An exemplary daughter-in-law and a scandalous wife

Beckett Street Cemetery, LeedsWills are fascinating documents and an often under used resource for family historians.  Unlike many other genealogical documents, which simply record bare facts, wills can give us an insight not just into the wealth and business activities of an individual but also their relationships with other members of their family.  This is how they chose to be remembered after their deaths.   I’ve picked two very different wills which tell us a lot about those who wrote them and leaves us curious to know more.

Henry Thomas Pickersgill of London made his will on 17 December 1822 and left his estate to his wife until her death when it would be divided into four equal parts, one part going to each of his three sons, Thomas, Richard and William with the fourth part going to his daughter in law, Charlotte, wife of his son John ‘or her heirs for her or their sole use and advantage’.  It was normal in those days for a widow to have only life-time use of her husband’s property and he made the decision about what happened to it after her death.  It’s therefore surprising that he leaves a quarter of his estate to his daughter in law Charlotte without making similar provision.  John and Charlotte had two children by this time, both registered at Dr Williams Library Registry in 1823: Hannah Louisa born on 17 August 1819 in Norton Folgate and John Alfred born on 2 October 1821 at West Street, Hackney.

The obvious conclusion is that Charlotte was widowed and Henry wanted to make provision for her and his grandchildren.  However, had he simply wanted to make provision for his grandchildren he could have left the fourth part to them to receive when they came of age with Charlotte receiving annual interest to pay for their education – a common solution to the problem at this time.  It could just be badly worded: in another part of the will he mentions  ‘either of my said sons’ when there are in fact three.  The will may not have been drawn up by a solicitor and he may not have foreseen some of the implications.

However, where it becomes even more interesting is a note at the end saying ‘I give and bequeath unto my son John Pickersgill all my Spiritual Books’.  So Charlotte was not a widow.  Why doesn’t he leave his share directly to John?  Is John a spendthrift and in need of spiritual help or is he interested only in the spiritual life and a little unworldly?  The London Gazette of 2 July 1822 sheds some light on this: it records the bankruptcy of John Pickersgill, a silk manufacturer, dealer and chapman, recently living at Wood Street Spitalfields but currently ‘a prisoner in His Majesty’s Prison of the Bench’ otherwise known as the debtors’ prison in Southwark.  The London Gazette of 12 March the same year confirms that his address was West Street, Hackney, the same street he was living in in 1821 when his son was born.  Henry clearly wanted to ensure all his sons were provided for and by leaving John’s portion to his wife Charlotte he was able to do this and he clearly had much trust in Charlotte.

This setback does not seem to have affected John’s business prospects as he disappears from the London records and reappears in the US Census of 1860, described as a merchant and living in the town of Middleton, New York State. He is recorded as the father of Hannah Louise Pickersgill at her death in Manhattan, New York on 30 March 1900, aged 81 and there is a death recorded for John himself on 31 July 1881, also in Manhattan.

Quite a different family relationship existed between Edward Pickersgill and his family and this comes across quite forcefully in his will.  Edward, a harness-maker of White Lion Yard, Norton Folgate in London, made what is known as a nuncupative will on 25 September 1760 between 10 and 11 o’clock in the morning. That is, he didn’t write it down but related his wishes to witnesses who wrote it down on his behalf.  This sometimes happened when people knew they were about to die but didn’t have time to draw up a written will, though in Edward’s case he had been ill for quite some time before his death.

The witnesses record that during his illness he ‘expressed his Dislike to and Disapprobation of the base and Scandalous Conduct and behaviour of Rachel Pickersgill his Wife who had lived separate and a part from him for three years last past and never visited or attended him in such his last Illness’.  It seems that Edward, fearing that he was about to die and that Rachel might spend his money on scandalous conduct decided to make his wishes clear: he left his daughters, Susan and Elizabeth, described as a minor and an infant to the care of his brother Thomas and any money due from the partnership he had with Thomas was to go to them.   Edward died the next day at 12 o’clock midday and the court granted his wishes on 2 April the following year.  What was scandalous about Rachel’s behaviour?  We may never know, but she did give birth to a daughter also called Rachel on 18 December 1760 who was baptised on 19 January 1861 at St Luke’s, Finsbury.  No father’s name is given and it appears that the relationship between Edward and Rachel had broken down at least three years before.

Two very different wills and two very different families.


  • Will of Henry Thomas Pickersgill, The National Archives, Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Wills, PROB 11/1669/301
  • Will of Edward Pickersgill, The National Archives, Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Wills, PROB 11/864/203
  • Baptism of Rachel Pickersgill: London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Luke, Old Street, Composite register: baptisms Dec 1759 – Nov 1765, burials Nov 1759 – Nov 1765, P76/LUK, Item 003/2
  • Births of Hannah Louisa Pickersgill and John Alfred Pickersgill: Ancestry, Dr Williams’ Library Registry; Registers of certificates: 1-5089, 1820-1824, RG4/2662
  • 1860 US Census: United States Census, 1860, database with images, FamilySearch 
  • Death of John Pickersgill: New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” database, FamilySearch
  • London Gazette, 12 March 1822 p. 438 & 2 July 1822, p. 1104

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