Who was Thomas Plucknett ?

Over twenty years ago, my late father, Francis Victor Winchurch, an experienced Family Historian, was struggling to solve the mystery of just who Thomas Plucknett was.

Stories of the Plucknetts of Thorverton had been told through the generations. I have a treasured photograph of my great grandmother Alice PLUCKNETT Sternberg holding me as a toddler.


Alice was then almost ninety and her middle name carried Plucknetts to my generation and beyond. I still have her wooden travelling trunk, carefully restored by my brother some years ago, with the intials “A.P.S.” on its lid.

There is little doubt about the validity of the family line back from Alice, who was born in Bristol in 1856, the daughter of Elizabeth (nee Plucknett) Sternberg.

Elizabeth Plucknett was born in Exeter in 1829, the eldest daughter of Thomas Loaring Plucknett, baker of Thorverton.

Thomas Loaring Plucknett about 1875
Thomas Loaring Plucknett about 1875

and his first wife Harriet (nee Tootell)

Thomas Loaring Plucknett was the eldest son of Thomas Plucknett, born (according to the 1851 census) in Great Torrington. Thomas had a successful life in Thorverton. After joining the Royal Marines at the age of (about) fifteen in Plymouth in 1795, he became a drummer and was discharged (unfit) in 1802.

Thomas Plucknett, recruited into the Royal Marines on 22 June 1795 aged 15. Occupation- Labourer, Complexion – Fair, Eyes – Hazel, Hair – Dark brown. Discharged – Deemed unfit – 10 May 1802.

Thomas married Elizabeth Loaring (notice the continuity of Christian names) on 18 August 1800 and the couple settled in Thorverton, where the Loarings had lived for two generations.

Thomas and Elizabeth had two children in addition to Thomas Loaring, Sarah (1803) and James (1814)

Thomas was landlord of the Bell Inn in Thorverton and also a pig dealer. In addition he was active in both the Nonconformist and Anglican churches at various times and held property in the village.

There is, I understand, on the wall of the Exeter Inn, Thorverton, a list of the sittings allocated to parishioners in 1840. Thos Plucknett senior is listed as a pig dealer, while Thos Plucknett junior was a baker. Their families shared Pew No 41.

He died at the age of seventy eight in 1860 and is buried in Thorverton churchyard. His gravestone gives his date of death as 1 February 1860 and age at death as 75, although his death certificate , says 78. The latter is more likely.

This leads us to the “tricky bit”.

The only Thomas Plucknett birth record that fits, is an entry in Exeter St Sidwells for 24 February 1781 recording the birth of Thomas Plucknett BASE BORN (my capitals and emphasis) son of Margaret Plucknett.

That is it – no hint where Margaret was from and, of course no indication of the father’s name.

This birth occurred, of course, several decades before civil registration and birth certificates.

The next logical step for any family historian is to search parish records for a Margaret Plucknett who might fit in terms of age and proximity to Exeter.

There is really only one obvious candidate and that was and is Margaret Plucknett, then aged about thirty and from Great Torrington. My father and several other researchers noted this but discrepancies were soon obvious and the puzzle has, as far a I am aware, been left unsolved for the past twenty years.

A quick look at the archives reveals that there have been and still are Plucknetts in and around Great Torrington since about 1600. This is including records from Black Torrington, Sheepwash, Shebbear, Bideford, Ilfracombe, as well as Great Torrington itself.

At this point I should acknowledge the comparative ease of doing  genealogical research from the comfort of one’s own laptop, with increasingly comprehensive transcriptions and, more satisfyingly images, of parish and other records. I doubt that I would have had the patience to piece together this story if it had involved journeys  to distant registry offices.

Starting with supposition that Thomas’s belief that he was born in Great Torrington was correct, I looked firstly for a Thomas Plucknett born or baptised around 1778 to 1782. Thomas was unlikely to have been born after that and been accepted into the Royal Marines in 1795, although you never know !

Perhaps not surprisingly, I found no such record, but what I did find was the baptism in Great Torrington in January 1781 of Richard Plucknett


Add to this the Anglican Marriage of Richard Plucknett (father) and Margaret Perkin at Great Torrington on 19 Apr 1775 and the likelihood of this Margaret Plucknett being Thomas’s mother begins to recede.

Richard and Margaret also had a daughter, another Margaret Plucknett, born three years previously in 1778. It might be this Margaret who gave birth to Robert Plucknet ‘base born’ in Bideford in 1793.


Tragedy struck this family in several ways during the next few years.

In 1787 Margaret died. Her record confirms that her husband was Richard and still alive, but worse was to come.

Richard senior was convicted of the theft of oak planks at Exeter Assizes in 1791 and sentenced to transportation to Australia for fourteen years. He arrived in New South Wales in 1792, but I have failed to find any further news about him. I can only assume that he died in Australia. One online family tree gives his death date as 1794, but the Richard who died that year was sadly his son, Richard Plucknutt Junr (sic) at the age of thirteen.

There seems to be no Margaret Plucknett around in 1780 – 81 who is likely to have been the mother of Thomas.

BUT, I found a reference online to a burial of Margaret Plucknett in 1833 in Great Torrington at the age of 81, so born around 1751. A good fit. I have yet to find a Margaret Plucknet (ett) (ott) (utt) and variations, either married or unmarried who fits the bill.

One of the many interesting aspects of this mystery is the choice of the name Thomas for the baby, so I began to look for Plucknett daughters born around 1750 who had Thomas as a father and I found just one candidate. Grace Plucknett baptised in Great Torrington on 7 January 1751. Shortly after the birth of Thomas in January 1781, the banns were called beginning on the 25th of March for the marriage  of Grace Plucknett and Richard Cudmore. Since this was only a few weeks after the birth of Thomas, my theory is this:

Grace was the first, and it appears only child of Thomas Plucknett and Mary Rawleigh. They had married seven months before on 1 June 1750 in Great Torrington, when Thomas was twenty. Mary Plucknett was buried on 17 September 1751 when her daughter, Grace, was only eight months old. So Grace Plucknett was herself ‘conceived out of wedlock’ and probably only too aware of the stigma attached to that tag two hundred and thirty years ago.

I believe that Grace travelled from Great Torrington to Exeter for the birth of Thomas. She may have been helped by members of her late mother’s family, the Rawleighs, of whom there were several at that time in both Great Torrington and Exeter.

In some respects this story seems unlikely, but, in the absence of more information I leave it to posterity with the hope that more pieces of the jigsaw (perhaps DNA) will be found. At present there is no way of knowing if Richard Cudmore was my 5G Grandfather. What is more certain is that my family’s Plucknett line goes back to their arrival in North Devon around 1580 or earlier. Before that, the Somerset Villages of Haselbury Plucknett and Preston Plucknett suggest an origin for the anglicised version of the French ‘Plugenet’  To quote Wikipedia “Preston Plucknett is a suburb of Yeovil in Somerset, England. It was once a small village, and a separate civil parish until 1930, when it was absorbed into the neighbouring parishes of Yeovil, Brympton and West Coker.[1] It was listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as “Preston” (Old English: preost tun, “priest farm/settlement”) when its lord was Ansger of Montacute (Alfward before 1066). In the 13th century, Alan de Plugenet was lord of the manor and added his surname to Preston.

See Wikipedia

Alan de Plugenet

If you read this account it points out that the second Alan de Plugenet died in 1319 without issue. It would seem likely that Plucknetts in more recent centuries were named after their village of origin, rather than because they were descendants of the Norman barons, as some have suggested.

The fate of Richard Plucknett and fellow transported convicts

I was shocked whilst researching this post by the astounding inhumanity meted out to men and women in the late 18th and early 19th century by courts throughout Britain and Ireland with regard to transportation to ‘the colonies’, for what were often relatively minor offences. It was bad enough to send Richard Plucknett to Australia for fourteen years for stealing wood, but the conditions of passage and the hard labour they were forced to do on arrival amounted to a de facto death sentence in many cases. Quoting Wikipedia again  ” Between 1788 and 1868, approximately 162,000 convicts were transported to the various Australian penal colonies by the British government.

Richard Plucknett is listed amongst the convicts who left Yarmouth Roads, Norfolk, in June 1791 on the East India Company ship Pitt He arrived in New South Wales in 1792. What became of him in Australia remains a mystery.

The 'Pitt' (circa 1787) near Dover returning from China 1787
The ‘Pitt’ (circa 1787) near Dover returning from China 1787

See Wikipedia

Convicts in Australia

John Winchurch

August 2015