The search for George Swan

Seeking the founder of Swan & Edgar


An account of my occasional genealogical obsession

The project

When I first developed an interest in genealogy, I went through the usual starting phase of collecting family stories and legends. I have a pretty good record of proving them so far, but the one that defeats me is the one that says we're related to the Swan of Swan & Edgar department store.

The tale goes, that Mr Swan of Swan & Edgar was some kind of a cousin. He offered my ancestors the chance to invest in his drapery concern, but thinking it would come to nothing they foolishly refused, and have been vaguely sulking about it ever since. (That was, I think, about seven generations ago, so that's some focused sulking there. We've got stamina in my family.)

So once I got far enough back to discover I did indeed descend from a line of Swans, I set out to prove it.

Problem is, it turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. In the end I've settled on a dual approach: I'm researching Swan of Swan & Edgar on one side, and my own Swan family on the other, in the hopes that I might make a breakthrough that will make the connection and prove the story. This is the account of my research into Swan & Edgar; hope you find it interesting, and maybe you might even have a part of the jigsaw to add...

Swan & Edgar

Swan & Edgar was an iconic department store of London.

It used to be a huge haberdashery and a famous meeting-place for Londoners. Founded in its Piccadilly Circus location in the early 1800s, it was patronised by Queen Victoria, had its windows smashed by the Suffragettes in 1911, was hit by the last Zeppelin raid of World War I and rebuilt in the 1920s. Finally it was sold off in 1927 and since then the building has gone through a number of owners, none of whom have managed to make a success of it despite possibly the single best location for passing trade in the world.

The mysterious Mister Swan

I started my hunt for Mr Swan with no idea whatsoever where to start. A bit of Googling on Swan & Edgar, and a sneaky flip through some of the London histories in Waterstone's bookshop (the Piccadilly branch, naturally) swiftly told me that Swan had unhelpfully died early on in the department store's history, leaving William Edgar to posthumously make his name famous.

When William Edgar first came to London he had a haberdashery stall at St. James's Market in Haymarket. With no lodgings to go to, used to sleep under it at night. He met Mr. Swan, a draper about whom very little is known, and together they opened a shop in the Ludgate area of the City. The business did tolerably well and in 1812-1814 the friends were able to move out of the City to 20 Piccadilly. Following the construction of Regent Street, they moved into number 49, which had been the premises of the Western Mail and Coach Offices and also of the Bull & Mouth inn, (the licence for which they retained until shortly before it closed in the late 20th century).

Mr. Swan died in 1821, but Edgar retained his name, even after the refurbishment and the erection of the splendid new shop-front in 1841. Mr. Edgar flourished and was a familiar sight riding his horse to work from his home at Kingston Hill. He was always asked to be on hand to personally help when Queen Victoria's family visited the store. Expansion meant that, by 1848, the business had come to occupy the premises at numbers 45-51 on the Quadrant and the entire corner of Piccadilly circus.

Books about business history also turned out to be fruitful, as did random PhD theses online and messing around on Google Books searches. I had a first name for him!

When George Swan's original shop was demolished to make way for Piccadilly circus, Swan reopened his drapery firm at numbers 9 and 10 Regent Street in 1821. Swan and his younger assistant William Edgar made over 80,000 during their first year in operation at the new address.

'Crime, Gender and Consumer Culture in Nineteenth-century England' by Tammy Whitlock.

The not-so-mysterious Mister Edgar

William Edgar, the younger half of the partnership, lasted a good while after George Swan died. His genealogy has already been helpfully researched by the Edgar family and his life was pretty interesting, plus this account includes a death date for George Swan.

William Edgar was born in 1791 at or near Longtown, in the parish of Arthuret, which is in the Diocese of Carlisle. Family tradition asserts that he served a draper in Longtown in his early youth. When still a lad, he set out on foot for London, with a letter of introduction to Mr Swan (d. 26 November 1821), a London draper with a small shop in Ludgate Hill. There he found congenial employment, and when it was decided to open a branch shop in Piccadilly, young Edgar was admitted to partnership and given charge of the new undertaking. Swan died within a few years, but William Edgar, possessed of an unusual aptitude for business, rapidly made the name of Swan and Edgar known throughout London, and indeed, throughout Great Britain.

He was greatly assisted in the expansion of his undertaking by the financial assistance which his cousin, David Edgar, of Longtown, gave him. At his death, he left one of the most substantial fortunes which had, up until that time, been amassed by any person engaged in the soft goods trade. He died at his mansion home, Eagle House, Clapham Common, Surrey, on 25 September 1869, and was, until he disposed of it to the Duke of Buccleuch in 1872, the owner of a shooting box called Kirklands, which he built in 1850, at Closeburn, Dumfries-shire, Scotland. He was buried in the family vault in Norwood Cemetery. Will dated 21 February 1867. Estate sworn at under 300,000 pounds.

Beyond the grave

Armed with this death date, I did the rounds of Ancestry, Findmypast, Familysearch.org etc., to see what I could find. It was Findmypast who came through for me with a potential death record.

First name(s): George
Last name: SWAN
Date of burial: 30 November 1821
Place of burial: Bunhill Fields
Age at death: 44
Approximate year of birth: 1777
Address at death: Dulwich, Sussex

The Access to Archives website tells me that the Bunhill Fields interment order books are held by the Guildhall Library. A swift email to the lovely, helpful people there and I have more detail:

In response to your enquiry I have checked the interment order book covering 1819-22 [GL Ms 1092/10] and the following information relating to the burial of George Swan has been extracted:

Date: 29 November 1821
Name: George Swan
Age: 44 Ye[ar]s
Brought from: Dulwich, Surry [sic]
Grave: -
E & W: -
N & S: - (these relate to the position of the grave)
Minister: -
Screen: 8/ Butlers 8/ self (this indicates two payments of 8 shillings for a screen erected around the grave for privacy)
Cost: -
When buried: Monday at Two O'Clock
Undertaker's name and residence: Ayscough and Sadler, Cripplegate

No further details are given.

We also hold an indexed record of gravestone inscriptions surviving in 1869, together with a plan of the burial ground showing the location of the graves at that time [GL Ms 897]. I checked the index and found an entry relating to George Swan's gravestone as follows [GL Ms 897/8]:

Sheet 23, no 82 [these are references used by the compiler of the survey in 1869]
Mr George Swan (44th) 26 Nov 1821
Also near this spot lie interred
Ann Swan, sister o/a [i.e. of the above] (27) 21 Jan 1812
& John Swan their brother (36) 30 July 1814
Mrs Mary Swan mother o/a (67) 29 Jan 1823

London Guildhall Library

Breakthrough! Now I have some family names and approximate birth years, including two siblings who predeceased him. No father though, and 'Mary Swan' is an unhelpfully common name for his mother to have. I don't (yet) have enough evidence to be 100% happy that this is the right guy, either.

Where there's a will

I'm still messing around on Google at this point, looking for any combination of 'swan' and 'edgar'. And then I found a record of an Old Bailey court case which corroborated the death date, and helpfully gave me the names of his executors:

655. JOHN WARREN was indicted for stealing on the 25th of February , one sable collar, value 8 s., one piece of muslin, value 4 s., twelve yards of silk ferret, value 1 s., eighty-one skeins of silk, value 6 s., five dozen buttons, value 6 d. and four pounds of sugar, value 2 s. , the goods of Edmund Cocken , John Morley , and John Usher , Executors, of George Swan , deceased, and William Edgar .

SECOND COUNT, stating them to belong to Edmund Cocken , John Morley , John Usher , and W. Edgar.

THIRD COUNT, stating them to belong to W. Edgar, and others, his partners.

MR. PHILLIPS conducted the prosecution.

JOHN ROBINSON . I live with Mr. Edgar; the prisoner was their porter , and lived in the house. On the 25th of February Mr. Edgar was going to turn him away, and asked if I suspected his honesty; I said, No; but there would be no impropriety in searching his trunks; he said, very well, and immediately brought one forward, and pulled out a key, and in that trunk I found about one hundred different parcels of paper, each containing small quantities of sugar, also the articles stated in the indictment, which are quite new and clean; he said, he saved the sugar at different times out of his breakfast allowance, and found the other things in the dust-hole.

Cross-examined by MR. ANDREWS. Q. Had you dismissed any other servants about this time - A. No, he was five years with us.

THOMAS CLEMENTS . I am an officer; I took the prisoner and property in charge.

MR. WILLIAM EDGAR . I was in partnership with the late George Swan , who died in November, his executors are Edmund Cocken , John Morley , and John Usher - I never gave the prisoner authority to take these things.

GUILTY . Aged 24.

Confined Three Months .

Executors - now that gave me an idea. Did you know that the National Archives have thousands upon thousands of wills on record for public view and purchase? So an hour or two of messing around, and the princely sum of 3.50 later, and I have a copy of George Swan's will.

I tell you what though, they don't warn you about the handwriting.

There are ELEVEN A4 PAGES of this stuff, crammed with tiny, cramped writing full of legal jargon. Now I understand why people dedicate their lives to palaeography. I've started the long, painstaking process of deciphering the text and have picked out a number of key facts so far - some are new and some helpfully corroborate the records I'd found above.

Father's name: James Swan
Mother's name: Mary Swan
Brother-in-law: John Usher
Wife's name: Mary (maiden name therefore presumably Usher)

I give and bequeath to my wife Mary Swan so much and such part of my Household Goods and furniture as she shall select and chuse not exceeding in value the sum of four hundred pounds [500 crossed out], to and for her own use absolutely. I give and bequeath to my Executors hereinafter named such a further part of my Household Goods and furniture not exceeding in value the sum of two hundred pounds [300 crossed out] as my mother Mary Swan shall select and chuse in Trust ?? for the separate use of my said Mother and to be at her absolute disposal...

I... hereby... bequeath unto Edmund Cocken of Milk Street in the City of London, Silk Manufacturer, my Brother in Law John Usher and John Morley of Wood Street in the same City of London Warehouseman [Crossed out: Richard Headey of Nottingham and William Bolt of Paternoster Row in the said City of London Manufacturer] ... the Goodwill of my said Trade or Business...

I heareby will and direct that my said business shall be carried on by the said William Edgar for the said term of 14 years next after my death at yearly and every year paying to my said Trustees ... half part of the clear profits ... of the said business...

George Swan's will (from the National Archives)

It may take me a thousand years to finish translating the handwriting, but at least I can be perfectly certain that this info relates to my George Swan, and it all links in to the data I've already got.

You can't take it with you

The British Library's online archive of old newspapers is my next stop, where I find a couple of death notices without any useful extra information.

Oxford Journal, 1821

Morning Chronicle, 1821

A quick search for a 'What day was it on this date' calculator online tells me that the 26th November 1821 was indeed a Monday though, which confirms the date from the Edgar Society's account.

However, more interesting is the fact that someone didn't waste much time in flogging off his stuff after he snuffed it. And here is more support for the Dulwich address from the burial record.

British Newspapers 1800-1900, British Library (both 1822)

Down to business

Now I'm pretty sure about the state of George Swan's affairs at his death, I need to work backwards and try to find out where he came from. I decide to start with his business. The National Archives catalogue found me a series of insurance records which helpfully told me where he was doing business in certain years and under what names, and another couple of advertisements in the British Library's old newspapers archive told 'the Nobility and Public' of his changes of business address.

MS 11936/451/858564 20 June 1811 Insured: George Swan 10 Fore Street Cripplegate haberdasher

MS 11936/455/864212 14 November 1811 Insured: George Swan and co, 20 Piccadilly, haberdashers

MS 11936/479/953446 15 March 1819 Insured: George Swan 236 Piccadilly haberdasher

MS 11936/486/968946 13 July 1820 Insured: George Swan and William Edgar 10 Piccadilly haberdashers

MS 11936/515/1063051 18 July 1827 Insured: Edmund Cockin and John Morley, surviving executors and trustees of George Swan and William Edgar, 10 Piccadilly, haberdashers and linen drapers
Other property or occupiers: 10 Piccadilly; 49 Quadrant; 39 Regent Circus

Family matters

So I've collected quite a lot of information about George Swan's life, but I haven't had much luck with the traditional genealogy work which will hopefully connect him to my own family. None of the databases I've tried so far can find me a George Swan, son of James and Mary, born 1777 or thereabouts. Ancestry's new collection of London parish registers provided me with his marriage record, however, from 1810 in All Hallows Lombard Street.

There's Ann Swan his sister (presumably) as a witness, a few miscellaneous Ushers, but no other useful information to add. Rats.

Will Power

Without any other avenues to explore, I decided to do a bit more work on George's will - by which I mean, I found someone who's much better at reading ancient handwriting than me and got them to do it. There turned out to be a great big list of interesting people who George left things to. First come his wife, his mother and father, all of whom survived him. His father, James Swan, is left a stonking 3000, but on condition that it will all disappear if he should 'interfere with molest or otherwise annoy' George's mother Mary. Hmm...

Then George goes on to parcel out cash to a godson William Brind, plus a heap of Nottages and Lawrences, as well as Priors, Pavitts, Hawkses and Cockens. I need to figure out how these people are related to him, but to do this I need more info. Armed with this background, I went hunting for more wills.

Jackpot! The National Archives come through for me again with the wills of both his mother and his father. Mary Swan, George's mother, died in 1825, just a few years after he did, and her will is very short and to the point. Everything is for her husband James, except a few gifts which are again for people named Nottage, Hawks and Lawrence. Interestingly, it names Mary Swan, George's widow as the executrix in 1823 (presumably the word used at that time for a female Terminator) but by the time the will is proved in 1825 she is Mary Mangles and has clearly remarried. That's an interesting story in itself... (see section below)

James Swan, George's father, is listed as a 'Gentleman of Hastings' in his will, written and proved in 1825. He has a lot of cash to dispose of, courtesy of his son, and he shares it around generously, again to a passel of Nottages among others. Helpfully, he mentions where they live, so I can go and find the parish records for them.

Turn Again, Whittington

Now it was only when I saw that James Swan (George's father) had left in his will an inheritance for a George Swan Nottage, that I realised why I'd seen that name before. George Swan Nottage was Lord Mayor of London from 1884 until his death in 1885 (he kicked the bucket in Mansion House, of all the places to die). He is remembered as a noted photographer and is buried in St Paul's Cathedral.

We're dealing with the gentry now, and records are plentiful, so a very little homework tells me that George Swan Nottage, Lord Mayor of London, was the son of Charles Nottage, butcher, who lived and worked in 92 Fore St Cripplegate, just down the road from George Swan's first drapery shop - and is one of the chief beneficiaries of my George's will, as well as receiving money from both George's father and mother in theirs.

George Swan died in 1821 and left a good old chunk of money to Charles, as well as to his father, his brothers, and all their wives. I may be biased, but I don't think it's unreasonable to deduce that Charles Nottage named his son, born just two years later, after an old friend.

Get Nottaged

There's obviously a close connection between the Swan and Nottage families. I still couldn't find hide nor hair of any records for George Swan's birth, or his parents' marriage, so without any better ideas, I started doing some serious research on the Nottage family. It seems they mostly hailed from Essex and most of the family lived in or around the Essex town of Clavering. I started creating a tree of its own around the Clavering Nottages, and discovered to my delight that the Essex county records office has made a whole bunch of records available online that nobody else seems to have.

Sadly, they're not transcribed, but I went through a few by eye anyway, and (as usually happens with genealogy), just as I was about to give up, an awesome breakthrough happened.

What's that, you ask? Is that George's parents' marriage record? Why yes, I think it is. And you might have guessed this one - she's a Nottage. James Swan married a Mary Nottage, in 1777 in Clavering. 1777 is also the approximate birthdate for George Swan, so perhaps he was their first child, but I haven't managed to hunt down a birth record for him yet, so we'll have to wait and see. James Swan is listed as having come from the parish of Hempstead, so now I have a new direction to work on for him.

Mary, Mangled?

A brief digression on the subject of Mary Swan, widow of George, and what happened to her after he died. As I mentioned above, the will of her mother-in-law shows that in 1823 she was still named Mary Swan, but by 1825 she was Mary Mangles. A quick search of the parish records tell me that her second marriage was to Martin Mangles, a surgeon by trade who lived in Dulwich (near George and Mary's home), and owner of Breckongill Lodge in Yorkshire along with 70 acres of land.

The marriage seems pretty standard at first - they had two sons in the first few years of marriage. However by the time the first census picks them up in 1841, things might already be changing. Mary is living with her two teenage sons at Herne Hill in London, at a very posh-sounding address. Martin is Oop North, lodging in a pub, perhaps staying overnight en route to or from his land.

By the second census of 1851, Mary has left her husband's houses and has set up for herself in Reading, with only servants for company. The street where she lives contains several ladies of means who live with companions, so perhaps it's a genteel place of retirement. Martin, on the other hand, has gone home to Breckongill Lodge, where he remains for the rest of his life conducting what appears to be a completely public relationship with his housekeeper Ann Shepherd, with whom he has an impressive eight kids. All are named as 'Mangles Shepherd' in the census records. In 1865, Mary dies in Reading, and almost instantly Martin marries Ann Shepherd.

And what of Mary's two sons with Martin? Well, Martin, the elder, pops up in the first census with a French wife and a career as a civil engineer. George, the younger, is a landowner in Yorkshire with 280 acres to his name - four times his father's estate! I'm fascinated. Is that George Swan's money, left to George Mangles by his mother? I haven't finished unravelling this soap opera yet, but I hope that a dig into the wills of Mary Mangles (nee Swan) and her second husband will help me figure it out.

Loose ends

And that's as far as I've got! What comes next? Well, I have a few avenues still to explore in the unsolved case of Mr Swan. I haven't found his brother or sister yet. I haven't got the will of his widow or her second husband. There are no transcribed parish records yet for the likely spots as far back as his birth date in 1777, but in time that will happen. As long as he comes from London or Essex, of course. My Swans come from Liverpool via Staffordshire, so I'd rather like to find he was born there...

And of course I'll keep researching my own Swans in the hope that I'll bump into him somewhere along the way.They were an interesting bunch in their own right, a family of professional painters of floral patterns on china, working in the potteries of Stoke on Trent. They were also Wesleyans, which is interesting as George Swan's chosen resting place of Bunhill Fields is a Nonconformist cemetery where Susannah Wesley is also buried.

If you have any suggestions, comments, or pieces of the puzzle, I'd be delighted to hear from you! Drop me an email. If you're an Ancestry user and interested in my own Swans you can see my family tree, here. I have also started to construct an Ancestry tree for our George, here.