THE search for our Lerwill origins began some decades ago. My father told me of our forefather's migration from North Devon (about 1854/5), but any facts about the North Devon history itself seemed completely lost. However, my grandfather Frank Thomas did tell my cousin Janet that we were 'Huggenots' (Huguenots), but without any explanation of how or when. This apparent pearl of information has still not been completely verified at the time of writing, except that there may have been one or more links through marriage in the 17th/18th centuries. It is fully apparent, however, that the family name goes back much earlier than the Huguenot period, and seems to be first documented in about 1200 as 'de Luriewille' or 'de Loriwelle' (etc.), and is linked to a farm very near Chittlehampton, to-day still called Lerwell Farm.
This book is written with the intention of reporting where I am on both trying to get to the truth of "where we came from originally" (including the origin of the Lerwill name) and the Devon family history more or less up to the present day. The story is still not entirely complete as there is much research that could still be done for the pre-1600 period in particular, and I am hopeful that my later years might avail more time to give this research proper time and respect. However, the main bones are here for your examination !
Travels and Meetings....
IN about 1971/2 (I forget which), I took my family on holiday to North Devon. It was only when I got there that I decided to 'potter around' and do some digging for snippets of information. My attempts then now seem puny, as the only library I visited was that in Braunton (where I found a reference to a John Lerwill in about 1850). However, I also went to a number of local churches, and, through pure curiosity, looked for any visiting Lerwills. Sure enough, at one of these churches' visitors' book was recorded a visit in 1969 by a Stella Lerwill-Beer, resident in San Diego, California (yes, the one in the U.S.A.!). I subsequently wrote to her, and she, in turn, replied with a mountain of extracts from parish records concerning Lerwills, but nothing to give me a clue as to where I was connected. Alas, subsequent family events meant that further investigation was suspended, and I even lost those records in a later house flood.
Nearly exactly twenty years later, Ken Morris mentioned to my mother that he was starting research into the Lerwill family, and mother mentioned that I once had some records. This sparked off a chain of events, and moved by the command "seek and ye shall find" and a dormant desire to know a lot more about our origins, I ultimately took over the search, but not before Ken had already done some valuable work on our tree going back to the early 1800s. At that early point, difficulties in linkage began to emerge, particularly as it seemed that our William L. that was married in 1804 at Braunton was actually 'of Chawleigh' (situated more towards mid-Devon), and that those parish records had not yet been submitted to the North Devon Records Office at Barnstaple.
It was at this juncture that I picked up the cudgel, and transported myself to Devon to visit the Church Warden at Chawleigh. He proved to be a farmer, and we duly arrived at his wonderful Elizabethan farm-house. On entry to the building, I commented on the excellent recent decoration to the place, only for him to tell me the most extraordinary story of how a thunderbolt had hit his house only the previous year! The effect was that his wife was thrown (or blown) clear from one room into another. Luckily she was thrown clear of considerable damage to the kitchen. where joists where actually moved. All windows were completely blown out! Our visit to his home to examine the parish records did not reveal any evidence of William having been born at Chawleigh, and subsequent searches seem to indicate that he went to Chawleigh for work - probably including an apprenticeship - through his step-mother's Phillips family. He later returned to Braunton to marry.
There were several visits to Barnstaple and the Records Office, and also to the County Records Office and West Country Studies Library at Exeter, where much additional information was found. By this time, I had made contact with three other Lerwills. One was Ken Lerwill, who is brother to Alan, formerly a famous British athlete of the 60s and 70s (at that time, I was often questioned as to my relationship to Alan. My stock reply was "sixth cousin"! However, I wasn't too far out!). Ken (who lived very close to me in South West London) and his family turned out to be a splinter off our own Birmingham family that had moved out to Portsmouth as a result of a forefather joining the Royal Marines. From Ken, therefore, various leads were obtained that enabled me to establish their detailed connection with our side of the family, including some interesting Marines' records at the Kew Public Records Office.
Another Lerwill I contacted was Peter, also living in London, and who provided some family tree information, and then, through quite a different channel, his cousin Christopher. I met (Dr.) Christopher Lerwill (at Colchester) and it turned out that he had visited the Society of Genealogists' Library in London literally weeks before my visit, and obtained a copy of some research done into the Lerwill name by a professional researcher some 40 years before. It was through Chris that I obtained further information about our more ancient history before my visit to Exeter, and, based on his earlier visit and findings, I was able to glean still further information. At Christmas 1994, Chris sent me a copy of his latest Combe Martin/Kentisbury 'tree', and I have incorporated the main lines of this into this document, with extensions where I have been able. It is only through Chris' endeavours that the CM/K 'trees' have been put together at all, and I know that I would not have had the time to go fully into that (larger) side of the family.
A remarkable coincidence is that Ken, Chris and I were all born within three months of one another, in 1944, and are all six-footers. Otherwise, however, we look quite dissimilar. Chris, a doctor in psychology, was also a folk-singer in his spare time, and had the rustic appearance one tends to associate with such singers, with a thick-set beard BUT minus long hair! Through Chris and his cousin Peter, I received a 'phone call from their 'aunt', Edytha Lerwill-Thomas, who was in her 90s and had spent much of her life travelling the world and also doing Lerwill research (on the basis of which Chris had developed his findings). She had a remarkable personality and was a wonderful story-teller. Her anecdotes included a time in the early part of WW2 when she was studying at Exeter University and found two German students in her class. Strangely, these students disappeared after a German 'Baedeker' bombing raid did much damage to Exeter, including the Records Office that held the Devon wills from ancient times. Edytha was convinced that these Germans had been spies, and claims to have seen signals being flashed from a high point in Exeter shortly before the air-raid. Wills were lost in this raid that would have given some very useful information concerning our ancestors. Her father's house, also containing important Lerwill records, was destroyed in the same raid. She and I had several enjoyable 'phone conversations before her untimely death in early 1993, at Exeter.
It was in late 1991 that a 'Birmingham Lerwill' "re-union" was held. In mid-October, it seemed that summer held over for just that one day. Little was I to know, however, that a number of Lerwills present were found later to be, in fact, of non-Lerwill blood. This was through an illicit registration by a Lerwill widow in the later 1800s that did not come to light until more recently. This was the cause of some embarrassment to me, as I had arranged the event, and I subsequently swore to be more careful about 'facts'! That year, again through Ken and Janet Morris, I had met Frank Harry Lerwill, the cousin that my father had never met. Frank proved to be unique, for he is the only remaining member of the Birmingham family to have known a member of the Devon family that had migrated in the 1850s. This was William, Frank's grandfather and my great-grandfather. Frank, however, was only five or so when William died, but still remembered something of the old character who had built a successful clockcase-making business, and even recalled little snippets such as what sort of diet they had in the old days. Frank's late elder brother appears to have been something of a family historian also, and had been very interested in anything to do with Lerwills.
Back in 1972, my father had heard the name 'Lerwill' called out by a nurse as he waited his turn at the Selly Oak Hospital clinic. Not surprisingly, he stood up - but so did a lady who was also waiting! She turned out to be Joyce Lerwill, married to another Ken Lerwill who lived in Selly Park, Birmingham. My father was to visit this couple once (together with cousin Mary Grafton), but contact was lost until 1992, when I successfully found them still living at the address they had in 1972. This Ken was able to add details about his 'tree' to supplement data I had already obtained through research at St. Catherine's registers in London. He told me of his Aunt Gertie who migrated to Australia in the earlier years of the century as a teacher, and who returned to England once or twice in the 1950s. Whilst here, she visited Devon and attempted some research but does not seem to have progressed too far. Alas, only weeks before I re-found Ken, Ken's neighbour had found a very old trade publication that included an advertisement by William Lerwill. Subsequently, the neighbour was unable to find that item. Another coincidence was that Frank Harry's nephew (John Allen Lerwill) had met, briefly, Ken and Joyce's daughter at Aston University in the early 1980s.
The most recent new contact has been with second and third cousins in Australia (particularly Pat Thompson) who have provided very interesting information on the history of some of our relatives who migrated out there during the late 1880s.
In addition to the various people who have contributed their 'bits' of information to the collective history ( and particularly Ken Morris, who re-activated the search and got it off to a very good start), I must also mention the help of various members of the Devon Family History Society of which I am a member. I have contacted several people through this membership, and all have done their utmost to answer my various questions. In particular, I must mention David Pearce of Braunton, who always seems to have had a link with something to do with my subject matter, and is even connected with the same Phillips family mentioned before, though we are not blood-related. It was David who put me on the track of our ancestors at Fullabrook Mill near Braunton, which I was able to visit but found it in a state of conversion into a family home. However, 1793 is inscribed on the chimney stack, which is just after our ancestors vacated the place.
The Braunton Museum and Braunton Library have also been sources of much useful information. At Braunton, Ken and Janet Morris found the home of George Lerwill (he who migrated to Birmingham). I subsequently found the home of his brother Thomas, situated at Appledore. I have also visited the parish churches of Barnstaple, Braunton, Marwood, Arlington, East Down, Combe Martin and Kentisbury.
Since 1992, I have visited the Public Records Office at Chancery Lane (London), where are held all the ancient deeds of central government. In 1996, these records are in the process of being moved to their new permanent home at a new building at Kew, alongside an existing records building.
It is of note that so many aids to research have been developed since the early 1970s that it is as well that the Lerwill research resumed only in recent years.
A further recent contact (and in some respects my most interesting) has been with a French Canadian, Lorine Schulze, who has a Lerraway line that has its origins in the LeRoys of France. The common factor here is that our ancestry may well have a common root.
I have to mention further extraordinary coincidences that transpired durung the course of the search. When I visted a meeting of the North Devon Branch of the Devon Family History Society, the secretary turned out to be a retired policeman from our local Norbury police station! He seemed to know every flagstone of our road! Soon after, I met the vicar of a church near Appledore, and he also turned out to have had recent office in Norbury ! Norbury, S.W. London, I hasten to add, is by no means the most famous area of Greater London, nor the largest.
My mother was also astonished (she being a Whyborn by birth) to find a Lerwill and a Wyborn (slight difference in spelling) lying next to one another in the churchyard at Combe Martin.
I suspect the most extraordinary coincidence concerns one Nicholas Lerwill who, without any previous knowledge of our 13th c. ancestor Vincent, acquired a house addressed
We also find that another Lerwill recently settled in the Loire region in France, again oblivious to the possible connection with our family there. Their close relative Ken Lerwill of Birmingham also happened to be stationed near Amiens (in the old Vermandois area) at th e end of the last World War.
Then there are two coincidences concerning myself and my recently found cousins Frank Harry and John Allen. Sequentially the first coincidence is that I was employed in the Birmingham Council House for about five years until 1965 (and for two or three years of that period, in the same office as Ken Morris), when I then left the Birmingham Corporation. Less than 10 years later, John Allen arrived to work there, and this led to a certain amount of amazement for those who remembered that there had been another John Lerwill! Later, in 1969, I arrived to work at Rootes Motors at their Stoke offices, Coventry. Recently, I discovered that Frank Harry had been working at the very same offices 10 years before!
Longevity and Genetic Heredity........
Throughout our 'tree', the name George seems to have invariably met with ill luck, particularly as far as longevity is concerned. Even the George that migrated to Birmingham did not reach 70 years of age and his wife died before she was 50.
A consistent characteristic in our and other main Lerwill lines is the height of the males. The height of current generations is usually six feet or more. Two Lerwills who found some fame, Alan (the athlete) and Brigadier General 'Loppy' Lerwill is/was six feet three inches in height. However, it seems that gout is also a characteristic in the Birmingham family at least. Alan Lerwill, me and my cousin Gordon have all suffered this condition. It is said that the predisposition to the condition skips a generation, so perhaps my grandfather also suffered from it.
I have noted that some members of the Birmingham line seem to have retained a consistency in their skull structure. My cousins Frank Harry and John Allen seem to retain a physical similarity to my great-grandfather William. Some of to-day's descendants of William's two other brothers Henry and George also retain the same similarity, even including a third cousin in Australia
Again on the matter of age, I have tabled the following line of Lerwills down to my grandfather to show the longevity enjoyed by the Lerwills - not just by my line but in other Lerwill lines also - which greatly contradicts the 'fact' pushed down our throats that 'in time of yore' we were lucky to reach 40. Here is the line (names shown of those whose ages can be deduced). None of those listed after 1600 were very wealthy:
John ca. 1448-1533 (about 85 years of age)
Philip 1607-1682 (75)
Philip 1641-1725 (84)
George ca 1672-1703 (31, prob died through misadventure -
brother Robert lived to 76 years)
Philip 1701-1762(61 - and he was poor and very stressed)
William 1740-1824 (84)
William 1769-1847 (78)
George 1807-1875 (68 - Georges were never lucky!)
William 1842-1931 (89)
Frank Thomas 1871-1951 (nearly 80)
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