Thomas Harris and Mary Collett: a generation further back

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My cousin Maggie got in touch because she thought she might have found Daniel Harris’s parents.

On 1 November 1784, Thomas Harris and Mary Collett married at St Mary’s church in Banbury, Oxfordshire. Thomas Harris was from Hook Norton. If Thomas and Mary were Daniel’s parents, then it would explain why Jemima – Daniel’s sister – named her first son Henry Collett Brown. She was preserving “Collett”, her mother’s maiden name.

The marriage seemed very likely. And I was amazed that despite hitting a brick wall, the mortar was finally crumbling. The more I thought about Thomas and Mary as Daniel’s parents, the more it made sense. Think of the names of Daniel’s children, for instance. We know that his wife, Sarah, was the daughter of Evan and Elizabeth Jones. And Daniel and Sarah’s first child was named Mary Elizabeth – this would mean she had been named after her two grandmothers. And Daniel and Sarah’s son Thomas Evans (sometimes Evan) was named after his two grandfathers.

I started to look at people called Harris who lived in Hook Norton. In four different newspapers, I found the obituary notice of Reverend W. Harris of Hook Norton, who had died in 1807:

Tuesday se’nnight died at Hook Norton in this county, in the 64th year of his age, the Rev. Mr. W. Harris, who had been, for 20 years of his life, a faithful, and not unprofitable preacher of the Gospel, among dissenters of the Baptist persuasion. He was much esteemed by all who knew him, for the simplicity of his manners, the tenderness of his feelings, the humility of his pretensions, and the piety of his heart.

Oxford University and City Herald 22 August 1807

This showed there was a connection between Hook Norton Harrises and the Baptist chapel there, so I came back again to the theory that we don’t have any Church of England infant baptisms for Daniel, Jemima and Reuben because their parents were Baptists.

I checked my mum’s and my aunt’s DNA tests (as closer descendants of Daniel than myself) for any matches who had a Collett born in Hook Norton in their trees. And I found two – both descendants of an Ann Collett, whose father Samuel was born in Hook Norton in about 1805, and eventually moved to Birmingham. I checked the Church of England baptisms and couldn’t find Samuel, so it seemed as if, potentially, he was raised by a Baptist family closely related to Daniel.

As I live just over an hour’s drive from Hook Norton, I decided to investigate. I could see from photos of the Baptist chapel that there were some fairly old-looking headstones there, and I wondered if any had survived which could point me in the right direction. They would have to stand in for a burial register, as none survives before the mid-1800s, but sometimes extra information on headstones can tell you more than a burial register might. If Daniel’s parents were baptists, wouldn’t I find them there?

First of all, I visited the tremendous neolithic Rollright Stones, not far from Hook Norton. The view is stunning, as the stones sit on top of the Cotswolds, and it’s also extraordinary – a reminder that humans have lived here for a very long time. Part of me wondered if some of Daniel’s ancestors had helped to build the stones, or were even buried in the nearby mound looked over by the “King Stone”.

But it was time to research more recent ancestors.

The Baptist chapel is set quite far back from the road, as was always the case for Dissenters. They weren’t allowed to advertise their presence, and originally, the chapel was built behind a row of cottages – they are no longer there. I found Rev W Harris’ headstone almost immediately, and was stunned. It reads:

Erected by the mourning [?] of his family to the memory of the Revd. Mr. Willm. Harris late of Hook Norton who as a man, was peculiarly distinguished by childlike Simplicity, unlimited Benevolence, and tender Sensibility of Heart: and as a preacher of the Gospel by Purity of Doctrine, Sanctity of Example, and a faithful Discharge of Ministerial Duty. He died Augt 11th 1807, aged 64. Also ELIZ. his wife. She died Feb 20th 1808 aged 67. Also ANN daughter of the above and wife of Richard Collett. She died Jan 23rd 1807, aged 39.

Straight away, I could see that there was another Harris/Collett marriage, and I had to wonder if Samuel Collett, who had come up through a DNA match, was the son of Ann and Richard.

I photographed every headstone at the Baptist church, but they are very worn. There’s some lovely ones from the 1700s but they are mostly illegible, sadly. However, I had several photographs of headstones which had survived fairly well, and I was hopeful that they would be useful to other people, and maybe even myself if I could clean up the inscriptions a bit on my PC – and with the help of wills, if there were any that were relevant to the families, I could make more sense of what the inscriptions said.

Once I got home, I started looking through the Oxfordshire wills on Findmypast, and Oxfordshire parish registers on Ancestry. As non-conformists had to marry in their parish church (before 1837), it meant that the marriages of Hook Norton’s Baptists were preserved, even if their births and burials hadn’t been.

I’ll tell you all about the Harrises and Colletts, and the Walfords, too, of Hook Norton in more depth. But the upshot is that Thomas Harris, who married Mary Collett appears to be the brother of Reverend William Harris. They were both baptised at the parish church, the sons of John Harris and his wife Joanna Minchin. Once again, we can see a family name being used in a later generation – Jemima’s daughter Jane Joanna Brown was likely named after Jemima’s grandmother, Joanna. And Richard Collett, who married Reverend William Harris’ daughter Ann, appears to have been Mary Collett’s brother. It’s a little complicated, as it means that Thomas’ niece married his brother-in-law, but these sorts of convoluted relationships aren’t unusual in middle class families of the era, especially not unusual when the families are non-conformist. Their class and their faith reduce the potential number of candidates for marriage.

Next: The Harris family in Hook Norton: Henry Harris, ?-1754

Written: 19th March 2023