By Haydn Brown
Norfolk – The Lincolns in the 16th Century:
Early in the 16th Century there lived in Swanton Morley a Richard Lincoln – or ‘Lincorne’ as it was then spelt. He was born around 1550 in the village and was churchwarden at its All Saint’s Church from 1599 to 1620; that we know. We also know that he was the 6th times Great Grandfather of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the USA.
It appears that Richard Lincoln’s son from his first marriage was Edward, and it was he who expected to benefit from his father’s Will when he passed away – but that was never to happen! In his will, written 3 January 1616, with a codicil in 1619, Richard Lincoln left everything, apart money for his burial and small gifts to the poor, to his wife and the children of his fourth marriage. The original Will, consisting of four sheets of paper, each sealed at the bottom with a red wax seal bearing the device of a hound, is still preserved in the Norfolk Record Office at Norwich.
Clearly then, Edward would not have been too pleased about being cut out of his father Richard’s Will after he had heard the news. In fact, a family squabble ensued as he abandoned his home at Swanton Morley and relocated to some small acreage at Hingham, taking with him his wife, Brigit, nee’ Gilman and his seven children. Amongst these seven children was Samuel. Now, some historians have said that this Samuel, and there have been many over the generations, may never have moved to America had his father not been cut out of Richard’s Will – meaning that the path of the Lincoln family’s history would have changed completely – and Abraham Lincoln would never have become the 16th President of the USA!
Samuel Lincoln was born around 1622 and baptised in St Andrew’s Church, Hingham on August 24 1622. At the age of 15 years, when he was an apprentice weaver in Norwich; he left home and sailed on a ship named John & Dorothy from Great Yarmouth for a new life in the USA. The year was 1637 and ironically, he settled in Hingham, Massachusetts. There, around 1649, Samuel married Martha Lyford from Ireland and bought a house plot so as to provide a permanent home. There, the couple had eleven children, three of whom died in their infancy. Samuel’s eldest son, born 25 August in 1650, was also named Samuel; however, the emigrant Samuel Lincoln’s fourth son was Mordecai, who became a blacksmith, and was the direct ancestor of Abraham Lincoln.
But on-board ship back in 1637, there were eleven Puritan ministers from Norwich among the passengers; they had been suspended during a purge by Bishop of Norwich Matthew Wren; the solution for these eleven, was to emigrate and seek freedom of worship elsewhere. Also on board, amongst those struggling with the demands of conscience, and maybe family as a result of Wren’s demands, was Francis Lawes, aged 57, a worsted weaver – he was young Samuel’s employer and companion for at least this journey, although it has been suggested that there were also other members of the Lincoln line from Hingham on board. Whatever may have been their reason for emigrating, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Lawes may well have been an influencing factor upon young Samuel’s own decision to place his future overseas. Samuel, in fact, was following in the footsteps of his brothers, Daniel and Thomas who had settled in Hingham, Massachusetts in 1635. Thomas, had been granted a house lot by the town and although twice married Thomas had no children. After his death, he left a great deal of his property, including several house lots, to Samuel and his nephews. Samuel was never to return to Norfolk.
It has been said that, despite his young age, religion did influence Samuel Lincoln in his decision to leave Norfolk; it was certainly the case that religion led future American Lincolns to connect with members of the Norfolk Gurney family and to renew a centuries-old link with the Lincoln’s ancestry back in Norfolk.
The Gurney Connection:
One Hundred and Fifty-one years after young Samuel Lincoln had sailed to America, and barely 12 years after the former colony had declared itself to be the ‘United States of America’, on 9 September 1776, Joseph John Gurney was born into the Gurney family in Norwich – the year was 1788. The Gurney family was famous for Banking and were also well known as Quakers. Joseph was one of ten children, which included his equally famous sister, Elizabeth Fry of prison reforming fame. It was with this particular sister that the now 29-year-old Joseph also campaigned for prison conditions to be improved, coupled with a call for the abolition of capital punishment. The year was 1817 and he was now an evangelical minister.
In his capacity as a prison reformer, Joseph Gurney made trips to the West Indies and the United States, between 1837 and 1840, where he preached and called for an end to slavery. While Gurney was preaching in the United States he caused some controversy that resulted in a split (schism) among Quakers. He was concerned that Friends had so thoroughly accepted the ideas of ‘the inner light’ that they no longer considered the actual text of the Bible and that the New Testament Christ was important enough. He also stressed the traditional Protestant belief that salvation is through faith in Christ. Those who sided with him were called ‘Gurneyite’ Quakers. Those who sided with John Wilbur, his opponent, were called ‘Wilburites’.
It was also during his first visit to America in 1837 that he, then 39 years of age, first met Eliza Paul Kirkbride, who was three years his junior. She came from Philadelphia and was able to make quite an impression on Joseph when she presented her extensive briefs on American life to him. It was also during this visit that Joseph had the opportunity to meet with Abraham Lincoln several times, and to address a joint session of Congress; he also exchanged letters with Lincoln, then a young and ambitious member of the Illinois House of Representatives. Was it simply a coincidence then that, in 1837, Lincoln made his first public declaration against slavery?
Eliza Kirkbride came to England with Joseph Gurney when he returned home to Norwich; she becoming a Quaker minister in July 1841, and marrying him three months later to become his third wife. For the record – Joseph’s first wife had been Jane Birkbeck, whom he married at the Friends Meeting House at Wells on 10 September 1817; they had at least two children before Jane died in in 1822. His second wife was Mary Fowler whom he married five years later in 1827 at his brother’s (Samuel) Ham House in Essex. It is not generally known that prior to this marriage, Joseph had an admirer in none other than Amelia Opie, the early 19th century Norfolk writer. According to Mrs Fletcher’s Norwich Handbook, 1857:
“In 1825, she [Amelia] was received into the membership of the Society of Friends, perhaps with the hope of becoming the second Mrs Joseph John Gurney. If so, she was disappointed…….” Mary nee’ Fowler died in 1835.
By all accounts, Eliza and Joseph were a formidable pair in their eloquent pursuit for better and fairer conditions for all. In this capacity they travelled far and wide and became well-connected; it was said that they once urged the French king Louis Philippe to abolish slavery in his Colonies! The two also founded Earlham College, in Indiana – an echo of Earlham Hall – it being the Gurney’s Norfolk family home.
But the good days were not to last; on a winter’s day in 1847, Joseph John Gurney, then 58 years of age, was thrown from his horse and died. He was buried alongside many of his family in the now overgrown Gildencroft Quaker Cemetery in Norwich; his funeral witnessed by many in the city who respected him as one of the Norwich’s great philanthropists. As for Eliza, his widow, she returned to her home country in the USA three years later, settling in an elegant 18th-century mansion at West Hill in Burlington, New Jersey from where, over the next eight years, she travelled extensively.
Eliza’s Possible Influence on Abraham Lincoln:
Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln continued on his political rise, chosen as the first-ever presidential candidate for the new Republican party in May 1860. His election in November of that year hardened the sharp divisions between North and South over the issue of slavery. Seven slave states in the Deep South left the union and declared their own country, the Confederate States of America. Unsurprisingly, the now President Lincoln, along with the Northern states refused to recognise the new ‘country’, fearing it would lead to towards splinter- groups of ‘petty nations’. Both north and south were on an inevitable collision course. The first shot in the American Civil War came on 12 April 1861.
Eliza Gurney, like many others, had to choose sides. Being a Quaker, she was a passionate opponent of war – but also a passionate opponent of slavery. She soon decided that the northern ‘Union’ cause was the more honourable one. In this, she was determined to let Lincoln know of her convictions but her efforts to meet with him towards the end of October 1862, in the company of three other senior Quakers, failed – the Confederate army was waiting only a few miles from the capital city of Washington! But then, on the morning of Sunday 26 October an opportunity arose for Eliza and in her own words ‘the great iron door’ opened. The group was ushered into the President’s private apartments.
It was said that Lincoln rose to greet them, he remembering his old links with Joseph John Gurney, Eliza’s connection with Norfolk by marriage and his ancestral roots at Hingham and Swanton Morley. Eliza spoke to him for fifteen minutes and he listened. Afterwards, Lincoln was deeply moved for it was also said that he grasped her hand, then said: “I am very glad of this interview ……” and Lincoln never forgot Eliza – or her message of support. In fact, the two corresponded during the following two years, until on 4 September 1864, when he wrote to his ‘esteemed friend’ to thank her again for her ‘very impressive visit two years earlier’:
“We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise…… For those appealing to me on conscientious grounds, I have done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience, under my oath to the law. That you believe this I doubt not; and believing it, I shall still receive, for our country and myself, your earnest prayers to our Father in heaven.”
Lincoln carried Eliza’s reply to this letter in his breast pocket when he went to the theatre – and was assassinated!
In 2018, Trevor Heaton, writing for the Eastern Daily Press in Norfolk about Eliza’s reply and the closing moments of President Lincoln’s life, stated:
“Five days after the surrender of Confederate general Robert E Lee, Lincoln was enjoying a rare evening away from the crushing burden of his public office. Together with his wife and two guests, they were at the Good Friday performance of the popular comedy ‘Our American Cousin’ at Ford’s Theatre in the capital. Then around 10.15pm, as the play reached its final stages, on-stage comedy turned to real-life tragedy. John Wilkes Booth, a 26-year-old actor and Confederate sympathiser, took advantage of the temporary absence of Lincoln’s bodyguard to step inside his state box in the theatre’s balcony and fire his Derringer pistol, point-blank, into the back of the President’s head. Lincoln, fatally wounded, died nine hours later. And in his breast pocket, neatly folded, was a treasured letter with a strikingly familiar Norfolk surname on it – Gurney.
The story of how that letter came to be written makes for one of the most moving insights into the character of a man hailed as one of the greatest-ever presidents, the man who finally ended the shame of American slavery. And how curious that Lincoln’s life should be book-ended by Norfolk connections. For his roots were set deep in the county, with family links to Hingham and Swanton Morley. Only a few months later prayers were being said for Lincoln not in support of the great burden of his office but for the comfort of his soul……… And of all the fine things that Eliza Gurney did in her life, probably she rendered no nobler service to humanity than when she gave spiritual comfort to a great president in his hour of need. No wonder, then, that as he lay dying, it was her treasured words that were – literally – the closest to his heart.”