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Saturday, 30 October 2010


My 4x great grandmother Rebecca Brodie “had not the gift of large resources,” her son William Brodie Gurney observed, “but my mother knew how to set others to work, and made the most of what she had.” She was born in Nottinghamshire to Paisley parents, and I imagine a persuasive, talkative, cheerful woman: William wrote that she spent the last ten months of her life, when she had been diagnosed with cancer, visiting friends and relatives to tell them that she would “soon be shut up!” 

Rebecca (Brodie) Gurney (1744-1814)

Around 1787 Rebecca prevailed on her neighbours in Walworth, South London, with greater resources than hers to set up a Girl’s Charity School. She played a very active part in the running of it, and also in the organisation of a Maternity Society which she set up there. Thirty years after her death in 1814, William was still meeting people whose lives had been touched and changed by her activity.

The girls’ schoolteacher was encouraged to extend the school’s activities to include religious instruction every Sunday, and he was offered a penny for each child attending on a Sunday, up to a maximum of thirty pupils. Unsurprisingly attendance at the Sunday school ran at a steady thirty week after week after week, netting the teacher a regular extra income of half a crown. When, as was expected of a pious young man, William Gurney went along to volunteer one Sunday in 1795, he found a less than spiritual reason for the full classroom. If ever there was a shortfall, the teacher sent his son out on the streets to round up extra children with the promise that they wouldn’t be kept long – just long enough to have their heads counted by the chapel treasurer.

William took over the running of the Sunday school and his success there led to the founding of the Sunday School Union eight years later. William’s son in law William Augustus Salter met his future wife, Gurney’s daughter Emma, while volunteering at a Sunday school run on Gurney's lines. Salter would go on to found two schools himself, and in 1860 Emma, without doubt inspired by her grandmother’s Maternity Society, set up the first ever Mother's Meeting in Leamington Spa.

Saturday, 23 October 2010


Amongst the hundred or so pieces of family and business correspondence belonging to my 3x great uncle Charles, which were passed to me by his great great nephew John, is a delightful thank-you note.

It’s from Charles’ niece Julia Jenkins. The Jenkins and Castle families were Bristol neighbours connected by marriage at various points along their respective family trees. Julia’s parents were Richard Jenkins and Charles’s sister Julia Castle; Richard’s parents were Richard Jenkins the elder and Mary Naish Castle, who was actually a (much older) first cousin of Julia Castle. So Julia Jenkins’ Castle grandmother was also, I think, her first cousin once removed.

Julia Jenkins’ thank-you note

As some of Charles Castle’s other correspondents did, Julia Jenkins saves paper by writing in two directions on the same sheet rather than starting a new page. It works surprisingly well, although it’s a trick that requires very neat handwriting and wouldn’t work so well I think with a modern, more rounded style of lettering.

My dear Uncle Charles,

I do not know how to thank you sufficiently for the very handsome present you propose sending me, which will be a valuable addition to my plate to which you have contributed before. It was indeed most kind of you to think of me, and I shall value the grape scissors doubly from their having belonged to your dear Grandmamma.

From the selection of the present, it is evident you expect me to possess someday a grapery and hothouse of my own, and when that time comes I promise you an early invitation to partake of the fruit of the vine. As Mamma has written, I will not say any more, but with much love, believe me dear Uncle Charles,

Your affectionate niece
Julia Jenkins

The letter is undated, probably from the mid to late 1850s. Julia Jenkins was born in about 1838 and became Mrs Francis Charlesworth Kennedy in late 1862. I don’t know which of Charles’ grandmothers she is referring to, but his mother Mary (Morgan) Castle died in 1856, so perhaps he was here passing on a treasure which Mary had inherited from her mother. The writing is graceful and the language good-mannered, slightly stilted, reminiscent of the thank-you letters I wrote as an awkward young man. I like this letter because in a few short lines it hints at all these lines of enquiry. Mainly though, I think I like it because of Julia’s polite delight at the prospect of owning a pair of antique grape scissors.

Silver grape scissors
by William Eley and William Fearn,
London 1815

Saturday, 16 October 2010


Emma Gurney, my great great grandmother, was the daughter of a Baptist passionate about education. The work of her father William Brodie Gurney led to the founding of the Sunday School Union and the publication Youth’s Magazine.  Mr Gurney himself served on the committees of those institutions and of countless others, as secretary, treasurer or president. He was a leading Baptist of his day. Particularly after her mother died in 1828, he also played the role of family patriarch, holding court from the Gurney home in south London. There, the Christmas parties for his eight surviving children and (by the time of his death) 62 grandchildren were legendary.

 Emma Gurney Salter (1815-1893)
photographed in 1856

For a daughter, such a role model was a hard act to replace. What potential husband could ever reach the lofty, idealistic heights, the moral, political, social and religious standards set by her father? The man she married in 1836, William Salter, was a close match. They had met through their voluntary work as teachers at their local Baptist Sunday school in Denmark Hill, South London. It was while teaching there that William (her father’s namesake!) felt the calling to train for the Baptist ministry. He studied at Stepney Baptist College, whose treasurer was his future father-in-law W.B. Gurney.

Salter’s fundraising activities on behalf of the Baptist Missionary Society (of which Gurney had become treasurer in 1835) must further have endeared him to Emma’s father. His selection as minister of Henrietta Street Baptist church in London’s Covent Garden clinched the deal, and William and Emma were married on 19th October 1836, only a fortnight after his ordination.

William, with Emma beside him, undoubtedly worked hard within his inner city parish. But London in the early Victorian era was not a healthy place. One historian writes that from 1830 to 1850, no Londoner was ever really well, and William became seriously ill in 1842. His doctor advised him to move to the country and he accepted a position as minister of the Lower Baptist House in rural Amersham. In Amersham he and Emma raised their family; most of their seven children were born and went to school there. In time William Salter joined his father-in-law on the board of Stepney College and continued his good work for the Baptist Missionary Society. In August 1854 he hosted a B.M.S. fundraising event in Amersham at which W.B. Gurney was the special guest.

William Brodie Gurney (1777-1855)

It was one of Gurney’s last efforts on behalf of the Society. He died on 25th March the following year at the age of 77. Emma’s grief was immeasurable and plunged her into a spiral of declining health which forced William to resign from his Amersham charge to look after her. For two years Salter was without a parish, making ends meet by writing for the Religious Tract Society and temping at Brentford Baptist Church which was then between ministers. When in 1858 he did find a permanent post, as minister at the Warwick Street Church in Leamington Spa, he fell out with the church’s board over their failure to provide school rooms. After less than two years in post he felt obliged to resign again.

The Salters must have felt that life had become one long struggle. William was on the point of leaving Leamington. But some fifty of his former parishioners had resigned with him and they persuaded him to stay. With their support, the Salters at last felt re-energised and strong enough to recover from the many blows and difficulties of the last five years. A congregation without a church, they bought land in Clarendon Street and began to build one, on the site of the old Clarendon Inn.

And meanwhile the work of the Lord still had to be done. William and Emma determined to set up all the functions of a Baptist church, refusing to let the mere lack of a building stand in their way. Services were held in Beck’s Rooms on Upper Parade; a school for infants and girls was established in the Public Rooms on Windsor Street; and a night school for boys was held in the Tachbrook Street Missionary Rooms. William taught Scripture of course; their daughters Anne, Emma and Maria all assisted, teaching songs, reading and arithmetic; and in 1861, Emma Gurney Salter started up a regular Mothers’ Meeting, the first of its kind in the town.

Clarendon Street Chapel in 2010, much remodeled:
 a church 1863-1921, a school 1863-1937,
more recently a knitwear factory, offices and a warehouse

Clarendon Street Chapel (capacity 400) held its first service on 22nd June 1863 and Clarendon Street British School opened three weeks later. The congregation was large enough to have paid off all the new building’s debts by the end of the year; and the school, officially licensed for 91 children, often attracted as many as 150. After the years of adversity, the establishment of the Clarendon Street church was an enormous achievement by both William and Emma. They remained there to nurture its development for the rest of William’s life. One feels that W.B. Gurney would have been proud of them both.

Much of my information about William and Emma’s time in Leamington comes from Lyndon Cave’s excellent book “Royal Leamington Spa” which has just been republished in a revised edition.

Saturday, 9 October 2010


My distant cousin George Verrall changed his name to George Vernon when he became an actor. “Mr Vernon,” recalls Henry Dickinson Stone in his 1873 memoir Personal Reminiscences of the Drama, “was one of nature’s noblemen, a gentleman of the old school, highly educated, and a dramatic artist of the very first order.” (George Vernon was the name of a member  of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the early seventeenth century theatre company associated with William Shakespeare.)

He emigrated to Albany in New York State in 1827 in the company of the Fisher family, actors all. What a fascinating bunch! Like the Verralls, a Sussex family: two brothers and four sisters, all marinaded in theatre from an early age by a librarian father Frederick George Fisher who was obsessed with Shakespeare.

Jane Merchant Fisher, Mrs Vernon (1796-1869)

Jane Fisher, the eldest, was a tall woman with a slightly pinched but expressive face who became one of America's greatest comediennes, having made her stage debut at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1817. She was probably also the reason that William Verrall made the trip – they married soon after their arrival in America.

John, her eldest brother also achieved a reputation as a versatile comic actor. Amelia, who possessed a high order of musical and dramatic ability herself, quite the stage in 1840 to run a dance academy.

Caroline, one feels, had rather been bullied into joining the theatrical profession. She never pursued it in America, opting instead for domestic life as the wife of a newspaper editor. Charles, the second youngest of the family, acted briefly in the US before founding a weekly magazine for sports and the dramatic arts called “Spirit of the Times.” He did marry an actress however, and their daughter, known as Little Clara Fisher, took to the stage with a beautiful voice.

Clara Fisher, later Mrs Maeder (1811-1898)
(not Little Clara Fisher!)

Little Clara was named after her aunt Clara, the youngest of the six children of Frederick Fisher. Aunt Clara had been a child star long before she came to America at the still-young age of 17. After her debut in 1817, aged 6 alongside her older sister Jane at Drury Lane, she was hailed (according to her New York Times obituary) as “the most wonderful child that the stage had known, and her popularity became at once very valuable in a pecuniary sense to her father. George IV went to see her act.”

Starting anew in America she rose to even greater fame in everything from opera to comedy. People named their babies, race horses, hotels, brands of cigar, steamboats … even whole city blocks after her! She made and lost fortunes, and by reinventing herself as a character actress she was able to carry on working until ten years before her death, becoming known as “the oldest actress alive.”

Frederick Fisher’s Library in Eastbourne, c1795

I don’t know whether the Fishers’ father came with them to America. He used to sell books and stationery in Eastbourne and was later an auctioneer in London. An amateur actor himself, he had without doubt pushed his children into the life he wanted for himself. And a little piece of him does exist in the US, as an exhibit in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia – a series of papier mache models of Shakespearean locations in Stratford! Shakespeare's birthplace, the famous mulberry tree and so on. Frederick made them in 1830, perhaps for the Second Royal Gala Shakespeare Festival in Stratford that year.

How his handiwork ended up in Philly I don’t know. Souvenir-buying American tourists were presumably thinner on the ground in Stratford upon Avon in 1830 than they are now! Perhaps he sent it to one of his theatrical children in the States to remind them of their roots and their Shakespearean father. Or perhaps, if he did emigrate himself, he made it in America to remind himself of the roots of his great passion for the bard.

Saturday, 2 October 2010


George Verrall (1800-1830) is a cousin so distant that it’s hardly worth mentioning the fact. But although he died young he packed a lot into his short life, and it’s a pleasure to remember him here.

George was the son, grandson and great grandson of men called George Verrall, and he even had a half-brother also called George (from his father’s second marriage). His father must have thought that the future of the name was secure, but as fate would have it the half-brother died in 1843 at an even younger age, 21, than the George I’m writing about today. Both died before their father and neither had any children.

One or other of these sons painted portraits of their George Verrall father and grandfather which, just to complete the confusion, were inherited by a nephew of theirs. The nephew’s name was, I’m afraid to say, George Verrall. This last George (1848-1911) also died without children, and the whereabouts of the paintings is, to me at least, unknown.

Shakespeare relaxes with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men,
one of whose names George Verrall took as a stage name in tribute

With so many George Verralls to confuse the historian, I’m rather grateful that the George I started this post with changed his name to George Vernon when he became an actor. “Mr Vernon,” recalls Henry Dickinson Stone in his 1873 memoir Personal Reminiscences of the Drama, “was one of nature’s noblemen, a gentleman of the old school, highly educated, and a dramatic artist of the very first order.”

As George Vernon he emigrated to Albany in New York State in 1827 in the company of the Fisher family, actors all. What a fascinating bunch! Two brothers and four sisters, all marinaded in theatre from an early age by a librarian father Frederick George Fisher who was obsessed with Shakespeare.

South Pearl Street Theater, Albany NY in the 1880s
when it became part of Proctor's chain of vaudeville theatres

Vernon married one of them, Jane, soon after their arrival in Albany. She and her brother John joined him in forming a theatre company when he took over as actor-manager of the struggling South Pearl Street Theatre in the town. He turned its fortunes around over two seasons. He probably also devised the scenery, because elsewhere in the town he demonstrated a flair for architectural design – he worked on Albany Town Hall, and the pulpit of St Paul’s Church in the town. (Proof perhaps that he was the George Verrall who painted those portraits of George Verrall and George Verrall.)

But the strain of holding the reins at the theatre took its toll on George Vernon’s health. He lost his singing voice, and became too ill to act. He bought and retired to Woodstock Farm outside the town (now an animal sanctuary) where he died in 1830 only three years after arriving in America.

Woodstock Farm, south of Albany NY

As Mrs Vernon, his widow achieved considerable success as a comic actress. “Though never noted for her beauty,” reports an 1880 history of Albany theatres, “she possessed an intelligent and expressive face, and a polished manner, that' at once denoted the woman of intellect and refinement. She was tall and till the last possessed a graceful figure. Her education was liberal, and it was said that during her connection with the Park theatre, her opinion, in all passages of disputed readings of the Shakespeare dramas, was considered final.”

It sounds as if she did her father (and her husband) proud, and she wasn’t the only one. More on the rest of the Fisher acting dynasty in my next post.
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