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  • Writer's pictureRichard Edmunds

The London Hilliards - Artists, Weavers & Workhouses

My late grandmother Jean Bellenger, shown above in 1945 at the age of eighteen, was a keen painter who sold and exhibited her work at local art festivals.

She descends from the Hilliard family of London and for many years I have been intrigued by the possible link to Tudor artist and master craftsman Nicholas Hilliard.

Born in Exeter, Devon, in 1547, the son of a provincial goldsmith, Nicholas trained as a jeweller, and started painting miniatures at thirteen, after careful study of the work of Hans Holbein.

His fame as an artist spread, precipitating a move to the capital in the 1570’s, where soon after he was appointed limner and goldsmith to Queen Elizabeth I.

Considered the greatest of English miniaturists, he painted the Queen several times, as well as many of the prominent nobles of the Elizabethan court and amongst other honours, was commisioned to design her second Great Royal Seal in 1584.

One of Hilliard's early portraits of Elizabeth painted in 1572. His written account of the Queen sitting for him as a portrait subject is the only such one known to survive.

Hilliard's 1584 design for the Queen's Great Royal Seal

After Elizabeth's death in 1603, he continued in this official role for her successor King James I, until his own death in January 1619, aged 72.

Married to Alice Brandon, daughter of Elizabeth’s official court goldsmith, Robert Brandon, with the Royal Warrant yet to expire, the business was continued in the west end of London first by their son Laurence Hilliard, who was similarly skilled, and later after his death in 1640, in the east of London, at Fenchurch Street, Aldgate, by Laurence’s son Charles Hilliard.

Self portrait of Nicholas Hilliard, and portrait of his wife Alice Brandon

Charles died there, in the shadow of the Tower of London, in 1675, by which time the local silk industry was rising to dominance with the influx of thousands of French Huguenot refugees skilled in the art.

Charles had at least two nephews Thomas, born in 1650, and Nicholas, named for their famous great grandfather, in 1652. A Thomas Hilliard appears baptising several children a decade after Charles's death, just a few streets away at St Katherine by the Tower, where he also owned property. Described as a silk dyer, this man provides the possible link to the family of the great Tudor craftsman.

Trade card of an early 18th century London silk dyer

His sons Thomas and John Hilliard were both later apprenticed to East London silk weavers, John to John Rutter, and Thomas to Solomon Oudart, a master Huguenot silk weaver in Spitalfields, and both later became masters of the art themselves taking on apprentices.

The family appear from the first decade of the 18th century living in Spitalfields, Bethnal Green, and at the Curtain, in Shoreditch, the site of an Elizabethan Playhouse where William Shakespeare’s earliest plays were performed, whilst Nicholas Hilliard practised his art at the Tudor royal court.

1588 Nicholas Hilliard miniature, of an unidentified man, thought by some to resemble a young William Shakespeare.

On one occasion in 1704 the parish register of St Leonard’s Shoreditch shows Thomas Hilliard baptising a child in the same month as a Nicholas Hilliard.

Further support of a link with the surviving descendants of the Tudor craftsman, comes from the will of a Nicholas Hilliard from 1724, showing him resident at the neighbouring parish of St John’s Hackney.

Thomas Hilliard, a weaver, is later removed with his wife and three children to St John’s Hackney, by the parish of Bethnal Green, and later petitioned the Weaver’s company to allow him to brew and sell ale there, as he could no longer follow the profession of silk weaving, due to failing eyesight.

After their start in the late 17th century, the East London Hilliard family continued in the silk trade for seven generations. Initially they lived a relatively comfortable life appearing as voters and rate payers in Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green in the late 18th century and early 19th century.

A clue as to the nature of the work they were involved with comes from a document dated 1741 when Thomas' son Thomas Hilliard, junior, also a weaver, was given Freedom of the City of London, under patrimony with James Jacobs a gold and silver wire drawer as one of his sponsors.

Another of the family, John Hilliard, was apprenticed to John Jacobs, a master silk weaver, in 1752, suggesting the Hilliards worked with the Jacobs family on high quality silks, adorned with gold and silver thread, perhaps for members of the Royal Court, who are certainly recorded in contemporary newspaper reports sourcing the silks for their coronations, grand balls and birthday celebrations from the weavers of Spitalfields.

Silk dress and shoes, weaved in Spitalfields, 1740s

The decline of the industry in the mid-19th century saw much tougher times for the family, my ancestor Bathsheba Hilliard, for want of work and sustenance, spending over forty years as an inmate at the Bethnal Green Workhouse in Waterloo Road, following the premature death in 1839 of her husband George Bellenger, son of a French Refugee, and a silk weaver. Several of her aged siblings were inmates of London workhouses too, and at least one, Anne, her younger sister, died with her in the grim confines of the Bethnal Green Workhouse in the 1880s.

The Waterloo Road Workhouse where Bathsheba Bellenger, nee Hilliard, silk weaveress, died in November 1884, aged eighty seven. She had been a long term inmate since September 15th 1865, on account of age and infirmity, but had been a casual inmate for many years prior, due to poverty, being examined by the Bethnal Green Poor Law Authorities as early as the 1840s.

This was a far cry from the experiences of the most famous London Hilliard, Nicholas, who enjoyed all the trappings of the lively and lavish Elizabethan court as a young man in his prime, writing of his life there as a royal artist that ‘It behooveth that he be in heart wise, as it will hardly fail that he shall be amourous’.

Hilliard's portrait of Tudor noble Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, (1564-1632) dubbed 'the Wizard Earl' for his interest in alchemy, reclining in a sunlit garden, surrounded by flowers.

Blue Plaque to Nicholas Hilliard in his birthplace Exeter, Devon

My Grandmother's possible line of descent from Tudor Royal Craftsman Nicholas Hilliard.

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