The Clabburn Family of Norwich

Notes by John Barnard
Updated 31 October 2021

Clabburn Family Tree (18th-20th centuries)

My maternal grandmother, Ethel de Pearsall James, née Clabburn, was descended from a Norwich family which, for several generations, had been involved in that city's weaving trade, rising during the 19th century to considerable prosperity and business success. Daughters married into the families owning the well-known firms of both Crosse & Blackwell and Swan & Edgar, though some of the sons were less fortunate and affluent, and there was at least one "black sheep", the discovery of whose history has been one of the more intriguing aspects of my research.

There were quite a lot of Clabburns (with various spellings) in Norwich in the 18th and 19th centuries, who may or may not have been related, but the family tree here shows the descendants of my direct ancestor Thomas Clabburn I (c. 1762-1824). Some secondary sources (including and CLA/1/10) show a couple of generations before him, but they are somewhat inconsistent, and I have not yet evaluated the relevant primary sources for those earlier Clabburns.

Thomas Clabburn I (c. 1762-1824): weaver

Thomas Clabburn (c. 1762-1824) is described in a Norwich trade directory of 1783 as a "worsted weaver", and as a "manufacturer of bed coverlids at 16 Timberhill Street" [CLA/2/1]. In 1785 he married Sarah Houghton (c. 1768-1833) and they had three sons. The youngest, Robert Clabon (as the name is spelt in the parish register), was born on 20 July 1793 and baptised the next day at St Paul's Church; he is probably the "Robert Clabourn, son of Thomas and Sarah", who died in St Paul's parish but was buried at St Augustine's the day after - interestingly he is described in the parish register as a pauper. Their elder two sons, however, lived out their full threescore years and ten. William Clabburn (1785-1861) is described as a shawl weaver on the letters of administration granted to his nephew for his modest estate of less than £100, but his brother Thomas Clabburn II (1788-1858) became a rich and successful businessman, presiding over one of the major firms manufacturing the famous "Norwich shawls".

Thomas Clabburn II (1788-1858): manufacturer of Norwich shawls

Thomas Clabburn II, portrait by Sandys (original not located)Norwich shawls were developed from the traditional worsted cloth which had been woven in Norwich for hundreds of years (the name is taken from the village of Worstead near Norwich), under the influence of the Kashmiri ("cashmere") shawls imported from Britain's Indian empire from the end of the 18th century. Using a silk warp and worsted weft, they could be produced much more cheaply than the imports, but using copies of the Indian designs. Many small manufacturers started making them as demand rose in the early 1800s, but fierce competition ensured that by the middle of the century only a handful of established firms remained [CLA/27]; one of these was Clabburn Sons & Crisp, a business set up in 1846 by Thomas Clabburn with two of his sons, William Houghton Clabburn I (1820-1889) and Thomas Clabburn III (1824-1880), along with Thomas Dawson Crisp (1809-1878) [CLA/9]. The Great Exhibition of 1851, with over six million visitors between May and October, provided a splendid marketing opportunity, which the firm did not hesitate to exploit. An engraving in its "Illustrated 'Cyclopaedia" showed

a rich cashmere shawl manufactured by this firm in Norwich which we understand was purchased by the Queen. It is the first attempt in Norwich at shawl weaving on a Jacquard loom. For fineness of texture, variety and beauty of colours and elegance of pattern it cannot be surpassed.

A portrait of Thomas was commissioned from Frederick Sandys by Thomas's son William Houghton Clabburn I, but its current whereabouts have not been discovered [CLA/29], and it is known only from a sepia photograph in the collection of Michael Clabburn (1947-2004), a great-great-grandson of Thomas's other surviving son Thomas Clabburn III [CLA/1/6]. Thomas was clearly much admired within the city, and probably employed many local weavers as independent contractors. On his death in 1858 a tablet was erected in St Augustine's Church  in Norwich, which reads:

This tablet is erected to the memory of Thomas Clabburn, manufacturer, by upwards of six hundred of the weavers of Norwich and assistants in his establishment, as a mark of esteem for his many virtues as an employer and a kind good man. He departed this life March 31st 1858, aged 70. [CLA/1/8]

He is buried in a tomb in the churchyard at St Augustine's along with his wife and his parents.

Elizabeth Clabburn 1786-1862 Portrait by Frederick SandysPhoto of Elizabeth Clabburn (1786-1862)Thomas married Elizabeth Dann (1786-1862 - in some sources and transcriptions her name is spelt Denn, or even Dunn) on 23rd January 1809 at St Martin's Church in Norwich; he was 21 and she was 22. Over the next 24 years they produced eleven children, seven of whom lived into adulthood, and there is some repeat usage of the names of those who died young. Their youngest daughter, another Elizabeth (1833-1917), was born less than a month before her mother reached her 47th birthday. This was a remarkable achievement for the 1830s, but the original parish register entries for both baptisms, shown below, are quite clear and seem incontrovertible, and the mother's birth date is also shown on the family tomb at St Augustine's in Norwich. Daughter Elizabeth went on to have eight children of her own, and lived into her mid-eighties, her mother into her mid seventies. A portrait of her by Frederick Sandys is in the Norwich Castle Museum, and there is also a photograph of her in Michael Clabburn's collection.

Parish register entries for births of mother and daughter

All four of Thomas and Elizabeth's surviving daughters married prosperous and successful businessmen, and produced families:

Of the three surviving sons, William Houghton Clabburn I (1820-1889) and Thomas Clabburn III (1824-1880) carried on their father's business after his death in 1858, while Robert George Clabburn (c. 1828 - 1863) had a rather more chequered career, discussed below.

William Houghton Clabburn I (1820-1889): manufacturer and art patron

W.H Clabburn, portrait by Sandys (Sheffield City Museums) William was the eldest surviving son of Thomas Clabburn II, and was a partner in the family firm of Clabburn, Sons & Crisp from 1846 (when he was 26). An obituary [CLA/35] notes that in his youth he was "a man of powerful physique ... and as an oarsman had few equals", a prowess which has been followed by several of his descendants: Robert Clabburn Trevenen James (1917-2008) rowed for his Oxford college and Richard Ian Clabburn Harrisson (1984-2019) for Imperial College, and Phillip Wilkinson was a member of the Australian Eight at the 1972 Munich Olympics. 

William seems to have taken an increasingly dominant role as the family business expanded during the 1850s, especially following the success of the Great Exhibition in 1851. In 1854 he filed a patent (No. 1750) for improvements in the manufacture of shawls, and the following year seventy weavers are recorded as working for the firm [CLA/27].

It was presumably also around this time that William first befriended the artist Frederick Sandys (1829-1904) and over the next two decades Sandys made portraits of several members of William's family, including his parents and children. Though not a formal member, Sandys was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848 by the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. William also commissioned Rossetti to produce an oil replica of his Mary Magdalen at the Door of Simon the Pharisee [CLA/37].

When William's father Thomas Clabburn II died in 1858 his Will (CLA-9) gave William "full power to continue and carry on" the business, and to that end bequeathed to him "all my capital and stock in trade ... belonging to the said trade or business". Though there were also specific legacies to William's sisters and brother Thomas Clabburn III, William was clearly left in charge, and it is not clear what role Thomas III continued to play in the business after their father's death.

The same year William purchased Sunny Hill, a house in Thorpe (possibly previously known as Holly Hill), where he lived with his growing family. In the early 21st century the house formed part of Thorpe House Langley Preparatory School, and I had some correspondence with a teacher there in 2014. The school moved out in 2016, and its main building (Beech House) was destoyed by fire in June 2018; I am not clear as to the fate of Sunny Hill. Sandys is actually recorded as a visitor there in the 1871 census, and he probably used a boathouse adjoining the nearby Walpole House on Yarmouth Road (to which William moved in 1879) as a studio. In the 1990s my uncle Bob James corresponded with the then owner of Walpole House, Mrs Margaret Langley, who was very interested in the history of the house, and its connections with Clabburn and Sandys [CLA/3].

According to Julie-Joy Hermann, the daughter of Garth Clabburn (1917-1983 and one of Arthur Clabburn's grandsons), when her father established a sheep station in Victoria, Australia, after the Second World War, he named it Sunninghill after the village in Berkshire, which he had visited while on leave in England in 1941, rather than as a reference to his ancestral family home in Norwich. A possible reference to both names is provided by Garth's two granddaughters, Sophie and Celeste Clabburn, who perform as the successful Australian country-and western duo The Sunny Cowgirls.

William was by this time very much one of "the great and the good" in Norwich; he was a local magistrate and in 1866-7 he served a term in the honorary position of Sheriff of the city. There were more successes at the International Exhibition in London in 1862 (a gold medal, for shawls of superior quality [CLA/27]), and in exhibitions in Paris in 1867 (William was a Juror [CLA/25]) and again in London in 1871. But by the 1870s fashions were changing, mass-produced shawls from Paisley were flooding the market, and demand for Norwich shawls was declining. When the non-family partner in the firm, Thomas Dawson Crisp, died on 2 Sep 1878 the partnership was formally dissolved. Nevertheless, the development of the Victorian passion for correct mourning etiquette provided excellent business opportunities for the Norwich Crape Company [CLA/40], which made the black crape used for mourning wear. William had helped to found the company in 1856 and was Chairman of the Board from 1876 to 1888 [CLA/27]; the company was not finally wound up until 1925.

Politically William was a Liberal (though on the Whig side of the party, rather than the Radicals') but did not participate actively in meetings. He took an interest in local charities, most notably the Norwich Blind Asylum (now Vision Norfolk), and his business abilities also earned him a place on the Board of the Norwich Union Life Assurance Society (now part of Aviva plc), where he remained until his death in 1889 [CLA/35].

Hannah Clabburn age 36, portrait by Sandys, (Norwich Castle Museum)Hannah Clabburn age 45, portrait by Sandys, (Norwich Castle Museum)William married Hannah Louisa Blyth (1824-1878) in 1846, and they had six children. Most of them had their portraits painted or drawn by Frederick Sandys.

Sandys Study for Spring (Norwich Castle Museum)In addition to the individual portraits shown above, five of the Clabburn children (Henry was not yet born) were the models used in Sandys' Study for Spring (1860). Though it's difficult to assess the ages of the figures in the picture in order to identify them individually, my guess would be that, from left to right, they are Walter (9), William (12), Lucy (4), Mary (10, leaning over), and Arthur (11, with the closest resemblance to the photograph of him shown above).

William and Hannah Clabburn graveHannah died, aged just 53, on 6 March 1878, but William lived on for another eleven years, dying on 10 July 1889, a few months after his 69th birthday. A local newspaper obituary [CLA/35] noted that he had just been re-elected as a Director of Norwich Union Insurance, though had been unable to attend meetings due to illness. They are buried together in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich [CLA/36]. An article in a Norwich magazine in 2021 by local historian Robert Wenn [CLA/38] comments that the grave plot is unexpectedly large for just two people - perhaps he had originally intended that some of his children might also be buried there, but by the late 1880s they were scattered far and wide, and any hopes he might once have had that they would emulate his own successful business career as one of the "men who made Norwich" [CLA/40] were not fulfilled.

William's Will [CLA/10], dated eight months before his death, is an interesting document on account of the different legacies (and terms applied to them) for his different children, though it gives the lie to the idea that any of them was "cut off without a shilling" due to paternal disapproval [CLA/2/1]. He had by then been a widower for some ten years, and his elder daughter Mary Louisa was also dead, though his youngest son Henry had only fairly recently graduated from Cambridge. His eldest two sons, William and Arthur, were both married with children. The shawl-making business, if it was still going at all by then, was clearly in decline, and none of his children had followed him into it, and so he directed that all his assets be sold and turned into "ready money".

Robert George Clabburn (c. 1828 - 1863): dental surgeon and serial bankrupt

All families have their "black sheep" and Robert George seems to have been the Clabburns', at least in this generation. He was the third surviving son of Thomas Clabburn II (1788-1858), and eight years younger than his brother, my great-great-grandfather William Houghton Clabburn I. He does not seem to have taken an interest in the family shawl weaving business, and pursued a career as a dental surgeon, though this somewhat marred by a tendency to regular appearances in insolvency courts on both sides of the world.

There is no baptism record for him, but his age on his marriage record, dated 15 Sep 1849, is given as 21. His bride was a Norwich girl, Mary Jane Fulcher (b. 1831), but the wedding took place in East London rather than in their home town. They appear in the 1851 census in Melcombe Regis, Dorset, along with a one-year-old son Robert William Clabburn (born in Weymouth in the first quarter of 1850, less than six months after his parents' marriage, suggesting that it may have been a bit of shotgun wedding). Robert George is shown as the head of the household, with occupation "surgeon dentist", and there are no less than four servants listed: either his wife came with a very substantial dowry, or they were living beyond their means. A second son, Thomas Herbert Clabburn was born later in 1851, and baptised in Weymouth on 26 May, but died there that summer.

By March the following year Robert George was back in Norwich, but this time in the Debtors' Gaol, and he appeared before the insolvency court in the city on 6th March 1852 [CLA/28]. Mary Jane was pregnant again, and a daughter Anna Clabburn was born on 10th June. With business booming following the Great Exhibition the previous year and shawl sales being made to Royalty, all this was no doubt something of an embarrassment to his father and brothers, who were now pillars of Norwich's Victorian establishment. It is easy to imagine Thomas Clabburn II paying off his son's debts, packing him off on the first boat to Australia, and telling him not to come back. Certainly, Thomas's Will, written in 1856 (he died in 1858) contains a specific provision that certain reversionary funds be bequeathed to "such child or children of mine then living ... other than and except my son Robert George Clabburn"; Robert George receives no other mention in the Will [CLA/9].

At any rate, the Melbourne Argus for 13 Dec 1852 reports the arrival from London of the Gloriana carrying "Mr and Mrs Clabburn and family". On 9 July 1853, the Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer carries a notice that "Mr Clabburn, Surgeon Dentist respectfully announces to the inhabitants of Geelong that he may be consulted on Friday and Saturday the 15th and 16th inst." The following January he went into partnership with a Mr L.A. Beurteaux, but the partnership was dissolved by mutual consent in April, and Robert George continued to advertise his services on his own account.

However, an unfortunate incident involving a forged signature on a bill of exchange for £50 led to Robert George's appearance at the Geelong Assizes on 26 October 1854, charged with forgery and uttering a forged document. The evidence was somewhat confused and the jury almost immediately returned a "not guilty" verdict. Whatever the facts of the case, this wouldn't have done Robert George's reputation in Geelong any good, and a week later he was advertising his services in Launceston, Tasmania, where he spent the rest of his life.

Sixteen months later, in April 1856, he was back in court again, being sued for a debt, and by June he was again insolvent. At hearings before the local Commissioner on 23rd July and 6th August it was claimed that he "hardly paid a debt without being sued" and he was questioned on his "habits of life" and expenses at the Club Hotel. Robert George denied extravagance, though he admitted to having had some champagne etc. on his son's birthday (Robert William would have been six earlier in the year). He denied that he had been "gambling in the ordinary sense of the term", which does sound somewhat disingenuous. As he could show an income of £600 a year from his dental work, and thus had a good prospect of repaying his debts, he was discharged.

R.G. Clabburn advert for dental servicesA question remains over what happened to Robert George's wife Mary Jane. A search of the local papers reveals no death notice for her, but on 11 August 1857 Robert George (age given as 30) married 17-year-old Annie Bland in the Wesleyan chapel at Longford, just south of Launceston; he is described in the register as a bachelor. A son (not named in the register) was born on 31 Mar 1860.

Robert George continued to make intermittent appearances in the insolvency court, and even in the police court on 20 Aug 1862 when he tried to have one of his creditors bound over for threatening him with assault. The magistrate recognised that the threats were "not of a very serious or vindictive nature" and added 3/- costs to the debt. 

He also seems to have developed a macabre fascination for the skulls of executed criminals, often turning up at hangings for the purpose of taking casts of their heads, and sometimes even gaining possession of their skeletons. This interest appears to have been related to the Victorian pseudo-science of phrenology in which lumps and bumps on the skull were supposed to be indicative of criminal tendencies, and an article in the Cornwall Chronicle for Launceston on 11 Jan 1862 lists some of the notorious murderers in his collection.

Robert George's career was brought to a halt on 10 Sep 1863 when he died of consumption (tuberculosis), aged only 35; whether he contracted the disease from a patient, or from one of the executed criminals with whose remains he had such intimate contact, must remain a mystery. His widow Annie arranged for his dental practice to be sold, and in 1870 she remarried, to George Theophilus Shillington. Robert's "relatives in England, who are highly respectable" agreed to maintain his son Robert William (age 13 when his father died) until he was old enough to choose a profession - there is some irony in the fact that the local trustee they chose was Mr W. G. Sams, the Commissioner who oversaw most of Robert George's insolvency cases. Tragically, Robert William was drowned, age 17, after falling overboard from the schooner Governor Wynyard on 15 March 1868 [CLA/28].

At this point his sister Anna Clabburn seems to have returned to England, because she was baptised at St Augustine's Church in Norwich on 17 Sep 1868 (some secondary sources have misinterpreted this as her birth date, but she was now 16, and the parish register shows her actual birth date). What happened to her after that is uncertain, as I have found no record of her marriage or death.

It is possible that Robert George's son by his second marriage, unnamed in the Tasmanian birth record, has living descendants in Australia, but it is difficult to try to trace any marriage or death for him without a name.

Other Clabburn Families in Norwich

The weavers and shawl manufacturers described above were not the only prominent Clabburn family in 19th century Norwich. James William Clabburn (1843-1918) was Mayor of the city in 1899, and his granddaughter Pamela Clabburn MBE (1914-2010) was a curator at the Strangers Hall Museum in Norwich, and did much work on the history of shawl-weaving in the city. She was contacted by Marcus Clabburn (1929-1971), an Australian grandson of Arthur Edward Clabburn, when he visited Norwich in the 1950s, by the simple expedient of looking up "Clabburn" in the telephone directory, and she remained in contact with Marcus and his widow for many decades thereafter. It is probable that the two families are related, though any common ancestor is almost certainly back in the early 18th century, or even earlier. 

Michael Clabburn (1948-2004), a descendant of Thomas Clabburn III, did some genealogical work in the 1980s and 1990s, attempting to link the Norwich Clabburns to the Claibourne family living in Westmoreland in the 16th century and before, but with links to Claibournes in Kings Lynn and in the colony of Virginia. No definite link seems to have been established, but Michael corresponded extensively with my uncle Bob James in the 1990s and I have not yet studied the papers in detail [CLA/4]. I am now in contact with Michael's youngest son Oliver Clabburn, who retains all his father's papers.