Fragments of untold lives — II

Barbara Rich
10 min readJul 7, 2019

The house that Henry Batt bought in 1781

A few weeks ago, I wrote about fragments of untold lives hidden in some loose sheets of paper in one of the Royal Navy’s 1740s’ pay books, in which I had been searching — in vain — for something else. A similar fragment of untold 18th century lives, also with a connection to the Georgian navy, was revealed by a copy of a solicitor’s bill from 1781, purchased by barrister P J Kirby QC in a junk shop in Greenwich about thirty years ago, found when tidying a room for builders, and shared with his Twitter followers on Saturday 6 July 2019.

Edward Currey’s bill account for legal services paid by Mr Henry Batt on 12 November 1781

The bill, for a total of £4 19s 6d (£4.975p) is for the work done by the solicitor or attorney, Edward Currey, for his client, Henry Batt, between July and August 1781. The work involved was the transfer of title to a house in King Street, Deptford, which Henry Batt was purchasing from a Mr Pook and his wife.

Edward Currey’s work, as described in his bill, consisted of -

- Perusing Mr and Pook’s title deeds for the house. This involved examining the written evidence of prior purchases and sales (or probates if the property had been inherited) to establish whether Mr and Mrs Pook had the legal right to sell the freehold interest in the house, in the days before land registration existed. Lawyers still write “perusing” in the narrative of their bills, even though it is virtually obsolete in ordinary conversation.

- Drafting and engrossing a lease of the house for a year from Mr and Mrs Pook to Henry Batt, and a release “with covenant for affixing two skins”. These “skins” must have been the parchment, which was made of animal skin, and on which the lease and release were written, and which is referred to in the item “Paid for Parchment & Duty for Lease & Release”. The lease and release were standard in 18th century freehold land transfers and were devices used to avoid having the documents enrolled and made public, as would otherwise have been the case for a transfer of freehold title. Lawyers still use the word “engrossing” to mean preparing the final copy of a deed or will to be signed and witnessed, although not on parchment.

- Attending the Execution of the Deeds

- Letters and Postage to and from Chatham

Map of Deptford — Ordnance Survey First Series 1856

The reference to letters and postage to and from Chatham suggested that Henry Batt was involved in ship-building or had some other maritime connection, as both Chatham and Deptford were important places in ship-building, repair and fitting out of ships at the time. This suggestion was confirmed by various genealogical records. A Henry Batt, son of Henry, a gardener, was baptised at St Nicholas’ Church, Deptford, on 15 February 1746. Another Henry Batt, also the son of Henry, gardener, was baptised at St Paul’s church, Deptford on 31 July 1748, the older child perhaps having died in infancy. The baptism records show the predominance of maritime and dockyard occupations in the parish: waterman, shipwright, carpenter, caulker, sawyer, and mariner all appear in close proximity to Henry’s entry. The next record of a Henry Batt in Deptford is from 24 January 1764, and then described as living in the parish of St Nicholas, Deptford, working as a caulker, and is a record of him taking on an apprentice — one of several over the next two decades. Caulking was a crucial element in building and maintaining wooden ships, sealing the gaps between the planks of the ship’s hull and of its upper works and decks with oakum — hemp fibre soaked in pine tar. It seems clear from later records that this man was the Henry Batt who bought the house in King Street, Deptford in 1781, but if Henry Batt was born in 1748, he would only have been 16 in 1764, and too young to have completed an apprenticeship and taken an apprentice himself. So the Deptford baptism records are almost certainly a different Henry Batt, and a more probable birth record for this Henry Batt is a baptism at St Mary, Lewisham in 1729, making him established as a caulker and master of apprentices at the age of 35.

Caulking — part of a display at the historic dockyard, Chatham

On 17 July 1768 Henry married Jane Rouse at the church of St Nicholas, Deptford. She was described as a widow of that parish, and Henry was then 39, if the baptism date of 1729 for him is correct. In that same summer, Captain James Cook was often in Deptford naval dockyard, overseeing the fitting out of his ship Endeavour for his first voyage to Australia and New Zealand, which left Plymouth in August that year.

Henry Batt did not only work as a caulker in the Deptford naval dockyard, but on at least one occasion also went to sea. On 21 December 1770 a Henry Batt, caulker of Deptford, petitioned the Navy Board, stating that he had served on the ship Gibraltar (a sixth rate ship of war which sailed to Newfoundland in the 1760s) for seven years, part of that time as a quarterman over foreign caulkers and was allowed a servant, who had deserted, and now requested another servant in his place.

By the date of his death, Henry Batt had risen to be “foreman of the caulkers of His Majesty’s Dock Yard”, as he described himself in his will of 4th October 1799 (His Majesty then being George III in the thirty-ninth year of his reign). This may have been a deathbed will, or one made in the knowledge that he was dying, as it was admitted to probate only a few weeks later, on 8 November 1799. As is often the case, the will contains a lot of biographical information and places its maker more fully in the social and economic world he inhabited in his lifetime. It is clear that this is the will of the same Henry Batt who paid Edward Currey’s bill in 1781, as amongst the property mentioned is his “freehold Messuage and tenement” on the west side of King Street, Deptford. His will was witnessed by three men: Henry Snook, William Jones and William Dixon, all of whom described themselves as caulkers in his Majesty’s Yard, Deptford. There had been a naval dockyard at Deptford since the reign of Henry VIII, which had developed into a very large and important naval industrial complex over the course of Henry Batt’s lifetime, and made Deptford itself a prosperous and busy place, dominated by the dockyard and its activities and those who worked there. But despite this long and significant history, by the end of the 18th century the Admiralty was considering closing it, as it was too far up the river Thames and the water too shallow for navigation of the larger warships then built by the Navy.

Deptford Dockyard by Joseph Farington c.1794 showing l. to r. officers’ houses and offices, double dry dock, quadrangular Great Storehouse, a pair of shipbuilding slips, wet dock, shipbuilding slip, mast houses and mast pond, boat house. King Street was to the left of this picture, just outside the perimeter wall of the dock yard

The Foreman of the Caulkers was an important figure in the 18th century dockyard — responsible for managing the work of the caulkers and apprentices, reporting on their deployment to the Master Shipwright of the Yard, and certifying the work done in order for their remuneration to be calculated and paid. Caulkers were next in seniority to shipwrights in the hierarchy of dockyard skills, and received the same basic daily wage as them. In 1804, the Commissioners of Naval Enquiry examined the foreman of the caulkers at Plymouth Yard, and the transcript of this examination explains what his job and that of the caulkers involved. He was also asked about a fraudulent practice of caulkers being paid for working on Sundays or for sleeping on board the ships they were working on, when they had not done so, and acknowledged that this had happened in the past and that a previous foreman of the caulkers had been dismissed for it.

Examination of Philip Frost, Foreman of the Caulkers at Plymouth Yard 1803

At his death in late 1799, when Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France, Henry Batt was a man of property. His will refers to his household goods and chattels, linen, plate, china and wearing apparel, as well as investments of several hundred pounds in cash and in the 3% and 4% consolidated annuities funds, the government stock which became the mainstay of many 19th century middle-class inheritances. Henry Batt’s economic life had a certain circularity — he earned his living from working on ships of war for the Royal Navy, the cost of Britain’s 18th century wars led to a rise in the National Debt, and the issuance of Government stock to fund that debt, and he invested in that stock.

He and Jane had no surviving children. Henry left Jane all of his property for her life, and some of his cash and investments to her absolutely, and then after her death, his nephew John Batt was to inherit the King Street property. Henry also left his nephew John “my watch and silver buckles” (these would either have been shoe buckles, or fastenings for knee breeches), and provided inheritances of money or investments for two married nieces and his brother’s widow, all of whom lived not far away in south-east London, in Dulwich and in Greenwich. His will also provided for the inheritance of his own arrears of wages from the Navy, and for money owed to him by his apprentices paid after his death. The specific gifts of his clothes and silver buckles, a type of intimate legacy more often associated with women testators, suggest that Henry Batt attached some prestige value to his clothing and believed that his nephew John would wish to have it as a memory of him.

Modern Deptford is easy to reach from central London — the Docklands Light Railway snaking through the megaliths of skyscraper office buildings in Canary Wharf and across the Isle of Dogs to Greenwich, then a short walk westwards over Deptford Creek and along the riverside. It’s an almost impossible effort of mental archaeology to imagine Deptford as it was in Henry Batt’s lifetime, as virtually all trace of the dockyard and its associated industries has disappeared. Walking along the Thames path between Greenwich and Deptford, Wren’s Greenwich hospital is overshadowed between the multi-storey notopia of a cruise ship anchored in the curve of Greenwich Reach, and the apartment blocks built along the riverside.

Deptford Creek past (late 18th or early 19th century) and present
Steps to the Thames at the end of Watergate Street (formerly King Street) Deptford

King Street, Deptford is the modern Watergate Street, running north-south to the site of the water gate, where slippery steps still lead down into the Thames between high adjacent walls. The Master Shipwright’s house still stands behind these walls, and Henry Batt’s house must have been not far away from it on the west side of the street. No trace of it remains, but it may have looked something like these surviving early 18th century houses not far away, in Albury Street (formerly Union Street, named after the then-recent union with Scotland in 1707), Deptford.

Early 18th century houses on the south side of Albury Street, Deptford
Doorcases on houses on north side of Albury Street, Deptford — cherubs wielding shipwrights’ instruments

The 1697 St Nicholas’ Church, where Henry and Jane Batt married in 1768, is close by the former King Street, and is the one of the few surviving buildings of the Deptford that Henry Batt would have known. A memorial to John Addey, master shipwright, who died in 1606, is attached to the north wall of the church, and includes both a ship being built on a dockyard ramp and a set of shipwright’s instruments in its carved decoration.

Memorial to John Addey, master shipwright, St Nicholas’ church, Deptford — the ship on the ramp is between the two stone tablets
Detail of 17th century shipwright’s tools from John Addey’s memorial, St Nicholas’ church, Deptford

Edward Currey, the attorney who dealt with Henry Batt’s house purchase, died in 1795 and is buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas. The tombs in the churchyard are weathered, and it’s impossible to read the older inscriptions. He described himself as a gentleman in his will, and was a landowner in Deptford himself, in Church Street. Like Henry Batt, he left a widow — in his case a second wife — but had no surviving children, and his estate similarly went to more distant family and friends. Both he and Henry Batt, attorney and client whose names have some slender posterity on the 1781 bill, when living, must have passed countless times under the sightless gaze of the two carved skulls and crossbones on the piers at the churchyard gate, which still stand there today.

One of the two stone skulls and crossbones on the piers of the entrance gate to St Nicholas’ churchyard, Deptford
Carved angels, St Nicholas’ church, Deptford

Sources: London and the Georgian Navy — Philip MacDougall — The History Press 2013

Trading in War — London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson — Margarette Lincoln — Yale University Press 2018



Barbara Rich

English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity