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

In Search of The Innes Collection

by Don Steel

This article was originally published in the July 1993 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society

Many years ago, I corresponded with a Mrs Violet Innes of Clacton‑on‑Sea, Essex. Although she knew a great deal about the SOLEs of Kent and Sussex, she was unable to help me with my Bedfordshire ones and after an enjoyable, but brief exchange of letters, the correspondence lapsed.

When Fred Sole and I got together in the Autumn of 1991 and decided to form the Society, the situation had changed. Now I was interested in all SOLEs wherever they were, so I tried to reactivate the correspondence as I felt sure she would have much to contribute regarding stems about which Fred and I knew very little, her knowledge neatly complementing ours. I received no reply. A little while later Fred invited her to our inaugural meeting and then sent a reminder. When neither of us received any response to any of our letters, we feared the worst. After our inaugural meeting I resolved to try and locate her or, if she was no longer living, her collection. 

The day before I started my quest, I happened to be in London at the annual luncheon of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies. I found myself sitting opposite Elizabeth MacDougall who is in charge of sorting and listing newly deposited collections at the Society of Genealogists. I told her about the formation of the SOLE Society and said that the next day I was going to try to track down an elderly lady who had a SOLE collection. Then the conversation passed to other matters. I stayed overnight in London and the following morning drove to Mrs Innes' address at Clacton. I found a man who had only been living there for four years. He told me the old lady who had formerly lived there was dead. The house had been empty for quite a while before he bought it. He thought she had died without close kin and that he had bought it from distant relatives who had finally inherited it. He gave me the name of the estate agents.

There, I was treated with great courtesy. The manager said they only kept their records for five years but the sale would seem to have been just within that period. However, he came back a few minutes later to say they had mislaid the key to the appropriate filing cabinet and asked me to return in the afternoon. This I did and was shown the file. Mrs Innes had died four and a half years before so I was lucky. It gave me the names and addresses of the two ladies who had sold the house: one address was in Clacton and the other near Guildford, Surrey. I thought I would try the Clacton one. No reply. A neighbour said the lady had moved to nearby Holland‑on‑Sea.

Fortunately, it was an unusual surname so I was able to locate the vendor in the phone book. I called. Once again, no reply. However, a neighbour thought she would not be out for long and suggested that I return in the afternoon. When I did so, she still wasn't back but the neighbour said he had found out where she was and had contacted her. He gave me a phone number where she could be reached. I rang and at last had some firm information. The lady was only a friend of Mrs Innes, not a relative. Her co­vendor was Mrs Innes' grand daughter who lived near Guildford, though no longer at the address the estate agent had given me. She said that the house had remained uncleared for many months after Mrs Innes' death and that in that time, it had been burgled twice. The burglars had ransacked her genealogical collection, apparently emptying drawers so that papers were knee deep on the floor. However, she thought little had been taken except photocopies of wills, which in their ignorance the burglars thought might be of some value. Nevertheless, it did mean the collection was in a mess with papers of different families all mixed up. She said that following Mrs Innes' instructions the collection had been given to ‑ yes, you've guessed it ‑ the Society of Genealogists!

I went straight along there and saw Elizabeth MacDougall. Yes, the Innes Collection was in the basement awaiting cataloguing. While talking to her at the Institute lunch I had rather stupidly not mentioned Mrs Innes' name. She knew only Mrs Innes' name and not what families were represented in the collection. It pays to advertise! If only I had checked with her first, I could have saved myself a great deal of trouble, but then I didn't even know Mrs Innes was dead.

I told Elizabeth that in return for having access to the collection prior to cataloguing, I would sort and list it myself, not just for SOLEs but for all the other families in it as well. Had I realised just how long it would take me, I might not have been so enthusiastic! On my intermittent visits to London I am now getting towards the end of it and have photocopied much Kent and Sussex SOLE material that I will eventually get round to processing.

Mrs Innes' greatest interest was not in the SOLE family but in a Gloucestershire family of Whittington, descended from Dick Whittington's brother. As is well known, the Richard Whittington who was four times Mayor of London (not three times, not LORD Mayor ‑ they were not called that until 1540, long after his time ‑ and not SIR Richard as he was never knighted) was not a poor boy but was the son of a Gloucestershire knight, Sir William Whittington of Pauntley. However, I learned much more from Mrs Innes' papers. His father had been outlawed which may explain both Dick's apprenticeship in London and the legend of his poverty, though at that time it was not uncommon for the younger sons of gentry to go into trade. But the confiscation of Sir William's estates may have made it a necessity. The cat was there as well, on the family coat of arms, and a very fierce cat it was too! The cat, which maybe Dick even had embroidered on his tunic as his badge, may well have been Dick's principal asset ‑ if the family wealth had been confiscated with his father's outlawry at least his coat of arms showed he was of gentle birth. Incidentally he DID marry Alice Fitzwaryn (the spelling used rather than the pantomime "Fitzwarren") but she was not the daughter of a London merchant called Sir Hugh Fitzwarren to whom Dick was apprenticed, but of Sir Ivo Fitzwaryn, a Dorset knight of considerable property.

Half the fun of family history is that you never know what you are going to find out. Cataloguing the Whittington papers had nothing whatever to do with the SOLEs, but at least I learned something interesting I never knew before. The inaccuracies of the Whittington story serve as a salutary reminder to SOLEs as much as anyone else, to be forever sceptical of those family legends. There is usually some truth in them if you can find it, but like Dick Whittington's cat, it sometimes lies in an unexpected direction.

With hindsight I went about tracing the Innes collection in a roundabout way. A better start would have been checking on deposits at the Society of Genealogists. But roundabout or not, it shows that there are usually several different ways of tracking collections down. Over the years I have located several such collections for various families, including two that included abstracts of 'lost' Devon wills destroyed in the Second World War. I never fail to be astonished how many family historians hear about relevant material but do very little to track it down if letters remain unanswered and directory enquiries give no joy. Yet, leaving aside the unexpected deposit at the Society of Genealogists, if my enquiries in Clacton had petered out I could have contacted the Society to find out when Mrs Innes' membership lapsed and why, and if death was the reason, the name and address of the person who told them she was dead. If that line of enquiry proved to be of no avail, I could have obtained a copy of Mrs Innes' will from Somerset House. I would not have given up until, by some means or other, I had either located the collection or found evidence of its destruction.

As it turned out, there were no 'lost' wills in it but it will probably result in a few short cuts. You never know what there is in a collection until you find it. For all I knew at the start of my quest, if I shrugged my shoulders and did nothing, I might be passing over a pedigree going back to the middle ages, as indeed I would have been if it had been the Whittingtons I was interested in and not the SOLEs.

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