Thursley Stilwells

Lower House, Bowlhead Green

The earliest records of the Stilwells as land owners/tenants or yeomen, is in connection with Lower House and in the neighbouring areas of High Stilwells and Nether Stilwells. Lower House still exists and is one of a number of fine houses that can be traced back to the 15th and 16th century in Bowlhead Green, a hamlet in the parish of Thursley. The house is privately owned and is not accessible from public rights-of-way, but can be viewed from a public bridleway that runs across fields in front of the house. Note that the Stilwells would have been living in this area for centuries – it’s just that there are no existing records that connect property to a particular family. All these Stilwells are buried in Thursley churchyard.

Cosford House, Thursley

The real change in the fortunes of the Thursley Stilwells came in 1660. John Stilwell of Lower House married a local lady, Joan Shudd. Joan was the eldest daughter of Thomas Shudd of Mousehill Manor and Cosford House in the parish of Thursley. These two houses were more substantial than Lower House and Joan inherited them on the death of her brother, the Lord of the Manor. In keeping with the laws at the time, Joan’s husband, John Stilwell, became the rightful owner and so became the new Lord of the Manor. John moved the family into Cosford House although the Stilwells continued to own and occupy Lower House until sold by another John Stilwell in 1742 for the substantial sum of £2500. The John Stilwell who sold the estate had remarried a young lady in 1751, 8 years after the death of his first wife, and was the father of a 2 month old son when he died aged 55. In his will he leaves nothing to the 9 children of his first marriage and there is no mention of the £2500 wealth. His secondwife inherited the contents of the house he was living in at the time. In his will, he is recorded as being a Writing Master and living in a small house in the centre of the village of Thursley. Where did all that money go? Why did he not live at Lower House? Who was living there and what happened to him/her? Many questions with no satisfactory answers. Such is the frustration of family history research. All these Stilwells are buried in Thursley churchyard.

Mousehill Manor

The male line of the Stilwells moved from Cosford House into Mousehill Manor in the early 1700s – a more substantial dwelling than Cosford House. The latter eventually passed out of Stilwell ownership through the female side of the family in 1793. The Stilwells in Mousehill continued to prosper and marry well, acquiring lands through marriage. In 1791, Lord of the Manor, John Stilwell inherited another house through marriage called Killinghurst which was 9km to the south, towards Haslemere. Mousehill Manor and all the lands were sold to local landowner and Irish Peer Viscount Midleton (correct spelling). All these Stilwells are buried in a substantial tomb close to the main door of Thursley Church.

Killinghurt House

Although this house is smaller than Mousehill it had more lands and was probably less costly to run whilst having more earnings from the land. The head of the family lived there until the male line died out in the early 1900s. The last patriarch of the family, James John Russell Stilwell, spent a significant sum of money renovating the family tombs at Thursley and erecting a number of memorials to his immediate family. These Stilwells are buried in a substantial tomb close to Chiddingfold Church.

The last of the Thursley Stilwells

Quite a bit is known about the last of the Thursley Stilwells: James Stilwell, his son James John Russell Stilwell and their children. They do appear to have been the typical well-to-do Victorian country family. They were all well educated and the inscriptions on the tombs relate great sadness in the loss of family members. James snr., James John Russell, their wives, and the respective children are buried at Chiddingfold Church in an impressive tomb.

The most interesting aspect of the last of this dynasty is that James Stilwell was illegitimate. His father John was spurned in love and swore never to marry (we know this from letters sent between family members). However, this did not stop him fathering at least two sons and a daughter by his housekeeper, a Miss Jane Buckle. John’s will is very interesting in that he also left legacies to a number of male Stilwells whose existence were not known before the will came to light, and whose baptisms appear in no parish records. Did John have just three illegitimate children? Legacies were also left to female staff in trust for daughters – all very suspicious. By the accounts of the time, John was a very handsome man, and well respected in the area. Did he lead a double life? No trace has been found of descendants of the “new” Stilwells mentioned in the will, and official family papers or letters make no mention of them, apart from the two sons by Miss Buckle.

Also of interest is that John, the first son of John and Jane Buckle, who was born in 1784 and believed to have lived 73 years, did not inherit the house and lands. James, the second son born in 1793 did so. We do not know the reason for this, but the younger son James was a doctor living in Walton-on-Thames before moving back to Thursley when he inherited the estate on the death of his father (and whilst older brother John was still alive, according to known records). There is some circumstantial evidence that suggests that the first son, John, sailed to Australia in the early 1800s as steward to Sir John Jamison. This John married a female convict and had a family (whose descendants are still going strong in Australia). However he abandoned that family and also had debts, and sailed back to England in 1825. If this John is the first son of James his father would not have wanted this son to inherit the estate after his behaviour in Australia – very un-Stilwell.

The Thursley family line died out because two of James John Russell Stilwell’s three sons tragically died young, and the third never married. The family links continue with the female line. The Stilwells no longer have connections with Thursley or property in the surrounding land.

The medical Stilwells are descended from this line.