This post is about Thomas Witter of Wrightington. His name should already be known to readers of the blog, as he has already been mentioned in previous blog posts. Thomas Witter is of great importance for the research of the surname in Lancashire, since it is estimated that 57% of all Witters in Lancashire were descended from him in 1841. I also support the theory that the surname Witter, which is mostly found in Lancashire today, was originally from Cheshire (already briefly introduced here: Cheshire, home of the surname?).
The first reliable source I have about Thomas is his marriage on August 1 1743 to Mary Halliwell at Douglas Chapel in Parbold. He was working as a Mason in Wrightington at the time. His wife, Mary, came from a family that had long been established in the area.
This marriage resulted in six children (John b. 1744; James b. 1745; Henry b. 1747; Mary b. 1753; Phoebe b. 1754; Joseph b. 1757). Baptismal records indicate that the family lived in Wrightington and Shevington during this period. From there his descendants spread to Halsall, Ormskirk, Wigan and Bolton.
However, it will be difficult to find out more about Thomas origins. No document of his baptism or birth could be found in the wider area of Wrightington.
Ancestry.co.uk has a number of family trees that include Thomas. There his father is given as a man named Thomas Wittear from Garstang, Lancashire (b. 1698). However, if you look at the original baptismal document, you will quickly see that this mans surname is Whittaker / Whitacre. This Thomas Whitacre married a Mary Simpson in Garstang around 1734.
In the rest of Lancashire there was no Thomas Witter who was born in the appropriate period. In neighboring Cheshire, there are two candidates.
One Thomas was born in Chester in 1715, but got married there and also died there.
The Thomas who is most likely our Thomas Witter, was born in 1721 in the small village of Weston, between Runcorn and Frodsham. His father was therefore a certain Joseph Witter, who was also born in Weston in 1682 and descends from a Yeoman family in Frodsham.
In the year 1729 we find the following entry in the Cholmondeley Estate Records:
“LEASE (Cp.) for 1 life in reversion by Rt. Hon. James Earl of Barrymore to Joseph Witter of Weston juxta Frodsham, yeoman — a messuage and tenement with appurts. in FRODSHAM with 5 beast gates in Synnipoole Pasture, 2 cowgates in another parcel of land cd. Rapdolls and 1 rood of land in the Cole Meadow, all now in possession of the lessee; to hold after the deaths of the sd. Joseph Witter and Martha his daughter, the 2 surviving lives in a former lease (no. DCH/F/367), for life of John Witter, son of the sd. Joseph, at annual rent of 13/4, 2 rent hens or 12d. and heriot of best beast or good or £3. Cons. £25-15-10.”
As can be seen from previous blog entries, the Witters had been living in the area around Frodsham since the late Middle Ages (first mentioned in the Cholmondeley Estate Records in 1317) and belonged to the Yeoman class (evidently at least since the 16th century).
But why did Thomas leave Weston/Frodsham and became a Mason? Well, it was by no means uncommon for the younger sons of a Yeoman to train as a skilled craftsman. The Cholmondeley Estate Records indicate that his brother John took over the father’s farm. Also, since the economic situation was not the best for many Yeoman in the 18th century, it seems quite fitting that Thomas pursued another profession and became a Mason.
The population in the early modern period was overall much more mobile than is commonly assumed. The way from Weston in Cheshire to Wrightington/Shevington in Lancashire was not a big challenge at the time either. Masons tended to lead nomadic lives. They went where there was employment. Other tradesmen could effectively stay where they were as there was enough trade for their skill to allow them to settle. However, masons had to move on to their next source of employment once a building had been completed – and that could be many miles away.
It is entirely possible that Thomas was involved in the work on the Douglas Navigation or the Liverpool-Leeds Canal, although there is no evidence to support this.
Even if it cannot be said with complete certainty that our Thomas was the one born in 1721, I am personally pretty sure about it. The other candidates who were born during this period are all eliminated for the reasons mentioned above. Add to this the lack of mentions of the name Witter in Lancashire prior to 1743 and frequent mentions in the Frodsham area since the Middle Ages (see previous blog entries).
If this theory is correct, it shows the special importance that Thomas Witter has not only for my personal genealogy, but also for that of the Witters in Lancashire as a whole. As noted earlier, about 57% of all Lancashire Witters were descended from him in 1841 and another 13% has been documented to be from Cheshire. So we can assume that about 70% of Lancashire’s Witters in 1841 were originally from Cheshire. This is a strong indication that Cheshire is the original home of the name Witter in North West England.