Breeders, Bankers and Bankrupts

Genetic engineering is not a new science. In the eighteenth century it was known as 'agricultural improvement'. Among the most noted improvers were several farmers and landowners of Durham and Northumberland; now, sadly, overlooked by national historians. Successful breeders amassed considerable wealth. This wealth in turn helped fund the nascent banking system in the days before corporate investment and limited liability. This wealth also helped fund the early industrial expansion throughout northern England during the nineteenth century, which was based on the coalfield and railway network. Not all of this investment was prudent, with many of the bankers succumbing to bankruptcy. This short article examines how probate records reveal the fortunes and failures of some breeders who in time became bankers, and bankrupts.

1. Breeders

One such enterprising individual was Christopher Mason of Great Chilton Hall in County Durham. Mason made his will on 19th February 1819 following the death of his wife.

Excerpt from the will of Christopher Mason. Ref: DPRI/1/1837/M1/1.
Excerpt from the will of Christopher Mason. Ref: DPRI/1/1837/M1/1.

Upon his death in May 1836, Christopher Mason left an estate valued at 5,000, an estate that he had, in the usual form, made chargeable for all of his debts.

I direct that all the just debts which I shall owe at the time of my decease and my funeral expenses … shall be paid and I charge and make chargeable all my real and personal Estate whatsoever and wheresoever with the payment thereof.1

Mason died after an illness, and perhaps suddenly, and left his estate still encumbered with an outstanding debt of 11,000 for an exchequer loan made to the Clarence Railway underwritten by him. The tithe apportionments for the parish of Chilton reveal that in 1838 Mason's estate was in the hands of his trustees Frances James Crowe, David Neasham and James Wilson.

In a Directory of the time, Chilton is described as,

a township, containing a number of scattered houses, and the village of Great Chilton, 5 miles W. by N. of Sedgefield, and 1 mile NE. of Rushyford. It occupies a hilly region and formed part of the forfeitures of Wm. de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, in 1388. Christopher Mason, Esq. of Great Chilton Hall, holds a large estate here.2

His mansion house which had

been enlarged and rebuilt by the present owner, Christopher Mason, Esq., occupies a fine swell of dry, sandy soil. The township includes eight farmsteads and a colliery.

Excerpt from the Tithe Plan for Chilton parish: Chilton Mansion House is number 129. Ref: DDR/EA/TTH/1/42.
Chilton Mansion House (129), Chilton Tithe Plan. Ref: DDR/EA/TTH/1/42.


1 Will of Christopher Mason. Ref: DPRI/1/1837/M9/1-2.
2 Parsons and White History, Directory and Gazetteer of the Counties of Durham and Northumberland, vol. 2, 1828, p243.

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