William Surtees Altham



The Altham family derives its surname from the town and manor of Altham in Lancashire. Under the name of Elvetham, the manor of Altham was granted to Hugo son of Leofwine, a Saxon, whose descendant, Hugh de Alvetham, held it by the eighth part of a knight’s fee in the reign of King John. From this family sprang Christopher Altham, of Girlington county of York, who flourished in the latter part of the fifteenth century. His son Edward Altham, sheriff of London in 1531, married a daughter of Richard Hildersham of Stockworth, Cambridgeshire, and by her had three sons. James Altham (d. 1583), the eldest son of this union, purchased the estate of Mark Hall, in the parish of Latton, near Harlow in Essex, which property remained in the Altham family until the late eighteenth century.

Seven generations later Roger Altham (1718–1788) was born in the parsonage-house of St. Botolph, Bishopsgate, London, the only son of Roger Altham (1658–1730), D.D., and his wife Mary (née Altham, of Mark Hall). Roger Altham the elder was Vicar of Latton, Rector of St. Botolph, Prebendary of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’s London, and Archdeacon of Middlesex. Roger Altham the younger was a proctor of long standing and considerable eminence in Doctors’ Commons, and he was seal keeper of the High Court of Admiralty. He married at Woodford, Essex, 4 November 1746, Mary Isaacson (d. 1781), daughter of Robert Isaacson, of Fenton, Northumberland. There were five daughters from this union, three of whom figure prominently in the history of the Altham family:

Mary (1759–1810), who married on 4 December 1781 Aubone Surtees. One of their eleven children, Elizabeth Altham (1783–1862), married Colonel John Cook on 8 October 1808. Their second son William Surtees Cook (1813–86) married first his cousin Henrietta Moulton-Barrett (1809–1860) on 6 April 1850 and married secondly his cousin Arabella Addams (1820–1908) on 20 February 1862.

Arabella (1760?–1827), who married on 12 June 1780 John Graham-Clarke. Their eldest daughter Mary Graham-Clarke (1781–1828) married Edward Moulton-Barrett on 14 May 1805. This union produced twelve children, including the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Henrietta Moulton-Barrett (1809-1860). The latter married on 6 April 1850 her cousin William Surtees Cook.

Jane (1763–95), who married in 1783 Nathanel Bishop. Their daughter Arabella Bishop (d. 1853) married Jesse Addams, of Doctors’ Commons, on 29 September 1815. Their only daughter Arabella Addams (1820–1908) married on 20 February 1862 her cousin William Surtees Cook.

As shown above, William Surtees Cook and both of his wives were great-grandchildren of Roger Altham, upon whose death the surname of Altham of Mark Hall became extinct in the male line.

In 1862, to perpetuate the Altham name, Surtees and his wife Arabella received a Royal Grant that “they may from and immediately after the solemnization of their intended marriage, assume and take the surname of Altham in lieu of that of Cook; that he, the said William Surtees Cook, may bear the arms of Altham quarterly with his own family arms, and that the said surname and arms of Altham may in like manner be taken by his issue” (The London Gazette of 21 February 1862 [D078]).


Overview of The Altham Archive

The archive comprises over 2,000 items related to the Altham family in the form of books, printed material, manuscripts, letters, paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, pedigrees, and personal relics. The oldest item is a watercolor of the Altham arms dating from the 15th century [E03]. The most recent is a letter from the 1990’s.

The central figure in this collection is William Surtees Cook (afterwards Altham). Known by his middle name, Surtees was the principal contributor of family papers, producing a large correspondence, other documents, and a journal (currently online at Baylor’s website), that he kept for several decades. Aspiring at one time to be a novelist, Surtees wrote extensively on the three main aspects of his life: his career in the British Army, which features commentary on the accepted practice of buying and selling officer commissions; his kinsfolk, with many references to and observations on his first wife’s famous brother-in-law and sister, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and the changing fortunes of his relentless pursuit of social position. This obsession, not uncommon in the days of England’s rigid class structure, led to the purchase in 1871 of Timbercombe, an estate amid the scenic Quantock Hills in Somersetshire. Three years later he was elected county magistrate. He finally attained an elevated place in the social strata when he was listed under the heading “Altham of Timbercombe” in the 1879 edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland.

Surtees’s eldest son, Altham Surtees Altham (1851–1931), his wife Bertha Emma (née Fisher, 1853–1927), and their son and daughter are significantly represented in the collection. Bertha Emma Fisher was descended from two eminent families. Her maternal great-grandfather was David Ricardo (1772–1823), one of the most important figures in the development of economic theory. Her paternal side featured a long line of Church of England clergymen; her great-granduncle was the Right Rev. John Fisher (1748–1825), Bishop of Salisbury, and patron of the artist John Constable. Her family papers form an integral part of the collection.


The Browning Connection

As recorded in his journal, in June 1844 William Surtees Cook was transferred to the army’s London recruiting office. He soon began making frequent visits to the home of his cousins, the Barretts of 50 Wimpole Street, the motivation being Elizabeth Barrett Barrett’s attractive younger sister, Henrietta. The attraction, though not at first mutual, eventually became so. Preserved in the collection is a sprig of heather that Surtees gave to Henrietta at a picnic in Reading on 7 October 1848, “picked by him for me of the highest hills in Somerset” [G10].

Surtees and Henrietta were married at St. James’s, Piccadilly, on 6 April 1850. Henrietta was immediately disowned, as Elizabeth had been upon her marriage to Robert Browning in 1846. Henrietta preserved many of the letters of congratulation that the couple received from family and friends. None was more supportive than Mary Trepsack (“Treppy,” 1768?–1857) whose life was closely associated with the Moulton and Barrett families [B0316].

The daughter of an impoverished Jamaican planter, William Trepsack, and a female slave, Treppy was orphaned early in life. She became the ward of Samuel Barrett, younger brother of Edward Barrett of Cinnamon Hill, EBB’s great-grandfather. When Samuel died in 1782, Mary came to the Cinnamon Hill estate and from then on, she was the constant friend and companion of Elizabeth Moulton (née Barrett), EBB’s paternal grandmother. Treppy lived with Elizabeth Moulton until the latter’s death in 1830. Mrs. Moulton left £2,000 “with all my wearing apparel, Table Linen, Bed Linen, Plate, Books and the little furniture I have to my valuable friend M. Trepsack.”

Following their marriage, Henrietta and Surtees settled in Taunton, Somerset, and, on his somewhat limited means, began raising a family. They had three children: Altham Surtees Cook (1851–1931), Mary Altham Cook (1852–1950), and Edward Altham Cook (1856–1943). Upon the death of Henrietta’s father, Edward Moulton-Barrett, in April 1857, she received £5,000 from her brother Charles John, and thereafter the Cook’s finances were much improved. Treppy, who died in March 1857, remembered the Moulton-Barretts with legacies, including a parrot for EBB’s son Pen and furniture and linen, that had been given to Treppy by Elizabeth Moulton. Mrs. Moulton’s silver was sent to the Brownings in Italy.

Several pieces of Mrs. Moulton’s furniture are in the Altham archive. Most notable among these are two sofa tables acquired by Mrs. Moulton when she lived on Baker Street in London where her three granddaughters would frequently visit. Family tradition indicates that during these visits EBB used G36 and Henrietta, G37. A Sheraton style bookcase [G02] once contained Mrs. Moulton’s library; five titles that she owned are in this collection, including her Book of Common Prayer [D013]. An unusual 17th-Century Spanish Vargueno [G44], a gift from her son Samuel Moulton-Barrett (1787–1837), also went to Henrietta via Treppy. After Henrietta’s death in 1860, Surtees housed in it the letters she had received from her sister Elizabeth. It was many years after Surtees’s death before his descendants discovered the secret of opening the chest, where they found the letters, along with other family documents.

Treppy owned and preserved several family portraits by EBB’s mother, Mary Moulton-Barrett [see C116]. One is an early likeness of EBB [E32]. Mary’s wedding veil [G45], also used by Henrietta, is in the collection. Of special interest is Mary’s silver thimble [G41], embossed with a representation of the family’s Hope End mansion.



The Altham archive remained in the possession of the family until 2007. It was acquired by the Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor University in 2013.