out to become an apprentice like many unwanted children.


I can find very little else on Samuel and Elizabeth; they were both buried in nearby Bruisyard, but neither left a will, and they do not seem to have had any other children.  This is rather a shame, as there is quite a lot of material on their ancestors in Suffolk (a rather affluent lot, with connections to Downing Street and Downing College that I won’t bore you with yet) and it seems that Samuel was the end of this line, and Joseph the beginning of a new line of Downings, seemingly ordinary working people of Essex, but each with their own fascinating history.

One final thing: how did Joseph end up in Southminster?  Well, it seems some things really haven’t changed between 1765 and 2017.  I found this job advert in the Ipswich Journal (the local paper in the Saxmundham area), July 1765, just as Joseph would have been finishing his apprenticeship.

Ipswich Journal 6 July 1765
From The British Newspaper Archive via FindMyPast
The Ipswich Journal 06 July 1765

6 thoughts on “Joseph Downing: How My Family Came To Essex

    1. I mainly use Ancestry – you can plot your family tree on there and keep track of your sources. There’s also an app so you can view your tree on the go (useful when wandering around graveyards!) You can also download your data in a format called Gedcom which you can transfer to any other genealogy site or offline programs such as RootsMagic. I tried to put all my work on a piece of paper but it ended up as a horrible mess. It is harder than you think to get everything to fit!


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