From Yeomen to Gentry – The Stevens Family of Ash

When it was suggested to me that the Stevens family would make an interesting post for West Surrey local historians, I was reluctant as I felt the name ‘Stevens’ would be too frequent to accurately follow the family. As it turned out, I was able to put together their story for over 100 years.

To avoid getting mired in the dozens of Stevens that emerged from this family, this post is limited to the eldest son and heir descending from my starting point: Henry Stevens the Elder whose first record dates is 1574.

>> Early Stevens records exist in Ash Parish, such as the burial of John Stevens in 1549 when the first Ash Parish record book was started but the record tells us very little:

  1. My story begins with Henry Stevens who I will call Henry the Elder – perhaps the son of John Stevens above – but certainly the first Stevens for whom I can build a story which stands up to scrutiny. First documentary evidence for Henry Stevens of Ash was when he was charged 5 shillings (based on his wealth) for the year 1574 (during the reign of Elizabeth I) towards Ash Parish Poor Relief – 4th in rank in the parish – so we can see that he was a ‘somebody’ in the parish:

Documentary evidence of Henry the Elder’s standing in Ash now builds: between 1578 and 1582, at least 3 Yeoman Farmers of Ash, and 1 of Farnham requested ‘Henry Stevens of Ash’ to be one of the overseers of their Wills. In 1584, he was listed in the Muster Roll of Ash to be called up in case the Spanish invaded! In 1593, Parliament assessed his goods at £9 and he was charged 24 shillings in tax

Henry the Elder, Yeoman of Ash, made his Will on 1 March 1604 as he was sick and anticipated death but wanted it known that he still had ‘good and perfect remembrance’. After the standard commitment of his soul to God (perhaps helped by his charitable donations to Ash Church and the poor of Ash), Henry gets into the business of distributing his estate.

>> Names and other words have been rendered with modern spelling for ease of reading but should not impact on the Will’s integrity. I think we can all accept that ‘cowe’ is ‘cow’ and ‘sicke’ is ‘sick’.

Monetary Legacies

  • Wife Joan (maiden name unknown):  £20 per annum for life and to live in his house for life. Joan Stevens never needed her annuity as she died 6 days after her husband
  • Sons: Jasper £20, John £60 at the end of his apprenticeship, Robert £70 at the end of his apprenticeship, Edward £20
  • Married daughters: Elizabeth Atread (husband Thomas) £20, and her 3 children 20 shillings each. Catherine Tomelin (husband Ellis) £20, and her 4 children 20 shillings each. Eleanor Rainger (husband William) £20 and her daughter 20 shillings
  • Servant George Wackford 3 shillings (George was likely his steward)
  • Henry Smyther 12 pence
  • Thomas Stoner of Wyke 5 pence
  • Maid servant Martha Hitchcock 2 shillings
  • Martin and Magdalen Unknown 2 shillings and 12 pence respectively
  • 3 Overseers: Friends Robert Manory, Nicholas Harding, and George Warner, 10 shillings each (All of these men can be found in the Ash records)
  • Ash Church 3 shillings 4 pence
  • Ash Poor 5 shillings

Moveable Legacies

Edward, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Eleanor to each have a cow, a pewter platter, and a pewter dish each, Son-in-law Thomas Atread and daughter Catherine Tomelin and son Edward Stevens each to have a stall of bees. One half of the ‘household stuff’ to wife Joan Stevens and the other half to son Nicholas Stevens.

The Important Part of the Will – the Land

Towards the end of most old Wills is to be found the RESIDUE – this is the important part – the land! Unfortunately, Henry the Elder did not name his property, probably because he owned the lease of just the one farm in Ash and simply referred to it as his ‘unmoveable property’ but it all went to his son and heir Nicholas Stevens who had barely been mentioned to this point in the Will.

>> Note the word ‘lease’ – England was divided into manors owned by the Lords of the Manor who might be the Crown, the Church, aristocracy, wealthy merchants and so on. By long English custom, these leases could be bequeathed, sold, or mortgaged as long as due accord was made to the Lord of the Manor.

Henry the Elder was buried in Ash Churchyard on 14 March 1604 (1603 in Old Style Calendar) and administration of his Will was granted to his Executor, son and heir Nicholas Stevens on 21 April 1603. As Henry the Elder was a grandfather, I estimate his age at being in his 60’s.

!603/4 Burials at Ash Parish Church
1600: William Ranger married Ellinge (Eleanor) Stephens (Stevens) in Ash Parish Church
Jasper Stevens was baptized 17 December 1609 in Ash Parish Church

2) Nicholas Stevens, was the eldest son of Henry the Elder. I will call him Nicholas of Ash, and he first appears in the historic record on 22 June 1594 marrying Joan Worsam in Ash Parish Church. ‘Worsam’ is a difficult name to research as it is spelled many different ways and often transcribed as wild guesses by modern family history sites! I believe that Joan was the granddaughter of John Worseham of Badshot, a landowner who paid £2 tax on his property in 1558 and she would have brought a dowry into the marriage. This is how the property in Badshot Tything (roughly equivalent to Badshot Lea today) came to the Stevens family.

Between 1610 and 1624, Nicholas of Ash was named overseer of Wills of at least 7 people in the area of Ash, showing his importance, although, of course he didn’t benefit from these Wills as overseers had to be impartial; he probably got a few shillings for ‘his pains’. More importantly, Nicholas took advantage of the rising cost of food in England as population increase placed demands on food supplies and products like wool and animal hides for leather. As a Yeoman Farmer, he could raise food to feed his family and use wage-labourers to produce a food surplus as well as keep sheep and cattle to sell on the open market. Nicholas used these profits to buy property as I will show in the transcript of his Will below.

Nicholas of Ash fell ill in 1624,when he was in his 50’s,and he wrote his Will on 20 September 1624; he had to make provisions for a wife, 4 sons, and 4 unmarried daughters.

  • Eldest son Henry Stevens (age 29): ‘in consideration of having the lands and money which was laid out to provide for his sisters, he shall pay the £200 to his sisters Joan and Mercy and if it shall happen any one of them to die before their legacies be due unto them, (the money) to remain amongst the rest, equally divided. Also, Henry shall all the stock of cattle and corn at Hale which was at Hale when he went thither to dwell.
  • Grandson Nicholas Stevens (age 2), son of Henry: my house and all my land at Easthampstead, Berkshire, conditionally that his father has use of it during his lifetime.
  • Son Nicholas Stevens (age 26): a house and land called Sewers in which Mellersh lives in, and also Thetchers House and the Forthinge land late belonging to Monger, and the house and all the land belonging to it called Purses which myself dwelleth in, and I give him the house and land sometimes called Mongers.
  • Son Thomas Stevens (age 25): an acre in Ash, called Ashams Linge by Vermens Land and adjoining Hassel Ground.
  • Youngest son Edward Stevens (age 20): a colt, a cow, and six sheep – he must have been thrilled!
  • Eldest daughter Eleanor Stevens (age 22): all my land lying in Pirbright called Trits and also, I give her three score and ten pounds (£70)
  • Daughter Mary Stevens (age 17): all my land lying in Seale and also, I give her three score pounds (£60).
  • Daughter Joan Stevens (age 15): £100, to be paid her at the age of one and twenty or within one year from the day of her marriage.
  • Youngest daughter Mercy Stevens (age 11): £100, to be paid her at the age of one and twenty or within one year from the day of her marriage.
  • I give to William Wackford (his steward) 10 shillings, to Joan Stevens (niece) a cow, to Jasper Stevens (nephew) a cow, to William Stevens (nephew) £10, to be paid to him when his apprenticeship ends, to Toby Chandler, my servant, a heifer bullock, to my brother Edmund Stevens, £10, to my brother John Stevens £10, to John Tomlin (nephew) 10 shillings, to Robert Stevens (illegible), and to my brother’s daughter Joan Stevens a ewe sheep.
  • To the church of Ash 6s/8d and the poor of Ash 20s to be distributed at my burial by my overseers.
  • To Mr. Harrison to make a sermon at my burial, 10 shillings – Giles Harrison was Curate of Ash Parish.
  • ‘All the RESIDUE of my goods and chattels, my debts paid and funeral discharged, I give to Joan, my wife, and Nycolas, my son, whom I make my Executors, equally divided between them.’
  • ‘I do ordain as my overseers my brother (in law) John Locke, George Clifton, and my brother Henry Stevens, desiring them to see my will performed, and I give them for their pains,10 shillings a piece.
  • Witnesses: George Clifton was a member of the minor gentry and styled a ‘gentleman’ – the Stevens Family are making their way up the social ladder.
Witnesses to Nicholas Stevens Will
  • Administration of Nicholas Stevens’ Will was granted to his widow, Joan, and son, Nicholas – the joint Executors on 16 February 1625.
Record of the burial of Nicholas of Ash in Ash Parish Churchyard

3) Henry Stevens, the eldest son of Nicholas of Ash, who I will call Henry of Farnham, made a very good marriage in 1623, at 27 years of age, when he wed Mary Eed as she was her father’s co-heir. Henry Eed had no sons and owned property in Ash and Badshot Tything. Eed was later spelled ‘Ead’. Upon his daughter’s marriage, Henry Eed granted a share of his Badshot and Ash properties to his new son-in-law, Henry Stevens.

Shortly after Nicholas died, ‘Joan Stevens of Ash, widow of Nicholas Stevens of Ash, yeoman, Elioner Stevens of same, spinster, (daughter of Nicholas Stevens) and Henry Stevens of Farnham, yeoman (son and heir of Nicholas Stevens)’ sold the Pirbright land mentioned in his Will to John Budd of Pirbright. This is the first use of the descriptor ‘Henry of Farnham’.

Although Henry was living in Hale, just to the north of the town of Farnham itself, he still appears in Ash records. For example, in 1630, the record of the Cleygate Manor Court held in Ash reported that a house owned by Henry Stevens with 11 acres was occupied by a Richard Cobbett. Incidentally, this Richard Cobbett was literate and he acted as the scribe for a number of Ash Wills at the time. Additionally, Henry was entitled to the income from the property in Easthampstead which had been left to his son, Nicholas (see Will of Henry the Elder above).

Henry’s wife Mary Stevens died in 1643, and was buried in the Stevens’ traditional church in Ash. Mary had 6 children who survived to adulthood and her mother, Jane Ede, named them in her 1655 Will: Nicholas, John, Henry, Edward, Jane, and William. Some years later, Henry may have been the Henry Stevens who married a widow, Bridget Newland, the daughter of Badshot yeoman, John Ploncker, who wrote in his 1659 Will: ‘Bridget Newland now wife of Henry Stevens’.

4. Nicholas Stevens, (presumably the eldest son of Henry Stevens of Farnham) who I will call Mr Nicholas Stevens of Ash, was baptized in Ash Parish Church in 1623 prior to his family going ‘thither to dwell in Hale’ near Farnham. His younger siblings were baptized in Farnham Parish Church (Hale did not have a church at that time. Upon reaching adulthood, Mr Nicholas Stevens of Ash must have assumed responsibility for his family’s Ash estates as all the records refer to him as ‘Nicholas Stevens of Ash‘. Nicholas married Sarah Simmonds of Horsell around 1652; this is confirmed in the Will of Sarah’s mother, Sarah Simmonds of Horsell: “My son in law Nicholas Stevens of Ash owes me £60 and I bequeathe it to his children Mary, Sarah and John equally as well as the £10 each above”. The Horsell Parish Records begin in 1653 and one of the earliest records was the marriage of Sarah’s sister Damaris Simmonds to Richard Bonsey in 1656 – we will meet this couple again.

Many records have survived for Mr Nicholas Stevens of Ash and I think it would be of interest to list some of them:

  • 1625: already mentioned above, Nicholas received property in Easthampstead, Berkshire from his grandfather, Henry the Elder.
  • 1653: Sale by of properties called Ashebridgemead, South alias Hanwick, and Baza (half acre) in Ash by Thomas and Jane Symonds of Ash, yeoman, 2) Nicholas Stevens of Ash, Yeoman; Nicholas paid £400 to Thomas Symonds – his wife’s relative.
  • 1654: Will of grandfather, Henry Eed of Badshot: after making provision for his wife and unmarried daughter, Henry Eed left his properties in Ash, and Badshot Tything to his grandson Nicholas Stevens.
  • 1655: Will of grandmother, Jane Eed of Badshot: primary beneficiary – grandson Nicholas Stevens; Jane also gave 12d to her great-grandchild Mary Stevens.
  • 1662: Parliament introduced the Hearth Tax to raise money for the newly restored monarchy following the end of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate on the basis that the more fireplaces a house had, the more money the occupant had. Mr Nicholas had a lot of fireplaces but he successfully appealed the payment on the basis that Ash Manor was owned by Winchester College! This information was recorded in the Ash Parish Register.
  • 1669: Will of William Boylett, Yeoman of Ash named his friend Nicholas Stevens as one of the overseers of his Will.
  • 1684: Purchase of Horsell Chapel Mansion and Tithes – Schedule of deeds concerning the chapel of Horsell, mansion and tithes of the same sold in 1684 by Godfrey and Mary Lee to William Bowell and Nicholas Stevens. Godfrey Lee had closed the chapel down and moved into the parsonage!
  • 1686: Tithes of Horsell – Sold by Richard Bonsey of Twitchen, Horsell, gent and others to consortium including his brother-in-law, Nicholas Stevens of Ash, yeoman. Richard Bonsey had married Mr Nicholas Stevens of Ash’s sister-in-law, Damaris Simmonds.

The site of Ash Manor (now Ash Manor and Old Manor Cottage) is believed to have been occupied since the C13, although no standing fabric of this date has been conclusively identified. Part of a square medieval moat survives, as well as some medieval fabric within the house itself. The house was leased to a Nicholas Stevens in the C17, and the initials S N and the date 1657 appear on the front of the building. Stevens was presumably responsible for the re-fronting in brick of the earlier house, thus it bears his initials and date, and possibly also for the addition of a parlour cross-wing to the west, served by a large ridge stack and stair tower. 

Historic England

The whole of Ash Manor – land, at least 35 farms, tithes, the right to appoint the Rector, and so on – belonged to Winchester College and around 1653, the College leased the Manor House to Mr Nicholas. Although he was not the actual ‘Lord of the Manor’ (that was Winchester College), he was the now one of the most prominent residents of Ash Parish and entitled to style himself ‘Master Nicholas Stevens‘ – the first rung on the gentry ladder. ‘Mr’ stood for Master – the word ‘Mister’ was a much later construct.

Sarah Stevens, the wife of Mr Nicholas, died in 1669 and was buried 11 November 1669 ‘the Wife of Mr. Nicholas Stevens’. Their 14 year old son, Henry, was buried a few weeks later on 7 December 1669. Sarah and Nicholas had at least four children: Mary, Henry, Sarah, and John.

Burial records of Sarah Stevens and Henry Stevens 1669 in Ash Parish
Baptism of John Stevens – heir of Mr Nicholas – at Ash Parish Church

On 11 July 1670, Mr Nicholas married Edith Dee, the widow of William Dee of Easthampstead (where Nicholas owned property). Edith Alexander had married William Dee in 1653, and he had died in 1669. Edith died in 1678 and was buried in Ash Parish Churchyard.

Burial of Edith Stevens – Mr Nicholas’s second wife – at Ash Parish Churchyard

Mr Nicholas Stevens of Ash died in 1686 and was buried in Ash Parish Churchyad. Parliament had passed an Act requiring people to be buried in a woolen shroud or face a fine if they opted for a linen shroud. This was intended to boost England’s declining wool industry. It created much work for local clergymen and Justices of the Peace and eventually fell out of the use. Mr Nicholas Stevens’ burial record gave his age as 66. An affidavit that his shroud was woolen was made by Mary Bezor (a local woman employed to prepare the dead in Ash for burial – her name appears many times) and the affidavit was accepted by George Woodroffe Esquire of Poyle Hall, Tongham, a Justice of the Peace.

The Will of Mr Nicholas Stevens of Ash has survived; he wrote it on 13 June 1686 when he was ‘sick and weak but of sound and perfect memory’. He wrote a long religious preamble that I will skip over. His bequests were short:

  • 20 shillings to Ash Church and 20 shillings to Ash poor
  • to married daughter Mary, wife of Richard Payne, £5 as she was well provided for at her marriage
  • to unmarried daughter Sarah Stevens £250
  • to cousin Edward Stevens of Badshot in Farnham Parish £5 (grandson of Henry of Farnham)
  • to only son John Stevens all my lands, messuages (pronounced meswitches), and tenements (leased properties) in Ash and in any other place in the kingdom of England and all the profits thereof
  • All goods to son John Stevens
  • Executor: son John Stevens
  • witnessed by Thomas Selland, William Stevens (son of a cousin of Nicholas), and John Stevens
  • Administration was granted to John Stevens, the son, 1 December 1686
Excerpt of Will of Mr Nicholas Stevens ~ notice the red wax seal that Nicholas used

Post Script: Marriage of Mary Stevens to Richard Paine of Seale:

Parish Church Register of Seale, Surrey

Select Sources

  • Exploring Surrey’s Past
  • The National Archives
  • Historic England
  • Various Parish Records
  • Special thanks to Roger White of Surrey for information on the Paine and Stevens Families