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Family Background


The Williams family


The parents of Henry and William, and their seven siblings, were Thomas and Mary (née Marsh) Williams, the former being the son of the Reverend Thomas Williams of the Independent Chapel in Gosport, and Rebecca Williams (née Isgar). Rebecca Williams’ brother-in-law was James Hammond, a wealthy Gosport brewer with considerable property in public houses and brewing premises.[1] Mary Williams, who by all accounts was a devout woman, was the daughter of a naval captain, and also the sister of John Marsh, the noted contemporary composer. Here, already, we can see some of the influences that would profoundly affect the lives of Henry and William.


The Williams family belonged to a religious movement broadly known as Dissenters. These were non-conformists that had detached from the established Church of England, some to form separate denominations, such as the Methodists under John Wesley, Presbyterians, and the Congregational Church. It was the independent chapels of the latter that drew the allegiance of the Williams family.[2] Under the influence of Edward Marsh [3], Henry and William later joined the low-church Anglican evangelicals, a group that founded the Church Missionary Society, and which sent its missionaries to New Zealand, among a number of other countries.


The Evangelicals and the Church Missionary Society indulged in an almost militant piety that initially left little room for questioning the purpose of their mission, or finding in those cultures they sought to change something to be learned. They endorsed piety, industry, duty, self-questioning, strict observation of the Sabbath, life after death, personal salvation, a literal interpretation of the Bible, and the benefits of learning in service of the missionary message.[4] Some of these convictions were shared with the non-conformist churches with which the Williams family was associated, enabling an easy transition for the future missionaries and their families.[5]


The family had strong connections with the Navy.[6] It is likely that Thomas Williams’ hosiery business in Gosport –which was adjacent to the large naval base at Portsmouth - was a naval supplier and Mary, his wife, had a father as a captain and three brothers in the Navy. That Thomas was a man of some substance is indicated by the miniature portrait shown here.


They moved to Nottingham in June 1794 where Thomas Williams went into partnership with Mr Green, a hosiery manufacturer.[7] The family occupied the lower half of Plumptre House, a large Italianate mansion shared with a Mr Davison, also in the hosiery business. They attended the Castle Gate Chapel, one of the three independent chapels whose members were influential in the affairs of Nottingham. Thomas Williams later went into partnership with a Mr Whiter and was with him for the life of the business.


The move allowed the development of significant social and political connections. Thomas held various official positions, including a term as Sheriff, before he died on 6 January,1804.[8] They became friendly with George Walker, the mathematician, and minister at the High Pavement (Presbyterian) Chapel. Walker with others founded a literary club that met at the members’ houses, of which it was said ‘the members of the club were generally of a description superior to what most provincial towns were capable of affording’.[9] Nottingham was also a city of strong Whig and dissenter sympathies: it was a political party that embraced the great landowners and merchant classes, and showed tolerance of dissenters. Thomas voted for the Whigs and it was a Whig parliament that abolished the slave trade in 1807, encouraged by the influential Clapham Sect which helped found the Church Missionary Society.


It was not always the best of times for Britain in the period in which Henry and William grew up – environmentally, economically or socially. Britain, like the rest of Europe was in the last throes of the Little Ice Age when winters could be bitterly cold and summers unpleasant, with poor harvests – the Thames froze over in 1813-14. Cities were miasmas of poor sanitation and disease, and Thomas Malthus linked his gloomy prognostications on overpopulation to proliferation of vice. The Industrial Revolution[10], agricultural unrest, and post-war depression of the labour market, all added to social and economic woes and inequalities of the period. Then there was the added burden of the Napoleonic wars (1803-15) and the war with the United States (1812-1815). In the big towns and cities there was plenty to trouble the mind of a clergyman and those with a social conscience.[11] But, on the brighter side, there were famous soldiers and victories, at Trafalgar and Waterloo. It was also the England of Austen, Wordsworth and Shelley, and Turner and Constable were developing their art. Signs were also appearing of recognition for the rights of women.  In various ways, this environment would impact directly or indirectly on the Williams family.


Although well connected, the family was comfortable rather than wealthy, but their business environment was gradually changing for the worse. Fashion changes, new machinery, and labour changes in the late 18th C began the slide.[12] Things held up, and they lived well enough, although Thomas Williams was increasingly compelled to travel further afield in search of customers. Then disaster struck in the form of Thomas Williams’ death, on 6 January, 1804, his partner having died two months earlier.[13] When probate was granted for Thomas Williams’ will the assets amounted to less than £1000.[14] Despite the efforts of his wife and eldest son to keep the debt-laden business afloat, it became insolvent in 1809 and the partnership dissolved.[15] The proprietors were rescued from bankruptcy, largely by the remarkable generosity of Mary Williams’ brother John Marsh, and members of their extended family.[16] In early 1813 Mary Williams disposed of her interest in Plumptre House (probably a lease) and moved with the remnants of her family to Southwell to start what became a successful girls school.[17] Some years later her son, Thomas Sydney Williams, went into business again, becoming insolvent, and requiring another family rescue.



The Coldham family


Marianne Coldham –future wife of Henry Williams – was the daughter of Wright and Ann Coldham (née Temple). The family moved from Norwich to Nottingham in 1796 where Wright Coldham was in the hosiery business.[18] They were Presbyterians, attending the High Pavement Unitarian Chapel in Nottingham, another of the dissenting churches.[19] In 1798 Wright Coldham was appointed a Sheriff, an Alderman in 1808, and ultimately Mayor of Nottingham in 1809.[20] The family was thus part of the influential coterie that embraced the major independent chapels, Whig politics, the Nottingham Corporation, and hosiery manufacture. Inevitably the Coldham, Williams and Nelson families became part of the same social circle. The Coldhams lived in a house in Halifax Lane which was only a short distance from Stoney Street where the Williams family lived in Plumptre house. The house was three storied and had a staff of servants and a nurse for the younger children.


Wright Coldham’s occupation of the Mayoralty was no sinecure. In the early 19th century the population exceeded 30 000, and the Corporation’s powers, which were considerable, dealt with everything from child maintenance, to asylums and jails, schools, civic nuisances, building regulation, petitions, the quality of bread and flour, festivals and celebrations, and a myriad of other issues.


The Coldham family had more than its share of misfortune. Seven of their eleven children died, followed by Ann Coldham in 1810 from the complications of childbirth.[21] Marianne was left to run the household, which by then comprised three younger sisters, her maternal grandmother, and father who was the Mayor of Nottingham. Wright Coldham’s brother George, who was the Town Clerk, died in a carriage accident in Brighton in 1815. Then in 1816, still a comparatively young man, Wright Coldham died leaving Marianne in charge of what remained of the family.


Wright Coldham, it must be assumed, was well off, and his will refers to ‘freeholds, leaseholds and personal estates’ which were entrusted to his two executors – one the hosier John Stout. The trustees were to apply the proceeds from the estate equally among Marianne and her sisters, for their continued maintenance, and that of their grandmother.  



The Nelson Family


The parents of Jane Nelson, later to marry William Williams, were James and Anna Maria Nelson (née Dale). They were married at St Mary’s Church, Nottingham, on 10th May 1791. The church, located on High Pavement, was the main Anglican church in Nottingham. They later attended the St Mary’s Gate Independent Chapel, where all of their children were baptized.


James Nelson was connected to the same clique that occupied Nottingham’s business, civic and church affairs as the Williams and Coldham families. James Nelson’s brother, George, was another of the Sheriffs of Nottingham – a co-Sherriff with Thomas Williams - and also engaged in the hosiery business.[22]


James and Anna Nelson had eight children, two boys and six girls, one of whom was Jane Nelson, later to become associated with the Williams family. One of the girls died in early life, and as later family records refer to only five children, it is possible that there were two other deaths.[23]





What can be drawn from this outline of family backgrounds are the threads that bound them together – their religion, political sympathies, involvement in local body politics, business relationships and naval connections – all pointing towards a uniformity of thinking and a solid basis for social interaction and sharing of ideas. It also points to a sense of cohesion and loyalty that enabled them to support family members who faced adversity – and later, to an extent, to continue that support for the family in New Zealand.[24] It is also necessary to emphasize that although of strong religious conviction, their life was not drab or unvaried – or devoid of the social pleasures that people of their standing would normally enjoy. A degree of sanctity and religious observance was commonplace then, and many family members were engaged in secular occupations that included the military, business, banking and teaching. It is important to note the situations of the women in this story. Their engagement with the world outside the home called upon significant personal resources, and the skills and confidence acquired were vital to those who became missionary wives.


[1] In his will, Hammond left £5 to each of Thomas and Rebecca Williams and they were residual beneficiaries of a share of the proceeds from his properties. In those days small sums were often given to relatives for the purchase of mourning rings.

[2] The grandfather of Henry and William, Thomas Williams Sen., was Pastor at the Gosport Independent Chapel which was Congregationalist. He, and his wife Mary, are as far back as the ancestry of the Williams family can be reliably traced, although a Welsh ancestry seems likely (see Faith and Farming 1998, p. 3, revised ed.).

[3] A cousin and brother-in-law – he married their sister Lydia. He was a clergyman, later Canon of Southwell, and a member of the CMS. His father, John Marsh, uncle of Henry and William, was a noted composer and writer.

[4] Porter, F. ed., 1974, pp19, 20. The Turanga Journals, Price Milburn & Victoria University Press, Wellington. However Porter notes that New Zealand Maori were able, in return, to exercise influence on the missionaries and the church.

[5] They were vehemently opposed to the rituals and embellishments of high church Anglicanism which received a revival in the mid-19th century in the hands of puseyite reformers. This was ultimately a source of friction in New Zealand with the arrival of Bishop Selwyn and his acolytes who were suspected of favouring high church practices.

[6] Military service and the church were common career choices for members of well-to-do families in those days-Jane Austen’s family were also connected to the Church and the Navy.

[7] Accounts of the Williams family include ”mercer”, ”draper” “hosier” and “lacemaker” as the nature of the business, but hosiery was their primary concern (see footnote 18). Williams, NH, (undated MS) The Williams Family in the 18th and 19th Centuries, p.21, concludes that their business was hosiery and discusses this matter in detail, including the suggestion that he was a naval agent and contractor and engaged in the broking of prize money from captured ships.

[8] A co-Sherriff was George Nelson, father of Jane, who later married William Williams. Town officials included burgesses, two sheriffs and a mayor.

[9] Chambers, J D, 1966, p.314. Nottinghamshire in the eighteenth century: a study of life and labour under the squirearchy. Frank Cass & Co, London.

[10] Opposition to improvements in stocking frames (frame breaking and Luddism) occurred through the 18th C into the 19th. Steam power and the factory system were applied after 1816. See p.244, Felkin, W, 1867, A History of the Machine-wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufactures. Longmans Green & Co, London.

[11] Porter, F ed., 1974, p.19. The Turanga Journals. Price Milburn & Victoria University Press, Wellington. Contemporary churchmen would be critical of the Evangelicals’ desire to proselytize abroad when there was plenty to do at home.

[12] The demise of men’s hosiery is at least in part due to the rising fashion for trousers, popularised by Beau Brummel, a protégé of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, and Prussian Army uniform trousers, sourced from England.

[13] It was said to be from typhus (Porter F, 1974, loc. cit., p. 22, and other sources). Typhus is transmitted by body lice and usually associated with poverty, poor hygiene and crowding, although it could affect all classes (Jane Austen, a contemporary, nearly died of it). Public health and hygiene standards in the early 1800s were poor. Thomas Williams’ travelling in the course of business, sometimes staying in inns of indifferent quality, would have made it relatively easy to become infected. Direct infection from his business partner, Mr Whiter, who died two months earlier, is unlikely. Williams, NH (MS) loc. cit., pp. 65,66, notes the contemporary account of John Marsh (Thomas Williams brother-in-law) who mentions a ‘rheumatic fever’ and a ‘violent hiccough’. Joint pains and cough are among the symptoms of typhus. Rheumatic fever in this instance describes symptoms rather than the disease of this name we know today. Typhus struck the Williams family again-but in New Zealand, where Thomas Sydney Williams, a son of William and Jane, died at St John’s College, Auckland, in 1847, during an outbreak there, Porter F, 1974, loc. cit., p.431.

[14] p. 10, Davies, G. c.1998. The Shield of Faith, the life and times of Henry and Marianne Williams. Privately published.

[15] Women as managers of businesses were the exception then. Mary Williams’ school (also effectively a business) shows that she was unusual for her times, although there are hints (when seeking loans for Southwell property) that she would take financial risks (Williams NH (MS n.d.) loc.cit., pp 83, 84).   Owners of insolvent businesses could be bankrupted (the limited liability company was some years in the future) and bankruptcy was considered a crime usually punished by a term of imprisonment. It is noteworthy that the business collapsed during the Napoleonic wars, when it might be expected that demand might be higher. Family members blamed the failure on the profligacy, or possible fraud, by a partner in the business.

[16] Father of Edward Garrard Marsh, and a noted composer and diarist – some of his symphonies are still recorded on CD. The sums involved added up to about $100,000 in today’s value.

[17] These were known as ‘dame schools’. Mary was assisted by her daughters and Jane Nelson – William’s future wife - and taught ‘young ladies’ subjects including English, History, Geography, and ‘Use of the Globes’ which included astronomy (The Nottingham Journal, 4.7.1818  quoted in After Mary’s death her daughter, Catherine Heathcote took over the school which moved from the Archbishop’s Old Palace at Southwell Minister to Elmfield House in Burgage Green, where it survived for many years. Catherine Heathcote was a generous supporter of her family and the mission in New Zealand.

[18] As with Thomas Williams, several sources place him in the lace-making industry. The demand for cotton hose declined in the early 19th century, and attempts to modify stocking frames to machine-make lace did not make significant progress until after Thomas Williams died and only a few years before Thomas Coldham died in 1815. It is possible they experimented in this area but it was unlikely that it was part of their business. See Felkin, W, 1867, A History of the Machine-wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufactures. Longmans Green & Co, London.

[19] Unitarians were a society of non-conformists that did not believe in the Trinity. The High Pavement Chapel has been described both as Presbyterian and Unitarian, the Church Minute Book describing it as ‘The Society of Protestant Dissenters’, (N H Williams, pers.comm.). The High Pavement Chapel, or a version of it, in more recent times became the Pitcher and Piano public house.

[20] According to the official list of the Mayors of Nottingham ( this is the correct date of appointment– not 1810 as in some other sources.

[21] Even by the fairly dismal standards of the day this is a significant number of deaths. The Church of England Prayer Book at one time included a phrase that thanked God for ‘the safe deliverance and preservation from the great dangers of childbirth’. Mortality from this cause was about 5/1000 in 1810. Chamberlain, G. 2006. British maternal mortality in the 19th and early 20th centuries. J. Roy.Soc. Med.99(11): 559-563.

[22] N H Williams,

[23]  p. 11, R & E Evans, 1998, Faith and Farming, Revised ed., Evergean Publishing, Auckland.

[24]  Catherine Heathcote was a major source of support.

Principal towns associated with the Williams, Coldham and Nelson families in England.

Miniature portrait of Thomas Williams

Portrait of Mary Williams

Photo from Mr H B N Williams

Plumptre House, Nottingham.

Nottingham, c. 1800 showing principal locations for the Williams, Coldham and Nelson families.

Map from British Historic Towns Atlas v. 1 ©  Lovell Johns.

Stocking frame, John Beniston. 

With permission of the Framework Knitters Museum.

Portrait of Wright Coldham

Reproduced by permission of the Auckland Museum.

Mary Williams gravestone, at Southwell

Photo N H Williams.

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