Which John was father to Stephen? (b.1671)

The only hard information we have is the Smarden poor rate records which show that the six acres owned by Stephen Bridge previously belonged to "the heirs of John Bridge". The tenant (James Gurr) paid the rate from 1681 on and though the landlord's name was only included from 1685 on it seems likely that the arrangement was the same. John Bridge appears in the records just once, in 1680, as a "new occupier". He could either have died then or given the tenancy to James Gurr himself, which seems less likely. In any case, he must have died before 1685. I cannot find a will: there are actually two wills on record with the right name and date but both clearly refer to other families. (One, proved in the Prerogative court of Canterbury, was made by a London merchant who left his money to his daughter; the other, proved in the Archdeaconry court, refers to a different family at St. Nicholas at Wade in east Kent.) There must have been some legal arrangement made at the time, which might have involved an "act of administration", but again I cannot find any record of it.

The only course therefore is to search through all the references to a John Bridge in the locality. There are several possible candidates, as is clear from the table below.

Various references to "John Bridge"
date location record name description note
28 Mar 1613 Smarden Baptism John Bredge son of Henry
8 Feb 1615 Smarden Burial John Bridges son of Henry
18 Jan 1618 Headcorn Baptism John Bredge son of Peter
10 Jan 1636 Smarden Baptism John Bridge son of Thomas
2 Apr 1637 Headcorn Baptism John Bredg son of William & Judith
9 Dec 1638 Boughton Malherbe Baptism John Bridge son of John & Mary
4 Sep 1653 Headcorn Baptism Robert Bridge son of John & Thomasin
1 Mar 1666 Biddenden Burial unbaptised son of John Bridges of Tenterden
23 Nov 1667 Biddenden Burial Bedy Bridge dau. of John of Tenterden
18 Jun 1676 Biddenden Burial unbaptised dau. of John Bridge of Tenterden

Of these, the three Johns born 1636-8 are somewhat young and in any case I have no evidence that they married. On the other hand John and Thomasin fit well. They had several children baptised in Headcorn (1652-64) and one later in Staplehurst (Elizabeth, bapt.1667, buried 1673). The names of both parents are recorded, which makes it very certain that it was the same family. Since Stephen took possession in 1692, that presumably is when he came of age, putting his birth in 1671. If so he was probably the last child but the gap between him and Elizabeth is not excessive.

The Poor Rate accounts for Headcorn show John Bridge for the years 1650-57, at which point there is a break in the records. Poor rate records for Staplehurst survive from 1665 and John Bridge is recorded from 1668 to 1676, when the entry is marked "or the occupier". In the same year John Bridge appears in the Egerton poor rate records, continuing up to 1679; in 1680 he is mentioned just once in Smarden. These entries could of course refer to different men but the coincidence in the dates is very suggestive of a link. Also, in Egerton, a Thomasin Bridge was buried in 1680, which could well be John's wife and so suggests a possible reason for John to have moved yet again. The rental value recorded in the four parishes is also quite consistent: 16 acres (about £8), £4, £8 and £6.

This is quite a nice story, so it is somewhat disappointing that there is no trace of a baptism for Stephen. Since John and Thomasin did get their older children baptised and also got the baptisms recorded during the civil war years when record-keeping was very unreliable, they clearly thought it was important. Indeed, John was churchwarden in Headcorn. However, one possible explanation is provided by the rapid growth in the Baptist community after 1640. One of the first groups met at Spillshill, a large house just outside Staplehurst village belonging to Richard Kingsnorth. Their record book shows 115 members initially though John and Thomasin do not appear. However after 1677 the group met at the house of Thomas Gilham in Smarden, where in due course the Tilden chapel was built. Stephen's family were all members of this chapel, so it is quite possible that his father John had also converted to the Baptist faith.

Another indication of a link between John and Stephen is that Stephen named his own sons John, Robert and Stephen. John was of course far and away the most common name for a man at this time, so one cannot read too much into that, but the coupling with Robert is more significant since Robert was the name of John's first son (by Thomasin). Almost certainly he can be identified with the Robert Bridge settled in Egerton and who named his second daughter Thomasin. After John's death in 1680 he would probably have had more to do with his young brother Stephen (aged 10), which may explain why Robert did not marry until 1689.

John and Mildred

When John Bridge left Egerton in 1680, his place in the list of ratepayers was filled by Henry Bridge, who had previously lived in Cranbrook. Robert only appears a few years later, apparently taking on some land previously held by Henry. This association suggests that Henry may have been John's eldest son; it is noteworthy that Henry had three sons baptised in Egerton: John, Robert and Henry. Most significantly, Robert's daughter Thomasin refers in her will to her cousin Robert Bridge "grazier of Barham, now living with me" (in Egerton). This cannot be Stephen's son, since he was married and a tenant farmer in Smarden. The description fits much better with Henry's son, who seems not to have married and certainly inherited money from both his father and his elder brother (also Henry).

In 1651, two years before the birth of Robert, the Headcorn register shows the baptism of Gilbert Bridge, son of John and Mildred. (Gilbert subsequently settled in Goudhurst.) There is no other reference to Mildred anywhere. It is possible that she died and that John then married Thomasin. Since this was during the civil war, many such events went unrecorded. If John and Mildred came from Egerton, there would be no records at all, since the early registers have not survived and the Bishop's transcripts were not made for the years 1640-60. There is also a connection between Henry and Gilbert, who was noted as being "from Cranbrook" at the time of his marriage in the neighbouring parish of Goudhurst. It thus is reasonable to suggest that Henry was the first son of John and Mildred and so half-brother to Robert.

Who was John's father?

Given that John and Thomasin had their first child in 1652, John was probably born before 1630. If previously married to Mildred, he must have been a little older. He therefore cannot be identified with any of the three Johns born after 1635 (see the table above). Peter's son is a little old, though not impossibly so. The names John used for his older sons however suggest that we should look for a grandfather called Henry or Gilbert. Henry of Smarden, who later moved to Egerton (where he was churchwarden) is therefore a possibility. The son John who appears in the Smarden register did not survive but Henry could well have used the name again. His next child was a daughter, Alice, born 1615, so John could easily have been born in the period 1618-1630. There are no records however, in either Smarden or Egerton, to show that he had any more children; the original registers have not survived and the Bishop's Transcripts for Egerton are not complete.

It is interesting to note that there was another branch of the Bridge family living in Egerton around 1600, though they seem to die out soon after. The will of Gilbert Bridge (1614) mentions his "kinsman" Henry Bridge with a son Gilbert who was to receive all lands after the death of Gilbert's widow. This is likely to be the same Henry who appears in the records for Egerton and Smarden. I have found no trace of the young Gilbert but he might well have died and a brother inherited. If this was John, it ties in with the fact that he called two of his own sons Henry and Gilbert.

Henry can very probably be identified with the younger son of John and Marie, being "Harry" in John's will of 1605. As such he would have been highly likely to have named his own first son after his father.