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Thomas Ellison, the Hixon Estate and the Civil War

Christopher O'Riordan
© the author 1987

(First published in the Durham County Local History Society's Bulletin, no. 39, Dec. 1987, pp.3-11.)

During the English Civil War of 1642 - 1646 the Parliamentarians introduced a policy of sequestration against the estates of their opponents and other transgressors, including catholics. One such estate was that of the Hixons, a family of minor catholic gentry living at East Murton in County Durham. After its sequestration in 1644 this estate was leased to Thomas Ellison of Easington as a reward for his services as a military messenger. Ellison, formerly the town shepherd of Easington, was 'much enriched' by his tenure, while the Hixons were reduced to poverty. Ellison continued to hold the lands into the 1650s; the Hixons regained them by the Restoration, only, it seems, to sell them off in 1661. In 1653 Isabell Hixon began proceedings against Ellison over the estate. The document resulting from this case, especially the interrogatories and depositions, are the basic source of information on this affair.[1]

East Murton or Morton, also known as Murton-on-the-Moor or Murton-in-the-Whins,[2] was a 'township' (by our standards a hamlet) in the parish of Dalton, in Easington ward. The estate was the jointure of Isabell Hixon. Her husband Richard had possessed lands elsewhere, but had years before disposed of them as a dowry for his daughters.[3] The Murton property consisted of two farmholds, and was worth between £100 and £120 in terms of the annual rental income it could fetch.[4] It was probably the same property as that sold in 1661. The latter consisted of '2 messuages, 4 gardens, 50 acres of [arable] land, 150 acres of meadow, and 200 acres of pasture', and was sold for £1,800.[5] Richard Hixon died in December 1640, and Isabell then took possession of the estate, disposing of it as she pleased until the sequestration.[6]

The Civil War broke out in 1642. It began badly for the Parliamentarians, and by 1643 most of the North of England, as well as Wales and the South-West, was in royalist hands. In the latter year Parliament passed the sequestration measure. The aim was to place the revenues of miscreants' estates at its disposal, while depriving the enemy of the same. Local committees were established, generally one to each county, to administer the process. Basically, two types were sequestrable: 'popish recusants' and 'delinquents'. The former were catholics and their supporters; in the latter category were included not only those who fought or worked on the side of the King, but also those who evaded their military taxes or moved to royalist territory without permission. Most of these offenders were subsequently allowed to 'compound', or have their estates back, in return for a fine set at a fraction of the estate's value (such as one half, one sixth or one tenth). For this they had to apply to the Committee for Compounding in London. Compounders had also to agree to adhere to Presbyterianism (at least in its English form), and for this reason few catholics compounded. Most recusant estates continued under sequestration into the 1650s. Making allowance for this, Parliament permitted recusants to retain one third of their estates for their maintenance.[7]

The Parliamentarians concluded an alliance with Scotland in September 1643, and in January 1644 the Scots crossed into England under the command of Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven. Over the next few months they progressed southwards against the royalist forces commanded by the Earl of Newcastle. Meanwhile, parliamentarian armies under Lords Fairfax and Manchester were putting pressure on the Royalists from the South. At the beginning of March Leven occupied Sunderland, thus gaining access to supplies from the sea. The rest of the month was taken up with manoeuvring and fighting between Scots and Royalists in the Sunderland area. At the end of the month the London government ordered Fairfax to maintain contact with Leven. Leven moved south to Easington (1 April), and on 12 April the Earl of Newcastle, hearing of a serious royalist defeat at Selby in Yorkshire, decided to abandon Durham and retreat south to reinforce the important royalist garrison at York. The Scots followed, and on 18 April linked up with the Parliamentarians west of York. The siege of York (April-June) led to the shattering parliamentarian victory at Marston Moor (2 July) and consequent royalist loss of most of northern England.[8]

Anthony Smith, a local gentleman of Dalton, was serving under General Leven at the time of the campaign in County Durham. Leven asked him to find 'a faithful man [who] would carry letters to the Lord General Fairfax'. Smith named Ellison for the task.[9]

Subsequent testimony of parliamentarian officials and army officers stated that

in our greatest distresses in the Northern parts [Ellison] did willingly and very jeopardously hazard his life for the Common good of the Parliament in bringing of true intelligence to my Lord General Fairfax and General Leven, and what dangerous designs soever we set him upon he did very faithfully discharge[10]

Thomas Ellison did several times pass through the enemy's quarters betwixt the English [county] commissioners at Sunderland and the Scottish Army and Lord Fairfax's Army to carry intelligence and to obtain relief from the siege at York when the enemy disturbed the party at Sunderland and endangered the burning of the shipping (as they [in fact] had set fire on the Coals and collieries) ...[11]

In about August 1644 the parliamentarian authorities began sequestering 'recusant' and 'delinquent' estates in County Durham. Among these was that of the Hixons.[12] In later proceedings Isabell Hixon claimed that the state had been sequestered upon Ellison's information of her husband's recusancy, incorrectly since the latter had died in 1640.[13] If this mistake had indeed been made, it was subsequently corrected, for later records show the sequestration to be for her own recusancy.[14]

On 16 November 1644 the county sequestration committee leased the entire Hixon estate to Ellison in reward of 'his good services done for the Parliament and the Army'.[15] The lease was to be for one year, but the committee promised to 'renew it for as long time as our authority will afford'. A proviso was made for the non-disturbance of under-tenants still in lease. The lease was signed by Sir William Armyne, Robert Fenwicke and Richard Barwise, whom Welford describes as the leading sequestration activists in County Durham.[16]

In November 1645 the committee ordered Ellison to pay Hixon one third of the profits, in line with the rules for recusants' estates.[17] In fact, he did not begin doing this until 1648-49 (see below).

An order of the House of Commons of April 1646 confirmed Ellison in his holding for as long as the estate remained under sequestration.[18] For some reason, however, the order described the holding as a single farm (rather than the two farms of which the estate was traditionally accounted to consist). This may simply have been a mistake, but it was later used by Hixon (unsuccessfully) as a legal point of attack (see below).

The committee's lease had put Ellison's rent at a yearly rate of £25 6s.8d., including £5 6s.8d. for the traditional or 'ancient' rent of the lands.[19] the Commons order fixed it at a round £25 per annum. This was a quarter or a fifth of the estate's normal rental value. One would thus assume that it was a bargain rent. However, it should be noted that the rentals of estates generally fell during the Civil War, as a result of heavy taxation, war damage and other factors, the amount varying from a small fraction to all or most of the value. The Hixon estate itself had in 1644 been let to the previous tenant for a similar rent.[12] Estate rentals began a return to normal after the War, and the Hixon estate was worth far more than £25 per annum in 1650 (see below). There is no evidence on the condition of the estate during the War, and so it cannot be told whether Ellison had good terms of tenure at this time. But he certainly did later on.[20]

Ellison had been the Shepherd of Easington, and a very poor man.[21] He apparently 'much enriched' himself through his possession and management of the estate.[22] The Hixons, on the other hand, were reduced to poverty. The Murton estate was their only source of income, and until she 'recovered her thirds' in 1649 all that Isabell received from it was an annual maintenance allowance of £6. This Ellison paid here at the behest of the committee, saying that he gave it in charity. As a result Isabell had to send her daughters to friends to support them.[23]

In the later proceedings of 1653 Mrs. Hixon's 'prosecution case' claimed that the estate's productive capacity had been greatly reduced by Ellison's over-exploitation, in the form of ploughing up of inappropriate land, keeping it in constant tillage, and felling a great part of the timber. The interrogatories asked whether 'all or most of the meadow or other best grounds' had been ploughed up, although deponents only confirmed that 16 or 20 acres of such grounds had been ploughed. Ellison was also reported to have cut down 'divers ash trees in the hedges' and 'divers timber trees growing about the [mansion] house'. As a result the estate's rental value had been reduced, by £10 according to one witness, by £20 according to another.[24]

The Ellison 'defence' replied that he only tilled 16 acres in total, about half as much as had been tilled under the Hixons, and had not ploughed any land that had not been formerly cultivated, except for 8 acres of ground overgrown with gorse and bracken, which was thereby 'much improved' in value. As for the timber, Ellison had been compelled to fell it to build a new ox house after one third of the estate's buildings had been apportioned to Hixon in 1649, and also to maintain the old-established buildings and fences.[25]

If the settlement which the Durham sequestration committee initiated in 1648 proved a loss to Thomas Ellison, neither was it satisfactory in the upshot for Mrs. Hixon. In February the committee ordered that a third of the real estate, including the 'mansion house' be set out for Hixon. To this end they appointed four men, Captain Robert Sharpe, Richard Foster, William Shepherdson and John Gregson, to act as arbiters. Ellison was ordered to pay Hixon the arrears of the one third of profits, due from his time of entry.[26] In March, considering that the Commons order of 1646 had only specified one farm, the committee made the order harsher. The remaining two thirds of the estate were to be sequestered 'to the use of the state' until Ellison paid up rent arrears for one of the farms to the estate, as well as the arrears due to Hixon.[27]

These orders seem to have had no effect, as in November Ellison was described as being still in possession of the estate. Having heard both parties in the case, the committee returned to its original position, ordering merely that one third with the 'mansion house' be apportioned to Hixon. For reasons not apparent the arrears of profits due to Hixon were now to be payable from 1 May 1648 only. The two parties were to choose two arbiters apiece to arrange the execution of the order.[28]

Captain Sharpe was one of the arbiters appointed by Ellison. Shepherdson and Gregson were, evidently, those appointed by Hixon. (Possibly Foster served again too.) On 19 January 1649 the arbiters met to draw up an agreement. Sharpe actually wrote the relevant documents. In addition to giving practical form to the committee's order, a rider was added, allegedly without the knowledge of Shepherdson and Gregson, stating that the agreement was to end all differences between Hixon and Ellison. Because she would thereby have lost the arrears for 1644-48, Hixon refused to 'stand to' this agreement. Nevertheless it is evident that the arrears for 1648-49 were paid to her, and that she held a third of the estate from this time.[29] When, if ever, she obtained the arrears for 1644-48 we do not know.

In January 1650 Parliament passed an act to reform sequestration procedures. Amongst other provisions, sequestered estates were to be surveyed, and thenceforth let to whoever would offer the highest rent.[30] In June, apparently in connexion with this, Thomas Ellison was deprived of his two thirds. In March 1651 the Durham committee wrote to the Committee for Compounding, expressing their confusion over this issue. The holding, as laid out in the Commons' order of 1646, was worth more than £60 per annum,[31] whereas that order had allowed it to him for only £25. What should they do? The Compounding Committee instructed them to ensure that the lands (as well as 'all others of the like nature') be let out for the highest attainable rents. In May Ellison petitioned the Compounding Committee. Complaining of his loss, he cited the 1646 order, and appended testimony of witnesses as to his services to the State (quoted above). The Compounding Committee now ordered the Durham committee to survey the estate, and to 'certify unto us the true yearly value thereof, and what the same is worth to be let out for seven years', but not to dispose of it without further order. The Compounding Committee were unable, however, to order the return of Ellison's holding without further instructions from Parliament.[32]

There is nothing relating to this in the printed journals of Parliament. The account-books of the sequestration committee, however, show that Ellison did regain two thirds of the estate, although it is not clear when. In autumn 1650 the rent (still recorded as £12 10s. for a half year, although the holding was now only two thirds) was 'in arrears', i.e. suspended. A year later, rent was again being paid, having now been adjusted to a half-yearly rate of £8 6s.8d. or £16 13s.4d. per annum. The accounts do not give the name of the tenant, so we cannot be sure that it was Ellison. This state of affairs continued until 1654. In 1654-55, the method of tabulation having been changed, the accounts reveal Ellison to be the tenant. No account books survive for after this time, and there is no further record of Ellison's tenure. It may be noted that Isabell Hixon's petition of January 1653 described Ellison as having been in possession of two thirds of the estate up to that time, but she does not mention the break and so her accuracy is suspect.[33]

This petition, which was in the name of Isabell's daughters Mar[gery] and Joan as well as herself, was directed to the Compounding Committee. It reiterated complaints previously made about the sequestration. The estate had, she stated, been wrongfully sequestered for her late husband's recusancy. This, if true, was irrelevant: if it was not sequestrable for the dead catholic husband, it was so for the living catholic widow. And how could she hope to cover up her catholicism? The Durham committee had noted her recusancy at least as early as 1650.[34] The Compounding Committee did likewise soon after the petition was made.[35] She also complained that Ellison held both farms 'under the grant of one farm', and at a much lower rate than she would have given; and of his 'misuse' of the woods and lands. Lastly, her petition complained of the 'very poor condition' of her daughters (finance-wise, presumably) and asked the Committee 'to grant some allowance forth of the [estate] for their maintenance'. This is puzzling: income from the third held be Isabell should have supplied this nee. Perhaps it was not sufficient to support them in their expected life-style.

The Committee referred the matter to the Durham committee, and in May 1653 hearings were held - giving rise to the papers which form the basis of the present article.[36] No result of these proceedings is apparent. In January 1654 Joan Hixon petitioned the Compounding Committee, asking to contract for the sequestered two thirds, as provided for by the Recusants' Act of October 1653 (which allowed recusants to do this, though on harsh terms).[37] There is no evident outcome of this application either and, as we have seen, Ellison was still in possession of the two thirds in 1654-55.

Lands confiscated during the Civil War and Commonwealth were generally returned to their original owners soon after the Restoration in 1660 and the Parliamentarian interlopers turned out.[38] If Thomas Ellison had held on up to this time, he now presumably met with this fate too. In 1661 the Hixons sold their lands in Murton to Mark Milbanke, an alderman of Newcastle upon Tyne.[39] One wonders whether they were in fact forced to do this to pay for debts accumulated during the sequestration.

The Parliamentarians, in their hour of struggle, were moved to measures in excess of anything employable in normal times. It is notable that, in this case at least, they put considerations of preserving the traditional social order aside in favour of ones of honour in rewarding a faithful supporter. They temporarily upset the social apple-cart in placing a minor gentry estate under the control of a member of the lowest social class. Thomas Ellison was able to retain part of his acquisition of the 1640s even under Cromwell's Commonwealth in the 1650. But, more generally, whether they had served Parliament or not, the lesser classes took advantage of conditions under the Parliamentarians to temporarily hustle the ruling classes out of the saddle. To give one example, the tenants of the royalist Lancashire landlord Sir George Middleton, taking advantage of his absence and the sequestration of his estate, formed a 'confederacy' to overthrow his authority. They refuse to pay him rents, heriots or entry fines for tenements, plundered his house, took over certain of his demesne lands, broke down the enclosures of his park and helped themselves to his timber and deer. They claimed custom as their justification for much of this (though it seems doubtful that the majority of their claims really held water), and pursued a lawsuit against him in the Court of the Duchy of Lancaster. Sir George's troubles continued into the 1650s, and it was not until 1658 that he came to an accommodation with the tenants (for which they had to pay [a considerable sum], and which was weighted heavily in his favour).[40]

1. The documents are in the Public Record Office, Chancery Lane, London, [now at Kew - note added May 2001] being part of the papers of the parliamentarian Committee for Compounding (SP23). They are noted in Mary Anne Everitt Green[e], ed., Calendar of the Proceedings of the Committee for Compounding, etc., 1643-1660... (5 parts, London, 1888-93), (hereafter CCC, part 2, pp.1180-81. The greatest part consists of two sets of interrogatories and depositions, the first on the behalf of the Hixons, the second in Ellison's defence. These occur as follows: SP23/154, pp.531-33, interrogatories of the Hixon 'prosecution case'; pp.535-39, the resulting depositions; pp.545-47, interrogatories of the Ellison 'defence case'; pp.541-44, the resulting 'defence' depositions. The proceedings were the result of Isabell Hixon's petition (SP23/138, p.191). Other papers of note are the deposition of George Thompson (ibid., pp.185-87) (see below, note 6), and Ellison's petition of 1651 (SP23/139, p.283). I have modernised spelling and punctuation in quotations from the papers.

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2. 'Whin' = gorse. Back

3. SP23/138, p.187; SP23/154, p.537. Back

4. SP23/154, pp.536, 537, 539, depositions of Thomas Shandforth, John Gregson, William Shacklock, William Lambton; R. Welford, ed., Records of the Committees for Compounding, etc. with Delinquent Royalists in Durham and Northumberland..., Surtees Society, cxi (Durham, 1905), p.10. (The first 38 pages of Welford are a transcription of the papers of the sequestration committee of County Durham.)

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5. University of Durham, Department of Palaeography and Diplomatic, Catalogue of the Shipperdson Papers (2 vols., Durham, 1972-1973), ii, pp.49-50, items 2595-2599.

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6. SP23/138, p.191; SP23/154, pp.536, 537, depositions of Marjorie Todd and William Lambton. The Hixons' estate agent up to this time was George Thompson, a yeoman of Preston. He was responsible for letting the lands and receiving the rents on behalf of Richard, and subsequently Isabell, Hixon (SP23/138, pp.185-87).

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7. For an account of the developments in sequestration procedure and administration, see the introduction to the CCC (in part 1).

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8. Peter Newman, Atlas of the English Civil War, (London, 1985), pp.40, 41; Peter Wenham, The Great and Close Siege of York, 1644 (Kineton, Warwicks., 1970), pp.1-2; C.S. Terry, The Life and Campaigns of Alexander Leslie, First Earl of Leven (London, 1899), pp.204f, 212; cf. Peter Newman, The Battle of Marston Moor, 1644 (Chichester, 1981), p.11.

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9. SP23/154, p.542, deposition of Anthony Smith. Back

10. SP23.139, p.283, statement signed by Fran. Pierepont, Rob. Goodwin, Hen. Darley and Edward Bowles. A rider states that 'I have often heard Sir William Armyne in his lifetime affirm the truth of what is above declared'. Signed by Tho. Lister and Robt. Fenwick; document dated 14 May 1651.

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11. Ibid. Signed by Willm. Rowe. The document on which these testimonies appear is the petition of Thomas Ellison.

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12. SP23/154, p.542, deposition of Tho. Todd; cf. Welford, op.cit., pp.1ff. There is a record dated 12 August that 'Robt. Rennyson farmeth land of Mr. Hixon at Morton. Rent, £20 p. ann., out of which he is to have 40s. deducted for dressing the ground. The whole land formerly let for £100 p. ann.' (Welford, p.10). This man was probably Robert 'Remison', a yeoman of Slingby Hill (SP23/154, p.539).

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13. SP23/138, p.191, petition of Isabell Hixon and her daughters and heirs Margery and Joan.

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14. SP23/154, pp.541, 542-43, 544. Back

15. Welford, pp.22-23. The deed is quoted in SP23/154, p.525. Back

16. Welford, p.xvii. Other members of the sequestration committee were George Lilburne and Thomas Shandforth (SP23/154, pp.535, 541, 542, depositions of Tho. Shandforth, George Lilburne and Tho. Todd).

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17. SP23/154, p.527. Back

18. Journal of the House of Commons, iv, p.508b. The order is quoted in SP23/154, p.527. It was made in response to Ellison's petition to Parliament (Journal of the House of Lords, viii, p.144b, 6 Feb. 1645/6). Possibly, in view of Ellison's non-payment of Hixon's 'thirds', the Durham committee had refused to renew his lease. Documentary evidence is lacking on this point.

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19. 'Old' or 'ancient' rents were those which had been established in mediaeval times. Because of inflation, by the seventeenth century they no longer reflected true values; at that date they were increasingly being replaced by 'rack rents', i.e. economic rents.

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20. The question later arose of whether Ellison even paid this rent, but Robert Sharpe, sequestration treasurer for Easington ward in 1645-48, confirmed that he had accounted for it with Ellison over this period (SP23/154, p.532, interrogatories; p.541, deposition of Robert Sharpe).

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21. 'Was he not the shepherd of the said town of Easington, and a man of very mean quality, repute, rank, Estate and fortune', asked the interrogatories on behalf of Hixon (SP23/154, p.531). The resulting depositions of witnesses who had known Ellison for up to forty years (in 1653) confirmed that he was indeed the shepherd of Easington (ibid., pp.536, 537, depositions of Tho. Shandforth of Epleden, and John Gregson and Wm. Shacklock of East Morton). It is notable that the 'defence' in these proceedings, while disputing the 'prosecution's' allegations as to Ellison's 'mismanagement' of the Hixon estate (see below in article), did not question their statements as to his low socio-economic status.

It was traditional for rural settlements collectively to employ a shepherd.

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22. SP23/154, p.533.


23. SP23/138, pp.186-87, deposition of George Thompson. The deposition of William Lambton of Trilby, gent., confirms that all that Ellison paid Hixon over this period was £6 per annum (SP23/154, p.537).

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24. SP23/154, pp.532-33, interrogatories; pp.537, 539, depositions of John Gregson, William Shacklock and Robert Remison.

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25. Ibid., p.547, interrogatories; p.541, deposition of George Yonge.

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26. Ibid., p.528. Sharpe, of Hawthorne, Co, Durham, was sequestrations treasurer for Easington ward, 1645-48; Shepherdson (or Shipperdson) and Gregson was East Murton landholders. It is doubtful that what was termed the estate's 'mansion house' would correspond to our conception of a mansion. A hearth-tax roll of 1665 shows that no dwelling in East Murton had more than three firehearths (Public record Office, E179/245/27, membrane 6b.

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27. SP23/154, p.528. Back

28. Ibid., pp.528-29. For the date of this order (14 November 1648) see SP23/138, p.185, deposition of George Thompson.

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29. SP23/138, pp.185-86, deposition of George Thompson; SP23/154, pp.542, 543, depositions of Robert Sharpe and Thomas Todd; cf. ibid., p.537, John Gregson's deposition for the 'prosecution'.

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30. CCC, op.cit., note 1, part 1, p.167. Back

31. It is not clear whether this was intended to refer to the annual rental value of the entire estate, or just the part held by Ellison. The Commons order had, of course, been ambiguous as to the extent of Ellison's holding.

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32. SP23/154, p.521; SP23/30, f.64a; SP23/139, p.283; SP23/14, f.121a. Back

33. SP28/209A; SP23/138, p.191. Back

34. SP28/209A, sequestration account-book for Martinmas 1650, p.28. Back

35. CCC, part 2, p.1180. Back

36. SP23/138, p.191, endorsement at end of Isabell's petition. Back

37. Ibid., p.189. Back

38. Joan Thirsk, 'The Restoration Land Settlement', Journal of Modern History, xxvi, no.4, December 1954, pp.315-28.

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39. University of Durham, Department of Palaeography and Diplomatic, Catalogue of the Shipperdson Papers (2 vols., Durham, 1972-73), ii, pp.49-50, items 2595-2599.

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40. [See 'Sir George Middleton of Leighton and his Tenants in the Civil War Period' on this website.] For other examples see my articles 'Civil War Squatters in the Middlewich House of Correction', Cheshire History, no.18 (Autumn 1986), pp.21-23, and 'The Democratic Revolution in the Company of Thames Watermen, 1641-2', East London Record, no.6 (1983), pp.17-27. [The latter article appears on another website.]

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