Jemima Shaw, wife of Rev Harry Downing

Jemima Shaw was baptised in All Saints, Sedgley on 18 Jan 1746 the younger sister of Thomas Shaw-Hellier some 14 years his junior. She married Harry Downing on 9 Sep 1766 in Lapley.

The location of Lapley is a distance from where either of the families lived, and poses some interesting questions about the marriage. The banns and Lord Hardwicke marriage form are extant and state that Jemima was 21 years old. Given her baptism date this is just about possible. It is clear though that the groom, whose age is not stated, was a lot younger. Harry Downing was the youngest of three sons of the Rev Henry Bowles Downing, baptised on 7 Sep 1749. He would appear to be barely 17 years of age at marriage.

Harry’s father, who was Rector of Enville, had died a year earlier in 1765, aged 48, and left a will. Not only was his father the Rector of Enville but he also owned the advowson, that had been in the Downing and Bowles family for much of the previous century. In his will, Henry Bowles Downing names his three sons as Thomas, John and Harry. John, who at the time was studying at Merton College Oxford, was preferred as inheritor of both the advowson and the incumbency of Enville, with an option for Harry, still a minor, to also take on the role as a contingency. Thomas, the oldest son, evidently did not want to be, or was not suitable as a clergyman and would duly be compensated by the brother who did take on the ‘living’.

The immediate issue that arose, was who should take on the duties of Rector whilst John Downing the middle son, finished his studies and training, This fell to the young and up and coming clergyman, Rev Thomas Shaw. After his time at both Queen’s College and Exeter College, Thomas Shaw seems to have gained a reputation as a preacher. For instance on 20 Apr 1765 he had given a sermon on the ‘role of Reason in matters of religion’ at Lichfield cathedral, the text of which was widely published and circulated.

The Church of England records show that Thomas Shaw was appointed Rector of Enville on 27 Jul 1765. This was soon after the death of Rev Henry Bowles Downing on 6 Apr 1765, all of which might indicate some deliberate and planned move on behalf of the Downing family.

We can only imagine how this subsequently played out with the young couple – Thomas’s young sister Jemima and the 16 year old Harry. It all led very rapidly to a marriage. Harry’s guardian would appear to have been his uncle George Downing, but there is no evidence of him giving consent. The young couple married and a first child, Mary Downing, was baptised in St Thomas Dudley on 13 Jun 1767. A named witness to the wedding was James Shaw – possibly Jemima’s brother. Perhaps no other relative attended.

The next record would show that Harry went on to Magdalen Hall, Oxford and matriculated there on 22 Nov 1770, at the stated age of 20. This was the start of Harry’s clerical career.

At the same time, in 1770 Thomas Shaw relinquished the Rectorship to John Downing, his sister’s brother-in-law. This must have been agreed from the outset and presented no problem to the ambitious Thomas, whose career was set to evolve further.  John Downing, who appears to have never married, remained in post until his death in 1800.

The baptisms of Jemima and Harry’s various children appear in a number of different parishes. Harry spent time in Oxford. He returned to act as a Curate in Enville, under his brother John in 1772.  By 1779 he was curate in Kinver and in 1785 he was finally appointed Rector of Wiveliscombe in Somerset.

The only surviving son was Francis Downing, bap 18 Mar 1777, who went on to become Mayor of Dudley and a mining agent for the Earl of Dudley. He died aged 80 in 1857.

Her daughter Henrietta (bap 16 Sep 1771, St Thomas Dudley) married William Foley

Her daughter Sophia (bap 29 Aug 1784, Kinver) married Philip Gunter. Her grandson was Harry Downing Gunter, who appears in other documents.

She was survived by her youngest daughter Eliza (bap 1 Jul 1786, Kinver), who remained unmarried in 1813.

Both Harry and Jemima left wills held at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. Harry died in Wiveliscombe, Somerset on 18 Nov 1813. It would seem after his death Jemima returned to Wolverhampton and died there, being buried the next year in Wombourne on 18 May 1814.

Jemima in her will requested to be buried in the family vault in Wombourne, This must be the Hellier vault instituted by Samuel Hellier in 1727, alongside her brother and with all the Helliers who had made the Wodehouse in Wombourne their home.

Sources and Notes

  • Will of Jemima Downing, PCC, Probate 10 Mar 1818.
  • Will of Rev Henry Bowles Downing, PCC, Probate 27 May 1765 (Father-in-law)
  • Will of Harry Downing, Rector of Wiveliscombe, PCC, Probate 11 Dec 1813 (Husband)
  • Will of John Downing, Clerk, Probate Lichfield 20 Oct 1800 (Brother-in-law)
  • Clergy of the Church of England Database
  • Aris’s Birmingham gazette 29 Jul 1765 – advert for Thomas Shaw sermon price 6d (FMP)


Last updated on 6 April 2024 by JJ Morgan