13 March 2013

John Coffey: Fine Craftsman in Wood

First in the series of family history accounts is an ancestor who was born over 200 years ago in London. John Coffey (c.1806-1871) was a fine craftsman in wood. In the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, are some highly valued chairs he appears to have worked on while at the Badminton Estate in Gloucestershire in the mid-1800s.

One of eight chairs on which John Coffey is credited as 'japanner'

The chairs were originally created for the Dukes of Beaufort in the 1700s, designed for the 'Chinese Bedroom' at Badminton House by prominent cabinet makers, William and John Linnell. John Coffey is credited for 'japanning' the chairs in the 1830s-40s, a renovation of them at that time. To be working on these valuable pieces of furniture for such illustrious employers suggests that John was highly skilled and esteemed in his craft.

Badminton House in the 1700s by Canaletto

The chairs were originally designed in simple red, blue and gold. John Coffey appears to have altered the finish to black and gold with detailed oriental characters, hand painted images and fine geometric patterns. In 1992 a pair of the chairs were sold by Christies Auctions for 110,000 pound sterling.

Original design for the chairs by William Linnell

Records show John Coffey's occupations over his years in England as cabinet maker, gilder, japanner, upholsterer and french polisher. The Badminton chairs may well be just the tip of the iceberg of many outstanding pieces of furniture he worked on. The french polishing trade he passed on to his son John, who in turn passed it down at least two further generations in New Zealand and Australia.

John Coffey, earlier years

John Coffey, later years

Summary of Life Events

John Coffey was born in Marylebone (London), England around 1806. By 1833 he and wife Mary were living in adjacent Paddington. There three children were born: Edmund (c.1833), Paul (c.1835) and Rachel (c.1837).

By about 1838 the family had moved away from the London area, across England to Luckington, Wiltshire, where another child Ann was born. Some or all of Luckington was part of the Badminton Estate and it is likely that this was when John started working for the estate. By about 1840 the family had moved to Chipping Sodbury, also associated with the Badminton Estate, where a child Eliza was born. By about 1843 the family had again moved a short distance to Great Badminton, where youngest child, John Coffey (junior), was born.

The family were back in the London area by 1851, this time in Tower Hamlets, Hackney. Daughter Eliza appears to have died in childhood before this time. After John's wife Mary died at their home in Grove Street, Hackney in 1853, the rest of the family migrated away from England over the next five years. Eldest sons Edmund and Paul had been earlier apprenticed and became ship carpenters. Paul was involved in transportation of troops in the Crimean War (1853-56) and was in Wellington, New Zealand by 1857, where he went on to become a prominent figure in the development of Wellington Harbour. In 1858 John Coffey brought his youngest son John and daughters Rachel and Ann to Auckland, New Zealand aboard the ship 'Mary Ann'.

Together with son John, he later moved for some years to Australia, where he was involved in two business partnerships in 1863-64 (Coffey Sterling and Co; and Hancock and Coffey). From their business address at 188 Castlereigh Street, Sydney, they provided furniture repair, upholstery and french polishing services. Son John (aged about 20-21) was likely working with his father during these years. Father and son (with John junior's new family) returned to Auckland around 1865, where they worked together as french polishers. John Coffey died in Auckland in 1871. He was grandfather to our nearer ancestor Sarah Coffey who married James Christie in Melbourne, Australia in 1886.

Read and download full timeline of John Coffey's life here.

View and download source records and family photos here.

Download everything in one zip file here.

Most up-to-date family tree is here.

With thanks to Christine Butterfield for original documents.

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