The Comport family.
As readers of this blog will, by now, be aware my interest in Sheila Kaye-Smith’s writing has led me to look at Sussex, Northiam, hop growing and much more. In the village of Northiam (where Kaye-Smith lived for most of her later life) I came across the Unitarian Chapel – now a house – and in its grounds are the graves of several members of the Comport family. Kaye-Smith makes mention of this Northiam family along with others that she notes have surnames that indicate a French origin. Kaye-Smith suggests that the Comports, Poiles, Papillions, Hansons, Gassons and Perigoes were from families that originally came to England as Huguenot refugees. While she may well be right about some of these families – Hanson family members are recorded in the Rye records as being Huguenots who sought refuge in Britain – the Comports appear to have a history in this country that dates back into the Middle Ages, although they may still have a French ancestry. In Gallybird Kaye-Smith uses her own, slightly altered spelling, of the Perigoe and Comport surnames for two young French emigres. Perigoe becomes de Perigault and Comport is de Champfort.
However, Kaye-Smith is not the only novelist to use the Comport family as an inspiration for characters. There is some controversy over which set of Comport graves Charles Dickens used as the inspiration for the graves of Pip’s brothers and sisters in Great Expectations but it is most likely that the row of lozenge tombs in Cooling churchyard, that are ranged on either side of a large headstone commemorating Michael and Jane Comport, provided Dickens with the idea for the “five little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row … and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine….” These graves commemorate infants who range in age from 3 months to 17 months at the time of their deaths. The oldest grave is that of Mary Comport, who died in infancy in 1767, and the latest is that of Thomas Comport, who died in 1800 at the age of 3 months. Dickens often used to walk from his house in Higham to Cooling and he particularly liked the church and the churchyard. He is supposed to have had family picnics in the churchyard, laying out the family meal on the large table tomb next to Pip’s Graves that also commemorates members of the Comport family. The author’s son, Charles, said that his father loved Cooling more than any other church.
Although Cooling is the excepted location for Pip’s graves, there are also similar Comport graves in High Halstow churchyard. Beside the entrance to the church there are six small lozenge tombs that commemorate Comport children who died in infancy. These are of a later date than those at Cooling, but the latest of them does predate Great Expectations by some two years. The extended Comport family were farmers on the Hoo Peninsula in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century.
Dickens makes a much more specific mention of the Comport name in The Uncommon Traveller Chapter lX – “City of London Churches”. On an unspecified Sunday Dickens records his visit to a “dim church” in the City. Occupying a family pew he curiously browsed through a heap of prayer books that he found in the corner. The books dated back to 1754 and seemed to have belonged to the Dowgate family. “Jane Comport must have married Young Dowgate” for he seems to have given her a prayer book and “recorded the presentation in the fly-leaf”. Dickens conjectures that “Comport, had taken him, Dowgate, in a flush of youthful hope and joy”.
It is certain, from the numerous graves for members of the Comport family, that Comports lived on the Hoo Peninsula and that other branches of the family lived in the nearby Kent parishes of Ryarsh, Shorne, and Cobham. It is more difficult to find specific proof for the early ancestry of these families. Hasted and Ireland, in their histories of Kent reference Ralph de Curva Spina, a Norman knight, is recorded in Domesday as residing at Comport or Comford in the parish of Birling. Perhaps, those living near this manor adopted its name or referred to themselves as de Comport. Hasted places this manor in the North East part of the parish approximately half a mile east of Birling Place. On Speed’s 1610 map the manor is marked as Camford while on Drury’s map of 1769 it is recorded as Comforts. Close to Birling is the larger settlement of Cobham and from the early 1700s Comports were living in Cobham. Later in the Eighteenth century they appear in the church records of the nearby parishes of Shorne, Ryarsh and Offham. Comports had appeared in written records from the late fifteenth century with a John Comporte mentioned in a Deed in Addington in 1481. Comports also appear in Sussex – an Ambrose Comport appears to be a steward to Sir Anthony Browne on his Battle estates and is mentioned in documents that refer to the Sussex Iron industry in the Tudor period. More notorious is the John Comport accused of murder. In Crowhurst on Wednesday 28th August 1532 one Robert Grame was murdered and subsequently John Comport was accused, with his servant, of the murder. John was never convicted and seems to have disappeared from history. http://www.academia.edu/9942847/Murder_at_Crowhurst_A_Case_Study_in_Early_Tudor_Law_Enforcement recounts the details of the law case.
My particular interest, however, is in John Comport of Northiam. My research in census returns, death records and his Will indicate 1784 as the year of his birth and have led me to a John Comport who was born in Ryarsh in 1784. The son of a Glazier, George Comport, and his wife Martha nee Pawley, John was the eldest of seven children. However his subsequent appearances in written records raise a number of questions. By 1810 he was in Northiam, working as a Plumber and Glazier and marrying a local girl, Elizabeth Elliott. How, why and when he went from Ryarsh to Northiam is a mystery. In 1812 John and Elizabeth’s son William was born. William lived out his life in Northiam. By 1818 Elizabeth was dead and John married another local girl, Elizabeth Perigoe. The records indicate that she gave birth to two sons – Alfred (born 1821, died 1846 in Malling) and Frederick (born 1823, died 1878 in London). In 1826 the widowed John Comport married Ann Bredin. The marriage took place in Northiam although she had been born in Pevensey but was presumably living in Northiam. Ann gave birth to a daughter, Adelaide who died as a young girl, and a son George Pryor who eventually emigrated to Australia.
John is listed in the 1841 Census, is on the Poll returns as a voter in 1820, 1832 and 1837, worked as a Plumber and Glazier, and the Tithe return indicates that he was the owner of property and land as well as renting land in the village. The Tithe return indicates that he grew hops, had pasture land, owned more than one property as well as garden and orchard.
He died in 1846 leaving a detailed Will. This Will mentions that he has various businesses, among which was a business that made fine quality hop tokens for his own use but also for neighbouring hop growers. His goods and chattels, including his silver, is left to his wife but to be sold or divided between his living children after her death. I can find no record of his place of burial but as his family were committed Unitarians I strongly suspect he is buried in the graveyard at Northiam Unitarian Chapel in an unmarked grave.
He appears to have been a literate man – in 1826 he was a subscriber to a book of poetry. As this was the year of his marriage to Ann Bredin is it too fanciful to wonder if this was a marriage gift? Rural Lays by Mary Ann Plomley is a work of religious and nature poetry that makes a direct connection between the natural world and God as creator, but also touches upon more social and moral issues such as Slavery, which is heartily condemned, and philosophically explores the joys of solitude and the human contentment that is to be gained from communion with nature. Of variable quality as literary works, the poems are of interest because they give us an insight into the attitudes and concerns of a young woman in early nineteenth century rural England as she discusses the social, religious and moral issues of the time. As far as I can discover Mary Ann Plomley was a local young woman and probably a Unitarian. The scant official records that mention her, and her attitudes in the poetry, point to the often liberal and humanitarian views of the Unitarians.
Although it is impossible to know if John subscribed to Mary Ann Plomley’s views on slavery I very much like to think he was liberal and open minded enough to endorse her condemnation of the English who kept slaves.
Below is the last section of the poem entitled The Negro Slave.
Oh England! England! Why so vainly boast
Thy tarnish’d laurels and polluted fame!
Remember you art offspring of the dust…
Thy deeds enshrined in characters of flame!
Shall commerce prosper on thy pejur’d coast,
While still thou dost thy brother man enslave?
Shall thy proud sons, – so cruel, – so unjust,
Be ranked among the great, the truly brave?
Oh think that human-kind, though black or brown,
Have minds as great, and feelings like your own!
If anyone reading this blog has any information about the early life of John Comport I would love to hear from you. Is he the John Comport born in Ryarsh? When did he move to Northiam? Why did he move to Northiam? How did he manage to amass a variety of businesses and become a man of some substance?