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Saturday 31 December 2011


With the help of someone who got in touch via this blog I recently found the identity of my 5x great grandfather, John Davis of Little Missenden in Buckinghamshire. I don’t know John’s religious denomination, but the area of Buckinghamshire around Little and Great Missenden was one of the earliest centres of non-conformist dissent in England.

Many of my earliest known ancestors from the region around Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire were devout non-conformists – Quakers and Baptists. Two of John Davis’s granddaughters married two Salter brothers: John, and my 3x great grandfather Samuel Salter who was a deacon of the first Baptist Church in Watford, Herts who bought a £100 share in the dissenters’ university, London University. Two more of John and Samuel’s brothers also embodied the family’s staunch non-conformist tradition: William Salter gave the land for a Congregationalist chapel in Norwood, south London; and David left money in his will for a row of four almshouses in Watford High Street.

A typical late 18th century malting house and kiln
(this one at Burwell in Cambridgeshire)

John Davis was a maltster. Malting was an important process, a key stage in the business of brewing beer. In the days before a reliable clean public water supply, beer was the safe, healthy option for quenching your thirst – everyone drank it – so malted grain was in high demand and malting was big business (and consequently highly taxed by the governments of the day).

What the maltsters did was to convert the starch in grain crops, especially barley, to sugar which the brewers of beer needed for the fermentation of their brew. This conversion was achieved by soaking the barley in water and spreading it out on the floor of the malting house, where it began to germinate.

The malting house was a long building, and the maltster moved the germinating barley along the length of it over the course of a few days with a shovel, turning the barley over as he did so to ensure an even conversion by the time it reached the end of the malthouse. In nature the germinating grain uses the sugar to sprout and grow; to preserve the sugar for the brewer and prevent sprouting, the maltster next roasted the grain in a kiln to the brewer’s specification. The brewer relied on the skillful judgement of the maltster in producing the desired flavour of malt: light malts for pale ales, darker malts for stouts such as Guinness.

The Malt Shovel, popular English pub name
recognises the importance of the maltster to the nation’s beer
(L-R: pubs in Sandwich in Kent, Harden in Yorkshire and Oswaldkirk in Northumberland)

Before I learned of John Davis, I knew that his grandson-in-law Samuel Salter was also a maltster. Samuel came from a long line of brickmakers, and the switch from bricks and mortar to malt for brewing had intrigued me. I convinced myself that the family had at some point taken their expertise in the technology of the kilns used to fire bricks, and simply applied it to the process of roasting barley. But having discovered a maltster ancestor two generations earlier than Samuel, I now have a different theory.

As far as I can tell John had only two male Davis grandchildren, one of whom emigrated to Australia – so there was certainly room in the Davis malt business for new blood. Samuel on the other hand was the youngest of five sons, and unlikely to inherit a share or even a role in the Salter brickmaking business. It seems likely therefore that his entry into the malt industry was a direct result of his marriage in 1800 to John Davis’s granddaughter Sarah, a dowry in the form of a business opportunity.

Samuel certainly took to his new trade with enthusiasm and an eye for innovation. In 1808 he took out a patent on “an apparatus for the purpose of drying malt, hops or any kind of grain.” And his eldest son, also Samuel, followed him into the business. His youngest on the other hand followed the other family tradition: William Augustus Salter, my great great grandfather, went to the university which his father helped to found, and became a Baptist minister.

Saturday 24 December 2011


I’ve written here before about my cousin John Cooper-Chadwick’s exploits in the imperial colonization of southern Africa. In between his uniformed adventures with the Bechuanaland Police and Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer Column JCC found time for a spot of gold-prospecting with his brother Richard.

John Cooper-Chadwick (1864-1948)
serving with Methuen’s Company of Horse

His memoir Three Years with Lobengula contains vivid descriptions of conditions – a really gripping first-hand account of a time very different to our own comfortable present. Without even the most basic supplies of clothing, tools, medicines and food, the early European settlers in Africa were dependent entirely on their wits, their hands and their rifles. But special occasions still demanded special provisions, however meager the available resources.

Here’s JCC’s description of Christmas 1887:

We had no proper mining tools, dynamite or even rope for a windlass, which was a great disadvantage as the latter was absolutely necessary. … Many of the pioneers were laid up with fever, in want of medicines and the bare necessaries of life. … It was an everyday occurrence to see men walking about bare-footed, or with bits of hide for boots. … Pumpkins and mealies were then the backbone of Mashonaland, and what most of us depended on for our daily bread. …

John and Dick were re-digging ancient African mining shafts
(photo by Jono Terry)

We worked on until Christmas without striking anything, and so far escaped the fever. No doubt the active life, and a dry hut on high ground to sleep in, had a good deal to do with it, in spite of bad food and frequent wettings.

The few of us around made an attempt to keep up Christmas, and contributed what we could for dinner. A railway pudding was manufactured, a plum here and there, like the stations on a line, few and far between. Four diminutive Mashona fowls, blue-legged and skinny, flanked with biltong and a liberal supply of rice and pumpkins, composed the feast.

About ten of us assembled round the festive board, which was laid out on the hut floor, each man supplying his own cutlery and plate. Someone mysteriously produced two black bottles, which made a great sensation, as they were expected to contain whiskey, but they only turned out to be sour Cape wine.

John and Dick were mining near the Mazowe River,
which is still panned today (photo by Jono Terry)

In April 1888 Dick and John finally struck gold, although their triumph was short-lived. Dick got malaria, and John had a serious accident with his rifle which forced them both to return to Ireland. Both men survived however, and the memory of that Mashona Christmas must have made them grateful for all the family Christmases they enjoyed thereafter. Happy Christmas to you, dear reader! May your fowl be not blue and your black bottles not foul.

Saturday 17 December 2011


In all my family tree research I am constantly in debt to the earlier and more thorough research of others. Recent contact with a cousin in my Pilkington line emphasises this: Isabel Pilkington Henniger has produced an invaluable book, full of photographs, based on the audio recordings of her late uncle Roger Pilkington. Isabel has done a really delightful job of editing Roger’s remarks into A Pilkington Memoir while still retaining the distinctive voice of Roger, a born raconteur. (She’s also tidied up the very occasional memory lapse on Roger’s part with discreet footnotes.) Isabel has sent me a copy of her book, which is full of the sort of detail and colour my own research could never have unearthed.

William Windle Pilkington (1839-1914)
industrialist, educationalist

Roger’s grandfather, Isabel’s great grandfather, my great great uncle William, was a pillar of the community, a leading industrialist in Lancashire. He poured a great deal back into the community and served in its offices as town councillor, mayor and alderman. He was made a freeman of the borough of St Helens in 1905 (the statue of Queen Victoria which he donated to the town on that day still stands there) and he was appointed Second Lieutenant of the county in 1908.

He was a member and trustee of the St Helens Congregational Church and chairman of the Congregational Union. He founded the St Helens YMCA, and co-founded two schools – the Ragged School where he taught with his wife on Sunday afternoons, and an infant school for which he provided land.

St Helens YMCA, founded by William Pilkington

His passion for education, typical of nineteenth century non-conformists, regularly brought him into idealistic conflict with the authorities over the way local schools were run. As you’d expect of a dynamic captain of industry, William was not one to stand idly by when he saw what he regarded as wrong being done. Roger tells it far better than I could:

“The schools were run by the Church of England and paid for out of the rates, and when he got his bill for the rates he worked out carefully what proportion of that went to support Church of England schools, and he deducted it and sent in the cheque short.

“Then, of course, he got another application, and eventually he got one of those red warning notices that unless he paid the rest within seven days, action would be taken. And this was the signal for the butler to clear out all of the furniture out of the front hall and lock the doors leading off it, and to put in the front hall certain pieces of furniture which my grandfather had bought at auctions.

The indoor staff at Windle Hall, 
home of William and Louisa Pilkington
(furniture-toting butler pictured standing second from right)

“He had a very good eye for furniture, antiques, and this furniture was bought specially for this occasion always and was put around the front hall, and eventually the bailiffs drew up and stormed in the front door and seized the furniture, and off they went happy to have done their job, but not so happy as was my grandfather, because they had to sell what they had taken by public auction, and they had to give him anything more than the amount owed plus presumably, some sort of bailiff’s costs.

“It was customary in those days when people did this sort of thing for the local people to go to the auction and make incredibly low bids in order to prevent the thing being sold at all. But in his case this was not so. The general public bid, dealers bid, the things were sold, and he managed to achieve what free churchmen always like to do, which is to be true to their ideals and make a good profit at the same time.”

I can hear the twinkle in Roger’s voice as he told this story, and see the sparkle in William’s eye as he got one over on the Church of England!

Col. W.W. Pilkington’s statue of Queen Victoria
in Victoria Square, St Helens

Saturday 10 December 2011


I’ve been exploring the noble Scottish Hepburn pedigree lately – far more than I needed to really, but that’s genealogy for you! My genuine connections with the ancient family are only through a couple of early 19th century marriages, and it would be cheeky to claim much relationship with them. (If you must know, the Hepburn grandfather of one cousin of my grandfather’s, and the mother-in-law of another, share a 12x great grandfather with John Stuart Hepburn, the subject of this post!)

But at about the time I was discovering all this, I heard from a literary colleague who had recently begun a year travelling in Australia and who had just reached Daylesford in Victoria. And Daylesford, I had read only that morning, was one of the places where Captain John Hepburn made a mark.

Captain John Stuart Hepburn (1803-1860)

Young John Hepburn, born on the Hepburn lands of Whitekirk near North Berwick on the east coast of Scotland, went to sea. In 1833 he became Master of a 226-ton brig The Alice, which sailed between Britain and Tasmania. En route for Hobart in 1835 he fell to talking with one of his passengers, a former banker called John Gardiner who was going into the cattle business. When the following year Hepburn’s new steam ship The Ceres ran aground and sank off the coast of New South Wales, it was suddenly a good time to join Gardiner in his venture.

Gardiner and Hepburn drove a herd of cattle overland to Port Phillip in Victoria in the summer of 1836, and it seems to have gone well. In 1837 Hepburn’s wife Eliza and their two children joined him in Australia and he organised another drive with another partner, William Coghill, with a view to finding land worth settling on. While the land he had crossed in 1836 had already been claimed and settled by other pioneers, this time he was driving sheep from eastern New South Wales into new territory in the heart of Victoria.

John and Eliza Hepburn’s two-month journey in 1838

From Braidwood NSW they set off in February 1838, west to Gundagai where they hooked up with a third pioneer, William Bowman. The three parties pressed on southwestwards on the route now followed by highway 31, crossing the Darling river at Albury and coming across the tracks of an earlier pioneer Thomas Mitchell as they entered Victoria at Wangaratta.

Major Mitchell, a fellow Scot from the industrial port of Grangemouth explored and surveyed much of southeastern Australia for the government. In September 1836 he was the first European to climb and name Victoria’s Mount Alexander, a traditional aboriginal ceremonial ground and lookout. Following his route, Hepburn, Coghill and Bowman set up a lambing camp on the slopes of the mountain in April 1838. From its summit Hepburn saw the land around Mount Kooroocheang to the southwest. He had seen a lot of land in the past three years and the slopes of Kooroocheang looked good.

While Coghill and Bowman pressed on westwards, John Hepburn staked his claim on a stretch of grazing land he called the Smeaton Run (after Smeaton House the Hepburn home at Whitekirk), on the southern slopes of Kooroocheang. It was good land. John and Eliza’s next child was born at Smeaton later that year, and The Hepburns prospered, extending their property with purchases from a succession of new land releases by the governments of the day. At the time of his death it stretched over 24,000 acres. The townships of Smeaton, Blampied and Daylesford sprang up on its fringes to service the growing population of workers which the Smeaton run supported.

Smeaton House, Victoria
symbol of prosperity built in 1849

Conditions were rough in the early days. Governor Sir George Gipps reported in October 1840 that “a race of Englishmen are living in bark huts in a state of semi-barbarism because the conditions of their leases do not make it worthwhile to build permanent dwellings.” But in 1849 Hepburn built his own Smeaton House, a symbol of his prosperity which still stands today.

About the same time, to the east of the Smeaton Run, gold was discovered in the Jim Crow Diggings; the goldrush town of Hepburn became home to miners from China, England, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France. The strong European contingent also appreciated the properties of the many mineral springs in the area. When in 1865 pollution from the mines threatened to ruin the waters’ qualities, the government established the Hepburn Mineral Springs Reserve to protect them. Jim Crow Creek was diverted through the Blowhole Gold Diversion Tunnel (dug by Chinese miners) and the spa resort of Hepburn Springs developed to the north of Daylesford, complete with a bathhouse and a Palais de Dance.
Hepburn Springs Bathhouse and Spa
renovated in 2008 at a cost of $13 million

The town even boasted a pasta factory to feed its European and Chinese population. Let’s hope for the Hepburns’ sake they served it with mutton.

Saturday 3 December 2011


My great aunt Helen’s ancestors, the Verrall family from Lewes in Sussex, were a prominent lot, at the heart of Lewes life for many generations through their inn-keeping, auctioneering and racing interests.

When I started to read descriptions of John Hubert Verrall as “a Lewes ne’r-do-well” and “the black sheep of an illustrious Lewes family” my ears pricked up. The more I looked into his life however, the less I thought those pejorative labels were justified. He faced a series of setbacks in later life from which, because of his character and upbringing, he was ill-equipped to bounce back. But I don’t believe he was as wilfully disreputable as those tags suggest.

John Hubert Verrall (1845-1909)
dressed for drill

Hubert was the sixth of seven children of John Verrall the auctioneer. The eldest, Frederick, was in line to take over the business and Hubert, with no responsibilities now or in the future to worry about, spent his time breeding and exhibiting exotic birds – canaries, parrots and so on. He lived with his parents, and like other reputable gentlemen of the time, he did his patriotic duty by enlisting in the local Volunteer Militia.

This carefree existence was powerfully shaken from early 1874 onwards when first his mother and then over the next three years his father, sister and eldest brother Frederick, died. Hubert, still living at home with his brother Marcus, never really rcovered from these losses. While Marcus stepped up to take over the running of both the family home and the auction house, Hubert turned to drink.

It quickly became apparent that he had a problem. In 1879, when his younger brother George (of whom I’ve written before) was getting married and beginning a successful career in racing administration and entomology, Hubert wrote in his diary:

Walking all day, did not eat or drink, only tea, all day, by doctor's orders … I am of a strong suspicion that I have been a trifle insane ever since Tuesday through drinking whiskey every day last week and eating and walking too much … From this day I intend trying to be if possible an abstainer from beer and spirits and have not tasted beer of any description since 14 June 1878.

Lewes Union Workhouse

Worse was to come. Marcus died, unmarried, in 1895. Hubert was in no fit state to take over the reins, and the business and the family home were both sold up. Hubert became homeless. I’m not sure what happened next; perhaps he moved into rented accommodation. Certainly he carried on drinking, and on 20th March 1902, having presumably run out of money and the ability to look after himself, he was admitted to the Lewes Union Workhouse. His brother George paid for his maintenance there – George, who shared with Hubert a passion for the natural world, had made a rather more successful career of it as an authority on British insects.

In 1907 Hubert moved in with his niece, but on 17th May 1909 he was admitted to the County Asylum at Hellingly “in a dying condition,” suffering from enormous enlargement of the liver and from the dementia which he had foreseen 30 years earlier. He died there of liver cancer three days later.

Hellingly Mental Asylum is abandoned now,
an unfortunate name and the subject of a moving photo essay by Joe Collier at

The bare bones of Hubert Verrall’s life make for a pretty sorry tale. Perhaps in his alcoholic final years he did build a reputation around Lewes as a ne’r-do-well (as the East Sussex Archives rather bluntly describe him).

But we know that he continued to enjoy, and take part in Lewes events at least until his entry into the workhouse. Hubert kept a diary, every day of his life until that date, which now forms an invaluable record of Victorian life in East Sussex. Hubert records local news, reports his service in 1890 on jury duty and describes the high days and holidays of his time – the Lewes races, Guy Fawkes Night and so on.

The diaries are preserved; they formed the basis for an exhibition of local history in October 2007, and were the subject of a BBC programme, Inside Out in 2008. So Hubert Verrall has in a way left the best legacy of all his brothers for the town his family made such a mark in.

Saturday 26 November 2011


When we were growing up, the only family “heritage” of which my father spoke was the line of his great grandmother, the staunch non-conformist Gurney family. There was never any mention of the more recent (and, you might think, more influential) lines of his Castle mother or Reyner grandmother – or indeed of his own male line, the Salters of Hertfordshire. From a purely genealogical point of view this seems like a terrible waste of ancestors!

This post marks the second anniversary of this weekly blog, in which I try to recover and celebrate some of those lost ancestral souls. Since my father took whatever he knew about his non-Gurney forebears to the grave with him, it has not always been a simple matter to snatch even a glimpse of the lives of some of mine. The Reyners are a case in point. They too were liberal non-conformists, a family of Lancashire cotton mill owners for several generations. But I am not in touch with any Reyner cousins (if you’re reading this, Reyner cousins, please write!); and for a long time I knew only the name of my great grandmother, Jane Reyner.

Arthur's sister, Jane Reyner (1850-1938)
my link to the world of Lancashire cotton

This morning however I stumbled across three of her brothers and sisters of whom I had previously never heard. Better still, one of them is described in the sort of detail which no amount of FreeBMD or Ancestry statistical records can convey. I now know I had a great great uncle Arthur, who was

a bachelor of uncertain health, and lived at Thornfield Hall near to Ashton-under-Lyne, with a mother whose strength and stateliness of spirit, coupled with extreme personal fragility, advanced years, and only occasional visibility through the bevelled glass of an ancient brougham, constituted her one of those occasional reproductions of Queen Victoria which appeared during the reign of that monarch, his life being one in which music, travel in Switzerland, Gladstonianism, a perilous habit, for one of his weight and build, of riding to hounds, and the current number of the Nineteenth Century, played a great part.

It sounds as if Arthur was a bit of a playboy. He certainly doesn’t seem to have played any active part in the running of the family mills, and only appears on one British census return throughout his adult life (suggesting that he travelled aborad a lot). He never married, and clearly enjoyed the good life, judging from the weight and build which made riding to hounds such an ill-advised hobby. The Nineteenth Century was a monthly literary magazine which from 1877 to 1972 published debate by leading intellectuals of the day.

Brougham carriage 
as occupied by Queen Victoria (left) and Helen Reyner nee Bayley (right)

The description of his mother Helen Reyner, née Bayley (1816-1892) is tremendous! How  I wish I had more pictures of this pair of ancestors. Helen was 15 years younger than her late husband Frederick Reyner and outlived him by just that length of time, shutting herself away in Thornfield Hall, the family home, and mourning Frederick (who died in 1877) in perpetuum just as Queen Victoria had been mourning Prince Albert since 1861. Arthur died only ten years after his mother.

These descriptions come from a 1917 article about industrial relations in the northern cotton mills, and it was in this sphere that Arthur did make a mark in public life. He was the president of the Federation of Master Cotton Spinners’ Associations which represented the mill owners, although he seems to have fulfilled the role with mixed results:

In his speeches on the public platform great fluency of thought and expression struggled with anguish against a marked defect of utterance. He had Robert Lowe's inability to perceive the effect he was making on his audience, and his position as leader at once of a Liberal organisation which wanted all sorts of democratic changes, and an Employers' Federation which wanted a reduction of wages, was a vexatious inconsistency, and probably accounted very largely, though it was not suspected at the time, for the recurrent Conservatism of the borough in which he lived.

The tension between his liberal non-conformist inclination to help the working man and his capitalist responsibilities to the family business must have been hard to balance. Around the time of his mother’s death Arthur was one of three employers appointed by the Federation to negotiate a new deal with employees about working practices in the mills. The deal, following a bitter dispute over wage cuts, was thrashed out in a room at the Brooklands Hotel outside Manchester in one all-night session in March 1893 and became known as the Brooklands Agreement. Arthur was the first signatory, but in fact his ill health (perhaps made worse by his mother’s dying days) meant that he was absent from the negotiating table for much of the process.

Sir Charles Macara (1845-1929)
closer of the 1893 Brooklands deal
(and in 1891 creator of Lifeboat Flagdays)

In fact the absence of Arthur and his “defect of utterance” from the final stages made the agreement possible. He had adopted a much harder line over the 5% wage cut and subsequent 20 week strike than his conservative colleague Charles Macara; with Arthur indisposed, Macara was able to take a more flexible approach with the trade union leaders and reach a satisfactory compromise. The Brooklands Agreement introduced a structure of negotiation, conciliation and appeal procedures which remained in place for more than 20 years.

One rather happy side effect of the rancourous 20-week dispute was also described by the same 1917 writer. As the dark satanic mills, and their chimneys, stopped working, pollution levels began to fall:

[The lock-out] lasted long enough to clear the sky, and nearly long enough to clean the earth. Distant objects acquired that startling visibility which in South-east Lancashire usually signifies nothing more serious than " the wakes," and the operatives wandered up and down amid unfamiliar tracts of morning and afternoon, and were, for all their faith and fortitude, in the suspended and deeply disordered state of those who are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Saturday 19 November 2011


Louisa Salter, a first cousin of my great grandfather’s, spent her life surrounded by new editions of the Bible, or rather by men driven to produce more accessible versions of it.

Her uncle the biblical scholar William Augustus Salter, my great great grandfather, worked with the Religious Tract Society to produce the Annotated Paragraph Bible – which as the name implies introduced paragraphs and footnotes to the King James translation to make it more readable by the ordinary man and woman. And her husband’s legacy was The New Testament in Modern Speech, a translation from the Greek into nineteenth century English which has regularly been reprinted since its publication in 1903.

The New Testament in Modern Speech, published 1903,
translated from the Greek by Richard Francis Weymouth

Louisa married Richard Francis Weymouth in 1892 when she was already 49 years old. Like so many daughters of her times, she had been obliged by convention to remain unmarried well into adulthood, caring for her widowed mother. She shared this duty with her only sister Charlotte Amelia Salter; Charlotte’s early death in 1871, and that of their mother only a few months later, must have been cruel blows.

Richard Weymouth was considerably older than Louisa – aged 70 at the time of this, his second marriage. He was a lay Baptist biblical scholar, having been educated like Louisa’s uncle William at the nonconformist-funded University of London. Richard returned to the university as a Fellow in 1869 and taught there until his retirement in 1886. During this time he also edited the Resultant Greek Testament, a standardised form of the original Greek text of the New Testament agreed by a consensus of leading biblical scholars of the day, from which he would prepare his modern-speech translation.

The Resultant Greek Testament, published in 1892,
edited by Richard Francis Weymouth

He and Louisa enjoyed ten years together before he died in 1902 – the Weymouth New Testament, as his translation is now known, was published posthumously. Its success after his death will at least have helped to provide for Louisa in her own old age. One of the executors of her own will in 1917 was her late husband’s secretary Rev Ernest Hampden-Cook, who had prepared Richard’s manuscript for publication. Ernest had obviously become a family friend. Keeping in touch with him must have eased Louisa's sense of loss after Richard's death.

Ernest had published his own volume of biblical criticism, The Christ Has Come, in 1891, the year before Louisa and Richard were married. His book took a strong preterist stance on biblical interpretation – that is, the view that much of the Bible, particularly the books of Daniel and Revelations, contain prophecies which were fulfilled in the first century AD.

The Christ Has Come, published in 1891,
written by Rev Ernest Hampden-Cook

Weymouth’s New Testament has also been cited in support of a preterist viewpoint, central to which was a second coming of Christ in AD 70 and the promise of a third coming yet to happen. It is tempting to imagine that a lonely Louisa, losing in the space of a few months the last two members of her immediate family, turned to the possibility of a third coming of Christ for spiritual comfort in a time of despair. She would not have been the first or last spinster of the parish to long for future happiness in any form. If she did, then (whatever the truth behind preterism) that comfort brought her belated joy in the form of her husband.

Louisa should not be confused with her first cousin also called Louisa Salter, her uncle William’s daughter, who married William Windle Pilkington the St Helens glass magnate.

Saturday 12 November 2011


Michael Castle, my 4x great uncle, was part of a powerful merchant family in 18th century Bristol. He was a whisky distiller in partnership with his older brother Robert and a third businessman called John Ames. Together they ran several public houses as well as the Bristol Distillery; and when Robert died (while in office as mayor of Bristol in 1803), Robert and Michael’s younger brother Thomas, my 3x great grandfather, took his place in the partnership.

Michael Castle (1762-1821)
modern manufacturer

I’ve written about the distillery previously here. Recently I found out that the distillery was a modern operation, employing state-of-the-art technology – the energy source which powered the Industrial Revolution. In 1793 Castle & Ames took delivery of a mighty Boulton & Watt beam engine.

It was the largest of three Boulton &Watt “sun-and-planet” machines known to have been supplied to manufacturers in the city of Bristol in the 1790s. Sixteen engineering drawings for the Castle and Ames machine survive in the archives of Boulton and Watt, held by Birmingham Central Library. Sun-and-planet refers to the gearing mechanism, one wheel revolving around another, which transferred the up-and-down vertical motion of a beam engine onto a round-and-round horizontal drive shaft.

Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819)
both painted by Carl Frederik von Breda in 1792,
the year before they supplied Castle & Ames

The Watt in Boulton & Watt is James Watt, the Scottish engineer who improved the efficiency of steam engines beyond all recognition when he was asked to repair an early machine at Glasgow University in 1763. Watt the mechanical genius understood his limitations as an entrepreneur, and to realise the full potential of his innovations he went into partnership with Matthew Boulton, a Birmingham manufacturer.

In 1776 Boulton & Watt began producing engines which used only 25% of the fuel of previous steam engines. They transformed the industrial landscape not only by producing a more efficient, powerful machine but by cutting industry’s ties to other forms of power. In particular, factories no longer had to be positioned near a suitable head of water to drive the water wheels which had previously been the best source of energy.

Boulton & Watt engine
originally supplied to Barclay & Perkins Brewery, Southwark
(now in the National Museum of Scotland) -
sun-and-planet gear clearly visible

Boulton & Watt manufactured 450 engines between 1776 and 1800. They were used in a broad range of settings to drive other machinery or to pump water. In Bristol, besides the Castle & Ames distillery, engines were supplied to a woolen manufactory and a lead works. I don’t know exactly how the Castle & Ames one was applied in their production of strong spirits; but a surviving Boulton & Watt sun-and-planet engine now in the National Museum of Scotland was originally used in a London brewery to grind barley and pump water.

Boulton & Watt continued to develop new models, and in April 1823 the Bristol distillery, now known as Thomas Castle & Co following the death of both Robert and Michael, ordered a new larger crank-type beam engine from them, for which again drawings survive in Birmingham Library. As a measure both of the distillery’s progress and Boulton & Watt’s, the new engine had a six-foot stroke compared to the old one’s five; and where the old one delivered in the region of 15 horse power, Thomas Castle’s new machine was capable of a whopping 40 h.p. Matthew Boulton summed it up when he boasted to the diarist James Boswell who was touring his factory in Soho, Birmingham: "I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have - POWER."

Saturday 5 November 2011


Mary Castle, a first cousin of my great grandfather, got married in 1865, the same year her new husband Edmund Daubeny began a living as rector of St Thomas’s, then a country church in the village of Bedhampton near Havant in Hampshire. They married in Bedminster – no connection at all to Bedhampton but a rapidly expanding industrial suburb of Bristol.

Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Bedhampton
served by Rev E.T. Daubeny for 19 years, 1865-1884
(photographed in 2007 by M. Eyre)

The Castles and the Daubenys were both old Somerset families who migrated to the city of Bristol in search of wealth and power. The Castles were particularly successful, supplying the town with councillors, sheriffs and two mayors and making a fortune in the distillation of spirits, part of the Triangular Trade on which Bristol was built.

It was natural when Mary got married that they would wish to bestow some of that wealth on their new son in law. His new church had been built in 1140 – a Norman arch survives at the western end of the chancel – and Edmund followed contemporary thinking in deciding that it was long overdue for a makeover. There were undoubted limitations to the old building. It lacked a vestry for a start, although it did have a beautiful Georgian rectory ten yards away across the lane which no doubt fulfilled the function more than adequately.

St Thomas before the vestry extension of 1993,
showing the Castle vestry, bell tower and north aisle

Between 1869 and 1878 Edmund undertook a series of improvements. As well as adding a small vestry to the north of the chancel and replacing the wooden bell tower with a stone one, he increased the capacity of the nave with new pews and a fine north aisle. All these building works were undertaken with generous donations from the Castle family back in Bristol. At the same time he found in the garden of the rectory the remains of the Norman font, in use I suspect as a Victorian planter. This was restored and replaced in the church, where it now serves its original function once more.

Perhaps the biggest outward change introduced by Edmund was a change in the church’s dedication. It had been known since at least the 16th century as St Nicholas, and in 1869 it was renamed St Thomas in deference, I imagine, to Thomas Castle the principle subscriber to the works. Thomas was Edmund’s brother in law, Mary’s half-brother by their father’s first marriage. He was probably giving money recently inherited from their father, who died just a year after Mary and Edmund’s marriage.

Old Bedhampton School
a place of Dust, Stone and Daubeny
according to the logbook
(photographed in 2007 by M. Eyre)

Although presumably life as a country rector was not too demanding, Edmund Daubeny was obviously an active incumbent, determined to leave his mark on his church and his community. The year before he began his program of works on the fabric of the church, the first ever school in Bedhampton opened its doors, under the tutelage of the splendidly named Miss Dust. According to the early school ledgers, both the village squire (the equally splendidly named Mr Stone) and the rector were regular visitors to the school and took a keen interest in her work.

The Norman font and the Victorian pews and north aisle
(photo by permission of 
from whom much fascinating detail informs this article)

Saturday 29 October 2011


Most of my paternal ancestors are elsewhere – if not actually overseas, then certainly in corners of the United Kingdom not immediately accessible to me. Like me, they wouldn’t stay put, always moving on to new opportunities – in fact, I live in Scotland because my London father took a job here and relocated, eventually meeting my Scottish mother.

Her roots are therefore much closer to what for the time being I call home. Many generations of them, the Piper family, lived and died in a small area of Ayrshire. Many lie buried in a quiet country churchyard in the tiny village of Sorn there, just a morning’s drive away from me. Amongst the graves is a memorial to “Pte William Piper, Imperial Camel Corps.”

William Piper (1891-1919)
c1914 in the uniform of the Ayrshire Yeomanry

Sorn’s population may have fluctuated over the years, but today it is no larger than it was in the 1790s – around 300. Everybody has always known everybody else. When war broke out in 1914, many young men who had grown up together at Sorn School queued together to enlist with the Ayrshire Yeomanry – among them my Piper-born grandmother’s cousin William Piper.

The Ayrshire Yeomanry on manoeuvres at Sorn, c1914

After some basic training, the still-raw Yeomanry recruits were shipped off, literally, to one of the worst theatres of the war. They were attached, as the 1/1st Lowland Mounted Brigade, to the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division, fighting at Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli campaign was a disastrously unsuccessful attempt by the Allied Powers to capture the Ottoman capital Constantinople and secure a sea route through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea and Russia. Casualty rates on both sides ran to around 60%, nearly half a million men in total. Although only two further Allied soldiers were wounded by enemy action in the mass evacuation which followed in December 1915, many more died in the rain and snow which accompanied it. Disease in the unsanitary trenches also took its toll. Will Piper survived.

The evacuated Allies were ferried south to British-occupied Egypt, where they regrouped. Will, who had spent all his life working with horses, volunteered to join the new camel mounted units being formed to deal with local rebellion and the threat of Ottoman attacks. These units eventually coalesced as the Imperial Camel Corps. Three of the Corps’ four battalions were drawn from Australian and New Zealand light horse, which had suffered very high attrition at Gallipoli. The 2nd Batt. however was composed from the remnants of the various British Yeomanry regiments who had fought there.

Members of the 2nd Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps, c1917

As a force composed largely of antipodeans the Corps had a reputation from the start for disrespect for authority, an attitude derived also in part from its exclusively male camels. Male camels were used because they were cheaper than the female of the species; and they were cheaper because they were noisier and less docile. The roaring from a large group of male camels could apparently be heard for miles. What they presumably lost in the element of surprise by this behaviour, they made up with their ability to go nearly three times as long as a horse without water.

Although losses were still high, the Camel Corps were successful in their role throughout 1917, particularly at the battle of Maghdaba and the third battle of Gaza. In May 1918 many troops were redeployed from Palestine to the Western Front, including what was left of the Ayrshire Yeomanry, now part of the 12th (Ayr and Lanark) Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Their redundant camels were given to Maj T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

Winston Churchill (left) challenged T.E. Lawrence (3rd left) to a camel race in Egypt in 1921, perhaps on surplus camels of the Imperial Camel Corps. Lawrence won.

Will however remained in the Middle East, serving in the Cavalry Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. Machine guns had proved their value on the Western Front earlier in the war, and by now a machine gun squadron was attached to every brigade of cavalry including those of the Imperial Camel Corps. The Machine Gun Corps had a reputation for heroism, and being often deployed in advance of front lines suffered such high casualty rates that it was known as the Suicide Club. By 1918 however, Egypt and Palestine were relatively stable, and Will Piper saw the war out in Cairo.

Four camel ambulances of the Imperial Camel Corps

Having survived Gallipoli and seen further front line service in Palestine with the Imperial Camel Corps and the Suicide Club, it is a cruel twist of fate that Will caught a cold after the end of the war, while on patrol in the cold desert air of Winter 1918. He died of pneumonia in an Egyptian field hospital in February 1919, so very far from his family and his Ayrshire home.

 Sorn members of the Ayrshire Yeomanry at training camp c1914
(for the record, back row: Smith of Smeathston, Hugh Sloan of Blairmulloch, S Ferguson, A Thomson, Templeton, S Kennedy; front row: W Mair, R Strathearn, J Alston (Visitor), J Eccles)
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