On the 8th of May 1800, The Times printed a notice :
“A very melancholy circumstance happened yesterday forenoon. Mr John Burford, Clerk to the Committee of East India Directors for Buying threw himself out of a one-pair-of-stairs window, under the new portico of the India House, Leadenhall Street. His head was broken to atoms and he only survived a few minutes. He was taken into the House where his body will lie till the Coroner’s Jury give their verdict this day. The cause of this fatal accident can only be attributed to sudden mental derangement as Mr Burford had regularly transacted his business in the office, tho’ he had for some time appeared rather dejected. He had been only two minutes in the room, where there were other Clerks, when he opened the window, and suddenly sprang out of it, in the sight of a number of people”.
John was born in 1748, one of three sons of Richard Burford, a distiller of Wapping, whose family had been in that business for at least four generations. His elder brother Richard was a Blackwell Hall factor and the largest supplier of broadcloth to the East India Company, and his younger brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, worked in the Pay Office at that company.
John married Lucy Elsden of Kings Lynn in 1786 and they had 8 children, at least two of them dying in childhood. Lucy’s mother was Elizabeth Rolfe, of that Norfolk family made famous by an ancestor, John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas in the early 17th century in America (and not John Smith as per the Disney film, although he was the man she saved from death). Her father, Edmund Elsden, was a very wealthy Norfolk merchant who left a fortune at his death in 1793. At the time of Lucy and John’s marriage it must be assumed John was on a sound financial footing – her sisters also made very good marriages to rich men – as it is unlikely her father would have otherwise allowed the marriage.
John had been appointed to the role of Assistant Clerk to the Committee of Buying in 1772 and ten years later was promoted to the position of Clerk. At the time of his marriage he was living in Lothbury, in the City of London, with his brother Richard, but then moved with his new wife to a house at no. 2 Artillery Place, just off Finsbury Square where Richard had relocated to. Jonathan Sommers Burford and his family were living in Great James Street, Bedford Row, its smart Georgian terraces still surviving.
In December 1798 John and Lucy were burgled at home of a large number of items, mainly clothes, and both of them appeared as witnesses at the Old Bailey. Of the four accused, two were found guilty and sentenced to death.
A few months after John’s death, Richard was issued with a notice for bankruptcy and he was summoned to appear before the bankruptcy court in September 1800. Having looked at various registers at the East India Library, it is apparent just how fortunes were made and lost, given that in the later part of the 18th century Richard was turning over around £90,000 each year.
John wrote his will in 1796 naming his wife and brother Richard as executors. Curiously, he requested that he be buried in the vault with his ‘dear sister-in-law’, Mrs Richard Burford, in Finchley. The burial records for St Mary’s, Finchley show that this is indeed what happened despite his death being by his own hand. His brother Jonathan Sommers Burford appeared as witness to the will on John’s death.
To date I have found no reference to John’s suicide in the East India Company records held at the British Library. Perhaps he had secretly been giving his brother Richard preference over other suppliers to the company and this had been discovered? Perhaps the burglary had affected him badly? Perhaps, given his father-in-law’s successful business ventures and those of his sister-in-laws’ husbands, he felt a great deal of shame about Richard’s impending bankruptcy? (Later his other brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, would face financial difficulties too). Perhaps he felt the loss of his baby son Edward in the February of 1800, aged only 2 months, very deeply? (Lucy was to lose their eldest son John the following year, aged only 8). Or perhaps the request in his will to be buried with Richard’s wife hints at some darker family scandal? Sadly, we will probably never discover the reasons why he should have felt the need to end it all.
About the Author
Alison and her sister began their research out of curiosity and have made some totally unexpected discoveries about the Burford line of their family. They just wish their grandmother and her mother were still alive to see what illustrious ancestors they had!
Written content of this post copyright © Alison Botterill, 2016.