The Early English Hunnisetts

The first Hunnisetts recorded in England were two Frenchmen, Jacques who is known to have arrived in about 1517, and Adrian who arrived in about 1523. The timing, coupled with the fact that other 16th century Hunnisetts are known to have been ironworkers, makes it probable that they were descendants of the Hanozets of Namur, although it is not known whether they came directly from the Namur area or via the Pay de Bray, another ironworking area.

Records of the first few generations are difficult to piece together, partly because of the huge variation in spelling of the surname but mainly because many of the parishes where they must have lived do not have surviving church records going back far enough. Wadhurst, for instance, where Adrian committed murder in 1543, only has church records dating back to 1604. None has church records earlier than 1539 and even where these have survived many are in poor condition having suffered from less than ideal storage conditions and the attentions of hungry mice. Equally the growth in the number of blast furnaces in the Weald (2 in 1520 to more than 50 in 1550) suggests that those skilled in using them would have moved around as new furnaces were built.  Consequently it is not until the latter part of the century that it becomes possible to follow a Hunnisett line for more than a generation with any degree of confidence.

Nevertheless it is possible to piece together the odd family group and the earliest of these is that of Jacques who appears to have lived in Frant in the 1540s and Horsham or Nuthurst in the 1550s. He died in 1560 leaving the earliest known ‘Hunnisett’ will.

In 1569 Peter Henesit married Clemens Tole in Fletching, Sussex and had a number of children baptised in Mountfield and later Westfield. The majority of today's "Hunnisett" families, including my own, can be traced back to Peter through his son Clement. Both Peter and Clement were hammermen in the iron industry of the Sussex weald. Unfortunately Peter’s parents are unknown but he must have been related to Jacques and Adrian.

It is clear from the early records that for the first hundred years in England the Hunnisetts were closely associated with the iron industry and that some of them prospered well from it. Finers and hammermen were highly skilled tradesmen and were well paid in what was an expanding industry for most of the 16th century. However the industry in this area declined in the 17th century and there was a general drift into other occupations. Hunnisetts became landowners, farmers, and traders and some moved from Sussex into Kent and later to London in search of work.

Many of the early Hunnisetts left wills which help us to link the families and provide an insight into their lives. Richard Honnisett, who died in Herstmonceux in 1732, did not leave a will, but an inventory of all his goods and chattells survives and along with other information, such as records of leases, provides a fascinating insight into the life of this early 18th century yeoman farmer and his family.