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Saturday 25 December 2010


I’ve had a soft spot for my Acramans since I found that single part-sad, part-humorous letter from my cousin Edward Daniel Acraman (see earlier posts). He was in Adelaide, a long way from home, when he wrote it, and never got back to Bristol.

Edward was named after his father, William Edward (my 3x great uncle), and his grandfather, Daniel Wade Acraman. Father and grandfather presided together over something of a golden age of Acraman prosperity in Bristol in the first half of the nineteenth century. They had passed like so many English families of the eighteenth century from a rural economy as yeoman farmers to urban industrial activity.

In the Acramans’ case they became iron founders and workers in Bristol, one of the most important ports in England at the time. Daniel Acraman patented a chain cable design in 1823, and by the 1830s the Acramans had a business empire of several companies and partnerships connected with marine engineering, manufacturing and supplying anchors, chains, boilers and other metalwork for shipping.

Bristol Harbour, with Acraman’s Warehouse to the rear on the left
and S.S. Great Western rear right under construction

The city was a centre for import and export, an obvious target for entrepreneurs of the railway boom of the early nineteenth century who were all racing to capture the lucrative freight market. The Great Western Railway, GWR, known to its passengers and shareholders as God’s Wonderful Railway, was formed at a public meeting in Bristol in 1833 took on the task of building a line from London to the city. The project was designed by the engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who had already demonstrated his brilliance by his 1831 design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, the longest bridge in the world at the time (although it was only completed in 1864, five years after his death).

Brunel was not afraid to think big. He chose a wider-than-usual gauge for his track – 7 feet and one quarter of an inch, compared to the Stephenson standard gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches – and he had big ideas too about the length of journey his passengers could undertake. Why stop at Bristol? Brunel began to see the possibility of buying one ticket which could take you from London to New York. Such a voyage was becoming a technical possibility at the time, and several groups of businessmen were racing to make it a reality. The Great Western Steamship Company was formed in Bristol in 1836, and Brunel set about designing its flagship the S.S Great Western.

S.S. Great Western on her maiden voyage

Of course it was to be no ordinary ship. When it was launched in 1837 it was the largest steamship in the world, intended to prove Brunel’s theory that a larger ship would be more fuel efficient. It was built in the Patterson & Mercer yard at Bristol, and it seems that most of the machinery and ironwork on the wooden-hulled vessel was supplied by Acraman Morgan & Co. (The engines themselves were supplied and fitted by Maudslay, Sons & Field of Lambeth on the Thames.) The Great Western broke all records for a transatlantic crossing and arrived with a third of its fuel unused, vindicating Brunel's design. It became the first ship to offer a regular service between Britain and New York.

The success of the Great Western in pioneering the transatlantic route may have encouraged Acraman Morgan & Co to go into shipbuilding themselves in 1839. But the Acramans were in danger of becoming overextended. They had diversified in 1834 into a different kind of shipping interest, with a  company called Acraman Bush Castle & Co which imported tea from Canton. Having only recently (1832) completed a huge warehouse to accommodate all their ironworks, they had almost immediately had to invest in a large extension to it to store the tea.

Acraman’s No.1 Warehouse, 1832, before ...
and 1836, after tea extension, 
and today, as the Arnolfini Gallery

In all, too much money was going out and not enough coming back in. William Edward Acraman wrote in 1836 to one of his investors, “I wish one of these ships would arrive with some strong cargo [of tea].” But he also revealed that Messrs Bush and Castle were among those investors who had not yet paid in full for their shares in the company. Whether the ships never came in, or the investors never paid, the tea company went bankrupt in 1842, bringing about the spectacular financial collapse of the Acraman empire. The huge Acraman warehouse was sold off in 1846 to pay for the empire’s debts – and bought by the Bush family. It has been known as Bush House ever since.

Saturday 18 December 2010


Superintendent John Sadleir of the Victoria Police is a distant cousin – my 6x great grandfather Clement Sadleir was the brother of his 4x great grandfather Samuel. Still, we cling onto such thin connections when we have stories like this one to tell.

Superintendent John Sadleir (1832-1919)

John Sadleir was born in Co Tipperary in Ireland, but emigrated to Australia in 1852. He immediately signed up with a newly formed special police corps in Melbourne and worked his way up through the ranks in a series of postings. He seems to have had a greater than usual understanding of the ordinary people whom he policed, and of their “righteous dissatisfaction” with a “stubborn and unwise central government.” He often felt uncomfortable in his role, caught between the two, for example during the 1854 miners’ uprising at Eureka.

In 1874 he was promoted to superintendent and posted to Upper Goulburn, north east of Melbourne. When in 1878 one of his junior officers, Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, claimed to have been shot at Benalla by a gang which included the brothers Dan and Ned Kelly, Sadleir found himself at the centre of Australia’s most famous manhunt.

Ned Kelly (1855-1880), in a portrait which he requested,
taken the day before his execution

As the hunt for the Kelly Gang proceeded over the next two years, Sadleir was extremely critical of the high-handed and inappropriate tactics of the police, particularly when they decided to arrest anyone and everyone whom they identified as a sympathiser of the fugitives. Although the Kellys were thieves and murderers, they were also the focus for more legitimate anti-authoritarian resentment about the way in which Crown land was being parcelled out by recent legislation. The Land Acts of the 1860s were intended to encourage settlement, but were open to widespread abuse, something which Irish-born Sadleir would have recognised and understood. Arresting victims of that abuse, on the grounds that they supported the Kellys, only deepened resentment towards the police and made their search for Ned Kelly more difficult.

The search came to an end on 27th June 1880 when the gang were cornered, with hostages, in the Glenrowan Inn. At 5.30am the next morning John Sadleir’s superior, Supt Francis Hare was injured by a bullet to his left wrist and fled the scene. John took over command of the siege. In the exchange of gunfire which followed, it became clear to the gang that there was no chance of escape. Resigning themselves to capture and death, two members committed suicide; another was fatally injured as he poured himself a drink at the bar of the inn. Several hostages were also injured, two fatally, before the survivors were led to safety and the inn set on fire.

Ned Kelly’s last stand
(drawn by Francis Thomas Dean Carrington
only five days after the event)

Ned came out fighting, wearing a suit of makeshift armour forged and beaten from ploughshares, but it only protected his upper body front and back, and his head. He survived three direct hits on the armour, to the disbelief of the police, before a series of shots to his legs, hip and hand brought him down. As Kelly lay close to death, it was John Sadleir who comforted him, telling him, “You shall have every care and attention, Ned. Do not irritate yourself, keep yourself quiet.”

It was a remarkable act of compassion, again demonstrating Sadleir’s affinity with ordinary people, an admirable quality in a policeman. But his criticism of the handling of the manhunt must have made him enemies. In the ensuing inquiry into its conduct he was heavily criticized and demoted, receiving only the sixth largest share of the reward money for Kelly’s capture (whereas the cowardly Superintendent Hare received the largest amount).

Ned Kelly recovered from his injuries well enough to stand trial and be sentenced to death; he was hung on 11th November 1880, aged 25. John Sadleir retired in 1896 having risen again to the rank of officer in charge of the Metropolitan District of Melbourne. He published his very readable memoirs, “Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer,” in 1913.

Saturday 11 December 2010


My 5x great grandfather has a genuine claim to fame as the inventor of a system of shorthand; I don’t know why I haven’t written about this yet, and perhaps I will soon. It was while looking into the origins of Gurney, as his system became known, that I became aware of his appetite for marriage proposals.

Thomas Gurney (1705-1770)

I wrote earlier about the unpopularity amongst his many children of his second wife, whom they almost entirely erased from the family history: she is referred to only as Miss R. Their mother was his first wife Martha Marsom, daughter of John Bunyan’s prison companion Thomas Marsom (of whom I have also written). Tom married Martha in 1730. But today I was reminded of an even earlier attempt at marriage, which he used to joke about with his children.

After an evening meal, perhaps during the week (surely not on a devotional Sunday, for he was a devout Particular Baptist) his eye would catch that of Martha, Mrs Gurney. He might wink; she might blush; the children – young Martha, young Thomas, Joseph and John – might smile. They knew what was coming and had heard the story many times.

“I’ve been married to your mother these twenty years now, you know, thanks be to God. Never a cross word!” (Pause for laughter.) “But you know, I should have been married much earlier, if I’d not taken so long before I made my offer. Oh, not to your mother.” (“Oh Tom! Honestly!” chipped in mother Martha.)

“Fools rush in,” he may have added, “where angels fear to tread. Praise the Lord that I was not as fleet as I then wished I had been.” He undid a button of his waistcoat, settling into the tale.

"When I was a young man," he continued, "a dear friend of mine died while still in his prime, leaving a very smart widow." He emphasized the description, and Martha feigned offence at an insult he had feigned at every telling of this story. "I thought to myself, she would make a very desirable wife." (More tutting and eye-rolling from Martha, and grins all round from the teenage children.) "What’s more, I felt that she would not be long without an offer. 

"Therefore I called upon her the day after the funeral –  (“The day after? Really, father! So soon!” his eldest son Thomas interjected dutifully.)  – and I told her all that was on my mind. She immediately broke out, 'Oh, Mr Gurney! I wish you had mentioned this before.'  (“And we wish you hadn’t,” muttered his youngest, John.) 'I wish,' " Thomas Gurney pointedly pressed on in a comic high voice with his recital, " 'I had had any idea of your intention. There is not a man in the world for whom I have so great an esteem, or with whom I should have anticipated so much happiness.' Not a word of a lie, my children, those were her exact words." (Groans of disbelief.)

"Well, I may tell you that I expressed my surprise and confusion that, feeling thus, she should have refused me. She then added by way of explanation, “I am engaged! I am sorry, but I couldn’t help it. You remember Mr So-and-So who was at the funeral yesterday? He returned here afterwards; he stayed and took tea with me; and I could not get rid of him without making him a promise. I am sorry for it, but I must keep my word.'

"Well of course I had to consent that this was her proper course – as you know, my children, one must always keep one’s word, whether one wishes to or not. Never make any rash promises, children." (“Or proposals, father!” his daughter piped up.) "I took my leave; and at the end of three months, she put off her widow’s weeds and arrayed herself in wedding garments.

“I don’t recall,” Thomas Gurney concluded, “that I’ve ever told you that story before. But I am every day thankful that Providence ordered it so; for it has given me, by waiting, one of the most excellent of wives.” (“Only amongst the most excellent?” protested John. “To our most excellent mother!” Joseph raised a glass, and was joined by all present.)

And Martha sat back and smiled, basking in the warm love of her husband and children, but perhaps also in the knowledge that she had later met Mrs So-and-So the very smart widow, and heard her version of the story.

(The version I have, from which most of the above comes verbatim, is the one told by Thomas' grandson William Gurney, who presumably got it from his father, Tom's son Joseph.)

Saturday 4 December 2010


Joan Riviere was a first cousin of my great aunt Helen Salter née Verrall. The only description I have of her, apart from photographs, is of a “tall Edwardian beauty with a picture hat and a scarlet parasol.” She was by all accounts a forceful personality.

Joan Hodgson Verrall (1883-1962)

After a carefree, artistic childhood – attending finishing school in Germany, learning the language and becoming a court dressmaker in that country for a while – she went through a very rough emotional patch in 1909 from the combination of post-natal depression following the birth of her daughter and crushing grief at the death of her father.

It was through the work of Helen and her mother Margaret at the Society for Psychical Research that Joan was introduced at about this time to the ideas of Sigmund Freud (who more or less invented psychoanalysis) and Ernest Jones (who was the first English-language practitioner of the discipline).

Joan became fascinated by psychoanalysis, and received treatment from Ernest Jones. Jones was so impressed by her understanding of the science that he invited her to be a founder member of the British Pschoanalytical Society which he founded in 1919. At a conference in The Hague the following year she met Melanie Klein, a Viennese pioneer of child psychology whom Joan championed in later life, setting her in a Freudian context (although she eventually distanced herself from Kleinian theory).

Sigmund Freud, whose writings Joan Riviere translated

At the same conference Joan met Freud himself for the first time and asked him to analyse her. This he eventually did, in Vienna in 1922, when her therapy with Jones reached a blockage. She had already begun her work of translating Freud, and she is widely regarded as the best translator of his work, capturing not only the ideas but the character of his writing.

In addition to her translations of Freud and support of Klein, Joan wrote several important papers of her own, including Womanliness as a Masquerade (particularly in intellectual women, to cover their sense of masculinity) and Jealousy as a Mechanism of Defence. The latter predated similar Kleinian theory by 25 years.

Her therapy with both Jones and Freud was difficult. Freud wrote of her, “She cannot tolerate praise, triumph or success ... she is sure to become unpleasant and aggressive and to lose respect for the analyst.” His concept of Negative Therapeutic Reaction was based largely on his work with her, and later she would write what some regard as her most important original work of psychoanalysis, the 1936 publication Contribution to the Analysis of the Negative Therapeutic Reaction. In it she drew on her personal responses to the analyses of Jones and Freud, her observations of her own clients – she was herself by now a trained analyst – and the theories of Klein. Where Freud saw the reaction as a reluctance to give up the pain of suffering because of a sense of guilt, Riviere argued that it was a refusal to give up control for fear of the inner world of despair which a surrender to analysis might reveal. “This,” she wrote, “has been my own experience.”

Saturday 27 November 2010


It’s a year exactly since I started writing this blog, so I thought I’d celebrate with a celebration.

My great great uncle William Pilkington was a son of one of the founders of the Pilkington Brothers’ Glassworks in St Helens, Lancashire. It was William’s technical skill and innovation which laid the foundations for the firm’s later international supremacy. His hands-on grasp of the business of glass-making earned him the respect of his 14,000 workers, who used to say, “Mr Windle can do owt.”

William Windle Pilkington (1839-1914)

His wife was from an altogether more modest background. Louisa Salter was the daughter of a Baptist minister in Leamington. The stained-glass windows of Rev WA Salter’s chapel had been donated by William’s aunt Matilda Pilkington, who worshipped at the chapel, in memory of her sister Ann, who died during the building of the chapel. It may well be that this is how William and Louisa met.

They married on 9th June 1867, in her father’s church, in a ceremony conducted by her father and her uncle Joseph Angus, on a fine summer’s day with the sunlight streaming through those memorial windows. We know all this from the report the following week in the local newspaper, the Leamington Spa Courier, which also highlights the very different approaches of the two families being united by the wedding.

On Wednesday afternoon the children attending the Clarendon Street British School were regaled at tea, on the occasion of the marriage of Miss Louisa Salter, second daughter of the Rev T.T. [sic] Salter to Mr W.W. Pilkington, of Windle Hall, St Helens, Lancashire. By the courtesy of the editor of the St Helens Standard we are informed that the rejoicings in that industrial town, with which the bridegroom is connected, were of the most enthusiastic character. Bells peeled forth, cannon boomed, and the rattle of small arms – not to mention the feasting of 1000 of Messrs Pilkingtons’ work people in the Volunteer Hall. We understand that Miss Pilkington, of Rivington Villa, is Aunt to the bridegroom. The marriage, which took place at Clarendon Chapel, was distinguished by an unostentatious plainness and propriety.

Children’s tea party and workers’ feast! Propriety and cannon fire! What a rich celebration of the start of their long and happy marriage.

Saturday 20 November 2010


John Tough was my great grandfather. Until recently, when I found some thorough work posted by someone else on the internet which pushed them back another three generations to the end of the eighteenth century, he was as far back as we went in the Tough line. (Tough, by the way, used to be pronounced “Tooch” rather than “Tuff.” It still is, by some surviving older members of the family.)

John Tough (c1879-1944)

Even at that short ancestral distance, we didn’t have much to go on. We knew little about him except his address, in Falkirk in Central Scotland, and his place of work. He was employed at the nearby Carron Iron Works, a company founded in 1759 which was a pioneer at the forefront of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

The factory took advantage of locally abundant iron ore and coal and the plentiful water of the River Carron. By adopting the more efficient techniques newly developed at Coalbrookdale in England it became a powerful force in the market, winning lucrative contracts to supply armaments to British and foreign armed forces – both sides fought with Carron weapons in the Anglo-American War of 1812.

A carronade,
displayed in the Maritime Museum Daenholm, Germany

Its big seller was a short-barrelled, close-range cannonade devised by one of its partners and which came to be known as the Carronade. That weapon remained in production for almost eighty years until the 1850s, its sales undoubtedly boosted by the Duke of Wellington’s insistence, also in 1812, that only carronades be supplied to his army fighting the Peninsular War. Carron also manufactured armaments in both the world wars of the twentieth century.

One of the factory’s earliest products had been a cast iron stove so popular that it became common to refer to any such stove as a Carron – Janet Schaw, the ‘Lady of Quality’ who in 1776 met my ancestor John Halliday (see earlier post), wrote that on her arrival in North Carolina her host “received us into a hall which tho’ not very orderly had a cheerful look to which a large Carron stove filled with Scotch coals not a little contributed.”

Edinburgh New Town railings

The company’s non-military products included cast iron bath tubs and metal railings. The astonishing uniformity of Edinburgh’s New Town development (from 1765-1850) was supported in no small measure by the use throughout many of its buildings of Carron railings.

Its work remains highly visible in many parts of Britain because it was one of several foundries producing the ubiquitous red pillar boxes and telephone boxes, so much a part of British street furniture for most of the twentieth century. (Despite their Scottish origins, several of those sited in Scotland were blown up in the 1950s by Scottish protesters when they were cast with the insignia of Queen Elizabeth the Second – Elizabeth is only the first monarch of that name to rule Scotland!)

Iron two, made in Scotland – from girders
(It’s a Scottish joke …)

By the time of John Tough’s death the company had been successful for 185 years. It would survive another 38, but it struggled in the post-war years to compete with  foreign production costs and closed in 1982. It had been, in 1814, the largest iron works in Europe. For 223 years it was the dominant employer in the area and as I now know, my great grandfather was at least the fourth generation of Toughs to work there.

Saturday 13 November 2010


Since writing this article I have discovered the perfectly sensible reason for Tudor being a family name - a great aunt's maiden name was Tudor; and I'm rather embarassed about the facetious and ignorant first paragraph of the following piece. But there you go, we live and learn.

Let’s face it, the first thing you notice about my great uncle Tudor Castle is his name. I grew up genuinely believing he had brothers called Norman and Windsor, after my father made a joke about it once. Tudor shared his name with a cousin of his father’s, and you’d think the joke would have worn pretty thin by the time he was born. But his father was a keen genealogist with a sense of history, so Tudy (as he was known at home) got to carry the name forward.

Tudor Castle in 1913
On the back he jokes “Man goeth forth to his labour”

Tudor was always going to be a writer. I have a bundle of correspondence between him and his big sister May, when both were still children.  His letters are chatty, loving, delighting in shared jokes and experiences. In 1908 at the age of 25 he published “The Gentle Shepherd – A Pastoral Play.” It is a four-hander in the aesthetic tradition, and rather hard to read in modern times: the opening exchange between the shepherd and his boy run thus:

GLION [the boy]: What do you give your friends?
ORCAS [the shepherd]:                                  I give them flowers,
The pale frail harebell and anemones …
GLION: That die so soon!
… the other characters were A SATYR and A LADY FROM THE CITY ...

He leavened his earnest sensitivity with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour, the legacy of those childhood letters, as he confesses in the epilogue of his one published collection:

Dear Ethel, all faults I admit,
So it’s needless again to rehearse
How I spoil by crude flashes of wit
My otherwise excellent verse.

This alone I would urge on my part:
When I speak – and it’s seldom I speak –
My mouth is so full with my heart
That I must keep my tongue in my cheek.

He found it hard to settle to a career, and instead dabbled in various activities at home and abroad before, at the outbreak of the Great War volunteering for the Universities and Public Schools Battalion. As a 2nd Lieutenant with the Royal West Surrey Regiment he went to France in July 1916. Sadly my reason for writing about him here on this Remembrance weekend is that he died aged 33 barely a month later, killed by a gas shell on the 31st August at Delville Wood, one of the early engagements in the Battle of the Somme and one of the bloodiest.

Fighting at Delville Wood lasted from July to September 1916

It was of course a dreadful waste of a life full of potential: one reviewer thought he might “develop into a Rabelaisian Wordsworth.” Just before the war he had found work he loved as a land agent. Before that he had worked at Toynbee Hall, an institution which still thrives today dedicated to narrowing the gap in understanding between rich and poor. I think he had a lot to give.

This was published in the Toynbee Record in September 1910:

I envy every City clerk
Who knows his mind and does his work.
I envy every sooty sweep
Who does his work and gets his sleep.

I envy every flower that wields
Force to draw us to the field.
I envy every bird that makes
A nest so tight no winter breaks –

Envy the stars, that one by one
Ride stealthy circuit round the sun;
For each of these within his sphere
Can; does; and has a reason here.

Everything I ever saw
Works in tune with Nature’s law
Save I, who start each sideway track
And think it road till I look back.

And every night, as sure’s can be,
These two will battle over me;
Hope, with thoughts that still aspire;
Self-knowledge, that proclaims her liar.

Tudor Castle's memorial, Church of St Lawrence, Seale, Surrey

Saturday 6 November 2010


Charles Verral was a brother of the 3x great grandfather of my great aunt Helen Verrall. What does that make him in relation to me? Remote, at least. He dropped the second L of his surname, unlike most of his relatives, including his father, but that was the least of his eccentricities.

He was born the seventh son of Richard Verrall (with two Ls), landlord of the White Hart Inn in Lewes, Sussex. Since an older brother William inherited he running of that establishment (see my earlier post about his ground-breaking cookbook), Charles was initially given a job as master of the George Inn in nearby Arundel, benefiting no doubt from his father’s connections with the local landowner the Duke of Newcastle.
Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle
was serving as Prime Minister of Great Britain
at the time of Charles Verral’s letter to him
and may not have given it his full attention

Charles Verral (one L) may not have had his brother’s or his father’s gift for hostelry: in 1760 he had to write to the Duke to beg for a position for his son in the Duke’s household. Charles went to great lengths to talk up the high level of education his son had received, and laid on with a trowel his gratitude for the Duke’s many kindnesses to him and his family. Unfortunately I haven’t yet been able to find out whether his high prose had the desired effect for the fifteen-year-old boy.

From here on I can do no better than quote from “The Verrall Family of Lewes,” a 1916 article from Vol 58 of the Sussex Archaeological Collections, which in turn quotes from an October 1790 article published in a monthly magazine called The Topographer, snappily titled “Journal of a Short Excursion Up the River Arun, with an Account of Batworth Park, Warningcamp and Burpham.”

In around 1770, at the age of 50 Charles seems to have obtained a lease of the site of the old chapel at Warningcamp, which he enclosed. He pulled down the remains of the chapel and built a “singular habitation” on its floor, which he called New Jerusalem. Here he lived a “sort of hermit’s life … suffering scarcely any body to come near him, not even to make his bed, or provide the common necessaries of existence.”

A Hermit’s Cell
from William Wright’s “Grotesque Architecture,”
published in London in 1790

And that, unfortunately, is all we know. Perhaps it’s enough. Of his four children, a daughter Lucy married a vicar, that son (also called Charles) may have prospered in the service of the Duke of Newcastle, another daughter Mary we only know from her baptism record; and Henry his delightful youngest son became an eccentric cricketing doctor and writer of facetious letters to the local paper The Lewes Journal, including the splendid 1811 article “A Short Essay on Firing a Lame Horse.” Of Charles the Hermit, nothing more is recorded.

Saturday 30 October 2010


My 4x great grandmother Rebecca Brodie “had not the gift of large resources,” her son William Brodie Gurney observed, “but my mother knew how to set others to work, and made the most of what she had.” She was born in Nottinghamshire to Paisley parents, and I imagine a persuasive, talkative, cheerful woman: William wrote that she spent the last ten months of her life, when she had been diagnosed with cancer, visiting friends and relatives to tell them that she would “soon be shut up!” 

Rebecca (Brodie) Gurney (1744-1814)

Around 1787 Rebecca prevailed on her neighbours in Walworth, South London, with greater resources than hers to set up a Girl’s Charity School. She played a very active part in the running of it, and also in the organisation of a Maternity Society which she set up there. Thirty years after her death in 1814, William was still meeting people whose lives had been touched and changed by her activity.

The girls’ schoolteacher was encouraged to extend the school’s activities to include religious instruction every Sunday, and he was offered a penny for each child attending on a Sunday, up to a maximum of thirty pupils. Unsurprisingly attendance at the Sunday school ran at a steady thirty week after week after week, netting the teacher a regular extra income of half a crown. When, as was expected of a pious young man, William Gurney went along to volunteer one Sunday in 1795, he found a less than spiritual reason for the full classroom. If ever there was a shortfall, the teacher sent his son out on the streets to round up extra children with the promise that they wouldn’t be kept long – just long enough to have their heads counted by the chapel treasurer.

William took over the running of the Sunday school and his success there led to the founding of the Sunday School Union eight years later. William’s son in law William Augustus Salter met his future wife, Gurney’s daughter Emma, while volunteering at a Sunday school run on Gurney's lines. Salter would go on to found two schools himself, and in 1860 Emma, without doubt inspired by her grandmother’s Maternity Society, set up the first ever Mother's Meeting in Leamington Spa.

Saturday 23 October 2010


Amongst the hundred or so pieces of family and business correspondence belonging to my 3x great uncle Charles, which were passed to me by his great great nephew John, is a delightful thank-you note.

It’s from Charles’ niece Julia Jenkins. The Jenkins and Castle families were Bristol neighbours connected by marriage at various points along their respective family trees. Julia’s parents were Richard Jenkins and Charles’s sister Julia Castle; Richard’s parents were Richard Jenkins the elder and Mary Naish Castle, who was actually a (much older) first cousin of Julia Castle. So Julia Jenkins’ Castle grandmother was also, I think, her first cousin once removed.

Julia Jenkins’ thank-you note

As some of Charles Castle’s other correspondents did, Julia Jenkins saves paper by writing in two directions on the same sheet rather than starting a new page. It works surprisingly well, although it’s a trick that requires very neat handwriting and wouldn’t work so well I think with a modern, more rounded style of lettering.

My dear Uncle Charles,

I do not know how to thank you sufficiently for the very handsome present you propose sending me, which will be a valuable addition to my plate to which you have contributed before. It was indeed most kind of you to think of me, and I shall value the grape scissors doubly from their having belonged to your dear Grandmamma.

From the selection of the present, it is evident you expect me to possess someday a grapery and hothouse of my own, and when that time comes I promise you an early invitation to partake of the fruit of the vine. As Mamma has written, I will not say any more, but with much love, believe me dear Uncle Charles,

Your affectionate niece
Julia Jenkins

The letter is undated, probably from the mid to late 1850s. Julia Jenkins was born in about 1838 and became Mrs Francis Charlesworth Kennedy in late 1862. I don’t know which of Charles’ grandmothers she is referring to, but his mother Mary (Morgan) Castle died in 1856, so perhaps he was here passing on a treasure which Mary had inherited from her mother. The writing is graceful and the language good-mannered, slightly stilted, reminiscent of the thank-you letters I wrote as an awkward young man. I like this letter because in a few short lines it hints at all these lines of enquiry. Mainly though, I think I like it because of Julia’s polite delight at the prospect of owning a pair of antique grape scissors.

Silver grape scissors
by William Eley and William Fearn,
London 1815

Saturday 16 October 2010


Emma Gurney, my great great grandmother, was the daughter of a Baptist passionate about education. The work of her father William Brodie Gurney led to the founding of the Sunday School Union and the publication Youth’s Magazine.  Mr Gurney himself served on the committees of those institutions and of countless others, as secretary, treasurer or president. He was a leading Baptist of his day. Particularly after her mother died in 1828, he also played the role of family patriarch, holding court from the Gurney home in south London. There, the Christmas parties for his eight surviving children and (by the time of his death) 62 grandchildren were legendary.

 Emma Gurney Salter (1815-1893)
photographed in 1856

For a daughter, such a role model was a hard act to replace. What potential husband could ever reach the lofty, idealistic heights, the moral, political, social and religious standards set by her father? The man she married in 1836, William Salter, was a close match. They had met through their voluntary work as teachers at their local Baptist Sunday school in Denmark Hill, South London. It was while teaching there that William (her father’s namesake!) felt the calling to train for the Baptist ministry. He studied at Stepney Baptist College, whose treasurer was his future father-in-law W.B. Gurney.

Salter’s fundraising activities on behalf of the Baptist Missionary Society (of which Gurney had become treasurer in 1835) must further have endeared him to Emma’s father. His selection as minister of Henrietta Street Baptist church in London’s Covent Garden clinched the deal, and William and Emma were married on 19th October 1836, only a fortnight after his ordination.

William, with Emma beside him, undoubtedly worked hard within his inner city parish. But London in the early Victorian era was not a healthy place. One historian writes that from 1830 to 1850, no Londoner was ever really well, and William became seriously ill in 1842. His doctor advised him to move to the country and he accepted a position as minister of the Lower Baptist House in rural Amersham. In Amersham he and Emma raised their family; most of their seven children were born and went to school there. In time William Salter joined his father-in-law on the board of Stepney College and continued his good work for the Baptist Missionary Society. In August 1854 he hosted a B.M.S. fundraising event in Amersham at which W.B. Gurney was the special guest.

William Brodie Gurney (1777-1855)

It was one of Gurney’s last efforts on behalf of the Society. He died on 25th March the following year at the age of 77. Emma’s grief was immeasurable and plunged her into a spiral of declining health which forced William to resign from his Amersham charge to look after her. For two years Salter was without a parish, making ends meet by writing for the Religious Tract Society and temping at Brentford Baptist Church which was then between ministers. When in 1858 he did find a permanent post, as minister at the Warwick Street Church in Leamington Spa, he fell out with the church’s board over their failure to provide school rooms. After less than two years in post he felt obliged to resign again.

The Salters must have felt that life had become one long struggle. William was on the point of leaving Leamington. But some fifty of his former parishioners had resigned with him and they persuaded him to stay. With their support, the Salters at last felt re-energised and strong enough to recover from the many blows and difficulties of the last five years. A congregation without a church, they bought land in Clarendon Street and began to build one, on the site of the old Clarendon Inn.

And meanwhile the work of the Lord still had to be done. William and Emma determined to set up all the functions of a Baptist church, refusing to let the mere lack of a building stand in their way. Services were held in Beck’s Rooms on Upper Parade; a school for infants and girls was established in the Public Rooms on Windsor Street; and a night school for boys was held in the Tachbrook Street Missionary Rooms. William taught Scripture of course; their daughters Anne, Emma and Maria all assisted, teaching songs, reading and arithmetic; and in 1861, Emma Gurney Salter started up a regular Mothers’ Meeting, the first of its kind in the town.

Clarendon Street Chapel in 2010, much remodeled:
 a church 1863-1921, a school 1863-1937,
more recently a knitwear factory, offices and a warehouse

Clarendon Street Chapel (capacity 400) held its first service on 22nd June 1863 and Clarendon Street British School opened three weeks later. The congregation was large enough to have paid off all the new building’s debts by the end of the year; and the school, officially licensed for 91 children, often attracted as many as 150. After the years of adversity, the establishment of the Clarendon Street church was an enormous achievement by both William and Emma. They remained there to nurture its development for the rest of William’s life. One feels that W.B. Gurney would have been proud of them both.

Much of my information about William and Emma’s time in Leamington comes from Lyndon Cave’s excellent book “Royal Leamington Spa” which has just been republished in a revised edition.

Saturday 9 October 2010


My distant cousin George Verrall changed his name to George Vernon when he became an actor. “Mr Vernon,” recalls Henry Dickinson Stone in his 1873 memoir Personal Reminiscences of the Drama, “was one of nature’s noblemen, a gentleman of the old school, highly educated, and a dramatic artist of the very first order.” (George Vernon was the name of a member  of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the early seventeenth century theatre company associated with William Shakespeare.)

He emigrated to Albany in New York State in 1827 in the company of the Fisher family, actors all. What a fascinating bunch! Like the Verralls, a Sussex family: two brothers and four sisters, all marinaded in theatre from an early age by a librarian father Frederick George Fisher who was obsessed with Shakespeare.

Jane Merchant Fisher, Mrs Vernon (1796-1869)

Jane Fisher, the eldest, was a tall woman with a slightly pinched but expressive face who became one of America's greatest comediennes, having made her stage debut at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1817. She was probably also the reason that William Verrall made the trip – they married soon after their arrival in America.

John, her eldest brother also achieved a reputation as a versatile comic actor. Amelia, who possessed a high order of musical and dramatic ability herself, quite the stage in 1840 to run a dance academy.

Caroline, one feels, had rather been bullied into joining the theatrical profession. She never pursued it in America, opting instead for domestic life as the wife of a newspaper editor. Charles, the second youngest of the family, acted briefly in the US before founding a weekly magazine for sports and the dramatic arts called “Spirit of the Times.” He did marry an actress however, and their daughter, known as Little Clara Fisher, took to the stage with a beautiful voice.

Clara Fisher, later Mrs Maeder (1811-1898)
(not Little Clara Fisher!)

Little Clara was named after her aunt Clara, the youngest of the six children of Frederick Fisher. Aunt Clara had been a child star long before she came to America at the still-young age of 17. After her debut in 1817, aged 6 alongside her older sister Jane at Drury Lane, she was hailed (according to her New York Times obituary) as “the most wonderful child that the stage had known, and her popularity became at once very valuable in a pecuniary sense to her father. George IV went to see her act.”

Starting anew in America she rose to even greater fame in everything from opera to comedy. People named their babies, race horses, hotels, brands of cigar, steamboats … even whole city blocks after her! She made and lost fortunes, and by reinventing herself as a character actress she was able to carry on working until ten years before her death, becoming known as “the oldest actress alive.”

Frederick Fisher’s Library in Eastbourne, c1795

I don’t know whether the Fishers’ father came with them to America. He used to sell books and stationery in Eastbourne and was later an auctioneer in London. An amateur actor himself, he had without doubt pushed his children into the life he wanted for himself. And a little piece of him does exist in the US, as an exhibit in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia – a series of papier mache models of Shakespearean locations in Stratford! Shakespeare's birthplace, the famous mulberry tree and so on. Frederick made them in 1830, perhaps for the Second Royal Gala Shakespeare Festival in Stratford that year.

How his handiwork ended up in Philly I don’t know. Souvenir-buying American tourists were presumably thinner on the ground in Stratford upon Avon in 1830 than they are now! Perhaps he sent it to one of his theatrical children in the States to remind them of their roots and their Shakespearean father. Or perhaps, if he did emigrate himself, he made it in America to remind himself of the roots of his great passion for the bard.
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