Just one family:

The ULPHS of St Ives



This is the story of just one of our hundreds of families.  It is not exactly typical because, unlike most of our ancestors, the St Ives ULPHs were a prosperous, middle class family who were successful in business, sent their children to boarding school and took a leading role in the affairs of their community.  I have chosen them for a more detailed study simply because we know so much about them.  Their history is well documented in official records, newspaper reports and the writings of family members themselves.  They acquired some wonderful family heirlooms, including portraits, silverware and china, which were handed down from generation to generation and are itemised in many of their wills.  Most of the family stayed in St Ives for their whole lives, but even those who moved on (several made connections in New Zealand) kept an affection for their home town, love for their family and pride in their ancestry. 


First two generations – John and Thomas


As we saw in chapter six, John ULPH (1714-89), a whitesmith from Southrepps, Norfolk, married Elizabeth MORBY in the busy market town of St Ives, Huntingdonshire, in 1738.  He set up an ironmongery business in Crown Street that must have been rather successful, for by the time he made his will in 1787 he had amassed property in St Ives, Fenstanton ‘and elsewhere in that part of Great Britain called England’.  At John’s death, two years later, all this was left to his nephew, Thomas, who by that time also had moved to St Ives from Tunstead, Norfolk, presumably to work with his uncle.  It was Thomas who founded the great family of ULPHs that was to survive and thrive in St Ives until well into the twentieth century.

Thomas (1749-1822) married local girl Mary BIRT in 1784 and continued to develop the ironmongery business in Crown Street.  A document of 1789 refers to ‘shops and warehouses now in the occupation of Thomas ULPH’.  Mary died in 1796 leaving no surviving children, but the following year Thomas married again, to Mary DORE of Bath, Somerset.  This Mary bore Thomas three sons, two of whom, interestingly, were given BIRT as a second Christian name.  We have not yet discovered how Thomas came to meet a girl from Bath, but the links with that city clearly became strong as two of his sons later married Bath girls who were related by marriage.

St Ives had a long tradition of nonconformity, dating back to the days of Oliver Cromwell, who lived in the town for five years.  Both the BIRTs and the ULPHs were nonconformist families.  In 1783 Thomas was appointed as one of several new trustees of the local Presbyterian chapel.  He was baptised as an adult at their Meeting House in 1788.  In 1799 he became a member of Bluntisham Baptist church, whose records show that three of his shop staff also took membership between 1796 and 1803.  The births of Thomas and Mary’s three sons, John Birt, Thomas Birt and Samuel Dore ULPH, are all recorded in the registers of this ‘Church and Congregation of Protestant Dissenters at Bluntisham in the County of Huntingdon’.  However, as Bluntisham baptised only adults, Thomas took his sons back to St Ives Presbyterian for infant baptism.  They are therefore recorded in the registers of both churches.

In 1811 the old Meeting House at St Ives was pulled down, and replaced by a brick building called the Independent Chapel.  The change of name signified a change of denomination, as the congregation wanted to disassociate themselves from the national body of Presbyterians who were denying the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.  At this stage it seems that the ULPH family threw in their lot with the new Independent Chapel, where they were to be a major influence for more than 100 years.

When Thomas died in 1822 he left substantial sums, annuities and properties to his family and friends in St Ives.  He had specified in his will his desire ‘that my sons John Birt ULPH and Thomas Birt ULPH shall carry on my business for their mutual interest and benefit’.  However, these sons were then aged only twenty and sixteen, so it was left to their mother, Mary, to carry on the business until John and Thomas reached the age of inheritance. When they reached adulthood, John and Thomas duly took over the family business in Crown Street.  Mary died in 1842.


Third generation – John Birt, Thomas Birt and Samuel Dore


In 1829 John Birt (1802-74) married his cousin-by-marriage, Mary Louisa BISHOP, in Bath.  She was the daughter of William BISHOP of the White Hart Hotel, and his second wife, Diana HARWOOD.  William’s first wife had been Fanny, sister of John Birt’s mother, Mary DORE.  John Birt and Mary Louisa had eleven children.  For some unknown reason, the first child was baptised at St Ives parish church.  Subsequent children were not baptised, but the family arranged for their births to be recorded in the nonconformist registers maintained at Dr Williams’s Library in London.  These predated the national birth registers begun by the General Register Office, and ceased shortly after civil registration began in 1837.

            At the time of the censuses of 1841 and 1851, John and his family were living over the shop in Crown Street, but by 1861 they had vacated the Crown Street residence in favour of the eldest son, John Birt junior, who was now a partner in the business.  John Birt senior and the rest of the family still at home had removed to a newly built house in Cromwell Place.  They later moved to 3 Cromwell Terrace.  The business continued to expand, and by 1871 it was employing a staff of eight.  In an 1877 trade directory it is described as ‘wholesale and retail ironmongers and trade valuers; china, glass and earthenware warehouse; agents to the county Fire and Provident Life Insurance Office’.

John Birt was active in the development of St Ives Independent Chapel.  In 1861 the local Baptists decided to join them, and three years later a new, larger church was opened, in keeping with the social standing of the congregation.  John Birt ULPH was one of the building committee.  It was (and still is) impressive, with a frontage on to Market Hill, the main street of St Ives.  It was designed to hold a congregation of 750 people and has a tall spire that happens to be five feet higher than that of the nearby parish church, which surely was no accident.  So as not to upset the various denominations that had already come together, the new building was called the Free Church.  So delighted with this striking addition to the townscape were the local residents that they paid for a new town clock to be placed high in the tower, the face fronting Market Hill being illuminated by gas.

Both John Birt and Thomas Birt got involved in secular affairs, too.  In 1831 their names are in a public notice among 60 freeholders of the county petitioning the High Sheriff of Huntingdon in favour of the Whig government’s great Reform Bill, which became law in 1832.  John Birt died in 1874.  In his will he left his business to John Birt junior, his home and personal possessions to his wife, Mary, and substantial legacies to his surviving daughters.

            Thomas Birt (1806-56) married his cousin-by-marriage and sister-in-law, Eliza BISHOP, in Bath in 1830.  They were to have eight children.  He began his working life in the family business but did not stay.  By 1847 he had gone into partnership with a T D PAUL, another leading light in the Independent Chapel, to run a business in Bridge Street, selling heavier types of ironmongery.  A trade directory of that year shows that ULPH & PAUL were ironmongers and braziers, agents to Norwich Union fire insurance and Norwich hail storm insurance, and that Thomas was also agent for Foster’s Cambridge Bank.  In 1851 the firm employed five men and a boy.  In 1852, when he made his will, Thomas had the shop in Bridge Street, some warehouses, three acres of land in St Ives meadow, at least ten cottages and considerable sums of money.  In 1825 he had also inherited The Priory, which had been the home of Miss Elizabeth BIRT since 1790.

Thomas was undoubtedly successful in business, but it is for his contribution to the town’s social and religious life that he earned the love and respect of the townspeople.  Like his brother, Thomas was a member of the Independent Chapel.  His initials, TBU, along with others, are carved on one of the external bricks of the old chapel, which later became the Sunday school.  Some claim that the initials are those of subscribers to the building of the chapel in 1811 but, of course, Thomas Birt was then only five years old.  Among other things, we know that he opened the batting for St Ives cricket club in 1839 and was treasurer of the St Ives Improvement Board and of the Patriotic Fund.  He also held a lease of the gas works and was contracted to supply the town with gas for three years. 

            Thomas Birt was also a leading light in the foundation of the British School in St Ives in 1839.  British Schools were established to provide cheap, non-denominational education for the children of the poorer classes, in contrast to the National Schools of the Church of England.  They were set up by local committees mainly composed of nonconformists, who raised subscriptions and obtained teachers and equipment from the British and Foreign School Society in London.

In the 1840s, Thomas Birt and others won the right for nonconformists to be no longer buried in the parish churchyard.  Again he raised funds and bought a piece of land where anyone could be buried with the service of ‘any ministers as they pleased or none if that is what they wished’.  The cemetery was opened in 1848.  It contains several large and imposing memorials to the ULPHs of St Ives, but none more impressive than that of Thomas Birt ULPH himself, who died on 23 February 1856 at the early age of 49, after an illness of four months.  His monument stands just inside the gates of the nonconformist cemetery. 

            The inscription reads as follows:















OBIIT FEB 23, 1856



            An indication of the property amassed by Thomas Birt at his death is given in a notice of auction at the Golden Lion Hotel on 6 October 1856 for the trustees of his estate:


Lot 1    All that newly built dwelling house and workshop in the sheep market occupied by Mr H Golding.

Lot 2    All that respectable dwelling place on the Quay, in the occupation of Mr Cooper, surgeon, with the cottage and large granary at the back.  This lot extends from the Quay to Bull Lane.

Lot 3    All that eligible family residence known as The Priory with large garden, comprising an area of 2 roods, 37 poles, stable, coach house and several servants’ cottages, in the occupation of Bateman Brown Esq.  This estate forms a most agreeable residence in the centre of the town but is nevertheless free from being overlooked.

Lot 4    All those four cottages in Priory Place adjoining the last mentioned estate.

Lot 5    All those four cottages situated in Water Lane.

Lot 6    Two and a half acres of pasture land in First Drove Meadow Lane, now in the occupation of Mr T B Ulph.


In the Cambridge Free Press of 19 April 1856 appears an announcement by T D PAUL that the ironmongery business in Bridge Street would in future be carried on by Thomas’s widow, Eliza, and her son, Thomas Birt junior.   The rest of the announcement gives an indication of the enterprise of this pair:



in succeeding to the above old established Business in all its branches,

 respectfully solicit a continuance of that support so liberally bestowed upon their predecessors,

which they will continually strive to merit by a prompt execution of all Orders

entrusted to them, at the lowest possible prices.

 E & T B U invite attention to their valuable and well-assorted stock

of Furnishing and General Ironmongery, which they are selling off at greatly reduced prices.

 The unrivalled Leamington Range which has given universal satisfaction

and can be seen constantly in action.

A discount taken off the Makers’ prices.

Stoves, Fenders and Fire Irons of the newest design at wonderfully low prices.

Warranted oil for Moderator Lamps at 4s.9d per gallon for cash.

An Apprentice wanted.


Just after Thomas Birt’s death, the trial occurred at Huntingdon assizes of Elijah CHILDS, a 25-year-old tailor, for burgling the house of Thomas Birt ULPH and stealing silver forks and spoons.  He was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen months’ hard labour.  Eliza and Thomas Birt junior continued to live in Bridge Street, along with Eliza’s daughters, Emily, Ellen and Jane, and were recorded as ironmongers in the 1861 census.  However, Thomas Birt junior took off for New Zealand in 1865 and the business was sold soon afterwards.  Eliza later retired to the nearby village of Houghton, where she died in 1887.

            Although John and Thomas were given as Christian names the surname of their father’s first wife, their brother Samuel Dore (1808-66) more conventionally bore the surname of his own mother (which also happened to be that of his grandfather’s first wife).  He did not follow the others into the ironmongery business but became a coal and timber merchant in Bullock Market (1841) and The Waits (1851 and 1861).  He did not marry until 1861 and had no children.  He also was a pillar of the Independent Chapel.  He became superintendent of the Sunday school before the age of eighteen and held the post until his death at the age of 57.  According to an obituary written by one of his nieces, ‘he devoted much time and labour to the Sunday School Club, and to the interests of the St Ives Union Benefit Society’, being secretary, treasurer and manager right from its formation in 1836. 

For many years Samuel was also organist of the chapel and its successor, the Free Church.  After his death a new organ was installed in Samuel Dore’s memory.  The brass plate was inscribed, ‘This organ was built to commemorate the valuable services of the late Mr Samuel Dore ULPH, who was honorary organist in the present and former place of worship for upwards of 30 years, and whose memory is held in affectionate remembrance by a large circle of friends, 1873’.  In the Huntingdonshire Home Mission Magazine, one of his nieces declared, ‘his public acts were numerous, and his influence promoted all good works in the town’.  What we have never fathomed is how he managed to run the Sunday school at the same time as playing the organ!


Fourth generation – children of John Birt and Thomas Birt


John Birt and Mary Louisa had eleven children, five of whom died in infancy. One of those who did survive, Edmund Wallis, left St Ives for Australia at the age of seventeen and we have been unable to trace his movements after that.  Three of the daughters, Matilda Bishop, Clara Jane and Catherine Louisa Dore, were described in the 1861 census as being teachers.  They died at 49, 27 and 33 respectively: indeed, long life does not seem to have been a general characteristic of the St Ives ULPHs.  The only other male child to survive into adulthood was John Birt junior (1831-1906).  He married Laura Louisa DANIELL in 1856 and had nine children by her.  After her death he married Charlotte FRANK in 1876 and had one more child.

In 1874 John Birt junior inherited and continued to run his father’s ironmongery business in Crown Street as John B ULPH and Son.  However, although his sons were happy to assist in the shop as teenagers, none of them seemed interested in the business as a career.  When his eldest son decided to leave for Australia in 1885, John Birt took into partnership his shop manager, Frederic Thomas RUSTON.  The name of the ironmongery/hardware business was then changed to ULPH and RUSTON.  John Birt ULPH finally retired in 1895, and from then until 1901 the business was owned by RUSTON and the premises by ULPH.  However, the same shop name was kept until 1901, when it became F T RUSTON and Son.  The business made headlines in 1898 when the premises in Crown Street were shattered by a gunpowder explosion that killed two young apprentices.  After that the RUSTON family rebuilt and expanded the scope of their trade.  Ruston’s Engineering Company still survives today in Huntingdon as a leading supplier of agricultural implements and machinery, including tractors and harvesters.  The company is proud that it all started when John Birt ULPH took Frederic RUSTON into partnership in 1885. 

After retirement from the hardware business, John Birt continued to trade from home as a metal trades valuer, operating as John B ULPH and Son (the son was then his youngest, Arnold Birt).  Like his father and uncles, John Birt also was a leading light in the Free Church.   Along with his father, he was a member of the building committee in the 1860s; he also took over as superintendent of the Sunday school in 1880 and was a deacon for many years.  Around 1904 he and Charlotte moved south to Letchworth and later to Harrow on the Hill, where he continued to trade as a metal valuer until his death in 1906.  Like so many of his family, his body came back to St Ives for the funeral service at the Free Church.  The local press declared that ‘he was held in the highest respect and his departure from St Ives was generally regretted’.  There was a long and moving procession to the nonconformist cemetery, while ‘during the interment, business in the town was practically at a standstill and at most of the private residences blinds were drawn’.

Thomas Birt and his wife, Eliza had eight children, of whom seven survived childhood.  All of the daughters were educated at boarding school in London.  As adults, Jane Harwood migrated to New Zealand, where she married an American and then moved home to the USA, Ellen remained unmarried and lived at home, while Eliza Bishop, the eldest, married Joseph Scrivener KEEP, and moved to his home town of Birmingham.  Julia married Frederick MARSHALL in 1859 but, as her sister Jane wrote, ‘she never remained well after that and died with twin sons after they had gone from St Ives to Bedford’.  Emily May married another Birmingham man, Henry GRIFFITHS, and she, too, moved away from St Ives.  The youngest son, William Bishop, died at the age of ten, ‘a boy of great promise and whose early death was a great grief to his parents’, wrote Jane. 

Thomas’s second son was Thomas Birt junior (1834-71).  It was Thomas Birt junior who gave Jane her great chance to see the world when, in 1865, he decided to take up an offer to go into business in New Zealand.  Sadly, Thomas died in Dunedin in 1871 from a fever and his widow, Martha, returned to England with her baby daughter to live in Essex.

      The remaining child of this generation was Frederick, born in 1838.  Frederick was sent to boarding school at Eaton Socon, a small town not far from St Ives.  It was there that a terrible accident occurred that was to shape the destiny of this young boy and lead to his removal to the other side of the world.  Without it we may not have ULPHs in New Zealand today.  The facts have been extracted from press reports of the legal case that followed.

On 7 December 1852 Frederick and his friends were enjoying their standard school meal of bread, cheese and beer, accompanied by some boyish larking around.  A lad called John WHITTOME drank the beer of one of the others.  There was a bit of banter, and when the play became physical, Frederick threw his bread across the table, not realising that he still had a knife in his hand.  The knife stuck in WHITTOME’s thigh, causing him to bleed.  Frederick ran for the Master ‘in great grief and alarm’, for John was one of his best friends.  It appears that nobody realised at the time that the femoral vein and artery were wounded, nor that the boy already had a large abscess under his knee and had acute rheumatism.  One week later, John WHITTOME died.  At the inquest the jury unanimously recorded a verdict of accidental death.  So distraught was Frederick’s kindly father, Thomas Birt senior, that he ‘offered to pay the whole of the expenses occasioned by the unfortunate calamity’. 

Frederick was taken away from the school and also St Ives, going instead to live in Birmingham with his eldest sister, Eliza Bishop, and her husband Joseph Scrivener KEEP.  And there the matter should have been allowed to rest, in the hope that time might heal.  However, John WHITTOME’s father was not satisfied with the verdict, and after dwelling on it for two years and taking legal advice, brought the whole matter to court in January 1855.  Young Frederick was charged with ‘feloniously and wilfully killing and slaying’ his best friend.  As one press report says, ‘details were adduced in evidence, the publication of which would revive painful feelings now subsided’.  After hearing this evidence, however, the Court decided that ‘there was no evidence to justify a committal’.  They concluded, ‘we are sorry that this case has been brought before us; it never ought to have been, and we dismiss the complaint’.

But the damage had been done.  Painful feelings had indeed risen to the surface again, and the ULPHs of St Ives had once more become unwilling centres of attention.  We do not know exactly how long Frederick continued to live with the KEEPs in Birmingham, but in a codicil to his will dated July 1855, Thomas Birt senior mentions that he had made an advance of £500 to Eliza KEEP and he had also ‘advanced and paid unto and for my son Frederick ULPH various sums of money amounting in the whole to the sum of five hundred pounds’.

Frederick next appears in public records in 1863, when he married Mary Ann PILCHER in Clive, New Zealand.  He gave his residence as Oero, and stated that he had been living there for three years.  However, the unhappy tale of Frederick did not end with his emigration, as we will discover in the next chapter. Suffice to say here that some time after 1865 he disappeared and was never heard of again.  In her will of 1887 his mother, Eliza, instructed her trustees to pay £300 to Frederick ‘if he shall be living at my decease and his existence shall be ascertained within two years after my decease’ – otherwise the money was to be divided between Frederick’s two sons.  However, Eliza also told her trustees not to ‘incur any expense in advertising for my said son Frederick or endeavouring to discover whether he is living or his residence’.  Frederick’s is indeed a sorry tale that must have brought much unhappiness to his family.


Fifth generation – children of John Birt junior and Thomas Birt junior


All of John Birt junior’s ten children survived infancy, but only one of the five daughters took a husband.  This was Margaret Kate, who in 1894 at the Free Church married Cuthbert MCEVOY, a celebrated author, lecturer and Congregational minister.  Mary Louisa assisted in the education of her younger sisters, and lived part of her later life in New Zealand, Emma Jane became a schoolmistress, and Laura Henrietta took up nursing, giving valuable service in the Great War.  Interestingly, spinsters Emma, Laura and their half-sister, Jessie, all ended their days not in St Ives but on the mild coast of Sussex.  

John’s eldest son, Harold John (1859-1922) remained a bachelor.  He travelled extensively through Australia and New Zealand for 37 years as representative of two famous British manufacturers, of brass and cutlery.  In 1922, while sailing to England to see his family, Harold died of a brain haemorrhage on the SS Omar as it sailed through the Red Sea.  In a moving obituary, The Australian Traveller said that ‘while his natural reserve was obvious, yet to his friends Mr ULPH was one of the most genial of men.  His personal character was of the highest’.

The second son, William Daniell (1861-1947), also did not marry.  After a spell of helping in the family ironmongery business, he became an accountant.  He also lived in New Zealand for some years, before retiring to Needingworth, Hunts, in a house he christened ‘Auckland’.

John Birt junior’s third son, Edgar Bishop (1863-1906), went to Australia to prospect for gold.  According to his monument in St Ives nonconformist cemetery, he was ‘believed to have died alone in the Queensland bush in 1906’, at the age of 43. 

The fourth son, Edward Bernard (1865-1936), married Alice FRANK and was the only one of John Birt’s sons to produce any ULPH heirs.  He became an accountant for a firm of oil merchants in London and Essex but in 1906 was made redundant and advised to move to Canada for health reasons.  After a spell farming on Vancouver Island, Bernard and his family returned to England in 1919.  Alice died from a brain tumour in 1931, after which Bernard returned to St Ives to live with relatives.  He died in London in 1936.  

When John Birt junior died in 1906, his business of metal trades valuer was carried on by his fifth and youngest son, Arnold Birt (1867-1956).  Arnold, the last ULPH to live in St Ives, was a popular and much-loved citizen who involved himself in many aspects of the town’s affairs.  Among other things, he was active in the Liberal Party, superintendent of the Free Church Sunday school and a member of the local football, rowing and sailing clubs.  In 1941 Arnold founded a ‘Society for the Perpetual Keeping of Christmas’.  He married Jessie Madeline JOHNSON, who is still remembered in the town as a talented artist who once exhibited at the Royal Academy.  They had no children. Arnold died tragically at Huntingdon on Christmas Day 1956. 

At the time of his untimely death in 1871, Thomas Birt junior had just a six-month-old daughter, Edith Mabel.  She was to remain unmarried, and when she died in 1926, the only ULPH descendants of Thomas Birt senior were Frederick’s children, in New Zealand.


Sixth and seventh generations – descendants of Edward Bernard


Edward Bernard and Alice had just two children: Edward Ernest and Cicely May.   At the age of nineteen, Edward Ernest (1900-93), known then as ‘Ted’, joined Cable and Wireless as an electrical engineer.  While working for them in Newfoundland, Ted met his future wife, Winifred DAWE, who was one of fourteen children of a captain on a whaling ship.  He moved on to an Italian company that was laying a cable between Italy and Rio de Janiero, and found himself working on the Cape Verde Islands in the North Atlantic.  He married Winifred in Newfoundland, and they settled in Cape Verde, where their only child, Joan Cicely, was born in 1926.  Very sadly, Winifred died from asthma just over two years later.  Ted continued to work in Cape Verde, and Joan spent much of her childhood with doting relatives in St Ives.  In the 1930s Ted lost his job when, he said, ‘Mussolini realised that an Englishman was operating his cable stations’ and gave him the sack.

Back in England, he took up the completely new business of fruit farming.  He bought a beautiful, tiled farmhouse with 100 acres of fruit-growing land in north Essex, and continued to play an active role in what became the new family business until he was nearly 90.  After war service with the WAAF (where she was known as ‘Ulphie’), Ted’s unmarried sister, Cicely May (1904-66), moved to a house opposite, and she also started to grow fruit.  Later, Ted was joined in the fruit-growing and packaging business by his son-in-law, William SCOBIE, and later still, by his grandson, Angus. 

Known in later life as ‘Oliver’, Edward Ernest married three more times.  The first two were short-lived marriages ending in divorce, but his fourth marriage in 1970 lasted until his death.  Oliver had only the one child, and with Joan’s marriage in 1953 the ULPH surname in the St Ives branch came to an end in England - although it continues to thrive in New Zealand.  The ULPH name survives in the family today as the Christian name of all five of Joan and Bill’s grandchildren. 

Although there is no longer anyone bearing our name in St Ives, we discovered during the ULPH gathering in 1989 that there were still people there who remembered the ULPHs with great affection.  Some still had bibles and prayer books bearing bookplates signed by one of the ULPHs who taught in the Free Church Sunday school.  Some had group photographs in which ULPHs appeared alongside their own ancestors.  It was most heartening to learn of the positive impact that a branch of our families had had on a small but vibrant community.



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