Watkin Tench and friends


Finding Watkin Tench’s father


This article is the story of a little research journey. As a by-product I believe it also corrects the records as to the identity and background of Watkin Tench’s father. It is not the most important piece of historical research ever undertaken but it was an issue that initially mystified me during my PhD studies and has since proven to be valuable in my ongoing attempts to learn more about Tench and his family.

When looking at Watkin Tench’s early years, I found there were contradictions in the available scholarship on the background of his father, Fisher. Understandable perhaps given the paucity of available records when the original research was carried out, and tracing Tench family members is not helped by the regular adoption of the same male names especially Fisher and John (John Tench being Watkin’s elder brother).

Conflicting findings that Fisher Tench was either a native Chester or Nantwich (both in Cheshire) raised an eyebrow, but when looking to establish which one might have been correct both claims appeared to have problems. The various birth/baptism and marriage dates didn’t quite stack up.

In 1961 when the historian L.F. Fitzhardinge edited the publication of Watkin Tench’s two books about the new colony in New South Wales, he was unable to identify Tench’s family background but noted the possibility he may have been Welsh. When fellow historian M.H. Ellis reviewed Fitzhardinge’s book in March 1961 he decided that Watkin Tench was ‘a true Cheshire cat’ and that ‘his genealogical roots were formed probably around Shrewsbury’. There the matter rested until Fitzhardinge published the findings of a research trip to England in 1964. He found that Tenches were scattered across England and Wales but with a strong concentration in Cheshire. This time Fitzhardinge had the advantage of discussions with the Cheshire archivist and sighting Chester church records. He satisfied himself that the Fisher Tench who lived in Chester as a respected citizen was Watkin’s father and concluded Fisher was a ‘Chester-born dancing master’. Fitzhardinge’s conclusion that Fisher was a ‘native of Chester’ was included in his 1967 entry for Watkin Tench in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and as a note to the 1979 (and most recent) edition of ‘Sydney’s First Four Years’. Fitzhardinge became the established authority on Watkin Tench’s biographical details.

Victor Crittenden, a respected former academic librarian, also had a go at establishing Watkin Tench’s background. In 2003 Crittenden published a jolly account of his research activities when after examining church records in Chester and Nantwich, he determined that Watkin was born in Chester the son of Fisher and Margaretta Tench and that Fisher Tench was born in Nantwich, the son of John Tench. The prolific use of the names Fisher and John in the Tench families probably caused Crittenden to reach this latter conclusion, but looking at baptism and marriage dates for Fisher I found the dates didn’t ring true.

Apart from trying to reconcile names and dates, it also struck me that for Fisher Tench to describe himself as a Dancing Master he would likely have had some practical experience in dance. At this time Chester’s cultural reputation relied largely on a choral festival associated with the cathedral, and there does not appear to have been active professional theatre in the town or nearby. Theatre in Liverpool (home of Margaretta) was also basic, and so an obvious starting point would have to be London where there was a vibrant theatre scene.

I found that the playbills of the early eighteenth century showed that a Fisher Tench performed as a dancer at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane Theatre (known simply as Drury Lane) and Haymarket Theatre from around the 1729-1730 season to as late as 1737-1738. His first known appearance was at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre on 1 January 1729 where he was billed as Fisher Tench Charke, but by May of that year he had dropped the name Charke. He was often referred to as ‘Young Tench’ or ‘Young Master Tench’ as for example when he danced in ‘The Fairy Queen’ at Drury Lane Theatre in May 1730, having made his first appearance at that theatre in April the same year. He is also recorded as having danced at the Covent Garden Theatre and Bartholomew Fair. The 1732-1733 season playbills also listed appearances of the dancer and sometime actor, Henry Tench.

I confirmed (to my satisfaction at least) that Fisher was born in London. His father, Thomas Tench, was a mercer in London and in the papers admitting Thomas to the Freedom of the City, Thomas’s father is identified as Edward Tench of Nantwich, also a mercer, finally establishing a link to Cheshire. Fisher Tench is almost certain to have been the Fisher Tench who was baptised at St Leonard Shoreditch in London on 28 August 1715, the son of Thomas and Sarah Tench. This date reconciles with Fisher’s marriage contract of 28 April 1744, where he declared himself to be twenty-eight years of age ‘or thereabouts’ placing his birth year at c.1716. The baptism register of St Leonard Shoreditch also records that Henry Tench, the son of Thomas and Sarah Tench was baptised on 12 September 1711, four years before his brother Fisher.

I believe it is the associations that flow from his time on the London stage that firmly identify this Fisher Tench as Watkin’s father. During this period he was closely associated with the musician Richard Charke (who later became son-in-law to Colley Cibber, the Drury Lane theatre owner and British Poet Laureate). The church registers recording Thomas and Sarah Tench’s marriage show Sarah’s maiden name as Chalke, a likely misspelling of Charke, and if so, Richard Charke is possibly a relative. Fisher and Margaret Tench later used this name when their son Chark Tench was baptised in 1752 (who, as with a number of their children, did not survive infancy). Another son who also did not survive infancy was baptised Richard (although maybe he was named after Margaret Tench’s maternal uncle Richard Houghton, a former Mayor of Liverpool).

It is not known how or why Fisher Tench decided to become a professional dancer and join the rather precarious world of the theatre. Although the potential existed for a good income, this was mostly earned from activity working as a professional dancing master outside the theatre and even then only after many years establishing a reputation. Employment was restricted to the theatre season and, especially for young performers, pay was generally low. Tench started his career at the approximate age of 14 working for the impresario John Rich who had the rights to Covent Garden and associated theatres. In the 1735-6 season, Tench was allowed 172 days work at 6s.8d. per day, a total of £57.6.8.  Some sense of his standing can be understood if we compare his income with that of François Nivelon, a renowned dancer and dancing master of the time (and author of The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour), who earned 25s. per day. Opportunities existed for Tench to supplement his income by the common practice of staging a benefit performance, but that carried with it commercial risk in having to hire the theatre as well as be responsible for the sale of tickets. Tench held a benefit performance at Lincoln’s Inn Theatre on 19 April 1736, for which Rich charged twelve guineas for theatre hire, but unfortunately the available records do not reveal the income produced. After the 1737-8 theatre season Fisher’s name is not evident on any further playbills. So it is likely that he had substantial qualifications when he commenced as a Dancing Master in Chester. While we don’t know how successful he was in that role he did become recognised as an important member of the local community when he became a Freeman of the City of Chester, chosen as ‘Mr. Mayor’s Freeman’ on 19 October 1757.

Fisher’s background appears to explain the connection to the Williams Wynn family, the then fifth baronet Sir Watkin Williams Wynn being the likely inspiration for Watkin Tench’s name and the sixth baronet the dedicatee of Tench’s second book on New South Wales. Apart from being active in Chester affairs, the Wynns were known for their cultural activities creating an active theatre environment at the seat of Wynnstay in northeast Wales, relatively close to Chester. Fisher Tench could well have been involved in that activity or as a dancing master to the family.

Now it may be that this exercise is greeted with a ‘so what’ accompanied by glazed eyes, but even if it is not a matter of great historical importance, I believe it corrects the record and I found it a fun exercise.

References are available.