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The Tomkins Family

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The Tomkins Family

(see long history)

The Tomkins were a large family who were particularly prominent in Abingdon from the mid-seventeenth to the late nineteenth century. As maltsters, in an industry that was in rapid expansion at least until the late eighteenth century, some family members became very wealthy. They used their wealth for prestige building projects which embellished the town, but also for the benefit of the local Baptist congregation of which they were among the leaders. As religious dissenters, they were excluded until the nineteenth century from direct participation in the town’s government and from becoming principal burgesses or governors of Christ’s Hospital; yet as major employers, as landlords, and as important contributors to Corporation finances, they were always influential.

The rise of the Tomkins can be dated from 1646 or shortly before, when Edward Tomkins purchased a property in Ock Street that either included or gave room for the building of a malthouse. His second son John became rich by malting, and was also an early member and one of the financial backers of the Baptist community founded in Abingdon about 1650 by John Pendarves. When Dissenters were tolerated after the death of Oliver Cromwell he was given a government post as militia commissioner for Berkshire, but this period proved brief and he was soon dismissed. After the restoration, he and other family members were frequently in court for their religious dissent, but he was prominent enough to be invited to stand for Parliament after the ‘revolution’ of 1688. He refused the nomination.

John’s son Benjamin became even richer. He was the great builder of the family, responsible both for Stratton House in what is now Bath Street and the Clock House in Ock Street. He had his portrait painted, and there is a tradition that he showed off his affluence by having his wife and himself carried by sedan chair the few steps from the Clock House to the Baptist meeting room. Benjamin’s son Joseph bought and extended the malthouse that still exists as a building at the bottom of East St Helen Street opposite St Helen’s Church, and Joseph’s son, also Joseph, was responsible for Twickenham House in the same street.

Benjamin’s will gave the old Ock Street premises as a site for the Tomkins almshouses, with an ample endowment. He also provided for the residence and maintenance of the Baptist minister and set up various other charities, including some that were not limited to his co-religionists. These were developed and added to by later generations of Tomkins, and in the report of an official enquiry into Abingdon charities in 1905 the Tomkins name still appears frequently among their administrators and trustees.

In the later eighteenth century, having more cash than they could invest, the younger Joseph Tomkins with a brother and a Tomkins cousin diversified into banking. In 1777 they set up what became the Abingdon Old Bank. The venture was only moderately successful. In the next generation, control of the bank passed gradually into the hands of the Knapps. At the same time, the malting industry declined into insignificance. The bank finally failed in 1847.

But before then a new generation of Tomkins had come to the fore. John Tomkins was a mercer who set up the clothing firm of Tomkins and Harris, with headquarters in the part of the High Street known as The Narrows. They employed hundreds of outworkers to make the clothes they sold. There was now a significant change in the social position of the family. John Tomkins had ambitions in local politics; he became a member of the Council in 1836, was four times mayor and three times Master of Christ’s Hospital. John seems already to have left the family’s Baptist tradition behind, and in 1856 his brother Charles, his sister Elizabeth and several other family members openly converted to the Church of England.

John’s son, also John, succeeded him both in his business and in civic affairs; he was five times mayor. After his death in 1912, the Tomkins family was far from extinct in Abingdon, but it had long ceased to be a mainstay of the local Baptist community.


Acknowledgement: This article is derived in part from notes left by the late Reverend Michael Hambleton, and the authors thank Mrs Stella Hambleton for access to them.


See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2017


(see short history)

The Tomkins family was a large one, and was prominent in Abingdon for 250 years from the middle of the seventeenth century. In many ways the Tomkins resembled the Mayotts, who were somewhat earlier, being separated into cousinages of varied fortunes.[1] But whereas the Mayotts were prominent in the governance of the town, serving repeatedly as mayors and as governors and masters of Christ’s Hospital, the Tomkins, at least until the nineteenth century, rarely took up such functions. As religious dissenters, they were long excluded from most public activities. This left them free to concentrate on their businesses, and some of them became very rich. Many of them were leading members of the local Baptist Church, and much of their wealth went to the support of that church and to its associated charities. They believed in living in a state befitting their financial position, and several of Abingdon’s most noteworthy houses started as Tomkins residences. Only in the nineteenth century and after abandonment of their Baptist allegiance did a Tomkins enter the list of Abingdon’s mayors.

There were at least two Tomkins households in Abingdon at the end of the sixteenth century, headed respectively by an Edmund and a John.[2] It is uncertain into which of these Edward (I) (c.1592-c.1646) was born, but it is he who is regarded as the forefather of the later line. He had a couple of houses in East St Helen Street on lease, and his three younger sons were all apprenticed to trades; but his will tells us that the oldest, Edward (II) (c.1616-c.1689), was to inherit a ‘messuage or tenement’ he had lately bought in Ock Street.[3] With the Civil War raging and Abingdon besieged and plague-ridden, property will have been cheap, and this acquisition was probably the foundation of the later family wealth. Since Edward (II) and his younger brother John (I) (1621-1708), both became maltsters, the building will very probably have been, or included, a malthouse.

It was John (I) who started the long association of the Tomkins with the Abingdon Baptists. He had probably been indoctrinated with advanced religious ideas as a teenager by Edward Roode, the controversial vicar of St Helens who had been dismissed for his Puritanism.[4] By 1653, John (I) was noted as a preacher and as a close ally of John Pendarves, the charismatic Baptist leader.[5] In 1656, two of his children having died, he was a party to a deal by which the Baptists acquired their first burial ground at the western end of Ock Street.[6] It was there that a few months later Pendarves himself would be laid to rest, and in the disorders that followed the funeral John (I) was briefly arrested for offering resistance – apparently only of a verbal kind – to the militiamen who were clearing the town of Baptist demonstrators.[7] In the period of political confusion that followed the death of Oliver Cromwell, John (I) found himself, no doubt to his surprise, a militia commissioner for Berkshire, but as the situation evolved, religious dissent was increasingly seen as subversive and he was soon dismissed.[8]

In the decades that followed the restoration of the monarchy, John Tomkins and members of his family were often in legal trouble and heavily fined for their religious nonconformity.[9] But he was nonetheless becoming a major local figure. He was named as a churchwarden at St Helen’s in 1668, and absented himself from Abingdon to avoid serving.[10] In James II’s short-lived remodelling of the town’s corporation at the end of 1687, his name came first in the list of the new aldermen.[11] In the parliamentary election planned for 1688, he was probably the ‘Mr Tomkins’ who was urged to stand as a candidate but declined to do so.[12] He died at a ripe age in 1708, leaving his business and some £6000 in money to his descendants.[13]






Stratton House in Bath Street built in 1722

© J Brod 2007







The Clock House in Ock Street built in the late 1720s

© J Brod 2007


Benjamin (I) had five sons, but only Joseph (I) and Benjamin (II) (d. 1732) remained prominent in Abingdon. Both were maltsters and their business continued to grow. It was Joseph (I) who in 1748 acquired the old Malthouse at the river end of East St Helen Street, along with its wharf and associated buildings of which the Tomkins had previously been tenants.[16] It was Joseph (I)’s son, Joseph (II) (1729-1794) who built Twickenham House, also in East St Helen Street, in the 1750s.[17]

John (I)’ s elder son, John (II) (d. 1742), left Abingdon for London, but one of his sons, Martin (d.1755), made a name for himself.  He was a clergyman who became controversial after embracing heretical ideas about the nature of the Trinity, which made him a forerunner of the present-day Unitarian Church.[14] The effective head of the family in Abingdon was John (I)’s second son, Benjamin   (I) (c.1663-1732), who took over both his father’s malting business and his position in the Baptist Church, and added to this a predilection for building. He built Stratton House in the present Bath Street in 1722 and the Clock House in Ock Street a few years later. Stratton House was given to one of his sons, Joseph (I) (1701-1753).[15]  



The Almshouses in Ock Street, a legacy of Benjamin (I) built in 1733 

© Jessica Brod 2007



Twickenham House from the front




Twickenham House in East St Helen Street built in 1756-7

© D Clark 2011



As the family fortunes developed, the Tomkins looked for new investment opportunities. In 1777, Joseph (II), his brother William (c.1731-1808) and their cousin (and brother-in-law, since he had married their sister Sarah) Benjamin (III) (1737-1784) opened a bank, the Abingdon Old Bank. But their path was now turning downwards.[18] By the early years of the nineteenth century, the malting industry had begun to decline, and effective control of the bank passed gradually into the hands of an outsider, Henry Knapp.[19]  By 1851, the malting industry was all but extinct and the bank had failed.

The family, however, was far from finished. Benjamin (III) and Sarah had three sons, one of whom, John (III), was a mercer and for many years a deacon in the Abingdon Baptist church. The birth of his son, John (IV), was registered at the Baptist Lower Meeting House in 1794.[20]

Young John (IV) became a smock maker, with premises at what would become No 5 High Street, close to the Knapp and Tomkins bank. In 1816, he joined forces with a draper, John Harris. The partnership prospered. They moved to 37 and 38 (later 22-24) High Street, in the part of the street known as 'The Narrows'.[21] By 1847 the Post Office Directory described them as ‘wholesale clothiers’ and could write in its general description of Abingdon:

“This branch of trade [clothing] has been revived by the skill and perseverance of the firms of John Hyde and Son and Harris and Tomkins, which two firms give employment to upward of 2000 men and women in making all kinds of wearing apparel; many hundreds of the persons so employed are inhabitants of the villages for miles round the neighbourhood.”[22]

John Hyde had a factory at the bottom of West St Helen Street; no doubt Tomkins and Harris relied on ‘putting out’ to nominally independent contractors working in their homes.

John (IV) was still living ‘above the shop’ in the High Street in 1841, but ten years later had moved out to a house named Springfield in the Faringdon Road.

John (IV)’s younger brother, Charles (1796-1864) became a doctor of medicine, though it is not certain that he ever practised since his daily activity seems to have been as a subordinate manager of the bank.[23] He was a pillar of the local Literary and Philosophical Institution and was sometimes prominent in local political controversy.[24] He supported the Whig MP John Maberly, and occasionally spoke at meetings in favour of electoral reform.[25]

But John (IV) had his own more specific political aims. He subscribed to the building of a Baptist chapel at Cothill in 1840, and may – but there is no record – have contributed when the new chapel in Ock Street was rebuilt in the following year.[26] Thereafter, there is no trace of him in the Abingdon Baptist records. He was elected to the Council in 1836, was mayor in 1849 and 1854 and then again in 1855 when the incumbent died in office. He was elected alderman by his council colleagues in 1856.[27] The election was regarded as an honour, but the main advantage was that it guaranteed his seat for a number of years thereafter without reference to the common voters. It may not be entirely a coincidence that a number of junior members of the Tomkins family are recorded as having “departed to (the) state church” in January of that year.[28] He became a governor of Christ’s Hospital in 1843 and was its master in 1846, 1851 and 1857.[29] He seems to have been Conservative in politics, and was criticised for his acquiescence in the high-handed replacement of the Abingdon MP Thomas Duffield by the solicitor-general, Frederick Thesiger.[30] He died in 1860.

It was now his son, John (V) (1820-1912), who was living in the Narrows and running the clothing business.  He succeeded his father on the Council, being elected in 1863 and serving five times as mayor, in 1871, 1872, 1877, 1886 and 1890. He was elected alderman in 1880.[31] When County Councils were introduced in 1888 he and John Creemer Clarke were both elected unopposed to the Berkshire Council, and were re-elected in 1892.[32] He was made a governor of Christ’s Hospital in 1873 and was master in 1882 and 1887.[33] Like his father, he was a Conservative, supporting Charles Lindsay at parliamentary elections.[34] He seems to show a touch of personal vanity, presenting the Council with his portrait in oils in 1874, and appearing, heavily bearded and suitably dignified, as mayor in Henry Jarmyn Brooks’ group portrait of 1879.[35]



John Tomkins (V) as mayor in 1879

Detail from group portrait by Henry Jarmyn Brooks, by courtesy of Abingdon Town Council


The Tomkins-Harris partnership was dissolved in 1882 and its stock sold.[36] The Harris family seems always to have run an additional business under their own name, and this continued, eventually becoming E H Beesley and continuing to trade from the same premises until the 1980s.[37] By 1901, John (V) had retired both from business and municipal affairs, and was living in a sort of seafront retirement colony at St Leonards, Sussex, with his wife, three unmarried daughters, and two live-in servants. He died in 1912.

The Tomkins enriched Abingdon not only with the houses they built but also with their many charitable bequests and donations.[38] It was Benjamin (II) who left his old residence in Ock Street, known as Steeds, as the site for the Tomkins almshouses, and provided ample funds for an endowment.[39] He also left funds and houses – one of them was the present 35 Ock Street – for the maintenance and residence of a Baptist minister, for help to poor Baptists, and to provide bread to the poor of the town irrespective of religion. Members of the family continued to support and administer these charities, and added new ones. William Tomkins provided the Baptist minister with a theological library of 456 volumes, and Joseph (I) paid for the education of poor Abingdon children of all religions to the point where they could read the Bible. The name of Tomkins no longer appears among the Abingdon Baptists after the mass desertions of 1856, but an enquiry of 1905 shows many Tomkins family members still functioning as trustees of the Baptist charities and, at least in the case of the educational charity, making up shortfalls from their own pockets.[40]

The Tomkins of Abingdon are an excellent example of the peculiar position of Dissenters in the municipal society of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  Their exclusion until 1828 from political positions was largely formal and scarcely diminished their political influence. In 1683, the Tory would-be mayor George Winchurst complained to higher authority that “many of the Dissenters are rich so that many beholden to them though not of their judgement dare give no votes”.[41] It was no doubt of John Tomkins (I) that he was thinking. When voting was public, it was difficult to go against the opinion of one’s employer or landlord. A hundred years later, the banking cousins, Joseph (II) and Benjamin (III) Tomkins, were prominent in county as well as borough affairs, being named to the committee of a Berkshire Whig “Association” that proved short-lived and then joining with, or perhaps using, their younger business partner George Knapp to further their designs.[42]They were quite ready to advise the MP, Edward Loveden Loveden (1783-1796), what he must do to secure the Abingdon dissenting vote.[43

Anglicans might gnash their teeth, but it was the Dissenters who were adding to the prestige of the town with their splendid new buildings. Even when their religious practices were forbidden, it would have been fatal to the finances of the town to subject them to the full rigour of the law. The Tomkins came late to civic affairs, but probably no other family, not even the Mayotts, made a greater contribution to the development of Abingdon.


Acknowledgement: This article is derived in part from notes left by the late Reverend Michael Hambleton, and the authors thank Mrs Stella Hambleton for access to them.



See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2017


[1] The genealogy of the Tomkins family is complex and somewhat uncertain. We have in general followed a table constructed by Mr John Paul Bradford of Barrie, Ontario, for which we are grateful, but there is no guarantee of complete accuracy.

[2] St Helens Registers.

[3] The National Archives (TNA), PROB 11/197.

[4] Manfred Brod, Abingdon in Context: Small-town politics in early modern England (Peterborough, 2010), pp 64-5.

[5] John Atherton, The Pastor turn’d Pope (1654), pp.4, 18.

[6] Michel G Hambleton, A Sweet and Hopeful People: a story of [the] Abingdon Baptist Church 1649-2011(2nd edn, Fyfield, 2011), p. 36;, accessed 12 March 2017.

[7] Anon, The Complaining Testimony of some … of sions children (1656), p.4;

[8] C S Firth and E S Rait, Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660 (1911), Vol II, pp. 1320, 1427.

[9] A E Preston, St Nicholas Abingdon and other papers (Oxford, 1929), pp 121n, 123n.

[10] Preston, St Nicholas, p. 123n.

[11] British Library, Ms Add 24666 fo, 340.

[12] S G Duckett, Penal Laws and Test Acts (1882), p. 237.

[13] J. Tomkins’ Will, The National Archives (TNA), PROB 11/502

[14] E. I. Carlyle, ‘Tomkins, Martin (d. 1755)’, rev. M. J. Mercer, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 29 July 2016]

[15] Leonard G R Naylor, The Malthouse of Joseph Tomkins (Typescript, no date), pp. 9-10

[16] Naylor, The Malthouse, p. 10

[17] Naylor, The Malthouse, p. 13

[18] Naylor, The Malthouse, pp. 18-19.

[19] Reading, Berks RO, D/EX 763/4 (1816)

[20] Universal British Directory 1790-98, p. 13; John Paul Bradford, unpublished Tomkins genealogy.

[21] (accessed 31 Aug 2016). Pigot’s Directory 1823-4, p. 5

[22] Post Office Directory 1847, p. 1966. Most directories referred to the firm as Tomkins and Harris rather than the other way about.

[23] Local newspapers regularly name him as in attendance at the bank, eg Reading Mercury 23 Nov 1844, p.2.

[24] There are regular reports of the Lit and Phil Inst in local newspapers, eg Oxford Chronicle 9 Dec 1843, p. 2.

[25] Anon, A full report of the speeches and other proceedings connected with the election of a representative for the borough of Abingdon, on the 30th day of July, 1830 (Abingdon, 1830) pp 1,2; Reading Mercury 1 April 1843 p. 3; Oxford Chronicle 7 August 1847, p. 3.

[26] Reading Mercury, 4 April 1840, p. 3; 10 April 1841, p. 3.

[27] Bromley Challenor, Selections from the Records of the Borough of Abingdon (Abingdon, 1898), Appendices 49, 50.

[28] Oxford, Angus Library, ABINGDON 5/2, 5/3

[29] Abingdon Town Council Archives (ATCA), The Mayors’ Book.

[30] Oxford Chronicle, 30 May 1843, p. 4; (accessed 31 August 2016).

[31] Challenor, Selections, Appendices 49, 50.

[32] Berkshire Chronicle 26 Jan 1889, p.8, 12 March 1892, p.5.

[33] ATCA, The Mayors’ Book.

[34] Oxford Journal, 24 Oct 1868, p. 1; 31 Jan 1874, p. 7.

[35] Oxford Journal, 11 April 1874, p.8; Challenor, Selections, p. 328

[36] London Evening Standard, 22 July 1882, p.2; Oxford Journal, 17 June 1882, p.3; 24 June 1882, p. 1,

[38] Mieneke Cox. Abingdon: an 18th century country town (Abingdon, 1999),  pp 69-70.

[39] Mr Griffith-Boscawen, Endowed Charities (County of Berks): Parishes of Abingdon St Helen and Abingdon St Nicholas (HMSO for House of Commons, 1908), pp 42, 141-4.

[40] Mr Griffith-Boscawen, Endowed Charities, pp. 147-52.

[41] Manfred Brod, Abingdon in Context: small town politics in early modern England 1547-1688 (Peterborough, 2010), p.140.

[42]Jackson’s Oxford Journal,  5 Feb 1780, pp 2, 3; 16 April 2019).

[43]Berks Record Office, Loveden Papers, D/ELV O10, nos 7, 10, 13, 14, 18, 20.


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