It’s difficult to draw boundaries when researching Britton family history, particularly when it comes to women. Who, for example, is a Britton? Are women Britton by name or by birth – or both? When it comes to the men who marry into the Britton family, should their story be told as part of Britton family history – or not?

Blood lines are certainly important, as my Britton mother found out when her first husband died aged thirty-three. She had to leave the farm, her married home, because farms are inherited by the sons of the blood-line family starting with the eldest. She was just an in-law in her family of marriage.

Even so, in-laws have made a significant contribution to Britton family history across continents. Indeed, without them there would be no Britton babies, no descendants and no family tree. In brief, they are an important part of the context of Britton family history. So there has to be a place for ‘in-laws’ in family history research, even if it merely points to connections between different families that might warrant further investigation.

The boundaries between in-law and blood relationships is somewhat complicated in North Devon because the population remained relatively stable and unchanging for centuries. As a consequence, some family names became prominent, and, inevitably, they are inextricably intertwined with the Brittons through marriage. My mother’s conversation was peppered with references to the Leonards, the Pipers, and the Hookways. These families formed the social horizons of her life as a Britton daughter. They are, therefore, an important part of the culture and context of Britton and Devonshire life.

In-laws also add more colour and detail to local history than a singular focus on the Britton family ever could. For example, Britton men were farmers – mostly. This has normally been protected employment in times of war because they must remain on the land to feed the nation. However, non-farming in-laws, like Jane Brenchley’s father, Bill Stanbury, can tell tales of war. He served in the desert in World War II where the soldiers encountered a situation in which there was more petrol than water. So they washed their clothes in petrol. When the clothes dried they stood upright on their own. Soldiers had to make sure they didn’t smoke nearby.

Jane Brenchley is the great-great granddaughter of Thomas and Mary Anne pictured on the front page of this Hartland Britton website. She completed the foundational research for the Hartland Britton family tree. Jane is descended through the female line of the Brittons, so her personal story illustrates some of the difficulties of drawing boundaries in family research, particularly for women, who normally change their names on marriage. The family names in Jane’s background are less Britton and more ‘Leonard’ and ‘Piper’, though she is as much a Britton as any other member of her generation in the line of descent.

In regard to women’s history, the picture of my Auntie Edith Britton (née Hookway), wife of Reginald Britton, and mother of my cousins, John and Cedric Britton, tells a story about farmer’s wives in Devon. She’s feeding the turkeys, which she raised and prepared for local Christmas tables. Like many other women of her era, this was how she sought an independent income. Such stories of women’s lives should be told, whether they be Britton by birth or marriage.

The Colonies

Family-tree historian, Jane Brenchley, was instrumental in reviving connections with the Canadian and Tasmanian branches of the Britton diaspora, through which we can now learn of the contribution of other in-laws. For example, Canadian-born Annie Britton married Raymond Mitchell in Grandview, Manitoba, and he became a member of the Legislature meeting the Queen when she stopped in Winnipeg during her tour of Canada. Dr Nic Haygarth, a Britton by descent and a well-published Tasmanian historian, is interested in how Britton in-laws illuminate British colonial history:

Alexander William Haygarth
Alexander William Haygarth
Alexander William Haygarth
Clarrie Haygarth

“My grandmother, Lorna, was a Britton, so her husband’s family, the Haygarths, are Britton in-laws. My grandfather, Clarrie Haygarth, and his father, Alexander William Haygarth, were both blacksmiths who at times worked for the Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL Co). Alexander bought land at Ridgley, south of Burnie, from the Company – which started in England in 1824 with a royal charter. Theoretically, at least, the VDL Co still has a holding in Tasmania in 2022 (now known as Van Diemen Farms). That makes them in some ways comparable to other British chartered companies like the Dutch East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company. A lot of people despised the company as a foreign monopolist in Tasmania. I think Clarrie would be surprised to learn that today the VDL Co is majority Chinese owned!”

Ganger Martin, Manager Claymoor Mine, Devon 

Ganger Martin, Manager Claymoor Mine, Devon

My maternal great-grandfather, John Martin, was father of Alice Britton (née Martin) and father-in-law of Daniel Britton, of East Yarde farm. His story tells a lot about Devonshire life and times, including the lack of educational opportunities and the determination of self-made men.

Ganger, as he was known, was a familiar sight around Alice and Daniel’s place, looming through the early morning mists to visit them on his white horse. His importance to the Britton story lies in his ownership of farms that were passed on through the Britton family. He was also a North Devon man of some consequence.

John ‘Ganger’ Martin, Devon (UK)

John was a hardworking man: ‘He was a tall man, a big man, with a big shout if he was angry’. When he left school at the age of eight, he could only write his own name. He went ‘up the Bally Moor’ to the clay works. Eventually he became the boss or ‘Ganger’ with absolute right to hire and fire. One Torrington man had the sack twenty times in a day! Ganger was generally considered ‘hard but fair,’ although his hospitality had its limits. If there were guests in his house, he would say at ten o’clock prompt, “I’m off to bed” and start unlacing his boots.

At a meeting of the Okehampton History Society in February 2014, George Copp (brother-in-law of Graham Heal, Ganger’s great-grandson) gave a talk about the clay works. George had also managed the clay works retiring in 1997. He kept a framed photo of Ganger in his office because he’d been such a revered man in the district. In his talk, George noted that ball clay had been extracted at the clay works for over 300 years. He declared it a mineral of national and international importance because of its rarity. In England, it is found only in Devon and Dorset.

John Martin was born in Merton, Devonshire, in 1857. His parents were John and Betsy Martin. In the 1861 census, John was three years old and living at Cross Park Cottage in Merton with his parents and several siblings. His father was a ‘land drainer’ and his mother was a ‘Gloveress’ (a glove maker, which was a common job for women of the time because it could be done at home).

By the 1871 census, the Martin family was living at Taddiport, near Torrington. By this time, there were several more children. John was twelve years old and employed by the railway that served the clay works. In 1878, he married Elizabeth Squire from Frithelstock. Three years later they were living at ‘Clay Moor’ with two children, Alice, aged three, and Ada aged one. By this time, John was a clay cutter. He was a good judge of clay, testing it in his mouth to assess type and quality.

 

In 1890, John’s wife Elizabeth died, apparently from acute appendicitis. The following year, the Census data shows John, now a widow, living at Eastwood with daughters Alice, twelve and Ada, eleven. John was now a ‘Master Clay Cutter.’ He married Norah Mills, from Frithelstock, in the last quarter of 1891. She was fourteen years his junior. Ten years later, John and Norah were living at Little Marland Farm, Petrockstow. The Census described John as a ‘farmer’ and ’employer’. He was soon to become manager of the local clay works and John and Norah went on to live at Smytham Manor, living in some style and owning several farms in the parish. He was one of the early car owners in the district, and he used to breed and show cattle, winning quite a few cups,

 

Ganger was a churchwarden at Peters Marland and went to church every Sunday. He never reckoned to shave on a Sunday, making sure he shaved the night before. He was a charitable man, often writing a cheque to the Sunday Night Appeal on the wireless and if a clay-worker was sick, he would send a bit of beef to the family. He gave twenty acres to Torrington Hospital, but most of his donations were anonymous.

 

John died in 1931 – he still couldn’t read or write. He’s buried along with Norah at Peters Marland. His first wife, Elizabeth, is buried at Frithelstock. Parson Smale said at his funeral, “He was a wonderful country gentleman. The hand went out, and no one ever knew”. 

Frank Heal, founder of Torrington Farmers’ Hunt, Devon

Britton In-Laws
Alexander William Haygarth
Graham Heal and Queen Elizabeth II, Newmarket (UK)

Elsie Heal (née Britton), youngest daughter of Daniel and Alice Britton, married Frank Heal, founder of the Torrington Farmers’ Hunt. Their two sons, Graham and Grenville, followed their father’s interest in horses. Graham runs Vauterhill Stud, established by his father, Frank, where his success in breeding horses received an award from the Queen at Newmarket (see photo). Grenville still runs the family farm, Allen’s Week. He and the farm feature in the following extract by Rory Knight Bruce from Mary Staib (2002) Gone Hunting published by Ragged Bears (UK ISBN 10:1857142683 ISBN 13: 9781857142686).

When pride comes after a fall

A wet November Monday in North Devon is perhaps not the most fashionable day in the hunting calendar. Our normal ranks of 50 on Saturdays trickle down to a handful and, as is the way of hunting, often gives us some of our best days.

​So it was with expectation that I hacked the hounds two miles out of our wonderful kennels at St Giles-in-the-Wood, down to the old parkland of Stevenstone with its overgrown rhododendrons, gorse breaks and steep valleys, which run down to the famous RHS rose gardens at Rosemoor and the River Torridge. On the way I passed Allen’s Week, farmed by Grenville Heal, son of the Hunt’s founding Master and Huntsman, Frank Heal.

​Week Bottom is a good, if steep, draw in our well-foxed country. There was a knot of our sporting foot followers at the roadside, and just myself and our Kennel Huntsman, David Bevan, mounted on this particular day. As I encouraged the hounds, I weighed up Harry the new horse I was on that day; a former point-to-pointer, who had seemed so sensible when we had tried him in the summer. Soon the rhododendrons filled with that familiar and exciting rustle, and the chorus of 15-and-a-half couple of dog hounds filled the still, wet air. Five minutes later, a muddy fox appeared in front of me and I doubled the horn, with not a soul in sight (good Huntsmanship is seldom witnessed) to bring hounds away on him as one.

To my right lay a steep grass field, in front a flat level track with only a metal five-bar gate preventing me from being with the hounds. This is no prevention when hounds are running, and I measured my jump, turned my horse and went. That I landed before my horse only made matters worse when he came over, having tipped the top bar, and landed on me. 1 can still see his size above me, blotting out the daylight, from where I lay, catapulted to the ground.

 

Up got the horse and ran after the hounds, but I was down, numb, immovable. I could hear the hounds, but I was not alive anymore, just in a dream of shock. I remember feeling so sorry for the hounds and lonely without them. When ten minutes later our kind footie Peter Stevens found me. I heard him phoning on his mobile for an air ambulance. “No, not the air ambulance,” I strained. “I’m frightened of flying,” So whilst David Bevan went bravely after the hounds, Peter got Andrew Darch, a fireman, from the nearby farm with his quad bike.

​The journey to the road took an hour. I was flat as a salmon on the back. In time we got to Grenville Heal’s and heard the siren of the ambulance in the distance. There was Grenville’s son Martin. “What would your grandfather have said about this?” I asked, as he helped me onto the stretcher and into the ambulance.

Talking to [Grenville] this year reminded me of what I had said to his son Martin about trying to jump that gate as he put me in the ambulance. “I’ll tell you what my father would have made of it,” said Grenville, “and I hear his voice saying it to me every day: ‘At least you had the heart to try.'” So it is not true that pride just comes before a fall. Sometimes it comes after one as well.