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Ellen Searle (d. 1721)

Ellen Searle was a seamstress and tea seller working on London Bridge in the early eighteenth century.

View of old London Bridge, the buildings and shops across the bridge still in place, 1723-4
 Published by: John Bowles, Heal,Topography.91 © 2020 The Trustees of the British Museum

‘Old’ London Bridge was a vital thoroughfare and vibrant, thriving site of trade for hundreds of years, as revealed by a recent publication by Dorian Gerhold. As the engraving above shows, most houses were multi-storey dwellings. Many incorporated small cellars to store coal, lumber or beer with a shop on street level encompassing the greater part of the ground floor, though perhaps with a small room or counting house behind, the living quarters and kitchens were situated above. Shops were furnished with a counter and shelves for displaying goods to entice customers to buy a variety of wares from myriad tradespeople including haberdashers, hosiers, booksellers and mercers.[1] One shopkeeper on London Bridge in the 1690s was John Searle who was assessed in land tax assessments in 1692-1694 for stock valued at £50.[2] However, by 1705, the shop was occupied by the ‘Widdow Serle’, confirming that it was now managed by his widow Ellen Searle.[3] She bound an apprentice named Margaret Walmsley through the Haberdashers’ Company on 22 January 1713 for a £25 premium. Margaret was the daughter of Roger Walmsley, a Warehouse keeper from St Lawrence Lane in London and Ellen Searle was described as ‘London Bridge Sempstress’ at this time.[4]

On 8 June 1716, Ellen Searle took out an insurance policy valued up to £500 with the Sun Fire Office for her shop at the sign of the White Anchor on London Bridge. She was described as a ‘Sempstress and Tea Seller’ at this time, indicating that she engaged in a diversified trade, making clothing and selling imported goods. A later note recorded that the policy had ‘become the Property of Alice Henshaw Spinster and Executrix of the within mentioned Elen Searl Deceased’ on 24 February 1721.[5] Searle’s will, proved in 1721, does indeed name Alice Henshaw, her Granddaughter, as one of her executors. She bequeathed Alice £300 and ‘my Silver Tea Pott’, perhaps a sign that Alice would continue in business as a tea seller from her shop, and likely of a similar design to the teapot pictured below in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection. Searle also bequeathed £200 to her Grandson George Henshaw and ‘my Silver Tankard’. Her kinsman, Jeremiah Brooker of the Parish of St Saviours Southwark, a ‘Chocolate maker’, was bequeathed £20, and her maidservant Mary Weston was to receive ‘my Gold Chain if she shall be in my Service at the time of my decease’. The will was witnessed by Mary Waters and another insurance policy taken out on the same day as Ellen Searle’s in 1716 by ‘Mary Wotters’, a ‘Neckless Seller’ at a shop called the ‘Lyon and Lamb’ on London Bridge is surely the same individual. It seems likely that the two women were friends and near neighbours.[6]

Silver Teapot by Thomas Folkingham, London, 1713-1714
Museum number: M.224-1930 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The shop was held in Alice Henshaw’s name in 1722 but had transferred to George Henshaw by 1723 for one year before it was taken over by another shopkeeper.[7] Several shops on old London Bridge were destroyed by fire in 1725, confirming the wisdom of maintaining insurance policies for businesses at this location, particularly as the buildings were timber-built because this was a lighter material than stone, more suitable for the construction of dwellings on the bridge. Ultimately, the shops and houses on old London Bridge were demolished in 1762, though this insight into Ellen Searle’s business in the early eighteenth century reveals her wider networks and combined trades in luxury commodities.


[1] D. Gerhold, London Bridge and its Houses, c. 1209-1761 (London, 2019), pp. 48-49, 72.

[2] Derek Keene, Peter Earle, Craig Spence and Janet Barnes, ‘City of London, Bridge Ward, The First Precinct [on London Bridge]’, in Four Shillings in the Pound Aid 1693/4: the City of London, the City of Westminster, Middlesex (London, 1992), British History Online [accessed 10 July 2020].

[3] London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) CLC/525/MS11316/018, Land Tax Assessment Book, Bridge Ward First Precinct, 1705. A woman named Ellen Lloyd married John Searle on 25 June 1691 in the Parish of St Olave, Bermondsey, providing a likely identification and date for their marriage. LMA P71/OLA/012, Saint Olave, Bermondsey: Tooley Street, Southwark, 25 June 1691.

[4] LMA CLC/L/HA/C/011/MS15860/008, f. 88.

[5] LMA CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/005, Sun Fire Office Insurance Policy Register, 1715-1716, fol. 293.

[6] The National Archives (TNA) PROB 11/582/553, Will of Ellin Searle, Widow of Saint Olave Southwark, Surrey, 29 December 1721; LMA CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/005, fol. 293.

[7] LMA CLC/525/MS11316/069, Land Tax Assessment Book, Bridge Ward First Precinct, 1722-1723; LMA CLC/525/MS11316/072, Land Tax Assessment Book, Bridge Ward First Precinct, 1723-1723/4.


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