“Sudden mental derangement” at East India House

Tracy and I would never call ourselves genealogists, and there are many extremely skilled people out there who know research tricks we’ve never even thought of. We’re just a couple of curious and tenacious writers who love history and putting our family story in context. When we came upon the anecdote of our ancestors, Benjamin Jones and Margaret Davies, walking from Wales to London with their cows in search of a better life, it seemed the natural start for our story. And we were a bit relieved not to have to peer yet further into these distant branches of the Welsh part of our tree, where suddenly everyone was named Jones and Davies and Evans. There was even a John Jones and a David Davies and an Evan Evans! Instead, we went forward, following the path of our family over the next hundred years or so, where luckily they mixed with others who had more easily searchable names. For all we’ve discovered, I’m still intrigued by what came before, and a little in awe of people who’ve traced their families back much further than we have. Sisters Alison Botterill and Fiona Duxbury, whose grandmother we wrote about a while back in An Unknown Soldier and an Unconventional Woman, have done extensive research on many different branches of their family, and find themselves most curious about a line that was wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but whose station declined over time. Much as we did in preparation for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, the sisters have written short pieces about members of their family in order to put the bigger story in perspective, and have generously agreed to share one here.

East India House, Leadenhall
East India House, Leadenhall Street, shortly after its reconstruction in the late 1790s. Courtesy the British Library.

A Sad Tale

A very melancholy circumstance happened yesterday forenoon. Mr John Burford, Clerk to the Committee of East India Directors for Buying threw himself out of a one-pair-of-stairs window, under the new portico of the India House, Leadenhall Street. His head was broken to atoms and he only survived a few minutes. He was taken into the House where his body will lie till the Coroner’s Jury give their verdict this day. The cause of this fatal accident can only be attributed to sudden mental derangement as Mr Burford had regularly transacted his business in the office, tho’ he had for some time appeared rather dejected. He had been only two minutes in the room, where there were other Clerks, when he opened the window, and suddenly sprang out of it, in the sight of a number of people.

8 May, 1800, The Times

India_House wiki
This image shows the portico, the site of John’s suicide, more clearly. The “one-pair-of-stairs window” simply means the upper floor. A search through the British Newspaper Archive reveals all sorts of people throwing themselves from one, two, and three pair-of-stairs windows. See also the poem, “From a Fourth-Pair Window.”

John was born in 1748, one of three sons of Richard Burford, a distiller of Wapping, whose family had been in that business for at least four generations. His elder brother Richard was a Blackwell Hall factor and the largest supplier of broadcloth to the East India Company, and his younger brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, worked in the Pay Office at that company.

John married Lucy Elsden of Kings Lynn in 1786 and they had 8 children, at least two of them dying in childhood. Lucy’s mother was Elizabeth Rolfe, of that Norfolk family made famous by an ancestor, John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas in the early 17th century in America (and not John Smith as per the Disney film, although he was the man she saved from death). Her father, Edmund Elsden, was a very wealthy Norfolk merchant who left a fortune at his death in 1793. At the time of Lucy and John’s marriage it must be assumed John was on a sound financial footing – her sisters also made very good marriages to rich men – as it is unlikely her father would have otherwise allowed the marriage.

John had been appointed to the role of Assistant Clerk to the Committee of Buying in 1772 and ten years later was promoted to the position of Clerk.   At the time of his marriage he was living in Lothbury, in the City of London, with his brother Richard, but then moved with his new wife to a house at no. 2 Artillery Place, just off Finsbury Square where Richard had relocated to. Jonathan Sommers Burford and his family were living in Great  James Street, Bedford Row, its smart Georgian terraces still surviving.

Screen Shot 2018-11-19 at 11.14.20 AM
An excerpt from the Old Bailey trial two years before John’s death. The full account can be seen at the wonderful Old Bailey site, including the fate of those convicted of the crime.

In December 1798 John and Lucy were burgled at home of a large number of items, mainly clothes, and both of them appeared as witnesses at the Old Bailey. Of the four accused, two were found guilty and sentenced to death.

A few months after John’s death, Richard was issued with a notice for bankruptcy and he was summoned to appear before the bankruptcy court in September 1800. Having looked at various registers at the East India Library, it is apparent just how fortunes were made and lost, given that in the later part of the 18th century Richard was turning over around £90,000 each year.

John wrote his will in 1796 naming his wife and brother Richard as executors. Curiously, he requested that he be buried in the vault with his “dear sister-in-law,” Mrs Richard Burford, in Finchley.  The burial records for St Mary’s, Finchley, show that this is indeed what happened despite his death being by his own hand. His brother Jonathan Sommers Burford appeared as witness to the will on John’s death.

To date I have found no reference to John’s suicide in the East India Company records held at the British Library. Perhaps he had secretly been giving his brother Richard preference over other suppliers to the company and this had been discovered? Perhaps the burglary had affected him badly? Perhaps, given his father-in-law’s successful business ventures and those of his sister-in-laws’ husbands, he felt a great deal of shame about Richard’s  impending bankruptcy? (Later his other brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, would face financial difficulties too.) Perhaps he felt the loss of his baby son Edward in the February of 1800, aged only 2 months, very deeply? (Lucy was to lose their eldest son John the following year, aged only 8). Or perhaps the request in his will to be buried with Richard’s wife hints at some darker family scandal? Sadly, we will probably never discover the reasons why he should have felt the need to end it all.

© Alison Botterill & Fiona Duxbury

4 thoughts on ““Sudden mental derangement” at East India House

  1. Marilyn Charbonneau

    Very interesting story of “A Sad Tale”. There are so many interesting stories discovered when doing research and for some, like this one, we can never know the true reasons for a person’s actions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The effect financial security has on one’s feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction with life has changed little over time, for some. For John, this is one outstanding action he will be remembered by, although he was much more than just this story. Yes, many interesting tales on the surface, and more through digging a bit deeper.

    Liked by 1 person

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