The Ecton Tithes Book

The following extracts are all from “Northamptonshire Notes & Queries” Vol. II published in 1888 by The Dryden Press.

The Boston Daily Courier of April 10 [1857], in an account of the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, on the previous day, gives the following very interesting account of an old MS. relating to the ancestors of Benjamin Franklin, in the parish of Ecton, in this county.

The Hon. Edward Everett in a very eloquent manner presented to the society a rare English manuscript, which he had received from the celebrated Thomas Carlyle, containing memorandums relating to the Franklin family in England, previous to their removal to America. He spoke in substance as follows:-

I felt strongly impelled, Mr. President, to say a few words by way of seconding the resolution so appropriately moved and so handsomely supported by Governor Washburn; . . . I rise only, therefore, at this somewhat late hour of the morning, to offer to the acceptance of the society, through you, what I am confident you will regard as an interesting relic, viz., the original manuscript record book of the small tithes of the parish of Ecton, Northamptonshire, England, from 1640 to about 1700, the parish, I need not tell you, Sir, where the family of Benjamin Franklin has been established for several generations previous to the emigration of his father to Boston in 1682. This venerable relic had, it seems, been found in Northamptonshire by Mr. Wake, an English gentleman, who presented it to Mr. Thomas Carlyle. Mr. Carlyle, justly presuming that it would be of greater interest in this country than it could have been in England, sent it to me, leaving the disposal of it to my discretion. I immediately determined, after having it suitably bound, to present it to the Historical Society, deeming this body, as the oldest historical society in the United States, and established too in the city where Franklin was born, to be the proper place of deposit for a document of some interest in reference to his family. Mr. Carlyle sent me the manuscript, by the hands of his friend, the eminent artist, Mr. Samuel Lawrence, with a letter bearing date 2d December, 1853, which, owing to accidental circumstances, did not reach me till November of the following year. I have, with Mr. Carlyle’s permission, had the portion of this interesting and characteristic letter, which relates to the manuscript, copied into one of the blank pages, in the following terms:-

Mr. Lawrence carries for me a little packet to your address: A strange old brown MS., which never thought of travelling out of its native parish, but which now, so curious are the vicissitudes and growths of things, finds its real home on your side of the Atlantic, and in your hands first of all. The poor MS. is an old Tithes-Book of the parish of Ecton, in Northamptonshire, from about 1640 to almost 1700, and contains, I perceive, various scattered faint indications of the civil war time, which are not without interest; but the thing which should raise it above all tithes-books yet heard of is, that it contains actual notices, in that fashion, of the ancestors of Benjamin Franklin - blacksmiths in that parish! Here they are - their forge hammers yet going - renting so many “yard-lands” of Northamptonshire church-soil - keeping so many sheep, &c. &c.- little conscious that one of the demigods was about to proceed out of them. I flatter myself these old plaster-cast representations of the very form and pressure of the primeval (or at least prior-eval) Franklins will be interesting in America; there is the very stamp (as it were) of the black knuckles, of their hob-nailed shoes, strongly preserved to us, in hardened clay, and now indestructible, if we take any care of it.

In the interior of the parcel are the necessary further indications of its history. I am very happy now to give up this MS. to your piety - such being the best dictate of my own piety upon the subject. To your wise keeping and wise disposal I now surrender it; and it is you that have it on your conscience hereafter, not I.

I lost no time in thanking Mr. Carlyle for sending me this interesting document. I informed him of the use that I proposed to make of it, and that an opportunity would probably occur of bringing it to the public notice, on occasion of the inauguration of the statue of Franklin, which was already in anticipation. I placed it in your hands, Mr. President, at the proper time for that purpose, rejoicing to have it in my power to contribute in this way, however slightly, to the materials of the admiral address delivered by you on that occasion. In reply to my letter of acknowledgment, in which I had asked Mr. Carlyle’s permission to publish his part of the correspondence between us, he addressed a second letter to me dated 22d December, 1854, of which I have caused the following extract to be copied also in one of the blank leaves:-

All is right with this matter of the old Tithes-book; and I am heartily pleased to find that it so pleases you, and is to have such honors as you indicate. A poor half-foolish and yet partly very serious and worthy old object has been rescued from its vague wanderings over cosmos and chaos, and at length helped into its right place in the creation; for which small mercy let us be thankful, and wish only that, in bigger cases (of which in nature there are so many, and of such a tragical sort,) the same perfect service could always be done! Alas! alas!