A Tale of Two West Countrymen

By Tim Kent, F.S.A

For many collectors, large basting spoons or ladles have an undoubted charm, particularly those with cannon handles of the late 17th and early 18th century. Well-marked London examples in good condition command substantial prices, and they were also made in such provincial centres as Exeter and Newcastle. Of considerable interest to the silver historian are those which hail from small towns in the provinces, and the purpose of this particular study is to discuss two specimens whose country-made charm and lack of metropolitan sophistication, besides significant local historical interest, present an attractive scenario.

Fig. 1

The first spoon for discussion came onto the market very recently as part of the Cook Collection of Early Silver and Spoons, Lot 1043 at Woolley and Wallis of Salisbury on Friday 24th October 2003, when it realised a hammer price of 3,700. Its new owner had in fact been aware of its existence since lunching with John Cook some years ago and had been coveting it ever since. Figs 1 and 2 show the spoon and its marks. The stem is comprised of two cylindrical, one hexagonal and one solid section (the latter inclusive of rat-tail) soldered together without too much concern for precise alignment and strengthened with circular rings at spaced intervals. A typical country-made product, a careful examination shows it to be in original state with no indication of any alteration or repair. The spoon is 14.2" long and weighs 4.7ozs. The bowl-back is engraved RG/MH 1727, probably for marriage of the original owners at that date, and (later in the 18th century) 'Russell Exeter' presumably for a member of the prominent local firm of carriers, accompanied by a crest.

Fig. 2

Identification of John Murch as maker is positive. Family history is somewhat unclear, but I am satisfied that he is John, son of William Murch late of Exon in the county of Devon, Linen Draper, who was apprenticed to Thomas Cory, citizen and goldsmith of London, for 7 years on 13th August 1684. Cory, as we know, carried on business at Warminster as well as in London, and I suspect that Murch served his term at the former place. By 1694 he was at Plymouth, pricked dates from then onwards being noted, and in 1699 'Mr Murch of Plymouth' was fined by the London Goldsmiths' company for substandard working. In the same year 'Mr Murch of Dartmouth' was also fined, but this is likely to have been an entirely different man. It appears that John Murch of Plymouth was married three times, the most material being his third marriage, in respect of which an allegation bond issued on the 23rd August 1711 for 'John Murch of Plymouth, goldsmith, and Ruth Sampson of Exeter, Spinster.'

Some years ago, I was given a family memoir compiled by his great-grandson, William Murch of Honiton, shortly before his death aged 86 in 1853. It recognises the marriage with Ruth Sampson, but deploys other family traditions which are not I consider, very accurate. William believed, for example, that the family was of Huguenot extraction, but I find Murches at Bampton in the 16th century and John Murch of Bradnich made his will in 1619. Furthermore Ruth Sampson herself came from Bampton, and in 1736 the estate of Sampson Murch of Bampton was administered. I have dealt fully with John Murch and his Plymouth marks in my 'West Country Silver Spoons' pp.113-4. All sources agree that shortly after 1717 John Murch quitted Plymouth and removed himself and family to the prosperous market town of Tiverton in East Devon. There can no longer be any doubt about this. The Exeter Goldsmiths' Company Court Company Minute Book records that on November 10th 1720.

Fig. 3

"Mr John Murch of Tiverton entered his mark IM for O.S (old standard)". This mark appears with full Exeter hallmarks for 1722 (Fig.3) on a paten belonging to the parish of Puddington, between Tiverton and Crediton. Murch also made pieces without assay, such as the spoon under discussion and a taperstick of the same period, which features the same IM mark accompanied by three smaller marks, so that at first sight the item might appear to have been fully marked.

Tiverton registers record the burial of 'Mr Murch' on the 8th May 1728 and his will was proved at Exeter (destroyed During the war). Clearly this is our man. Family sources tell us that his son John II, born at Plymouth in 1713, migrated to Honiton after leaving Blundell's school and took over the business of Francis Pile, carrying on business as a silversmith and clockmaker until his death in 1785. Later descendants remained in the business until the 20th century. Ruth probably went back to Exeter and is the Ruth Murch, widow, whose will was proved in 1740.

Fig. 4

It will be appreciated that Tiverton and Honiton (another prosperous market town) are not far away from each other, about twenty miles apart, and our other exhibit, which has similarities to the former, although more of a ladle than a spoon, hails from Honiton (Fig 4). It is 14.5" long and weighs 7ozs, country-made characteristics with rather crude sectional construction are again present and like its Tiverton cousin it must, I consider, have been a special commission. It is engraved "Jugum jam tollitur nobis" (now is the yoke lifted from us) and dated 1737, but what the yoke in question was I have yet to discover. In the bowl may be seen the makers' mark 'RS' struck thrice, the central mark being surmounted by an incuse crown, which actually provides a conclusive key to the maker.

In the latter part of the 17th century, the local goldsmith's trade in West Somerset and East Devon was dominated by the extensive Sweet family: see 'West Country Silver Spoons' pp.134-7. Of Richard Sweet (II) of Chard's sons, Edward went to Dunster, while Richard III migrated to Honiton circa 1695. We know quite a lot about Richard III as he used family dies and produced quite a good quantity of laceback trefids in the years around 1700. Fig 5 shows the stem of a laceback, circa 1700, with Richard III's mark accompanied by the same incuse crown that we have seen in the bowl of the ladle.

Fig. 5

On the 9th June 1699 "Richard Sweet junior of Honiton" was fined by the London Company for substandard work, and in 1700 he was in trouble again. In 1703 he married Benedicta Burnett spinster of Gittisham, an adjacent parish to the south-west of Honiton, in which stands Combe House, home of the Putt family and centre of a then extensive estate. Benedicta died in 1727 and Richard married again, his second wife Anne producing two more children. Finally Richard himself was buried at Honiton on the 26th May 1737. The inventory of his goods amounted to the substantial sum of 229-13-3 : in the "Great Shop" were 113ozs of "uncertain" silver at 4/6 per oz, 16ozs of "certain" silver at 5/3 per oz, 12 gold rings and other small wares. Richard was, therefore, a working goldsmith to the end of his days.

The incuse crown, in conjunction with the RS mark, is very strong proof of the maker's identity, but if that were not enough there is powerful local provenance. The Putt family of Combe became extinct in the male line, and the estate passed to descendants who offered a number of lots to Christie's circa 1970, when the ladle described as 'possibly continental' failed to sell. Later it was disposed of privately and reached its present home, by which time extensive research into the Sweet family had been carried out. Events which the ladle was meant to commemorate remain unclear.

These two locally made Devon pieces have much in common. They were produced in the 1720-1730 period by men who had in the late 17th century, been prolific spoonmakers, and then at the end of their careers been asked to make something a bit different. Doubtless they were both aware of the fashionable new octagonal or hexagonal style and felt it had to be brought into the picture. One is left with a distinct impression of two elderly men who really belonged to an age which had passed, and used their imagination to provide an object in accordance with a special commission at a time when George I was giving way to George II and the world they knew as young men had changed dramatically.


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The Finial, December/January/February 2003/04

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