John Louis Petit was a noted landscape painter and critic of ecclesiastical architectural practice in the 19th century. After his death, his work languished in obscurity for many years, but has recently been brought to public attention by the J L Petit Society and is well described on the website of that organisation and elsewhere. He and his sisters painted several hundred pictures of landscapes and churches across England, Europe and beyond. He was able to do so because he was from a wealthy family, descended from Huguenot immigrants to England in 1685. Concerning that wealth the Petit society web site simply says “Petit’s family were moderately wealthy landowners, active in professions, from Staffordshire“. The question then arises as to where the wealth came from that enabled him to pursue his interests through extensive and no doubt expensive, travel, This post unpacks the source and extent of his wealth in a little more depth and leads me to the conclusion that the Petit family were much more than simply “moderately wealthy”. It will be seen that the main source of this wealth seems to have been an estate in the Sedgley / Wolverhampton area, and I will investigate this estate further in a future post.
To help the reader in navigating the travels of the Petit family around the Midlands, the map below shows the places mentioned in this post that are in the vicinity of Wolverhampton.
The Petits in England
We begin by considering the first of the Petit family to arrive in England. Lewis Petit (1665-1720), a member of the ancient Norman family of Petit des Etans, fled to England from Caen on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, along with many thousands of others. The revocation of this edict led to severe persecution of the protestant Huguenots by Catholics, and many fled the country at that time. He served in the British army as an engineer, rose to the rank of brigadier-general and was appointed lieutenant-governor of Minorca from 1708 to 1713. He was later involved in the suppression of a revolt by Highland clans. More detail can be found in his Wikipedia entry. No doubt he was well rewarded for his services. He had two sons, John Peter Petit and Captain Peter Petit. The former married Sarah, daughter of John Hayes of Wolverhampton, the owner of the Ettingshall Estate near Sedgley, and they occupied the manor of Little Aston from 1743 to the early 1760s. John Hayes died in 1736, and left Ettingshall to his son, another John. This John himself died in 1745 and the estate went to Sarah and her sister, and thus ultimately to John Peter Petit. Ettingshall was a large, originally arable estate, that even at that stage was beginning to be exploited for its coal and ironstone reserves. John Peter also appears to have owned Saredon Hall farm in the village of Shareshill.
John Peter and Sarah’s only son, John Lewis Petit (1736-1780) was educated at Queens College, Cambridge, qualified as a doctor in 1767 and was physician to St. George’s Hospital from 1770 to 1774, and to St. Bartholomew’s from 1774 until his death. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society from 1759 and was clearly regarded as a leader in his profession. He married Katherine Laetitia Serces, the daughter of Rev. James Serces, pastor of the French Church in London. They had three sons John Hayes Petit (1771-1822), Peter Hayes Petit (1773-1809) and Louis Hayes Petit (1774-1849), but clearly lacked imagination in the giving of names. The Ettingshall Estate was inherited in its entirety by John Hayes, with financial provision being made for the other sons. In John Lewis’ will there is the following rather interesting provision.
I desire my body may be opened [for medical science] if the distemper of which I may die shall not have rendered it so loathsome as to endanger the operator and that the sum of ten guineas shall be given to the person who shall perform the operation.
Of the two younger brothers, Peter Hayes was a lieutenant-colonel of the 35th Foot and died at Deal of a wound received at Flushing in Holland during the Napoleonic war. Louis Hayes became a barrister and, from 1827 to 1832, was MP for Ripon. He bought property at Yeading, Middlesex, and a house in Tamworth Street, Lichfield. He also acquired an estate at Merridale in Wolverhampton, not far from Ettingshall, which the sources suggest provided him with income from mineral rights. This cannot however be wholly true as Merridale is to the west of Wolverhampton, and is not in fact on the coal field. It will be seen below that he also possessed land to the east of the town at Bilston, on which there were indeed coal mines, and this was probably the source oft he confusion. After ceasing to be an MP, his remaining years were largely devoted to literary and philanthropic pursuits There is a monument to him at the east end of the north aisle of St Michael’s church in Lichfield.
The Ecclesiastical Petits – John Louis and his father
The eldest of the three brothers, John Hayes Petit (1771-1822) inherited the Ettingshall estate, but also seems to have followed an ecclesiastical career. He was born in Bloomsbury and graduated from Queens College Cambridge with a BA in 1793 and an MA in 1796. He was ordained priest in Chester in 1798 and served a curacy at Ashton under Lyme near Stalybridge in Cheshire. During his time there he married Harriet Astley of the nearby town of Dukinfield. Harriet was born in 1779 to the painter John Astley (1724-1787) and his third wife Mary Wagstaffe (1760-1832). John Astley had a colourful life, painting portraits of many 18th century notables, arousing strong passions of admiration (mainly in women) or distaste (mainly in men). His first wife was an unknown Irish lady who died in 1749. The second was Penelope Dukinfield Daniel (1722–1762) widow of Sir William Dukinfield Daniel, 3rd baronet, and a daughter of Henry Vernon, former High Sheriff of Staffordshire. John and Penelope were married with some rapidity after she intimated that the original of the portrait he was painting of her would be available if he wished. On Penelope’s death, and the death of his stepdaughter, Astley inherited the substantial Dukinfield and Daniel estates in Cheshire and was able to lead a life of some luxury and idleness thereafter. Harriett was one of three sisters, known as the Manchester beauties, and her marriage to John Hayes would have brought him both a beautiful wife and a substantial supplement to his already considerable income.
John Louis Petit, the artist, was John Hayes and Harriet’s eldest son and was born in 1802. For the next few years the family lived a somewhat peripatetic existence. The oldest sister, Harriet Letticia Petit (later Salt) was baptised in Stretton on Dunmore in Warwickshire in 1803. The next two children Mary Ann Petit (1805-) and Peter John Petit (1806-1852), later a Lieutenant Colonel in the 50th Regiment, were baptised at Darfield in Yorkshire. No reason for the Petit family’s presence in these places can be traced. The next two children, Emma Gentile Petit (1808-1893) and Elizabeth Petit (later Haig) (1810-1895) were baptised at Donnington in Shropshire to the north west of Wolverhampton. In January 1811 John Hayes was appointed Stipendary Curate of that parish, and then in February of that year he was appointed as a Perpetual Curate at Shareshill, to the north east of Wolverhampton where he already owned land. How these posts interacted with each other is not clear. The Vernon family, from whom Harriet was descended, owned Hilton Hall, which was close to Shareshill, and may have been influential in John Hayes obtaining the post. He held the Perpetual Curacy at Shareshill till his death in 1822. Their next three children were all baptised in Shareshill – Louisa Petit (1813-1842), who died after a “life of uninterrupted suffering, which she bore with a true Christian patience and cheerfulness”; Susannah Petit (1813-1897); and Louis Peter Petit (1816-1838) a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn. Around 1817 John Hayes leased Coton Hall at Alveley in Shropshire from Harry Lancelot Lee, and it was there that their final child, Maria Katherine (later Jelf) (1818-1904) was baptised. Coton Hall was a very substantial property that once belonged to the Lee family. In 1636, Richard Henry Lee emigrated to the US, and the family became rich through the ownership of tobacco plantations with a large slave population, and from whom the US Confederate General Robert E Lee was descended. It would not have been a cheap place to lease. After John Hayes Petit’s death in 1822, Coton Hall was bought by James Foster (1786 -1853), the very successful and wealthy ironmaster and coalmaster of Stourbridge. John Hayes’ wife Harriet and her unmarried daughters moved to the house in the house in Tamworth St, Lichfield that was owned by her brother-in-law Louis Hayes Petit.
John Louis Petit inherited the Ettingshall estate on the death of his father in 1822, and also inherited the bulk of the estate of his uncle Louis Hayes Petit when the latter died in 1849. In total they formed a very substantial estate in the Wolverhampton area, that was being heavily exploited for coal, iron ore and limestone. He and his sisters also had a less tangible inheritance from his mother and his grandfather – the passion and the ability for painting and sketching. After he graduated from Trinity College in Cambridge in 1825, John firstly pursued an ecclesiastical career being curate at St Michael’s in Lichfield from 1825 to 1828, under the Perpetual Curate Edward Remington, and then curate at Bradfield and Mistley in Essex from 1828 to 1834. During his time at St. Michael’s, the registers tell us he carried out 61 baptisms, 35 weddings and 163 funerals, as well as presumably leading the Sunday worship – a not inconsiderable load. He married Louisa Reid, the daughter of George Reid of Trelawny in Jamaica in 1828. The Reid family derived much of their wealth from slave plantations in Jamaica and the family received considerable compensation for their lost income when slavery was abolished in the 1830s.
The Petit estates in the 1840s
But that is not the end of the matter. Details of the holdings of John Louis and Louis Hayes at the time of the tithe apportionments in the 1840s can be obtained from the tithe maps for Staffordshire. These are shown in the table below. It can be seen that the estates around Ettingshall and Wolverhampton were far from all their holdings. John Louis also held land in Wolverhampton itself, and in Hilton and Featherstone in the north of the town, and in Shareshill, Hatherton and Acton Trussell further to the north. At the time he lived in a house at Shifnal in Shropshire. Louis Hayes, as well as the land in Wolverhanpton also had holdings in the vicinity of the town at Sedgley and Bilston, as well as at Bushbury and Hatherton to the north. He also held the property in Lichfield where Harriet and her daughters lived. A photograph of this rather imposing property, Redcourt House, is shown below. It was situated on Tamworth Street downhill from the junction with George Lane, and its grounds extended a considerable distance behind it between what was then Back Lane and Frog Lane. In total John Louis held nearly 1100 acres and Louis Hayes nearly 450. This would have put them amongst the major landowners in the Midlands. Whilst the lands around Wolverhampton and Sedgley can be explained as an expansion of the Ettingshall and Merridale estates and the family had held land in Shareshill for several generations, there is no obvious reason why the lands at Bushbury, Hatherton and Acton Trussell came into their possession. One possible reason might be that these were holdings of Penelope Dukinfield Daniel through her descent from the Vernon family who held land in that part of Staffordshire. This might explain why John Hayes and Harriet made their home at Shareshill and the former became the Perpetual Curate in the parish.
But there is yet more. In Staffordshire Archives, there is an index record that states ” Abstract of title of late John Louis Petit in Staffordshire and Hereford, Radnor and Brecknock “. It would appear that the property in Hereford was the estate of Bollitree Castle, a large house with mock fortifications, with Louis Hayes owned at the time of his death. I have not been able to identify any properties in Radnor and Brecknock.
So to return to my original query, it would seem that the Petit wealth derived in the main from a series of very advantageous marriages – and in particular those between John Peter Petit and Sarah Hayes, which brought the Ettingshall estate into their positions. This estate will be the subject of a further blog post. In addition the family were clearly successful in the professions in which they worked as a result of their very considerable talents. One point that I still find difficult to understand is why John Hayes and John Louis pursued ecclesiastical careers – the clergy stipends were almost certainly of little significance in terms of their overall wealth. Perhaps the holding of a clergy post gave a degree of respectability to a life of leisure. At any rate, John Louis gave up his post in Essex in 1834 and from the mid-1830s onwards he devoted his time to his painting and architectural criticism, and his story is told elsewhere.