Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract – A review


From 2006 to 2018, Richard Atkinson worked as an editor at Bloomsbury publishers, rising to senior commissioning editor and responsible for some of the most successful illustrated cookbooks of the last two decades, including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage series. From 2010, he was increasingly occupied with researching and writing his own first book, a family memoir published by 4th Estate in 2020, entitled Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract: the story of a tangled inheritance.

I should confess that I am not usually a reader of other people’s family histories. Like Benjamin Disraeli’s taste in novels, if I want to read one, I will write one. In 2011, I had a vague plan to do that, and coincidentally discovered that the Faber Academy were offering a course in how to research and write a family history. Richard Atkinson attended the same course, so when I noticed his book had been published recently, I was curious enough to purchase a copy.

At around 400 pages – difficult to estimate in Kindle format – I doubted it would hold my attention to the end, unless it was the type of creative non-fiction narrative that piles revelation upon revelation, like a thriller, until arriving at the final dramatic denouement which satisfies the reader. But, unlike a fictional thriller, a family history has to make do with what actually happened, which can be a tad unfulfilling.

So, in approaching Richard’s book, I was looking for a quest that brought associations with my own ancestral research, taking me on a journey alongside the author which chimed with my own experience of life-writing.

I wanted to read about the unwrapping of family secrets, persuasive insights gleaned from fragmentary evidence, and some interesting characters plucked from historical obscurity to be given belated recognition. I needed to be convinced by the author’s motivation for starting out on the quest and then choosing to publish, by his honesty and self-awareness. Of course, I was hoping he would be able to convey an enthusiastic engagement with story at the heart of the book, but there also had to be connections with the wider world in which his family moved. And if his research had uncovered some intriguing situations that professional historians had overlooked, that would pretty much seal the deal for me.

And to aid me through this family’s “tangled inheritance”, I expected such ingredients as family trees, photographs, maps, timelines, notes and references, and quality indexing.

Did the book deliver for me?

Richard Atkinson has marshalled a huge amount of material to construct an exhaustive account of his Atkinson ancestors, from Westmorland tanners to one of the richest families in Jamaica. The family fortune was wrecked by a series of bitter lawsuits. By the 1970s, it consisted of a decrepit Cumbrian mansion, Temple Sowerby House, and a dusty box of bundles of family correspondence which Richard’s mother kept on top of a cupboard, together with the handwritten family tree compiled by his father. When Richard Atkinson got around to reading the correspondence, he found among it a list of the names and monetary value of nearly 200 slaves on a Jamaican plantation in 1801.

Richard Atkinson’s account of his family’s involvement in the slave trade and plantation labour in the British West Indies is probably not unique. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project at UCL showed in 2015 that at least 3000 Britons were paid compensation when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833. Deriving income from slave ownership  was not confined to the wealthy merchant and upper classes, and I think family historians today would not be less astonished or shocked to discover an ancestor’s connection with slave-owning than Richard Atkinson was in 2007.

At the heart of the book is the life story of the author’s x5 times great uncle and namesake, Richard “Rum” Atkinson. “Rum” became a merchant and profiteer, an East India Company Director, an MP, an Alderman of the City of London, a slave owner, the financial advisor and rejected suitor of an Earl’s daughter, and the posthumous initiator of the bitter family feud that wrecked the family fortunes.

Personally, I’m an enthusiast for Chancery cases and the insights they provide into family feuds and business relationships. They often went on for years or decades. Challenging in complexity, and definitely not  accessible online, the records can include absolute gems of documentation for the genealogist or historian.

The twists and turns of litigation spanning forty years which arose from “Rum” Atkinson’s contested estate made a fine case study. The detailed account, through the prism of further generations, of the fate of the Jamaican estates in the wake of abolition and free trade in commodities to Britain, was a revelation to me. However, the subsequent stories of people on his particular branch of the family tree were less engrossing, seemingly serving mainly as the device by which to bring the book back to the bundle of family correspondence with which it started.

As family historians, we’ve probably all been forewarned to expect to find, and have to personally address, ancestral involvements and behaviours that today are considered repugnant. Richard Atkinson is no exception. He has done that by publishing a frank account of his family’s involvement in slavery.

But his ancestors were also witness, through their political and social connections, to some of the most momentous times in eighteenth century history. When reading the book, I was constantly encountering figures and events dimly remembered from schooldays. And I was genuinely delighted for Richard when he was able to piece together, by working with family archives, Rum Atkinson’s role in the ‘coup’ that ushered William Pitt the Younger into power – previously not fully recognised by professional historians.

I would recommend Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract to anyone considering researching and writing their family history. You will learn much from the author’s account of how he went about his quest, the daunting amount of time and travel, the dedication and obsession to navigate labyrinths of documentary records, and the effort of producing a commercially published book.

But, please, include a timeline in your own family history book.


Annie Hedington


Categories: 19th Century, 20th Century, Books we've read, Legacies | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

… a story of slate and more . . .

Last year, I became the published author of a family history:  The Cassons in  North Wales: A Story of Slate and More (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2019).  

The culmination of 8 years of research and writing, it tells the story of my maternal grandfather’s family. Since childhood, I had heard how, at the beginning of the 19th century, his great-grandmother, Esther Casson, rode pillion on the back of her husband’s horse, on a life-changing journey from the Lake District to Ffestiniog, Meirionydd, where, with his brother and an old schoolfriend, he had bought the first slate quarry. 

My grandfather, Lewis Casson,  was brought up in Denbigh, but spent much of his career in London, where he became an eminent actor and director, married to a famous actress, Sybil Thorndike. In the 1930s, Lewis inherited Bron y Garth, a family house above Porthmadog, Caernarvonshire. I was born there, during the Second World War, and later spent summer holidays there, until, in 1950, my grandfather sold it, ending 150 years of Cassons in North Wales.

I planned to write about the Mrs Cassons but I soon discovered that women’s lives in the 19th century went largely unrecorded. About Esther Casson, there was almost nothing written. We had her portrait, and the family stories.  The one contemporary reference praised her as ‘a lady whose worth is little known from her unobtrusive life’. While Esther remained an inspiration, my focus changed, and I saw other themes emerging alongside the family story.

First there was the part played by the English in developing the Ffestiniog slate industry. Esther’s husband and his brother and friend were humble Lakeland quarriers. They scraped together enough money to buy ‘Diffwys’ quarry which, until then, had been worked only for local use.  By the time their sons sold Diffwys in the 1860s, the industry was thriving, with slate carried to many parts of Britain and abroad; almost every Ffestiniog quarry was owned by Englishmen, some of whom had little practical experience of quarrying.

Another theme was the change in social amenities and infrastructure during the 19th century in North Wales.  In the 1840s, two of the second generation of Cassons went into banking; when their parents had arrived in 1800, there were no banks in the whole county of Meirionydd.  The mountainous terrain had slowed the development of turnpike roads, but with greater prosperity came more toll roads, creating a network of communication unknown to Esther and her husband when they made their way to Ffestiniog, following drovers’ roads and packhorse trails for much of the time.  A major  development was the building of an embankment, completed in 1811, allowing carriages, horse riders and those on foot to cross the river estuary that separated Meirionydd from Caernarvonshire (now both in the county of Gwynedd). Another important engineering feat was the construction of a bridge across the Menai Straits, linking the mainland with Anglesey.  And then came the railway, which developed more slowly than in many other parts of Britain, again because of the challenges that the terrain presented.  Nevertheless the third generation of Cassons enjoyed far greater mobility than their forebears.

Partly as a result of greater ease of access, another important development during the Cassons’ residence in Wales was tourism.  In the mid-18th century, few travellers ventured into the Principality. One who did described it as ‘the very Rubbish of Noah’s flood’. But by the end of the century, more enlightened visitors began to appreciate its beauty. During the second half of the 19th century, and into the 20th century, rail travel, and then the motor car,  brought more and more holiday-makers to North Wales, threatening the beauty of sea and mountains they had come to admire.  The slate industry itself left unsightly heaps on the mountain sides, yet as that faded, its history became one of the visitor attractions. None of the Cassons saw themselves as visitors – they were residents.

Another theme was political change. When the Cassons arrived in Ffestiniog, they encountered a society which was, in terms of government, no different from what they had known in England, though established more recently.  During the first part of the 19th century, working people played little part in parliamentary politics, few having the vote.  They accepted the status quo, whereby Members of Parliament, traditionally Tory, were drawn from the landed gentry. The Cassons’ prosperity as quarry owners raised their own status to that of the gentry.  Esther’s husband and brother-in-law each in turn held the position of High Sheriff. Gradually, after their lifetime, interest in progressive politics grew.  One of her sons became a Liberal, supporting the candidature of the first Liberal MP in Meirionydd, elected in 1868.   One of the next generation, Randal Casson, a keen Liberal himself, became involved in the early career of Lloyd George, training him in law and taking him canvassing in Caernarvonshire. 

Closely related to politics was the question of the Welsh language.  While many, from the middle of the 19th century onwards,  felt that social and political progress in Wales depended on its people using the English language, and letting their own language die out, the Cassons did not share that view.  Esther, her husband and her brother-in-law had learnt the language, and all her children were fluent. The third generation knew enough to Welsh to get by, and all the family, being keen on music, supported the eisteddfod movement, with its emphasis on Welsh language and culture. 

The final theme that emerged from my research was the change in the lives of women, bringing me back to my original interest.  Randal Casson’s wife Lucy held a prominent position in their home town of Porthmadog. Although women did not have the parliamentary vote, they were allowed to vote in local elections from 1888 and to sit on the Board of Guardians, in charge of poor relief.  Lucy joined the Ladies’ Committee at  Ffestiniog Union Workhouse, and in 1894, was elected to the full Board.  She was also a Governor of Porthmadog County School.  Education was a topic of growing interest.  In 1882, Frances Hoggan, the first female doctor in Wales, had lectured on girls’ education at the National Eisteddfod in Denbigh, where Randal Casson’s brother and his wife lived.  They were particularly interested, their oldest child being a bright 10-year-old girl.  Dr Hoggan believed that women’s education could help to build ‘a strong Wales’, in which ‘the full measure of national prosperity, of national happiness and usefulness, and of national growth can be attained.’ 

6 years later, that bright 10-year-old, the oldest of the fourth generation of Cassons in Wales, took the Oxford and Cambridge local examination, recently open to girls. She became a successful teacher in London, the first Casson woman to have a profession.   Her younger sister, held back for several years by domestic duties, trained as a doctor, enrolling at Bristol University, where she graduated in 1919,  the first Casson woman to gain a degree.  As Dr Elizabeth Casson, she became a well-known pioneer in the field of Occupational Therapy, her achievement recognised by a plaque on the wall of the house in Denbigh, where she was brought up.  Not so ‘unobtrusive’ as her great-grandmother.  

Categories: 19th Century, 20th Century | 3 Comments

A Meeting with Gentleman Jack

It seems unlikely that the forthcoming adaption of Anne Lister’s diaries by the BBC will focus on either of the elements that I found most interesting.  In The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister as edited by Helena Whitbread ‘Gentleman Jack’ devotes an impressive amount of time to mending her own clothing, particularly her underwear and stockings.

The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister

Anne Lister was a relatively wealthy woman, born into Yorkshire’s elite land owning class, yet took care of her own patching and darning.  It is tempting to refer here to Yorkshire parsimony, I hope I’m excused due to my own Yorkshire heritage cut with an elements of Scots, but perhaps this was simple prudence, something every well-brought up woman practised.

Certainly the diaries, both in the main sections and in the coded parts that Helena Whitbread has painstakingly translated, reveal not only the everyday routine of a woman of her class but also her passion both for learning and other women.  But for me the most exciting part is her acquaintance with my four times great uncle; the older brother of my three times great grandfather.  Dan Holdgate Sugden, who Anne Lister refers to as either Sugden or Mr Sugden, was a leading figure in Halifax’s musical life.  On 22nd April 1817, Mr Whitley, the stationer and bookseller from whom she bought sheet music, recommended him to her as ‘a very good player’ of the flute and arranged for her to hear him.  In her entry for 6th May she noted ‘his tone and taste both good’ and that he was quite self-taught’.  Although various websites suggest she then engaged him as a teacher this is not clear from the diary extract where she writes only that she ‘asked his terms for teaching’; ‘a guinea & a half for 1 lesson a week[1] & a guinea & a half per quarter for 2 lessons a week’.  In her secret code though she added ‘This adventure has passed off more satisfactorily than I expected’ so that is perhaps a reasonable inference to draw.  In her diaries Anne makes a number of references to practicing her flute but Dan does not appear again in person.

Dan was born in 1794, the eldest son of Joseph Sugden and Cathey or Katey Holdgate of Folly Hall.  Joseph was a clothier, a description that incorporated both cloth merchant and manufacturer.   Five boys and three girls followed Dan, four dying in childhood.  In a three part history of music in Halifax published in the Halifax Courier in May 1869 the writer commented that ‘he was born a musician and displayed his talent early for his father’s house was the resort for practice of some choice musical spirits’.  He recalled hearing about Dan’s performances as a noted child singer and how he travelled the world performing with his sister Mary Ann until his voice broke at 16 years old.  He then took up instruments, the flute, the French Horn and the Contra-basso (double bass) as well as the organ.

Anne Lister suggested that he had been ‘a fustian-cutter by trade’[2], if so he did not pursue that for long as ‘at 18 he decided to relinquish the trade to which he had been educated and become a musician pure and simple’.[3]  By the time Anne met him ‘being a single man [he] supports himself by teaching singing, the flute, French horn, & writing out music for any one’.[4]  Later that year, in September, when he married Frances Fenton, his occupation was described as Musician, Band Leader and Music Teacher.  Although Anne perceived that ‘his living is but spare’ two years later he had taken over the Shoulder of Mutton Inn and by 1834 was running the Talbot Inn.  The Talbot Inn, which had one of the very few ‘public’ assembly rooms in Halifax at the time provided a venue for concerts and practise sessions.

Dan became a mainstay of both Halifax Orchestral and Halifax Choir Societies.[5]  It is possible that for all her inbred snobbishness Anne would have found him a congenial teacher, the anonymous author of the articles in the Halifax Courier described him as ‘a well-read man; in stature, build and speech and carriage, he was ever true to the instincts of a well-breed gentleman; there is no wonder that he was always a favourite, whenever he went into society’.

Dan died suddenly in July 1846 a few days after he had conducted a choir of 20,000 teachers and scholars at the Sunday School Jubilee in the Piece Hall.[6]  His obituary noted that he was ‘liberal of the gifts nature had bestowed on him and in furthering the interests of music, spent much of his time without fee or reward, and at all times was willing to give instruction to rising merit’[7]  A marble tablet to his memory was subscribed to and placed in the Parish Church but sadly at some time in the past it was damaged beyond repair.

His sister Mary Ann, although never reaching the heights of fame as her brother’s prize pupil Mrs Sunderland,[8] also continued her musical career.  Possibly married and widowed three times she supported her four children first by performing and later by giving music lessons.  Moving to Wales she also worked as a church organist and in her 70th year sang solo in the Messiah at a concert in Swindon.[9]

[1] This would be the equivalent of seven days labour for a skilled workman

[2] Fustian is the old name for corduroy and the cutter lifted and cut the threads to create the velvet like texture, Hebden Bridge near Halifax was a centre of the fustian trade, due to its labour intensiveness it was one of the first skills to become mechanised.

[3] Huddersfield Chronicle 29 May 1869

[4] The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister edited by Helena Whitbread; Virago Press 2010, p13

[5] The Halifax Choral Society, established in 1817, is the oldest surviving society of its kind in the country, the Halifax Orchestral Society was formed in 1833 and carried on until 1850.

[6] A prominent event for many years was the ‘Halifax Sing’ which, from 1831 to 1890, was held every five years in the Halifax Piece Hall. This was a gathering of scholars from the Sunday schools throughout Calderdale when they converged on Halifax and took their allotted places in the great courtyard prepared to sing all day with gusto the carefully rehearsed hymns they had been taught.

[7] Leeds Mercury 04 July 1846

[8] Susan Sunderland (baptised Susannah Sykes), the famous Victorian soprano, was born in Brighouse and lived there all her life. She was known as the “Yorkshire Queen of Song” after singing before Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace.

[9] Todmorden & District News 1 August 1884; she may have married William Marsden, Joseph Ellis and a Mr Tilley, she used the name Mrs Tilley professionally and had children with each surname.

Categories: 19th Century | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking for dialogue – Part 1

What drives me to want to use dialogue in non-fiction writing project?

One year, two months and three days late I finally manage to post a blog about my efforts to find sources for real dialogue that can be used in non-fiction writing.     Action novels and deliciously trashy domestic stories have lots of dialogue that enables the author to impart information, convey emotions and add pace to their story.   Although my story is about real people the MA course I am taking is called Narrative Non-Fiction Writing; using literary and creative writing techniques to tell a non-fiction narrative.   I hope that turning some statements that the van Haecken family have given to form the few remaining legal documents will help add lightness to the relentless factual content of my non-fiction writing; showing and not telling of my story.

In the beginning of my search for dialogue I looked at fictional writers to understand how dialogue works, even if the characters and dialogue are a creation, to see how dialogue added to the readers experience.   I feel frustrated that I will never be able to hear recordings of the van Haecken family’s Flemish accent forming English words, or to discover any repeated phrasing in their speech patterns or written in family letters giving me an insight into their characters and relationships.

I admire the way Agatha Christie created of speech patterns for her famous fictional French-speaking Belgium detective Hercule Poirot’s and his very English sidekick Hastings to enhance their characters.

Poirot – ‘Ah – viola – I did not know, Hastings. …… Yes, if I mistake not, we have here a very poignant human drama.   Tell me Hastings, what do you consider Mrs Pengelley’s feelings towards her husband to be?’

Hastings – ‘Loyalty struggling with fear,’ I suggest (sic)[1]

Hastings replies in a straight forward, no nonsense 1930’s male public school / military English manner. Agatha Christie gives Poirot a flowery sprinkling of French words and syntax consistent with him being native of French-speaking Brussels and a bit of a fussy man. These two men’s characters and attitudes to life shine through their conversation.  But they are fictional characters and my protagonists are real, even if a forgotten family.

For non-fiction inspiration I read Kate Summerscale’s book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a pacey anaylsis of a British murder of a child in 1860, full of dialogue taken from police statements and court recordings and newspapers.   Also Damn His Blood and The Weather Experiment by Peter Moore amongst other writers.    The dialogue in these narrative non-fiction stories added a human touch to difficult stories while still being totally factual.

One of the unique linguistic features in the van Haecken family’s home in South Netherlands (Belgium) history is the intermingling of the French, Flemish and Dutch languages that individually take prominence in certain regions and yet need to be understood by the majority.   Unlike Brussels in the south that had been occupied by the French at certain times in the regions history, the van Haecken home, Antwerp, is in the north close to the border of Holland which meant they continued to speak Flemish with less imposition of French in their everyday lives.

A Belgium business colleague explained that the Dutch language and Belgium’s northern Flemish was basically the same and can be understood by each other even though both Dutch and the Flemish still different, identifiable languages.   The trouble with the Flemish spoken in Antwerp is that is sounds like ‘a very bad case of Dutch Glaswegian, so difficult for anyone to understand accept other Dutch Glaswegians’[2].

The van Haecken family would have been able to speak more than just Flemish at home. They would have knowledge of French used for officialdom in Antwerp and Latin for the church, educational and artistic texts they consulted for their painting.   They probably were conversant to some degree in English too, before coming to London in 1720.   Apart from the previous centuries trading with England that gave rise to the demand for English/ Dutch / Flemish dictionaries, Antwerp had strong links with Britain cemented during the War of succession of Belgium in 1701 that saw the British, Dutch and Holy Roman Empire pitted against the French resulting in the Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1714.

Then I started to find clues – but I needed to work out how to translate them into dialogue………

Cont/ Part 2 – posted 21st April 2017

[1] Christie, Agatha Poirot’s Early Cases pub HarperCollins, London 2002 The Cornish Mystery page 63

[2] Conversation with with Roger van der Leyen in 2005 as he showed me Joseph van Aken’s Antwerp.

© Nicola Stevens 2017

Categories: How we write, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

A writing class with Michael Arditti

As part of the Ilkley literary festival, I attended a Fiction writing class run by the author and critic Michael Arditti. Although the emphasis was on fiction, there were still useful ideas and exercises that can be applied to family history writing.

Michael emphasised how lonely a writer’s life can be, and the importance of belonging to a supportive group [such as our own] , with people of similar aims and experience with whom you can workshop pieces and share ideas. In his opinion, this was at least as important [if not more so] than going on courses which tend to be expensive and are not always helpful.

We tried several writing exercises, which were worked on and developed over the course of the session. In the first, we were asked to write about a recent event that shocked or moved us. Then we were invited to imagine this same event but telling it from another person’s point of view. This is a useful exercise for WFH writers, as it is something we are often having to imagine.

Michael stressed the importance of building up a character in detail, not just what they looked like but their clothes, tastes, voice, habits and interests, etc. This is also key for WFH authors who are trying to make their ancestors appear vibrant and interesting. Any  details about their personalities from many different sources  such as letters, photos, personal memories etc help to make them more ‘real’ and convincing. He gave us a Character Outline form which covered about 30 different details,  ranging from their physical features to their sins, virtues and obsessions. He said it was important not to judge your characters , and to remember that they can change and develop.

We were also exhorted to  ‘kill your darlings!’ – meaning editing out your favourite parts if you find they do not work or fit properly. This is where someone else [a friendly critic or a critical friend] can help by reading your piece and offering constructive editorial advice.

The last exercise was to cut down the original piece to 100 words. Drastic – but sometimes we need to remember that ‘less is more’.

Finally, Michael urged us to keep writing!

I also attended a talk given by Michael Morpurgo at the Isle of Wight Literary festival [yes, it’s that Lit. Fest. time of year] which was very lively and entertaining. He summarised a good approach to novel writing as, ‘Make them laugh, make them cry –  and keep them guessing.’ Good advice for us WFH writers too!

James and Edith Harper [my great-grandparents]at their daughter, Flo's wedding, in 1924.

James and Edith Harper [my  ‘lost’ great -grandparents] at their daughter Florence’s wedding, in 1924.

Categories: How we write, Miscellaneous | Leave a comment

Great-great grandpa gets a parking ticket

If you thought parking tickets were a relatively new invention, think again, the ever interesting Huddersfield Chronicle has turned up a story about John Arthur Liversedge, my great-great grandfather that would be familiar to many a tradesman today.

When my great-grandfather Alfred John Liversedge was born in 1854 his family lived in Huddersfield where his father, John Arthur Liversedge, was a tailor and woollen draper. By 1861 they had moved to neighbouring Halifax but by 1868 they were back in Huddersfield where his father’s main occupation was now carrier.  Running out of their High Street home he acted as the agent for Sutton and Co, Carriers and Shippers, although for a short time he also continued trading as a woollen draper.

In July 1868 he found himself in front of The Bench charged with street obstruction. The charge being that he had permitted a cart to remain in the street a longer time than was necessary.  He stated that “I admit the fact, but I deny the inference.”

Three members of the constabulary gave evidence; Mr. Superintendent Withers stated that:

complaints had been made about

Horse drawn lurrie

Horse drawn lurrie

carts and lurries[1] being allowed to stand in High-street on both sides, blocking up the windows of persons residing there, and causing an obstruction.  The parties had been twice cautioned, but still persisted in saying he had a right to put the cart there as it was outside his own door”.

Police-constable Wilson stated that, “on Friday, he watched the cart from twenty minutes to twelve until twelve o’clock. The defendant said he had a right to let his cart stand near his own door”.  The officer continued to watch the cart until two o’clock.

Inspector Townend said he had cautioned the defendant, and that the cart was an obstruction. In defence Liversedge said “It was a light spring cart, and until lately had been a hand cart. He had had no

A light spring cart

A light spring cart

complaints from any party.  He had left the cart in no place except before his own windows.  He was obliged to have the cart in readiness to receive and distribute parcels.  The street was 15 yards wide, and the conveyance was not four feet wide”. – Inspector Townend stated that there were nine or ten lurries in the street when he cautioned Liversedge; and all the parties claimed a right, as well as the defendant, to leave their carts in the street. – The Bench dismissed the case on payment of expenses.

There does not seem to have been a repeated of the offence so perhaps having made an example of my great-great grandfather the traffic in High Street was not further obstructed.

Sutton Carriers themselves have an interesting future being established by William Richard Sutton (1833-1900) in 1861. He noted that the Royal Mail could carry letters from door to door, but they did not carry parcels; instead the sender had to arrange for delivery to a railway station, goods freight to a station near the destination, and then make separate arrangements for delivery to the final destination.  Sutton Carriers would take care of all those stages.  The railway companies obstructed this and Sutton took them to court with a case that lasted over seven years; eventually the House of Lords ruled to break the railway companies’ monopoly on pricing and allowed him to deliver packages door-to-door.  At his death in 1900 his business had grown to 600 branches.  He left almost all of his considerable wealth to create philanthropic trusts for housing of the poor leading to The Sutton Model Dwellings Trust (now known as Affinity Sutton) which continues to provide housing today.

[1] 1855 Mrs. Gaskell North & South, Great loaded lurries blocked up the not over-wide thoroughfares.

Categories: 19th Century, Men of God, and of Commerce | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

A visit to the Somme

Evelyn Worsley and his family, 1916

Evelyn Worsley and his family, 1916

We recently visited the Somme area for the first time. My husband’s maternal grandfather was killed there during the First World War and as the centenary of his death approaches, it felt appropriate to  see where he is buried and pay our respects. In a sense he was fortunate in that he has a named resting place. We also visited the vast Thiepval monument to the missing of the Somme, over 72000 soldiers who have no known grave. Designed by Lutyens and opened in 1932, it is an enormous, dignified memorial built in brick and stone on which the names of the missing are inscribed on the supporting piers. The sheer scale of the edifice helps one to appreciate the magnitude of the losses, and that is  only one of many battlefields.

Numerous smaller military cemeteries along the roadsides record other assaults and engagements, often involving soldiers belonging to regiments from particular parts of the country or across the then empire.The War Graves Commission ensures that these memorials are all carefully maintained , and books kept on the sites enable the visitor to locate an individual resting place. Thus we found  Evelyn Worsley’s grave in the military cemetery at Corbie, near Albert. He was a schoolmaster, aged 31, married with two young daughters. He joined up in 1916, and was in France for just a few weeks before he was wounded in action and taken to a military hospital where he died. His younger daughter[ my husband’s mother] was only 2 , and so never knew her father. When visiting the cemeteries you keep reminding yourself that each grave represents a similar family story .

We also went to see the recently created museum devoted to Wilfred Owen, at Ors. Called The Forester’s House, it is built over the cellar of the small rural house where Owen spent his last days with his platoon, and from where he wrote his final letter to his mother. The building is white and sculptural in form, almost in the shape of a child’s toy house with an ‘open book’ shaped roof. There are semi-circular ramps up to the main part of the structure which contains an auditorium where you can sit and see Owen’s poems projected on the darkened walls within, and hear them read on a recording by Kenneth Branagh. You may also go down to see the small cellar below. The full poignancy of the visit is appreciated  when you realise that Owen [aged 25] was killed only seven days before the armistice.

Over the next few years there will be many anniversaries marking the centenaries of the ‘milestone’ battles of the Great War. If you are involved in writing family history, it is unlikely that your own family was not touched in some way by those tumultuous years. A visit to the battlefield sites and memorials helps to put the personal experiences into a wider context.

Evelyn Worsley's grave at Corbie, on the Somme.

Evelyn Worsley’s grave at Corbie, on the Somme

Categories: Miscellaneous, World War One | Tags: , | Leave a comment

A Change of Fortune


OLive wedding photo 1913After the photograph of the Slaughter family taken on the steps of the loggia at White Ness ca. 1906, as far as I know they were never together again – at least, there is no extant group photo of them from a later date. Mihill [Mac] and Connie were married in 1906,and in the autumn of that year Mac’s  battallion went out to Egypt en route for India, where Connie joined him in Amballa. By the autumn of 1909 both Connie and their infant son were dead. Mac served briefly as ADC to the Governor of Ceylon in 1911, and then may have returned to India or Egypt before war broke out. Arthur was at Cambridge from 1904 -8, where he read Law, and  then worked as a trainee solicitor, though always half-heartedly as his real love at Cambridge was for rowing. He must also have joined the territorials as he was called up very early in the war and embarked for Egypt with his regiment in September 1914.

Olive married John Brodie Sanders, a 27 year old Army captain , in February 1913, and they were both out in Egypt the following year. Above is a photograph of her in her elaborate Edwardian wedding gown, but sadly there are no pictures of her with her husband on that occasion. Perhaps she destroyed these when the marriage ended in divorce. They had no children.

In London in 1915 the city’s legal and banking businesses were much reduced because of hostilities. Several of the staff of Slaughter and May had joined up. Nationally, all resources were geared up to contribute to the war effort. Dealings with assets abroad were severely restricted. Conscription was brought in in 1916 for all men under 50 not involved in essential war work. Slaughter was appointed to the Royal Commission on sugar supplies, no doubt largely due to his extensive business experience and long association with the Home and Colonial Stores. In 1914 Britain had the largest sugar consumption in the world, per head of population, and all of it was imported – much of it from Germany and Austro-Hungary. With these two sources cut off by the war, other supplies had to be found with the utmost urgency. Sugar was vital to brewing, as well as for commercial and domestic baking and sweet-making. It was also crucially important to keep the troops supplied with high energy foods in their rations. The Commission was given the authority to control sugar imports and was able to maintain the supply at pre-war costs until the end of 1915.

Nevertheless, the cost of supplying sugar rose because the new sources were much farther away, such as  the Far East or the West Indies and transportation was more hazardous and expensive. By 1916 supplies were much reduced and rationing was brought in.

Slaughter’s efforts with the Sugar Commission were rewarded when  he received a knighthood in the King’s Birthday Honours list of 1915 for ‘valuable assistance to the government.’ But sadly he was not to live much longer. In 1916 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer which soon spread to his liver. By Christmas he was gravely ill although he continued to concern himself with his business affairs until February 1917. By the end of that month it was clear that he was dying.

William died after a stroke on March 10th 1917, shortly before his 60th birthday, and he was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery on 13th March. Among the mourners were his widow, Hester Mary, his eldest son, Captain Mihill Slaughter, his daughter, Olive Sanders, his youngest son, Edward , and his two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary.

There was also a memorial service for William held at St James Piccadilly on the afternoon of the same day. Many well-known associates from the city and the law attended, including Lord Beaverbrook and Sir Thomas Lipton. In a letter to The Times on the subject of Slaughter’s death, Sir George Touche wrote, ‘There was no man in the city whose advice was valued more on any complicated question of law and finance. Ten minutes consultation with him was worth more than an hour with most men.’ Touche also wrote about how much he valued their friendship.

Arthur was unable to attend the funeral because he was still with the army in Egypt at the time of his father’s death, and no letters survive to tell us how he reacted the the news. In fact, I do not think he returned to England until after the war ended and he was demobbed in the autumn of 1919. The world in general, and his world in particular, had changed utterly. He travelled home to be reunited with his pregnant fiancee[who returned from Egypt separately] – to an uncertain reception by his family, his father dead, no job and an insecure future. It was a far cry from that sunny day on the steps at White Ness.

Categories: 20th Century, Before 1st World War, Men of God, and of Commerce, Miscellaneous, World War One | Tags: | Leave a comment

William’s ‘other’ family

Photos of a family holiday in Pontresina early 1900s,   from Arthur's album

Photos of a family holiday in Pontresina early 1900s, from Arthur’s album

During the early 1980s, my mother saw an advertisement in the Times requesting any descendants of William Capel Slaughter to contact a box number. This my mother duly did, and through subsequent enquiries discovered that her grandfather had had an affair with a governess after the death of his first wife and that a son – Charles Slaughter –  had been born as a result of this liason in the 1890s. My mother was given to understand that, on her marriage to William in 1898, Hester Mary Bruce had insisted that the baby took the name of the doctor who had delivered him rather than the name of Slaughter, so he became Charles Leslie.

It is difficult to discover the facts about these events, but there is a tantalising detail in William May’s diary entry for 23rd August 1895 in which he describes how William Slaughter came up to London from Devon en route for Switzerland where he was going on holiday with his children at Pontresina.[There are some photos of the family at the resort in my grandfather’s album].

May writes : [dined] ‘with Slaughter and Madame la Franc, alias Carlotta at the Cafe Royal…. very nice dinner of a recherche character and some excellent champagne Perinet fils of 1874.” Is Madame la Franc a code name for William Slaughter’s mistress, Carlotta or Charlotte? It sounds as though May knew about William’s affair, and they obviously all enjoyed socialising.

There are other tantalising clues as to the identity of the illegitimate child.There is a record of a Charles Leslie, who died in Folkestone, Kent on 17th August 1983, aged 85, [born 12th January 1898.]

There is also the 1891 census record of a Julia [surname indecipherable], a Swiss subject from Berne, and governess in the household of George May ,aged 33, who was a solicitor and partner with Slaughter and May.

My mother was discouraged from making further contact with her grandfather’s other family, although she would have liked to have got to know them.It seems they had put the advertisement in the paper for legal reasons, not really expecting any response and not keen to communicate further with any of William Slaughter’s direct descendants.

There are difficulties in researching  illegitimate children, especially after so many years. Names are changed, family members move or die. Sometimes people do not wish to rake over old arguments or unhappy periods in their lives. However, it would have been interesting to find out about Charles’ mother, to learn about his childhood and how he remembered his father, William – the grandfather whom my mother never knew –  and who, I believe, always provided generously for his ‘other’ family.

Categories: 19th Century, Before 1st World War, Men of God, and of Commerce, Miscellaneous | Tags: | 2 Comments

Mr Slaughter and Mr May

A photo of Whiteness ca 1915 -20. The loggia where the family photo of ca 1906 was taken is on the left.

A photo of Whiteness ca 1915 -20. The loggia where the family photo of ca 1906 was taken is on the left.

William May’s background was very different from William Slaughter’s.  Born in 1863, May was from a professional, landowning family in Berkshire. His father was a surgeon in Reading, as had been his grandfather. William was born in the family home at Caversham, a mansion set in large grounds by the Thames. He was educated at Charterhouse and New College,Oxford,  where he read classics and modern history. Whereas William Slaughter left little personal information about his life, May regularly kept a diary for many years. He describes a comfortable, rural family upbringing. Much time was spent shooting, riding, boating on the Thames, playing cricket and tennis with family and friends, and going for hearty walks. He was keen on boats, and later kept a yacht. He loved music, playing the piano and cello, and  enjoyed going to the opera and theatre.

After leaving university he decided to train as a solicitor and was articled at Ashworth, Morris and Crisp where he met William Slaughter. May took his final law examinations in early 1888 and qualified as a solicitor in July that year. In spite of the differences in their family backgrounds and education, May and Slaughter must have got on well  for by the end of that year they had decided to go into partnership together.William Slaughter had already made a name for himself in the city and was gaining a number of successful clients. He must have felt that he would benefit from having May as a partner, both professionally and socially.

In the last decade of the 19th century until the start of World War 1, the legal profession in London was flourishing.The legal reforms of the 1850s onwards resulted in raising the standards of the profession and the social standing of lawyers. Better communications, in the form of improved postal services and  the expanding railway system meant that business could be dealt with more speedily and efficiently.It was also a period of relative financial security. England was still on the gold standard, inflation was low, while salaries, expenses and taxation were stable. Business and trade were expanding all over the globe – mining and railways were being developed worldwide . New companies  were being formed to facilitate these, and  the fees for providing legal work for setting up such companies  were very profitable.

The new firm of Slaughter and May was soon actively conducting business, initially with about thirty clients. Before long it was decided that they needed new premises, so they bought the leasehold on a block at 18 Austin Friars, in the city. The old buildings were demolished, and replaced by a new one designed by the architect Frank Hay Roberts. Opened in 1892, it remained the home of the firm until 1968.

But while the business partnership was flourishing, the personal lives of the founders were following very different paths.In 1890, William Slaughter’s wife, Ida, had died of typhoid leaving him a widower aged 33, with three young children. His unmarried sister, Mary, moved in to care for the family and manage the household. In 1895, William May had bought a large property called Ashburton House at Send, near Woking which had frontage on the river Wey, as well as tennis courts and several acres of land. William and Mary Slaughter’s sister, Elizabeth and her husband Reginald Drew, lived nearby and there were frequent visits between the families. When the children were older, Slaughter sometimes brought them over for a day out at Ashburton House, and they would play tennis or go boating on the river.

William Slaughter bought himself a country estate in 1898, when he purchased Whiteness, at North Foreland near Broadstairs. Marrying for the second time in 1899, he renamed the house Bruce Lodge, after his new wife, Hester Mary Duff Bruce. She was the daughter of William Duff Bruce, an official at the Port of Calcutta, and a cousin of  Stanley [ later Viscount] Bruce of Melbourne. Slaughter had been the main adviser to the Duff Bruce estate after the death of Stanley’s father in 1901.

So far, so conventional, but at some point during the years between the death of his first wife and his  marriage to Hester, William had embarked upon an affair with a French governess, which resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son. This had been a well-kept family secret for many years, no doubt  being considered not quite the done thing for a respected member of the legal profession – though not unknown in late Victorian times. How my mother discovered about the affair will have to wait until another chapter.

My great-grandfather and his family circa 1906 ,on the loggia at Whiteness

My great-grandfather and his family circa 1906 ,on the loggia at Whiteness

Categories: 19th Century, Before 1st World War, Men of God, and of Commerce | Tags: , , | 2 Comments