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Saturday, 19 March 2011


My 7x great grandfather Thomas Gurney of Bedfordshire was already shrouded in the mists of time when my 3x great grandfather William Brodie Gurney wrote his “Particulars,” a biography of himself “and his immediate ancestors,” in 1845. Even in 1845, details were sketchy.

WBG would dearly have loved to match this Thomas with a Thomas who was of the great Gurney family of Norfolk, ancestors of whom had come over from Gournay in Normandy with William the Conqueror and actually fought at the Battle of Hastings). But in genealogical terms it is only considered “probable.” Personally I’d have been frustrated not to be able to prove the connection – Hastings, that’s some pedigree – but for WBG, Thomas had another, more certain and far more impressive connection.

William Brodie Gurney was a prominent non-conformist campaigner in his day. Many of his children would either become or marry non-conformist ministers, continuing a proud tradition of religious dissent which stretched back … well, at least four generations, to Thomas Gurney of Bedfordshire.

George Fox (1624-1691)
founding father of the Society of Friends

Thomas was a Quaker, and an almost exact contemporary of George Fox (1624-1691), the founder of that Society of Friends, as it was more formally known. More than that, Thomas was at one time travelling with Fox as the latter went about the country preaching his disaffection with the established Church of England. Reception was sometimes hostile, sometimes even violent. In Derby in 1650 Fox was imprisoned (and not for the first time) for blasphemy – and when in court he commanded the judge to “tremble at the word of the Lord,” the judge mockingly described Fox and his followers as “quakers.” The name stuck!

The following year Fox went to Lichfield with a party of Friends, a party which must have included my ancestor Thomas. How do we know? Because in 1845 WBG told the story of a family treasure in the possession of his grandfather (also called Thomas Gurney) who was Quaker Thomas Gurney’s grandson: a well worn pocket knife, on the cover of which were carved the initials “T.G.” and the inscription “Given to me by George Fox at Lichfield.”

Whatever happened to that knife?! WBG’s grandfather died before he was born; did Wiliam’s father inherit it? Did he? Hang Hastings – I’d love to know where that pocket knife ended up.

Thomas the elder, for all his companionship with George Fox, eventually became a Baptist, a denomination which the next four generations of his family would actively serve in a variety of offices in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and London. But they kept that priceless pocketknife!

George Fox at Lichfield
a painting by Robert Spence (1871-1964)

(It was at Lichfield that Fox asked his friends to wait in the house while he obeyed a call from the Lord to go into town and proclaim “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!” It was only later, he claimed, that he learned of the legendary martyrdom of 1000 Christians there under the Roman emperor Diocletian in around 300 AD, which he presumed is what the Lord must have had in mind. But Lichfield was also the more recent scene, in 1612, of the last public burning for heresy in England. That would certainly have been fresher in the minds of dissenters only 39 years later.)

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