The Quest for John Udall
“My grandfather was a
large farmer. A rich family;
back there was a coat of arms.
There was an esquire relation to my grandfather near Bridport in
Dorsetshire and my father came from near Bridport.” The words were contained in a
letter from Jesse Udall (1788 – 1865) of
At the time he wrote this letter Jesse Udall was a farm laborer whose circumstances were no better than those of the great majority of poverty-stricken inhabitants of the large Wealden part of Goudhurst. Genealogists become wary of family traditions of noble, or at least, gentle ancestry and tales of large fortunes tied up “in Chancery”, so that my first reaction is always one of courteous disbelief. However, the Udall tradition of grandfather (his name never given, alas!) having been a large farmer and the family having been rich appears on examination to be broadly accurate, although the “esquire relation” and the coat of arms still await proof.
I began working on the Kentish Udall family almost twenty years ago, but even then a great deal of work had already been done. It was only later that, because of my interest in Dorset through my own descent from several families in the county, that I decided to explore as well the earlier history of the Dorset Udalls.
It was felt (for good reasons which I checked and accepted) that “our John” was probably the son of William Udall (1703 – 1780) of Netherbury and his wife Mary. However, in spite of extensive searches in the registers of that parish and a wide area around, no baptism of a suitable John Udall close to 1729 had been found. It was noticed that John Udall (1683 – 1748) of Luccombe in Netherbury (a well-off farmer) was described in his will proved 1749 as John Udal alias Woodman, and this led me to re-examine the Netherbury registers (and subsequently those parishes close by) with the surname Woodman in mind, as it seemed that other members of the family might have used this as an alternative to Udall. My first searches were in the Bishop’s Transcript of Netherbury, at Salisbury Diocesan Record Office, where to my delight I found this christening:
20 Sep 1727 John son of William Woodman
It seemed at least possible that this entry (found also in the originals) refers to our John Udall and that the parents (although mother is unfortunately not named) were William Udall and Mary Cleft of Netherbury, who were married at Lyme Regis in Feb 1726/1727. (Phillimore’s transcript implies that the marriage was in 1727, and there was an agonizing pause while the originals were checked, when it was found that 1726/1727 is correct.) The fact that only five months elapsed between marriage and christening is, of course, commonplace and no objection to the theory; nor do I feel that the discrepancy of a year or two in the age given for John Udall in Goudhurst burial register is of significance.
A more telling point in favor of the theory came out of a comparison between the originals and the Bishop’s Transcripts of Netherbury. Previous searches in the Netherbury originals and evidence from wills had revealed that the William Udall who had married at Lyme Regis in 1726/1727 was the son of George Udall (1669 – 1746) and his wife Mary Cox (died 1746). In the originals of Netherbury may be found their marriage
12 May 1702 George Udall and Mary Cox
When I searched the Bishop’s Transcripts I was gratified to find that the same marriage entry in that version refers to George Woodman and Mary Cox – a clear indication that the two surnames were interchangeable in the mind of the person (presumably the Vicar or the Parish Clerk) who wrote up the register and the transcript. To revert to the next generation, I should note at this point another all-to-familiar hazard: Lyme Regis register does not mention that Mary Cleft was a widow when she married William Udall! I had already done much work on the numerous and quite well-off Cleft/Clift family, who were connected through another marriage to the Udals of Luccombe, in the hope that some useful cross-references might appear, but results were disappointing. I now decided that it might be helpful to read through all the wills of the Court of Netherbury in Ecclesia – a rather desperate move, but it was amply justified by the discovery of the will of Robert Way, miller, of Slape Mill in Netherbury, proved 23 Jun 1731, in which he leaves a bequest to his daughter Mary, described as the wife of William Udall alias Woodman. Mary’s first marriage, to Thomas Cleft, was then located, at Beaminster in 1718.
The will of
A great deal more was done on other Netherbury Udalls of the late 17th and 18th centuries and, without going into tedious detail, this gave ample proof that other members of the family had been known at various times as Woodman, Udall, Woodman alias Udall, and Udall alias Woodman. It was noticed that many other local families used aliases at this period, too – a phenomenon which has never been completely explained.
This all adds
plausibility to my theory, but to my mind the strongest indication we have
to support the information in Jesse Udall’s letter about his father is the
use of the Christian name Gaius itself. The christening of 1743 is the
first occasion on which it appears in the Udall family, but John of
Goudhurst also gave this name to his second son, christened in that parish
in 1778. Gaius is a name of
extreme rarity: I have never come across it in 30 years work on
This extreme rarity
seems to me to suggest very strongly indeed a tie-up between the Udalls of
Kent and those of
stumbling-block so far has been the absence of a will or administration
for William Udall buried at Netherbury in 1780, said to be aged 80 (in
fact he was 77 or 78) or for his wife Mary, whose burial has not been
located. Since her first
marriage was in 1718, it seems certain that she was older than her husband
and so it is likely that she predeceased him. It is puzzling also why John
should have left Dorset for
A study of the churchwarden’s accounts of Goudhurst shows that, although John was having children christened in that parish from 1774, he does not appear as even a modest ratepayer until 1782, when he is suddenly assessed for a rent of 32 pounds on Hammonds Farm. This indicates that at about that time he must have laid his hands on some money. The commonest reason for a sudden access of wealth is a legacy, and it cannot surely be a coincidence that, as mentioned above, William Udall of Netherbury – postulated as John’s father – died in 1780.
This is another strong argument in favor of my theory, and it is perhaps significant also that John’s son christened at Goudhurst in May 1780 was called William, surely after grandfather William who had died in February. The lack of a will or administration is unfortunate, but it was not uncommon for moderate estates to be divided out amicably without recourse to legal formalities and I presume that this could have happened in the present case.
The Udalls in the USA kept in contact with some of their relatives in Kent, and I suggested a few years back to Elma Udall – then on a second tour of duty at the US Embassy in London – that it might be useful, and it certainly would be interesting, to continue to trace the descent of other Udalls who had remained in this country, and to contact all present-day relatives. This idea was met with great enthusiasm and – fortunately just before the Registrar’s charges rocketed – much time was taken in obtaining certificates, and also in abstracting all Udall wills and administrations since 1858. All the information was correlated and many Udalls throughout the country were contacted to see if they were interested in the history of the family, and also if by any chance they had any information which might help to solve the John Udall/Woodman problem.
The result exceeded
all expectations and led, incidentally, to a grand reunion organized by
Elma Udall in
If only we can prove beyond doubt that our John was the son of William of Netherbury, then we can go back several generations further. But we would have another problem to tackle. Were the Netherbury Udalls related to the wealthy, armigerous Uvedales of Horton and elsewhere in Dorset, and Wickham in Hampshire – the “esquire relations” in fact? Some members of the family certainly thought so, including Judge John Symonds Udal, whose own scholarly work on the family history, dating before the Great War, surfaced as a result of Elma’s contact with his son Arthur and his grandson John. J. S. Udal had concluded with judicial impartiality that he could not legally prove his theory, but it remains an interesting speculation.
Believe it or not, I have very much condensed above my case for identifying John Udall of Goudhurst with John Woodman of Netherbury – a summary I wrote for circulation among the family ran to 13 pages! Naturally, I am hoping that this article may produce some vital piece of information from another member – and in the interests of truth I must of course keep an open mind and be equally ready to accept sound proof that my theory is wrong. In any case, I would be very happy to correspond with anyone interested in the Udalls of any period, and, even more, with the Woodmans of the 18th century and earlier.
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