A first visit to the National Archives, Kew

A view of the National Archive at Kew, London
A view of the National Archives at Kew, London. Photo by the author

I visited the National Archives at Kew for the first time a few weeks ago. During Covid, I had a project to track back family history as far as I could. I made good progress via the records now available online, through sites like ancestry.com and findmypast.co.uk. Through them, I had been alerted to a further record of a Chancery Court case of 1805 which was not available online but could be read at the National Archives.

So I prepared carefully for my first ever visit, hoping I could read what I wanted during a quick visit on the way to the Hampton Court Garden show. There is plenty of advice online about preparing for a visit to the National Archives. I had to pre-order the two documents of interest, and knew I would have to apply for a reader’s card.

No signs, no help, no idea

My first surprise was to reach Kew Bridge station and find that there were no directions on the map there to the National Archives, though other notable nearby destinations are indicated. Surely the National Archives are of more significance and interest to the public than some of these local destinations? Following indications from my phone, I caught a bus to the nearest bus stop, but still found the driver had no clue about which was the nearest bus-stop, and only got help with this from another passenger. It was then a ten-minute walk at least to the actual premises. Do they expect most people to arrive by car?

Another surprise!

The site itself was a surprise. On the front access side, it is surrounded by water, with some ducks cavorting under the footbridges. It is, of course, in the Thames catchment area, but I do not know if this is water from a tributary or utilising a flood plain or artificially made in accord with the growing realisation that we need more visible surface water in urban areas, for cooling things down, for wildlife, and for coping with storm-water.

The purpose-built building itself was only completed in 2020. It started out as a concrete brutalist construction in the 1950s, but with state of the art facilities for public records, including fully carpeted rooms for ‘softness’ but made with plastic materials to be pest-free.

However public records were growing apace: there were more than 100 miles-worth by the 1990s, so more building on the site was commissioned. The building has to allow for both staff (the archive experts) and the researching public. It has to have storage and access, and security and comfort for customers. 

First encounter

As a new customer, I had to go carefully through the website instructions and pre-order the documents, take identity papers, put my things in a locker and go upstairs through a barrier to get my reader’s card. I was then directed to the readers’ counter to fetch my requested documents. 

What I had not anticipated is their sheer size and weight. I had to wheel a trolley with a weighty box, 1m x 0.5m, to a location in the reading room. When I opened the box, I found a hefty roll, containing about 30 pieces of dirty parchment all covered in dense copperplate writing. These are the daily outputs of the Six Clerks office of the Chancery.

Chancery Division

What is Chancery? Not being a student of law, I had to look this up:

“Chancery law is basically a historical label for any work which is heard in the Chancery Division. In practical terms, this includes property, insolvency, inheritance, company law, trusts, patents and partnerships.”

Okay – my interest was in a property or inheritance case of 1805. But being a student of literature, I also knew of Charles Dickens’ stinging satire of the Chancery in the opening chapter of “Bleak House”:

“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means … innumerable children have been born into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit.”

I hoped the two documents I had come to see would not reveal that type of family dispute!

Just Cause

Why had I bothered to come to check the original case documents? Checking the ancestry of the Lebon family leads back to Ann who married George Leabon in Shelfanger, Norfolk in 1776 by special licence. They had a son who sadly died in 1784. But George Leabon seems to have disappeared, as in the 1780s Ann gave birth to more babies, labelled ‘bastards’ in the church records, including our ancestor John Lebon.

His father, William Punt, acknowledged paternity with a thumb-mark and paid some maintenance via the parish. John lived in the same village all his life, called “John, commonly known as Punt.” But we descendants are stuck with the unusual surname of Lebon because of the vanished husband of Ann.

There was also a wisp of family legend about a man returning to the village during the Napoleonic wars talking about a rich estate. Because he found Ann living with another man, he then left the village again. My guess is that this is a story told by John Lebon, who would have been a teenager at the time, and possibly not really understanding what he overheard. My hunch is that the court case of George Lebon would clarify this story.

Inheritance

What I found on the Chancery parchments is that there was a family dispute in the Oxenshaw family over the estate of Samuel Oxenshaw (of Suffolk) who died in 1896. His widow, pregnant at the time of his death, married George Leabon, who then took over the management of the estates, with all the rents and revenue. After a few years of this, other Oxenshaw relatives realised that the children of Samuel and Elizabeth were being deprived of their rightful inheritance, and started a case in Chancery against George Leabon.

I could not find the second document to read the resolution of the case, but I had learned enough now to presume (taking Ann, my ancestor’s, side, of course) that her husband George was of shaky morals. This is presuming the George Leabon of the Chancery case is the same as her husband (likely as the name is comparatively rare, and dates are near enough).

“I publish the Banns of Marriage between…”

The most startling thing is not so much the usurpation of another family’s wealth, but the fact that George had committed bigamy in marrying the widow.

He had married Ann by special licence in 1776, so how come this was not “just cause and impediment” to marrying Elizabeth Oxenshaw? It makes one realise the role of banns. In pre-computer times, there was no quick way to match data, so that a warning ping would come through.

People relied on that public hearing of banns, and the fact that most people married in their own parishes. The Oxenshaw second marriage must have happened out of hearing of the Shelfanger congregation. So George got away with bigamy.


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The dust of ages

I hope the Oxenshaw children got their rightful inheritance, and were not like the lifelong victims of the Jarndyce chancery case. As I rolled up the heavy parchments, I reflected on the work of the scribes in the “Six Clerks office”, day-after-day, recording all the proceedings of Chancery, and the process of filing all those records (not easy to label when 30 parchments are furled together).

I then needed to wash my hands thoroughly of the dirt of ages from those parchment rolls. I am happy to report that public transport away from the National Archives was easier, as there was a direct bus to Hampton Court from a nearby bus-stop, even though it took about an hour to get there.