Joseph Overbury was born around 1786 in Tetbury to Nathaniel Overbury, a prominent baptist, and his wife Mary Roper. (1) Little more is known about his early years but his life can be traced with interesting detail from approximately his sixteenth year.
On the 24th March 1804 the London Gazette states that Joseph Overbury of the Tetbury Volunteers was promoted to Captain of the Tetbury Volunteers. (2) The Tetbury Volunteers was a volunteer, militia company composed of individuals from Tetbury formed in about 1798. Joseph Overbury had been a member since at least 1802 having served as a lieutenant. The reason for his promotion is unknown but it occurred at a time when the Volunteers were increasing dramatically in numbers. One company turned into five within seven years! The militia at that time was headed by Lieut. Col. Thomas Saunders. (3) Interestingly, Joseph was the only member of his family to be involved with the militia and there is little evidence that he was ever involved before his role in the Volunteers.
As captain, he led the Third Company of the Tetbury volunteers until the beginning of 1806 when his name no longer appears on the annual pay lists and returns.
Pay as Captain was relatively good considering the limited number of days. Between the 27 January and the 16 June 1805, Joseph was entitled to twenty-one days pay which amounted to £9.17.9 at a raid of nine shilling, five pence. Almost double what the second highest paid individual earned: John Davies at a rate of five shilling, eight pence and over nine times the pay of privates. Throughout this period, "Captain Overbury's Company of the Tetbury Volunteer Infantry...were on permanent Duty at Monmouth". In the May 1805, the Tetbury Volunteers merged with the Horsley volunteers to form the "Horsley and Tetbury Corps of Volunteer Infantry". From the 27 May 1805 to 16 June 1805, Joseph and the rest of the united were billed in Monmouth, once more. To get to Monmouth they would march from Tetbury to Newnham before then marching from Newnham to Monmouth, a trip of 33 miles each way. In the twenty day period the march, there and back, was repeated three times!
In 1805, he, and his brother William (bought two copies), both of Tetbury, suscribed to "The History of the town of Malmesbury and of its Ancient Abbey". (4) In 1806, after the death of his father, he and his brother Anthony Overbury initially continued in the family trade as woolstaplers. However, on the 11th May 1806 they dissolved their partnership as recorded in the London Gazette for the 3rd June 1806:
"The partnership lately existing between us, Anthony Overbury and Joseph Overbury, both of Tetbury, in the County of Gloucester, Woolstaplers, under the firm of Nathaniel Overbury and Son, was dissolved the 11th of May 1806 part by mutual consent: As witness our hands,
Joseph Overbury" (5)
This dissolution was symptomatic of the decline in importance in the wool trade in Tetbury; in 1790 over 150 people were employed in the trade but there remained only 3 people employed in 1813 and by the middle of the century, the wool and cloth trade had disappeared completely. (6) After this time Joseph would work as a "Spanish wool merchant", buying and selling cheaper foreign wool. (7) His work would force him to relocate to London; he may even, for a time, lived with his son, John, at Doughty Street. (8) In London he would work as a Blackwell Hall factor. Factors would be responsible for the buying and selling of cloth and wool; they would supply raw materials to clothiers and provide them credit facilities. At this time, the number of factors was extremely small since it required considerable capital. Interesting records of his business survive including insurance contracts with The Sun Fire Office. He, and his business partner, William Cartwright, sought insurance for their business (situated at 32 and 33 Cateaton Street), in 1820, 1821, 1822 and 1826. (9) Joseph also held property on Doughty Street in 1823. This business was very much a family affair; it had been going since the start of the nineteenth century, run by Joseph's older brothers William, in partnership with William Cartwright and Septimas Wellington. James Silvester, was found guilty of theft of "a piece of woollen-cloth, value 12 l. the property of Septimas Wallington, William Overbury, and William Cartwright" in 1815. (10) His brother Benjamin was also involved though his business was separate. By 1831, however, even wealthy Blackwell Hall factors were no longer immune from Britain's declining role in the wool trade. The family partnership and Benjamin Overbury's business were forced to file for bankruptcy: "Wallington, Overbury and Carter, Cateaton-street, wholesale woollen-drapers and Blackwell-hall factors – joint estate, and separate estate of B. Overbury". (11) It seems that only Benjamin's business was actually declared bankrupt but, either way, Joseph and the Overbury family would no longer remain in the wool trade; their partnership was dissolved. (12) The family would not yet withdraw entirely from the woollen industry, however. Joseph’s sons Nathaniel and John would try to operate as Blackwell Hall factors and woollen merchants as late as the 1850s. Their generation would, however, be the last to work in the wool trade ending a three hundred year Overbury tradition.
It was around this time we also start to see evidence of Joseph's non-conformist religious beliefs. In 1823 he subscribed to "A Course of Lectures, illustrative of the Pilgrim's Progress: delivered at the Tabernacle, Haverfordwest". (13) Though surviving evidence is weak, it seems certain Joseph was non-conformist. His grandfather had been a Baptist minister, his father made considerable donations to the Baptist church in his will and Joseph also would make donations to the Baptist church. His son would also profess non-conformism. Joseph married Elizabeth Pike in 1807 at Hankerton, Wiltshire. (14) It seems probable they knew each other due to their Baptist faith. Hankerton, like Tetbury had an active Baptist community and both Joseph's father (Nathaniel) and his children would marry into prominent Baptist families. His son John would marry Mary Ann Lee, daughter of Roger Lee, insurance broker of Clapham Common and founder of international several Baptist organisations.
Around the age of forty, no longer working in the wool trade, Joseph turned to other interests. On the 28th June 1831, Joseph Overbury was appointed feoffee of Tetbury, which he would remain until his death. (15) In 1818 he had previously been appointed bailiff. (16) It could be argued that by this time these positions were already becoming ceremonial but the minutes and surviving records suggest they were still time consuming and non-financially rewarding.
In 1836 we get the clearest evidence of Joseph's financial independence, and also strict religious upbringing, when he swore the oath to become Justice of the Peace. (17) His financial independence was obvious; he now had considerable properties in Cheltenham and Tetbury and the position of JP was uncompensated. Joseph would become involved in a notorious case, dubbed the 'Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England' where he would controversially argue unequivocally that to spread any form of anti-religious view was equal to a breach of the peace. (18)
"On the morning after my apprehension I was taken before the Rev. Dr. Newell, R. Capper, and J. Overbury, Esquires, magistrates of Cheltenham....Mr. Overbury said he considered the case satisfactorily proved, and added, 'Whether you are of no religion is of very little consequence to us, but your attempt to propagate the infamous sentiment that there is no God, is calculated to produce disorder and confusion, and is a breach of the peace.' This was the remark of an ill-informed politician rather than of a Christian."
The decision would be overturned two decades later and, most tellingly, the judge would describe Joseph's conduct as "unnecessarily harsh". I would suggest that Joseph's decision in fact highlighted the importance of religion in the Overbury household. Religious instruction and faith must have been central to Joseph's upbringing and this context will obviously have affected Joseph's perceptions during the case. In 1838 he was secretary for the "British and Foreign Bible Society", of Cheltenham, according to their 38th annual report.
Religion was not his sole interest, however. He would endeavour to invest his resources, particularly in education and the new railroads. On 7th March 1837 Joseph Overbury Esquire purchased a total of 15 shares worth £750 in the new "Grand Connection (or Worcester and Wolverhampton) Railway" and 30 shares at £1500 in the "London and Blackwall Railway and Steam Navigation Company". (19) These investments were considerable; with equivalent spending power to over £110,000 now. (20) Moreover, these investments were considerably risky suggesting he could afford to lose such sums. This abundance of cash, however, is typical of the period. Britain still possessed a first-mover advantage internationally and was leading the way in producing first industrial revolution goods. Moreover, foreign investments were starting to provide promising returns: real returns on capital in 1840s Britain were greater than at any point previously. (21) According to "Statutes at Large" Joseph Overbury was "land tax commisioner" for Cheltenham in 1838. 1833, he had moved into 10 Pittville Parade, Cheltenham. (22)(23) Pittville parade (on Evesham Road) was an extremely exclusive, brand new development of luxury homes. The houses still exist, though now generally converted to hotels and apartments. The house would later be owned by senior branches of the Fox and Marling families who were related through marriage. It seems probable that Joseph was in some way involved with the design as was the case with most other houses in the area.
The simple statement recording his death in the 1844 Gentleman's magazine would reveal little of his huge achievements during his lifetime.
"Oct 7. At Cheltenham, aged 64, Joseph Overbury, esq. a Magistrate of the county."
He would be buried in Tetbury, with his wife. His will, running to a lengthy five pages, would make considerable bequests to his family and friends (most of which were to be specifically invested to provide annuities) including over £20,000 to his children, £3000 to all living grandchildren. (24) Interestingly, he made no bequest to his church or the poor. (25)
Sources / Citations:
1. The lack of a specific date is due to Tetbury Baptist chapel's early records not surviving. Approximate date is from: 'England Census', ('Class: HO107; Piece 353; Book: 7; Civil Parish: Cheltenham; County: Gloucestershire; Enumeration District: 13; Folio: 13; Page: 20; Line: 11; GSU roll: 288767', 1841).
2. London Gazette, (Issue number: 15686, 24 Mar 1804).
3. Information on Tetbury Volunteers, particularly pay lists, obtained from WO 13/4351 and WO 13/4352.
4. J. Moffatt, ' The history of the town of Malmesbury, and of its ancient abbey ...: together with memoirs of eminent natives ... to which is added, an appendix', (J.G. Goodwyn, 1805).
5. London Gazette, (Issue number: 18667, 26 Mar 1830).
7. 'Overbury v Roper: Two bills and answer', The National Archives (C 13/1680/8, 1816).
8. Family papers: "visited Joseph Overbury at Doughty Street". Cited as, 'an extract from diary in the possession of Mr Oswald Overbury, Paris'.
9. Guildhall Library, (MS 11936/486/968446, 12 June 1820), (MS 11936/486/972788, 2 November 1820), (MS 11936/492/987334, 19 December 1821), (MS 11936/490/999332, 18 December 1822), (MS 11936/505/1053112, 8 November 1826).
10. Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 'James Silvester: Theft, grand larceny', (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18150215-41&div=t18150215-41, 15th February 1815).
11. 'The Law Advertiser, Volume 8', (J.W. Paget, 1830), p. 482.
12. Ibid, p. 266.
13. D. Warr, 'A course of lectures: illustrative of the Pilgrim's Progress, delivered at the tabernacle, Haverfordwest', (R. Baynes, 1823).
14. Elizabeth was daughter of Thomas Pike and Sarah White, both of wealthy mercer families.
15. A. Lee, 'The history of the town and parish of Tetbury, in the county of Gloucester' (J. Henry & J. Parker, 1857).
17. 'Oaths of Justices of the Peace', The National Archives (C 202/226/5, 1836).
18. G. Holyoake, 'The history of the last trial by jury for atheism in England', (J. Watson, 1850).
19. Parliament, 'House of Commons papers, Volume 48', (HMSO, 1837).
20. The National Archives currency converter, (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/: accessed 31/07/2011).
21. E. Hobsbawm, 'Industry and Empire', (Pelican, 1968).
22. 'England Census', ('Class: HO107; Piece 353; Book: 7; Civil Parish: Cheltenham; County: Gloucestershire; Enumeration District: 13; Folio: 13; Page: 20; Line: 11; GSU roll: 288767', 1841).
23. '10 Pittville Parade', Gloucestershire Archives, (D2172/2/14, 1833-1895).
24. 'Will of Joseph Overbury of Cheltenham’, The National Archives (PROB 11/2007, 1844).