Unearthing Worcestershire's Past

Unearthing Worcestershire's Past

Notable Figures recorded in Parish Records

Nick Thorne, Writer at TheGenealogist

Nick Thorne

Writer at TheGenealogist

Worcestershire, nestled in the heart of England, boasts a rich tapestry of history woven through its quaint villages and bustling towns. Within the annals of its parish records lie the stories of numerous individuals who have left an indelible mark on the county’s history or many others whose lives are waiting to be discovered by family historians. From revered poets to notable businessmen and artisans, Worcestershire’s parish records offer us a glimpse into the lives of some of these famous figures who once lived within its county boundaries.

Dr John Wall (12 October 1708 – 27 June 1776) class=
Dr John Wall (12 October 1708 – 27 June 1776)

One such noteworthy figure is John Wall. Born in 1708 in the village of Powick, Wall would go on to become a renowned ceramicist, credited with the invention of a unique type of porcelain known as “Worcester Ware”. His contributions to the ceramics industry not only brought prosperity to the region but also earned him a lasting place in Worcestershire’s heritage. This claim to fame was, however, but one part of his life as he was also a medical man.

Baptism of John Wall 12th October 1708 in the Powick Parish Registers
Baptism of John Wall 12th October 1708 in the Powick Parish Registers

Dr John Wall (12 October 1708 – 27 June 1776), was born at Powick, Worcestershire, in 1708. His father, also named John Wall, had been a tradesman in the city of Worcester. Dr Wall went to school at the King’s School, Worcester, matriculated at Worcester College, Oxford on 23 June 1726, then graduated with a B.A. degree in 1730. A move to Merton College saw him elected a fellow in 1735 and it was here that he subsequently took the degrees of M.A. and M.B. in 1736, followed by a M.D. in 1759.

Dictionary of National Biography from TheGenealogist’s Occupational Records
Dictionary of National Biography from TheGenealogist’s Occupational Records

We can find him included in the Dictionary of National Biography from TheGenealogist’s Occupational Records, which fills in a lot more about his life. Going into practice in Worcester, he wrote an essay on the use of Musk in the treatment of hiccoughs, fevers, and spasms. A further paper that he sent to the Royal Society in 1747 took ‘the Use of Bark in Smallpox’ as its subject.

Another interest that he had was the development of taking the waters at Malvern. In 1756, he published in Worcester a fourteen-page pamphlet, “Experiments and Observations on the Malvern Waters.” This reached a third edition in 1763 and was then enlarged to 158 pages. The Dictionary of National Biography, however, states somewhat dismissively in his profile: ‘Like all works of the kind, it describes numerous cures obviously due to other causes than the waters.’

This son of Worcestershire was one of the founders of the Worcester Royal Infirmary as well as the porcelain works. Porcelain had only been made in the Far East before the 18th century, though European potters had been intrigued by the mysteries of the material and eventually managed to crack the secret of how to make it. Dr John Wall and an apothecary named William Davis, experimented with the material at Davis’s shop in Broad Street around 1750 and succeeded in making a porcelain type material. On the back of this, in 1751 they persuaded a group of local businessmen to invest in a new factory in a grand house on the banks of the River Severn. At first, the new enterprise was not that successful, but with the purchase of a rival company from Bristol the necessary technical expertise was injected into the Worcester venture. Soon, the best English blue and white porcelain tea wares were being produced in their Worcester factory, along with the more expensive coloured enamel sets. The main advantage of their output over other British rivals’ products was that Worcester soapstone porcelain didn’t crack when filled with boiling water. A crucial unique selling point!

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The Poet who wrote from both ends

There are many ordinary as well as unusual folk from this English county in the Midlands whose baptisms, marriages and burials are to be found recorded in these records. A search, for example, within the Abberley parish records on TheGenealogist, discovers the baptism of a fascinating woman poet from the 18th century. Octavia Walsh (1676 – 1706) was the last of eight children born to Joseph and Elizabeth Walsh of Abberley Hall. The poet was christened Octavia on New Years Day 1676 at Abberley, Worcestershire as we can easily discover on TheGenealogist.

Her elder brother, William Walsh, would become a poet as well and being male he was able to attend Oxford University, though he left without a degree. Octavia, meanwhile, is thought to have never gone outside her county and so she had to rely on her brother for access to other poets. The 165 page book that created her reputation is bound in vellum and is now in the safekeeping of the Bodleian Library. Interestingly, Walsh had written from one end to the other and then reversed the book and wrote more words from that end. The book, while mostly poetry, does also include some recipes, but these are written in a different hand from the poet.

A search on TheGenealogist and we are able to find her in the Parish registers for Worcester Cathedral where she was buried on 12 October, 1706. There is actually also a memorial tablet in Worcester Cathedral. According to the inscription, Octavia Walsh died unmarried on 10 October, 1706. Since the last poem in the reversed section of her manuscript is evidently unfinished, it is possible that her death interrupted her completing it. ‘The Princely Persian led his warlike Host’ was that uncompleted piece and it was by far the longest poem in the collection.

Baptism record for Octavia Walsh in the Parish of Abberley
Baptism record for Octavia Walsh in the Parish of Abberley
Burial record for Octavia Walsh in the Parish Records for Worcester Cathedral

Back to Tudor times

The parish records also shed light on the contributions of lesser-known individuals whose impact on Worcestershire’s history should not be overlooked. From skilled artisans and tradespeople to humble labourers, each name inscribed in these records represents a thread in the intricate fabric of the county’s past.

Some of the earliest records that we can look at on TheGenealogist, for this county go back to Tudor years. In these, we can discover the burial, on the 6th of January 1538, of a man named John Witte. He had lived in Baresford, in the parish of Blockley, until his death that year and was buried in the local parish churchyard. This church, like all the others in the country at the time, had become a parish of the Church of England; a denomination which Henry VIII, under the Act of Supremacy 1534, had become the head of just a couple of years prior to Witte’s burial. We can, therefore, assume that our Blockley resident had been born at a time when England was a Catholic country and died and was buried when it was newly Protestant.

One of the early parish burials in Worcestershire - John Witte 6 January 1538
One of the early parish burials in Worcestershire - John Witte 6 January 1538

As we delve into Worcestershire’s parish records, we unearth a treasure trove of stories, each one offering a glimpse into the lives of those who have shaped the county’s history. Whether through their artistic endeavours, religious fervour, or literary achievements, these famous as well as ordinary figures have left an indelible imprint on the history of Worcestershire, ensuring that their legacies endure for generations to come.

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