Updated after a recent visit to Suffolk.

The Bridges name has a couple of origins.

I shall lay claim to the one which denoted someone from Bruges (Brugge), as being a more interesting origin. Apparently Bruges had extensive trading links with England in the middle ages. The spelling of the name was de Bruges, and dates back to around 1200.

The second possible origin is that the surname Bridges or Brydges, from early medieval times, denotes someone who lived near a bridge, or a bridge keeper. I was fascinated to discover that building and maintaining bridges was a feudal obligation in the middle ages. I have not managed to trace my ancestors back to feudal times or to Bruges. I do hope I could trace them back to Bruges.

My paternal grandfather Frank, was born in London in 1880, and immigrated to New Zealand with his parents and 3 of his siblings in 1886. They boarded the Akaroa which departed from Gravesend on 18 March 1886, and arrived in Auckland on 28 June 1886.

Prior to immigration, my great Grandparents, Joseph and Sarah lived at 46 Lower Tulse Hill. Lower Tulse Hill became Tulse Hill, properties renumbered and is now part of the A204. In 1843 there was a continuous line of houses predominantly detached and usually with separate coach houses along the full length of Lower Tulse Hill from Brixton to the top of the hill. The area has been redeveloped at much higher densities since the 1930’s.

There are no 19th century houses remaining in that part of Tulse Hill. The area appears to be the home of rather deadly gangs, with numerous stabbings and shootings.

There was little left in the area which my great grandparents would have seen or been familiar with. I decided to walk to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which having opened to the public in 1817, could have been visited by my great grandparents. I passed by Dulwich College, which was founded in 1619. The new college opened in 1870 so my great grandparents would surely have seen it.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is a gem. It was designed by Sir John Soane. It has a very fine collection of old Masters. The Mausoleum and east wing galleries were damaged in 1944 by a German V1 flying bomb, and it has been refurbished. Despite damage and refurbishments, my great grandparents would recognise the building today.

So far, I have traced my line of the Bridges family back to my 6th great grandfather, John who was born in 1665 in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England. My 5th great grandfather was also born in Aldeburgh. He moved to Woodbridge Suffolk where my 4th, 3rd and 2nd great grandfathers were born.

Aldeburgh – which I am told is pronounced “Orld-brur”, has a shifting coastline, and coastal erosion. It was once an important Tudor Port, and shipbuilders in Aldeburgh built the Golden Hind and the Greyhound, the ships that Sir Francis Drake sailed. The river Alde had silted up and the Port and shipbuilding had ceased prior to my 6th great grandfather’s time.

Aldeburgh was a fishing village in the years my ancestors lived there. It is now a seaside resort, and would bear little resemblance to the place my ancestors lived. There are a couple of buildings which my ancestors would have been familiar with. The 16th century Moot Hall, although closer to the shoreline than it would have been, would be recognised by my Aldeburgh ancestors, as would St Peter and St Paul’s church which has a tower dating back to the 14th century, with much of the rest dating from 16th century.

Aldeburgh Moot Hall.

Woodbridge, Suffolk is approximately 17.4 miles from Aldeburgh, and today takes around 26 minutes to drive via the A12 and A1094. It no doubt took a lot longer to travel between the towns when my ancestors lived there, but I can’t imagine such a relocation would have been particularly adventurous, even then.

My ancestors may have seen the mounds at Sutton Hoo, which is an archaeological site near Woodbridge overlooking the Debden River. They would not have known that these were Anglo Saxon burial mounds dating from the 6th and 7th centuries.

It was not until 1939 that the Sutton Hoo Treasures were discovered. Excavations unearthed a great ship burial of an Anglo Saxon king and his possessions. The ship was 27 metres long. The Treasures are in the British Museum, and include a helmet, one of the “Treasures” of the British Museum.

Helmet from Sutton Hoo Treasures.

There has been a tide mill on the River Debden at Woodbridge from around 1170. It was owned by the Augustine Priors for 350 years until Henry VIII confiscated it. The current mill was built in 1793, so my ancestors would have been familiar with the building. The Woodbridge Tide Mill was the last productive tide mill in England. It ceased operation in 1957.

Woodbridge Tide Mill.

My 3rd great grandfather was a Salt boiler at the time of my 2nd great grandfather’s birth in 1802. As the name suggests, a salt boiler boiled saltwater until it evaporated, leaving the salt. To obtain the wood for the fires, a salt boiler would travel about the area to collect the undercover wood from neighbouring villages and farms.

Update: Visiting Suffolk in November 2022

Although I had visited the various places in London where the Bridges ancestor’s had lived, I had never managed a visit to Suffolk. The opportunity presented itself on my first “escape from the antipodes” since commencement of the plague, and the subsequent closing of the Australian border.

I stayed at Seckford Hall, near Woodbridge, a Tudor period house constructed in the 1530’s as the family home of Thomas Seckford. Staying at Seckford Hall, a place where my ancestors would only have crossed the threshhold as servants, if at all, confirmed that their sacrifice of leaving their families, never to be seen again, was of huge benefit to the following generations – all of whom could cross the threshold of Seckford Hall if they wished.

My 2nd great grandfather William Bridges, born in Woodbridge in 1882, was christened in St Mary, Woodbridge. The church was built between 1417-1545, and its tower between 1448-63. St Mary’s is sited on a hill and the tower rises 30 metres – sailors use the tower as a focal point when sailing up the Debden River. I entered the church through the spectacular north porch, to find myself in an beautiful Victorian interior. For me, the most interesting of medieval monuments was the 15th c stone “Seven Sacrament Baptismal Font” where William would have been christened. The font cover by Walter Forsyth is a much newer addition – 1937. The stained glass windows are beautiful, and I was very pleased to find one depicting St George killing the dragon. I search out St George killing dragons wherever I travel, and have published a piece devoted to St George travelwithgma.wordpress.com/2019/11/10/

A modern three panel tapestry, The Debden Millenium Frieze, telling the story and history of Woodbridge – Woodbridge’s version of the Bayeux Tapestry – was an interesting contrast to the medieval monuments and Victorian elements of the interior.

Strolling along the banks of the Debden River in Woodbridge, seemed like a gift which kept on giving. Tide Mill, moored boats, boatyards, and modern cafe’s, workshops and galleries. After a rather interesting driving experience trying to find the Tide Mill, I finally found a carpark near the railway station. I thought I had worked out how to feed the infernal parking meter – clearly I failed that challenge, and returned to the car to find a penalty notice on the windscreen on my return from the gift that kept giving.

The Tide Mill is now a museum, which was unfortunately closed. I had to make do with peering in the windows. The views across the River Debden from the Tide Mill would have been a familiar sight to my ancestors.

The Shire Hall and Market Square and Theatre Street and surroundings generally maintain the appearance they had when my ancestors lived in Woodbridge. I felt as if I was walking in their footsteps. The Shire Hall was built in around 1575. The upper part was used in a judicial capacity and the ground floor was an open corn market. Flemish gables were added in the 17th century, and the archways bricked up in the early 19th century.

There was little that I could identify in Aldeburgh that would have been familiar to my ancestors. The shoreline is now much closer to the town and most of the the old Tudor town has been swallowed by the rising sea, so even surviving buildings they would have known, would be much closer to the sea.

Images below, from left to right: Moot Hall 16th century, St Peter and St Paul’s Church and Churchyard 16th century, Landscape at southern end of Aldeburgh.

Suffolk to London

My 2nd great grandfather William, is said to have “immigrated from Suffolk as a wood turner and made good as a hat block maker”. (“Kenneth Simpson” North West Kent Family History Magazine Vol. 5 No 2, June 1989, page 8).

The family settled in Southwark, and lived at 8 Gravel Lane. William became a methodist preacher some time in the 1830’s. He began his own mission and installed a small chapel in an upper room in Gravel Lane.

William became involved in the sect of the “Peculiar People”, who believed in faith healing. Peculiar people appear in the bible apparently, and the modern translation of Peculiar People are “precious possessions and god’s cherished personal treasures.” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Bridges_(preacher).)

It took me quite some time to identify Gravel Lane. It no longer exists by that name. I obtained old maps and by identifying the shape of the old Gravel Lane, decided that Gravel Lane was now Great Suffolk Street. I turned up at Great Suffolk Street and discovered that I need not have gone to so much trouble to identify the street.

The cafe in the extension to the Tate Modern looks directly down Great Suffolk Street. I had already seen the street from above.

Great Suffolk Street from Tate Modern

My ancestors would recognise little of Southwark today. That area was extensively destroyed by bombing during the second world war. 8 Gravel Lane would have been just past the white building in the picture above.

Gravel Lane, in their day, had a power station at the top of the street, which was the predecessor to the Bankside Power Station which was converted into the Tate Modern. Census returns and London City Directories for Gravel Lane disclosed that the male resident’s were generally engaged in various trades. The only woman in Gravel Lane listed in the City Directory for 1845 was a publican. My 2nd great grandfather was identified as a hat block manufacturer or engineer. Other occupations included commission agents, bookbinders, wheelwrights, basket makers, tripe dressers, porkmen, an oilman, upholsterers, grocers and plumbers.

The area contained a number of almshouses, including one in Gravel Lane belonging to the St Saviour’s Parish congregation. Mrs Vaughan opened a charity workhouse in Gravel Lane. One of the few buildings remaining in the area, which my ancestors would have seen are the Hopton Almshouses, in Hopton Road. The almshouses have been occupied continuously since 1752.

Early Gravel Lane

When my ancestors lived in Gravel Lane, Southwark Cathedral was still a parish church. It received cathedral status in 1905. The exterior would still be recognisable by them, as would some of the monuments in the interior. They would not recognise the gift shop, where many years ago I acquired 2 replica green men plaques, which now have pride of place on my art poles.

My ancestors probably walked past a house, overlooking the Thames where Christopher Wren lived, and in 1502 Catherine of Aragon took shelter. They would have seen St Paul’s Cathedral across the river. In my cover image taken from the Tate Modern, I suspect that my ancestors would only recognize St Pauls.

My ancestors would almost certainly have purchased vegetables at the Borough Markets. These markets are still trading on the site of the original borough markets. In 2014, the market celebrated its 1000th anniversary. When my ancestors lived in Gravel Lane the market was described as “a market for vegetables, noisy and dirty.”

Today it is a global market, with traders from many parts of the world selling their goods. The Borough Markets are a tourist destination and a must for shoppers looking for superb fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, meat and artisanal food and atmosphere. The variety of cheeses available alone make a visit memorable.

My great grandfather Joseph was born in Southwark. He married Sarah Wordley from Orsett, Essex in Essex in 1860. Sarah came from a long established farming family in Orsett, where several generations of her male (of course) family owned and farmed the same property. In his will, Sarah’s father left the furniture in the house to Sarah’s mother, but the house and farm went to the eldest son.

Joseph and Sarah lived in Southwark until some time between 1871 and 1881 (prior to the 1881 census) when they moved to Tulse Hill. Tulse Hill was obviously a step up in the food chain.

In the 1881 census, Joseph was described as a hat block maker employing 5 men and 1 boy. They and their neighbours had servants. The servants were variously described as cooks, housemaids, nurses, needlewomen and companions. The occupations of the male heads of households disclosed quite a different neighbourhood to that of Gravel Lane. Near neighbours included one whose occupation was “living on income from investments”. Others included solicitors, surveyors, architects, law book seller, bankers clerk, merchant tailor and my favourite, a betting man.

What caused Joseph and Sarah to emigrate to New Zealand in 1886? Their life in Auckland appeared to see them moving back down the food chain. One daughter died of tuberculosis 2 years after arrival in Auckland, aged 24. She had had TB for 3 years. Did they come to New Zealand for a better climate?

In 1889, the family was living in Vermont Street, Ponsonby. Joseph appeared in the NZ electoral roll for 1893, living in Vermont Street, Ponsonby and his occupation was an agent. Subsequent electoral rolls also disclose his occupation as agent or insurance agent.

The Electoral Act 1893 (New Zealand) gave all women the right to vote. New Zealand was the first country in the world in which women had the right to vote. My great grandmother Sarah Bridges, of Vermont Street, Ponsonby signed the 1893 petition presented to the New Zealand Parliament to extend the franchise to them.

Sarah is registered on the New Zealand Electoral Roll for 1893. Voting is not compulsory in New Zealand. I like to think that she did vote.

I have lived in London, and visited on numerous occasions. It always felt very familiar – not because of my ancestry, but because growing up in a former British Colony involved learning the history of England, reading books written by English authors and hearing half the population referring to England as home – even those who had left England as children.

5 thoughts on “England – in search of Ancestors – Part 3.

    1. I like that you have worked so keenly to walk where your ancestors walked, to see see what they would have seen and in doing so feel what they felt.
      The progress of so many years has all but obliterated the cobbles and scenes of yesteryear but the endless research allowed us to glimpse them.
      I love that you question the courageous move they made to cross the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you Cathy. I have done the same with one branch of the Irish ancestors – the ones from County Kerry, and my Portuguese ancestors. The latter is pretty scant. I have mapped out the O’Neill ancestors, and have visited all the places they came from too.


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