The Maister family seems to have come to Hull from Kent in the 16th century and the first family baptisms appear in the parish register of Holy Trinity Church in Hull in 1567 and 1572. The latter of these was James Maister, son of William Maister, one of the first generation of Maisters to settle in Hull. James Maister married Suzannah Kent at Holy Trinity in 1596 and went on to have four sons, William, Robert, John and James. This is the first generation of the family about whom some information survives and it is clear that the Maisters were closely connected with the mercantile development of Hull through the early modern period. Hull merchants were a small group who were able to succeed through specialisation in particular trades. They tended to live in Hull, usually in the High Street, and were involved in local politics. William Maister, who was born in 1597, is the first Maister we know to have been part of this select mercantile group (Poulson, The history and antiquities of Holderness, p.445; Rowley, The house of Maister, p.5; Alec-Smith, 'The Maisters of Hull', p.94; Wildridge, Old and new Hull, p.121).
In the century between the 1580s and 1680s trade between Hull and the Baltic and Scandinavia increased dramatically. The most successful merchant families had local agents who travelled inland and overseas factors to direct their trade, and they entered into financial arrangements (using bills of exchange) with the financial institutions of Amsterdam as well as banks and insurers in London. William Maister, as the eldest son, resided in Hull. He served as chamberlain in 1637, Sheriff in 1645 and in 1655 was mayor. He lived until 1664 and during this time other male members of his family acted as factors in Helsingore, Danzig, Stockholm and Gothenburg. With the help of their factor in Helsingore the family pioneered the direct trade in iron between Sweden and England and this trade remained their most important throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Calvert,
A history of Kingston upon Hull, pp.178-9; Allison,
Victoria county history of Yorkshire, i, pp.143, 184; Rowley,
The house of Maister, p.5; Jackson,
Hull in the eighteenth century, pp.120-1).
Other men of the family acted on behalf of family trade in other ways. For instance, William's younger brother, Robert, was master of at least two boats and was a member of Hull Trinity House, though he was disenfranchised for a short while in 1633 'for speaking evil of the House'. Robert was not the last younger member of the Maister family to cause some difficulty, but the secret to the Maister family success seems partly to have been that in almost every generation there were several male members of the family and, of these, there were a number who were competent enough to carry the family's fortunes into the next generation. Their luck in this regard did not run out until the late eighteenth century (Ingram, The Maisters, p. 18; Brooks [ed.], The first order book of the Hull Trinity House, p.1).
William Maister married Sarah Brearey and then Elizabeth Richardson and had seven children, six of whom were male and four of these boys survived infancy. The eldest son, Henry, was born in 1632 and, like his father, he went on to hold several civic positions and he built up the family business further still. He lived until 1699 (his rather striking monument is in Holy Trinity Church, Hull, along with several other members of the Maister family) and by the last quarter of the century Henry Maister was the only Hull merchant whose business was comparable both in size and autonomy to the big merchant traders of London (Rowley, The house of Maister, p.5; Allison, Victoria county history of Yorkshire, i, p. 143).
Henry married Ann Raikes, daughter of alderman William Raikes the warden of Hull Trinity House, and they had eleven children. Sadly, seven of them did not survive their first year of life and another child, Henry, died at the age of 10. However, the eldest child, William (b.1662), lived to 1716 and succeeded his father as male head of the mercantile house. He became sheriff in 1699 and was elected (by paid freeman) as whig MP for Hull in 1700 and sat in eight successive parliaments. He got a reputation for carrying on the family business in the House of Commons (Rowley, The house of Maister, p.5; Sedgewick, The House of Commons 1715-1754, ii, p.239; Jackson, Hull in the eighteenth century, p. 125)
He married Lucy Dickinson in 1697, who was the daughter of another alderman, John Rogers, and widow of George Dickinson, collector of customs at Plymouth and Hull. This was a very advantageous marriage, bringing into the Maister family quite a bit of property, including two houses in High Street, Hull, and Dickinson's Winestead property, bought from the Hildyards and only sold back to them again by the Maisters in 1830. Lucy had five children - Henry, Elizabeth, William, John and Nathaniel - one a year, starting in 1699, until her death in 1704. All five of these children were heavily involved in the family business. Elizabeth married William Henworth, a London merchant, bringing the two merchant families temporarily into partnership. Two of the younger sons, William and John, acted on behalf of the family business as overseas factor and lawyer respectively, though William's contribution was marred by owing money to practically every other member of the family and he died almost an exile abroad in 1776. The Hull end of the business was run to some extent by the eldest son, Henry, but to an even greater extent by the youngest son, Nathaniel (Ingram, The Maisters, p.30; Rowley, The house of Maister, p.5; Alec-Smith, 'The Maisters of Hull', p.94; Jackson, Hull in the eighteenth century, pp.120-1).
Henry Maister (b.1699) followed in his father's footsteps becoming whig MP for Hull (1735-1741) and he left his brother Nathaniel to run the business while in London. By contrast, Nathaniel spurned all public office and devoted his life to the family business (Rowley, The house of Maister, p.6; Allison, Victoria county history of Yorkshire, i, p. 195).
The day book at DP/82 indicates that by the early eighteenth century Henry and Nathaniel Maister were importing and exporting a number of goods including wine and seed (Hull developed a large seed crushing industry), but their most important import remained iron from Stockholm (including cannon balls which were melted down) and they sold this to several Hull manufacturers including several women (Sarah Virtue, Mary Hurst and Jane Stephenson). A typical cargo was worth between £1000 and £2000 and was insured through companies in London or Amsterdam. They did business with some of the big landed families, including the wealthiest members of the East Riding aristocracy, the Hothams and the Sykes family, and bought into government stocks. Henry and Nathaniel Maister also added to family property buying Patrington manor in 1739 and Winestead Old Hall and together this land was worth about £100,000 (Jackson, Hull in the eighteenth century, pp.110, 113, 148-9; DP/82).
However, despite the enormous mercantile success of this generation of the family, it was marred by considerable tragedy. Henry Maister's first wife, Mary Tymperon, died within a year of their marriage from smallpox on 8 May 1725. Almost three years later he married Mary Cayley, daughter of Arthur Cayley, third baronet of Brompton, and they had nine children, seven of whom were male. On 13 April 1743 Mary and her infant son, along with two maidservants, died in a fire which consumed the family house in High Street, Hull. A later diary account of the fire indicates that Mary escaped with her husband but returned to save the baby, with terrible consequences (Rowley, The house of Maister, p.6; Ingram, The Maisters, pp.32, 36-8).
The fire destroyed the deeds and plate of the family as well as many portraits with the result that most of the surviving archival material postdates the conflagration (with the notable and charred exception of DP/82). Henry Maister immediately began rebuilding on the same High Street site and the resultant house is the one taken over by the National Trust in 1966 (see the files of the Georgian Society of East Yorkshire at DX/99). It has a rather plain exterior with an Ionic stone doorcase (from a William Kent design), but the interior features a staircase with a beautiful iron balustrade crafted by Robert Bakewell of Derby which looks up through a gallery on the second floor and into a stucco ceiling with a lantern. Joseph Page was the architect and did the stucco work; it features brackets for busts (like that of Ceres done by Sir Henry Cheere in 1754) and shellwork (later copied for a fireplace at the Old Rectory, Winestead, by Rupert Alexander Alec-Smith). The house is a good example of the new Palladian movement and the plans were in fact scrutinized by Lord Burlington, of Londesborough, a leading figure in that architectural fashion. It is reputed that Henry Maister built this remarkable stone staircase because his wife had been unable to escape when the wooden staircase of the original house collapsed; it makes a fine Palladian monument (Wildridge, Old and new Hull, pp.5, 121; Pevsner and Neave, The buildings of England: York and the East Riding, pp.532-3; Bray, 'The restoration of the wrought iron balustrade of Maister House'; Allison, The Victoria county history of Yorkshire, i, pp.406, 444-5; Symons, High Street, Hull, pp.68-9).
Henry Maister died on 11 December 1744 and letters between himself and Nathaniel for the last few weeks of his life are at DAS/26/2. The house was left to his brother and eldest son to finish. Like the original house, the new one was used as a residence and counting house though Nathaniel seems to have chosen not to live in it. Henry's children were all underage when he died, the eldest, Everilda, being 16 and the youngest, Lucy, only three. The male heir, Henry, was 14. Their uncle Nathaniel, though 41 at the time of Henry's death was, as yet, unmarried. He married in 1751 and may have moved into a house inherited from his aunt in 1748. By this time the family had built up a very compact estate at Winestead and Nathaniel retired to the house there frequently. Like many eighteenth century merchant families they led a double life as country gentry (Ingram, The Maisters, p.47).
This generation kept up the family tradition of having at least one male member permanently abroad looking after their interests. However, the several sons left behind by Henry Maister seem to have caused their uncle no small amount of trouble. The eldest, Henry, was sent to Hamburg in his early twenties as a factor of the firm, but he was back again by 1754 and his later letters with his good friend, John Grimston (DAS/26/4), make it clear that he was a person who resented working. In 1754, upon the return of Henry, Arthur (b.1737) went abroad, to the Baltic ports, ultimately joining another brother, William (b.1731), in St Petersburg. William died prematurely in 1758 leaving behind an illegitimate son. Henry also produced two illegitimate sons during the same period. Nathaniel's widow later felt moved to leave these three illegitimate children a small legacy in her will (Ingram, The Maister, pp.56, 74, 79-84, 87).
When Nathaniel died in 1772 (Arthur's letter about his imminent death is at DAS/26/6) Arthur seems to have taken over running the business and he inherited three houses in the High Street from his uncle. He married Esther Thompson advantageously in the same year as his uncle's death. He died at the age of 53 in 1791 leaving another generation of underage children to be cared for by an uncle, in this case the rather wayward Henry Maister who was finally left as operational head of the household (Ingram, The Maisters, p.56, 59, 87-8).
Henry Maister had frittered away his twenties in a series of abortive love affairs and failed parliamentary elections and joined the East Yorkshire Militia when 29 years of age. He had married Margaret Warton at about the same time. He spent his life devoted to the militia and became a colonel of the regiment in 1778 and held this position until retirement in 1803. He became chairman of the Hull Dock Company, and seems to have been a well liked man. His letters suggest a sensitive man who was a bit ineffectual. His wife, who spent quite a bit of her adult life ill, died in 1802. They had no children, leaving the various nephews and nieces of Arthur as the inheritors of the Maister wealth when Henry himself died in 1812. By this stage the family business was looking much less healthy due to mismanagement (Ingram, The Maisters, pp.56-70).
Unfortunately the next generation of the family was even more ill fated and lacking in business competence than the last. Henry's two illegitimate sons received smaller legacies from their father than their cousins had and went on to undistinguished military careers. William's illegitimate son had two illegitimate children of his own by an Indian woman. In 1803, in a fit of serious depression, he murdered the children and in 1811 he blew his own brains out. Arthur's two eldest sons, another Arthur (b.1775) and Henry William (b.1776) spent the last of the family fortune.
The younger Arthur was not involved in the business in his youth. He spent his time on leisure pursuits and then joined the militia; his uncle appointed him captain in 1798 and like his uncle he rose to the rank of colonel, a position he retained until his death in 1833. He built the large White Hall (grey brick Greek revival) at Winestead for £20,000 and purchased other expensive country estates. He seems to have tried to live the life of the country gentleman and by 1821 the Maister House in High Street had been turned into offices. However, even his marriage to a banker's daughter, Anne Pease, could not save him from financial ruin and he was forced to sell the Winestead house to the Hildyard family in 1830 (55 of the original 400 acres of this estate were later sold to Rupert Alexander Alec-Smith).
Henry William did become involved in the business and seems to have been more aware than Arthur of their financial difficulties. However, Arthur's country house building infected him and he followed suit, building an expensive mansion, Wood Hall at Skirlaugh, the estate he inherited. He retired from the business in 1819, owing it £12,000 and became Registrar of Deeds and Wills for the East Riding, thus moving to Beverley. He was unable to sell Wood Hall and Arthur moved into it after the sale of the house in Winestead. Henry William died at Beverley in 1846 and is buried in Beverley Minster. Arthur's third son, John (b.1778), spent most of his life in debt and in 1840 what was left of the family business was divided up, ending the Maister association with mercantilism. Arthur's son and grandson went into the church (Ingram, The Maisters, pp.96-121).