Well ... not really family secrets. More of a desultory miscellany. Some secrets, some scandals, some events, some curiosities, some achievements; some interesting, some tragic, some romantic, some funny...as it says on the label - a potpourri. Wrights, Picketts, Berrys, Conibeers, Hectors, Feys, Luxtons, Willings, Pitts, Mordeys, Pollards, Heards and Slees

The Rector, his Wife and the Curate

Theo WillingIn May 1914, scandal overtook the Reverend Theophilus Rodick Willing at Blackpool Magistrate’s Court, in messy and public revelations of a family dispute. The Court heard accusations of drunkenness and abuse, unfaithfulness, seduction and betrayal, secret correspondence, forged confessions, and shocking suggestions concerning blackmail and a brothel. The scandal involved Theo, his young wife, his best friend the curate of South Shore Parish Church, Blackpool and the Freemasons, all stoked-up by scheming and outraged in-laws. Little could Theo have guessed when he married his 19-year old bride in Blackpool, that in less than a year, events would land him in the town’s Magistrate's Court accused of desertion, and facing an order for maintenance. Annie Willing, nee Stafford, the daughter of Henry Stafford, painter and decorator, charged that life with Theo was one of torture, forcing her out of the marriage home, his behaviour such that she could not bear to live with him, and thus this state of affairs amounted to his desertion of her. Theo insisted that not only had he not deserted her, but that he fervently wished her to return to their home in North Hill, Cornwall, where he was Rector of the Parish. Her lawyers claimed his pleas were bogus. The court sat from 10.45am to 7.45pm hearing the "Amazing Allegations" as the local paper described them. Lawyers for the two sides clashed fiercely throughout the day.
Rev. Theophilus Willing

Annie outlined her allegations first - her evidence implied that Theo was cruel and brutish. She alleged that within weeks of the marriage she found that he drank to excess. She claimed he tried to force her against her will to drink whisky, and smoke cigarettes. He gave her no housekeeping, verbally abused her and threatened to thrash her. He would not give her the money to visit her parents in Blackpool. She made the trip, only after being sent the money by her father, and she returned to Cornwall with a friend, Miss Devon. One night, alarmed at his drunken attitude, when he threatened again to thrash her, she spent the night in her friend's bed. She claimed that Theo took his tools and tried to break into their room. They pushed chairs against Annie Staffordthe door. Weeks later, when another friend was staying, Theo insisted that Annie and her friend should stay in a Temperance Hotel in Plymouth, where he would join them - this was engineered so that she should not see her father who had announced he was coming to North Hill. The first evening there, hearing voices in the corridor, she opened the door to find her husband talking to a young woman, only half-dressed in her camisole, smoking a cigarette. Subsequently Annie learned from the woman that "she was there for the purpose of receiving sailors". Shocked, Annie demanded that the party move to another hotel. Shortly after this incident, only seven months after the wedding, the marriage deteriorated beyond salvation. Theo unaccountably rushed off to her home town of Blackpool, sending Annie to stay in Brighton. She alleged she was left there for two weeks, friendless and penniless. She wrote to her husband and to her father. Theo returned to Brighton unannounced to meet her - his manner was cold and hostile. He told her that he had heard something about her in Blackpool, "that he had wished he had never seen her, and that she should leave him". He told her to go to the devil and treated her, she claimed, "like a pig", refusing to stay the night with her in the hotel. Her father arrived in Brighton later that day, and after a confrontation with Theo at the station the next day, he took his daughter with him back to Blackpool. And thus their brief marriage seemed to have ended.

Annie Hunter Stafford

On the face of it, Annie's story sounds compelling, and sadly not so unusual, at a time when women were still very much regarded as part of the man's chattels in a marriage, her story differing only from numerous other sad tales in that her husband was a mild looking young clergyman. But Annie's demeanour during cross examination was at times uncooperative, and her answers sometimes glib, evasive or contradictory. Her husband's lawyer began to tease out an altogether different dimension to the story, despite attempts by Annie's lawyer to prevent him.The Reverend Fearnley Youens South Pool Parish Churchwas curate at the South Shore Parish Church where Annie taught Sunday School and was an active church member. Youens had been Theo's best friend at University, and he had introduced Theo to Annie. What began to emerge in court was the allegation that Annie had been closer to Fearnley Youens than was seemly. During their engagement Theo had discovered a letter written by Annie to a gentleman, signed "your loving Phyllis". The court heard that shortly before the wedding whilst Theo was in Jersey on business, something had happened between Annie and Youens. Annie's solicitor intervened to prevent further discussion of what may have occurred. Then followed an accusation that Annie's mother had demanded a £100 of the Rev. Youens shortly after the wedding. The demand was apparently linked to a confession Annie had written for her mother, a shocking cofession describing what had occurred between her and Youens - a confession that Annie subsequently withdrew in letters written to Youens. This confession and the impropriety it alleged, committed by Youens, with Annie's apparent acquiescence, was at the heart of the scandal. Her father admitted that he had written secret letters to his daughter at North Hill, and sent her money so that she could come to Blackpool and verify her confession in person to the Freemasons, against Youens. When cross-questioned, other Stafford family members acknowledged a conspiracy of spite against Youens. Theo's solicitor seems to have come closest to the mark when he declared, "Three weeks after the wedding an allegation was made by the girl's mother to Mr Youens implicating him and the girl, and demanding money. The matter was taken up by Mr. Stafford who tried to get evidence to bring before the Freemason's so as to have a hold over Mr Youens. When the confession arrived, Stafford started to make use of it. The matter came before the Masons but nothing happened and the thing subsided. The girl went back and lived with her husband until an announcement was made in the papers that Mr Youens was to be married, when the matter was revived to punish Mr Youens out of spite." It was when he heard of  this alleged impropriety between his wife and his best friend, that Theo had rushed to Blackpool to try to get at the truth, sending Annie to Brighton, away from the row. Then on hearing the allegations in full, Theo had returned to Annie in Brighton to confront her. But her father had arrived later to take her back to Blackpool to stir things up again.
It seems that in time, Theo soon either came to disbelieve that anything had happened, or forgave his wife and his friend.

But what of Annie's allegations against her husband? It was established that there was no suggestion of impropriety in the incident with the half-dressed woman in Plymouth.

North Hill Rectory
North Hill Rectory, Cornwall

Several witnesses, including Annie's friend and the family servants testified that there had been no evidence of harsh treatment of Annie in Cornwall, nor of excessive drinking. Letters were produced from Annie to her husband that were couched in the most tender terms. It transpired that having only just come into the living at North Hill, with no tithes yet received, Theo was short of money, and had been unable to afford an allowance for Annie until he had become financially more secure.

Rather strangely, Annie seems to have insisted on being called Miss Willing when she was away from North Hill, and would pass herself off as Theo's sister. The Court learned from the letters she wrote during her two weeks in Brighton that, far from being abandoned, friendless and penniless, she had struck up a friendship with a clergyman and his family in her hotel, who knew Theo, and she went to the theatre with them. Pretending to be single, she seems to have become over-friendly with the son of the family, who subsequently wrote to her.

We can conjecture perhaps that Annie, very young and immature, and used to a busy social life in Blackpool, where she was a successful and celebrated singer, found herself married to an older man, confined in a remote rural parish, in a large and gloomy Rectory. Had she discovered too late the reality of her married life? Pretending to be single probably reflected her wishful thinking. She perhaps saw an end of the marriage as the only way to recapture the life she had led, and although she obviously had some affection for Theo, she was content to be drawn into her parents' malicious conspiracy as a way out of the marriage.

However culpable Annie and her parents in all this, it is difficult to accept that the smoke was without fire; it seems likely that there was something in the behaviour of both Theo and Youens that was inappropriate.

Nonetheless, after their marathon sitting, the Bench was unconvinced by Annie's story, and they announced that they would not make any order for maintenance. At this, Theo's solicitor told the court that his client was still anxious for his wife to return to him, but if she still refused, then Theo would not see her penniless, and would make her an allowance for her maintenance.

Annie was not to return to the marriage. Their separation became permanent and legal, and eight years later Theo was to marry again and have three children. He remained as incumbent of North Hill until 2 years before his death in 1967. Annie was to have a daughter apparently with no permanent partner just 14 months after the court case. She married James Forrester in the summer of 1916, the couple had another daughter and the family migrated to the US in 1919. They settled in the Bronx at first and then New Jersey. After James' death Annie moved back to the UK. In 1939 she was living with her daughter and son-in-law at 52 Lache Park Avenue, Chester. She died in Birmingham in 1972.

Eight weeks after the bitter court hearing, in July 1914, the world was plunged into a rather more momentous dispute that would change it for ever.


Blackpool
Blackpool about 1914

With gratitude to Philip Haynes for his help with the research

 

The Rare Divorce of Sarah Ann Pickett

Maidstone Maidstone

The Picketts of Sandford were for generations shopkeepers and tailors. It was probably this trade connection that took Harry Pickett to Maidstone, Kent, where he worked as Shopman for Woollen Draper Joseph Butcher, living with the Butchers at their Week Street home in the centre of the town. Less than 700 metres away Widow Eliza Gasson was licensee at the Kingsley Arms, Melville Road, Maidstone. Harry's local pub? In any event he met Eliza's only daughter Sarah Ann, and in July 1872, 23 year-old Harry married the 20 year-old at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. The marriage was doomed. Three children were born to the couple, and all three died within 5 years. According to Sarah, about two years into the marriage Harry began a systematic course of cruelty against his young wife, striking and beating her. They moved from Maidstone to South London, living in Camberwell and Brixton. The cruelty seems to have intensified. "Whilst there my husband constantly beat me, and I was afraid he would kill me... he reduced me to a state of starvation and day after day left me without any food in the house. " Harry was seeing other women. In 1876 he contracted VD, but Sarah Ann did not find out until August 1877. This was the final straw, and at last she moved out. After her departure Harry entertained himself with Maidstone prostitutes, but Sarah seems to have retained that hope that he would reform, and that perhaps their marriage could be salvaged. Then in early 1879 Harry sailed for Australia. In July 1879 Sarah filed a petition for divorce. Her sworn statement was supported by a witness, and the divorce was granted on 30th April 1880 and became absolute in November of that year. Sarah returned to Maidstone to live with her  mother, who had by then remarried. On 21st June 1881 Sarah married builder William King of Old Brompton. Sarah bore sons George and Simmonds and daughter Mary to her second husband, and in 1901 she seemed to be enjoying a comfortable marriage to a successful tradesman. She died in 1911 aged 58.
Harry had gone to Sydney, Australia, where initially, at least, he worked as a warehouseman. He settled down, married Surrey emigrant Jemima Lancashire in July 1882, and together they had 4 children who went on to establish a Pickett clan in New South Wales.
In the latter half of the 19th century there were only about 200 divorces per year, and very few of these granted to women. Harry sacrificed his opportunity to give his side of the story. Had he done so there is some doubt that Sarah would have been granted a divorce, as the law was so stacked against women. Indeed it may only have been the fact that Harry had emigrated that convinced her to attempt the divorce. That she did, and that she was successful was rare indeed for the times.

pickett divorce papers



Hayward's School, Crediton

Greatly Neglected

Sarah Ann Heard was born in 1861 at New Buildings, Sandford, to Daniel Heard, farm labourer, and his first wife Elizbeth Chudleigh. Her mother died when she was 7, she had a new stepmother by the time she was 8 and soon there were stepbrothers in the household. It is not clear if Sarah attended a primary school before the age of 11, but there was ample provision for primary education in Sandford for those whose family circumstances allowed them to take advantage of it. She was described as a scholar in the 1871 census, but that tended to be the default description for children over 4 and meant little. Only when she was 14 did she start attending Haywards School, Crediton, on 23 May 1876. She joined in the 5th Class, when routine admissions were to the 3rd class, at age 11. She had barely moved up into the 2nd class when she was withdrawn from school, in October 1876, after just 5 month's education as she was "wanted at home". That was not so uncommon for children in poor families. But more unusual was the stark comment that a teacher wrote in the register when noting her withdrawal. " A greatly neglected girl".



We can surmise that this was referring to more than her abbreviated education of barely 5 months' duration. The neglect of the youngest child of a dead wife in a household where the new wife had her own children is not only the stuff of fiction, but was then a common reality, and we can speculate that was the nature of Sarah Ann's neglect.
Despite her upbringing Sarah Ann managed to make the most of her life. She went into domestic service. By 1881 she was working for surgeon Richard Andrews and his wife in Cowick Street, Exeter, as their general domestic servant. She obviously did well in service, for ten years later she was working for the chairman of the Fry's Chocolate business, Francis James Fry, in his Long Ashton home. Sarah Ann was cook, in a household staffed by a governess, a nurse, a parlour maid, a kitchen maid and a housemaid. As well as being Chairman of the chocolate manufacturers Francis Fry was a JP, was made Sheriff of Bristol, and was married twice, with fours sons and two daughters. This must have been a very responsible job for Sarah Ann to hold.

Francis Fry


In 1892 Sarah Ann married domestic gardener Thomas Milford, and would probably have left domestic service then. They married in Clifton parish church, Bristol, and Sarah Ann's sister Maria was a witness. Husband Thomas and his family were from Crediton, but he had moved to the Bristol area in about 1875, at first living with his brother and his family, and later with his widowed father who had joined him, in Clifton. He and Sarah Ann continued to live in Clifton. By 1911 they had a boarder living with them. The evidence suggests that Sarah and Thomas had a settled domestic life. They had no children. Thomas died in 1931 in Clifton, and Sarah died two years later.



Letters of Lewis Wright and Mary Martha Berry

Lewis and Mary Wright
Lewis Wright and Mary Martha Berry

Agricultural implement maker Lewis Wright, son of Sandford smith and machinist James Wright, courted Mary Martha Berry, daughter of Crediton plumber John Berry, during the 1870s. In his youth at least Lewis seems to have been something of a lad. He recorded his first trip to London at the age of 15. It is evident from his letters that his social life encompassed many such trips. Mary Martha Berry was a striking beauty. She was more reserved than Lewis, but clearly had tremendous spirit. The letters that survive between the couple reveal their characters, and make charming reading.

Lewis Wright Letter

"Sandford, Dec 1st 1872.
My Dear Mary, I have not heard whether you arrived home safe or not as when I was at Crediton they have not heard but I hope you are. I am happy to say that I feel in much more comfortable state of mind than I did when I wrote to you last for believe me I shall never forget that Sunday evening when you spoke that dear little word 'yes' for I am sure if I loved you before that, I know it is a great deal more now and more especially now that I know that you love me in return....There is a Grand Yeomanry Ball to be held at Crediton on Decr 12th for Mr Bullers troop in full dress uniforms.... The best of it is Jim [his brother] can't dance, so me, Jim, Mr Snow and Mr Butt have spoken to Mr Harvey to give us a few lessons. I thought I might as well learn too. So we commence on Tuesday for five nights, two hours of a night. ...Just fancy me going dancing. I expect it will be very funny at first but I shall soon learn....With love that will last for you as long as I live and believe me to remain yours affectionately,
Lewis.
(I never pass that road without thinking of that little word 'yes')"

"Sandford, August 13th 1873.
My dearest Marie, I was very much pleased to receive your letter yesterday morning and to see that you were arrived safe.....There was an accident happened to the N Devon train on Monday afternoon, the engine got into the water at Cowley Bridge. Mother was in Exeter on Monday but fortunately came home by the train before. They have not got the Engine out yet...I have not been in to Crediton since and I don't think I shall until Sunday evening. I shall miss your dear company on Saturday night, the company that I value more than any one else in the world, for without your love Marie I should be miserable. (May I expect another letter if you have time) I must conclude as I am very busy. Accept my love and believe me to remain your ever affectionate, Lewis

May Heaven protect me for your sake
Pray both night and day
That I some day may call you mine
My own dear MMB
For you are all the world to me
Although so far away
I often think of the pleasant walks
And little MMB"

The course of their love most certainly did not run smooth. It is evident that Mary's stepmother Emma Holcombe, now married to her second husband, did not approvc of Lewis as a future son-in-law.

"Sandford, March 30th 1873.
My dearest Marie,.....I should think your Mother has forgotten me altogether or at least for some little time. I expect when she gets in a temper with you, you will know what to say to her and I have no doubt she will believe you. You have promised me whatever your Mother says to you that you will not alter your mind and I don't believe you will for I can assure you I will never alter mine. I love you now more than I ever did before and I am certain I shall continue to love you more and more as long as I live......I am certain it will be one of the Proudest days of my life when I call you Dear Little Wife with or without your Mothers consent.....Accept the love of one that loves you truly and sincerely and believe me remains your affectionate
Lewis."

and again...

" Sandford, June 29th 1873.
My dearest Marie.... I think it is very silly of them to keep bringing up my name before your mother. ( I don't mind how often to you) for they can see for certain how she takes it. I am going to Crediton tonight and if I see Eliza I shall talk with her about it and ask her to be kind enough not to bring up my name at all. You say you are quite at liberty to please your own self, and I believe you will but still I think it best for you to be Happy and Comfortable with your mother as long as you possibly can for my dear I have every respect for your mother because she is your mother although I firmly believe she will never like me but I don't mind that. I feel assured I have your love and believe me you shall have mine for ever. ... My dear I must conclude this, accept my love and believe me I remain your affectionate Lewis."

Mary's letters are rather more restrained than Lewis's, though we get a hint of her character here. Lewis is on one of his London trips.

"Union Terrace, Crediton Dec 17 1875
My dear Lewis, I am very glad that you arrived quite safe and that you had it so nice going up. I thought you would be almost frozen, it was such a cold day, the coldest we have had. We had such a quantity of snow in the afternoon. I was obliged to go out in am. Whilst coming home I thought I would walk fast. The consequence was I almost fell and to save myself I leaned against an old woman's umbrella almost throwing her down. She looked very indignant while I only laughed....I can just fancy how much you enjoyed yourself last night at the Alhambra, And I suppose the final entry in today's programme will be Drury Lane Theatre or some other nice one. Tomorrow Thursday I wonder where you will be going. I shall be almost if not quite on the bars of the grate dreaming over the pages of the Family Herald. I think you told me you would not go the Crystal Palace as you had been there. I am sure you will have a lot to tell me when you return....I shall conclude wishing that you may enjoy yourself very much, and now accept the love of yours affectionately, Marie"

The couple were married at Crediton Parish Church on 1st August 1877. There must have been a reconciliation of sorts between Lewis and his mother-in-law, for on the first day of the honeymoon he writes to her.

"London Inn, Dawlish, August 2 1877.
My dear Mother, I am pleased to say that Mary and myself are quite well and happy. We are enjoying ourselves very much and very quietly. We have been out all day, on the beach etc. We have just had some tea and are going out again. We want to get as much sea air as we can. We both hope you are quite well and trust you have got over the excitement of yesterday as I am sure it was a trying day for you. There is one thing I promise you faithfully that is I will always be kind to Mary. I hope you will try and believe me in this little matter. Thanking you for all past kindness and mostly for the gift of your daughter. Mary joins with me in kind. Love and believe me yours affectionately Lewis W Wright."

First baby bill for delivery
Bill for the delivery and medical care
of Mary Martha Wright's first baby

Lewis was true to his word, and he and Mary had a long and happy marriage. They had six children who survived to maturity. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1927. Lewis died less than a year later, and Mary Martha, who was held in great awe by her grandchildren, survived until 1939.

Lewiswrightand family
Mary Martha and Lewis Wright
with four of their children in 1922




Isolation and Death in Winkleigh - a Rural Tragedy


In 1796, a year after Susanna Crossman married militiaman John Heard in Sandford, Charity, a distant Wensley relative, married farmer John Luxton in North Tawton. The Luxtons had been landowners around Winkleigh for generations and could trace their line back to the 14th century. Charity's great grandson Robert John Luxton of West Chapple Farm, Winkleigh, had been raised by his father Laurence on a creed of ruthless self-sufficiency and thrift as the only way to survive the pressures on late 19th century agriculture that had ruined his less prudent and wealthier farming cousins. In Robert John this creed developed into a tyrannical Puritanism and fear of intrusion. He drove off the suitors of his daughter Frances, hoping perhaps she would marry a cousin as so many of the Luxtons had before, keeping the land within the family. Her brother Robbie, the eldest son, inherited his father's suspicion and resistance to change, and in turn destroyed his younger brother Alan's wedding plans. After Robert John's death in 1939, his children Frances, Robbie, and Alan lived on, unmarried, in the remote farm.

Laurence Luxton Robert John Luxton and familyFrances LuxtonRobbie Luxtonalan Luxton
Left to right:Laurence Luxton, Robert John and Wilmot Luxton with Frances and Robert, Frances Luxton, Robert Luxton, Alan Luxton


Frances and Alan sought to assert their independence, and to break out from the smothering gloom of brother Robbie's parsimony. The war brought US flyers to an aerodrome on the outskirts of Winkleigh. And for a while Frances and Alan in particular were caught up in the changes accompanying this great upheaval. After the war Alan joined the Young Farmers and hoped to modernise West Chapple's farming methods. But Robbie resisted this, and in many ways West Chapple continued to be farmed much as it had been in the mid nineteenth century. There was limited mechanisation and very little investment in modern machinery. Old almanacs served as textbooks for good husbandry. In fact the farm thrived under this care, but in some respects it was as if the dead hands of their ancestors were always struggling to shut out the twentieth century. Robbie even made the farm less accessible, closing off an entrance. Alan suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised. When he came home he would stay in his bedroom for weeks on end. Frances was more outgoing and friendly in the village, visiting neighbours. But she too became more withdrawn, rarely venturing out except perhaps to visit family graves in Brushford churchyard three miles off, where today a bench commemorates her visits.

1911 census for West Chapple Farm
Robert John and Wilmot at West Chapple farm at the 1911 census. Only baby Robbie was with them, as Frances was staying with her aunt and uncle in Somerset.


Gradually the two brothers and the sister became more reclusive, miserly and eccentric, and turned in on each other and the farm. Yet for a while in the 60s and early 70s Frances seemed about to escape, and would embark on long foreign tours with a friend to the Holy Land. But always she was drawn back into the closed world of West Chapple. As old age encroached on their isolated existence it became clear that with the youngest, Alan, unfit to work the farm, their enclosed lifestyle could not be sustained. In 1975 it seemed certain that they would sell the farm and retire to a modern bungalow in Crediton perhaps. There was talk that they had bought a bungalow, that a deal had been struck for West Chapple: but in fact there had been rows, anxiety and uncertainty. "We were born on the farm and we should die here". A worry that Frances was heard to utter again and again. This may have seemed sinister to city-dwelling outsiders, but a farming colleague of mine, much more worldly than the Luxtons, told me that the only move he had made in his life was to a different bedroom when he got married, and that it was a soul-tearing wrench he still felt whenever he had to sell any land - land that was his birthright.

Frances grave Winkleigh centreRobbie and Alan Luxton grave
left to right: Frances's grave in Brushford churchyard, alongside the tomb of John Luxton; Winkleigh Village,
and the stone covering Alan and Robbie's ashes in Winkleigh churchyard where they are buried with their parents and grandparents.


Alan in particular seems to have objected aggressively to the sale, arguing with both his brother and sister. They had sold their cattle, but were still not absolutely committed to the sale of the farm. But it seems that Robbie was convinced it must go forward. On 23rd September 1975 a grocer's roundsman calling at the farm saw a white scarecrow lying next to the barn. On closer inspection he found that it was Alan Luxton in pyjamas and boots, his brains blown out. He summoned police, who cautiously searched the farm, as no gun had been found, and the gunman might still be lurking in the outbuildings. The house was deserted, but after some time the bodies of Frances and Robbie were found in the garden, both too with their brains blown out. Frances was on all fours, her knees drawn up as if in prayer. An old shotgun was beside Robbie. The inquest found that Alan had killed himself first, Robbie had then killed Frances and committed suicide. Victims of their past and of their own dark and claustrophobic lives. Frances is buried in Brushford churchyard. Alan and Robbie were cremated, and their ashes interred in their parents' grave in Winkleigh churchyard. John Cornwell has told the story of the Luxtons and West Chapple in Earth to Earth, published in 1982, and now apparently out of print. Genealogists should note that some of the Luxton family history there is inaccurate, and allegedly so too are some of his darker assertions about the family.

The pedigree of William Thomas Heard can be followed back to Grace Sharland and through her brother Francis Sharland b.1837, to Grace Wensley, and thus back to Laurence's g-grandparents, John Wensley and Charity Reed. Frances is buried next to John Wensley in Brushford.




Civic Duty


Over the years several of our family fulfilled their civic duty through elected office, to councils, to parliament or to other bodies that managed the affairs of their communities.

The earliest were the three generations of Hookers. John Vowell Hooker (d. 1493) was Mayor of Exeter in 1490 and a Member of Parliament five times during the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII. His son Robert was Mayor of Exeter from 1529 - 1530. His grandson John Hooker was the first Chamberlain of Exeter, was the city's coroner and the MP for the city in 1568 and 1570-71. He also sat as a Member of the Irish Parliament.

The Sadleir family provided the great statesman Sir Ralph Sadleir in the 16th century. John Sadler was an Alderman and then High Bailiff of Stratford on Avon in 1570-71, his brother Roger was an Alderman, and was High Bailiff in 1572-3, and his son John was made Alderman in 1598, High Bailiff the following year and again in 1612 -1613. In the 19th century swindling brothers John and James Sadleir were both MPs. John for Carlow, and later Sligo, and James for Tipperary. John was made a junior Treasury Minister before his fall from grace. James was one of the few MPs to have been expelled from the Houses of Parliament.

John Boydell (1720-1804) was elected alderman of Cheap ward in 1782, master of the Stationers' Company in 1783, sheriff of London in 1785, and Lord Mayor of London in 1790. He rose to this position from humble origins, and achieved fame and success through his invention and dedication to print-making and publishing.

Francis Hext (1736-1803) was Mayor of Bodmin in 1762 and 1768. His son Francis John Hext was Mayor of Bodmin in 1773, 1779, 1786 and 1789.

Nicholas Pitts (1799-1870) was Chairman of the Board of Guardians, and member of the Parish Vestry for Kingsbridge, Devon. He had been one of the Guardians for Chivelstone before moving to Kingsbridge.

Tom Linscott (1843-1918) was Lord Mayor of Exeter from 1905-1906

Lewis Wright(1850-1928) had been a member of the Parish Vestry and was elected to the first Sandford Parish Council. He remained a member for many years. He was also on the Board of Sandford Charity Trustees.

William Boddy Berry was Chairman of Crediton Urban District Council in 1895, Walter Adams was Chairman from 1919 to 1927 and Arthur Bicknell was Chairman in 1932.

William A. Willing was Mayor of Northwood, Iowa, USA from 1906-1908

Arthur Madge Bennett (1905-1980) was described as an Amalgamated Engineering UInion stalwart. He worked for GWR. After WWII he was elected Labour Councillor in Swindon Borough Council, was Mayor of Swindon, and was made an Aldernman.

After a working life striving to help others, William Williams stood for Bristol City Council, and he was elected to represent Eastville Ward. He served on the Council until 1983, and also served on the National Executive of the Labour Party and on the Council Public Works Committee. After losing the Council election in 1983, he was made an honorary Alderman of the City of Bristol.

Tom Linscott
Tom Linscott
Lord Mayor of Exeter 1906-1906

Lewis Wright
Lewis Wright

William Boddy BerryWilliam Boddy Berry

John Boydell as Lord Mayor
Lord Mayor John Boydell

Alderman williams in robes
Alderman William Williams

Alderman Bennett
Alderman Arthur Bennett with writer Compton Mackenzie at Swindon Library



Our Middle Classes, Family Networks, Politics and Funny Handshakes


The 19th century saw an expansion of the middle-class, a term that referred to a social category of such a diverse range of people that there could be no satisfactory single definition of it. This diversity encompassed everything from the great industrialists and manufacturing entrepreneurs, professionals, politicians and public servants to shopkeepers, merchants, clerks, and tradesmen. Class was not determined by wealth, for it was not unusual for skilled working class men to earn more than many who would be considered middle-class. In reality there was a middle-class and a lower middle-class. And in Crediton, a small Devonshire market town, the make-up of both differed from the middle-classes of the Metropolis, or the great manufacturing and industrial conurbations. So how to define it? Historian E.P.Thompson suggested a criterion that might define our middle- and lower middle-classes wherever they were living. "Class happens when some men, as a result of common experience (inherited or shared) feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from theirs." - it was how people regarded themselves and were in turn regarded. The study of our families in 19th century Crediton suggests that a strong middle class emerged, as the tradesmen of the town began to regard themselves as distinctly separate from other social groups. They identified joint interests, and realised that their economic power and status set them apart from both the local squirearchy and the labouring classes in a more cohesive way than before. They established social networks with merchant neighbours who shared their interests, often cementing the relationships through marriage. Throughout the 19th century in Crediton it was as if a local mafia sprang up, with shopkeepers, tradesmen, innkeepers and similar socialising with each other, and marrying into each other's families. It seemed that occupying commercial premises on the town's High Street was an entrée into a marriage club! Master tailor Bicknell married mason's daughter Prawl, currier Adams married baker's daughter Vicary, plumber Berry married publican's daughter Milton, jeweller and watchmaker Bellringer married builder's daughter Berry, builder Berry married grocer's daughter Boddy, photographer's son Cornish married auctioneer's daughter Helmore...These were some of the members of our extended family in Crediton's middle-class. These people all had businesses that in the main employed others. But our families did more than reinforce their collective identity through marriages.
Although the magistracy seems to have been the preserve of the traditional landowning aristocracy of Mid-Devon, our burgeoning middle class in Crediton sought to exercise some influence through participation in local politics.
We find in the minutes of the Crediton Parish Vestry between the 1850s and 1880s that our family is represented by the participation of  builders William and John Berry and William Boddy Berry, photographer William Hector, watchmaker William Hector, John Hector, plumber James Gover, tailor Charles Bicknell, overseer Thomas Pollard, tanner William Adams, and machinist Lewis Wright.
With the urbanisation of local government, our middle class began to consolidate its influence, and these same family members were elected to the board of Improvement Commissioners and Urban Sanitary Authority. When the new Urban District Council was established our cousins William Adams and William Boddy Berry were elected, the latter being appointed chairman. The 19th century saw a tremendous growth in friendly societies. They were to evolve into different guises over the years, but for the purposes of our socially mobile ancestors in Crediton, membership of such a society confirmed their collective identity: an oath, secret signs and knowledge, exclusive regalia marking office and achievement, members’ contributions and a sense of exclusiveness based on a line drawn between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ - thus did our middle class receive their recognition and respectability. There have been several friendly societies in Crediton over the years - the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalos, the Loyal Order of Moose, and the Freemasons. It was the latter that perhaps offered the greatest kudos to our aspirant family- for the last quarter of the century the Prince of Wales was the Grand Master of the Freemasons! It is no surprise therefore that examination of the membership of the Crediton Unity Lodge No 1332 of the Freemasons from 1870 to 1920 reveals that familiar family names appear. Worshipful Masters of the Lodge included painter William Thomas, builder William Boddy Berry, jeweller William Hector and auctioneer Frederick Helmore. Other family members "on the square" included lawyer Thomas Hector, tanner Percy Bruce Adams, photographer Henry Cornish. William Boddy Berry was both the architect and the builder of the brand new Masonic Hall in Union Road in 1888, the year in which he was Worshipful Master. It is clear from the names of the Crediton Freemasons that our family members and other tradesmen did not simply join the ancient order. Fathers in the 1880s were followed by their sons in the 1900s and 1910s. They, their friends and in-laws were the local Freemasons. They had consolidated their middle class status through tacit engineering of social networks and local structures. By the middle of the 20th century, with the disappearance of the aristocracy, many of these families were regarded as the "gentry" of Crediton.

Some Tragic Accidents in the Family


Captain George Blackler was lost at sea from the SS Archimedes, 1923, aged 53

Alfred Harris, working on Black's Bridge for the CNR railway, accidently slipped and fell to his death. His body was found when it surfaced the following spring.

Ernest Fey was knocked down and killed by an army truck in 1945, at Shoreham, Sussex, aged 77

Mary Dicker was knocked down and killed by a Harrods electric van in the blackout in 1939, aged 70

crediton bank


William Berry, Builder, fell from a ladder while building this bank in Crediton; he never fully recovered, dying in 1874, aged 67

Walter Faithful Crabbe operated a ferry on the Clarence River at First Falls, New South Wales. He drowned in an accident on the river in 1849, aged 34

John Perrin Huxtable died of injuries received in a railway accident in Australia in 1893. A railway guard, he fell, jamming his leg between the wheel and the lubricating box of a coal truck. He died of his injuries in Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, Sydney.

Ernest Heard, aged 10, drowned in a quarry pit whilst fetching water at Morchard Bishop, in 1894,

Charles Procter, died as a result of an accident whilst working for his father's haulage firm, in 1936, aged 38

Gerald Manning Goding, who worked for the railway in Queensland, died aged 59, in 1936, following a collision between two rail trolleys when his head struck a rail sleeper.

Henry Goding was killed by a fall of rock at the Band of Hope Mine, during the Australian goldrush in 1898, aged 25.

Samuel Haydon survived severe injuries from being crushed between his cart and a wall in November 1903.

Nester Saffin, 71, and her son-in-law Donald Nicholson, 40,were killed as a result of a motor accident at Willaura, Victoria, Australi in 1984

Mill stream at Cullompton
The mill stream at Cullompton

William Osborn, 6, and sister Esther Osborn, 4, drowned in the mill stream at Cullompton in 1899. Astonishingly their sister Lucy, 1 year 9 months, drowned in the  river at Cullompton less than three years later.


Solomon Hughes, Trinity Pilot, died on his schooner Margaret, caught up in an anchor whilst trying to disentangle it, in 1878, aged 45

William Drew Degeer, 22 and his wife Linda née Mueller,21, were tragically both killed in a traffic accident the day after their wedding in April 1956, in British Columbia, Canada.

John Dunn was run over by a train, in 1866, aged 25

John Ashplant was killed by a train whilst walking home to Crediton on the railway line, aged 55 in 1901. He was probably the worse for drink.

In a shocking tragedy Heather Habner, née Saffin, 38, and her daughters Belinda, 15, and Kylie, 7, were killed in a road traffic accident in South Australia, on 17 July 1991

Newspaper report of accident



On 28th March 1991 great great uncle James Wright suffered the accident described above, (from Trewman's Exeter Flying Post of April 4 1891)

His sister-in-law noted in her diary " James Wright - first accident took place at Sir John Shelley's sawmills, Shobrooke Park". She had noted it some years after the event, perhaps on the occasion of a second accident of some description. But in fact accident-prone James had injured his eye in an earlier accident in 1866.
Despite the apparently horrific nature of this injury, James somehow survived. The census was held a week after the accident, and James was with his wife in Crediton, his mother also there, presumably helping to care for him.
In fact James outlived his first wife, having moved to Yorkshire with her to live and work. He married again in 1903. He died in 1909. Strangely there was no mention of this accident in subsequent Wright generations, perhaps because he died before the birth of any nephews and nieces.



Arthur Ashplant - International Brigader

Arthur Ashplant One of the more unexpected milestones on this family history trail was the discovery that a distant cousin by marriage had served in the XV International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. In 1936 there was an attempted military coup against the democratically elected Popular Front government of Spain. The failed coup sparked a civil war which the government eventually lost. This led to the authoritarian dictatorship of Franco from 1939 to 1975, which isolated Spain from the rest of the world, and from most of the twentieth century. The military rebels were supported by troops from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. But despite this interference, the democratic nations of the world hypocritically cried non-intervention. Aid for the Spanish government came only from the Soviet Union and thousands of volunteers from all over the world. Most of those volunteers served in one of the five International Brigades. Born in 1897, Arthur Ashplant had a tough life. He was the youngest of eleven children, with a drunken and violent father. His mother voluntarily admitted herself and her youngest children to the workhouse to escape his brutality. But in 1901 Arthur's father, possibly drunk, was killed by a train, after having served three gaol terms for failure to pay his children's maintenance. About the same time, his mother was able to find work and support some of her children.  Whilst his sister went to a children's home, Arthur joined his mother and began to contribute to the family's income as soon as he could. By 1911 he was selling books at Crediton station.
Arthur served with the Royal Field Artillery in the First War and was with the 37th Brigade in Egypt. He was demobbed in June 1919, and was awarded the War Medal and the Victory Medal. In 1928 he decided to try a new start. He emigrated to Canada, under the Landed Immigrant Scheme, intending to farm. He sailed to Quebec on the SS Doric on 27 July 1928, describing himself as a colliery worker. He continued west to take up land granted by the Canadian Government at Calgary, Alberta. But the Great Depression was to strike everybody in the 1930s, and many Canadian farmers suffered. There was much poverty and homelessness.

Canadian volunteers
Mac-Pap Battalion of the XVth International Brigade

We do not know how Arthur fared, but against this background of unemployment and uncertainty, the cry for help from the Spanish Government struck a chord in many people, including Arthur, who recognised that working people could play a part against the rising tide of fascism.  Some 1600 volunteers went from Canada to Spain.  We don't know when Arthur went to Spain. Probably like many he sailed from the USA to France, where from Paris he would be guided south and across the Spanish border. In Spain he joined the XVth International Brigade at their headquarters in Albacete. At 40 he was old to be a volunteer, but he was also experienced, having served throughout the First War, unlike many of his comrades. Initially the Canadians tended to serve with the Americans in the Lincoln battalion. In July 1937 however a Canadian Battalion was formed - the Mackenzie-Papineau, known as the Mac-Paps.

map of Mac-Pap actions
Battles fought by the Canadians and the
Mac-Pap Bn of the XVth International Brigade.

Perhaps Arthur fought with the Lincolns at the Jarama Valley in February 1937 repulsing a fascist thrust against Madrid, or at Brunete in July 1937, with the Republic offensive against Franco's armies to the west of Madrid. We know from letters home that he had been in Spain for some months by November 1937, so we can be sure that he fought with the Mac-Paps on the Aragon front, at Quinto or Fuentes de Ebro, in the autumn of 1937. He would have participated in the desperate battles around Belchite and Teruel between January and March 1938. And he was almost certainly engaged in the last struggles of the International Brigade, trying to hold the Ebro crossings and repulse the fascists' ultimately triumphant push for the sea in summer 1938. With defeat imminent, in October 1938 the Spanish Government vainly sought to encourage withdrawal of foreign troops on the fascist side by sending the International Brigades home.

Machine gunners
Mac-Pap Brigaders on the Aragon Front in 1937

They paraded for the last time in Barcelona on 29th October 1938, at a ceremony that affirmed the gratitude of the Spanish Republic for their service and sacrifice.
In contrast the Royal Canadian Mounted Police objected to the return of the Canadian volunteers as communists and troublemakers, and they were delayed in France until the end of January 1939, when they were finally allowed passage home. Arthur, on the Duchess of Bedford, full of other Canadian volunteers, sailed back to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 3rd February 1939. He returned to Calgary, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life with his wife Jean.
On  28 March 1939 Madrid surrendered to Franco: the Republican Army unconditionally surrendered on 1st April. Almost half of the 1600 Canadians who had gone to Spain never returned.

Listen to Pete Seeger singing a song of the XV International Brigade.
Speaker iconJarama Valley by Pete Seeger and band

Thanks to Nigel Ashplant for telling me of Arthur's life.



From Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 1 January 1909 (our Samuel)

news cutting


The Beast in the Family

A member of our Labbett family, Mark Labbett is well known as The Beast - one of the Chasers on the UK afternoon quiz show "The Chase". Mark is also in the U.S. version of the show.

marklabbett from the chaser

Mark has appeared on Mastermind, University Challenge, 15 to 1, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He has been runner-up on The People's Quiz, on Brain of Britain, part of a winning team on Only Connect, and represented Wales at the European quiz championships.