Captain John Harle

John Harle's Will

Rainham Hall was built in 1729 for sea merchant, Captain John Harle (1688-1742).

Thanks to the efforts of our historic research team, today we have a much better understanding of John Harle's life. Edited extracts below are taken from Rainham Hall's guidebook written by our lead volunteer researcher, Jenny Collett.

Early life

The son of a mariner, John Harle (1688–1742) was one of six brothers, one elder (George) and four younger (Richard, James, Joshua and William) from South Shields, a North-Eastern coastal town on the mouth of the river Tyne. Their father, also John, died in 1704; he had owned a leasehold farm in the area where many such farmers supplemented their income with craft production or maritime activities. The South Shields area was particularly famous for shipping coal to London, which depended on the fuel. It’s thought that by 1700 about 500 collier ships – John’s father among them – were carrying nearly a million tons of coal to the capital every year.

The coal trade

The Harle family ships passed down through the brothers from George to John and, by 1714, to  their youngest brother William. The East Coast coal fleet was known as the ‘nursery of the Navy’ because it produced tough, experienced sailors. While some ships were devoted to the coal run, the Harles began to concentrate on the Baltic trade and, later, the Mediterranean. By the 1720s, John Harle, who commanded the ship Mary, and his brothers Richard, captain of the Harle, and William, of the Mediterranean, were taking cargoes from Lisbon, Leghorn, Messina, Venice, Zante, as well as Amsterdam and Hamburg, to Sweden and Russia. They carried wheat, salt, fish, wine, dried fruit, Russian leather, wax and even caviar.

Life on land

In 1704, George inherited the farm in South Shields and gradually stopped going to sea. Sometime after 1704 the other Harle brothers settled in London, in the crowded maritime community of St Katherine’s and Wapping where they had business and family connections. In 1719, John Harle married Mary Tibbington, a widow (perhaps explaining the name of his ship).

After his marriage, John seldom went to sea. Eventually, he handed command of the Mary to a young cousin, Ralph Harle. John concentrated on the land-based side of the business, frequenting the Royal Exchange and City coffee houses where shipping information could be 
gathered and trading deals sealed. John Harle came to Rainham in 1728. We think he acquired the land there from Thomas Williford, a member of John’s local parish council, St Botolph Aldgate, where John was an officer. He likely met Williford unloading colliers on the Thames. John resigned from St Botolph Aldgate in May 1728 and in December that year was elected to Rainham’s parish council.

Rainham Hall

We don’t know who designed and built the Rainham Hall we see today, nor how much it  cost. Only a lead rainwater hopper tells us it was built in 1729. Harle’s Hall looks more like a London merchant’s town house than a country villa. The large entrance hall, used for public-facing events, was – intentionally – a little old-fashioned even when new  though it, and its niche, was an 18th-century status symbol. The smaller parlours to the side of the Hall were for family and close friends.

Sometime in 1739, Mary died childless. John remarried quite soon afterwards, to Sarah Gregory, a widow who lived in Rainham. It must have been a joyous day when Sarah gave birth to their only child, also John, in 1740.

The end of the Harle era at Rainham

Although John stated he was ‘of sound health’ when writing his will in February 1742, he died  just ten months later. He is buried inside  Rainham Church.

Left with a small son to care for, Sarah advertised Rainham Hall and wharf to let in 1743.  It seems she may have rented out the wharf but continued to live in the Hall. Her god-daughter, Sarah Green, and widowed sister, Jane Vincent, joined her there.

Tragedy struck again in 1749 when Sarah Harle died, leaving the orphaned John junior in her sister Jane’s care. Jane died in 1751 and it seems likely that John then went to live with his uncle, Joshua Harle, a London grocer. Shortly after Jane’s death, the contents of Rainham Hall were auctioned (the Hall itself was rented out). So, all the things that John Harle senior had collected during his life were dispersed; the house he built and fragments of written evidence are now our only window on his world.

Discovering John Harle’s will

Some time ago, when at a car boot sale, a Rainham resident made an extraordinary connection with a dealer who sourced an original copy of John Harle’s will. She generously donated it to Rainham Hall in 2014. It has been conserved and exhibited as part of displays to the public. An electronic scanned copy of the will is available to access via the National Archives website.

Everything Harle Left Behind

The first major exhibition at Rainham Hall focused on the life and times of Captain John Harle, in 'Everything Harle Left Behind' from 2015 to early 2017. Please check our homepage for our current exhibition and events.