My previous post focused on two sixteenth century legal disputes regarding Penge Common. One concerned allegedly unlawful timber-cutting, and the other concerned allegedly unlawful occupation of a house. The first case was brought by Elizabeth Royden as holder of the lease for Battersea and Penge; and the second, almost twenty years later, by Elizabeth’s son-in-law Oliver St. John, who had acquired the lease when he married Elizabeth’s daughter Joan. St. John’s claim in this second case was made against a man called Style.
In this post we move forward to the seventeenth century, and examine the contents of two more legal documents: one dating from 1630 held in the National Archives, and the other from 1677 held in the Bromley Archive. (The Bromley library strike is now happily settled, so self-respecting socialist historians can use the library and archive once more). These documents are fascinating in themselves, and astonishingly we encounter the same families as we met in the previous century: the St. Johns and the Styles
“ … the tyme of her said wyddowhood … “
A bit of family background will help here.
When Elizabeth Royden’s daughter Joan wed Oliver St. John in the early 1590s, she knew she was marrying into a prestigious aristocratic family. But she could not have foreseen the glittering career which lay ahead for her new husband. St. John prospered mightily once the new Stuart king James I was on the throne. He was made Lord Deputy of Ireland, Viscount Grandison, and finally Baron Tregoz. Joan, as his wife, became a great lady of the realm. But they had no sons.
This meant that when St. John died in 1630, his estate went to William Villiers from another branch of the family. Joan seems to have found that all the honours and titles which she had accumulated by virtue of being St. John’s wife counted for little now that she was his widow. In particular, it seems that Villiers laid claim to the place where she had lived for virtually all of her life.
The 1630 document in the National Archives is Joan’s response to this situation. In it, she challenges Villiers’s right to inherit the lease for the manor of Battersea and Penge. She relies on the fact that, before she ever married St. John, an extension to the lease was secured to run to 1634. This was done by her mother Elizabeth in order to secure Joan’s future. And at the time it worked: it enabled Joan to bring a long-running, copper-bottomed lease for a valuable property to her marriage settlement with St. John.
Now that St. John was dead, however, ownership of the lease was in dispute. Villers argued, presumably, that it now belonged to him as part of St. John’s estate. Against this Joan seems to be arguing, in this document, that the lease had a special status and should now revert to her. In particular she refers to the extension secured by her mother: the phrase “one and thirty years” occurs repeatedly. We don’t know the outcome, and quite probably the dispute never reached a court, because Joan died in the following year.
This is a family property dispute. It does not concern Penge directly, except as part of the property. But for precisely that reason, it is interesting to see that Penge is named in the document. It is not simply taken for granted as part of the manor of Battersea, but is referred to explicitly. The implication is that, in 1630, Penge was a sufficiently valuable possession for its association with the manor to be worth spelling out.
“ .. lawfull money of Englande … “
The 1677 document from the Bromley archive is very different. This is not a family matter, but rather a dispute rooted in class, status and money.
As so often with these odd surviving archival fragments, we see only one side of the story. The Bromley document sets out a claim on behalf of “William Burke, citizen and blacksmith of London”, concerning a cottage “ … being near unto a certain Greene called South Greene also Penge Greene situate and being within the parish of Battersey within the County of Surrey … “. In addition to Burke himself, a number of other respectable citizens are also listed in his support: William Russell, citizen and skinner of London; Daniel Palmer, citizen and apothecary of London; and so on. The whole thing conveys a sense of prosperous and well-connected City tradesmen closing ranks against an outsider.
Who is this outsider? He is John Style the Elder, who is apparently “in occupation” of the cottage near Penge Green. He is evidently not a citizen of London nor a member of a City company, but he does bear the same family name as Edward Style, who was also accused of unlawfully occupying a house in Penge eighty years before.
This raises several questions. Firstly: was John descended from Edward? We can’t know for sure, but Style is not a common name, and the population of Penge at that time was tiny, so it seems to me that it would be extraordinary if he wasn’t. Secondly: despite the passage of time, could both cases have concerned the same dwelling? Could Edward’s ‘house’ have been the same place as John’s ‘cottage’? Again we cannot know for sure, but it seems to me that if we are dealing with a single family then the two cases may indeed refer to the same place. And thirdly: since Edward’s defence in the 1590s seems to have been that the ‘house’ was not in Penge, but Beckenham, could John have made the same argument in 1677? We don’t have a document setting out his side of the argument, but I suspect that he could not have defended himself in the same way as Edward, because the claim brought against him was different in nature.
Burke’s claim is rooted in a different principle to Oliver St. John’s claim in the previous century. St. John’s case was based on his rights as ‘lord of the manor’ by virtue of his lease: he argued that the disputed house stood within the boundary of Penge, which allowed Edward to argue back that it didn’t because the boundary was in a different place. But Burke’s claim had nothing to do with boundaries. It was entirely commercial and referred to a single property; he had bought a cottage with “lawfull money of Englande” and was therefore entitled to “hold occupy possess and enjoy the said cottage”. When he referred to the cottage as “near unto … Penge Greene” he wasn’t invoking ancient land-rights, he was simply using ‘Penge Greene’ as an address. Where St. John was an aristocrat referring back to medieval notions of land-holding, Burke was a business-man looking forward to a modern commercial property market. Hence the form of his claim, and the appearance in it of other City business-men keen to associate themselves with the same commercial principle.
Burke’s claim of 1677 is a small harbinger of things to come. Just eleven years later, James II would be expelled, and William of Orange would come in, bringing in his wake the Bank of England, the National Debt, and a new round of wars against the French. William III inaugurated a thoroughly capitalist commercial culture in Britain. But William Burke was already working along the same lines in his attempt to take possession of a cottage near Penge Green.