Shown below is an example of the A plus handwriting and details recorded by the tax assessor for East Southwark, Philadelphia County, PA in 1798. Pennsylvania is indeed fortunate that these assessments still exist.
All the occupants and owners of property on Becks Alley, located between 172 Swanson St. and 453 Front Street, situated in the district of Southwark, were listed in this assessment. Names of the owners were listed alphabetically in the original format. The street #’s shown here were not part of this assessment but abstracted from the early 1800 Philadelphia Directories. The lots varied from 15’ to 20’ in breadth and approximately 80’ in length.
In an earlier documentation, the 1769 assessment for Southwark included two houses on Becks Alley, identified only by the name of the owner, no mention of Becks Alley or street number. William Falkner (#11, my notation) ship carpenter, valued at 16 pounds, tax assessment 9 pounds, 12 shillings and Jacob Fritz estate (#13, my notation), valued at 15 pounds, tax assessment 9 pounds.
The 1800 Philadelphia Directory found James Scott listed for the first time, #13 Becks Alley. The Philadelphia Directory for 1801 listed the names of occupants on each street as well as a general index. The Becks Alley listing (page 187) follows and appears to be exactly in order of their house location:
William Faulkner, shipwright; James Scott, shipwright; Alexander Taylor, shipwright; Caleb Cushing, shipwright; Israel Beak, blacksmith; Jesse Turner, shipwright; William Gilfry, laborer; Latholan McClane, painter and glazier; Mr. Picquet, clock maker; Elizabeth M’Pherson, cigar maker; John Jackson, blacksmith; Samuel Peirce, shipmaker and James Dobbin, soap boiler. (The 1800 census is almost identical to this order of listing with a slight variation in spelling of surnames.)
What brought me to research this small alley, one block wide, dating from about 1760? Just a year ago I decided to further my research on an ancestor of mine, Elizabeth Meredith. At that time my research indicated she had moved with her husband Israel Meredith to York County, PA in 1799. Israel died in 1811. In 1814 she married, for what I thought was a second time, a Samuel Garretson. The ceremony was a Quaker ceremony held in Warrington Township, York County. The wedding certificate listed her parents as James Scott of Philadelphia and wife Elizabeth deceased. In addition, I came across a will on the internet written by a Mary Houlton “maiden” of Philadelphia in 1806 and probated in 1811. She made some 20 bequeaths in her will, the majority being to nephews, nieces. and friends. One of these bequeaths of 10 pounds was to a Mary Gardner, daughter of her niece Elizabeth Meredith. I immediately assumed this Elizabeth Meredith was my ancestor. Further, the introduction of the name Mary Gardner had to be resolved. After a year’s work my assumption was proven correct in that James and Elizabeth Houlton Scott (#13 Becks Alley) of Southwark were indeed Elizabeth Meredith’s parents.
James Scott and Elizabeth Houlton were married in Philadelphia January 15, 1760. The Society of Friends, Philadelphia Southern District, condemned Elizabeth Scott, late Houlton, for her marriage by a priest. On November 28, 1766 at a meeting of Women Friends of Philadelphia a paper was submitted and signed by Elizabeth Scott in which she condemned “her unchastity and her marriage by a priest.” It would appear she was reinstated. James Scott was a shipwright and the first legal document of record lists him as purchasing property on Becks Alley (the name “Becks” not specifically mentioned), from John Fritz, tavern keeper and wife Elizabeth, August 13, 1779, Initial I, Book 17, page154. The parcel is described as follows: “situate in the district of Southwark aforesaid on the north side of a twenty foot alley leading from Swanson to Front Street at the distance of 146 feet one inch from the west side of Swanson Street containing in breadth on the said alley 17 ft. 8 inches and in depth 86 feet 4 inches bounded east with ground of William Faulkner, southward with the said 20 foot alley westward with grounds now or late of Margaret David and northward with ground late of Andrew Hannis deceased.” This deed states that James Scott paid “one thousand nine hundred pounds current money of Pennsylvania” for this transaction. I question this amount and assume there was an error when the document was transcribed from the original. The historical activity on this parcel previous to purchase by James Scott follows:
- 1759 (I-17-152) Margaret David to Samuel Naylor, shipwright, 20 pounds. Margaret David (circa 1715-1795) was a daughter of Christopher and Christiana Swanson. Her first husband John Parham died 1750 and her second husband Peter David died in 1757. A large bulk of her real estate was obtained through inheritance and marriage but eventually was purchased by Paul Beck Jr whose wife Margaret was a granddaughter of Margaret David. Most of the lots to the west of #13 were sold by Paul Beck Jr. and one assumes the name Becks Alley originated from his ownership of so much land to the north of this alley.
- 1760 (I-17-153) Samuel Naylor, shipwright, & wife Elizabeth to Jacob Fritz, rope maker, 150 pounds.
- 1764 (X-10-300) Jacob Fritz, rope maker, to John Fritz, tavern keeper, two hundred & forty pounds. This document was recorded in a mortgage book. The property description is similar to that of 1779 but slightly more detailed.
A note of interest here. John Houlton (1695/6-1768), father of Elizabeth Houlton Scott, was active in real estate in Wicacoe (Southwark). He purchased property in 1750 situated in the area of German and Front Streets and sold the same in 1760. In all deeds he was listed as a “sawyer” and by 1760 he was identified as “of Ridley, Chester County.” Chester County records indicate that John Houlton mortgaged property to a Joseph Parker on May 13, 1755. This mortgage included John Houlton’s ownership of a part share of a grist mill, saw mill and 2 lots in Ridley as well as his property in Wicacoe, Philadelphia County. John Houlton and his wife Elizabeth are frequently recorded in the Society of Friends Monthly Minutes of Berks, Chester and Philadelphia Counties.
James Scott and Margaret Purdy, his second wife, sold #13 Becks Alley in 1808 to a son, George Scott, oak cooper, of Northern Liberties (Initial W Book 3, Page 530) & recorded July 15, 1822. George took over a mortgage of 200 pounds [sic] due on the property with the interest thereon and paid his father James Scott an additional $129.08. James Scott died December 6, 1817 and is interred in the Free Quaker Burial Ground. His first wife Elizabeth died in July 13, 1790, age 50, and is interred in the Friends Burying Ground south of Spruce Street. George Scott, son of James Scott and his first wife Elizabeth Houlton, died November 11, 1822 as recorded in the Phila. MM Grave Book 1814-1823. His will specifically mentions that his wife Mary was to have the use of the ground lot he purchased from James Scott. From the Digital Archives of The Philadelphia Contributionship we find a survey report made by John C Evans on March 16, 1829, relating to Policy #299. It reads as follows: “I have surveyed a house belonging to George Scott situate on the north side of Becks Alley (bound west from Swanson St. north of Union Christian S). The second brick house west of Swanson St. being 17-1/2 feet front (including 1/2 a small alley) – 17 feet deep – two stories high 9 inch walls – the lower story in one room , floor of clear yellow pine – plain base – single mouldings paneled chimney breast – & closet – the 2nd story in two rooms – floor of common width – plain pine & plain base – single mouldings mantle shelf and breast closet – glass in both glazed windows – outside shutters – garret in one room , plastered, white pine floor – two plain flat dormer windows with trap door in the roof – plain eave front and back two gutters and pipes – plain winding stairs from the 2nd story into the garret – broken pitch roof. Note: there is a wooden privie and kitchen back of & adjoining the above & doors & stairs communicating with the brick.” The Philadelphia Directory for 1844 lists George’s wife Mary as living at 13 Becks Alley. She died in 1844 and her death was recorded in the Public Ledger, Philadelphia, January 18, 1844: On the evening of the 16th last, Mrs. Mary, wife of George Scott, deceased. Funeral from her late residence, on Beck Street, Southwark, to-morrow morning, at 10 o’clock-to proceed to Monument Cemetery . The December 19, 1844 edition of the Philadelphia Public Ledger records the following sale: “Real Estate – The following property was sold last evening at the Exchange, by William Francks, auctioneer: All that lot and two-story brick messuage, with a two-story frame kitchen, No. 13 Becks Alley, 146 feet 1 inch from the west side of Swanson street, containing in front on said alley 17 feet 8 inches, and in depth 86 feet 4 inches – $700.” I was unable to find a recorded deed of sale but the Philadelphia Directories for years 1846-1849 list George J. Brown, oak cooper, at 13 Becks Alley. Many of these lots on the north side of the alley are extremely difficult to trace ownership without on-line access to tax records It appears from reading the Philadelphia Directory that many of these houses on Becks Alley were rented.
James J. Farley’s ebook entitled “To Commit Ourselves to Our Own Ingenuity – Joshua Humphreys – Early Philadelphia Ship Building,” available on-line, WordPress.com, presents a wonderful panorama of the early shipwrights of Wicacoe (Southwark). Chapter 7 is particularly interesting with reference to the tradesmen & artisans of this area. The author mentions that even with a wage of $2.12 per day for skilled shipwrights, they were still able to purchase a house. He speaks of Jesse Turner, shipwright, but does not mention a specific address. You will note in the first paragraph that Jesse Turner lived at 21 Becks Alley. He purchased his property from Paul Beck Jr. in 1795. Jesse’s death was recorded in the Philadelphia Public Ledger edition of February 24,1843. He was 76 years old and the funeral was to be held from his late residence on Beck St.
A review of Philadelphia maps and the Southwark area, particularly the 1942 Land Use Map, seems to indicate that the houses located on the north side of Beck Street (formerly Becks Alley) adjacent to Swanson Street were no longer in existence and the area was occupied with industrial buildings. The 1875 City Atlas of Philadelphia, G. M. Hopkins, shows #11 to be the first house on the north side of the alley, just west of Swanson. #’s 11, 13 & 15 have all decreased in depth from the original 80 & some feet. The name Beck Street located from Swanson to S. Front was changed to Bulletin St. in 1858 and then back to Beck St. in 1895. The construction of I-95 commencing in the 1960s further altered the landscape with the complete obliteration of the original Becks Alley. But this research indicates how vibrant an area it was in the late 1700s and first half of 1800s. It appears that circa 1800 one did not have to go too far for a “drink.” A tavern keeper is listed at the south west corner of Swanson and Beck, and two more on the west side of Swanson just north of Beck!
Incidentally, Elizabeth Scott, daughter of James and Elizabeth Houlton Scott, was married three times, not two as I stated previously, and she was widowed three times. Her first marriage was on May 12, 1792 to a Benjamin Gardner at St. Paul’s PE Church, Philadelphia. One child, Mary, was born of this marriage. Benjamin Gardner died the following year in a yellow fever epidemic. He and his wife were living at 178 N. Front St. at the time of his death. Also living at the same address in 1792 was Sarah, a sister of Elizabeth Scott Gardner, and her husband, Richard Dexter. Elizabeth married Israel Meredith in Reading, PA, First Reformed Church, May 9, 1799. He was a widower and brought five children to this marriage. Israel and Elizabeth parented five more children. Israel died 1811. Her third marriage was to Samuel Garretson and the marriage, as stated previously, was a Quaker ceremony held in Warrington Township, York County, Nov 30, 1814. Samuel died in 1822. Elizabeth died in 1849 and in her will she mentions six children. One of these children was Mary and the other five, Ross, Hannah, Sarah, Jesse and Elizabeth, were from her marriage to Israel Meredith. (My genealogical line is through the son Ross Meredith.) Both Israel and Elizabeth are interred in the Friends Redlands Burial Ground in Newberry Township, York, PA. And what happened to Mary Gardner? She married a Jesse Wickersham of Newberry Township, York County. In 1870 Mary Wickersham is listed as living with her daughter and son-in-law in Scott Township, Henry County, Iowa. She died December 22, 1875, 82 years of age and is interred in the Friends Cemetery, Olds, Henry County, Iowa.
A note of thanks to Amy Grant and Michael Schreiber of the Southwark Historical Society for assistance in furthering my research of this historic area.