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

Rivers and Family History

By Don Steel

This article was originally published in the March 1993 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society, and is an edited version of a talk given at the Society's first Conference

My second example of the importance of historical context concerns how a knowledge of historical geography can help in trying to work out the movement of individuals and families and the relationship between different stems and branches.

Until recently, the earliest Bedfordshire references I had to families as against the odd stray marriage, were parish register entries at Tingrith (from 1577), Flitwick (from 1615) Henlow (from 1605) and Stotfold (from 1625). When I wrote my Kindred Souls article in the first journal, I hadn't got round to studying the early Bedfordshire Sole wills which Fred had passed on to me. They are very exciting. The earliest is that of Richard Sole of Bromham made in 1548. Bromham was much further north than these parish register entries. When we look at Thomas Jeffrey's map of Bedfordshire (first sticking together the eight sheets of which it is composed to give us one huge map), we find most of these places were on the rivers which traversed Bedfordshire like arteries.

The great artery was the Ouse on which Bedford, the seat of government was, and which flowed past St Neots to the sea at the Wash. Or perhaps it is better put the other way round; ships sailed from the sea as far as possible and then transferred their goods to barges which came further up the river. Bromham was on the Ouse. Into the Ouse flowed the Ivel with Stotfold, Henlow, Biggleswade and Sandy on it, especially Biggleswade, in the 16th Century probably the second largest place in Bedfordshire. Into the Ivel flowed the Flitt with Flitton on it and Tingrith nearby on a tributary.

Many genealogists and family historians look at a map and think of people as moving around much as they do today. They appreciate, of course, that there were no railways, but think of the main roads as being pretty much the same except that they were in a very poor condition, with people travelling on foot or horseback and coaches getting stuck in the mud. And of course all this is true to some extent. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that much travelling of more than a mile or two was not done by road at all but by river or along the coast.

Of course, until they were improved from the 17th century onwards, the rivers were not really navigable. River transport was impeded by shallow stretches, fords and the water taken off into millstreams. Coal was brought by sea from Newcastle to Kings Lynn and thence in lighters up the Ouse to St Ives, whence it had to be carted to Bedfordshire. The Ouse improvement to Bedford came in the 1630's and the Ivel improvement in the 1750's. But in the centuries before that I feel sure that there was much light traffic in rowing boats or punts, doubtless with a sail if the wind was in the right direction, with the passengers maybe dragging the craft over shallow stretches and impediments, perhaps with a local horse hired for the purpose. It would not allow transport of goods in significant quantities, but it would allow the movement of people. Maybe the goods followed later by a slower route.

The other thing about the rivers was their width. With poor drainage and few embankments the rivers might be a quarter of a mile wide or even half a mile when in flood. Rather than banks there were marshes and fells, difficult for road traffic to cross and necessitating the building and maintenance of causeways to fords and bridges, like the long one at Turvey. Strangely, the Ouse, the river on which Olney stands, is like that today through freak floods. On the front page of today's Daily Telegraph is a photo taken a few miles from here at Radwell. It gives very good idea of what the Ouse must have been like all the time before the drainage schemes and embanking of the last few centuries.

In short, we must think of Medieval Bedfordshire as rather like North America in How the West was Won, with clearings spreading out from scattered villages widely separated by forests and fells. The former were not only difficult to traverse but had outlaws and wild animals like wolves and bears and wild boar (Our fairy tales and nursery stories are full of warnings to children not to venture into the forest). Travelling was difficult by any method but with the rivers you could row or sail great distances, even if occasional rapids or shallows had to be negotiated.

Returning to the 1548 will of Richard Sole of Bromham, what could be the relationship between this family and the Tingrith, Flitton and Henlow ones found in the parish registers? As the crow flies, Tingrith was separated from Bromham by the marshy Vale of Bedford, its character enshrined in the place‑name Fenlake, now a Bedford suburb. In summer, the modern A6 to Luton and A600 to Hitchin which passed through Fenlake, were normally usable, but in winter, the very rains which made them impassable may well have helped to make the river route more navigable.

Although Richard Sole's occupation is not mentioned he leaves his son Mathy (= Matthew), a cow with calf and a yearling calf to each of his daughters. The executor of Richard Sole's will was Harie Kemeshed. In Joyce Godlier's History of Bedfordshire he is mentioned as a fisherman. So perhaps Richard was a small peasant proprietor with a few cows, maybe grazing in the water‑meadows near Bromham Bridge. I am not an expert on transport history but all this clearly merits closer study. Certainly it provides a possible link between the widely scattered Bromham, Tingrith, Flitwick, Henlow and Stotfold Soles.

We can lake this whole communications business much further, not just to link families in one county, but in neighbouring ones.

The will of Elizabeth Soule of Olney, widow, proved 9 March 1637‑8 mentions her son William and her daughters Elizabeth and Annis. William was perhaps born about 1610 and his father (name at present unknown) around 1580. A Canadian member of our society, Helen Weaver, has in her possession a short history of the Soul family of Olney written in 1873 by Richard Soule of Salisbury 1807‑1889. This goes back to a William Soule 1635‑1669, the father of the Cornelius hitherto heading our Olney pedigree. It would seem very likely that this William was the son of the William in the 1637‑8 will. This new information now almost certainly explodes the French and Dutch theories I floated in the first journal. It now seems to me highly probable that the Olney Souls sprang from the Bromham ones only a few miles away. Bromham bridge was one of the few over the Ouse (the others were at Bedford, Harrold St Neots, and Turvey). Certainly the Ouse was not navigable even for small craft around the great loop from Turvey to Bromham. So goods from Olney to Bedford took the road over Bromham Bridge.

Another will provides another possible clue. The will of William Soule of Tingrith made in 1611 was witnessed by Cornelius White ‘wrighter hereof’. In my Kindred Souls article I speculated about the origin of the name Cornelius in the Soul family. It seems unlikely that Cornelius White lived in Tingrith. Much more likely he was a professional lawyer or clerk living in Bedford, where the will was proved a few months later in the Archdeaconry court. Could White have had a connection too with the Olney family? Could the ancestor of the Olney Souls even be William’s son William baptised at Tingrith in 1587? Could the Richard Soule buried at Tingrith in 1593 be father both of the elder William of Tingrith and of Richard of Bromham? Are we on the verge of one all‑embracing theory of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire Sole origins? Only further research will show, but this research will have to be historical and geographical as well as genealogical.

The Tingrith will is interesting for another reason. William left ‘every one of my four youngest children five pounds a peece’, Katherine was to be paid a pound a year every year for five years. Then Mary was to receive a pound a year for another five years, then George the same for another five years, and finally Constance for another five years. William's will was proved on 6 November 1611. So Katherine would get her first pound in November 1611 and her last in November 1615, Mary her first in November 1616 and her last in November 1620. George would get his first pound in November 1621 and his last in November 1626. But this is the very George whom in my Kindred Souls article I suggested might be the George Soule who was on the Mayflower. Certainly George, like his brother William who might conceivably have gone to Olney, disappears from Tingrith and has not yet been found elsewhere. The Mayflower sailed from Southampton in July 1620, just over a year before George was to start his annuity. The terms of this will strengthen the case for this George being the Pilgrim and not one from Eckington, Worcestershire, of whom no record whatever has ever been found, though admittedly the fact that George was servant to the Droitwich printer Edward Winslow gives Eckington a strong case. However if George of Tingrith was the pilgrim he would almost certainly have been able to raise capital on his expectations. A more detailed article looking at the whole issue will appear later.

A Sole family which, geographically speaking, is a bit of all oddity is the one to which member Brigadier Denis Sole belongs. Though latterly in Wiltshire, it springs from Stretham in the Isle of Ely, between Ely and Cambridge. Stretham was very strategically placed for trade, being at the junction of the Cam with the Great Ouse. It took its name from the Roman road which crosses the Ouse just to the south. It is also the junction with the west-east road from the A6 at Thrapston, through Huntingdon to Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich. According to a pedigree given us by Denis, William Sole of Stretham was the son of John Sole, Mayor of Faversham, Kent and this story also appears in the Dictionary of National Biography entry for William Sole of Bath, 1741‑1802, an eminent botanist. Though possible as a result of coastal trade, the story is not very likely and gives the impression of the Cambridgeshire Soles trying a century or two ago to claim a relationship with a well‑known armigerous family.

Personally I am more inclined to look along the Ouse to Bromham and up the Cam to Cambridge (not just a university city but a major inland port). Stourbridge Fair, held at Cambridge and one of the great fairs of medieval England, was dependent to a large degree on water traffic along the River Cam. Can we perhaps look beyond Cambridge to Thriplow, on the spring line in the chalk upland, where in the 16th and 17th centuries there was another Sole stem from which both the Kelshall branch and Fred's ancestors at Elmdon, Essex, probably ultimately stem. Could the Valery Sole who heads that pedigree, with children baptised in February 1584/5 and 1588, conceivably be the same person as Ussley Sould who had a child baptised at Soham, very close to Stretharn in October 1583? If so, that would be a great breakthrough. IGI misreadings of faint old 16th century handwriting indexed from microfilm are legion and I shall not sleep easily until I have seen both originals.

This finally brings me on to another possible derivation for the SOLE surname in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and doubtless Cambridgeshire as well. The Ussley SOULD entry is another example of the "d" ending to add to those I mentioned in my Kindred Souls article: at Tingrith the elder William’s daughter Margaret was SOULD when William Fenson ‘did begette her with child.’ George Blackwell of St Clement Danes, London, who I mentioned left his Spanish cloak to Elizabeth SOLDE and his cap to John SOLDE in 1523, was the son and heir of Robert Blackwall of Wyboston, Hunts. Wyboston was on the Ouse just to the north of the confluence of the Ouse and the Ivel.

Only a mile or two to the north of the loop that the Ouse takes between Turvey and Bromham is the village of SOULDROP. It is still pronounced Sole‑drop, surely close to its medieval pronunciation. This is a much better candidate for the place of origin of the Beds, Bucks and Cambs Soles than either SEWELL in Houghton Regis parish or SOULBURY, Buckinghamshire which I suggested in my last article. However, the lack of precedents for dropping the ending of a place‑name like this rather worries me, and also we cannot yet completely rule out multiple origins, even in the one county.

I hope I have shown how both the history of language and historical geography can provide clues which will make some kind of sense of genealogical information. There are many that use the IGI or even parish registers without even finding the places on the map. But even that is only the first of many stages towards reconstructing a family history with some degree of plausibility.

Essentially family history, like any other kind of history is a process of asking questions and then searching for answers. Sometimes they are the answers you expect: sometimes not. It's largely the sudden intrusion of the unexpected which makes family history such fun and we shall try and give all our members something of this flavour by keeping them conversant with our unsubstantiated guesses and hypotheses as well as with our discoveries.

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