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Saturday 25 August 2012


My family tree is chock full of vicars (for example Rev Edmund Daubeny, whose wife was coincidentally a first cousin of this article's subject). So many large families: younger offspring who were unlikely to inherit lands or wealth ahead of their older brothers often had no option but to enter the church in the hope of finding a comfortable vicarage living somewhere.

It was rather different with my great great uncle Edwin Castle, fourth child and eldest surviving son of my great great grandfather William Henry Castle (about whose childhood spinal problems I have written before). Edwin might have been expected to inherit, but it was the youngest brother of the eight-strong brood, my great grandfather William Henry junior, who was favoured with his father’s name and mercantile interests.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Campsall
where Edwin Castle made his only mark

Instead, Edwin trained for the cloth at Durham. He didn’t immediately find a parish to call his own – in 1871 aged 28 he was a qualified priest but still living at home with his widowed mother. By 1881 he was married and had taken up residence in the vicarage of St Mary Magdalene Church in the Yorkshire village of Campsall, a few miles outside Doncaster. By 1891 he had moved on again and was living in Isleworth in Middlesex, a Clerk in Holy Orders without (as far as I can tell) a congregation. Six years later he was dead. His wife outlived him by many years but never remarried; they had no children.

I hope Edwin enjoyed his brief time in charge at Campsall. It’s a beautiful village church dating back to at least the 12th century, with features from every century since then. The vicarage isn’t bad either, a 14th century mansion in large grounds across the road from the church, approached through iron gates along a private drive. Easy to imagine tea parties on the lawn!

The Vicarage, Campsall

Such an ancient church has of course ancient traditions – there’s a plague stone in the churchyard which originally stood on the boundary of the parish. Food was brought there for the parishioners during the plague, in exchange for money which was left on the stone in a bottle of vinegar to avoid contamination. Within the church is the so-called Founder’s Tomb – if it really is, it contains the mortal remains of 11th century Norman knight Ilbert de Laci. The eight bells in the romanesque tower were already old when they rang out to announce the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588.

One persistent legend attached to Campsall is that Robin Hood and Maid Marian got married in St Mary Magdalene Church. There is a strong claim amongst Robin Hood scholars – Hoodies? – that the legendary outlaw comes from Yorkshire and not Nottingham. Based on the references to locations contained in early versions of the Robin Hood stories, they argue that Barnsdale Forest is the orginal, and Sherwood the imposter. And in one verse telling of the story, Robin declares:

I made a chapel in Barnsdale,
That seemly is to see,
It is of Mary Magdalene,
And there to would I be."

Campsall’s church is the only one in Barnsdale dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. The wedding story was certainly widely told during Edwin’s tenure there. Unfortunately Maid Marian, like (perhaps) Sherwood, is a later and fictional addition to the Robin Hood entourage. The historical Robin Hood was in fact already married to a certain Matilda at the time of his outlawing in 1322 (a time, incidentally, when for a very brief period the sheriff of Nottingham had jurisdiction over Yorkshire).

If you want to read the arguments about Robin Hood’s Yorkshire origins, they are well summed up at In the interest of balance, I should point out that other churches also claim to be the venue for the fictional wedding, including that of Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire.

Saturday 18 August 2012


I was chatting on Twitter with someone recently, and we found that we had both been blogging enthusiastically about the maiden aunts in our family trees. Because they have no descendents, they are often consigned to the margins of the family tree. They are the ones who have to stay at home to look after elderly relatives. They are the ones with no children or grandchildren to celebrate their lives. And yet often – precisely because they have no children – they are able to throw themselves into activities and busy lives which parents simply don’t have time for.

Once I start looking, there are lots of these wonderful women in my family tree. Often they come to the tree merely as names, some without even birth or death dates. But a little digging adds detail and throws up some tremendous characters. The three Salter spinsters for example, and the remarkable Katie Gurney. And now, thanks to a casual remark which I read about Katie’s indebtedness to her, Katie’s half-sister Mary Gurney.

Mary Gurney (1836-1917)

Mary, a niece of my great great grandmother Emma Gurney, was a child of her father Joseph’s first marriage. A year after the death of her mother, Joseph Gurney remarried and raised a second family. Although he engaged a governess, and although there wasn’t much difference (18 years) in age between all seven children of both families, Mary as the eldest daughter was expected to assume responsibility for her younger siblings. She fulfilled her duties in that respect not only conscientiously but enthusiastically and (what’s more) to the satisfaction and advantage of her brothers and sisters. One of her half-sisters, either Harriet or Catherine, remembered that she “wept floods of tears at giving up lessons with Mary.”

In time her three brothers entered their chosen careers – lawyer, engineer, minister – for which Mary must take some credit. But she and her three sisters had, in the mid-nineteenth century, fewer options. The usual path for an unmarried daughter was to throw herself into “good works” – the Salter sisters for example helped out at their father’s chaoticly understaffed school; and Katie Gurney, Mary’s half-sister, read the Bible to men in prison. Mary herself, with such an obvious talent and enthusiasm for teaching, continued in that direction.

Victorian needlework from 1863, considered an appropriate activity for a young woman until 1864’s Schools Enquiry Commission

Specifically, she involved herself in the emerging movement towards giving girls a proper education. Mary was an enthusiastic European traveller. Her trips were often spurred by a desire to attend some music festival on the continent and as a result she was well versed in classical music and the cultures from which it sprang. In these travels she became fluent in five European languages and their literatures. All this she was able and keen to share with young women who had for decades been encouraged merely to acquire decorative “accomplishments” such as needlework or Sunday afternoon piano-playing.

The Schools Enquiry Commission of 1864 identified a general deficiency in the provision of secondary education for girls. In 1871 two sisters, Maria Grey and Emily Shireff, formed the Women’s Education Union (originally The National Union for Improvement of the Education of Women of All Classes). Mary Gurney was an immediate supporter of the W.E.U., serving on its Council where she was later described as its most influential member, and where she met fellow council member Lady Stanley of Alderley.

Sheffield High School for Girls, early result of agitation by the Women’s Education Union – these pupils attended in the 1890s

These four women, Gurney, Grey, Shireff and Stanley, worked tirelessly for the better education of women for the rest of their lives. In February 1872, for example, all four attended a public meeting in Cutlers Hall in Sheffield to promote it, with the result that only a month later on 12th March 1872, Sheffield High School for Girls was opened, with a roll of 39 pupils, in the former Surrey Street Music Hall. In 1884 it moved to purpose built accommodation in Broomhill and to this day the four school houses, for its now 1000 students, are named after the four founding women. (Girls in Gurney House compete in green colours, and in the Junior School they are known as Emeralds.)

Mary published an article in the Englishwoman’s Review that year titled The Establishment of Girls' Public Middle-Class Schools, and – in the same year again – a book called Are We to Have Education for Our Middle Class Girls? Or, The History of Camden Collegiate Schools. It was undoubtedly a middle-class movement, and with good reason. The ruling classes had always had the privilege of education; and the needs of the working classes were being addressed by the churches, particularly the non-conformist faiths. Mary Gurney did not ignore the latter, and someone who knew her recalled, "No one ever knew all she gave to help poor promising scholars."

Sheffield High School today

Encouraged by their success in Sheffield and elsewhere, they held a huge public meeting in the Albert Hall in London in June 1872. Their purpose was to raise funds for more girls’ schools, and the result was the establishment of the Girls’ Public Day School Company, with a nominal share capital of £12,000. As the Girls’ Day School Trust the company still operates today, running 26 independent schools which continue the work begun by my spinster cousin Mary Gurney and her colleagues.

Saturday 11 August 2012


Pioneering civil and nautical engineer Thomas Richard Guppy married Henrietta Collins Jennings (1810-1845), a sister of my great great grandmother Caroline Collins Jennings (1815-1876), making him my 3x great uncle Thomas.

Thomas Guppy wasn’t portrayed at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, but his friend and colleague Isambard Kingdom Brunel was, by Kenneth Branagh

The Guppys and the Jennings’s were prominent families in the important British port city of Bristol, for which in 1830 a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The bridge used construction techniques devised by uncle Thomas’s remarkable mother Sarah Guppy; and thereafter Thomas and Isambard became lifelong friends and colleagues. The same year that Brunel won the competition to design the Clifton bridge, he and Guppy formed a company to build a railway from the nation’s capital London stretching westwards to its most important seaport Bristol – the Great Western Railway.

The GWR won parliamentary approval for construction in 1832, and was formally founded in 1833 – Thomas was a director, and Isambard the GWR’s chief engineer. Thomas injected large amounts of his own money to fund the project; and during its construction Thomas’s mother Sarah also contributed. Later, after its opening, she proposed the idea that the banks of railway cuttings could be stabilised by planting trees to prevent landslides onto the track.

Sonning Cutting on the GWR, scene of a fatal rail accident caused by a  landslip in 1841 which prompted Sarah Guppy to suggest planting willows and poplars

The first GWR trains ran in 1838, but a casual remark from Brunel at a directors’ meeting three years earlier led to Guppy and him launching an even more ambitious project before the first was even completed. Why, Brunel half-joked, should they stop at Bristol? What if passengers could buy a through-ticket from London to New York? There was at the time no regular transatlantic crossing, and no one at the meeting took him very seriously – except Guppy.

The prevailing view was that no steamship could be built large enough to accommodate sufficient passengers and cargo AND the huge amount of fuel required to carry them all across the Atlantic. A committee was formed to plan a ship, to be called the S.S. Great Western, which could overturn such conventional wisdom. Guppy’s father and mother were both responsible for innovations in ship construction, and Thomas now spent three months himself touring Britain’s great ship-building centres, studying the best techniques of the best nautical engineers in the country.

S.S. Great Western, designed by Guppy and Brunel, fitted by Acraman, on a commemorative Royal Mail stamp of 2004

The S.S. Great Western was launched on 19th July 1837 (and fitted out in large part by another 3x great uncle of mine, William Edward Acraman of Bristol ships’ chandlers Acraman & Co). After trials the ship made its maiden voyage to New York and back in 1838 in record time – 15 days out, 14 days back (including 24 hours lost for a stoppage at sea). It had consumed only three-quarters of its fuel supply in the process. As his obituary from the Institute of Civil Engineers noted, “Mr Guppy therefore assisted, conjointly with the late Mr Brunel, in the construction of the precursor of Ocean Steam Navigation.”

Thomas learned much from his 1835 survey of nautical engineering techniques; and he built on them many innovations of his own, which he applied to the Great Western’s successors, the Great Britain (1843) and the Great Eastern (1859). These included using copper plates on the hull instead of iron ones, to reduce corrosion; and (for the Great Eastern) a twin-walled, cellular system for constructing hulls which created a lining of buoyant, independent, water-tight compartments. In these he preempted double-hull improvements which were ordered after the catastrophic failure of the Titanic’s rather less successful watertight compartments some 53 years later.

Saturday 4 August 2012


Extract from the 1847 Post Office Directory for Reading, Berkshire:
Salter, Ebenezer: 15-16 Castle Street, grocer, bacon factor, Marlboro’ ale stores, & agent for Sweetman’s Dublin porter, & agent to the Argus life assurance company

Local grocers these days can also be agents for everything from telecom providers to dry cleaning companies. In 1847, as in 2012, the corner shop offered whatever it took to attract trade and stay in business. Selling insurance was probably a profitable sideline in an age before state welfare payments were introduced – Argus eventually became part of the Sun Alliance Insurance group. Selling alcohol has of course always been profitable. I don’t know what advantage ale from Marlborough in Wiltshire would have had over a Berkshire brew – both counties had hard water, and by 1847 the so-called three B’s were well established in Reading – biscuits (Huntley and Palmer’s factory opened in 1822), bulbs (Sutton’s Seeds was founded in 1806), and beer (Simond’s Brewery was established in 1785). Reading could certainly do its own beer.

Sweetman’s Leinster Ale

But Sweetman’s was a famous brand, and one worth bragging about. Patrick J Sweetman’s brewery predated the Guinness family’s involvement in the industry: there were five Sweetman breweries in Dublin by 1759 when Arthur Guinness’s St James Gate brewery was founded. Sweetman’s probably launched their dark porter ale before Guinness too – Guinness as we know it today was first brewed in 1778, two years after the earliest Irish porters were introduced. Sweetman’s are certainly credited with the first public advertisement for porter, in 1780 – at a price of two guineas a hogshead. (That’s 54 gallons, 432 pints for £2.10, or about 0.5p a pint.)

My great great grandfather’s cousin Ebenezer had been a grocer in Reading since at least 1830. (The address, 16 Castle Street, is now attached to the 14th century Sun Inn, Reading's oldest pub; but I think the street must have been renumbered at some point because there is no suggestion, despite his storage of Marlboro ales and agency for Sweetman's, that Ebenezer was a publican.) Ebenezer's uncle was a cheesemonger and bacon factor in London’s Newgate from 1812 until his retirement in the 1830s. His father, a cheesemonger and butter factor in the London burgh of Hammersmith, died in 1812 when Ebenezer was nine years old. His mother carried on the family business and after her death it continued in the hands of his two older brothers and a sister. But his father’s will had provided for his children to become apprenticed in the trade of their choice, and gradually many of them found different occupations in the Hammersmith area: one, John, became a successful horticulturalist, another, Stephen, entered the architectural profession.

Simond’s Bottled Beers

Ebenezer, the youngest son, struck out on his own. He married Amelia Martin, a draper’s daughter from Berkhamsted, and went into business in the expanding coaching town of Reading, well placed on the turnpike from London to the West Country. Manufacture of the three B’s was boosting the town’s economy. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway reached Reading in 1841 and brought it within easy reach of London. Reading prospered, and its population more than doubled in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It must have been a good time to run a shop in the town. In 1847, the same year that he was selling ale, porter and life assurance, Ebenezer was also involved in a partnership with one Joseph Haddon Johnson as auctioneers, appraisers and furniture brokers, from which he withdrew in November. By 1851 he had also quit the grocery business and become a “house agent,” which I imagine meant the work of building repair and maintenance. By 1861, at the age of 58 and having presumably spotted a gap in that market, he had set himself up as a brick and tile maker. (I wonder if he knew, that had been the trade of his forebears.)

Another porter

It does sound, from the various agencies he offered and the late change in occupation, as if Ebenezer Salter worked hard to find ways of earning a living. By the age of 67 he was dead, but he must have done well enough for his two children, both girls, to make good marriages before his death – Amelia to a farmer with 450 acres, and Sarah Ann to a coal merchant, and both of whom looked after their mother in her old age.
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