A Poor Law Dynasty – the Bryan family of Sutton and Amersham

by Gwyneth Wilkie

As so often happens in family history, an enquiry begins and later peters out, leaving you with something intriguing but quite different from what you were seeking!  Research for the Chiltern U3A Amersham WW1 War Memorial Project showed that W Bryan was one of four mystery names for which there was no clear identification.

The most obvious place to look was among the children of Frank Bryan (1853-1922), who at that time was Registrar of Births and Deaths for the Amersham sub-district.  Of his eight children, four were sons.  All lived beyond the 1914-18 war and military records could be found for three — but not for William Henniker Bryan, who was our ‘person of interest’ as Interpol might put it. A well-known law of genealogy was clearly operating here, but I’m not sure we have a name for it yet.

Frank Bryan had a busy life.  The 1899 Kelly’s Directory reveals that he was the local Relieving and Vaccination Officer, as well as Registrar.  The obituary printed in the Bucks Herald of 30 Sept 1922 adds to this list of posts:

‘Commencing his career as the son of a former relieving officer, he filled the offices of sanitary inspector for the local sanitary authority and school attendance officer.  In October 1889, he was appointed relieving officer for the Amersham part of the Union, which office he continued to hold till 1911.  He did not then relinquish the whole of his appointments but continued to act as registrar of births and deaths.  His life was an active one, as he usually walked the whole of his journeys.  Apart from his official duties, he was the secretary of the local Easter Monday sports until these were closed down, and he was also secretary of the Fanciers’ Association.’

It should have been no surprise that Frank himself became a ‘person of interest’ for the Family and Community Historical Research Society’s mini-project on Census Enumerators, having worked as an enumerator in the 1891 and 1901 censuses.  By this time I knew quite a lot more about his family tree.

Frank was born in Amersham in 1853, the third child of William Bryan and Mary Frances Crasler, but his two older siblings had died that same year, making him the eldest surviving child.  He did not go straight into public service but can be found in the 1881 census at Mile Town in Kent, where he was working as a draper’s assistant, having married a local girl, Ellen Edith Henniker.

His father William Bryan (1821-1889) was born, not in Amersham, but in Sutton, Sussex, and by 1851 was a schoolmaster at the National School in Basford, the Northamptonshire town where he had married and where the couple’s first child was born. By 1852 they had moved to Amersham where their first daughter was born.

Click on the image to view a Descendant Chart for Daniel BRYAN
Click on the image to view a Descendant Chart for Daniel BRYAN

When William decided to retire in 1887 the Guardians felt it proper that he should be awarded superannuation of £50 per year. This was turned down by the Local Government Board so they voted unanimously to give him a gratuity of £90 ‘in consequence of many extra and extraordinary services from time to time rendered during the thirty years he has been in the service of the Guardians’ Bucks Herald, 10 December 1887 p 7).  William eventually moved away from Amersham and died in 1889 in South Hayling, his wife’s birthplace.

When Frank Bryan retired he did get superannuation but when he applied

for an increase in salary in 1892 the Guardians compared his salary of £110 with the £135 his father had received. (Bucks Standard, 12 February 1892, p 3: Bucks Examiner, 5 Oct 1922, p 3 refers to him as a ’superannuated officer’).  In earlier times officers were expected to provide for their old age themselves.

Click on the image to view a Descendant Chart for William BRYAN

William Bryan’s move to Hampshire was probably a consequence of the appointment of his son Ernest, who in 1881, had been School Attendance Officer and Land Surveyor in Amersham, to new posts in Havant. Later that year he became Relieving Officer at a salary of £50 a year, plus a further £5 as Enquiry Officer, and Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths, which brought in am average income of £33 a year (Hampshire Independent, 28 Sept 1881, p 3).

The 1864 Kelly’s Directory for Amersham notes that Frank is a Relieving Officer and by 1869 he had also taken on the duties of Registrar of Births & Deaths, continuing thus at least until 1877.  In 1883 he was Registrar for the Chalfont district, though living in Amersham, and Inspector of Nuisances to the Beaconsfield Local Board, as well as Relieving Officer for the 1st District. Other Directories plus the census confirm that by 1891 he had taken over as Relieving Officer and Registrar of Births & Deaths in Amersham. 

A Relieving Officer had a crucial role, deciding what sort of aid should be given to the poor, sick and needy and whether they should be admitted to the workhouse. When applied to by those in crisis he also had to make sure that ratepayers’ money was being deployed as effectively as possible. The judgements made might have an enormous impact on people’ s lives and the job cannot have been without risk — the Relieving Officer would have to assess the sick, risking infection, and might also become the target of people’s rage and frustration.

William Bryan had acted as one of the census enumerators in 1861 and his son Ernest took over that role in 1881. By then Ernest held the post of school attendance officer as well as being a land surveyor.

Ironically it has not been possible to locate William Bryan in the census which he helped to enumerate, though his address is given from 1869 onwards in directories as Union Street, nowadays known as Whielden Street.  Reducing the search terms to ‘Bryan + Buckinghamshire’ produced two other Bryans born in Sutton, Sussex, and these at first appeared to be William’s brothers.  Samuel Bryan was employed as a schoolmaster at the Amersham Union Workhouse.  A few miles closer to London in Chalfont St Giles Edwin Bryan, 33, and his wife Emily, 27, were both employed as teachers at the National School and had two small children Emily, 5, and Walter, 3.  When they married on Jan 1st 1853 Edwin was working as a carpenter and gave his father’s occupation also as carpenter.  It is characteristic of the Bryan family to have a skilled manual trade and also to take on roles in the community which depended on a good level of literacy and numeracy. Edwin died six years after the 1861 census, aged only 40, by which time the couple had a third child, William Lawrence.

Samuel Bryan, the oldest of the three, was born in Sutton, Sussex, in 1817.  Initially I assumed that he was the Samuel who appeared at the Amersham Workhouse in the 1861 census and again in a directory for 1864. While that theory was a helpful signpost to other members of the family from Sutton, it did not stand up well to scrutiny.  Born in 1817 he is shown in 1851 and 1861 as a schoolmaster in Sutton with his wife Mary plus, in due course, 6 children. In 1867 he is shown as parish clerk and schoolmaster.  He worked as a rate collector until his death in 1887.  It seemed very unlikely that in 1861 he had been enumerated twice — at home aged 43 and away in Amersham aged 20. 

His son Samuel, born on 30 Jan 1841, so then aged about 20, emerged as the leading suspect.  On 2 Nov 1866 he married Elizabeth Lockton at Stepney St Thomas. This may help to explain why he left the workhouse as combining the long hours of duty with any kind of family life would have been difficult and was strongly discouraged, many of the job advertisements making it plain that the successful candidate should be ‘without encumbrance’. Samuel later became Relieving Officer and Registrar of Births and Deaths for the Harting district of Sussex and died there in 1899, so he also was following the family pattern.

In a workhouse context the family at Sutton is of considerable interest.  On 18th December 1804 Daniel Bryan married Elizabeth Edwards in Petworth.  They went on to have 10 children.  Daniel’s occupation is consistently given in the register of baptisms as horsehair manufacturer (1) from 1813 to 1824 and only for the last child, Edwin Walter in 1827, does the record show him as Governor of the Poor House.

The West Sussex Record Office, however, has a series of annual contracts (2) dating from 4th October 1802 (before Daniel’s marriage) up to 1836.  The 1802 document binds Daniel and his widowed mother Mary Bryan of Petworth to supply the needs of the paupers at the Sutton Poorhouse for a year.

It should be noted that Sutton was a Gilbert Union poorhouse.  Before the Poor Law Unions came into being in 1834 small parishes found it convenient to band together to maintain a single poorhouse. (3)  Mary and Daniel were thus bound to the ‘Visitor & Guardians of the Poor of the United Parishes of Bersted, Bignor, Burton, Bury, Clapham, Coates, Duncton, Egdean, Patching, Slindon and Sutton’. They undertook

 ‘from time to time and at all times during the said term [one year] at their own proper costs and charges well and faithfully find provide and furnish for and unto all the paupers resident in and or to be duly sent into the said Workhouses during the said term good wholesome clean and sufficient meat drink and firing further comfortable food and drink beyond the usual food and firing of the house as shall in cases of illness sickness or accident of any of the said paupers be deemed necessary for such paupers by the apothecary of the said Workhouse and also proper convenient and comfortable clothes and apparel of all sorts and the making mending and washing thereof for all the said paupers and all other necessaries whatsoever for the maintenance clothing and employment of all the said paupers and shall keep all the said paupers clean decent and free from vermin and as much as they possibly can from all infections and contagious diseases and particularly from the itch to the entire satisfaction and approbation and under the superintendence and supervision and direction of the said visitor and guardians at and after the rate of three shillings weekly for each pauper resident or abiding in the said workhouse during each time as each pauper shall reside or abide therein and at and after such further allowance for wheat to be expended for food of the average price at Petworth market shall exceed twenty pounds per load is hereinafter specified.’

This is the first of a series of annual contracts involving Daniel Bryan up to 1836.  Each gives his occupation as woollen manufacturer rather than carpenter or horsehair manufacturer.  His mother did not die until 1807, but by 1804 she has been replaced as Daniel’s co-signatory by James Edwards of Petworth, victualler, who continues to be included up to 1812.  This presumably accounts for Daniel naming one of his sons James Edwards Bryan in 1813.

In the 1841 census Daniel Bryan and his wife Elizabeth were Governor and Matron of the workhouse at Sutton. Daniel died in September 1843. His son Thomas Bryan (1815-1858) had taken over as Governor by 1851, with his mother Elizabeth still acting as matron.  Her long widowhood came to an end in 1860 and her son Henry, Governor of the Poor House at Sutton, is one of the executors of her Will.  Although the 1861 census finds him described as a carpenter staying at the White Swan Inn in Twickenham, it looks as though he continued in the post of Governor for a few years after his mother’s death since he and his second wife Susannah are still listed in 1867(4) at the workhouse. At this point his brother Samuel is also shown as Sutton’s schoolmaster and parish clerk.  Perhaps Henry continued his family’s involvement until the end, for in 1869 all the remaining Gilbert Union workhouses, which had been exempt from many of the provisions of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, were abolished and the Sutton workhouse closed.  By 1871 Henry is again shown as a carpenter, living with Susannah in Back Street, Petworth. In June of the following year he was admitted as patient no 66048 to the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum in Wandsworth and died there in October 1872.

Starting with Frank Bryan, one of Daniel’s grandsons, we have now traced a three-generation involvement of the Bryan family with poor law institutions.  It seems that that should be four generations as when Daniel’s mother Mary was buried at Petworth on 6 February 1807, aged 63, it was noted in the burial register that she had been ‘mistress of the Poor House of this Parish’. If so, then her husband Samuel, a blanket weaver who died in 1798, must have been Governor of the Poor House in Petworth, thus taking the family’s involvement back another generation and into the eighteenth century.

A further family link can been seen when Daniel’s oldest daughter Mary Anne Bryan (1806-57) married John Standing Penfold, born in Mayfield, a son of Standing Penfold:  the East Sussex Record office holds an agreement between the churchwardens and overseers of Mayfield and Standing Penfold, weaver and Governor of Mayfield workhouse(5).

Chance plus curiosity led me to investigate this family. Through several generations they were prepared to take on posts of responsibility and serve their various communities.  At a level below those who may be recorded in directories of the ‘Landed and Official Classes’ and below other families who for many generations bred up lawyers and clergymen, whose records are also well preserved, they yet form a kind of dynasty, which may well go back further than I have so far been able to take it.  It seemed worth writing up in the hope that other such families might come to light.


(1)  Horsehair itself would be collected rather than manufactured, but it could then be turned into many useful items.  Probably the most obvious in a workhouse context might be to supply the stuffing for mattresses and furniture.  Hard-wearing, strong and non-absorbent, it was also turned into fishing-line, violin bows, shaving brushes, jewellery items, gloves and upholstery fabrics.

(2)  West Sussex Record Office PHA6514.   Many thanks are due to Debbie Bryan for this information.

(3)  Passed in 1782, the Gilbert Act (22 Geo III, c 83) permitted parishes to establish a poorhouse in common instead of maintaining separate ones, so long as the poorhouse was not more than 10 miles away from the parish. 

(4)  http://www.gravelroots.net/sutton/sutton.html

(5)  East Sussex Record Office PAR422/33/144




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