Matson Family, Dissenters, Solton and the Trunnel Feast

 West Cliffe and Solton underlined in red

West Cliffe and Solton underlined in red

The Matson’s hailed from Solton, then part of West Cliffe, about three miles east of Dover and less than a mile from St Margaret’s at Cliffe. The parish of West Cliffe, adjacent to the A258 Dover-Deal Road traditionally consisted of four farms, West Cliffe, Wallet’s Court, Solton (on the east Langdon side of the A258) and Bere, together with a few cottages. The tiny church is dedicated to St Peter. At the time of the Conquest (1066), the area of West Cliffe amounted to 1,165 acres and included the cliffs overlooking the Strait of Dover.

At that time, the 432 acre Wallet’s Court was taxed at two shulings while the 216-acre Solton, was taxed at one shuling. The remaining 517 acres that made up West Cliffe appears to have been uncultivated. Edric was listed as the earliest landholder of Wallet’s Court and Godfrid owned Solton. Following the Conquest the manors came into the hands of Hugo de Montford a close associate of the Constable of Dover Castle, Odo – Bishop of Bayieux (c 1030s–1097) and William I’s (1066-1087) half brother. When Odo fell from grace in 1090, de Montford relinquished the lands.

Solton Manor courtesy of Leonie Mercer

Solton Manor courtesy of Leonie Mercer

The Manor of Solton, following the demise of Odo, was first granted to Jeffrey de Peverel, one of eight knights who were given Odo’s confiscated property in exchange for knights’ service. Knight’s service was the provision of a defensive tower and connecting walls at the Castle and the men to man it. By the early 16th century, the land was in the hands of Robert Finet (d1582), whose grandfather came to England with Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio (1474–1539) in 1519. Robert married Alice, the daughter of John Wenlock, the Captain of Calais – then in English possession. His son, John (1571–1641), was the Master of Ceremonies to Charles I (1625-1649) and was known for his witty but course songs.

John Finet was knighted on 23 March 1616 succeeding as Master of Ceremonies in 1626 and his main role was entertaining foreign envoys at Court. In 1618, John married Jane the daughter of Henry, Lord Wentworth of Nettleshead, Suffolk, and had three children John junior, Lucy and Finetta. John died on 12 July 1641 and was buried at St Martin’s in the Field, London. It appears that he left Solton Manor to his two daughters who sold it to Nathaniel Matson (1665-1719).

St Mary's Church - Cannon Street.

St Mary’s Church – Cannon Street.

Nathaniel was the son of John and Mary Matson of Dover and was baptised at St Mary’s Church, Dover, on 24 November 1665. John Matson, a local merchant, was elected the Mayor of Dover in 1668 and for the following two years. He appears to have been a popular man, for his election on both occasions was, contrary to the established rule, open to all Freemen. The old custom was for the Jurats to select four candidates from their number and from this short list the Freemen would elect the Mayor.

At the time, Dover was divided between those who supported the Church of England (Anglicans) and those who dissented from those beliefs (Nonconformists). The Corporations Regulation Act of 1661 purged the Corporation of Nonconformists and in the autumn of 1662, eighty-two Freemen were struck off the roll. Following this, the Nonconformists worshipped privately but over time they became bolder.

In 1669, when John Matson was the Mayor John Carlisle, a Dover Jurat and Anglican wrote to the Charles II’s (1649-1685) Privy Council and complained. In his letter, he specifically named high profile Nonconformists in the town, namely, Samuel Taverner, Richard Matson, Edward Dell, Nathaniel Barry, Anthony Street, and Simon Yorke. The King ordered the Corporation to close their places of worship and the Nonconformists spent much of the next eighteen years in the Castle prison for their beliefs.

John Matson was elected Mayor a third time in 1670, by the open votes of the Freemen but another Anglican, Richard Barley, appealed to the Privy Council. While the case was being examined, John Carlisle acted as Mayor. On 8 September, there was a riot against Carlisle but the Privy Council supported Richard Barley who was then elected Mayor.

Harbour 1738 glass slide artist Nathaniel & Samuel Buck. Dover Museum

Harbour 1738 glass slide artist Nathaniel & Samuel Buck. Dover Museum

Along with John Hammond, Arnold Braemes and others, John built his home, warehouse and quay along side the Great Paradise, part of Dover harbour. The houses fronted onto Strond Street, in the Pier District of Dover. Strond Street and quays were built on reclaimed land and in 1670, the Harbour Commission exerted their rights under the Charter 1606. Along side of the Great Paradise they laid one continuous quay and as the Custom House was next to it, they named it, Custom House Quay. However, for a long time after the quay retained the names of the owners of the warehouses it fronted.

In those days the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports duties included the chairmanship of the Harbour Commission and up until 1668, the combined positions were held by the King’s brother, James the Duke of York – later James II (1685-1688). In 1669 he had declared himself a Roman Catholic and under the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678 – penal laws that served as a religious test for holders of public offices and were particularly used against Roman Catholics – James was obliged to resign from all offices. These included Lord Warden and Chairman of the Harbour Commission. Sir Heneage Finch, 3rd Earl of Winchilsea (1628–1689) was appointed in his place and by 1676 John Matson had been appointed to the Harbour Commission. That year the Barons of the Exchequer asked the Commission to define the limits of the Port of Dover and also the quays and wharves in the Harbour. One of the quays specified by name was John Matson Quay, which measured on the west side of his warehouse 45 feet, and from thence towards the north 35 feet.

18th Century sketch of St James' Church

18th Century sketch of St James’ Church

In April 1670, Mary Matson gave birth to another son, Henry (1670-1721) who was baptised on 26 April at St James’s Church – now the Tidy Ruin. Although they had thirteen children, only Nathaniel and Henry survived to adulthood. Both men were seen as wealthy, pompous but neither appealed nor were interested in the opposite sex. They had a number of cousins and other relatives and so when Nathaniel Matson died on 5 December 1719, the relatives expected that they would receive something in his Will. Nathaniel, whom had distanced himself from the Nonconformists, was buried in St James Churchyard, two days after he died. His coffin bearers were the Mayor Captain Henry Blindstone, Jurat Thomas Bradley, Collector of Dover Customs William Veale, John Slodden, Robert Wickenden and Benjamin Devinck. When his Will was read, Nathaniel did leave a modicum amount of money to be shared between his relatives but the bulk of the estate and all his land holdings went to his brother, Henry.

Like his brother, Henry had distanced himself from the Nonconformists but he was a churchwarden at St Mary’s church. It was said that he had first set eyes on Elizabeth Stokes, a relative of Elizabeth Gunman, at a church service and that she was quite a beauty. Henry was smitten and a meeting was arranged on one of the harbour pier heads with Elizabeth and her mother. Henry was, by this time, 49-years old and considered himself handsome. To ensure that Elizabeth thought the same, he went on a shopping spree to London, where, for Henry, he spent a small fortune. He bought shoes, hats, wigs and to finish his apparel off, a gold-headed walking stick.

Dover harbour circa 1800

Dover harbour circa 1800

The day came for the meeting and the weather was perfect. Henry jauntily walked to the pier for once smiling at passers by. When he espied mother and daughter, he thrust back his head, pushed out his chest and was walking towards them when calamity struck! His gold-headed walking stick went through a hole in the wooden pier! Henry lost his balance and also his demeanour and swore loudly. The hole was caused by a missing trunnel –  wooden pegs that were driven through the holes to secure the planks above to the wooden timbers beneath. Elizabeth and her mother not only saw the catastrophe they were in earshot and were deeply offended by Henry’s obscenities. They immediately walked away and refused to have anything more to do with him.

Dover Harbour Entrance by William Heath published 1836 by Rigden. Dover Harbour Board

Dover Harbour Entrance by William Heath published 1836 by Rigden. Dover Harbour Board

Henry was mortified such that when he made his Will, on 17 October 1720, he instructed his executors to acquire lands which would bring in ‘£150 per annum to the Warden and Assistants of Dover Harbour for the use and repair of the said harbour for ever, on condition that: The Warden and Assistants should take care to have the trunnel holes stopped and constantly kept so and the pins cut off close and even, or else this gift to be void.’

On 11 March 1721 Henry died and was buried in St James Churchyard. One of the bearers of his coffin was the Mayor – John Hollingbery, whom George I (1714-1727), had removed from office as he was a Tory and the King disliked Tories! John Knott was elected Mayor in John Hollingbery’s place. The other bearers of the coffin were former Mayor Captain Henry Blindstone, Collector of Dover Customs William Veale, Captain James Gunman RN, Captain Charles Lamb, Benjamin Devinck 150 per annum including Solton and these were put in Trust for the Harbour Board. However, the relatives were not happy, with Christopher Matson saying that the Will was a ‘sentimental and extravagant benefaction.’ Assisted by Isaac Minet, Christopher Matson sought redress through the Court of Chancery but the case was not settled until 1772 and then in favour of the Harbour Commission except for £40 a year. That was reserved for poor relations of Henry Matson with the proviso that no recipient may have more than £10 a year.

Digges Place, Barham, once part of the Matson legacy

Digges Place, Barham, once part of the Matson legacy

From then on, the local dignitaries, headed by Dover’s Mayor and including the members of the Harbour Commission, would, every year, ceremoniously fill in a couple of holes where trunnels were missing and then retire to a nearby hostelry and enjoy the Trunnel Feast paid for out of the legacy! The remaining missing trunnels would be filled as and when. The Harbour Commissioners, in 1800, sold Solton Manor to Thomas Hatton of Buckland. Nonetheless, by 1834 the Matson bequest amounted to £348 17shillings a year. This income came from Singledge farm at Whitfield £128 13s 3d, Horsehead Farm £30 3s 3d, Digges Place at Barham £182 6s 3d and Barham Mill £7 14s 0d. Two years later the Treasurer to the Harbour Commissioners, Henshaw Latham, stopped the Trunnel Feast and the money coming from the rents of properties was used for harbour repairs.

Western Docks from St Martins Battery, Western Heights  Alan Sencicle 2009

Western Docks from St Martins Battery, Western Heights Alan Sencicle 2009

In October 1926, Dover Corporation inquired of Dover Harbour Board what had happened to the remainder of the Matson bequest and were told by Rutley Mowll, Harbour Board Register, that the land holdings had been sold some years before and the proceeds used for the harbour. As for Henry Matson’s relatives’ bequest, this still exists and is administered by the Municipal Almshouse Charity of Dover. If there are no applicants in any one-year then the money reverts to the Charity.

Presented: 18 February 2014

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About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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