In the churchyard of St. Botolph, Bishopsgate stands a rather grand funeral monument for Sir William Rawlins. On the various inscriptions we read that he died 26 March 1838 at the age of 83 (in fact, he was 84), that he had been a sheriff of London in 1801-02 and a great benefactor to the parish of St. Botolph’s. So who was this William Rawlins? He was born on 24 July 1753, the son of farmer Samuel and Ann Rawlins of Bridgecomb, Berkshire. In 1770, he was apprenticed to a London weaver, but turned over in 1773 to Samuel Swaine, an upholder(1) of 9 Broker’s Row(2) and in 1778 he received his freedom of the Upholders’ Company. Whether Rawlins worked for someone else in the first ten years after his apprenticeship or whether he had a place of his own is unclear, but in 1790, he certainly had his own business, “The Royal Bed and Star” at 12 Broker’s Row, a street full of furniture dealers.(3) The street was later renamed Blomfield Street (often referred to as Bloomfield Street) in honour of Charles James Blomfield, bishop of London (1828-1857) who had been rector of St. Botolph’s earlier in his career.(4)
The Land Tax records show Rawlins from 1791 onwards in Old Bethlem, just round the corner from Broker’s Row. Old Bethlem was to be widened in 1829 and henceforth called Liverpool Steet. Rawlins lived at number 13, but whether he also had a shop there, or whether he just lived there and still traded from Blomfield Street is unclear. We do not really know very much about his upholstery, but much more about his public life. As said above, he became sheriff of London in 1801-02, together with Robert Albion Cox, a goldsmith. Sheriffs were always chosen in pairs from the Liverymen of the City Companies (more here). After his term in office, a knighthood was conferred on Rawlins by the King, and he was hence properly referred to as Sir William Rawlins. A glorious career lay before him, one may surmise, but in 1805, both Cox and Rawlins were put in Newgate prison by order of the House of Commons for election fraud during their time of office as sheriffs. They were in prison for about two months and were then gravely spoken to by the Speaker of the House,
For the purpose of giving one of the candidates in the Middlesex election a colourable majority upon the poll, you wilfully, knowingly, and corruptly admitted the reception of fictitious votes, thereby encouraging persons to commit perjury; and that, in pursuance of the same intent, you refused to examine their competency by the books of the land tax. A higher offence than this could not be committed; and in so conducting yourselves, you betrayed the most important duties of your high office, for which you were committed to Newgate, the common receptable of malefactors, and over which you before presided over as the proper Magistrates, to your own indelible disgrace, and for the example of all others. In consequence, however, of your long imprisonment, and your expression of humble contrition, you are now discharged, on payment of your fees.(5)
Indelible disgrace or not, Rawlins’ further career does not seem to have been hampered by his stint in prison and he went on to hold important posts in the Company of Upholsters, the Bishopsgate Ward, and other civic bodies, although you never know to what other posts he may have been elected if he had not been charged with fraud.
On 23 October 1807, Rawlins arranged a meeting of a group of City merchants, bankers and traders in Cole´s Coffee House, Cornhill, to discuss the formation of an association “for fire and life assurance and for granting annuities”. The Eagle Insurance Company (later The Eagle Star) was formed of which Rawlins remained the chairman until his death in 1838.(6)
In his will he outlined how he wanted his burial to take place,
I desire that my body may be buried at the direction of my executors hereafter named after the following manner: that my body may be placed in a lead coffin and that it be interred in the vault belonging to me in Bishopsgate Churchyard and wherein is already deposited the remains of the late Mrs Mary Rawlins, widow of the late William Rawlins Esquire. That my funeral may be a walking procession and that it commence from my own house down Liverpool Street to the Catholic Chapel to turn on the lefthand up Bloomfield Street to the end of New Broad Street then through the Iron Gates up the said street to Bishopsgate Church Yard. I also desire that the entrance to my vault may be enclosed with good sound and solid brick work so as to prevent the further use thereof by any person whatever, and I also desire that a respectable mausoleum or tomb may be erected over the said vault of well manufactured polished Haytor Granite with designs of scientific excellence which may do honor to the artist whom my said executors hereafter named may think proper to employ. It is also my wish that a cast iron railing may be erected round my said tomb and to be at least five feet ten inches high and to be well painted four times in oil.(7)
The will is dated 22 March 1837, but there is a second codicil of 2 January 1838 in which Rawlins writes that he has already agreed a design for his tomb and the adjoining railings with Samuel Grimsdell (a builder from Sun Street). The railings and the tomb are certainly replete with the “designs of scientific excellence” Rawlins had specified in his will and which he presumably agreed upon when discussing the design of the tomb with Grimsdell. The executors just needed to make sure the tomb was maintained properly, for which he left them – he thought – ample funds. And maintained it was; that is, up till now, as the fund is sadly depleted. All contributions gladly excepted, see here.
During his lifetime, Rawlins had always been generous to good causes, such as the Bishopsgate Ward School that received a thousand pound in 1837 to be invested and used “for the clothing and education” of the schoolchildren. Rawlins does not seem to have had any children of his own – did he ever marry? – as, after bequests to various charities, friends, nephews and great-nephews, the residue of the estate was to go to two of his nephews, Robert and George. The great-nephew mentioned is William Rawlins, son of nephew William Rawlins, deceased. Are we to assume that the Mary who was already in the vault was this William’s widow and hence the mother of great nephew William? Possibly, but there are so many William Rawlinses that I have not yet found out which one is meant here. Mary was certainly buried from 13 Liverpool Street and a possibility is that she came to live with Rawlins after the death of her husband. It is sometimes suggested that Mary was Sir William’s wife, but that supposition is untenable, as he clearly mentions her as the widow of someone else in his will and the inscription on the tomb would not give Rawlins as Esq. as he was already knighted by the time Mary was buried. I will add a postscript if I find out more about the relation between Sir William and Mary.
(1) An upholder is now more frequently called an upholsterer, or is – more generally – a dealer in furniture. See Karin M. Walton, “The Worshipful Company Of Upholders Of The City Of London” in Furniture History (1973) for the origins of the word upholder and the history of the Company of Upholders.
(2) J.F. Houston, Featherbedds and Flock Bedds (2006).
(3) Elizabeth A. Fleming, “Staples for Genteel Living: The Importation of London Household Furnishings into Charleston During the 1780s” in American Furniture (1997).
(4) C. Hibbert et al, The London Encylopaedia. See also Wikipedia which tell us that he was the grandfather of Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architect of 20 Buckingham Gate.
(5) The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser, 18 May 1805.
(6) A.F. Shepherd, Links with the Past: A Brief Chronicle of the Public Service of a Notable Institution, London, published by The Eagle and British Dominions Insurance Co., Ltd (1917).
(7) The National Archives; Kew, England; Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers; Class: PROB 11; Piece: 1894.