‘There was a poor man in London’

Alicia Crane WilliamsI came across an interesting family story while working on the Early New England Families Study Project sketch for Henry Lamprey of Hampton, New Hampshire, that claimed his wife received a dowry from her family equal to her weight in gold!

The story apparently first appeared in print in the 1893 History of the Town of Hampton, New Hampshire by Joseph Dow (p. 783). Dow may have been a descendant of Henry Lamprey through his daughter Elizabeth, who married Daniel Dow. His version reads: “A pretty story (of the truth of which there is little doubt) has been handed down for generation to generation, that this little wife received for her marriage dowry a scale, containing her weight (one hundred twelve pounds) in gold.” Dow claimed that the chest which held the dowry was then (in 1893) in the hands of a descendant in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Neither of these accounts cites a source beyond “family.”

Pretty story, indeed! It was repeated and expanded in 1931 by Elizabeth Goodhue Fuess in her typescript, “Cushing and Allied Families” (p. 279), and she calculated that the value of the gold came to $25,000! She also added: “Misplaced confidence and bad management had lost nearly all of it before they moved to Hampton and by the burning of their house, they lost everything in the form of fabrics, except what they had on themselves while harvesting.”

Neither of these accounts cites a source beyond “family.” The classic compendium for Maine and New Hampshire families – Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire (p. 409) – makes no mention of the story in its sketch on Henry Lamprey, but in the back of the book there is a section of additions and corrections. Under Henry Lamprey is the note: “The Toppan ms. has the early trad. given by Dow, and more.” Since the “tradition” was not published in the Genealogical Dictionary, this notation is more than cryptic, but coming at it from this angle, I recognized the clue.

Turning to the NEHGS library database on AmericanAncestors.org, I found that our manuscript collection includes a photocopy of a transcription of an original 1845 manuscript by Edmund W. Toppan entitled “Result of researches into the transactions of the first settlers of the town of Hampton…” (Mss 159). Tim Salls at R. Stanton Avery Special Collections kindly scanned the two pages on Henry Lamprey for me.

Lamprey started off well as a merchant in New England, but a captain ran away with his ship…

Toppan, indicating the information was “tradition,” gives a longer version of the story beginning with “There was a poor man in London” who married an heiress who received her weight in gold as a dowry, but she was shunned by the family for marrying a lowly cooper, so they went to the colonies. Lamprey started off well as a merchant in New England, but a captain ran away with his ship and cargo, and Lamprey purchased land at Roxbury Neck that had a bad title, and, well, things went downhill from there.

Toppan does not mention the chest that Dow knew about in 1893, but it is probable that both Toppan and Dow got the story through the descendants who inherited the chest. We still don’t, of course, know who wrote down the story, when, or how likely they were to know the true facts of the case, but someday the original family version may surface. Let me know if you have it!

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

9 thoughts on “‘There was a poor man in London’

  1. Interesting story, but how do you prove it? I have a similar “her weight in gold as her dowry” storyin my family. My question has always been, “Did people really do this?” Are there records of dowries being the “weight in gold” of the bride? (My story was in the early 1800s in Yorkshire).

  2. This makes me think of a saying I heard a l lot when I was a kid: “Worth his/her/its weight in gold”. I wonder if this story had its origins in someone making that statement about someone, and it being embellished with time and retelling? (As so many of our family stories are…) On the other hand, even at the time, $25,000 dollars may not have been a strain for some wealthy (perhaps nouveau riche) family whose daughter landed a decent man, poor though he might have been. Who knows? I am of the opinion that family stories, even the outlandish ones, have at least a kernal of truth, though finding and “proving” it may be more than challenging. I keep the family stories I come across, and label them “family tradition”, because they say something about the nature of my family. I just do not always know what.

    1. Nice connection, Annie. And yes, all stories are worth keeping. The ones I like best are usually the ones that aren’t true, when you can find the story behind the story.

  3. The story about “weight in gold” apparently goes back to Roman times at least and is probably based on some folklore. There may have been an emperor or king who gave such a dowry to his daughter. How many times it was actually done in real life remains undocumented!

  4. Enjoyed your post. I was curious on whether there were any records in England to support this family tradition. All I could come up with, so far, was the baptisms of the children of Henry & Gillian Lamprey which were born in England.

    1. Randy, You are ahead of me. I do not have those baptisms, would you share the source? Thanks. You can e-mail to me at Alicia.williams@nehgs.org. I don’t know if anything about the story could be tracked in England, but one would think there might be a marriage settlement or something like that. It will be outside my task with Early Families to go looking for it, though.

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