My interest in the Piety family was sparked when an American descendant of Austen Piety contacted St Leonard’s church in Hythe seeking some information. I was able to give him the details he wanted, but the research piqued my interest. I wanted to know more about this family, but the usual first port of call, the genealogy websites, threw up a miscellany of information, little of it referenced to any verifiable source.
There were various, sometimes conflicting, dates of birth and of death; mention of a burial in Wye in a non-existent graveyard; a mysterious and now-vanished document in a Hythe church; suggestions that Austen Piety deserted his wife and claims that he was an army chaplain. There is even a photo of Austen, though he died in 1815, thirty-odd years before commercial photography became a possibility.
What follows is what I have been able to piece together from the records.
Austen’s father, Thomas, was born in about 1706, though where is unknown. Some internet sources state that it was in Lancashire and name his parents as Winfield Piety and Maryana Grover, but in fact he was the son of Richard Piety and Elizabeth Austen. Thomas himself, in his will, names his mother as Elizabeth Austen and states that she is buried with her husband in St Leonard’s churchyard in Hythe and that her family are interred nearby.(1) Marriage records show that Elizabeth Austen married Richard Piety in Canterbury on 21 September 1699 and that he was ‘of Newington neare Hythe’ (2).
It is not easy to trace Thomas’s family as he was a Baptist. Baptists did not christen infants, preferring the adult baptism of believers. Fortunately (for us, anyway), marriages and funerals could still only be performed in the Church of England, so records of these are extant.
Thomas married three times. The first marriage was on 6 August 1733 to Alice White, a widow. (3) At that time, they were both living in Stelling. This refers to the village Stelling Minnis situated between Hythe and Canterbury and about five miles from Hythe. Alice became the mother of Thomas junior (c. 1737) Austen (c.1738) They seem to have lived in Hythe, as in 1745, Thomas wrote to the Duke of Newcastle from the town about local smuggling (4). Newcastle, the brother of the Prime Minister, was a powerful man, but the news of smuggling can hardly have come as a surprise to him, since it had been rife in the area for many years. In what capacity Thomas was writing is unknown and until the National Archives at Kew re-open, will remain so.
Thomas also kept himself occupied with Baptist church affairs. By 1749, he was attending meetings of the General Assembly of the Baptist Church in Southwark, representing the Hythe congregation and later became a ‘Messenger’, a co-ordinator of evangelists (5). There were, too, difficulties to be dealt with when a congregation of Particular Baptists was established in the town (6). Thomas was a member of the General Baptists. The difference was theological: Particular Baptists believed that Jesus died only for the elect; General Baptists that He died for all mankind. Each group saw the other as a threat to the Truth.
In 1758, however, he was appointed as minister for the General Baptist church in Ramsgate. Ramsgate is about thirty-five miles from Hythe, but Thomas was wealthy enough to afford a carriage and could drive there. In fact, he seems to have lived there for a while and now represented Ramsgate at the Baptist Assembly (6). He had an incentive to move as on 1 January 1860, now a widower, he married again to a local woman, Ann Chilton(8). She was the widow of Richard Chilton, ‘gentleman’, who had been prominent in the Ramsgate Baptist church until he married Ann, who was not then a Baptist herself. ‘Marrying out’ was forbidden, but the law was often broken. Richard Chilton had been the subject of an enquiry but was ultimately forgiven (9). He died in 1758, leaving his wife, as his sole heir, very comfortably off (9). She must have been received into the church at some point after their marriage.
Ramsgate at about the time Thomas was there
The Ramsgate congregation was struggling and Thomas went to the Kent Association of Baptist Churches to seek help. He said he had only one deacon, who was aged and lived outside the town. Although they could not help, Thomas’s connections in the church ensured that he received the assistance he needed from Barfestone, Eythorne and Wingham congregations (11). His was not a large congregation and did not have its own baptistry, necessary for total immersion. Adult believers were instead baptised in the sea at Sandwich, having first formally accepted the Six Principles of the General Baptists: Repentance, Faith, Baptism, Laying on of Hands, Resurrection of the Dead and Final Judgment.
Eythorne Baptist church, the oldest in the country
Eventually, though, Thomas and Ann moved back to Hythe, but left an endowment of three hundred pounds with the Ramsgate church to support a ministry there (12). Later, they diverted the money to serve as a mortgage to a group of four London churches which wanted to build a meeting house in White Horse Alley in St Sepulchre, Shoreditch. (13). The building later became the venue for meetings of the General Assembly, of which Thomas became a Moderator in 1770 (14).
White Horse Alley in Shoreditch
Ann Piety died in Hythe in June 1776 and was buried there (15). Just before her death, she had obtained permission from Thomas to donate the interest on the three hundred pounds mortgage to the General Baptist Church in Thanet (16).
Twenty months later, on 23 February 1778, Thomas married for a third time and his choice of bride must have raised a few eyebrows and warranted a paragraph in the Kentish Gazette:
On Monday last was married at Hythe by the Rev. Mr Potts, Mr Thomas Piety in the seventy second year of his age, to Miss Green, of Saltwood, aged twenty two.(17)
St Leonard’s Church, Hythe, where Thomas married Elizabeth Green and where he is buried
Almost exactly three years later, Thomas died and was buried in the churchyard of St Leonard, near to his parents, as he had requested in his will (18). He had drawn this up a few weeks after his marriage, seven pages of densely written instructions. His wife, Elizabeth, got a water mill and its land in the neighbouring parish of Newington together with a coach and stable yard in Hythe, half the silver plate and all the furniture from their house. Austin, the younger son by the long-departed Alice, got all the rest of the real estate and his brother Thomas an annuity of fifty pounds. There were a few smaller requests, including to Baptist churches and to his first wife’s family in Stelling. Then, toward the end of the document is a rather extraordinary direction. Thomas says that if Elizabeth takes any legal action or
any other Matter or Thing to Obstruct or hinder the disposition of my real and personal estate according to my Mind and Will herein before declared then and in such case I do solemnly and expressly declare my Mind and Will to be that my said wife Elizabeth shall forfeit the Gifts and Bequests herein before made to her my said wife and shall not receive any Benefit or Advantage whatsoever from this my Will or from any of the devises or bequests to her herby made and provided.(19)
He had been married for fourteen weeks when he wrote this. Did he perhaps suspect that Elizabeth had married him for his money? Or was he, by then an old man, persuaded into this by his sons who thought that their new stepmother might have ulterior motives?
Elizabeth remained a widow for four years and married again in 1785 (20). Thomas junior did not long outlive his father, dying in Whitechapel in 1787. He had married and had a daughter, Elizabeth Austen Piety, named for her grandmother, who lived less than two years. The child was baptised in St Mary Matfelon church in Whitechapel , which might suggest that Thomas junior, though he had earlier in life attended the General Assembly, did not remain a Baptist. However, he lived in Mill Yard in Whitechapel, the site of a Baptist Church and was interred in the Baptist Burial Ground there (21).
Mill Yard Baptist Church & burial ground in the 19th century
His brother, Austen, meanwhile, had taken a different route and gone to America. The genealogy websites all quote from a memoir written by a family member of Austen’s first wife in 1886, a hundred and twenty years after the events (22). Over that time span stories can become distorted, deliberately or not. It claims that Austen was an officer in the British Army , based at Fort Pitt (now in Pittsburgh). Fort Pitt was built in 1759 to 1760 by the British 60th Regiment of Rifles during the Seven Years war, when the British in America fought the French and the Indian Nations. The 60th remained there to garrison the fort throughout the 1760s when Austen is alleged to have been there. Their Regimental Chronicle lists all the officers of this time, from Lt. Col. to ensign and includes surgeons and chaplains. Austen’s name is not among them (23).
Fort Pitt as it was when Austen was there
All the websites agree that it was there that he married Sarah Polk (or Polke or Pollock), probably in 1763. He was ordered to Fort Kaskaskia, a French stronghold which they ceded to the British in the same year. Sarah accompanied him on this journey. They then returned to Fort Pitt. All the accounts also agree that the couple had four children – Elizabeth, Sarah, Nancy and Thomas – and that Austen deserted them in 1774 and returned to England.
In fact, the British Army had abandoned Fort Pitt in 1772. If Austen was still there two years later, he had either resigned his commission or had never been in the army in the first place and was just a settler seeking his fortune in the New World, as so many young men did. The fort was seized by Virginian militiamen in 1774.
But when he left his family, as he undoubtedly did, Austen did not go to England.
By 1774, tensions between the British and the colonists were rising and fearing for their lives, many loyal settlers were beginning to flee northwards. It is possible, even probable, that his wife and in-laws sympathised with the rebels and that this disagreement caused a family rift, as it did in very many cases. In 1776, the colony declared itself independent, leading to a prolonged and bloody war.
Austen is next heard of in 1777 as the Conductor of Artillery for Lieutenant-Colonel Barry St Leger of the British Army in Canada, though he was acting as a volunteer (24).
Austen’s Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. St Leger
He had joined the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, established in Montreal by Sir John Johnson of New York state in spring 1776. In March 1777, Austen applied to the War Office in London for preferment and this was granted in August when he was made an ensign in Captain Richard Duncan’s company of the same regiment (25). The next year he was promoted lieutenant (26).
A re-enactment group in the uniform of the ‘King’s Royal Yorkers’
The company, otherwise known as the King’s Royal Yorkers’ or Johnson’s Greens saw a fair amount of action during the war. Some historians have suggested that while the regiment was greatly feared by the enemy, that it was often inhumane towards them in defeat. It took part in many actions and raids on the New York frontier and helped defeat twelve hundred rebels at Johnstown in October 1781. Before that engagement, Austen made his will in Montreal, where the city records note it as ‘The Last Will and Testament of Lieut. Austen Piety, Royal New York Regt.’ After their final confrontation, at Fort Oswego, the regiment was disbanded in September 1783. As a loyalist soldier, Austen would have been offered land to settle in Canada, but instead chose to go back to Hythe.
There he formed a new relationship, with Sarah Judd. Their first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1786 and they were married in 1788. The marriage was technically bigamous, since Sarah Polk was still alive and did not die until 1835, but Austen swore an affidavit that ‘many years ago he married Sarah Pollock and about 14 years ago by reason of the troubles in America they were obliged to separate and he believed her dead’. He was declared to be a widower(27). It is possible that when the war was over, Austen tried to make contact with his family, but they were long gone from Fort Pitt. According to her descendant, Sarah with her children and three of her many brothers had settled in Kentucky in 1780 (28). That is about five hundred miles away. It seems that Austen’s first wife had given up hope, if she ever entertained any, of a reunion.
Austen and Sarah Judd went on to have five more children, including twin boys, but only their first, Elizabeth , and last, Richard (both named for their Piety grandparents), survived to adulthood. All were baptised as infants at St Leonard’s church. This does not necessarily mean that Austen had abandoned the Baptist church. The Test Act of 1678, still in force, ruled that anyone wanting to take a public post, including in the armed services, had to have a certificate stating that they were a communicant member of the Church of England. In order to take communion, one had first to have been baptised in an Anglican church. Austen described himself as ‘a gentleman’. He might expect his sons to be gentlemen, too and it was expected of gentlemen that they would, in however humble a capacity, take on some public duties.
Austen and his family stayed in Hythe until at least 1798, but by 1801, when Richard was born, they were in Ashford, Kent and later moved to Canterbury, where Austen died (aged seventy-seven, according to his burial record) in July 1815. His body was taken back to Hythe where it could be interred near the graves of his father and infant children (29).
His will, a brief document, was signed by him on 12 July and probate was granted on 26 July (30). He left everything to Sarah and made her and their daughter Elizabeth joint guardians of Richard, who was still a minor and joint executrixes.
The family stayed in Canterbury. Sarah died in 1837 and Elizabeth, unmarried, in 1847. Perhaps Austen, by the end of his life had not been well off. His son Richard had to work for a living and became a clerk in a bonded warehouse storing imported leaf tea. He did, however, inherit the water mill which his grandfather Thomas had originally bequeathed to his third wife and which he leased out (31), and owned other property in Hythe, too. (32). Both his daughters were born in the town, though the family’s main residence was in Camberwell. His daughter Sarah married; the other, Mary Ann did not.
The Piety’s watermill, now restored
Austen Piety’s English descendants are few, if any, but on the other side of the Atlantic, his children by Sarah Polk produced prodigious numbers of offspring and his descendants there today must run into the thousands.
With thanks to Mike de la Mare for information about the watermill
Information about the King’s Royal New York Regiment is taken from ‘American Loyalist Troops 1775-84’ by Rene Chartran (New York: , Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008).
- Kent Archdeaconry Marriages, Canterbury St Alphege , 1699
- National Archives PROB 11/1076/113
- Kent Archdeaconry Marriages, Canterbury St Alphege , 1733
- National Archives SP 36/77/2/134
- William Thomas Whitley, Baptists in East Kent in The Baptist Quarterly 2:2 April 1924
- Kent Archdeaconry Marriages, St Lawrence in Thanet, 1760
- National Archives PROB 11/836/132
- London Metropolitan Archives ACC/2570/1
- Minutes of the General Assembly of the General Baptist Church in England
- Burial Records, Hythe St Leonard
- Kentish Gazette 05 June 1776
- Kentish Gazette 28 February 1778 and Kent Archdeaconry Banns, Hythe St Leonard
- Burial Records, Hythe St Leonard
- National Archives PROB 11/1076/113
- England Marriages 1538-1973, http://www.familysearch.org
- London, Docklands And East End Baptisms, Docklands Ancestors & England Deaths & Burials 1538-1991, http://www.familsearch.org.
- Indiana Magazine of History Vol. 10, No. 1 (March1914), pp. 83-109
- Nesbit Willoughby Wallace, Regimental Chronicle and List of Officers of the 60th or King’s Royal Rifle Corps (London: Harrison, 1879)
- The King’s Royal Yorkers, Capt. Duncan’s Coy, http://www.royalyorkers.ca
- National Archives WO 28/9/49
- The King’s Royal Yorkers
- Canterbury Marriage Licences 1781-1809
- Indiana Magazine of History Vol. 10, No. 1 (March1914), pp. 83-109
- National Archives PROB 11/1571/144
- East Kent Burial Index, http://www.findmypast.co.uk
- Newington Tithe Map and Apportionment Schedule 1840
- Canterbury Cathedral Archives U101/II/M/12