13 February 2023
Searching the East End for
Comerford family links
with the church in Stepney
I spent a day last week strolling a rambling around the East End, my favourite part of London, visiting churches and synagogues, and learning a little more about the radical activists who were part life in places like Stepney and Whitechapel in the first half of the 20th century.
I was in the East End because I particularly wanted to visit Saint Dunstan’s Church in Stepney. This had been the home parish of Nicholas Comberford, an important mapmaker from the 17th century who was a Kilkenny-born artist.
But Stepney had been the home parish for generations of his branch of the Comerford family. The parish records of Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, show that George Comberford was the father of a daughter Abigail which was baptised in Saint Dunstan’s in 1573. Nicholas Commerford married Mary Kitchen in Saint Dunstan’s in 1624.
The family connection with Saint Dunstan’s continued until at least 1706, when Mary Comberford married Edward Savill in the church, and the family connections with the East End continue until at least 1759, if not later.
So, with that connection with Stepney of more than 130 years and with the East End of more than 200 years, spanning three centuries, the Comerford family was embedded in Stepney and the East End for four or five generations or even more.
Saint Dunstan’s in Stepney High Street dates back to long before 952, when the Bishop of London replaced the then wooden structure with a stone church dedicated to All Saints. In 1029, when Saint Dunstan was canonised, the church was rededicated to Saint Dunstan and All Saints.
The church served the whole of Middlesex east of the City of London until the early 14th century, when new churches were built at Whitechapel and Bow. The existing church, where Nicholas was married and his children were baptised is the third on the site and was built of Kentish ragstone in the 15th century.
The church has a long traditional link with the sea and many sailors were buried here. It was once known as the ‘Church of the High Seas,’ and until recently births, marriages and deaths at sea were registered there.
I found myself standing on holy ground that has been an important place of prayer for over 1,000 years since Saint Dunstan dedicated a church to All Saints on the site. The Parish Church of Saint Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney is regarded as ‘the mother church of the East End.’
With the ancient port of London nearby, it became known as the Church of the High Seas, and for this reason the red ensign, the flag flown by British passenger and merchant ships, is still flown from the tower. The church allowed the registration of those born at sea into the parish of Stepney. Saint Dunstan’s also has long connections with three City livery companies: the Mercers (silk), the Vintners (wine), and the Coopers (barrels). Saint Dunstan’s was also the parish church of the British sea-going empire.
Saint Dunstan, Bishop of London and lord of the manor of Stepney, replaced an existing wooden structure with a stone church ca 952 and dedicated it to All the Saints. Saint Dunstan, an influential bishop, was a monk, statesman and monastic reformer, and later became Archbishop of Canterbury.
Saint Dunstan was canonised by acclamation in 1029, and the church in Stephney was rededicated to Saint Dunstan and All Saints, a dedication it retains to this day.
The parish once included most of what would become the East End. In the early Middle Ages, people from villages and hamlets east of the Tower of London worshipped in Saint Dunstan’s Church, before the creation of new parishes. This began in the 14th century or before, and the newer churches included Whitechapel and Bow.
The present building is essentially a mediaeval Gothic church, with a 13th century chancel and a 15th century nave, aisles and tower. The existing building is the third on the site and was built of Kentish ragstone mainly in the 15th century, although the chancel dates from 200 years earlier. The chancel has a triple sedilia.
Inside, the church has an Anglo-Saxon stone relief panel of the Crucifixion dating from the early 11th century and a relief of the Annunciation ca 1400 over north chancel door. The many monuments dating from the 16th to 19th centuries include the recessed tomb chest of Sir Henry Colet, twice Lord Mayor of London, in the chancel (1510), a bust of Dr John Berry in the north aisle (1689), and a relief in the chancel of the Good Samaritan between Doric columns, commemorating Benjamin Kenton (1800).
The Revd William Greenhill, who was appointed vicar in 1658, retained his position as a preacher at Stepney Meeting House, but he was ejected immediately after the Caroline Restoration in 1660.
The organ by Father Willis is from Saint Augustine’s, Haggerston, and was installed in north-west aisle in 1971. A stone reputedly from Carthage is set into south aisle wall with an inscription (1683).
A porch and parish room were added in 1872 by Arthur Shean Newman and Arthur Billing. The church was restored extensively in 1899 by Cutts and Cutts. The vestries and some of the main building were destroyed by fire on 12 October 1901, including the organ that had carvings by Grinling Gibbons. The church was restored again by Cutts and Cutts, and was re-opened in June 1902 by the Bishop of Stepney, Cosmo Gordon Lang, later Archbishop of York and Archbishop of Canterbury.
Saint Dunstan’s kept the light shining through the dark days of the Depression in the 1930s and the Blitz in the 1940s. Although in the heart of the docks and the worst of the bombing during World War II, the church lost only its windows.
The east window by Hugh Easton (1949) depicts the Crucifixion above a tableau of blitzed Stepney and is a powerful reminder of those years. The sailors’ memorial window in the north aisle is also by Hugh Easton.
There are two carvings above the main entrance door. The carving on the left of a ship refers to the long association of the church with the sea and sailors. The carving on the right of the devil and tongs refers to a story about Saint Dunstan pulling the nose of the devil with red hot tongs.
The ring of ten bells in the tower were cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The bells are mentioned in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons: ‘When will that be, say the bells of Stepney.’
The church is surrounded by a churchyard of almost seven acres. During Nicholas Comberford’s lifetime, the churchyard was enlarged in the 1660s to cope with the massive number of deaths during the Great Plague of London. In one 18-month period, 6,583 people died, with 154 being buried in one alone day in September 1665.
Roger Crab, the 17th-century hermit, who lived on a diet solely of herbs, roots, leaves, grass and water, died in 1680 and is buried in the churchyard. The churchyard was closed to burials in 1854.
As for the Nicholas Comberford of Stepney, his work in the 17th century work of has come to the attention of many scholars in recent decades. His works have been catalogued in the British Library and can be seen in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, the New York Public Library, the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, and other museums and libraries. He is widely-acclaimed as a leading and important member of the London group of chart-makers, who used similar colours, patterns and techniques, worked on vellum, and lived close to the dockyards at Stepney and Wapping on the Thames. They have come to be called the Thames School.
These chart makers were members of the Drapers’ Company, a mediaeval guild that continues to have wide-ranging interests and responsibilities in the City of London. It is ranked third in precedence of the great 12 livery companies of the City of London.
Nicholas Comberford of Stepney remained a member of the Drapers’ Company throughout his life. In a case at the Surrey assizes, he is referred to as ‘Nicholas Comberford of Stepney, citizen and draper.’ His maps charted the world from the East Indies and India to Brazil and the coast of North America..
This Kilkenny-born artist lived in a garret in squalid conditions, working in obscurity as a map maker in the Wapping area. His main work appears to cover almost half a century, from 1626 to 1670, and is now highly acclaimed. But in the 1650s, at the height of his career, he was poor and was paid little for his work. Although he had charted much of the world, he never travelled much further than the journey from Kilkenny to London, a journey that he appears to have regretted in the closing days of his life, when he longed to return to Ireland once more.
Part of the difficulty in identifying Nicholas Comerford as a member of the Kilkenny family arises because many English map cataloguers have spelled his name Comberford, leading to confusion and his identification with the Staffordshire family of that name. Nor was Canon Carrigan aware of Nicholas Comberford, his important contribution to 17th-century life, and his place in the Inchiholohan or Castleinch branch of the family. The manuscripts relevant to tracing Nicholas Comerford’s life were not published and available to readers until after Carrigan’s four volumes were published in 1905.
Nicholas Comberford’s father was Nicholas Comerford, the ‘King’s Gaoler’ at Kilkenny, and he was a grandson of Garret Comerford of Inshilholan (Inchiolohan or Castleinch). Garret Comerford (ca 1550-1604) was the Queen’s Attorney-at-Laws for Connaught, MP for Callan, Second Baron of the Exchequer and Chief Justice of Munster. Just a year before his death, Garret was the third or fourth richest person with lands in Co Cork.
Nicholas Comberford’s father is the third son named in Garret Comerford’s will and was the ‘King’s Gaoler’ at Kilkenny. Nicholas Comberford the mapmaker was probably born in Kilkenny ca 1600. He moved to London in his teens, long before 1620, and settled in Stepney, where a number of Comberfords were living for a few generations. They may have been Irish cousins, or members of the Comberford family from Staffordshire, who would have accepted him as kin; in either case, they probably made it easy for him to find a place to live, and to find an apprenticeship with the Company of Drapers as a ‘plat-maker’ or map-maker.
The parish records of Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, show that George Comberford (? born ca 1543-1548) had a daughter Abigail, who was baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 18 October 1573. She was married in Saint Dunstan’s on 3 April 1592 to Nicholas Synnas.
1, Thomas Comberford, gentleman, of Westminster and Saint Dunstan’s-in-the-West [sic,], died ca 5 March 1636, when his will was proved by his nephew, John Comberford.
2, Agnes Comberford, who was married in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 24 March 1588 to John Beverley.
3, William Comberford, who had one or two sons:
● 1a, William Comberford, who was baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 10 April 1608.
● 2a? John Comberford.
Thomas Comberford’s nephew, John Comberford, proved the will of Thomas Comberford, gentleman, of Westminster and Saint Dunstan’s-in-the-West on 5 March 1636. John was married in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 19 July 1620 to Mary Ady, and they were the parents of a daughter:
1a, Sarah (1626-1626).
John Comberford also had two sisters who were married in Stepney around the time that Nicholas Comberford moved there: Elizabeth Comberford, who was married in Saint Dunstan’s on 26 February 1623 to Michael Morland; and Mary Comberford, who was married in Saint Dunstan’s on 14 February 1628 to James Woolcock.
The font in Saint Dunstan’s … many members of the Comberford family were baptised in the church from the 16th to the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)
For civil purposes, Stepney was divided into four hamlets – Ratcliffe, Limehouse, Poplar and Mile End – and the northern part of the hamlet of Ratcliffe, where Nicholas lived, is on the north bank of the Thames, between Shadwell and Limehouse, and includes Saint Dunstan’s, the parish church of Stepney.
Ratcliffe was known as ‘sailor town,’ and from the 14th century had been a centre for shipbuilding and for fitting and provisioning ships. In the 16th century, various voyages of discovery were supplied from and departed from Ratcliffe, including those of Sir Hugh Willoughby (1553) and Martin Frobisher (1570s).
By the early 17th century, when Nicholas was living there, Ratcliffe had the largest population of any village in Stepney, with 3,500 residents. It was a site of shipbuilding in the 17th century, when a number of naval sailing warships were built there for the Royal Navy, including one of the earliest frigates, the Constant Warwick (1645).
As Nicholas Commerford or Comberford, he was apprenticed to the mapmaker John Daniel in the Drapers’ Company school of portolan chart makers. John Daniel was the first draper-chartmaker of the Company of Drapers, and Nicholas completed his apprenticeship with him in 1620.
As Nicholas Commerford, he married Mary Kithen of Ratcliffe in Saint Dunstan’s Parish Church, Stepney, on 10 June 1624, when he is described as a ‘Draper.’
He continued to live in the parish, where he was ‘of the precincts of St Katherine,’ was active in parish life, and is recorded as attending a vestry meeting in 1645. In the parish records, he is described as a draper and is named variously as Nicholas Cumberford and Commerford. At the February 1645 Vestry, there were no less than 11 captains from Ratcliffe and Limehouse among an attendance of 30 parishioners.
Later, when he was living in London, Nicholas would tell visitors from Ireland that his kindred had many good estates in Ireland, but they also included a priest who by then was in Spain, and another who was a drunk and who robbed him. The priest in Spain may have been either Thomas Comerford (1583-1636) or James Comerford (1583-1640), two of his three Jesuit uncles who were sons of Garret Comerford. He may have beden unaware that his second cousin, Patrick Comerford, had become Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.
According to his signature on most of his maps and charts, Nicholas Comberford lived at Radcliffe in Stepney, although a visitor in 1655 says he lived in Wapping. We are left with a very full description of Comberford’s living conditions and family circumstances from an almost mocking account of a visit to him contained in a letter from that visitor, William Dobbyns, to his cousin John (later Sir John) Percivale, written on 17 December 1655.
Dobbyns and his friends located a ‘rich’ uncle, who turned out to be Nicholas Comberford, the poor mapmaker, who had left Kilkenny and who was now living in squalor.
Nicholas worked in a garret in the house in Wapping, and was paid 25 shillings for a map that would take about three weeks to make. Nicholas Comerford’s works remained unclaimed until the mid-20th century. In recent years, he has been fully identified as a member of the group of London chart makers now called the Thames School.
In all, 28 charts by Nicholas Comberford have been recoded. The British Museum Library collection in London includes seven charts by Nicholas Comerford, dating between 1647 and 1665, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, has seven maps by Nicholas Comberford, there are five Comberford maps or charts in the Sterling National Library in Yale University, the University of Kansas has four of his maps, and there is one each in the New York Public Library, the Antigua Museum, the National Library of Australia, Lincoln Cathedral and the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which has what is probably his last traceable map, dated 1670.
He was working until 1670, but I have traced no further works by Nicholas Comerford after 1670. He died in 1673 in his early 70s, still living in poverty in Wapping.
Nicholas Comberford is mentioned in the Diary of Samuel Pepys on 22 July 1663. Pepys recorded how on 22 July 1663 how he travelled ‘by water to Ratcliffe, and there went to speak with Cumberford the platt-maker, and there saw his manner of working, which is very fine and laborious.’
Nicholas Commerford and his wife Mary Kithen were married in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 10 June 1624, and were the parents of two sons and two daughters:
1, John Comberford (1625-1626), baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 27 March 1625; died 5 March 1626, buried 1626.
2, Thomas Comberford (1626-post 1662), baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 14 January 1626. He married at Wandsworth on 13 July 1648 Elizabeth Soane. They had four sons and two daughters:
● 1a, Mary (1649-post 1671), baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 23 July 1649. She was ‘of Ratcliffe’ when she was married at Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 18 July 1671, to Thomas Cole.
● 2a, Thomas Comberford (1650-post 1682), baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 20 January 1650. He married Mary … He emigrated to New York, and around 1681 there is reference to Thomas Comberford of New York, citizen and draper, late of Stepney, a ‘plate-maker’ or mapmaker. He may have returned to England, as his daughter Elizabeth was still living in Stepney when she married in 1706. Thomas and Mary Comberford had at least one son, but perhaps two sons and a daughter:
●● 1b, Thomas Comberford, baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 7 June 1672.
●● 2b? Francis Comberford, baptised in Saint Giles, Cripplegate, on 22 December 1675.
●● 3b? Mary Comberford (1682-post 1706), baptised in Saint Botolph, Bishopsgate, on 31 March 1682. She was married in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 2 July 1706, to Edward Savill.
● 3a, Elizabeth Comberford, baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 11 September 1654.
● 4a, Robert Comberford, baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 17 August 1659.
● 5a, Charles Comberford, baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 23 June 1661; buried in 1661.
● 6a, Nicholas Comberford, baptised Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 11 September 1662.
3, Anne, baptised in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 21 February 1629. She was married in Stepney on 12 May 1656 to Richard Hankin.
4, Mary, baptised Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, 21 February 1629. She was married in Saint Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 16 June 1651, to Edward Dunning.
Later, in the same part of London, we find Nicholas Commerford and his wife Mary, who were the parents of Nicholas Commerford, who was baptised in Saint George-in-the-East on 5 March 1759. So Nicholas Comerford the mapmaker may well have many descendants today, unaware, like him, of the value of his work, and unaware, like those who have written about the Thames School, of his origins in Co Kilkenny.
As for Saint Dunstan’s and All Saints’ Church, it remains a place of beauty and history as well as the centre of a lively community of faith, a thriving and active church in the heart of the local community.
When I arrived at Saint Dunstan’s, there was a long queue outside of people waiting for the food bank staffed by parishioners and volunteers. As I was photographing the Stations of the Cross, I found two were missing.
I was soon how told Stations VII and VIII had been placed in safe keeping to make space for the food bank inside the church. As they were unwrapped for me, I realised how it seemed so appropriate that they should make way to express Christian disciple and witness.
The Rector of Saint Dunstan’s is the Revd Trevor Critchlow, and the Revd Tasha Critchlow is priest and hospital chaplain.
The highpoint for the community at Saint Dunstan’s is the Sunday morning Parish Mass. The Eucharist at 8 am is a said Book of Common Prayer Mass; the Eucharist at 10 am is Choral Eucharist.
For Saint Dunstan in the East (13 August 2022), visit HERE
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