Bicknell of Taunton.
In the 7th century there lived a family called DE PAVILLY, after the name of the town in Normandy near their estate, and one of this noble house, the Baron AMALBERT, in 664, founded a monastery there. At the time of the Conquest, or not much later, some members of that race followed William to England, and became large landowners in twelve counties. Amongst the possessions of the Count of Mortain, natural brother of the Conqueror, the manor of Bykenhulle,beneath a hill of the same name, 820 feet high, 6 miles S.E. of Taunton, was included, and he leased it, in 1086, to William de L'ESTRE, another of the invading Norman knights, with whose descendants it remained till about 1240, when Johanne de L'ESTRE brought it as her dower to Robert de PAVILLY on her marrying him. Surnames at that period being seldom used, it often happened that when a father had several sons they were distinguished by some territorial property which they owned, so Robert dropped his family title on acquiring the manor through his wife, and thenceforth called himself Robert de BYKENHULLE. As time elapsed, PAVILLY became Anglicized to PAVELEY, and BYKENHULLE to BICKNELL. The derivation of BYKENHULLE is very simple, because Byken is Anglo-Saxon for "beacon" and hulle for "hill," which is only inconspicuous in BICKNELL, because the syllables are not divided properly into " Bickn " and "ell," as they should be when pronounced. During these hundred years the PAVELEYS continued famous in English history, in war, council, or the church, and at the establishment of the Order of the Garter in 1334, Edward III. nominated Sir Walter PAVELEY One Of the twenty-five founder-knights.
Somewhat later in the same century it is recorded that Thomas BICKNELL, of Norton, Somerset, "had the misfortune" to kill John de ASSHEBY without malice (impetuose), but in consideration of his service in the war beyond the seas, received the royal pardon from Edward III., and a renewal of it from his successor Richard II. Also John BICKNELL, son of William BICKNELL, of York, was indicted for murdering Robert RASEBEK, on 25 March 1391-3, at Medelburn (Melbourne), 10 miles E.S.E. of York, and was pardoned by Henry IV. 4 March 1405.
Amongst the generations proceeding from the marriage of Johanne de L'ESTRE and Robert, the first BICKNELL, arose some celebrated men in Somerset, namely, John BICKNELL, of Woolavington Manor, and his two sons, Dr. William BICKNELL, Chancellor of Canterbury, trustee and executor of Archbishop CHICHELE, John BICKNELL, M.P. for Shaftesbury, and his son, likewise named John, M.P. for Somerset and Dorset, who received the accolade on the battlefield of Bosworth 1485, from Henry VII. for valour, an honour bestowed immediately upon only two other commanders in his victorious army.
Sir John BICKNELL died in 1500 without leaving issue, and then came a period during which there is little record of chat the BICKNELLS did. No doubt they were very few in number, and, as the whole population of England and Wales at that date probably did not exceed 3,840,000, there could hardly have been more inhabitants in Somerset than 100,000. They seem however to have been sturdy defiant people, prosperous in the arts of peace, and, especially as serge and wool merchants, establishing their manufacture as the dominant trade in Somerset, as well as successfully in adjoining counties. William BICKNELL, for instance, a wool merchant of Northleach in Gloucester, and a contemporary relative of Sir John, added a splendid chantry and porch to the fine church there, and many brasses recorded the wealth and position his family had attained. In the 16th century the BICKNELLS, though scattered in small numbers beyond the borders of Somerset, were represented mainly by three branches, one occupying Taunton and the neighbourhood of the ancient Bykenhulle manor, another settled at Bridgwater, and a third at Farnham in Surrey, whither the serge industry had to some extent been transplanted. It appears to be certain from circumstantial evidence, that these three groups were in relation with each other from an earlier period, though exactly when the cousinship began I cannot say, because no records exist of the degree of kinship between widely separated families. The exceeding scarcity of the name, making it very probable these BICKNELLS were to some extent of the same origin, is emphasized by several facts, such as, the name not occurring amongst those of the 14,000 men recruited chiefly in Somerset for the Agincourt army, nor amongst the 5,ooo inhabitants of Somerset, Dorset, Hants, and Wilts, fined in 1497 for participation in the PERKYN WARBECK rebellion. Nor to the present day has the increase, out of Somerset, been noticeable, for in 29,000 marriage licences issued in London between 1521 and 1869, the name is registered but once.
What is very remarkable in the BICKNELL history is, that it shows the recognized surname originated with one man, who assumed it in 1240 on his marriage; for it is rare indeed to be able to point to the sole possessor and first originator of any surname, and clearly to indicate its meaning, as BICKNELL can be demonstrated to be Beacon Hill, a translation of Byken Hulle. Of course it is possible a handful of peasants on the manor, may, before Robert de PAVILLY appropriated the title of his wife's manor, have been known in a casual way as men of Bykenhulle, but I think only a very few savage people, if any, inhabited that wild district bordering on the great forest of Noroche.
During many generations BICKNELLS inhabited Taunton, carrying on serge manufacture and dressing wool, chiefly in St. James' parish, whilst their kinsmen were at Wellington, Wiveliscombe, Milverton, and other villages. Those of the family who became agriculturists were "Yeomen," that is, small land owners, who at the time of the civil wars increased in public estimation. Subsequent to the Reformation the BICKNELLS held tenaciously the doctrines of the English church, and resisted dictation or interference with the practice of their faith, so much so indeed, that when the parliament of Charles II. passed the Act of Uniformity, many seceded with their pastor, and formed separate congregations, worshipping in chapels, and calling themselves Independents. Two thousand of the best clergy took this step, and they formed the nucleus whence have evolved many of the dissenting communities so numerous to-day.. Naturally persecution followed, and the BICKNELLS endured a full share of fines and imprisonment thereby.
After the death of Sir John BICKNELL in 1501, some of the Somerset BICKNELLS, though simple people and relatively in humble station, occasionally contracted advantageous marriages, as for example, with the HIPPESLEY SEAMAN family (1686), of Shiplette Manor, Bleadon, Somerset, who occupied for centuries a high position in the county; with the CONEYS of famous descent (See p. 12); with Sir William SANDERSON, Bart. (1739), Usher of the Black Rod; with the WROTHE family of North Petherton and Farnham (related to Sir Philip SIDNEY), one of whom, George WROTHE, together with Robert BICKNELL, junior, bought land of E. GODMAN (see p. 18); and lastly by Frederick Brooksbank BICKNELL being married to Mary Powys, granddaughter of Lord LILFORD, I7 Aug. 1836, and Elizabeth BICKNELL to Philippe DE DION, Marquis of Malfiance, 4 March 1823.
Between 1651 and 1671 some traders in Somerset employed for money tokens of base metal of lower value than a penny, a practice which first came into use in the reign of Henry VIII.; among them George BICKNELL, of Wellington, issued some about 1666, stamped on one side with a pair of cropper's shears between his names, and on the other with "G.P.B. of Wellington." Robert BICKNELL was churchwarden of St. James, Taunton, in 1712, and a Mary BICKNELL was a noted actress. Alexander BICKNELL of a Milverton family, who died in 1796 after writing many books on history and various subjects, had an ancestor, of the same name, who bequeathed to his heir in 1603 "his best hat, his best shirt, a dagger, and a pair of hangers." In 1792 another BICKNELL, for sport, rode his horse over the 7ft. 6 high wall of Hyde Park. Lastly, in 1819, Miss Eliza BICKNELL 1ost her life by her skull being fractured by a battle wantonly thrown from the gallery of a London theatre.
Till 1733 the Taunton BICKNELLS pursued an uneventful life making serge in and near that city, but then an event occurred which changed their destiny and fortunes. Richard BICKNELL (1683-1765), the head of the manufacturers there, suddenly left his birthplace for ever, and
moved his business to London. Why he took this step I am only able to surmise, but probably he thought his trade could be more advantageously conducted and extended in the metropolis than in a quiet country town. He may also have been influenced somewhat by his son John, who had quitted his paternal home in 1732 at the age of 16, and after working some time with his cousins at Alton and Farnham had settled in London and carried on prosperously the serge manufacture in Southwark. At all events, in 1734 the whole of the family had migrated from Taunton and established themselves in the Capital. There, during many years, the Rev. John WESLEY visited them as an intimate and valued friend, often spending the week's end with them, because they lived near his chapel in Snowfields where he preached; moreover he had converted Mrs. John BICKNELL (1717-1775) to his doctrines, and when she died he eulogized her in his funeral sermon as "an upright woman, a pattern of all holiness." Her son, William BIC.KNELL (1749-1825), though he had been in the serge business all his life, was not by nature suited to conduct it efficiently, because his tastes were in an entirely different direction ; he was very musical, a mathematician, an author, and a great reader, far more fitted indeed to be a teacher than a merchant. At length, with something of that abrupt decision his relatives had evinced, he determined on being a schoolmaster, and in 1789 he sold his business, with his residence in Blackman Street and fields behind it, to a cousin, and bought the freehold of an "Academy," attended by some 100 scholars, in the old Palace of the Bishop of Lincoln at Ponder's End. Everything, however, prospered with him in his new vocation, and in Dec. 1804 he moved his school to Surrey Hall, Lower Tooting, where, twelve years after his retirement, he died, aged 76, in 1825. Amongst his pupils had been Thomas WILD, afterwards Lord Chancellor, Baron Truro. He was a conscientious hard worker, charming conversationalist, liberal in religion and greatly beloved. Just before his death he said that " the only mental relaxation he had enjoyed in his long life was playing the spinet, the harpsichord, and organ'."
William Isaac BICKNELL (1783-1859), of various talents, the elder son of the above William BICKNELL, married a lady related by marriage to Laurence SAUNDERS, M.A., Canon of York Cathedral, whom Queen Mary burnt alive for heresy, at Coventry, in 1555 (see Dict. Nat. Biog., and FOXE'S Book of Martyrs).
Elhanan BICKNELL (1788-1861), the younger of the same William's two sons, named after Elhanan WINCHESTER, a celebrated American preacher, acted as one of the junior assistant teachers in his father's school till he was 19, and then, by his own desire, went to a friend who owned a farm named Cause, 12 miles from Shrewsbury, near the Welsh
border, in order to qualify himself for becoming a gentleman-farmer. At the close of 1809, however, Mr. John Walter LANGTON, his uncle by marriage, invited him to join his only son John Bicknell LANGTON in partnership, to carry on his business of shipowner and rnerchant, from which he desired to retire. The offer was accepted, and the firm of LANGTON and BICKNELL speedily developed into a very famous one, owning a fleet of more than thirty ships, and monopolizing the Pacific sperm-whale fishery, till free-trade threw the market open to all corners. But besides his business talent Elhanan BICKNELL possessed a rarer one, a natural gift for correctly judging the value of modern sculpture and painting, and at the time of his death he owned one of the finest collections of works of British Art. When TURNER, was wholly unappreciated and his works unsaleable, before Mr. RUSKIN, a near neighbour, had written a line, he had bought a splendid assemblage of masterpieces from that artist's store of pictures returned from the Royal Academy Exhibitions, and when the entire BICKNELL gallery was sold at CHRISTIE'S, in 1863, the average price for each of the 122 paintings reached the highest figure ever obtained at auction for English artistic work. Besides encouraging artists by purchases he was their generous and disinterested patron in another way, for he spent large sums in obtaining many famous pictures, and in engraving them, at much pecuniary loss, to make them better known. The Athenaeum published the following tribute to his memory: "In Mr. Elhanan BICKNELL the arts have lost a sagacious friend. Mr. BICKNELL not only readily acknowledged, but munificently sustained, and also aided in calling into existence, many of the more important efforts of the British School, as well in water-colours as in oil. With the decease of this gentleman terminates the career of the last of the our principal collectors of modern Art, at a time when it was a spectacle to behold the hand extended to any but an established and long cherished favourite. The names of VERNON, WELLS, SHEEPSHANKS, and BICKNELL stand prominently forth as those of men uninspired by desire of profit, unimpelled by motives of investment - men who collected works of the painter's skill because of the pleasure and the instruction they derived from their contemplation, arid of their love for the art exhibited in their works, who sought companionship with their authors because of the interest that extended beyond the surface of the picture. Mr. BICKNELL died on the 27th of November (1861), deeply lamented by a large circle of the artists of his country," and during the three days preceding the sale a vast crowd blocked the road to the beautiful house at Herne Hill, near Dulwich, with a row of carriages more than a mile long.
His eldest son Elhanan BICKNELL (Junior) married a Miss DERMER, connected through the DERMERS and CONDUITTS with Sir Isaac NEWT0N'S niece Catherine BARTON, daughter of the famous mathematician's half sister; and Elhanan BICKNELL Junior's daughter married Colonel TRAVERS, one of whose ancestors married a daughter of Edmund SPENSER, the poet.
His second son, Henry Sanford BICKNELL (1818-1880), of Cavendish House, Clapham Common, also had a collection of pictures, containing many by his father-in-law David ROBFRTS, R.A., which was sold at CHRISTIE'S in April 1881.
Of Herman BICKNELL, third son of Elhanan BICKNELL, some mention also is deserved. After study at University College, and St. Bartholomew's Hospital, he entered the army as assistant-surgeon and served at Hong Kong, and in India during the great mutiny. He resigned in 1861, when on the staff, and afterwards passed the remainder of his life chiefly in travel, mountaineering, etymology and acquiring Oriental languages. In 1862 he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and was the first Englishman, or indeed European, who ever went there wholly undisguised; this dangerous exploit, of which The Times printed an account in several columns, nevertheless he exceeded greatly in peril by entering, likewise without disguise, the most sacred shrine at Kum, in Persia, in 1869, where his knowledge of Muhammadan ritual alone saved him from death at the hands of an infuriated mob. Only one non-Mussulman, Mr. FRASER, but in disguise, in 1821, had seen this Holy of Holies before (.see Lord CURZON'S Persia, 1892), In August 1870 he almost reached the summit of the Matterhorn, and nearly lost his life, but made a successful ascent 1872. His great wish was to publish a literal and metrical translation of all the Odes of HAFIZ, but not living to complete his work, the book, giving however only a portion of the whole, was finished and edited in 1875 by his brother Sidney.