Sunday, 28 June 2015

Purles of wisdom... Part 2: Searching for Harry

My previous post, Purles of Wisdom... part 1, told of the early stages of my investigation in to the Purles, the family my husband's ancestor, Eliza Mott Viner married into in 1844.

Meeting of the Royal British Bowmen, 1822
 image courtesy of
As manufacturers of archery equipment, the Purle family appear to have been well known in archery circles of the time, their bows and arrows being considered of the highest quality.

Arthur Credland, the editor of the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, confirmed this with a quote from experienced bow and arrow maker, James Duff (1870-1935) : "During all the many years I was in London, the finest arrow maker known to me was Harry Purle."

Having learnt that Eliza and William did have a son called Harry - Harry Richard Purle - born in Leamington, in 1855, it seemed possible that this was the Harry in question. But my hopes were dashed when I discovered the record of his death 1881, aged only 26. 

At first I wondered if something archery related had been the cause of his demise. Had he speared himself while crafting one of his famed arrows? But sadly, when his death certificate plopped on to my door-mat, I read that the poor young man had died of 'phthisis', a condition common during in Victorian times and better known now as consumption or TB.

Besides, it seems his occupation was not a maker of archery equipment, but a commercial clerk, though I suppose he could have been working within the family business, albeit not as one of the craftsmen.

However other Purle family members were involved in archery manufacture, so I decided to dig a little deeper in my "Harry Hunt".

I started by going back to James Purle, William's father, born in 1795. On the first census (the first of real use to the family historian, anyway) in 1841, he's recorded as being a bowyer (bow maker) born in London. William, his eldest son and Eliza Mott Viner's future husband, is 20 years old, but his occupation isn't recorded. William's younger brothers are, Henry aged 15, Charles 9 and Robert 7.

By 1851, the picture becomes a little complicated (doesn't it always?) as James now claims to have been born in "Somersetshire", his name is listed as "Jas" William Purle and the transcriber has suggested his middle name is not William but Wilson! That made me wonder if I'd got the right James Purle (despite there being a Bath/Somerset connection), especially as this time his occupation isn't recorded so I couldn't confirm the archery connection.

But his sons Henry, Charles and Robert are all present, though none claim here to be employed in the archery trade. William has by now, of course, left home having married my husband's ancestor, Eliza, in 1844, and we already know (see Part 1) he's trading as an archery manufacturer then.

By 1859, however, it seems that two of William's brothers, Charles and Robert, have joined the family trade as when both marry that year they cite their respective occupations as 'Bowyer' on the documentation.

Sadly, though, Robert dies a few short months after his wedding, no children follow and neither have I found any children for Charles.
Henry, meanwhile, having declared his occupation as a carpenter at his (second) marriage in 1852, pops up on the 1881 census as an "archery bow maker". Perhaps now that his carpentry skills are honed, he's now able to apply them appropriately and join the team!

The same census reveals that William's eldest son Frederick, born in 1846 who was an apprentice
"manufacturer of archery" in Bath in 1861, (see Part 1) is still a bowyer
 and his children are listed, the eldest of whom is called... Harry! Will this young scholar go into the family firm? Could this be the famous Harry Purle, so praised by James Duff?

Fast forward to 1911. We now have Henry, William's brother who's now a "retired" archery manufacturer. His son, also called Henry, has followed in his father's footsteps and also become an archery manufacturer, (the word "wood" is helpfully filled in alongside) but at 57 and unmarried, Henry junior has no sons to continue the trade.

But our Harry is also there  on the 1911 census and he's making archery equipment. I'm sure now that this must be the legendary Harry Purle. The time-scale certainly seems to fit in with James Duff's working years.

As to how much longer the Purle family continued to make archery equipment, I've yet to find out. There doesn't seem to be much "out there" about the trade itself and I was reminded by current traditional longbow manufacturer, Pip Bickerstaffe, that the trade guild's were very secretive about their craft back in the day, and little was widely known outside the workshops. But perhaps there's a chance more can be learned if records exist and I'm still pursuing leads in that direction.

Finally, I have one pressing, and potentially sad, mystery to solve - what became of James Purle, born in 1795 in either London or "Somersetshire". While browsing records on Ancestry I came across an entry for a James Purle in The City Road Workhouse in Holborn, 1873. Was this "our" James? Was this where he died? You can be sure I'm on the case!


There are some excellent websites listing old medical terms for causes of death you may come across on death certificates and giving explanations. Rootsweb has a fairly comprehensive glossary. A good source of alternative 'medical/diseases' list sites are on Cyndi's List.

Peter Higginbotham is an authority on the history of workhouses and has an excellent website worthy of a read