FIR HILL

1765 – 1850

Nicholas Purdue Smith

Family life

 

No records yet discovered show for certain who owned the copyhold of the Fir Hill land in 1765 or built the house on it. Records do, however, show that Nicholas Purdue Smith (1722–1780), wine merchant of Winchester and Hampshire dignitary, was investing in fields in Droxford in the late 1750s (see e.g. HRO: 106M87/8811). He was married to Jane, also known as Jenny, Green (1728-1796) on 8 December 1747 at Exton Church when she was 19. Jenny came from Droxford, so that presumably led to Nicolas Purdue Smith’s connection with the village. They had eight children, all except one baptised at St Maurice’s church in Winchester:

 

  1. Raleigh, baptised on 28 August 1749 but presumably dying before 1779 as he is not mentioned in his father’s will;

  2. Jenny, baptised 28 February 1753. In the baptism records, her father is noted as William Smith (the same name as the man she married) but she is stated to be a daughter in Jenny Smith’s will of 1790.

  3. Peter (b. 1760 and baptised on 3 February 1761) who inherited everything as the oldest surviving son and who married Mary York in Hampshire in 1794;

  4. Francis, baptised on 1 August 1763 but, like Raleigh, seems to have died before 1779;

  5. Ann, baptised on 4 August 1764;

  6. Elizabeth, baptised on 30 October 1765;

  7. John, baptised on 27 June 1767, and who may have died between 1779 and 1790 as his father’s will mentions him but his mother’s does not; and

  8. Catherine whose father is, like Jenny, given as William Smith and who was baptised in Hartley Wespall, Hampshire on 22 December 1765. Also like Jenny, she is referred to as a daughter by Jenny Smith in her 1790 will. Were these two sisters perhaps adopted by Nicholas Purdue Smith and Jenny Smith?

 

Nicholas Purdue Smith was keen to emphasise his connection with the Purdue family, which was a long-established and well-known Winchester family. They had been grocers and also Mayors of Winchester in 1665, 1692, 1698 and 1706. Perhaps his mother was a Purdue. However, neither Jenny, his wife, nor any of his children used Purdue as part of their surname.

 

It seems unlikely that Fir Hill was ever his home as he never gave his property in Droxford as his home address in legal documents. He certainly owned the house by 18 March 1778, since on that date he leased out the property.  Perhaps he built or acquired the house simply as an investment. Meanwhile his family home was a town house off St Thomas’s Street in Winchester, as a later conveyance describes a piece of land there as ‘the gardens of the former home of the late Nicholas Purdue Smith’. The family church was St Maurice’s in Winchester and the surviving tower still preserves a few Purdue family memorials from the 17th century.

Above: The History and Antiquities of Winchester, setting forth its original constitution, government, manufactories, trade, commerce and navigation; its several wards, parishes, precincts, districts, churches, religious and charitable foundations, and other public edifices: together with charters, laws, customs, rights, liberties, and privileges of that ancient city.

Dedicated to the Mayor of Winchester Sir Paulet St John, Baronet, by ‘The Author’, Winton, 2 Sept 1772

Career, civic and government duties

 

Nicholas Purdue-Smith was a self-made man with a successful retail business in Winchester. Starting as plain Nicholas Smith, he is first described as a draper, then a grocer, then a mercer, then a wine merchant and finally a gentleman in the church records and the various deeds relating to his properties in Winchester.

 

He was Mayor of Winchester three times in 1749, 1755 and 1767, having been made a Freeman of Winchester in 1749. The office of Mayor of Winchester dates back to 1190, and only the office of the Lord Mayor of London is older. 

 

He was appointed a Commissioner for the collection of Land Tax in Southampton and the Isle of Wight in 1762 and also Commissioner for effecting the improvement of the streets of Winchester in 1773 by virtue of the fact that he was then an alderman of Winchester.

 

He was appointed the Official Agent of the British government in Winchester for the welfare of French prisoners of war captured during the Seven Years War with France and the American War of Independence, in which the French fought against the English. From 1757 onwards, 3,500 prisoners were housed in Winchester, which then had a civilian population of only 7,500 people. And, at the height of the fighting, there were 5,000 prisoners there.
 

The prisoners were housed in the King’s House, on the site of Winchester Castle at the top of the High Street, with 300 soldiers to guard them. The present King’s House, rebuilt in 1900 after a fire destroyed the original building in 1894, forms part of the Peninsula Barracks and was converted into residential apartments in 1994. The soldiers were billeted on the local people, particularly the innkeepers and publicans, who complained bitterly. Since there was no payment for housing the soldiers, many of the innkeepers and publicans surrendered their licences in protest.

 

Nicholas Purdue Smith was responsible for ensuring that the prisoners were properly fed, clothed, washed and housed. There were epidemics among the prisoners and local doctors helped treat them. The French government was supposed to pay for the prisoners to be looked after but did not, and so the costs were met by local charities as well as the British government.

 

In 1759 Nicholas Purdue Smith appealed for more funds and resources to house the prisoners since the local townspeople were up in arms about this imposition, but apparently without much success. He also clashed with the military over its treatment of the French soldiers, and it in turn complained that he was interfering in military matters. He complained to the government, which sent a Commissioner from London to mediate. Despite his authority being upheld by the Commissioner, he continued to feel that the army officers countermanded his instructions.

 

A House of Commons report of 1780 mentions that he held this office in 1779 at an annual salary of £200 (£22,100/£407,000/ £1,970,000) and, since Britain and France were at war for much of the intervening period, it is possible that he held this office from 1757 until his death.

 

He was also closely connected with Droxford since he attended the Droxford Parish Vestry meeting on 19 May 1763 in his capacity as Overseer of the Poor for the Tything of Droxford. The attendees at this meeting set up a system of local apprenticeships for poor children in the parish aged 8 to 15.

"The Castle or County Hall, Winchester, Hants" copper engraved print published in Francis Grose's Antiquities of England and Wales, 1786. Ancestryimages.com

Hand-coloured copper print from about 1750. It was engraved for the Universal Magazine and for Hinton at the King's Arms in Newgate Street. Source: printsoldandrare.com

Hand-coloured copper print from about 1750. It was engraved for the Universal Magazine and for Hinton at the King's Arms in Newgate Street.

Source: printsoldandrare.com

Nicholas Purdue Smith's will

 

Nicholas Purdue Smith signed his will on 23 June 1779 (Public Records Office 11/1068/263) but it was not witnessed until 1 July 1779, which apparently did not invalidate the will as it would have done after the Wills Act 1838. There was a codicil, witnessed but undated, and both will and codicil were admitted into probate on 25 August 1780. He had died earlier and was buried on 8 August. He had evidently been working until he died as he was referred to as the Agent for French Prisoners in Winchester in 1779 in the House of Commons report of 1780.

 

Under his will, he left his ‘loving’ wife all his personal chattels, together with a life interest in his entire estate, including Fir Hill. On her death his eldest son, Peter, was to inherit his entire estate absolutely, subject to Peter paying each of his siblings £1,500 (£163,000/£2,950,000/ £14,200,000).

 

There is a provision that reduced his widow’s life interest to only one-third of his estate if she remarried. By the standards of the day, this was rather generous as, under wills at that time, a widow’s life interest frequently terminated completely on remarriage or was stated to be a life interest dum sola et casta – while single and chaste. Wealthy English families almost invariably created a marriage settlement when a female relative married as a married woman’s property automatically passed to her husband to control. Parliament changed this first in 1870, when an Act of Parliament allowed women to keep money that they themselves had earned. Another Act in 1882 gave women their own separate legal identity to own their own property altogether.

 

Towards the end of his will he stated that since by reason of his marriage he had received a fortune of £1,500 (£163,000/£2,950,000/ £14,200,000), he bequeathed £1,500 to his wife to distribute amongst their children in her complete discretion on her death.

 

The will has an interesting schedule of his land holdings and their values as at June 1779. The total rental value was £556 p.a. (£61,300/£1,130,000/£5,470,000) and their total open market value was estimated at £14,946 (£1,650,000/£30,400,000/£147,000,000).  ‘The farm at Droxford let to John Cooper & son’ had a rental value of £180 p.a. (£19,900/£366,000/£1,770,000) and ‘the house and garden and lands’ (i.e. Fir Hill) at Droxford ‘let to Richard Eaton’ had a rental value of £50 p.a. (£5,510/£102,000/£492,000). The two properties in Droxford taken together had an estimated market value of £8,000 (£882,000/£16,300,000/£78,000,000). The family home in Winchester had an estimated open market value of £2,000 (£221,000/£4,070,000/ £19,700,000).

 

Nicholas Purdue Smith was buried in St Maurice’s Church, Winchester. All that remains of the medieval church of St Maurice, which was standing when Nicholas Purdue Smith was alive, is the tower. The church was demolished and replaced with a new church in the early nineteenth century, which was itself demolished in the twentieth century and Debenhams now stands on the site.

1771 Act of Parliament for improving Winchester Streets

Source: Google Books

Extracts from the will and codicil of Nicholas Purdue Smith. Public Records Office, proved 5 August 1780.

A view of old St Maurice's Church, Winchester from Market Lane by G D Shepherd, 1820. Source: Winchester Museums Collection

Research, words and web design by Matthew & Georgy.

 

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