New Information on the Pearces of Old England

Larry Pearce
2/12/05 rev. 5/11/13

Research suggests that our patriarch Richard Pearce and his twin sister Sarah were born in Bromhall (or Broomham), Wiltshire, England, on October 25, 1785, and christened January 2, 1787. [See “Introduction: Austen.”] The Original Family Narrative (OFN) sets their origins in a small village named Bourne, and despite the incidence of other towns with the same name, we believe this is a reference to Aldbourne near the confluence of the Bourne and famous Avon Rivers in Wiltshire. Though Internet genealogical inquiries with sources ranging from municipal government to individuals with our same surname there have been unsuccessful, we want to share some information on the history, geography, and people of that region.

The OFN claims that Richard’s wife, my Great-great grandmother Susan Austen Pearce’s ancestors “were the Old Brittons that came to England hundreds of years ago.” This suggests before the time of King Alfred (9th century). Historians list the Austens as followers of the Catholic missionary Augustine.’s “Royal and Noble Families of Britain” says the name “Pearce,” and its various spellings, arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066. William de Perci (1030-1096), commander of William’s fleet and a descendant of Dane Manfred, who conquered Normandy, including the Percy Forest in 912, was rewarded with the vast estate of Northumberland. [For details and additional possibilities see “Upon This Rock: The Origins of the Pearce Name.”] The first spelling of “Pearce” occurred with the listing of Gilbert Pearce on the Pipe Rolls in 1198 for paying the king his annual taxes. At least a half-dozen Pearce lines are evident across England in the next millennium. [See “Pearce Lines: English Branches Growing From Peter’s Rock.”] But let’s concentrate on the region just west of London, Wiltshire, for a better understanding of our particular origins.

One of our earlier articles, “Pearces & Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale'”, takes the read back to the old kingdom of Wessex with stories of magic and mystique: “Maerl’s Barrow,” the grave of Merlin; Stonhenge; Avebury Stone Circle; the hillside Whitehorses, the legend of the Moonrakers, speaking of ponds; and of course Salisbury Cathedral. The Wiltshire County Council of Libraries and Heritage provides information on every town, village, and attraction in the area. Of special interest are the maps dating from the 18th century. Archeologists have artifacts from prehistoric times: flint mines and barrows (mounds of rock indicating burial grounds). Evidence from the Bronze and Iron Ages are displayed in local museums and a Roman cemetery is preserved at Cocky Down. The earliest settlers were the Celts and then the Belgics. [See Bromham, a History of a Wiltshire Parish by William Webb (1913) for an interesting ancient history and geography lesson.] Sir R.C. Hoare decribes many dykes, levees, and ponds constructed in this area over hundreds of years for protection, commerce, and water for home and farm. We’ll look at the possible Pearce connection in a minute.

The Roman Road from Old Sarum to Winchester passed through Winterbourneford, the river crossing used in the rainy season. After the Romans left England to defend their homeland, the Saxons settled at the confluence of the Bourne and Avon Rivers before the 6th century and built a stone church at what is known as Wilton Abbey, which was later rebuilt in the Norman style. To the north lived the Mercians. Their king, Burrhead, married Aethelswitha, the sister of Wessex’s King Alfred around the year 875. The story goes that King Aethelwulf (839-858), father of Alfred the Great, lost a gold ring while visiting this settlement and it wasn’t found and identified until 1780.

The Saxons drained many of the marshes in this low-lying land and farmed with great success. With the defeat of King Harold by William, the Norman conqueror, a survey was commissioned. The Domesday Book (1086) recorded that the land was officially owned by the Church and several officers of the king, containing:
Households of 6 villiens (men with 30 acres)
8 bordars and 6 cottars (men with about 5 acres)
4 ½ ploughteams
1 mill
18 acres of pasture
3 acres of meadow (1/4 of which was in the king’s Clarendon Forest)

The total population was probably 80 to 110 people. With Henry VIII and the dissolution of monasteries (1539) the Abbey land had a variety of owners. No doubt, during the Civil War of the 1650’s the competing troops of Cromwell’s Roundheads and King Charles’ Royalists passed back and forth across these lands.

Bromham, the supposed birthplace of Richard and Sarah Pearce, gets its name from the plant that provided the fiber for brooms. The surrounding villages were known for their weaving trades, both plant and animal. “Ham” is simply an enclosure where the work is done. Officially, Bromham is in the eastern portion of Wiltshire, just three miles northeast of the Seend station on the Great Western Railway, in the the diocese of Salisbury, the archdeaconry of Wilts, and the rural deanery of Avebury. Not long after King William’s Doomsday Survey, his son and successor granted the Manor of Bromham to Battle Abbey headquartered in Sussex. With Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Catholic Church property, the land went to Sir Edward Bayntun, perhap’s Wiltshire’s most influential landowner and friend of the King (WWW.BROMHAM.ORG.UK). The land stayed in Edward’s family until 1884, nearly 340 years. At that time most of the estate went to the Spicer family, with a portion returning to the British monarchy.

The industrial revolution of the early 17th century meant an increased demand for coal and the development of machines to do every sort of work. Hand-weaving was no longer a profitable business and so Wiltshire’s agricultural industry slowly filled the need for jobs. Even today the county is known for what are known as its Market Gardens. In fact, over fertile 100 acres in Bromham today are leased from the Crown. Several of the town’s structures date back to as early as the 12th century, including St. Nicholas Church. The Church House, at one time the village poor house, is Tudor half-timber style from the 14th century. Perhaps the best known landmark in the nearby town of Laverstock in the mid 1700’s was Laverstock House, an insane asylum. Three types of patients: private patients, whose families could pay; paupers who were too disruptive for the workhouse, paid for by the Overseers of the Poor; and criminals who were guilt by insane, paid for by the government.

Bromham’s most famous resident for over 30 years was Irish Poet Thomas More (1779-1852) not to be confused with Sir and Saint Thomas More (1478-1535) Lord Chancellor of England. Richard and Sarah may have met him their marriages to the Austens in 1813. Our poet is buried in the churchyard near the belfry entrance in fulfillment of his wish to be near his beloved Bomham bells. Another celebrity, historian Sir William Napier, wrote the three-volume History of the Peninsular War while living at Battle House from 1826-1831.

When Richard and Sarah married Susan and Charles in London (1813), farming was still the most important industry in the region. The OFN indicates that Richard was “a miller by trade,” and probably his family’s wheat and barley grinding operation was along the banks of the Bourne or Avon or one of their many tributaries. The milling business would have been lucrative and absolutely vital for the processing of the grained produced on these Wiltshire farms. But, as we’ve suggested in earlier articles, the war with France and the United States had ended, the government needed to rebuilt its treasury, and so the promise of cheap land and unlimited opportunity in American beckoned the Pearces and Austens.

Life went on as usual and little changed after the departure of twins Richard and Sarah, but they wouldn’t recognize their old neighborhood today if they could return. According to the Wiltshire Council of Libraries and Heritage, “The 20th century has probably seen more development than the preceding millennium.” Most of the county came to be considered a suburb of tourist-rich Salisbury. Interestingly, during World War II barrage balloons were tethered throughout the area, one of which was blown into the church at Laverstock, damaging the bell tower. The balloons were intended to entangle low-flying enemy aircraft before they could bomb or strafe the towns and villages. Bromham parish today contains 4,828 acres with 760 dwellings and a population of about 1900 people.

Being a crossroads to several prominent places, Wiltshire had many famous visitors over the years. In the town of Bradford on Avon, in the northern part of the county around 1756, another Richard Pearce had bought and renovated an inn, called The Maidenhead, into a Methodist chapel. We don’t know if there is a direct connection to our Richard, but brothers John and Charles Wesley made frequent stops there and attracted crowds numbering in the hundreds and even thousands. According to their journals, John and Charles paid eleven visits in less than four months to the town. Between 1746 and 1790 they stayed in Bradford some 52 times. Their Bradford circuit eventually included more than 30 churches and chapels in the region. Things sometimes didn’t go smoothly for these new-style preachers. Of one September, 1769, open air service, John Wesley wrote:

The beasts of the people were tolerably quiet till I had nearly finished my sermon. Then they lifted their voice, especially one, called a gentleman, who had filled his pockets with rotten eggs, but a young man coming unawares, clapped his hands on each side, and mashed them all at once. In an instant he was perfume all over, though it was not so sweet as balsam!

On New Years Day, 1790, in his 87th year, Wesley wrote:

I am now an old man, decayed from head to foot. My eyes are dim; my right hand shakes much; my mouth is hot and dry every morning. I have a lingering fever almost every day. My motion is weak and slow. However, blessed be God, I do not slack my labour. I can preach and write still.

Historians report that on August 26th of that same year, Wesley arrived in Bradford at 3:00, Preached at 6:00, and again stayed at the home of “Brother Pearce.” Pearce has been called “one of the pillars of Bradford Methodism for 40 years” (Warren). Wesley went to bed at 9:30 but, as usual, was up by 4:30, and on the road by 7:00.

John Wesley died the following year on March 2, but Methodism thrived during the 19th century in Bradford. A grand building eventually replaced the Pearce chapel. Wesley’s replacement to the circuit, Dr. Adam Clarke, also stayed at Pearce’s when in Bradford. Slowly the movement declined in the 20th century, until today, unfortunately, the new chapel is an open air swimming pool.

In using my favorite Internet search engine, Google, I came across a series of manmade structures in Wiltshire that I had never heard of and learned that, again, the Pearce name has been associated with them. Furthermore, I wondered if there might be a possible link to the milling industry in which we know Richard Pearce was involved. The Wiltshire County Council of Libraries and Heritage hosts a question and answer column that posed the inquiry: “Are the dew ponds on the Wiltshire downs fed by dew and how old are they?” I will consolidate their answer.

Because water is such a precious commodity in an agricultural area like Wiltshire, it’s important to retain as much of the 30 to 40 inches of rain that the region receives. The affectionate term “dew” isn’t very accurate as Wiltshire might get one-half inch per year. The professional pond maker selects a slight depression in the land, removes the top soil, and adds a series of layers to hold the water: puddle chalk or clay, then a covering of straw as it might be on a thatched rood, then a mixture of loose materials such as chalk rubble, sand, flint, or gravel. While most dew ponds were created in the past 200 years, one in Oxenmere on Milk Hill may have served as a boundary in a Saxon charter dating to 825. Experts say that, even so, a pond’s linings would have to be replaced every several decades to be effective.

The depth of the small lake is usually eight-feet in the middle. A fence with a small opening is required to keep all but the sheep out. Cattle would damage the bottom of the pond. A pond maker could build up to 15 a year during the fall and winter months between September and April. Daniel Pearce (b. 1842) of Imber is listed as an 18th century pond maker. He was known to still be working in his 80’s. The question remains: Could the same Pearce family that produced our Richard, “a miller by trade,” also have given us Daniel? After all, ponds and water was such an important consideration in both their occupations.

We close now with a brief look at some other Pearces we’ve discovered from the Wiltshire area. First, the British National Archives now has many old wills listed on line and available for copying at the rate of L3.50 each. These are only a few of the Pearces that I think might be of interest and may be directly related to our family:
• Richard, Innholder of Bradford, 1796
• Sarah, widow of Little Bedwin, 1775
• Christian, widow of Lacock, 1776
• John, Yeoman of Hungerford, 1778
• Stephen, Yeoman of Compton, 1775
• Ursula, Spinster of Albourne [sic], 1775
• Elizabeth, widow, 1777
• Henry, Wheeler of Amesbury, 1750
• William, Gentleman of Aldbourne, 1782
• John, Gentleman of Warminster, 1799
• Richard, Gentleman of Broad Hinton, 1763
• Robert, Yeoman of Mildenhall, 1762

I have received e-mails from several Pearces in Wiltshire, including Aldbourne and Imber, but we have made no positive connections. One has a long line of thatchers in his family. In an e-mail I received from Surrey, UK, Ron Pearce said that many Pearces have lived in the county of Kent, where the Austens originated. Though most spelled their name Peirce, they were mostly tradesmen: blacksmiths, butchers, and carpenters. Yet another told me of his Great-great grandfather John who started one of the earliest fast food chains in England called “Pearce and Plenty. They sold out eventually to the Lyons Corner House restaurant chain, which may still be in business in London’s East End. Other famous members of his family were hairdressers and a sculptor. I list these in case some reader, sometime, somewhere comes across a connection to my Great-great grandfather Richard of Bromham or Bourne, Wiltshire. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll share any research you may have uncovered so that we may all enjoy our ancestors.

Works Cited

Glanfield, Edgar. “The Dew Pond Makers of Imber.” Witshire Gazette29 December, 1922.

Sawyer, Rex. Little Imber on the Down: Salisbury Plain’s Ghost Village. City unknown: Hobnob Press, 2001.

Warren, W. Norman. “Wesley and his Preachers at Bradford-on-Avon.” The Wiltshire Times May 1938.

Whitlock, Ralph. The Folklore of Wiltshire. Batsford: press unknown, 1976.

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