After Walter Long died in Torquay in January 1867, and Maria’s employment by Lady Bisshopp ceased, Maria’s next letter is written from Armadale in Row*, Helensburgh, near Glasgow, Scotland. It is dated less than 6 months later on the 20th June 1867. In the letter she says to her mother:
Well, Mother dear, I finished the Brandy and Water Whitsunday evening that Harriett and you mixed the morning I left my home sweet home so you see, though not at the Kings Head yet, I had some Kings Head Brandy mixed with Chitterne water to drink the health of my loved ones on the Auld Hills of Scotland. I was too full the day I left home, although thank God I was able to keep up whilst I was with you. You will, I am sure, rejoice to hear that I am very happy and have every comfort I can wish for in this world, the dear Children devotedly fond of me, my Mistress very kind and my fellow servants also, and very respectful. And a comfortable nursery to myself and no one intrudes except I ask them, but its very nice to sit down quiet of an evening. I don’t wish for company after being out all day, and my Mistress very kindly brings me a newspaper nearly every evening. She always comes to see the Children in bed after her dinner and has given me a pot of jam twice for my own tea, although she does not allow the Children to take it.
These are little kindnesses which find the way to one’s heart and if the Children are naughty, as they are sometimes, she always says poor Nurse and never encourages them in any way. She has never found fault with any thing, or looked cross, since I have been in Scotland, and last Thursday she took me into Helensburgh in the carriage and told me to go into a shop and buy myself a new print dress, something like the one I have. As she liked it so much, I have enclosed a bit for you to see. She is very pleased with it. I think I am very fortunate to get a new dress given me already. She said last week, Nurse, I must compliment you on the way you do the Children’s hair, and dear Papa is quite enraptured with it.
I think I must be a bit of a favourite with the old Gentleman as he is rather eccentric and does not like to meet a female servant , but yet, I often go in the carriage with them and always sit beside the old man, he is much such a looking Gentleman. Poor Mr Long.
I don’t think I told you that I am the only English servant and so Mrs H takes me into Helensburgh every other Sunday with her in the carriage. She is very regular at Church. I get every other Sunday and then the nursery maid takes charge of the Children. There is an English clergyman and a small congregation and the service is held in a part of the town hall, but they are building an English Church. All the other servants attend the Scotch Church in the village. This is a beautiful place where the Glasgow Merchant … (illegible) have their summer residences and they can go into Glasgow every day, as the steamboats pass every two hours, just as the trains would, and there is a little pier here just for them to stop and take up goods and passengers and put down, but I think I must close my letter.
I will write to Jimmy next time. Tell him I hope he is a good boy and give him my love and kisses. I hope my Brother and family are well. I am very pleased that Harriett is rigged out so well. My kind love to all and be sure you tell dear Mrs George how I am getting on. And now, may Him who is the giver of all good, abundantly bless you all and all our kind friends, and keep us humble, watchful and prayerful and then in life or death, all will be well. With much love to you my own dear Mother, I remain your afft. Maria
Maria has been hired to look after two little girls, Eva Constance aged 3 and Mary Frances Beryl Hamilton aged 2 after the early death of their father, John William Hamilton, the previous year, the girl’s mother, Constance Dennistoun Hamilton is with them. Constance is the daughter of a retired Glasgow merchant, John Dennistoun (1803-1870), and Armadale is one of his homes. The Dennistoun family made their money from the international shipping company started by John’s father James Dennistoun, and gave their name to an area of Glasgow known as Dennistoun, founded by John’s brother Alexander Dennistoun.
Just imagine the journey Maria has made, from dear old familiar Chitterne to the outskirts of one of the most booming industrial cities in Britain. From a poor rural village life of agriculture and cob houses to a wealthy scene of busy shipping on the Clyde and tall granite town houses.
Once again Maria, whose fame as a conscientious worker must have spread, has been snapped up by a family connected to Chitterne. John Dennistoun’s wife’s mother, is Frances Anne Onslow, daughter of Sir Henry Onslow bt. lord of a large slice of Chitterne who is buried in All Saints graveyard here. What sort of adventures await her with her new employers? We will find out soon…
*Rhu is a village and historic parish on the east shore of the Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. The traditional spelling of its name was Row, but it was changed in the 1920s so that outsiders would pronounce it correctly. The name derives from the Scots Gaelic rubha meaning point. It lies north-west of the town of Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde, in Argull and Bute, and historically in the county of Dunbartonshire. Like many settlements in the area, it became fashionable in the 19th century as a residence for wealthy Glasgow shipowners and merchants. Wikipedia.
We left Maria coming home to Chitterne in time to see the opening of the new church on 4th November 1862. Before she left Compton she had received an offer of a position in the laundry at Rood Ashton from her previous employer Lady Bisshopp, (wife of Lord Long), at a rate of £16 per year.
Lady Bisshopp was the second wife of Walter Long of Rood Ashton, MP for North Wiltshire from 1835-1865. She was born Lady Mary Anne Bickerton Hillyar, daughter of Rear Admiral Sir James Hillyar and widow of the Rev. Sir Cecil Augustus Bisshopp, 10th baronet of Parham, Sussex, but she continued to be known as Lady Bisshopp throughout her second marriage. The Longs had one son Walter Hillyar Colquhoun Long, born 1858.
We don’t know when Maria took up the job offer from Lady Bisshopp. However, the first letter written by Maria from Rood Ashton, which has no date, just ‘Tuesday night’, speaks of finishing a cake she had taken with her and of sending Jimmy, ‘the dearly beloved boy’, 2 new pinafores, 6 oranges and a prayer book. This all sounds very like Christmas so she may have gone to Rood Ashton before Christmas 1862. We get no inkling from her letters what has happened to her husband James.
From this time on her son Jimmy would live in Chitterne with his grandmother, Euphemia, and her second husband, Isaac Windsor, and Isaac’s younger children. Jimmy would see his mother only when she came home for short holidays. Maria is very conscious of the separation from her child and tells him via her first letter to her mother:
“Well, my dear boy, his Mother has sent him the Prayer Book for Walter and him to be good boys and not tease each other, and they must be very good at Church and sit quiet and listen to what Mr Richards says. Tell him he must pray for his Mother and Father.”
Walter was Walter Isaac Windsor born 1854, 3 years older than Jimmy, the youngest son of Isaac Windsor and his first wife Mary Ann Drewett, who died a few months after Walter’s birth. George Richards was the vicar at Chitterne.
Maria, who is employed to wash the Long’s body linen and house linen, says of herself:
“You will be glad to know that I am very well and comfortable. We have been washing this week. We are allowed a Woman one day a month to wash up the things we dirty in the house, so we wash ours at the same time. I never knew Rood Ashton so quick as it is now but I never was more comfortable in my life. I am sure I have very much to be thankful for.”
This is the only letter we have written by Maria to her mother from Rood Ashton. The rest of the Rood Ashton letters are all addressed to Jimmy. Presumably Maria was able to get home to see her mother fairly often, and her life was much more comfortable, so letters were unnecessary. The undated letters to Jimmy seem to have been written about once a year. Perhaps around Christmas or his birthday in January. The first, possibly written in 1863:
“My darling little son,
I hope these few lines will find you in good health, as I am happy to say it leaves us at present. Thank God for it. I thank you very much for your very kind letter and the pretty Hymn you sent me.
I am so pleased that you can write so well and I hope, if you go to work, you will be a good boy and do what you are told and be sure you do not say bad words or swear, and then God will bless you and you will grow up a good man and comfort to your dear Grandmother and Mother.
Give my kind love to your Aunt and Uncle and cousins and Walter and Isaac, and receive the same yourself, with lots of kisses, I remain your aff.t Mother.
Maria Feltham xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx God Bless you my Darling Boy
Maria’s next letter to Jimmy is slightly easier to date to 1864 as she asks Jimmy to kiss Harriett’s baby for her. Harriett was another of Isaac Windsor’s children, born in 1847, who gave birth to a child in November 1864 named William Windsor, future grandfather of the late Bill Windsor of Woodbine Cottage, Chitterne.
Maria says she is glad that Jimmy had done Harvest (another pointer to the date). She also tells Jimmy she will come and see him before they go to Torquay. The Longs usually spent the winter in Torquay, Devon, and took Maria with them.
The last Jimmy letter from Maria’s time with the Longs is from Torquay, and is actually dated, January 26th, but no year, although Maria mentions Jimmy’s 8th birthday, so that makes it 1865.
“I hope you take pains at school and learn all you can. As you are 8 years old now, you must try and improve yourself all that you can. As you know, my dear Boy, it is a great comfort to me to think that my dear Boy is trying to be good, and you must pray to God to help you remember what you learn and store it up in your mind as the little Bees store up their honey for the Winter. And then, if it should please God to preserve you to grow up a Man, you will think of what you learned when you were a little Boy at School, and it will help you, with God’s grace to be a good man.”
After 1865 there is a gap of two years in the series of letters. Walter Long died in January 1867 at Torquay and was buried near Rood Ashton, and soon Maria was working for a different family as we shall see.
Rood Ashton House no longer exists as it was. Most of the 46 bedroom mansion was demolished in the 1970s, but the 8 bedroom servants wing, where Maria must have slept, remains and has been turned into a private residence.
For more information on Rood Ashton and the Long family I recommend Cheryl Nicol’s book “Inheriting the Earth”, a history of the Long family’s 500 year reign in Wiltshire.
We left Maria in November 1857 recently married to James Feltham, with their 10 month old son, William James Cockrell Feltham, known as Jimmy. Two more mis-matched people it would be hard to find, but I will let Maria tell you her story in her own words mostly, so you may need to sit down, it will take some time.
Putting a date to Maria’s letters has been tricky as she rarely gives us the year, but they appear to start in late 1860 or early 1861. From comments in these letters we know that Maria obtained a position working for Walter Long’s wife Lady Bisshopp until 1860. On 11th April 1862 Maria wrote:
“Just two years ago today I parted with kind Lady B to go to my birthplace and thence to this place of trial.”
Walter Long owned much of Chitterne and lived at Rood Ashton House, near Trowbridge. Lady Bisshopp turned out to be a very good friend to Maria and wrote to her often. We don’t know what happened to James from 1857 to 1860. He does not appear to be with Maria, perhaps he was back in Chitterne with his parents. In later letters Maria mentions having left him once before, maybe it was during this time. Maria’s mother Euphemia looked after Jimmy while Maria was at Rood Ashton.
However, by early 1861 Maria, James and Jimmy are living together as a family at Compton, near Enford, Wiltshire, 10 miles east across the Salisbury Plain from Chitterne. James has a coal hauling business, they have two horses, a cart, some pigs and chickens and grow cereal crops. James is illiterate and relies on Maria to keep the business accounts. Maria is also a needlewoman and nurses the elderly.
Maria’s early letters are all addressed to her mother back in Chitterne. At first all appears to go well:
“I am happy to say our business is steadily on the increase and sometimes I seem to have more than I can do, for I have no one to put a helping hand or go on an errand or anything.”
Her troubles start in April 1861 after she has been home to Chitterne for her brother William’s wedding to Maria Coles on the 4th April:
“James has such a very bad place on his thigh and really his temper is like that, that I am almost at my wit’s end. He almost gnaws me to death.”
In May 1861 we get an inkling of earlier trouble:
“James has two more boils coming on his behind. I am happy to say he has not given me the least trouble since he last took money.”
The death of James’s father is the catalyst for yet more trouble, on 3rd September 1861, Maria writes:
“James has been so very rough lately. He served me worse since his fathers’ death than he did before, and last Tuesday, a week ago today, he went out drinking in the morning and returned home at 11 o’clock and went to mowing and I got the dinner ready and went and called him, and he sent the child in to tell me to bring it up to him. I did so and spread it out before him, when he began throwing the knives and forks about and ordered me indoors with it. And then he began throwing it at me and broke everything there was on the table, 2 dishes, 3 plates, vinegar bottle and salt cellar. Fortunately only one piece of one of the dishes caught me and that did not hurt me, as my stays prevented it. The child went up to Mr Martin’s (farmer at Compton Farm) and told them and I ran and hid in a garden. Jane (servant friend at Compton Farm) came down and shamed him and told him she would give me any money I like to name to leave him and go in and help me pack my traps. He said he would help too but it would be a job to part us. Mr Martin and the Reverend have both given the policeman orders to be about there, and the next time he is found ill using me, to take him up. He will be at Chitterne next Saturday but pray don’t say that I have written to you as you value my life.”
Following this episode Maria’s cousin Dorcas came to Compton as live-in help, and Maria received a letter from Lady Bisshopp dated 23rd September 1861 saying she was deeply grieved to hear that Maria had been ill-used again. Lady B offered Maria the situation of 3rd housemaid at Rood Ashton, which was vacant if Maria would like it, and send Jimmy back to her parents again. Maria read the letter to James and told him if he did not continue to be good to her she would take up the offer.
Over the next year, as his behaviour worsens, Maria is frequently torn between staying with James, or leaving him. On 19th October 1861 she tells her mother:
“…a week ago last Monday he went to Honeystreet and afterwards to the Swan (Swan Inn, a mile from Compton) as usual and after the turn out, got up to a fight with another man and some say James kicked, but James denies it. However, the other man’s ankle bone is completely smashed and it is in such a state that it can’t be set yet, and they are taking him to the Infirmary this morning. He has 4 children and is unable to work. James was also very abusive to Mr Baden, Lord of the manor at Enford, that was passing at the time and told him to go home. So how it will be settled, God only knows, but it is generally thought here the parish will county court James and make him pay all expenses, and if they do, I don’t know what will become of us.”
Maria took up an offer to go and stay with Lady Bisshopp for a week in November with young Jimmy, a favourite of the Rood Ashton servants. But on returning home she found:
“…two summonses, one for fighting at Upavon a week ago last Saturday and the other for allowing the horse to stand exposed to the severity of the weather so many hours. James came home a week ago with two black eyes, as the men of Upavon served him dreadfully. Lady Bisshopp begged me if I found at any time it was more than I could bear, to come and take it as a home, as she could always find me employment. It seems good to know that even in this world there is someone caring for me, and I feel that I have not driven my husband from his home, but he is a slave to drink.”
Maria’s letters are full of thankfulness despite her troubles, which she blames on herself for much of the time:
“The Lord has given me friends and mercies. May he give me a thankful heart, that I may be kept from despairing at my lot, for I know full well that the path of sorrow and that path alone, leads to that land where sorrow is unknown.”
But no peace yet for Maria. On 11th April 1862 she reports her latest trouble to her mother:
“And now my dear Mother, I must tell you of events of last Thursday. I went up in the morning to go for coals, and I did my washing, and as I was coming in about 3 o’clock I saw the house was cracking opposite the wall and something seemed to tell me I would make a late job of it if I started towards Upavon, thinking I would meet him with his load. But I soon heard he had been drinking at Upavon all the morning, and was just started on, so I overtook him about halfway to Honeystreet with the empty cart stopped at the Woodbridge Inn. The landlord and him had been quarreling and James attempted to kick the landlord’s behind, and the landlord threw James down but did not hurt him much. I called him out and told him what I thought of the house and begged him to turn around and come back with me, but he would not, but began fisting at the window and at last smashed it with his fist.
I could not get him away. It was about 5 o’clock and then took the empty cart and horse home and left him there. It was the kicking one so I got William Eyre to unharness it and then put the poor child to bed, and Dorcas and me got all the things out of our bedroom, except the bedstead and chest, but we did not take anything downstairs. Then we sat up till a little past 12 listening to the whitewash dropping, in horrible suspense, when James came in, one eye quite closed, his clothes torn and covered with blood. After I left him he came back to Upavon and insulted the landlord there, till it provoked him to take the law into his own hands and serve him as he did.”
James had been home about 20 minutes when the whole side wall of the house fell down filling the well, which meant they had to use the river water. Thanks to Maria’s earlier actions no furniture was damaged.
“We have no place to be in. James sleeps in the straw. I and Dorcas and child sleep at Chisenbury. Our things are in the barn. Pray for us.”
Next is a letter from Maria’s friend Jane Hobbs of Compton Farm to Maria’s mother who had just paid a visit to Maria’s home. Jane wrote on 7th May 1862:
“Dear Friend, I take the liberty to write to you. I am very sorry to tell you the sad accident of your dear daughter Maria for she come tonight and drink tea with me and very much wished me to write and tell you of her husband’s ill treatment to her Sunday night. Before you was gone out of sight, he began abusing her most awfully and on Monday morning he held the gun to her head and swore he would shoot her and she fainted from the fright and today he has been fighting and has got his face cut open dreadfully and what the end of it will be we can’t tell. We hope the almighty will be with her and preserve her from such a brute of a husband, for we feel very much for the dear innocent creature. Poor Maria I think she is very bad and you need not be surprised to see her at any time.”
James calms down again for a bit and on 22nd May 1862 Maria tells her mother she is much better than when Jane Hobbs wrote her letter, but also adds:
“People seem to blame me very much for staying here, but what am I to do? I have a friend in Lady B as she offered to get me a situation now in London and receive me into her own family again in July. But what am I to do with my dear boy? He is not near well and if I was to leave him with you, it is uncertain how long they (presumably James’ family in Chitterne) would let him stay with you, so I must stay as long as please God.
Maria’s respite from trouble is not long, for in June 1862 James is summoned to Pewsey for driving and whipping his two horses whilst riding on the shafts in a drunken state. Maria writes the following day of what happened to her when he returned home:
“As soon as he came home and I went out to him, he horsewhipped me with a large whalebone whip and almost fetched the blood on the fleshy part of my arm. It is all colours now, as well as my shoulders and back.
In the same letter dated 14th June 1862 she tells her mother what happened at the court:
“At Pewsey yesterday he was fined £10 or one month’s imprisonment and he told the bench he should not pay the money. He should go to prison for he had been before and he knew where to hang his hat. So he was locked up with the prisoners about 2 hours, till the business of the day was settled and then I went and paid the magistrates the fine, and had him released.
For what could I do? A month here at this time of year with the two horses and haymaking all about, and I know he could earn that over and over again if he liked, but instead of being any better for it, he began spending again and got drunk before he got home. I got him as far as Chisenbury (The Red Lion) and then left him and went home and cried myself to sleep.”
Maria soon regrets she had paid James’ fine when James takes exception to her new things. Little Jimmy, now 5 years old, had been to stay with his grandmother. As Maria writes on 8th July 1862:
“We have been as rough as possible since we went to Pewsey. I have regretted ever since that he was not sent to prison. I only had my clothes off one night, and I had a new bonnet and cap, trimmed with white, and he burnt the lot, box and all. He was mad drunk and came home about 7 o’clock in the evening, and locked himself in and took the key out of the door and burnt it. And we were outside, we smelled it, and Dorcas saw the blaze, but we did not know what it was.
He then the same night stuffed all his clothes into a sack and put it into the cart and swore he would go to London, and off he went. This was before the dear boy got home, and he went off somewhere till about 9 o’clock in the morning, and then he came back and tried the door, and we were afraid to come down, so he climbed up the trigger that supported the roof and flew through the room where we were standing, and downstairs and took the loaded gun off the nail and shot it up the chimney. I thought it was at the boards as it shook the place so, but I found when I came downstairs that the soot was all over the place.
He then came upstairs and began talking to the child and asking him what you did say about him. The child said nothing that I can mind.
Last week it was rather better, but Tuesday he threw a butter tub at me and knocked me down under the white horse, but the poor thing looked at me and never moved. Had it been the black one, I might not now be in the land of the living. It bruised my hip, thigh and arm on the left side, but not of much consequence, and he has begun this week the same, for he went for a load of faggots yesterday, Monday, and returned this morning after daylight, without horse or wagon, and we went up the field and left him in bed, and now when we came down he is fled. When he will come again I know not for I am out of patience with him. But I shall try and rub it (put up with it) till Christmas and I don’t think we shall hold out much longer.”
On 25th October 1862 their house is still in a damaged state as the landlord has refused to rebuild the wall. Since the wall fell down Maria sleeps at the house of an elderly couple, and helps them until about 10 o’clock in the morning, before going to Compton. Dorcas and Jimmy sleep at Mr Eyre’s house. Maria supposes they will winter at Chitterne. Mr Martin, the farmer at Compton Farm, helps by looking after Maria’a hens and little chickens, and by offering to ask a lawyer if James will be sent to prison again or not. He has also recommended Maria for a situation at Lake Farm near Salisbury where they need a trustworthy person to supervise the other servants in the morning and do needlework in the afternoon. Mr Martin is very keen for Maria to take it in preference to a situation at Chitterne:
“as he thinks I should always be an eyesore to James’ family, and no doubt that they would do all in their power to annoy one.”
Maria has also heard from Lady B who would be pleased to take Maria as a laundry maid in July, but advises her to take another situation for the present.
“I hope I shall be able to come home for a week and I should be so glad if Isaac (Maria’s stepfather) would consent for the child to stay with you. If not, I must try to place him somewhere else, as I should have so much better opportunity of supporting him.”
Maria also writes to her aunt and uncle, Dorcas’ parents, on the 25th October 1862 and this letter seems to herald the end Maria’s time at Compton as she speaks of items being sold. We get no inkling of what has happened to James, is he in prison? Maria says:
“I don’t know how long I may be here but I do hope not more than another week, and I am much obliged to you for letting Dorcas stay with me. I shall come to Chitterne, and Dorcas with me. (Maria planned to attend the opening of the new Church, Chitterne All Saints with St Mary’s, on 4th November 1862).
I expect it will all be sold off by auction. I will write again when I know how it’s going to be.”
That is the last letter we have of Maria’s sent from Compton, ‘this place of trial’ as she once described it. Soon her fortunes will change, as we shall see in the next blog….
This story follows on from a blog entitled A Bit More on the Felthams which left us with unanswered questions. To recap, Maria was the late Raymond Feltham’s great grandmother, married to James Feltham, and the mother of a single child, Jimmy Feltham who was Raymond’s grandfather. At first glance it appears that Maria was a lowly nurse and yet her single grave sports a striking tombstone erected in Chitterne by persons other than her family, with no mention of her husband on the inscription. We were intrigued, to say the least.
Since Maria’s letters were discovered by the Feltham family at 98 Codford Road after Raymond’s death, we now know much more about her life. She was born on 1st February 1837, the eldest child of William Cockrell of Chitterne St Mary and Susan Jemima Euphemia Daniels of Imber, known as Euphemia. The Cockrells lived at Chitterne St Mary where William was a carrier and Euphemia a laundress.
Maria was clearly able to read and write so would probably have been one of the first children in Chitterne to attend the Elementary School opened in 1840 on the site of the present Village Hall. Her interest in education lasted all her life as she constantly sought to improve her own efforts and later, in her letters to her son, encouraged him to improve his writing and spelling by attending night-school. Her words to young Jimmy must have struck home since later Jimmy’s own daughters and his great grandson became teachers, either at Sunday School or in main stream education.
Sadly, Maria’s life took a downturn at age four in 1841, when her father William died aged 32 years. By 1851 Maria was working as a servant, and probably nurse, to elderly widower Thomas Hayter, a retired grocer and former Parish Clerk of Chitterne All Saints. In 1856 Maria was 19, and unmarried, when she became pregnant, not an unusual occurrence, but most pregnant women in those days married before the birth, not so Maria. With interesting timing, her employer Thomas died and was buried just two days before Maria gave birth to her son Jimmy on the 23rd January 1857.
Maria’s mother Euphemia, who had remarried two years earlier to widower Isaac Windsor, took Maria and the baby in. From the letters we can tell that Maria was very close to her mother. Five years later she writes to Euphemia remembering Thomas Hayter’s passing and the birth of Jimmy, always connected in her mind:
“if you had shut the door of your house and your heart, then I might have been outcast on the wide world now”.
Later that year Maria married James Feltham, a coal hawker son of William and Elizabeth Feltham of Chitterne St Mary, who we must assume was Jimmy’s father. But Maria’s luck had not yet turned. The most harrowing of Maria’s letters to her mother concern the trials and tribulations she suffered at the hands of James Fetham, who turned out to be a drunk, often in trouble with the law and treated her very badly.
But Maria was a resourceful woman. To be continued….
The entry for Chitterne in ‘Kelly’s Directory of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorsetshire 1915’ 14th edition is below with grateful thanks to AS.
Kelly’s directories are useful to historians as they provide a snapshot of a particular place in a particular time. The books were heavy tomes, this particular one had almost 2000 pages, including maps of each county, topographical accounts of each town, parish or village, descriptions of the principal buildings and objects of interest. Plus information on councils, courts, religious institutions, landowners, hospitals, charities, acreage, markets and fairs and transport.
Note on page 1 that William James C Feltham was the parish clerk in 1915. More on his mother Maria Cockrell Feltham soon I hope, when I have read all her 200-odd letters, which tell of an unusual life for a Chitterne woman in the 19th century.
I wrote the first part of this in November 2017, after the Repair Shop episode featuring Hercules was filmed at Westbury, but I have held it back until after the broadcast.
Hercules, the iron man in the title, resided in our shed in Chitterne for 6 years from 1986 until 1992 when my mother and I donated him to the Westbury Heritage Society. In 2017 I had an out-of-the-blue phone call about Hercules from an old neighbour, putting me in touch with LA of the Heritage Society. This led eventually to Hercules appearing on TV, as part of the Repair Shop series, in a story that took me way back to my roots.
November 8th 2017
Hercules is a Victorian statue made of cast iron which once stood on the magnificent beam engine at Bitham Mill, one of the two Westbury cloth mills owned by Abraham Laverton. My father, Jack Ingram, was the maintenance engineer at Bitham Mill from 1936 until A. Laverton & Co ceased to exist in 1969. He loved everything about machines and especially that beautiful engine. It was the biggest steam engine in the area and could produce the power of 60 horses to drive the machines at the mill.
For generations my Dad’s ancestors were weavers in Westbury, but both his parents worked in gloving. Before taking over the maintenance job at Laverton’s in 1936 my father was a carpenter building staircases on the new housing estates going up in Ashford Middlesex. He had always dreamed of being an engineer, but that dream was shattered by the death of his father in 1921, when, aged 11, and the eldest of three, he had to help support the family, and his mother apprenticed him to Parson’s as a carpenter, engineering being deemed too expensive. He completed his apprenticeship in 1930 and worked for Butchers of Warminster until 1933 when he was laid off.
The 1930s were a cruel time, there were no jobs for carpenters around Westbury and Warminster, hence, as an about to be married man, his move to find work near London. After their marriage my mother never really settled in London so when he heard from his brother Les that their uncle Charlie was retiring as the Laverton’s maintenance man, my Dad jumped at the chance work with machinery and be near ‘that’ engine. Motorbikes and cars were already his passion, he loved figuring out how they worked by taking things apart and putting them together again. What he didn’t know about engineering he taught himself, from books mostly. He had an extensive collection of books on steam engines and engineering generally.
I can’t imagine how he must have felt when, three years later it was decided to scrap the beam engine and replace it with a more modern method of powering the machinery. But he was involved with dismantling the engine and so was able to save the iron man from being scrapped; I don’t know how, this was way before I was born. What I do remember is my father bringing the statue home after Laverton’s closed in 1969, and mounting it on a purpose made iron bracket on the back wall of our bungalow at Station Road, Westbury.
This was typical of my Dad. He loved everything about Westbury and its history, so he saved what he called “the iron man” for posterity. He was also a very driven, impatient, and intense man, very clever with a fearsome temper and he didn’t suffer fools gladly. However, he was always helping people out by making new metal parts on his lathe for machines thought to be beyond repair.
My father died in 1985 and a year later my mother came to live in Chitterne with us, along with the iron man and quite a bit of my Dad’s engineering stuff, which was deemed to be ‘useful’. The iron man lay in store and occasionally I fretted that he should be in a museum, until in 1992 an article appeared in the local press about the newly formed Westbury Heritage Society, with a plea for donations. Just the place for the iron man I thought. I contacted the society and offered them the iron man. It was at this point that the iron man became Hercules, I can’t remember exactly how, perhaps I described him as a ‘Herculean type of figure’ on the telephone or perhaps it was someone from the society when we handed him over to them. Later on, my mother and I went along to see Hercules on display at the opening of the Society’s first museum at the Angel Mill.
Hercules has been in the Westbury Heritage Society’s care for the last 25 years. He now resides at the Westbury Visitor Centre in the High Street. Sadly, about 10 years ago whilst being moved he fell over and the club he holds broke off. The last time I saw the statue it was still broken.
I heard recently that Hercules had been repaired as part of the society’s 25th Anniversary celebrations, and he was to be unveiled on Thursday 8th November 2017 at the Visitor Centre. I was invited along to watch the unveiling, which would be filmed for a BBC 2 programme called The Repair Shop.
The visitor centre was displaying many items from the days of the cloth mills, paintings of workers at the factory, photographs, lengths of Laverton’s woollen and worsted cloth, wooden shuttles and so on. In the middle of it all on a table lay Hercules swathed in many layers of bubble wrap and parcel tape. We gathered around the table as the bubble wrap was slowly peeled off, and bit by bit Hercules was revealed in all his glory. He looked superb.
I was swept back on a tide of nostalgia to many years ago when my father was alive and working in his workshop at Bitham Mill. I could picture his hands covered in black grimy oil working away at some piece of metal and I could smell the oily scent of the workshop floor. I remembered my Dad’s passion for anything to do with Westbury’s history and I thought he would have welcomed this moment. Although I am sure he would have longed to have a go at the repair himself. Then I wished that I had been around when the beam engine was in operation to see Hercules in his rightful place.
August 29th 2018
The programme has been broadcast so I am free to post my blog, but before I do I must add new information that has turned up at the Visitor Centre since the programme was made, and I am grateful to LA at the Visitor Centre for sharing this document with me.
It is an article about the beam engine at Bitham Mill by Alan Andrew. The article provided a lot more information about the history of the Bitham beam engine based on interviews by Alan of George Watkins MSC and my father.
George Watkins was one of the country’s leading authorities on industrial steam power. He had visited Bitham Mill by bicycle from his home in Bristol in 1932, and he thought the 1835 engine at Bitham might have been made by Musgraves of Bolton, although he had been unable to find any record of the engine builder. The Hercules figure arrived about 20 years later when the original cylinder was replaced, probably supplied by Cole Marchent & Company of Bradford, Yorkshire.
As with many early beam engines the Bitham engine was modified around 1872 to take advantage of improving boiler technology making higher steam pressures possible. This involved fitting a new high-pressure cylinder forward of the beam trunnion. A new beam was also required to provide anchorage for the new piston rod and to cope with increased stresses. The old cylinder was retained and fed with the exhaust steam from the new high-pressure cylinder, a process known as McNaught compounding, after its inventor.
One of the maintenance requirements was the removal of the cylinder ends, the checking of the bores and the packing and adjustment of the compression rings. At Bitham this was always done at Christmas, in those days only a two-day holiday, except for the engine man.
Being an engine man could be a hazardous job. One day my father was about to leave the factory for home when he noticed that the engine was not running down as it usually did each day at 5.30pm. He returned to the engine house and found the engine still running at normal speed but no sign of Bill Jackson, the engine man. He called out, no reply. He climbed to the upper cylinder platform and found poor Bill slumped unconscious with a neat round hole in the top of his head. It seems while he was oiling he had been caught by a bolt-end on the descending valve gear. Luckily he survived non the worse for the experience.
Several problems had occurred during the engine’s last years. The keys retaining the flywheel to the crankshaft kept working loose and had to be driven back in place. It may have been one of these that fell into the gearing of the primary drive, wrecking the pinion one time. As a result production at the mill ceased for 8 weeks, until a new pinion made by Stothert and Pitt of Bath was fitted. One of George Watkins photographs taken in 1932 showed a plated repair to the support casting of the high pressure cylinder, which was held in place by 15 bolts of about an inch in diameter. This repair was caused by the crankpin coming adrift and smashing a large chunk out of the casting. Perhaps its not so surprising that the old engine was replaced in 1939.
The repair of Hercules forms part of episode 13 in Series 3 of The Repair Shop on BBC2.
You may remember an earlier blog about Gallybagger Corner from April 2016: Old Chitterne Names 11: Gallybagger Corner and how the scarecrows made by Don Poolman were included in a book on Salisbury Plain. Now it appears that the scarecrows also inspired an author of children’s books to write a story for young adults called The Scarecrows.
Robert Westall, a very successful medal-winning author of books for young adults, was passing through Chitterne in the late 1960s when he spotted Don Poolman’s scarecrows on the corner at the western end of the village. He was so impressed by them that he turned around and went back to get a good look and take a photograph.
Westall, an art teacher by profession, treasured that photograph for years and eventually the scarecrow picture inspired him to write a novel. We know this from a letter he wrote to Don Poolman in 1979 praising the scarecrows and asking many questions about them.
The novel, published in 1981 by Chatto & Windus, won the Carnegie Medal. The edition in our picture was published by Puffin in 1983. The book is still in print today.