An Intriguing Family History

By Dr Nick Barratt
This vivid account of a family's rise and fall provides an insight into a small 18th-century coastal community, and shows how a wide range of sources can help create an interesting family tree. Could your own family history reveal an equally fascinating tale?
The intriguing Cliff House, at Cullercoats 

Beyond the family tree

For many family historians, completing a family tree is just the starting point. Although it tells you who your ancestors were, it does not tell you what their daily lives were like, where they worked or where they lived. To get a better picture of the past you need to find out more about the communities your ancestors lived in.

To discover where your researches might take you, meet the Armstrong family, whose ancestors lived in Cliff House, an intriguing property in Cullercoats, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. See how research into their one-time family home led to the discovery of some intriguing family stories.

In the middle of the 18th century, Cullercoats was a hamlet, whose residents made their living from the sea. Some embraced smuggling as a way of making easy money. Several histories have been written about the area, including notes about Cliff House, which is positioned overlooking the sea.

'The main clue was his occupation ...'

This story begins with a reference to the sale of 'a piece or parcel of ground at Cullercoats where a cottage formerly stood', in Historical Notes on Cullercoats, Whitley and Monkseaton, by William Weaver Tomlinson (W Scott, 1893, p.19).

Although the house, Cliff House, that was built on this land was initially the focus of the piece of research, the information contained in this small article was used to look further into the story of one Thomas Armstrong, the man who allegedly built the property. The main clue was his occupation, stated as 'commander of His Majesty's cutter, Bridlington'. This proved to be a customs vessel used to patrol the seas from Newcastle to Sunderland, with a remit to intercept smugglers.

One way of finding out more was to see if further details about Thomas could be obtained from customs records held at The National Archives, London. Another was to find out more details about his immediate family through records at the local record office, in this instance the Northumberland Record Office, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and this was the preferred path.

The Armstrong family

Image of land tax document showing Armstrong entries
Armstrong entries in a land tax document
The first task was to locate Thomas's date of birth. A lengthy search of marriage bonds and parish registers for the area revealed that his father was Nicholas Armstrong, whose marriage to Mary Shevill at South Shields, in June 1734, was blessed with many children.

Thomas, the eldest son, was baptised at Earsden parish church on 16 September 1734. By the time Nicholas junior was baptised in 1750, his surviving siblings seem to have consisted of four boys and three girls, including a set of twins.

Although Armstrong was a common name in the area, there was enough corroborating evidence to confirm that this was the correct family. Nicholas Armstrong was described as a customs officer at the baptism of his children, a detail repeated when he acted as a witness at Thomas's marriage in 1760.

'... a clear picture of the Armstrong family began to emerge.'

Armed with this background information, attention could now switch to Thomas's employment history. Some preliminary research in the local library unearthed a book about the customs service, in which the bibliography stated that administrative records had been deposited with the Public Record Office (now The National Archives), London.

Disappointingly, no service records for the period survived. But correspondence between Customs House in London and the local collectors at the ports along the north-east coast did still exist. This revealed considerable detail about the activities of the officers employed in the service, including pay lists. From these volumes, known as letter books, a clear picture of the Armstrong family began to emerge.

Nicholas Armstrong held the important position of Chief Riding Supervisor for the stretch of coast from Sunderland to Newcastle and was effectively in charge of a land operation against smugglers. He clearly exerted some influence in the customs service, as the record revealed that Thomas Armstrong eventually became mate of the Bridlington - a customs cutter, operating out of Sunderland, with a remit to chase down and capture smuggling vessels.

Thomas's brothers also secured posts in the service - Robert went to sea on another customs vessel, while Richard held an important clerical position at head office. Indeed, his marriage made headline news in the local paper, the Newcastle Courant.

Such reports can be hard to find unless you have a precise date with which to work. In this instance, the date of the marriage had already been obtained from the parish registers, and a routine search of an index to the early editions of the paper threw up the Armstrong name leading to this entry. A stroke of luck.

Rise and fall

Court document referring to Thomas Armstrong
A court document referring to Thomas Armstrong
Having struck gold with the customs letter books, through them more intricate details about Thomas Armstrong's daily life in the service began to emerge.

He appeared to have made his mark, not always a good one, from an early stage in his career, and frequent references were made to his activities. He engineered the dismissal of his captain from the Bridlington and was appointed in his place. Allegations were made by members of his crew that they had been struck or dismissed by him.

Yet he was also a family man - from the parish registers viewed at the Northumberland Record Office it was noted that in 1760 he married Alice Allison and thereafter raised a number of children. He was wealthy, as he could afford to purchase a plot of land at Cullercoats in 1768 to build a house.

'... he was charged and convicted of permitting smugglers to escape ...'

These riches were a puzzle, as the pay attached to his post as stated in the customs letter books was not great - and his expenses claims were often queried by the Customs Board in London.

Then the record showed how Thomas fell foul of the authorities in 1771, when he was charged and convicted of permitting smugglers to escape and giving false accounts of goods that he had allegedly seized. (TNA ref. CUST84/133 fo.335-6, 12 November 1771)

On this occasion family influence in the area seems to have saved Thomas's neck. Inspection of the letter books shows at least five previous occasions when he was under investigation or complaint. One also alluded to fraud. But he served out his punishment of suspension for three months, a fine and a severe public reprimand, and was allowed to return to sea in February 1772.

Family turmoil

Court report noting Thomas Armstrong's case
Detail from Thomas Armstrong's court report
Given Thomas's turbulent career and ability to make enemies, it seemed that a speculative trawl of legal records at TNA might bear fruit. It was found that his mother-in-law, Jane Allison, had brought a lawsuit against him into the Court of Chancery in 1772, and her bill of complaint provided a vivid portrait of family betrayal.

According to Jane's statement, her husband Charles had disappeared at sea and was presumed drowned. Thomas was left as executor of the will, and Jane and Charles's daughter, Alice - who was also Thomas's wife - was the main beneficiary.

'Chief among Jane's complaints was the fact that the signature on the will appeared to have been forged ...'

Thomas acted quickly to obtain a grant of probate for Charles's will and ruthlessly administered its terms. Jane claimed she had been 'threatened and frightened' by two constables brought round by Thomas to recover Charles's goods. Chief among Jane's complaints was the fact that the signature on the will appeared to have been forged, and bore a similarity to Thomas's handwriting.

Then Jane's plight worsened. In 1780 the legal records show she travelled to London to continue the case. In her absence Thomas brought a counter-action against her, and while in London she was found guilty of contempt of court in Newcastle for failing to answer the charge. On her return she was thrown into the common county prison at Morpeth. Her fate is unknown.

Legal material such as this often provides accounts of family disputes but can also contain detailed family relationships and evidence in the form of wills, family pedigrees or other miscellany. Searches by name can be made via TNA's online catalogue, TNACAT.

Above the law?

Map detail showing coastline
The profitable North Sea coastline
From this it seems that by the mid-1770s Thomas Armstrong and his family were in a position to use the local constables at will and thought they could act as though they were above the law. Further evidence from the customs letter books revealed that in 1774 Thomas's brother Robert was involved in a fracas with a drunken mariner, Thomas Crowther.

The mariner appears to have been shot in the groin with a pistol. [TNA ref. CUST84/16 fo.29-33, 8 September 1774], but soon found himself in jail, arrested on Thomas's orders. In this case, however, the family were powerless to prevent Crowther's release, and Robert was subsequently committed to Morpeth gaol for 12 months. [TNA ref. CUST84/16 fo.53, 7 November 1774]

'Robert's imprisonment appears to have loosened tongues in the local community ...'

This case was not unique. The level of detail contained in similar incidents recorded in the letter books shows just how tough life was in the community - and could flesh out the basic outlines of many a family tree.

While researching the history of Thomas's house, land-tax returns at the Northumberland Record Office were examined. They revealed that the entire family was living in Cullercoats. Nicholas was residing in Thomas's house on the cliff top, and other members of the family were living nearby, in Charles Allison's former properties.

Despite the family solidarity, Robert's imprisonment appears to have loosened tongues in the local community, as an increasing number of complaints by fellow customs officers were made against Thomas, Robert, and even Nicholas.

The final straw came in 1776, when Thomas and his associates deliberately allowed two notorious smugglers to escape from their care. The incident is recorded with great clarity in the customs letter books. After a recital of his crime, a letter from London concluded that he should be dismissed from the service. [TNA ref. CUST84/16 fo.201-2, 5 March 1776]

Thomas's secret life of crime helps to explain some of the unique architectural features of his house - iron cages in the cellar and a secret passage accessed by a trapdoor in his 'study' that led down through the cliff on to a small beach. It is clear that much of his wealth must have come via a protection racket he must have been involved in, in partnership with smugglers.

'Remaining loose ends were tied up in the parish registers ...'

Thomas had accumulated sufficient money to start trading as a goldsmith after his dismissal, as recorded on one of his son's apprenticeship bonds. Yet his love of the sea remained, and he bequeathed shares in a ship he was constructing at Cullercoats to his sons, in the will he wrote on 24 August 1785.

Remaining loose ends were tied up in the parish registers back in Northumberland, and the deaths of Thomas's father, mother and widow were tracked down.

Starting your own research

Local scene, in Freckleton, Lancashire
A local street scene from Lancashire, c.1910
As a general rule, when attempting to place an individual within a community, look around to identify relevant records that may contain information about the locality. In particular, try to find out if there was a specific local trade or industry. You will also find it useful to know the name of the local manor or landed estate, as surviving records can be full of family details. Start with the local studies centre, then progress to the county record office.

It's important to know where to start and finish - and it's a fine line between family history and local history. Only you can decide how far you want to take things. The research that produced most of the material in this study required visits to a number of local study centres, archives and libraries, as well as The National Archives in London. It followed a clear progression, and once a basic framework had been developed from the main sources - in this case the parish registers - various other sources were used to construct this family's history.

The result is a rich slice of local and family history that adds a new dimension to one family's past. The story did not stop here - few histories have endings. Knowing where to start and where to finish is a key discipline for the family historian, and setting your objectives is part of the fun.

Published on BBC History: 2004-09-13
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