William Griffin (1789-1864) and Charlotte Lainson (1793-1860)

William Griffin is the reason that for many years Colchester had a department store called Williams & Griffin. His descendants gave the name Griffin, and a unique logo, to the shop.

He was born in the village of Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, in about 1789, the second eldest child of farmer Daniel Griffin (1757-1835) and Sarah Fowler (1762-?), his second wife. He presumably was apprenticed as a draper, entering a business that many of the family worked in. On 10th September 1818, he married Charlotte Lainson at the fashionable church of St George Hanover Square. His younger sister Elizabeth had married in the same church in January that year, followed by their eldest brother, Thomas, in the March. All of Daniel and Sarah’s children left Buckinghamshire for London, and it seems that perhaps William, Thomas and Elizabeth had headed for the parish of St George’s, while other siblings went south of the river.

The church of St George Hanover Square, late 1700s

The Lainsons

At the time of their marriage, Charlotte was living in Rotherhithe, Surrey. Charlotte had been born in about 1793 in Silchester, Hampshire, the twelfth of thirteen children of a farmer called William Lainson (c1746-1822) and his wife Catherine White (1754-1830). Her brother Henry, who also lived in Rotherhithe, had got married at St Giles’, Camberwell in 1810, so perhaps Charlotte had gone to London to live with her brother and his wife. She may have met William through his siblings who lived nearby.

To Colchester

The Griffin family’s first link with Colchester came in 1816, when Daniel – one of William’s younger brothers – married Rebecca Neville who had been born in the town. Her family were members of the Lion Walk independent church in Colchester, and William and Charlotte’s children were baptised there too. So too were the children of William’s sister Sarah and her husband John Barrell.

William and Charlotte’s first child, William Lainson Griffin, was born in Colchester in June 1819. He was baptised at Lion Walk church in the September, on the same day as his cousin John Griffin Barrell. Sadly, William Lainson Griffin died in 1822. William and Charlotte’s other children were:

  • Alfred (1820-?)
  • Jane (1822-1907)
  • William (1823-1874)
  • Charles (1824-?)
  • George Lainson (1826-1903)
  • John Edwin (1831-?)
  • Charlotte Sarah (1834-?)

Messrs Griffin and Barrell

John Barrell had been born in Herefordshire. He married Daniel and Sarah’s eldest daughter, Sarah, in Newington, Surrey in 1818. John gave his abode as Colchester, so he was already living in the town before William and Charlotte moved there. It seems that the two brothers-in-law decided to go into business together, prompting William and Charlotte’s move. By 1835, they were able to say that they had been going for seventeen years. Even so, neither John nor William appear in Pigot’s 1823 Directory in Colchester.

In December 1827, the Ipswich Journal reported a strange theft from the Priory Street home of Stockwell Street Independent chapel’s Reverend Joseph Herrick. Herrick had a difficult gig and although his preaching made him popular, it also gave him enemies.[1]For instance, this lecture on Herrick. The thief got into his house via a ladder, and stole about £10 in silver which belonged to a charitable fund. Then:

they left upon a table in the room a pearl ring and brooch, which had been stolen from Messrs. Griffin and Barrels, in 1826. They also left the following note – “We have got what we want. – We shall not come again; give the ring and brooch to Mrs H’s friend; we will give you some of it some —.” It is supposed that the person who committed the depredation, knew well where the money was kept, and it is hoped some clue to their discover has been obtained.

The Ipswich Journal, 29 December 1827

John and William were linen drapers, but it seems that drapers’ shops weren’t restricted to selling just fabric and stocked fancy goods, like brooches, too, which could be pinned onto clothes.[2]I have been unable to find a newspaper report for the 1826 theft from the shop.

John and William ran a shop together at London House, nos. 5 & 6 St Botolph’s Street in Colchester for several years.[3]Priory Street leads east from St Botolph’s Street, so the unfortunate Rev Herrick didn’t live too far from their premises. They ran several adverts in the early 1830s informing customers of their new stock, which goes into a great deal of detail allowing us to get a good picture of their large range:

Having made an extensive Purchase (for Cash) in seven-eights and four-quarter Grass-bleach Irish Linens, Sheetings, Damask Table Linens; Brussells, Kidderminster, Venetian and Scotch carpets; Broad Cloths and Cassimeres; Black and Coloured rich Ducapee, Gros-de-Naples, and French Poplins; Plain and Figured Palmerons; Coloured nine-eights printed Muslins, including all the first rate Town Patterns; Plain and Fancy Ginghams; a very rich and splendid Assortment of Silk Thibet and China Crape Shawls; with every article in the Fancy and Haberdashery Department, the whole of which will be offered at such Prices as they trust will insure a continuance of public favour and confidence.

Essex Standard, 31 March 1832

It’s possible that with so many of the family working as drapers, they clubbed together when buying their stock and were able to get a good deal by buying in volume. In 1833, they ran a similar advert, giving their address at St Botolph’s Street and Queen Street.[4]Essex Standard, 11 May 1833 This places the shop at the meeting of the two streets, near the old bus garage – Queen Street heads south from the eastern end of the High Street, turning into St Botolph’s Street at the junction with Short Wyre Street.

The circle shows where Queen St and St Botolph’s St join. The two churches shown as “Ch” in the top left are (l to r) St Nicholas’ (demolished, apart from some of its churchyard), and All Saints (now the Natural History Museum). OS Essex XXVII 1881. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland. CC-BY licence.

In 1832, John and William took out a notice in the local paper challenging nasty local gossip that had attached to bookseller John Marsden (1782-1855) and his wife, Sarah (1798-1842).[5]The Colchester Bazaar sold books. On the 1841 census, though, John’s profession is given as a hosier. The Marsdens were a family who were not strangers to scandal. John’s brother Isaac … Continue reading They signed their names to the advert along with John Salmon and Robert Kent.

A Most unaccountable, MALICIOUS, and FALSE REPORT being in circulation, in this Town, calculated to injure the characters of Mr and Mrs JOHN MARSDEN, charging Mrs MARSDEN in committing a breach of honesty, in one of our Shops, and Mr MARSDEN compromising with us for the same. We consider ourselves called upon, in duty, from the high and honourable character that Mr and Mrs J. MARSDEN have always borne in this town, to inform the Public, that the whole of the Report is without the least foundation.

Added to this was a note from John Marsden:

Slander and Hearsay – common liars – having disseminated the above Report, any person who will prove the author, shall be handsomely rewarded by me.

Colchester Bazaar, No. 27 Head Street

Essex Standard, 18 February 1832

It’s nice to see the shopkeepers joining forces against malicious gossip. They all knew each other and were perhaps friends. The Marsdens were non-conformists too, so John and William would have known them through the church. On a personal note, I find this interesting too as the Griffins are on my mother’s side, and the Mardens are related to me by marriage on my father’s side!

In September 1835, John and William’s business was visited by crime again, a not-unusual occurrence for shopkeepers. Forty-one-year-old Elizabeth Banks, wife of William Banks, was charged on suspicion of having “stolen from the shop of Messrs. Griffin and Barrell, linen drapers, £18, their property.” She was bailed to appear at the following Sessions.[6]Essex Standard, 18 September 1835. Elizabeth’s age is given She was acquitted at the Colchester Borough Sessions that October, the Grand Jury deciding there was “no bill” – this means that the Grand Jury (in a role largely assumed today by the Crown Prosecution Service) decided there wasn’t enough evidence for her to go to trial. She had a lucky escape – two teenage boys, Robert Cannall and John Saward, tried at the same Sessions for larceny were sentenced to one month each and whipping.[7]From criminal records on Findmypast: HO27, Home Office: Criminal Registers, England And Wales, 1805-1892

Towards the end of 1835, John Barrell and William Griffin dissolved their partnership. It doesn’t seem that this was because the two had fallen out, but because John had moved to Oxford and ran a drapery business there. His sons William Barrell (1831-1890) and Daniel Griffin Barrell (1833-1840) were born in Oxford and baptised at the George Lane Independent church. And in 1832, John had joined forces with other drapers in the city in a protest.[8]Oxford University and City Herald, 11 August 1832. See John and Sarah’s separate entry for more information. It seems that John had moved from Colchester, still with money invested in the business in the town, so William put a huge amount of their stock on sale: 

EXTENSIVE STOCK of Brussels, Kidderminster, Venetian, and Scotch CARPETS, Woollen Cloths, Merinos, Gros de Naples, Furs of every description, Irish Linens, Sheetings, &c. &c which will be SOLD OFF, in consequence of a Dissolution of Partnership. 

GRIFFIN AND BARRELL, COLCHESTER, Respectfully inform their numerous Friends of the opportunity seldom offered in Country Trades, of a STOCK UPWARDS OF TWELVE THOUSAND POUNDS, under circumstances so advantageous as the present, the greater part being a description of GOODS precisely adapted for the approaching Season; and in point of Quality, such as has characterised the late Firm for the past 17 years.

NB G&B beg to express their deep sense of gratitude for the distinguished Patronage conferred on them for so long a period, and state, that in future, the business will be Conducted by W.G. on precisely the same principles.

Essex Standard, 16 October 1835

The advert places the founding of their partnership – “for the past 17 years” – in 1818, the year William and Charlotte married, which makes sense given that their first child was born in Colchester in 1819.

The 1841 census finds William living on St Botolph’s Street, working as a linen draper, with his wife Charlotte. Five of their children – Jane, Charles, George, John and Charlotte – were still living at home. And also at the same address were six drapers and five servants – at the time it wasn’t unusual for shop staff to live-in. Some of the servants would have worked in the shop rather than as domestic servants in the house. This shows that William was running a considerable business.

The travails of drapery

In 1842, William nearly lost a large delivery of stock thanks to the sinking of a boat on the River Colne. A barge called the Betsy had travelled up from London to unload at the Hythe in Colchester with “a general cargo”. Just before she reached Wivenhoe, she collided with a moored vessel in the river and damaged her hull.

she immediately began to fill. The pumps were quickly set to work, but were to no avail, and she soon afterwards went down. At low water the breach was repaired, and at the next tide she was towed to the Hythe to unload. Her cargo, which was of a very valuable nature, consisting of grocery, linen drapery, &c., is considerably damaged.

Essex Standard, 23 September 1842

The grocery items are unlikely to have survived the drenching, but William made the most of a bad situation and sold off what he could of his damaged stock at a reduction:

ACCIDENT ON THE RIVER COLNE. The remaining part of the DAMAGED DRAPERY GOODS, the property of WILLIAM GRIFFIN, are still selling off at his Old Established Warehouse, 5 & 6 St Botolph’s Street, at A GREAT SACRIFICE!

Consisting of long shawls, shirtings, muslins, handkerchiefs, striped shirtings, sheetings, shawls, beaversteens, cords, prints, Welch and Lancashire flannels, coatings, jeans, hosiery, haberdashery, &c, &c.

W.G. respectfully informs the public that he has received his stock of Scotch tartans, French merinos, chene chusans, chene royals, lustres, cloakings, furs, Irish linens, shalws, &c., &c., which will be offered at very REDUCED PRICES.

Essex Standard, 30 September 1842

He may well have been insured anyway for the stock, as Lloyd’s insurance began as way for mariners and ship owners to insure themselves against just the sort of accident that had affected William and his stock. It’s interesting to note that the delivery was coming up from London. As some of his family were drapers in London, I think we can see again possible evidence that the family would buy stock en masse. It’s also worth noting that by 1842, William’s shop was called the Old Established Warehouse, whereas ten years earlier, William and John’s business was called London House. It might be that William changed the name when he and John went their separate ways. 

William had become a respected businessman in Colchester. In early 1843, William was a trustee acting for the creditors of Thorpe-le-Soken grocer James Mayhew Cansdale. He was a trustee alongside Thomas Moore, wholesale grocer. Thomas’ brother William had married Charlotte Barrell, John Barrell’s sister, in 1827, so the links between the family had created lasting relationship networks. In 1850, William and Charlotte’s daughter Charlotte Martha Moore (1833-?) married John Alexander Griffin (1823-1880) – he was William Griffin’s nephew, the son of his brother John Griffin (1798-1840) and Ann Phillis Carr (1801-1885).

Later that year, serial shoplifter, thirty-two-year-old Elizabeth Watson alias Watts, was up before the Colchester Borough Sessions on four counts of theft from different shops in Colchester. The report of her trial focused on her theft from John Mash’s shop of pieces of ribbon, some of which she had concealed in a pocket, while she had hidden two reels of ribbon down the front of her dress. She was found guilty. She was also accused of stealing ribbon from William’s shop, but was acquitted. Then she was charged with stealing a considerable hoard from Mr T. Knight’s shop on the High Street – “a merino shawl, 16 yards of print, 58 yards of ribbon, and other property.” (One assumes she didn’t manage hide all of that down the front of her dress). She was found guilty on two counts of larceny, and was sentenced to seven years’ transportation for each charge.[9]Chelmsford Chronicle, 6 October 1843, and Findmypast, HO27, Home Office Criminal Registers, England And Wales, 1805-1892 While she was evidently a menace to Colchester shopkeepers, fourteen years’ transportation – which people rarely came back from – seems rather harsh, as sentencing in those days often seems. But perhaps she benefited from a chance of life in a new country. And at least sentencing had changed. It hadn’t been all that many years since thieves were given the death sentence.

To the High Street

Anyone familiar with the erstwhile Williams & Griffin department store in Colchester (now Fenwick’s) will remember the shop being on the High Street. The only shop selling ribbon on St Botolph’s Street these days is of course the haberdasher’s, Franklin’s (I remember going there when I was little with my mum and my grandma, looking at patterns and fabrics for dresses). 

William made the move to the High Street in 1847, and this of course necessitated one of William’s favourite things – an advert in the local paper to let everyone know that he was having a sale:


RESPECTFULLY informs the Inhabitants of COLCHESTER and its Vicinity that he has taken the PREMISES lately occupied by Mr. JOHN SALMON, No. 50, HIGH-STREET, but not having been successful in purchasing the Stock, which was disposed of to other parties AT TOO HIGH A RATE TO BE SOLD TO THE PUBLIC ON ADVANTAGEOUS TERMS, he has commenced


on the premises, 5 & 6, Botolph’s Street at a very considerable Reduction in Prices, in order that he may be enabled to RE-OPEN the SHOP in HIGH-STREET, with an ENTIRE NEW STOCK of GOODS, as soon as can obtain Possession of which the earliest Notice will be given.

The great depression in the Money Market has enabled W.G. to make Extensive Purchases for Cash; and as it is his determination to effect an entire clearance, he anticipates a large share of Public Patronage. 


An early inspection is solicited, as such an opportunity has never been offered, and may never again present itself to the Inhabitants of Colchester.

Essex Herald, 28 December 1847

The timing of this advert does make me wonder just when shopkeepers initiated the legendary post-Christmas January sales. It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense for William to sell off his stock at a discount, only to buy a whole lot more stock going into the new shop, but then it acted as an excellent advert to let people know that he was moving. Not only would he pick up John Salmon’s customers by moving to Salmon’s former premises, but he would be taking his own customers with him. It’s quite likely that the John Salmon who had shut up shop is the same man who joined forces with William, John, and Robert Kent back in 1832 when John Marsden’s wife was being slandered. 

In 1848, William placed another advert in the paper, letting the public know that he had bought the stock of William Kent (perhaps the son of Robert Kent). He was now based at Essex House, at the “top of High-Street, Colchester.” The stock from Kent’s shop included “every description of DRAPERY, SILKS, SHAWLS, and all the Novelties of the Season. On 3rd June, William was to open at Shawl and Mantle Room, 

where will be found the greatest Novelties in Shawls, and the newest shapes and styles in Mantles, Visets, &c. just received from Paris, and having entered into an arrangement with an experienced Young Lady from the West End of London to superintend that department, hopes to be favoured with a large share of public support.

Chelmsford Chronicle, 2 June 1848

Having a room entirely given to shawls and mantles, while we know he sold all sorts of other items like carpets, and haberdashery such as fabrics and ribbons, makes it sound as if the idea of the department store as we know it was starting to evolve into being. William stressing that a “Young Lady” was going to run the Shawl and Mantle Room is important because it emphasises the fact that it was a room for women’s goods. He was making a space that women would feel comfortable in. Of course, women were the main customers of drapery shops and haberdashers, and when these shops appear on censuses with the staff all living-in, you see that a proportion of the staff were women. It seems likely that the “Young Lady” was known to William through a contact of his family in London, and could even have been a niece of his. Recruiting someone from London to lend his shop a bit of West End glitz.

In 1851, the census finds William and his family still living on St Botolph’s Street, evidently not living about the shop on the High Street, unless that move hadn’t proved too good and William had moved the business back to where it had started. Three of his children were still living at home – his daughter Charlotte, and two of his sons, Charles and George. His sons had followed in his footsteps and had both become drapers as well. Six assistant drapers, three apprentices, a cook and four servants all lived under the same roof too.

On 22nd December 1860, Charlotte, William’s wife, passed away. She was 67-years-old. Her death, caused by paralysis, was announced in the Essex Standard.[10]26 December 1860 A few months later, the 1861 census was taken, and William was living at Nos. 6&7 Botolph Street, still working as a linen draper. All of his family were living elsewhere, but under his roof there were eight assistant drapers and five servants. 

William wrote his will in August 1863. It is only very short, instructing that everything was to be sold and divided between his six children, with the exception that his sons Alfred, William, George and John were each to inherit £500 less than their sisters. He nominated his son George and his daughter Jane (who had married Samuel Blomfield in 1844) as his executors, and the will was signed by two solicitors. Interestingly, one of the solicitors was H S Goody, who had married William’s niece Esther (she was a daughter of John Griffin and Ann Phillis Carr).

He died on the penultimate day of 1863, aged 74. Announcements of his death in the local papers said that he had been “for many years a linen draper of St Botolph’s Street, Colchester.” He had founded a family business that would become a famous name in north-east Essex.

First published 17th August 2020. To add: further information on his children.


1 For instance, this lecture on Herrick.
2 I have been unable to find a newspaper report for the 1826 theft from the shop.
3 Priory Street leads east from St Botolph’s Street, so the unfortunate Rev Herrick didn’t live too far from their premises.
4 Essex Standard, 11 May 1833
5 The Colchester Bazaar sold books. On the 1841 census, though, John’s profession is given as a hosier. The Marsdens were a family who were not strangers to scandal. John’s brother Isaac (1774-1831) was thrown out of the non-conformist chapel on Baddow Road, Chelmsford, in 1826 in “extraordinary circumstances.” He had had several children by his mistress, and was accused of smothering the four children. Source: Colchester People by Shania D’Cruze.
6 Essex Standard, 18 September 1835. Elizabeth’s age is given
7 From criminal records on Findmypast: HO27, Home Office: Criminal Registers, England And Wales, 1805-1892
8 Oxford University and City Herald, 11 August 1832. See John and Sarah’s separate entry for more information.
9 Chelmsford Chronicle, 6 October 1843, and Findmypast, HO27, Home Office Criminal Registers, England And Wales, 1805-1892
10 26 December 1860