The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

The Sewell Family of Halstead

By Adrian Corder-Birch

This article was originally published in the April 2001 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.

The Sewell family originated from Great Henny, Essex where a John Sewell lived during the fifteenth century. He was described as having land in Halstead called “Painters and Partriches”. There are monuments to four Sewells in the nave of Great Henny Church. The family was the first to introduce the manufacture of bays and says into Halstead during the late sixteenth century. A “bay” was a roll of cloth ready for sale and the name survives in “baize” although our “green baize” has no resemblance to the lovely materials that were woven. “Say” was like bay but much thinner and was used for linings.

The Sewell family of Halstead was one of five major families in the town who controlled the cloth industry until towards the end of the eighteenth century. The other four families were Barron, Bentall, Start and Stuck. These five long-established family businesses also had extensive interests in farming, malting and milling. They maintained their cloth businesses through most of the eighteenth century with fewer disasters than occurred in other textile towns. The cloth industry dominated Halstead, which was a principal centre of the industry in Essex, second only to Colchester. Baymaking — the manufacture of bay cloth, went into decline during the late eighteenth century in the face of competition from the northern cotton mills. By 1800 all clothmakers in Halstead had ceased operations and other business interests were pursued. Halstead then had 2,000 unemployed handloom weavers, who were thrown on the charity of the parish, out of a population of 3,300. The bay and say trade was later succeeded by the flourishing manufacture of silk crape by the Courtauld family who 'rescued' the town.

The Sewell and Barron families were related through the marriage of John Sewell (1711-1790) to Mary Barron (1733-1783). They married on 3rd June, 1753 in the Parish Church of Marks Hall near Coggeshall. The choice of Marks Hall Church is curious because both families were well established in Halstead. John Sewell was described as a bachelor of Halstead and Mary Barron as daughter of Edward Barron of Halstead. Edward Barron, a baymaker and clothier died in 1768 and his Will refers to his Warehouse, Warping Shop, Combing Shop and Spinning Houses. He left two cottages in Sudbury, Suffolk and a sum of money to his daughter Mary Sewell. It was one of his sons, another Edward Barron, who was also a clothmaker, saymaker, wool merchant and farmer (brother of Mary Sewell) who built Red House in Colchester Road, Halstead sometime between 1773 and 1786. Sir Nickolaus Pevsner described Red House as "the best individual house" (in Halstead). Since 1936 it has been occupied by a firm of Solicitors who are successors to the practise of Decimus Sewell (1799-1886).

John and Mary Sewell had ten children between 1754 and 1774 including John Sewell (1756-1843) and Isaac Sewell (1767-1845). John and Isaac were farmers, John at Little Maplestead Hall (opposite the famous Round Church) and Isaac at Bois Hall, Halstead. In 1792 Isaac married Anne Bentall (1772-1849) a member of the Bentall family of clothmakers of Halstead. Their son Robert Sewell (1798-1874) emigrated to America where he became Rector of a Congregational Church.

John had married Elizabeth Smoothy (1763-1833) of Birdbrook Hall in 1783 and amongst their thirteen children and numerous grandchildren were several farmers and solicitors in England and Australia. John Sewell of Maplestead Hall, a landowner and farmer, was also a cultivator of lavender, which he distilled. He also grew carrots, hops, caraway, coriander and teasel. In about 1800, with three others, he built a ‘mole plough’ at a cost of £30. It was pulled by 18 horses and let out at 2s 6d an acre. One of his sons opened the brewery in Trinity Street, Halstead which was later continued by the Adams family who moved into Red House. John Sewell lived latterly near Trinity Church and his family also farmed Sloe House Farm, Halstead.

The eldest son, John Sewell, (1785-1873) worked on the Hadleigh Hall Estate, Essex before returning to Little Maplestead and afterwards living at Aveley for twelve years before emigrating to Australia. Some of his descendants also went to Australia a few becoming farmers.

It was the second son, Isaac Sewell (1788-1865) who became the first solicitor in the family, initially practising in Halstead by 1810 until 1820. He married firstly, Susannah Frances Daniell in 1814 at Colchester and practised there after 1820 with Samuel and Edward Daniell. Following his second marriage circa 1828 he practised in London but still owned property in Halstead until his death. Three of his sons also became solicitors namely Edward Sewell (1815-1846), Henry Sewell (1819-1876) and Isaac William Sewell (1829-1880) whilst another son became a stockbroker. Edward practised latterly in Melbourne, Australia whilst Henry and Isaac joined their father's firm in London.

The eighth son and tenth child, appropriately named Decimus (1799-1886), was probably the most interesting character in this family. He was born on 1st May 1799 at Little Maplestead Hall and baptised on 14th October 1801 at Castle Hedingham Chapel (now the United Reformed Church). He was admitted as a solicitor in 1822 and practised in Halstead until 1849, with offices at Chapel Street and later the High Street. In 1849 he moved to Altrincham, Cheshire, then to Gloucester during the mid 1850’s before moving to Combe Down, Bath by the late 1850’s. By 1861 he had returned to Halstead residing and practising in Colchester Road where he remained for several years.

In 1834 at the age of 35 years, Decimus fell in love with Karen Amelia May of The Howe, Halstead. Karen was only 18 years of age and her father, Edward May, strongly disapproved of the proposed marriage. However, not to be defeated, Decimus arranged for an elopement to Gretna Green where they were married on 16th October 1834. The Howe was a large mansion, built by Edward May in 1825. It stood in 40 acres of parkland on the Hedingham side of Halstead.

One can imagine Decimus, waiting for darkness to fall and approaching Hedingham Road to the former Howe Lodge (since demolished) and climbing up the long drive to The Howe itself. Having collected Karen they travelled together to Gretna Green where they were married by the blacksmith.

By all accounts Decimus had planned the elopement very carefully. So as not to attract attention in Halstead he hired post horses in Chelmsford and arranged for them to be sent to stables in Gosfield. He instructed his clerk to wait, with a horse and gig, in a quiet lane just outside Halstead. (This was probably the appropriately named Love Lane being a small lane on the quietest route between Gosfield and The Howe).

That evening at the Howe, Edward May was entertaining some friends who had all dined and wined very well. Later, the family and friends retired, a girl friend sharing Karen’s bedroom. After the friend fell asleep Karen got up and dressed and quietly made her way downstairs and climbed out through the library window. She met Decimus outside the house and they both hurried to the waiting gig and drove to Gosfield. At Gosfield they transferred to the post horses and galloped with all haste north to Gretna Green.

The following morning, Edward May discovered that his daughter was missing and went into Halstead for information. It is said “he rushed hatless from house to house” seeking news of the couple. He eventually either discovered or guessed where they had gone and pursued them. By this time the runaways apparently had a start of seventeen hours and eventually arrived in Gretna Green and were married before Edward found them. He discovered where they were staying, burst into their room and ordered Karen to return home with him. She refused to leave her husband and the irate father returned home alone.

After the marriage, Decimus and Karen returned to Halstead where they had three children:

Percy May Sewell, baptised 7th August 1835, who became an Actuary in Woolwich, Kent.

Edith Sewell, February to May 1844.

Amy Constance Sewell, born 1844 who married William K. Collings. (Note: Amy in an anagram of May but she was known as Constance).

Sadly, Karen Sewell (1817-1844) died on 26th September 1844 shortly after the birth of Amy Constance.

It was not until twelve years later that Decimus married again. His second wife was Eliza Maria Lawrence and they married at St. Philips Church, Dalston, Hackney, Middlesex on 6th March 1856. Decimus was then described as a 53 year old solicitor in Gloucester (whereas he was really 56 years of age). His wife was a 30 year old spinster living in Dalston by whom he had two more children, Alleine Sewell (1866-1962) and Helen Elizabeth Sewell (1868-????).

Decimus’ second wife, Eliza Maria Sewell, died 16th May 1904 at Stoke on Trent.

During the 1860’s Decimus was a solicitor to the Colne Valley and Halstead Railway whose Head office was in Halstead. He took Henry Edward Inman into partnership practising as Sewell and Inman. By 1881 Decimus had moved to Nailsworth, Gloucestershire where he died on 5th August 1886 aged 87 years. His Will includes reference to his shares in the Colne Valley and Halstead Railway. Inman continued the practise in Halstead until his death in 1897. Their office (now demolished) was in Colchester Road opposite Red House.

A brief obituary of Decimus Sewell appeared in the Halstead Gazette on 19th August 1886 stating:

“Mr. Sewell was married twice, his first marriage being an old-fashioned runaway match, the stern parent pursuing in hot haste.”

Interestingly, the Sewell family is related to the well-known Courtauld family of textile manufacturers. Susanna Sewell (1803-1888) was one of the four sisters of Decimus. She married George Courtauld (1802-1861), a silk and crepe manufacturer, on 23rd April, 1829.

George Courtauld spent four years in America returning to England in 1824 when he found employment with his elder brother, Samuel Courtauld (1793-1881) in his rapidly expanding crepe manufactory. In 1828 George became the junior partner in the newly formed firm of ‘Courtauld, Taylor and Courtauld’ and continued to work for the family firm for the remainder of his life. George and Susanna Courtauld were both buried at Gosfield where many other members of the Courtauld family were also buried.

The five children of George and Susanna Courtauld included George Courtauld, M.P., J.P., (1830-1920) who built the Cottage Hospital in Hedingham Road, Halstead and was a great benefactor to both Halstead and Braintree. He was the father of Samuel Augustine Courtauld, D.L., J.P., (1865-1953) who was another generous benefactor to Halstead and built the Courtauld Homes of Rest and numerous houses in Hedingham Road, Halstead. He also built the Village Halls at Bocking and Blackmore End, near Wethersfield. From 1916 until his death he lived at The Howe which was the former home of Karen May. In the graveyard of the former Congregational Chapel, Parsonage Street, Halstead was a small column in memory of “Amy" wife of Decimus Sewell who died 26th September 1844, aged 29. The monument also recorded the death of Edith Sewell on 23rd May 1841 aged 3 months. In about 1939 Mr. S. A. Courtauld had the Sewell gravestone reconditioned. Sadly, the Chapel has now closed and the gravestone disappeared.

Three generations of this Courtauld family were High Sheriffs of Essex; George in 1896, Samuel Augustine in 1910 and his son Augustine Courtauld (1904-1959), the explorer, in 1953.

The younger son of George and Susanna Courtauld was Sydney Courtauld, J.P., (1840-1899) of Bocking who was a generous benefactor to Braintree and Bocking. He was the father of Sir William Julien Courtauld, Bt., J.P., (1870-1940), Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947), John Sewell Courtauld, M.C., M.P., (1880-1942) and Sir Stephen Lewis Courtauld, Kt., M.C., (1883-1962). John Sewell Courtauld was Member of Parliament for Chichestcr from 1924 until his death in 1942. He was also an architect whose firm designed many properties in Halstead and surrounding area. Some of the houses in Hedingham Road, Halstead were built for employees in a style known as ‘Courtauld Tudor’.

The Howe is still standing on the Hedingham side of Halstead on high ground overlooking the Colne Valley. Some of the park was sold off for development during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s but the drive and much of the park with its ancient trees still survive.

Adrian Corder-Birch, the author of this article, is a Legal Executive with the firm of Solicitors founded by Decimus Sewell. He is a direct descendant of the Barron family of Halstead and lives in Howe Drive, on the approach to The Howe in a house built in the former park. Although he has Sewell ancestors they originated from London and do not appear to be related to those featured in this article. He is currently Patron of Halstead and District Local History Society, President of Essex Archaeological and Historical Congress and Chairman of the Editorial Board of Essex Journal. He is also a member of several Family History, Local History and Archaeological Societies.


Essex at Work, 1700-1815 by A.F.J. Brown, published by Essex Record Office.

The Registers of Castle Hedingham Chapel and other Churches.

Family History Monthly, September and October, 1996.

Essex Countryside, August, 1976 and Essex Family Historian, January, 1978 which both contain articles written by the late Arthur Coxhead, son in law of Alleine Sewell, youngest son of Decimus Sewell.

Various census returns.

A Centenary History of Halstead Hospital (1884-1984) by Adrian Corder-Birch, 1984.

The Will of Edward Barron, proved 1768. Courtesy of Essex Record Office.

The marriage certificate, death certificate, will and probate of Decimus Sewell.

The Buildings of England, ESSEX, by Sir Nickolaus Pevsner, 1954.

An account of ‘Elopement from Halstead’ apparently written by a clerk in Mr. Decimus Sewell’s office and sent by Miss. Alice M. Sewell to Mr. S. A. Courtauld in 1930.

Family history records of the Sewell family kindly made available by Miss. Glennis Sewell of Australia and by Mr. Brian Sewell of Northamptonshire who requested this article to be written.

The Huguenot family of Courtauld by Sir Stephen Courtauld, M.C., 3 Vols 1957-1967

Old and New Halstead, by William James Evans, 1886.

Halstead Gazette, 19 August, 1886.

Our Mother Earth, by Ashley Cooper, 1998.

The author also acknowledges information from Jane Cole, Ken Hermon, Gwen Rawlingson and Isabel Wilson

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