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The Mathers


The Mather family presents the sort of problem that makes genealogy so fascinating: the possibility of ancestors who led interesting lives and might have had an impact on the national (or even international) stage, together with the need to examine the disparate pieces of evidence to present a strong case. Mather is not a common name, so one would think that three Mather families, all living in London in the 18th century, all originally from Northumberland, all with links to shipping and to each other, would be related; but it is proving difficult to establish that! At least two Mathers - both called James - did have interesting careers, with one linked to the early days of Australia and one becoming the fourth mayor of New Orleans in the USA; the question is whether they are relatives.

Newcastle in about 1750

The area round St Nicholas church shortly after Thomas Mather died there


Newcastle in about 1750

My Mather tree starts with a Thomas Mather, a yeoman from Longframlington in Northumberland, marrying Rebecca Unthank, from Unthank, in 1708. The Unthanks came from a long established family who, at one time, had owned the whole of the village of Unthank, so Thomas was certainly part of the large landowning family of Mathers who had been established in the area for some time (Note 1). Thomas and Elizabeth had at least seven children, all baptised in Longframlington, including Robert (1706), John (1717) and Joseph (1727). As is often the case, it is difficult to pin down their social class: when Robert died in 1744, a bond referred to John as a tailor, but he was probably the same Mr Mather, tailor, who died aged 90 in 1807 and whose death merited an entry in the local paper. In the same vein, Joseph’s children and grandchildren all left property to each other in their wills, with one, a ‘bricklayer’ or ‘builder’ moving in the sort of circles that saw him being left the equivalent of about £11,000,000 in today’s money (Note 2).

Robert, the eldest, was sometimes referred to as a gentleman, but he was also a staithsman, looking after the weighing at the docks. Oddly, when he married Frances Unthank in 1731, his licence named Thomas Mather, currier, as his guarantor, despite his own family having enough money to fulfil the same role. Thomas the currier, was well-known in Newcastle and, when he died in 1764, it was said that he had ‘acquired a handsome fortune with a fair character’. He was undoubtedly rich (Note 3) but, since Robert’s father was also called Thomas, he cannot have been a closer relation to Robert than his father’s cousin (Note 4).

Robert and his family moved to Newcastle which had been expanding rapidly since the 16th century, mainly because of the exporting of coal, and the city was bursting its mediaeval boundaries, but the several markets in the centre still remained the centre of the city's commerce. Newcastle was the third largest city in England after London and Bristol,with an excellent musical life, and had been described by Celia Fiennes in 1698 as a 'noble' city that compared favourably to London. It would have been a good place to live and work.

However, having money does not guarantee happiness and Robert died when he was only thirty-seven, leaving behind four young children. As a staithsman he was probably more tradesman/staith owner than labourer on the dockside. His widow, Frances, and eldest daughter, Jenny (Jane) remained in Newcastle, but the three other children all moved to London, for reasons that may never be known. Rebecca (Becky) married the Christopher Watson mentioned below and moved to Plymouth; and Thomas, the only male, seems to have joined the navy. He married in Plymouth when Master on HMS Pelican; and then became commander of the ship HMS Pitt. One record suggests the 'Pitt of London' traded across the Atlantic, but it sank in 1765. His will mentioned unnamed 'children', almost definitely two daughters. Fortunately for us the 1767 will also mentioned his mother and sister in Newcastle, Becky in Devon and his two remaining unmarried sisters in London. He named James Mather, merchant of London, as his executor. Who was James, and was he a relation?


A replica of James Cook's Endeavour later owned by James Mather

James was almost certainly the James Mather described in several online articles as trader, shipowner, slave trader and whaler. His link with Australia was that he bought the ship Endeavour after James Cook's trip and added it to his own fleet. He died in 1796 leaving his sons to continue his business. All the articles say that his origins are unknown, but it seems clear to me that he was born in the North-East of England, but further north than Newcastle. Land records show him in Cross Lane, St Mary Hill, Billingsgate from at least 1765-1771, and the fact that he is sometimes referred to as a 'musician' means that he can be equated with the James Mather, son of Alexander Mather, farmer of Twizell in Durham, who became a citizen of London in 1765, by redemption, through the Worshipful Company of Musicians (this does not mean that James was actually a musician; people joined all sorts of livery company). In his will (1796) he refers to his sister, Margaret; wife, Ann; and children James, Thomas, John, Ann, Frances and Benjamin. His tombstone in Charlton near Woolwich, describes him as a merchant of London who died aged 58, so it is certain that he is the James Mather baptised in 1737, in Norham, Northumberland, son of Alexander Mather. Significantly, as far as the next James Mather is concerned, this James Mather lived in Birchin Lane, Cornhill; he was certainly there when two of his children were baptised (Thomas in 1771 and John in 1773) and other documents show him still there in the 1780s. If he isn't a (close) relation, then perhaps his wife Ann is, which would explain why Thomas asked his brother-in-law, who just happened to have the same surname, to be his executor. James Mather married an Ann Mather in 1774 and Thomas' sister Ann was known to be unmarried and living in London in 1767. Thomas' sister , Ann, had been baptised in 1738; and when Ann Mather, wife of James, died in 1807, she was 68 which fits fairly well.


The Prince of Wales: a First Fleet ship owned by James Mather

Apart from the fact that this James is likely to be the executor for the 1766 will of Thomas Mather (see above); he was also a business partner to Christopher Watson, a boat builder responsible for the Prince of Wales, one of the ships in the First Fleet to Australia. Christopher Watson was probably the shipwright who invented the floating dry dock in 1788 and is likely to be the same as the Christopher Watson in my family, shipwright of Greenwich, who married Rebecca Mather, sister to the Thomas Mather already mentioned, as James Mather took on three of his sons as apprentices. My Christopher Watson was known to be a carpenter on board HMS Barfleur in 1776, so he would have had a rapid rise up the ladder of prosperity after that, but it is all grist to the mill when establishing a connection.


James Mather 


The James Mather who emigrated to America in about 1777 and went on to become the mayor of New Orleans, is more of a mystery. There is a lot of evidence for his life after his arrival in Louisiana, when he was a successful trader of many things (including slaves) and one book describes his voyage from England with five other men and his new wife in some detail, but virtually nothing is known of his early life. His 'new wife' was born Frances Mather, but was apparently not related, with some later documents calling her Francisca Sophia Mather, but I don't know where any of this information came from. By 1780 James was an established merchant holding a contract with the Spanish government to use two ships out of New Orleans transporting goods from London to West Florida. He had emigrated to America in 1777 on board the Royal Oak and was said to come from 'Bochin Lane, London'. This name is too close to the Birchin Lane above to be a co-incidence, but clearly this isn't the same James. There was a James Mather, son of Peter Mather of Barmoor in Northumberland, who became apprenticed to the first James in 1770. As an apprentice it is possible that he, too, was living in Birchin Lane with his master; and both were traders/merchants. The timescale is very tight as, if he was 12-14 when apprenticed, he would be barely twenty when he emigrated. An apprenticeship usually lasts seven years with apprentices unable to marry without their master's permission, so the timescales are further squeezed but, however unlikely, it's possible and explains the address. The assumption from everyone is that the marriage between James Mather and Frances Mather in London in 1777 is the same couple but, if this is the only source of Frances' maiden name, we need to tread carefully. the licence application describes James as 'over twenty-one, although this seems unlikely; but comparison between the 1777 signature and a known one from the USA suggests they are the same person. I don't know where the information about 'Bochin Lane' came from, or the name Francisca Sophia.



James Mather's signature on his marriage licence in 1777 (above) and on an 1810 US document (below)


A tourist sign in New Orleans

Where does this James fit into my family? Possibly nowhere, but the Thomas Mather mentioned above, does name his sister Frances in his will, and she is known to be unmarried in London in 1766. It is therefore possible that she is the Frances in the 1777 marriage but - and it is a very big but - she was baptised in 1741 so, if they are the couple who sailed to America, she would have been in her mid-thirties when she married, with James fifteen years younger. They married by licence, but the licence application merely states that both were over twenty-one, and that he had resided in Lewisham for at least he past four weeks. They actually married in the Earl of Dartmouth chapel as the parish church was closed for re-building.


Co-incidences happen, but we are left with several: a marriage between a James Mather and Frances Mather in 1777; a James Mather being apprenticed to a second James Mather in 1770, with both parties a long way from their birthplaces; Thomas Mather asking James Mather to be his executor; one or two Christopher Watsons, both shipwrights, marrying Rebecca Mather and working for James Mather respectively; and other lesser co-incidences such as the commonness of the name Frances in all the families. Do we have one, two or three Mather families? If not one, then my family would have no blood links to America and Australia which would be a pity. When Rebecca Mather married Christopher Watson she gave two of her children Mather as a middle name and it has carried on through the generations to my great-grandfather, Thelwell Mather Pike and finally my grandmother, Jean Mather (Pike) Knott. Was that out of respect for an important family? Probably not: it had just become a habit by 1901. But it would be good to prove it one way or another.


1. There are many references to Mathers owning land. In particular, there are documents (recently sold on Ebay!) which show that an Edward Mather and John Mather owned land in Longframlington. These are probably the John Mather who baptised children in Longframlington between 1703 and 1715 and the Edward Mather, yeoman of Framlington, who married Margaret Lisle (from another rich family) in 1723. They may both be brothers of Robert, but the relevant registers are lost.

2. Joseph Mather (b1727) had five children: Barbara, Thomas, Mary (BROWN), Rebecca and Joseph. A Barbara Carter left each of the surviving children a small amount of money but that connection, it seems, led Joseph (the youngest child) to receive a fortune from Barbara Carter's illegitimate son. the story - quite a long one - is better read on this link:


3. Thanks to WolfieSmith on Rootschat for finding the 1731 licence and related wills on FamilySearch 

Thomas Mather, born to another Thomas in 1683, and who, when he died in 1764, was called by the newspapers the 'oldest currier in this Corporation'. In 1725 he was involved in a court case concerning his wife's inheritance from her maternal grandparents, Francis and Mary Wetwang. The Wetwangs were an important family in the North, although it is not entirely clear where Francis fits into the tree. There are several references in the 1650s to his being a draper, so he was probably a wealthy man, as drapers/cloth merchants served the rich, and were often rich themselves. One land purchase links Francis to a John Wetwang, mariner, and there is a further reference to a Robert Wetwang, son of Sir John, being apprenticed to a draper in 1665, before becoming a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors ten years later; so I think it very possible that Francis was John's brother - he is certainly the right age to be so. (Sir) John was an eminent naval captain, with a distinguished career, who would serve twice as Master of Trinity House; and his brother, Joseph was also a notable naval commander. Francis, however, appeared to be the landlubber in the family, preferring to supply the navy with uniforms rather than sail with them. Whether Francis had two naval brothers or not, what is certain is that he and Mary had a daughter, Elizabeth, who married a Christopher Appleby, described as a 'gentleman' of Newcastle in his will. Christopher worked for the customs and excise at Newcastle's port, first as a tidesman, boarding the ships to collect taxes as they came in but, from 1682, as  a landwaiter and searcher, with greater overall responsibility.  Newcastle was a very busy port with fifty ships a day arriving, but the cargoes tended to be high volume/low tax, such as coal, so there needed to be far more ships that at London or Bristol to achieve the same income. Most of the trade would have been with the other ports on the East coast of England, with ships bringing in grain from East Anglia and wine and haberdashery from London. Newcastle was also responsible for smaller ports nearby, so Christopher may have travelled; but unfortunately he died in 1688, shortly after their only daughter, Mary, had been born. It's possible that Elizabeth took her daughter back to live with her parents, as that might explain why she, Mary, became the principal beneficiary of her grandparents' wills when they died (in 1678 and 1698) leading, several years later, to Thomas' court case. The 1678 inventory linked to Francis' will, listing the furniture in the parlour, parlour chamber, little room and so on, makes it clear that the family had led a comfortable middle-class existence, so Mary would have been brought up used to the better things in life, and it seems unlikely that her mother would have allowed her to marry someone (ie Thomas Mather) that could not provide for her. That Thomas, too, was wealthy is supported by an advertisement that appeared in the Newcastle Courant in 1742.

''A Cap with Brussels Lace and Tucker of the same, as Handkerchief with Brussels Lace; an Handkerchief with Mecklin Lace, and double Ruffles of the same: These, with some other things of less value, were wrapped in a blue and white linen handkerchief. Whoever shall bring them to Mr Thomas Mather, in the Flesh-market, or to the Vicarage House in Pont Island, shall have half a Guinea Reward.''


Half a guinea (52.5p) would now be worth about £200 and, as the Flesh Market was where many of the traders worked, it's possible that the Mathers actually lived in Pont Island (Ponteland), a village seven miles outside Newcastle. Against that, shortly after Thomas' death, a needlework school was opened in the 'very commodious house late occupied by Mr Thomas Mather, at the foot of the Flesh Market adjoining St Nicolas Churchyard'. A few years earlier in 1733, a coachbuilder selling a large house had asked interested buyers to call on him or 'Mr Thomas Mather at the sign of the Half Moon in the Flesh Market, Newcastle'. 

4. Establishing a link between all the Mathers is difficult as there are two near contemporary Thomas Mathers, each of whom probably had brothers called Edward and John. A Thomas Mather married Elizabeth Sanderson in 1680 and had four children: Thomas, John, Edward and Jane. Thomas is the currier referred to above, who first married Mary Appleby in 1708 and then probably married Mary Snawden in 1733. His will refers only to his daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, his only known son, Christopher, having pre-deceased him. A number of online trees equate him with the Thomas who married Rebecca Unthank, but this cannot be the case. My guess is that they were cousins, but it is a guess. Whether Thomas the currier's brothers, Edward and John, are the ones who owned land in Longframlington; or they are brothers to the Longframlington Thomas remains unsolved.

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