There is a belief, fairly widely held today, that “Children should not die before their parents.” Yet for most of human history, right up until relatively recent times, children predeceasing their parents (mainly as infants, but also as adults) was commonplace. One mother who witnessed far too many burials of younger family members was Dorothy Atcherley, née Whitney. She passed away at the age of 88, in 1792, having outlived all of her children (at least ten and possibly twelve in number), her husband, one of two sons-in-law, all three daughters-in-law and two (possibly three) of her seven grandchildren.
The long life of Dorothy Atcherley began in Cheshire in, or possibly a little before, 1704 – “Dorothy daugr. of Robert Whitney of Newhall” was baptised at Wrenbury, in the parish church of St Margaret (pictured above), on 18 April that year. Newhall, nowadays a parish in its own right, was then a township within Wrenbury parish. And within Newhall was Coole, the seat of the Whitney family. An ancient seat it was too, as property (a house and 100 acres of land) was first acquired there by Howell de Whitney in 1289.
It appears that Dorothy had at least a dozen siblings, eleven of whom where named in her father’s last will and testament of 3 February 1726. “Robert Whitney of Cool in the County of Chester gent:” gave all his real and personal estate to his eldest son Hugh, and bequeathed £100 apiece to ten of his other eleven children, namely Katherine, Robert, Ann, Thomas, Margaret, Peter, Mary, Jeffery, John and William.
Robert’s wife, Dorothy, and his daughter of the same name, were presumably already provided for under the terms of their respective marriage settlements. Wife Dorothy was only mentioned in Robert’s will as a joint executor with son Hugh, while daughter Dorothy – by then Dorothy Atcherley – received just one shilling.
“Thomas Hatcherley [sic] Gent. of Malpas & Dorothy Whitney Spinster of Hampton in the parish of Malpas afforesd.” were “Married ye fourth day of July” 1722 at Acton in Cheshire “By Vertue of A Licence Granted by ye Revd. Mr. Thomas Brooke Rector of Nantwich.” That licence was granted after a bond was entered into by Francis Sanders and Richard Turner, the conditions of which were set out in the standard pre-printed text of the time with the more interesting personal details (the words in italics in the following transcript) added by hand:
Dorothy had married into a family of landed gentry as prominent in its own locality as her Whitney kin were in their part of Cheshire: the Atcherleys of Marton in Shropshire. Occupying the family seat of Marton Hall at that time were her new in-laws, Richard Atcherley and Elizabeth, née Lloyd. Dorothy was to be a part of this family for very nearly 70 years, and she would be crucial to its survival. The first of these two facts she could not have known, but I suspect she was very much aware of the expectations the Atcherleys had regarding her role in perpetuating their family line.
Richard and Elizabeth Atcherley of Marton had produced only two children. The baptism of their eldest child Thomas, Dorothy’s new husband, had taken place at Myddle St Peter on 6 April 1704 (just 12 days before Dorothy’s own baptism at Wrenbury). Their youngest child, a second son named Richard after his father, was baptised there on 30 October 1705. Of these two sons, Thomas was the only one to marry, which meant that the future of the Atcherleys of Marton rested solely with him and Dorothy.
The couple certainly did their best. The Burkes, in their Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, named seven children born to Thomas and Dorothy – Thomas, Dorothy, Elizabeth, Robert, Richard, Jane and Thomasin – and added that there were also five other children who all died as infants.
I have found records for three of the five additional children mentioned by the Burkes, all baptised and buried at Loppington St Michael & All Angels (pictured here in 1788) in Shropshire. There was a younger Richard: “Richard the Son of Mr Thomas Acherley & Dorothy his Wife was baptized Augst. 28th” in 1729 and buried barely three weeks later on 17 September. “Hugh the son of Mr Thomas Acherley of Noneley and Dorothy his Wife was baptized Septr 14th 1733” and interred within six months of that date, on 5 March 1733/4. Finally “John the Son of Mr Thomas Acherley & Dorothy his Wife was baptis’d March 15th 1734[/35]” and laid to rest just 10 days later on 25 March 1735.
To these infant/child deaths we can add Jane and Thomasin, two of the seven children named by the Burkes. The burial of “Jane Atcherly, a child” – whose baptism, if one took place, I have not found a record for – took place at Myddle on 16 March 1738/9. Thomasin was baptised at Myddle in June 1736, and “Thomasin Atcherley, a child” was buried there on 24 April 1739.
In addition to these five fatalities there were perhaps two more. I have found no records for two of five unnamed children mentioned by the Burkes as having died in infancy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the children didn’t exist. While I suspect the genealogical and heraldic historians may have been in error (they did get things wrong from time to time), it may be that ‘official’ records for the children were not created or have not survived. Or they are out there somewhere and I simply haven’t found them (I’m not infallible either!).
There are gaps between the baptisms on record for Thomas and Dorothy’s other children in which additional births may have taken place. Given the rapid rate at which Dorothy seems to have been generating potential Atcherley heirs, there is scope for her to have given birth to one or more children during the course of the following years: 1724, 1725, 1737, and 1738. The above-mentioned Jane was most likely born in one of those years, and maybe the ‘lost’ children appeared in two of the others.
As my introduction to this story makes clear, Dorothy witnessed many deaths over the course of her lifetime. The death of Thomasin Atcherley in April 1739 however, marked the end of a period of particularly concentrated loss. Of the ten (or maybe twelve) children she had brought into the world since her marriage to Thomas Atcherley in 1723, five (or quite possibly seven, if she did indeed have twelve children) had perished. To make matters worse, her husband also departed this world for the next towards the very end of that period, in December 1738.
Before the wonders of modern-day science, death was very much part of life. Fate was fickle and people could succumb to accident or particularly to disease at almost any time. It has been estimated that the rate of infant mortality (deaths in the first year of life) was around 140 in every thousand live births, compared with under 5 per thousand in 2015 (in the UK). Average life expectancy was between 30 and 40 years for most, although that includes the impact of infant mortality. Did our ancestors’ familiarity with death make it any easier for them to deal with the loss of their loved ones?
The customs around mourning have certainly changed as the centuries have gone by, but I suspect that the passing of all that time has made little difference to our internal, emotional responses to the death of those we love. This seems to be borne out by research which, according to Mia Korpiola and Anu Lahtinen (writing in 2015), “has indicated that bereavement and the death of one’s children, spouses and close relatives led to melancholy and depression for medieval and early modern people just as now.” (The portrait shown here, titled Rachel Weeping and depicting a mother grieving over her dead child, dates from 1776.)
The strong religious beliefs held by many people, which told them that death was God’s will but also gave them hope of an afterlife in which they would be reunited with those who had gone before them, also helped to soften the blow of bereavement. The authors who I have just quoted also stated that “the hope of a reunion in Paradise and the religious doctrines provided consolation. Resignation in the face of death was a strategy of coping with inevitability.” My guess is that Dorothy Atcherley’s Christian faith was very strong indeed, and went a long way towards helping her cope with the anguish she must have felt after losing her husband and so many of her children.
There were practical considerations for Dorothy to deal with as well as spiritual and emotional ones. She was now a widow with five offspring, aged from four to about twelve, to bring up. I am confident however that she was not left to face that challenge alone. She had two Atcherley parents-in-laws who I am quite sure took an active interest in her welfare and that of her children – their grandchildren and heirs.
Dorothy’s late husband had also provided for her. Foreseeing his untimely demise he made his last Will and Testament on 19 October 1738 (he was buried, at Myddle, on 29 December that year, not on 27 July 1743 as stated by the Burkes – I did warn you they sometimes got things wrong!). The fact that two of the three witnesses to Thomas’s will were his brothers in law Thomas and Hugh Whitney shows that members of Dorothy’s family were actively involved in looking after her interests even before her husband’s passing.
I don’t doubt that Dorothy was grateful for whatever support she was offered. I hope that the family she married into was also grateful for the contribution Dorothy herself made to its success. It seems to me that she was a woman of great fortitude, strong in mind, body and spirit – qualities which would stand her in good stead as she kept a matriarchal eye on the next two generations of the Atcherleys of Marton.
To be continued.
Picture credits. Wrenbury St Margaret: Photo © Copyright Geograph contributor ‘Espresso Addict’, taken from Geograph, modified, used and made available for reuse under a Creative Commons licence. Loppington St Michael & All Angels (1788): Original watercolour painting by Rev Williams; adapted from a public domain image at Wikimedia Commons. Rachel Weeping (1776): Original portrait by Charles Willson Peale; public domain image taken from WikiArt.
 John W De Gruchy (2014), A theological odyssey. Page 149. Copy viewed at Google Books.
 Sylvia C (2013), Special Mommy Chronicles. Pages not numbered. Copy viewed at Google Books.
 The Stages of Grief. At: A Child of Mine (website, accessed 3 Mar 2020). “The death of a child is one of the most profound losses anyone could ever have to deal with, mainly as a child’s death is so unnatural; your children should not die before you.”
 Wrenbury, Cheshire, parish register covering 1704. Entry dated 18 Apr 1704 for the baptism of Dorothy Whitney. Copies viewed at Findmypast and FamilySearch (incorrectly indexed by the latter as being at Wilmslow, also the entry in the Bishop’s Transcript of the register is correctly indexed).
 NEWHALL (near Audlem). At: GENUKI website (accessed 3 Mar 2020).
 Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, Paul B Pixton (ed.) (2009), Wrenbury Wills and Inventories 1542–1661. Page xxv. PDF copy viewed at the Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire website.
 Family: Whitney, Robert (1673-c1729). At: Whitney Research Group website, accessed 3 Mar 2020.
 Cheshire Archives & Local Studies. Will of Robert Whitney of Cool, probate date 1749. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Cheshire Wills and Probate.
 Acton, Cheshire, marriage register covering 1722. Entry dated 4 Jul 1722 for Thomas ‘Hatcherley’ and Dorothy Whitney. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Cheshire Diocese of Chester parish marriages 1538-1910, and FamilySearch, where the event is indexed.
 Cheshire Archives & Local Studies. Marriage licence bonds and allegations (ref EDX 7/7), marriage bond for Thomas Atcherley and Dorothy Whittney, 1722. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Cheshire Marriage licence bonds and allegations 1606-1905.
 Myddle, Shropshire, parish register covering 1704. Entry dated 6 Apr 1704 for baptism of Thomas Atcherly. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1926), Shropshire Parish Registers, Diocese of Lichfield, Volume XIX (Registers of Myddle, Lee Brockhurst and Action Burnell); copy viewed at Shropshire Archives. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch P01576-1, Film 908237.
 Myddle, Shropshire, parish register covering 1705. Entry dated 30 Oct 1705 for baptism of Richd Atcherley. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1926), Shropshire Parish Registers, Diocese of Lichfield, Volume XIX (Registers of Myddle, Lee Brockhurst and Action Burnell); copy viewed at Shropshire Archives. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch P00858-1, Film 0908237 IT 2.
 John Burke, John Bernard Burke (1847), A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry. Volume I, page 32. Copy viewed at Google Books.
 Loppington, Shropshire, parish register covering 1729. Entry dated 28 Aug 1729 for baptism of Richard Acherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Baptisms. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch I03467-7, Film 1701251.
 Loppington, Shropshire, parish register covering 1729. Entry dated 17 Sep 1729 for burial of “Richard the Son of Mr Tho [Ac_erley = Acherley] & Dorothy his wife”. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials (surname transcribed as Ackerley). Note: Surname appears to have been written as Accerley originally, with an attempt then being made to change the second ‘c’ into an ‘h’. Indexed (with surname Ackerley) by FamilySearch, Batch I03467-8, Film 1701251, Image 221.
 Loppington, Shropshire, parish register covering 1733. Entry dated 14 Sep 1733 for baptism of Hugh Acherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Baptisms. Indexed at FamilySearch (with surname Atcherley), Batch C04816-3, Film 429034, 510667.
 Loppington, Shropshire, parish register covering 1733/3. Entry dated 5 Mar 1733/4 for burial of “Hugh the Son of Mr Thomas Acherly”. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch I03467-8, Film 1701251, Image 223.
 Loppington, Shropshire, parish register covering 1734/5. Entry dated 15 Mar 1734/5 for baptism of John Acherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Baptisms. Indexed at FamilySearch (with surname Atcherley), Batch C04816-3, Film 429034, 510667.
 Loppington, Shropshire, parish register covering 1735. Entry dated 25 Mar 1735 for burial of “John the Son of Mr Thomas Acherley”. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch I03467-8, Film 1701251, Image 223.
 Myddle, Shropshire, parish register covering 1738/9. Entry dated 16 Mar 1738/9 for burial of Jane Atcherly. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1926), Shropshire Parish Registers, Diocese of Lichfield, Volume XIX (Registers of Myddle, Lee Brockhurst and Action Burnell); copy viewed at Shropshire Archives.
 Myddle, Shropshire, parish register covering 1736. Entry dated Jun 1736 for baptism of Thomasin Atcherley. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1926), Shropshire Parish Registers, Diocese of Lichfield, Volume XIX (Registers of Myddle, Lee Brockhurst and Action Burnell); copy viewed at Shropshire Archives.
 Myddle, Shropshire, parish register covering 1739. Entry dated 24 Apr 1739 for burial of Thomasin Atcherley. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1926), Shropshire Parish Registers, Diocese of Lichfield, Volume XIX (Registers of Myddle, Lee Brockhurst and Action Burnell); copy viewed at Shropshire Archives.
 Rachel Hammersley (2017), Death, Grief and Mourning Seventeenth-Century Style. At: Dr Rachel Hammersley’s Blog, accessed 4 Mar 2020.
 Mia Korpiola, Anu Lahtinen (2015), Cultures of Death and Dying in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: An Introduction. In: COLLeGIUM: Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 18. Page 6. PDF copy viewed at the COLLeGIUM website.
 Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archives, ref B/C/11: Will of Thomas Atcherley of Alderton, proved 1739. Copy obtained from the then Lichfield Record Office; also viewed at Findmypast – Staffordshire, Dioceses [sic] of Lichfield and Coventry wills and probate 1521-1860.