m. 11 Oct 1781
Facts and Events
Daniel Nicholls was born in the hamlet of Hudnall in the Chiltern Hills and was baptised on 24th February 1782 at the neighbouring village of Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire. However, Hudnall at that time was a detached part of the parish of Edlesborough in Buckinghamshire and part of a projecting strip of Buckinghamshire penetrating between the Gaddesdens into Hertfordshire. Hudnall was transferred to Hertfordshire on in 1885, becoming part of the parish of Little Gaddesden. At that time, over a hundred years after Daniel’s birth, Hudnall was described as having a population of 66, living in 12 houses.
Whilst administrative boundaries today have less significance for people’s day to day lives, they had a significant influence at that time. Under the Poor Laws, in order to claim poor relief you had to prove which parish was your legal place of settlement, which would then be responsible for your upkeep. A person could acquire a new place of settlement only by certain methods, notably by being continuously employed for a year in another parish.
This system of poor laws, which was in place from 1601 until 1834, had the effect of reducing the mobility of the population. Parishes discouraged employers from hiring young single men for longer than a year, specifically to avoid granting them legal settlement – it became typical to hire a man from the end of Michaelmas week until the start of Michaelmas week the following year so that they were only employed for 51 weeks and thus did not qualify for settlement. Only once a labourer had proved their worth would anyone offer them employment for a period longer than a year. Under such a system, it is no surprise that most people knew exactly where they had been born and which parish was their legal place of settlement – even when they lived in an area with seemingly complicated boundaries as at Hudnall.
Hudnall was a small farming community, essentially comprising a straggled line of farms and cottages along the western side of Hudnall Common. There were many other villages and parish churches nearer to Hudnall than its parish church at Edlesborough.
Daniel was the eldest son of a labourer named James Nicholls and his wife Mary Ambrose, who had married at Edlesborough on 11th October 1781, less than five months before Daniel’s baptism. The couple also and had a daughter, Ruth, baptised at nearby Studham, Bedfordshire on 15th May 1785. Ruth went on to marry a William Hawkins in Little Gaddesden at the age of 16 in 1801. The family was probably well established in the area; there was another Daniel Nicholls who had lived at nearby Whipsnade, Bedfordshire a century earlier in the 1680s.
During Daniel's childhood, Britain was largely at peace but France was in a period of great turmoil. The French Revolution had started in 1789 and over the next decade various factions jostled for power, often with great bloodshed. This was the period which saw the ‘reign of terror’ (1793-1794) when at least 16,000 and possibly as many as 40,000 ‘enemies of the revolution’ were executed at the guillotine by the 'Committee of Public Safety' under Robespierre. During the 1790s a general named Napoleon Bonaparte was alternately in and out of favour with the various factions leading the country. In 1796, Napoleon led a French army which successfully invaded northern Italy then managed to secure a peace treaty at Leoben which also gave France control of the Low Countries.
In Britain (as in France’s other neighbours) the ruling classes had been monitoring the events in France with unease, fearful at first that revolutionary sentiments would spread across the channel, then that the French army may invade. In 1798, the British authorities carried out a survey known as the Posse Comitatus (Latin for ‘power of the county’), to establish how many able bodied men between the ages of 15 and 60 not already in military service were living in any given parish. Whilst the survey was nation-wide, only the Buckinghamshire returns have survived in full. In Edlesborough, the Posse Comitatus identifies 18 such men living at Hudnall. One of these was Daniel’s father, James Nicholls, who is described as a labourer. Daniel himself is not listed at Hudnall – he appears to be at Aston Abbots, 7 miles north-west of Hudnall, as a servant – a term which included farm labourers who lived in with the farmer’s family.
Shortly after the Posse Comitatus, probably in summer 1798, the sixteen-year old Daniel went to work at Wards Coombe Farm in the parish of Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire, where he worked for a John Roberts.
Wards Coombe nestles at the foot of Ivinghoe Beacon, one of the most prominent summits of the Chilterns. The farmer at Wards Coombe, John Roberts, was listed in the Posse Comitatus as being a ‘headborough’, a type of constable responsible for keeping the peace in his parish. The Posse Comitatus also records that John Roberts had seven horses, a wagon and three carts.
Daniel worked at Wards Coombe for two years, thus would have earned the right to make Ivinghoe parish his legal place of settlement. However, he decided to move on. Over the next eighteen months he did not work in any one place for very long, until around ‘about Christmas’ 1801, when he went to work for a Ralph Thrale at Wheathampstead.
Christmas was an unusual time for a labourer to change employer. There were no local hiring fairs at that time of year in the market towns which serve this area (Dunstable, Luton, St Albans and Hemel Hempstead). The latest in the year that a fair was held locally was at Dunstable on 12th November. Perhaps in recognition of this ‘mid-term’ change of employer, Daniel was hired by Ralph Thrale only until the following Michaelmas.
Michaelmas, or the feast of St Michael the Archangel, falls on 29th September, and was the traditional time for hiring fairs; the previous year’s harvest would be over and it was time to start preparing the ground for the following year’s crop. Young, single labourers would not have hesitated at walking ten miles to reach a good hiring fair. The fairs were generally held in the market towns. The potential employers would also have travelled good distances to reach these fairs, thus it is not that unusual to find young men who moved twenty miles from their place of birth to find work by this method. After a year or two labouring several miles from home, many young labourers would often return to their home parishes, perhaps partly for sentimental or family reasons, but also because it was easier to find long-term employment in your legal parish of settlement. Exceptionally hard-working labourers might be offered a contract longer than a year in a parish where the employers were confident that this person was unlikely to ever need Poor Relief, but that was unusual.
Daniel’s employer, Ralph Thrale, was a miller. In the Domesday Book there were four mills listed at Wheathampstead (which at that time included Harpenden): Hyde Mill, Pickford Mill, Batford Mill and Bridge Mill, all on the River Lea. All four of these mills were still operational in the early 1800s, and no extra mills are recorded, so it will be one of these four to which Daniel went. Hyde Mill and Batford Mill are still in existence, whilst Pickford Mill was a paper mill in 1800 and later became a factory and Bridge Mill in the centre of Wheathampstead is still there but was rebuilt in the 1880s.
The Thrales were a well-connected local landowning family. Having first appeared at Thrales End in the parish of Luton in the middle ages (it is not clear whether the family gave their name to the hamlet or vice-versa), by this time the family was based around Sandridge and Wheathampstead. One branch of the Thrale family had gone into brewing and politics, and Dr Samuel Johnson, the writer and compiler of the first dictionary, lived with this branch of the family in London for seventeen years until 1781.
As to the Ralph Thrale that Daniel came to work for in 1801, confusingly there were at least two Ralph Thrales at this time in Wheathampstead. One owned Nomansland Farm and one owned Pope’s Farm (now Mackerye End Farm). Whether either of these Ralphs were also millers, or whether there was yet another Ralph Thrale at one of the mills has yet to be established.
Daniel was initially employed until Michaelmas 1802, but when that time came he was retained, showing he had proved his worth to Ralph Thrale. At Michaelmas 1802 he was given a one year contract to the next Michaelmas. It’s possible that the fact Daniel came to Ralph Thrale part way through a normal employment period means that Ralph Thrale did not realise he was inadvertently giving Daniel legal settlement in Wheathampstead – perhaps neglecting to stipulate (as was usual) that the one contract ended at the start of Michaelmas week and the next was not to start until the end of Michaelmas week, thus breaking the term of employment.
Having been hired through to Michaelmas 1803, Daniel Nicholls did not complete that year. In spring 1803, Daniel decided to leave Ralph Thrale’s employment, ‘quitted his service’ and left Wheathampstead at May Day 1803. Was he aware at this time that having worked 16 unbroken months in Wheathampstead that he had transferred his place of legal settlement? It is perhaps doubtful that he would have set out to deliberately move his place of legal settlement twelve miles from the Hudnall area where he had been born. It probably wasn’t a major concern to him at that time – he was 21, fit and healthy and was in no immediate likelihood of needing to request Poor Relief. A fortnight later, he joined the West Middlesex Militia. At this time, he probably did not expect that he would ever return to live in Wheathampstead.
Military service 1803-1814
The threat from France had not diminished; Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power in a coup in 1799 and was seeking to expand a French Empire. Britain and France had been at war on an off with the French since 1689, but had signed a peace treaty at Amiens in March 1802. However, on 18th May 1803, Britain declared war on France again. Therefore, Daniel Nicholls joined the militia within a few days of hostilities being resumed.
Napoleon had greatly superior numbers of men available – the French army peaked at over 2.5 million men, whereas the British army peaked at 220,000, less than a tenth of the size of the French army. Britain’s defence strategy was heavily based on naval supremacy preventing a French landing, but the authorities were nervous.
The militia was not the same as the army. The militia dates back to Saxon times and comprised part-time soldiers called out when necessary to assist in civil unrest or home defence. However, in certain periods, such as the Napoleonic Wars, the militia was permanently on duty. The Government had called the militia out in March and April 1803, immediately before declaring war in May. The militia was recruited by a ballot system. All the eligible men in a parish would have their names put in a barrel, and the number of men the parish had been asked to supply would be pulled out. The people whose names were read out then either had to report to the militia in person, or had to find a substitute willing to take their place. Often, the man whose name had been pulled out would have to bribe someone else to take their place – sometimes groups of men arranged insurance schemes so that several of them who didn’t want to serve in the militia would club together to pay for someone else, normally a young, single man, to take any of their places if they were called. It is quite possible that Daniel’s recruitment into the militia was in order to take someone else’s place.
The militia was essentially used for home defence. It was one of the terms of service that militia service would only be in Britain unless individuals volunteered for foreign service. As such, many people were more willing to volunteer for the militia than for the army, even more so when you consider that people joining the army were paid a bounty of £7 12s 6d, but someone acting as a substitute for another in the militia could typically expect £25 from those they were substituting.
As its name suggests, the West Middlesex Militia was drawn from the ballots of parishes in the western part of Middlesex. The unit was based at New Brentford. Service in the militia in this period seems to have involved extensive travelling around the country to areas of unrest or to particular coastal areas and ports threatened with invasion. In 1804, the West Middlesex Militia started the year at Ospringe, near Faversham in Kent, transferred to Margate in May, to Dover in June, where they stayed most of the summer guarding the important port town, then transferred to Harwich on the Essex coast in November. The following year, they moved up to Hull, then went to barracks at Bristol in June 1805.
In October 1805, the war against Napoleon took a turn in Britain’s favour. The British Navy successfully defeated the combined French and Spanish Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar, under Admiral Lord Nelson. After this, the threat of invasion of Britain was greatly diminished, and Napoleon concentrated more on land-based campaigns on mainland Europe. By 1811, Napoleon controlled a vast empire, stretching from Spain and Italy in the south to Norway in the north and the edge of Russia in the east.
The West Middlesex Militia continued to travel around after 1805, defending the ports at Bristol, Plymouth, Portsmouth and elsewhere. The threat of invasion having diminished, many men left the militia. In 1807, the West Middlesex Militia had 112 volunteers join the regular army, although it would appear that Daniel Nicholls stayed in the militia.
After a disastrous campaign trying to capture Russia in 1812, Napoleon withdrew to France and spent 1813 trying to regroup his forces, but did not manage to recapture the success of his earlier campaigns.
In England, the winter at the start of 1814 was one of the harshest in living memory. Newspaper reports from January 1814 record snow drifts 4 feet deep on the roads, with temperatures at 7 degrees Fahrenheit (-14 degrees Celsius). In the week before 15 January 1814, the West Middlesex Militia was marching from Nottingham. At Shrewsbury one evening, some of the West Middlesex men spent a night drinking until intoxicated and unwisely slept out by the side of the road – only to be frozen to death.
In April 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate by a group of his generals. He was exiled to Elba, a Mediterranean island of 12,000 people, which he was allowed to rule as Emperor, whilst the French monarchy was restored under King Louis XVIII and at the Treaty of Paris in May 1814 the new king withdrew all French forces back to within the borders of France as had existed in 1792.
In Britain, there were celebrations as peace was restored. On 14th July 1814 a thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The West Middlesex Militia was one of five military units which marched along Pall Mall and The Strand as part of the procession before the service.
The war being over, the militia was no longer needed. Daniel Nicholls was discharged from the West Middlesex Militia on 19th July 1814. As it happens, the peace celebrations were premature. Napoleon escaped from his exile on Elba and seized power in France again in March 1815, but this time ruled for just a hundred days, being decisively defeated at Waterloo on 15th June by Wellington and others. However, by this time, Daniel Nicholls had returned to civilian life.
Return to civilian life
On his discharge from the militia in July 1814, Daniel returned to the area where he had been born. He went to live in the parish of Great Gaddesden, just a mile or so from his birthplace at Hudnall. He was one of many soldiers returning to civilian life, on a scale which had not been seen before in England. The country had adapted to working the land without all the men who were serving in the military. Many of the returning soldiers found that it was hard to find jobs – and that was those who were able-bodied. Many of the returning men were injured, placing a strain on the parishes for poor relief.
For a few months, Daniel, who was now 32, lived in Great Gaddesden without problem. However, in October he sprained his shoulder and was unable to work and therefore unable to support himself. He approached the Overseers of the Poor for Great Gaddesden to request poor relief. They paid him, as was their legal obligation, but clearly weren’t happy to let the matter rest there. As Daniel had been away from the area for over a decade, and had not actually been born in Great Gaddesden parish, they clearly suspected that his legal place of settlement was elsewhere. They called in the local magistrates, William Bingham and J. Halsey, who interviewed Daniel under oath about his employment history on 28th November 1814. Under the rules of settlement, the years he had spent in the militia did not make any difference to where his legal place of settlement was. He recounted to them his employment history for the last sixteen years. He conceded, and they agreed, that his place of settlement was Wheathampstead.
The magistrates granted the Great Gaddesden Overseers of the Poor a removal order, asserting that Daniel had “...lately intruded and come into the Parish of Great Gaddesden...” and continuing “...in His Majesty’s Name to require you the said Church-wardens and Overseers of the Poor... to remove and convey the said Daniel Nicholls from and out of your said Parish of Great Gaddesden to the said Parish of Wheathampsted [sic] and him deliver to the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor there...”.
Thus in December 1814, Daniel found himself escorted twelve miles across Hertfordshire by the officials of Great Gaddesden, and delivered to the officials of Wheathampstead. Of course, the officials at Wheathampstead probably had no idea they were coming until they arrived, brandishing a copy of the magistrates’ order. Daniel was not from Wheathampstead and had merely worked there for sixteen months over eleven years ago. He probably knew few, if any, people in Wheathampstead. Further, he was arriving in the parish a burden to them, unable to work. It was not an auspicious arrival.
Over time, Daniel’s shoulder recovered and he found work. Any thought he may have had of moving back to the Hudnall area would have been confounded by the magistrates’ order which effectively meant the only parish he would ever be able to work in again was Wheathampstead – no other parish would be prepared to run the risk of taking on a man who was known to have once required poor relief.
In January 1817, Daniel was named on a bastardy order as the father of the illegitimate unborn child of Eleanor Filby of Wheathampstead. The baby appears to have died young, being buried in Wheathampstead that June.
Just over two years later on 5th December 1819, five years after his arrival in Wheathampstead and at the age of 37, Daniel was married at the parish church of St Helen’s to a girl called Hannah Filby - who was Eleanor Filby's younger sister. Hannah was 17 years younger than Daniel, having been born in Wheathampstead on 17th February 1799. She was the youngest of five daughters of Joseph Filby and his wife Ann Lawrence, who had married and had their first daughter baptised in Sandridge before moving to Wheathampstead sometime between 1787 and 1789.
Nine months after they married, Daniel and Hannah had a son, William, born on 9th August 1820, and baptised at St Helen’s two months later on 8th October. Sadly, William died when he was only 19 months old, being buried at St Helen’s on 14th March 1822. The following year, Daniel and Hannah had a daughter called Mary, born on 9th May 1823 and baptised at St Helen’s on 27th July.
The baptisms of both William and Mary describe Daniel as a labourer, and give the family’s address as Ribbon Hall, which stood on the Lower Luton Road. Ribbon Hall was once a substantial country house, with a deer park extending along the north side of the Lower Luton Road between Marshall’s Heath and The Folly. By the time Daniel and Hannah lived there, the house appears to have been in decline, with the deer park having reverted to farm land. The house was rebuilt in about 1840 and is now called Lea House.
Daniel died in 1830, at the age of 48. He was buried at St Helen’s on 3rd May 1830, and is simply described in the burial register as a labourer of Wheathampstead. He left behind his six-year old daughter Mary and his young widow, Hannah, who was only 31 – and pregnant. A few months later (the exact date is not recorded) she gave birth at Gustard Wood in Wheathampstead to a son, whom she named Daniel William Nicholls, after both the husband and son she had lost.
After Daniel’s death, his widow Hannah moved around a bit. Her parents had both died in the 1820s, and her sisters do not appear to have stayed in Wheathampstead. Hannah worked as a straw plaiter, and in early 1831 she moved to Luton, the centre of the straw plaiting industry. It was at St Mary’s in Luton that she had young Daniel William baptised on 29th May 1831, when he was a few months old. She then returned to Wheathampstead, where her daughter Mary died at the age of 14, being buried at St Helen’s on 19th July 1837. Thus the only child of Daniel Nicholls who lived to adulthood was the one he never met, Daniel William.
Hannah then moved to St Albans, living in Snatchup Alley, behind the Cricketers public house at the northern end of the town. She married again on her 40th birthday, 17th February 1839, at St Peter’s Church in St Albans, to a John Maddox, a widower originally from Shillington in Bedfordshire. They had one daughter, Ann, in 1840. In the 1841 and 1851 censuses they lived in the Coldharbour Lane area of Batford in Harpenden, before moving to The Folly, a hamlet on the Lower Luton Road between Wheathampstead and Batford where they were living in 1861. Hannah died in 1866, at the age of 67.