Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Finding a Comerford
home at an unusual
address in London

Bartlett’s Buildings in the mid-19th century … a watercolour drawing by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1858)

Patrick Comerford

In recent genealogical researches, I came across a notice in the Gentleman’s Magazine of the death on 6 October 1812 of ‘The wife of Mr James Comerford, of Bartlett’s Buildings, Holborn’ (p. 495).

Despite the name of this newspaper, it was not regarded as ungentlemanly in Regency London over 200 years ago, nor was it unusual, that the dead woman’s own name was not given in a notice like this. But with a little further research I was able to confirm this woman’s identity, and I started asking questions about Bartlett’s Buildings and what sort of place it was.

‘Mrs Comerford’ was born Anne (or Sarah) Suffolk and may have had a Jewish mother, according to a tradition among her Comerford descendants. There was also a tradition – later dismissed in the family – that her father was one of the many illegitimate sons of King George III. George III had no illegitimate children, although his sons, including George IV and William IV, provided him with at least 56 illegitimate grandchildren. However, Anne Suffolk is not named in any accounts of the illegitimate children of these monarchs.

Anne Suffolk was living in the parish of Saint Andrew when she married James Comerford (1787-1833) of Change Alley in Cornhill, London, on 6 March 1805.

This James Comerford was a son of Thomas Comerford, who may have been born ca 1757-1760 in Ireland. Thomas Comerford and his wife Anne lived in Bartlett’s Buildings in Holborn, London.

Family tradition says Thomas Comerford came from Ireland. However, Ashworth-Hill, in his paper on the Bosworth Crucifix, which was in the possession of James Comerford’s family from around 1810, wonders whether this Comerford family was related to the Comerford family who lived in Saint Michael’s Parish in Coventry in the first half of the 19th century.

Thomas Comerford’s son, James Comerford, married Anne Suffolk in Saint Andrew’s Church, Holborn, and she died, as the Gentleman’s Magazine reported, on 6 October 1812. This James Comerford started the book collection that was continued by their son, also James Comerford (1806-1881), a Victorian book collector and antiquarian.

Saint Andrew’s, the church where Anne and James Comerford were married, is the largest of Sir Christopher Wren’s surviving City churches, and Grade I-listed building. It was built in 1684-1690 to replace a mediaeval church of Saxon origin that survived the Great Fire but then fell into decay.

Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom, was married there in 1799, and Benjamin Disraeli was baptised in the church as a 12-year-old in 1817.

James Comerford and Anne Suffolk were married in Saint Andrew’s Church, Holborn, in 1805 (Photograph: Diliff/Wikipedia)

Bartlett’s Buildings was an unusual address, and it sounded more like a 20th century council or social housing development than the address I expected for notaries and lawyers. The area is no longer found in London, and I wondered what sort of a place it was.

It turns out that Bartlett’s Buildings has interesting associations with Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), is named in one of her books by Jane Austen, and was a fashionable residential area in the early 19th century for people in the legal professions.

Bartlett’s Buildings once known as Bartlett’s Court, was the name of a street, off Holborn Circus in the City of London, known for the number of lawyers who had offices there. It was a cul-de-sac but an alley ran from the west side to Fetter Lane that was known as Bartlett’s Passage.

Bartlett’s Buildings was on the south side of Holborn. In the early 17th century, it was known as Bartlett’s Court, and it is named as early as November 1615, when it is referred to in the burial register of Saint Andrew’s, the parish church where Anne and James Comerford were married.

The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), which was founded in 1698 by the Revd Thomas Bray, had its first offices in Bartlett’s Buildings, and remained there until well into the mid-19th century, and holding weekly meetings there. Bray was also the founder in 1701 of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Anglican mission agency known as USPG (the United Society Partners in the Gospel).

John Strype, in A survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, described Bartlett’s Buildings in 1720 as ‘a very handsome spacious Place, graced with good Buildings of Brick, with Gardens behind the Houses.’ He says the place is ‘very well inhabited by Gentry, and Persons of good Repute.’

Henry Chamberlain’s survey in 1770 said: ‘Bartlet’s-buildings is a very handsome spacious place, graced with good houses of brick, with gardens behind them, and is principally inhabited by gentlemen.’

At the time the Comerford family was living there, Bartlett’s Buildings are named by Jane Austen in her novel Sense and Sensibility (1811) as the place where the two Miss Steeles lodge when visiting their cousin.

The street was once home to the Farringdon Dispensary and Lying-in Charity, and is depicted in 1858 in a watercolour drawing by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.

The street was totally destroyed during a World War II air raid in 1941, and was later replaced by New Fetter Lane.

As for Saint Andrew’s Church, where Anne and James Comerford were married, it too was destroyed in the Blitz on 16 April 1941. It was rebuilt in 1960-1961 by Seely and Paget and became a guild church. Instead of ministering to a fixed geographical area, guild churches minister to congregations made up of people working in the area and their liturgical life is centred on weekday lunchtime services. They tend to work closely with local businesses – by hosting their company carol services, for example – and City livery companies. The Guild Vicar is the Right Revd Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham.

An integral part of Saint Andrew’s raison d’être is being open to everyone, and the church also fulfils its mission through ‘The Listening Service,’ offering free counselling to City workers in high pressure jobs who are experiencing psychological strain. This uses the worship space itself, and not a separate room.

Saint Andrew’s benefits from a prominent location by a traffic interchange between one of the main streets into the City and north-south routes across London. The church is open during business hours and makes toilets available to visitors. A stand for votive candles in the north aisle has a prayer request board, and there is a special welcome for homeless people.

Bartlett’s Buildings make an appearance in Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (1811) … a window display in the Cambridge University Press Bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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