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Please help. If I met our great-great-great-grandmother in the street I think I should know her, but I cannot trace her parents. Her name was Sarah Jane THORPE (she was known as Jane), and according to the 1851 census for York she was born in 1805/6. She married William GREENWOOD on 3rd September 1827 at St Olave. A witness was Francis THORPE who I guess was her brother (I think the ‘Francis’ is a family name). Two years after their marriage, they set up a business, W F Greenwood & Sons.

As far as I can ascertain she was a very devout Catholic: her children were all baptised at Little Blake Street in York and in her will she left money for the education of her Catholic grandchildren. In 1864 she dedicated a stained glass window to the newly built church of St Winifred, a part of which has her family arms depicted. Whether this is just a Victorian fancy I don’t know, but it is not recorded at the College of Arms. On the sinister side it is very close to the THORPE family of Thorpe juxta Howden who were a very big Catholic family. The dexter side represents the notorious Stapleton GREENWOODs. William, as far as I can see, was just a village joiner born in Husthwaite. He became a freeman of the City of York in 1830, which might tie in with the emancipation of the Catholics in 1829. Whether the GREENWOODs were Catholics I don’t know. We have found two earlier GREENWOODs buried in Husthwaite village churchyard.

Strangely enough, William’s grandfather, George, married an Elizabeth THORPE from Stonegrave, North Yorkshire in April 1758. I can find no connection but it would have been very easy for the two to meet when visiting grandma.

Sarah Jane was well-educated – I wonder if in a convent in Europe. She was an upholstress in her own right. They had eight children and they ran the cabinet-makers business at 24 Stonegate, York together. There is no mention of her at the Bar Convent in York

In 1604, a Francis THORPE and his wife were sent to prison for their Catholic beliefs. A Francis THORPE and son, shoemakers, lived in York and were freemen of the City; but again there is no proof that they are related. There are Francis THORPEs in Knaresborough and Pateley Bridge: both were well-off gentlemen and I found their wills at the Borthwick Institute but with no mention of Jane.

As you can see, I have tried every avenue. Jane retired to Scarborough, where she died in 1873. She was buried with her husband in York Cemetery. She subscribed to the Yorkshire Brethren’s Fund for all her family. I would be delighted if you can fit the last piece of the jigsaw in the life of this vey colourful character.

Rosalyn Greenwood


Sarah Jane, or Jane, was certainly an interesting character and you have supplied much information about he life. However, as far as I can see your question boils down to this: where was Sarah Jane THORPE baptised? You have not mentioned any searches you have undertaken to discover this and so I assume that you have not gone down this essential path. The trouble with York is that you have around 25 ancient parishes. The probability is that she was born of a Catholic family but she may have gone through a conversion at some point in her early life. The Francis THORPE who was a witness at her marriage my have been her brother – or her father, an uncle or a cousin; I can see no evidence to suggest that her father was named Francis. So really you have a completely empty palate.

To trace Catholic ancestors it is important to understand a little about the history of Catholicism in the British Isles. The period from about 1560 to Catholic Emancipation in 1829, was known as Penal times, or the Recusant period, when Catholicism was illegal. It was therefore not always safe or advantageous for events to be documented within the records of the Catholic Church. From around the mid-16th century to the mid-19th, Catholics in Britain were an underground church. It was only from about 1820 with the French Revolution and the influx of workers from Ireland that the Catholic Church began to grow rapidly.

The Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1793 and the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 formally repealed the Penal laws and removed the restrictions imposed on those wishing to practise the Catholic faith. The Act of Settlement of 1701 still bars British monarchs from being, or marrying, a Catholic. And with the Prime Minister still being involved in appointing senior members of the Church of England, a Catholic Prime Minister is considered to be ‘constitutionally awkward’ – which is possibly why Tony Blair delayed his conversion until after his resignation as PM.

The current St Wilfrids Roman Catholic Church is situated in Duncombe Place, in the centre of York close to York Minster, where it has stood since 1864. During Penal times, the Catholics of York had to worship secretly in private houses, and even on occasion break into the castle to attend mass celebrated by the priests imprisoned there. A church dedicated to St Wilfrid has stood in York since medieval times. In 1585 the parish could not support itself (possibly due to the large number of churches in York). The church became redundant and was demolished. It was eventually built over and the parish united with St Michael-Le-Belfry.

During the 18th century, mass was celebrated in the Shakespeare Tavern in Little Blake Street as well as in the Bar Convent. A Catholic priest’s house was established at 7 Little Blake Street, known as Chapel House. St Wilfrid’s parish was revived by York Catholics in 1742 when they established their Misson in Little Blake Street. In 1760 the first public place of worship for Catholics opened in York. The chapel continued until 1802, when St Wilfred’s Chapel was built to serve the York congregation. At this time there were still strong anti-Catholic feelings, so the chapel was hidden from the street by its presbytery. The chapel could hold 700 people and the Catholic population continued to increase in York.

St Wilfred’s soon proved inadequate and an impressive new church was envisaged, however, the influx of Irish immigrants into Walmgate made it necessary to build St George’s Church. The foundation stone was laid on 25th October 1859 and it opened on 4th September 1850.

The Chapel of the Bar Convent was completed in 1769. At the time the chapel was built Catholic worship was forbidden – this Penal Law was not repealed until 1791. Therefore the chapel was placed in the centre of the complex of buildings which make up the convent, so that it is hidden from view from the main street.

The baptism registers of St Wilfrid Chapel, Little Blake Street, 1771 to 1838 have been published by the Catholic Record Society as volume 35.

As for the arms displayed in the stained galls window in St Wilfrids, these blazon as: (for Greenwood) Sable a chevron ermine between three saltires argent; impaling (for Thorpe) azure on a fesse between three lions rampant or as many martlets sable.

These relate to GREENWOOD of Derbyshire and Yorkshire, and THORPE of Yorkshire, as sited in Burke’s General Armoury. As you suggest this is probably a Victorian ‘fancy’ and whether your ancestors were in fact entitled to bear these arms will only be discovered as a result of further research.



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