This essay is an attempt to answer some of the questions often asked about the Mercer families of Great Harwood, to dispel some myths and clear up misunderstandings. Many people with long Great Harwood roots will find a Mercer or two lurking in their ancestry and there is good reason for this – the surname Mercer, along with Hindle, dominated the town until the early nineteenth century. Abram, in his History of Blackburn Town and Parish, called them ‘native yeoman families’.

How native were the Mercers to Great Harwood? Early records for the town are limited and generally mention only the names of the landholding families. However, the poll tax of 1379 for Lancashire names the inhabitants of the town liable to pay the tax, that is everyone over the age of sixteen. These are the names given for Great Harwood:

Thoma de Hesketch esquier 6s 8d
Johanne del Hesketch 4d
Johanne le Bold 4d
Johanne de Stansfeld 4d
Henrico le Lorimer 4d
Ada le Lorimer 4d
Willelmo Foukeson 4d
Rogero Brightson 4d
Ricardo de Huncote 4d
Johanne de Rathedale 4d
Roberto del Wyndebonk 4d
Roberto de Rachedale 4d
Thoma Daweson 4d
Johanne le Lepar 4d
Alicia le Colvile vidua 4d
Roberto de Stereland 4d
de Ricardo le Souter 4d
Willelmo Waterward 4d
Hugone Hanson 4d
Margareta del Moreton 4d
Roberto de Croke 4d
Willelmo del Wode 4d
Johanne de Stereland 4d
Johanne de Walbouk 4d
Willelmo de Walbouk 4d
Willelmo Kynning 4d
Willelmo Dobson 4d
Roberto de Nonewyk 4d
Thoma le Pynnar 4d
total 16s

The lords of the manor at this time were the Heskeths with two thirds of the manor, mainly the Upper Town or Overton, and the Nowells with the remaining third of Lower Town or Netherton. Only the Heskeths were resident in the town.

It is clear from the list that in Great Harwood hereditary surnames had not yet become the norm. David Hey wrote “The poll tax returns for Lancashire in 1379 show that many men were known simply as the son of someone, while women were frequently recorded as Agnes Spenserdoghter, Alice Flynnsdoghter, Eva Jaksonwyf”. The above list shows what may have been or were about to become locational surnames – these people may have been newly arrived in the town after the plague years in the middle of the century, or the names could have been acquired from their parents and now be hereditary. Similarly, with the occupational names in the list; Ricardo le Souter (Richard the Shoemaker) may not have been a shoemaker, but the son or grandson of one. What is clear is that there are no Mercers in this list. This does not mean that any of those listed, or their descendants, did not later acquire the name Mercer, but we have no way to know.

Mercer is an occupational surname. The Oxford Names Companion gives ‘English: occupational name for a trader, from Old French mercier. The term was applied in Middle English particularly to one who dealt in textile fabrics, especially the more costly and luxurious fabrics such as silks, satin, and velvet.’ Reaney gives examples of the names from places across England: London, Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire from 1168 to 1298. Some of these names may have been hereditary even at these early dates as the use of surnames began much earlier in the south of the country. Textiles, and mercers, being such an important part of the economy in the middle ages the name probably occurred independently in many parts of the country.

These are the first mentions of people in Lancashire who were known by the name of Mercer, whether or not it was hereditary at that time:

1296: Whalley Abbey was founded, and Whitaker’s History of Whalley includes a document concerning a William le Mercer de Stanlaw who wished to move to Whalley to live either in the town or the monastery, whichever he wished. He would be a pensioner of sorts, having paid a sum of money for the privilege of living there. The likelihood is that he would be an old man, not a young man with a family moving to the area.

1299: Wigan – Hugh the Mercer appears as a witness to a document

1379: Poll Tax
Ricardo le Merser and Johanne le Merser recorded in Ribchester
Willemus Mercer recorded in Lonsdale
Johanne le Mercer recorded in Liverpool
Thoma le Mercer recorded in Huyton
Ricadrus le Mercer and wife recorded in Stretford.

1402: Heapey – grant of land with a William le Mercer, chaplain mentioned. The fact that his occupation is clearly not that of a mercer would suggest this is now an hereditary name.

Although there are no local mentions of Mercer in the 1379 Poll Tax, it does seem there was a strong link to Clayton le Moors before then. A quitclaim of 1352 by William le Mercer and Elena his wife to Henry de Clayton gave their land in Clayton le Moors, previously belonging to Adam de Ringstonehalgh, to Henry. Two other women and their husbands did so on the same day, and it seems likely that they were all daughters of Adam.

A John Mercer is mentioned on the Inquisition Dower Post Mortem of Margaret, wife of Nicholas Hesketh, in 1417 and concerning lands in Great Harwood, Tottleworth and Rufford. In 1423 John de Merser was witness to an indenture of Henry de Rishton, witness to his will in 1427 and the inquisition of Margaret late wife of Henry de Rishton in 1438.

The first mention of a Mercer in Great Harwood was Edward Mercer, who was assessed on goods in the town in a subsidy levied in 1523. The next mention is for a Richard Mercer, mentioned as curate at the church in 1534, who was not only the curate but also a sheep merchant. It was probably this same Richard Mercer who, at the Halmote court held at Holcombe, sued for £3 debt for sheep bought from him.

By 1538, when parish registers were first required to be kept, people named Mercer appear right across the county: Whalley, Kirkham, Croston, Great Harwood, Ormskirk, Clitheroe, Huyton, Walton and Childwall – and these are just places for which the early registers have survived. There were Mercers in Chipping, and Mercers were present in Yorkshire, particularly the Halifax area. Some of these families would have originated separately, others might be junior branches who had migrated.

When they survive parish registers are one of the best sources for who lived in a place at a certain point in time, and when used in conjunction with manorial documents it is often possible to construct accurate pedigrees for a family. There can be problems however when the family is prolific and especially when a limited number of first names are used; there are an abundance of William, John and Thomas Mercers in the records for Great Harwood. As junior members of a family move down the social scale then documents become rarer and it can be impossible to assign an entry in the registers to a particular branch of a family which is true of the Mercer families of Great Harwood: from the records to the mid nineteenth century I’ve been able to assign less than a quarter to the various branches. There are several reasons for this:

• Although survival of the parish registers is good, there are problems with the registers: years of famine and disease sometimes meant entries were not made; clerical errors of omission or mistakes made when entering; quality of the surviving manuscripts. Two periods are particularly bad: the famine and disease years around 1620 and the time of the English Civil War from around 1640 to 1660.

• Although Mercers were present in the town when the registers were first compiled it is known from settlement records that some migrated out of the town, that some migrated to the town and that some appear to have done both, sometimes with a generation or more between leaving and returning.

• In the seventeenth century there were Mercers in Great Harwood who were Roman Catholic and in the later eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries too, so it is probable that there were Catholic Mercers in the intervening years. Many Catholics elected to have all baptisms and marriages recorded in the parish church, but some did not, and the only clue may be a series of burials for people for whom there are no other records.

Mercers are mentioned on the first pages of the parish registers of Great Harwood and there is good reason to suppose they had been here for more than a generation, or at least in the wider area; Mercers were marrying other Mercers and the burial is recorded of a John Mercer aged ‘ foure score and 16 years’, or 96, in 1590. It is impossible to assign every Mercer who appears in records for Great Harwood to a particular family, but there are four very early families that can be traced with some success and at least three later families that may be junior branches of those families. The names of the tenements or areas most strongly associated with the families will be used to identify them in a series of essays: Cowden, Tan House, Lowerfold, Lower Town, Banks, Egg Syke and Stoops.

© B. Youds 2020