07 February 2019

A name, a search for a link
with Lichfield, and a reminder of
how we create our own borders

The Offley name (right) on lights reflected on the River Douro in Porto at night … was there a link with Lichfield Cathedral or with a Staffordshire village? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on image for full-screen image)

Patrick Comerford

I stood on the north side of the River Douro River last night, looking across at the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank of the river. The lights reflected in the water gave a romantic glow to the early February scene, as if this truly was an early Spring evening.

But I was struck too by how many of the Port lodges were English, with names such as Cockburn, Graham, Dow, Sandeman, Taylor and Offley, lighting up the roofs and the night sky in Porto.

Long before ‘Brexit’ – indeed, over 300 years ago – British wine merchants were developing a niche place for themselves in the wine market, cornering the trade in wine exports from the Douro Valley to England after the wine trade with France had been closed off by war.

As I looked at these names in the night sky last night, I wondered how a name like Offley could have travelled all the way from to Porto. I was thinking not of Offaly, a county in the Irish Midlands, but of Offley, a small place in Staffordshire that gives its name to a prebendal stall in Lichfield Cathedral and that also has a remote and distant, if not obscure, connection with the Comberford family.

At the same time, the Lichfield tour guide, historian and writer Jonathan Oates posted on Facebook how he is researching a history feature for Citylife in Rugeley magazine and has come across a feature in the Lichfield Mercury on the Wolseleys of Rugeley, ‘written by well-known Lichfield historian Patrick Comerford from October 1971 - you must have been a very junior reporter Patrick! Hope you remember the article!’

The Lichfield Mercury offered me my first opportunity to begin a lengthy career in journalism and to start writing in history. It was so interesting to be reminded in Porto last night of an early connection with Lichfield at the same time as I was wondering whether the Port wine trade here had a connection with Lichfield Cathedral, with the Comberford family or with Staffordshire.

The stall of the Prebendary of Offley in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

High Offley is a small village and civil parish in Staffordshire, three miles south-west of Eccleshall and about a mile west of the village of Woodseaves, both on the A519.

The symbol of the crowned inter-twined letters MR on the stall of the Prebendary of Offley in Lichfield Cathedral seems to represent Saint Mary the Virgin, although the church in Offley is dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, not to the Virgin Mary.

In the late 17th century, High Offley was associated with the Giffard family, a leading family of Staffordshire recusants. Robert Comberford (ca 1594-1671) of Comerford was the father of Mary Comberford (ca 1654/1655-ca 1683), who married ca 1680 Thomas Giffard of The Lodge, High Offley Park, son of Edward Giffard of High Offley and grandson of Peter Giffard (ca 1581-1663) of Chillington in Brewood.

When Mary Giffard of Offley died ca 1683, her mother, Catherine Comberford, filed a renunciation in Lichfield of any interest in the estate of her daughter who had just died.

But none of these obscure connections with the Comberford family and with Lichfield Cathedral provided any explanation for the name of one of the famous English-founded Port lodges in Porto as I looked at the reflections on the Douro last night.

The Offley name on a port barge on the River Douro … where did the name come from? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

It turns out that the Offley name in the English trade in Port dates back to William Offley, a wine merchant from London who founded the business in 1737. Offley was soon exporting wines and later began to produce his own Port wine. The brand quickly gained international recognition as one of the premium quality wines.

A decisive moment in the development of the Offley brand came a century later with the arrival of Joseph James Forrester (1809-1861) as a partner in the company. He was a charismatic figure who later became known in Portugal as Baron de Forrester and he played a key role in expanding Offley and the Port wine industry in the 19th century.

He arrived in Porto in 1831 to join his uncle, James Forrester, by then a partner in the house of Offley, Forrester and Webber. He then spent his entire adult life in Portugal devoted to Douro and Port wine. He contributed to the growth of Port wine’s international trade links, and he was the first person to chart the Douro River and Valley, an accomplishment that earned him recognition from many European geographical societies.

Over the years, Offley invested in the production of their wines, installed and replanted landmark vineyards, built and maintained their cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia and expanded the distribution of the brand. Forrester gave evidence before a select committee of the House of Commons on wine duties in 1852, and in 1855 he was named Baron de Forrester for life by King Ferdinand II of Portugal.

While Forrester was descending the Douro on 12 May 1861, his boat was swamped in one of the rapids and he was drowned. His body was never found. Ships and public buildings in Lisbon and Porto flew their flags at half-mast when they heard the news. He is still remembered in the wine country as the ‘protector of the Douro.’

So, it seems, the Offley house in Porto had no connections at all with High Offley in Staffordshire, with the Prebendaries of Offley in Lichfield Cathedral – or even with Mary Comberford of Lichfield who married into the Giffard family of High Offley.

I suppose if I am going to find a family connection here I have to do a little more research on Nicholas Comerford, who became the first British consul in Porto in 1642, two years after the restoration of Portugal’s independence.

But it all shows that for 300 years, 400 years, or even more trade has trumped borders when it comes to relations between Britain and Portugal, between Britain and Ireland, between Ireland and Portugal.

We need to keep tearing down old borders in Europe rather than erecting new ones. In vino veritas.

The Offley name has been established in Porto since 1737 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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