The first mention of William Sebright is in the Wolverley parish registers for 1541 where there is an entry “William, the chylde of Edward Sebright, was christened on the 22nd day of February”. He was the eldest of seven sons and one daughter.
Following the death of William’s grandfather, Humfrey, in 1545, his father, Edward, moved with his wife, Joyce, and young family to Blackshall, (now Blakeshall). There is no doubt that the family were of substance and standing as Edward in 1546 was granted by Royal Statute a licence to own a dovecote, a privilege granted to very few because of the damage pigeons did to crops.
We know nothing of William’s early life except for an extract from his Will where he describes Wolverley as “the place of my birth, where I was bred up a great part of my youth.”
By a curious custom known as ‘Borough-English’ in force in the 16th century, William as the eldest son could not inherit Blackshall, which passed to his younger brother Edward on their father’s death in 1595. By this time however William was well established in London.
We know from his father’s Will that William had been granted considerable property in Wolverley during Edward senior’s lifetime…“as well for the performance of the faithful promise and vow which he did make unto Humfrey Sebright his father, deceased, lying upon his death bed, and at sundry other times in his lifetime, as also in respect of the love, zeal and fatherly affection which he the said Edward beareth towards the said William.”
It is quite likely that Humphrey Baskerville, a friend of his grandfather and father, who held lands in Wolverley and was also an Alderman and Mercer in the City, was instrumental in bringing William to London. From the records of the City of London we know that William was granted the reversion of the office of Town Clerk to the City of London on September 29th 1568 being 27 years of age. He is referred to as “William Sebright of the Inner Temple, Gentleman.” From this brief description we can deduce much about William’s education. Members of the Inner Temple were not merely students of the law, they were members of a society which had old established customs and codes of behaviour.
In the previous century Sir John Fortescue had written at length about the Temple as he knew it. He stated the Inner Temple was “as it were a university or school of all commendable qualities requisite for gentlemen.”He mentioned non-legal subjects of study as singing, singing in harmony and dancing. Ways of life in the Inner Temple are known from other records: the feasting, chiefly on venison, and such rules as that against the wearing of beards of above three weeks’ growth with an attached penalty of twenty shillings if the rule were broken. Shooting was one of the pastimes of the young men, for no part of the London of that time was far from fields and woods. However, for keeping a gun in his lodgings a man was liable to a fine of twenty shillings with a further ten shillings fine for his servant.
There is no doubt that William Sebright enjoyed as good an education as it was possible to get in Elizabethan England. It was the education of an Elizabethan gentleman and a man of affairs.
The office of Town Clerk to the City of London eventually reverted to William Sebright on 25th May 1574 and he retained that office for 39 years. On 2nd May 1609, having exercised the place of Common Clerk, “very painfully, faithfully and diligently” he requested that the former City Solicitor might be admitted as his deputy, as he was no longer able to execute his office, which he finally surrendered on 27th April 1613. Little is known of William’s activities during his years as Town Clerk there being only three references to him in the City of London records.
We do know however that William was married twice but was never blessed with children. His first marriage was to the daughter of a Mr Goldsten of London. His second wife, Elizabeth, a beautiful and wealthy widow and the mother of Sir James Bourcher whose daughter, also called Elizabeth and Sebright’s god daughter, eventually became the wife of Oliver Cromwell.
William accumulated considerable land and property during his lifetime. In 1606 he purchased the Manor of Besford (near Pershore) for £2750 from the Harewell family and in 1616 he also purchased the Manor of Battenhall (now in Worcester). He had a house in Lombard Street and also owned two houses in Mark Lane, near to the Tower of London.
Between 1590 and 1593 he acquired twenty acres of land in Bethnal Green in the Manor of Stepney. There is a story that his first purchase of a farm in Bethnal Green was because he did not like the milk that was sold in the City and as part of his property in Bethnal Green did adjoin what was then called Milkwives’ Bridge there may be some truth in this tale. It was this land that became the endowment for the Sebright’s Foundation.
On 7th July 1618 Sebright wrote a letter “To my very loving friends, Mr Anthony Carrington, Vicar of Wolverley, my nephew Edward Sebright, Samuel Attwood gent. And the rest of the parishioners of the parish of Wolverley” In it he announced his intention of giving funds for the poor of Wolverley and other parishes and of erecting a free grammar school within the parish. Following the acceptance of the gift on the first Sunday after All Saints Day 1618, loaves of bread were distributed to the poor of Wolverley and the neighbouring parishes of Old Swinford, Chaddesley Corbett, Kidderminster, Kinver, Bewdley and Alveley and round about the same time commenced the construction of a schoolhouse in Wolverley. In his Will written the following January he confirmed and extended these arrangements.
He died on 27th October 1620 and after lying in state for a month he was interred in the Church of St Edmund the King, in Lombard Street. Forty-six years later this church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but the true memorial to William Sebright remains today in the Foundation which bears his name.