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Saturday, 31 December 2011


With the help of someone who got in touch via this blog I recently found the identity of my 5x great grandfather, John Davis of Little Missenden in Buckinghamshire. I don’t know John’s religious denomination, but the area of Buckinghamshire around Little and Great Missenden was one of the earliest centres of non-conformist dissent in England.

Many of my earliest known ancestors from the region around Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire were devout non-conformists – Quakers and Baptists. Two of John Davis’s granddaughters married two Salter brothers: John, and my 3x great grandfather Samuel Salter who was a deacon of the first Baptist Church in Watford, Herts who bought a £100 share in the dissenters’ university, London University. Two more of John and Samuel’s brothers also embodied the family’s staunch non-conformist tradition: William Salter gave the land for a Congregationalist chapel in Norwood, south London; and David left money in his will for a row of four almshouses in Watford High Street.

A typical late 18th century malting house and kiln
(this one at Burwell in Cambridgeshire)

John Davis was a maltster. Malting was an important process, a key stage in the business of brewing beer. In the days before a reliable clean public water supply, beer was the safe, healthy option for quenching your thirst – everyone drank it – so malted grain was in high demand and malting was big business (and consequently highly taxed by the governments of the day).

What the maltsters did was to convert the starch in grain crops, especially barley, to sugar which the brewers of beer needed for the fermentation of their brew. This conversion was achieved by soaking the barley in water and spreading it out on the floor of the malting house, where it began to germinate.

The malting house was a long building, and the maltster moved the germinating barley along the length of it over the course of a few days with a shovel, turning the barley over as he did so to ensure an even conversion by the time it reached the end of the malthouse. In nature the germinating grain uses the sugar to sprout and grow; to preserve the sugar for the brewer and prevent sprouting, the maltster next roasted the grain in a kiln to the brewer’s specification. The brewer relied on the skillful judgement of the maltster in producing the desired flavour of malt: light malts for pale ales, darker malts for stouts such as Guinness.

The Malt Shovel, popular English pub name
recognises the importance of the maltster to the nation’s beer
(L-R: pubs in Sandwich in Kent, Harden in Yorkshire and Oswaldkirk in Northumberland)

Before I learned of John Davis, I knew that his grandson-in-law Samuel Salter was also a maltster. Samuel came from a long line of brickmakers, and the switch from bricks and mortar to malt for brewing had intrigued me. I convinced myself that the family had at some point taken their expertise in the technology of the kilns used to fire bricks, and simply applied it to the process of roasting barley. But having discovered a maltster ancestor two generations earlier than Samuel, I now have a different theory.

As far as I can tell John had only two male Davis grandchildren, one of whom emigrated to Australia – so there was certainly room in the Davis malt business for new blood. Samuel on the other hand was the youngest of five sons, and unlikely to inherit a share or even a role in the Salter brickmaking business. It seems likely therefore that his entry into the malt industry was a direct result of his marriage in 1800 to John Davis’s granddaughter Sarah, a dowry in the form of a business opportunity.

Samuel certainly took to his new trade with enthusiasm and an eye for innovation. In 1808 he took out a patent on “an apparatus for the purpose of drying malt, hops or any kind of grain.” And his eldest son, also Samuel, followed him into the business. His youngest on the other hand followed the other family tradition: William Augustus Salter, my great great grandfather, went to the university which his father helped to found, and became a Baptist minister.

Saturday, 24 December 2011


I’ve written here before about my cousin John Cooper-Chadwick’s exploits in the imperial colonization of southern Africa. In between his uniformed adventures with the Bechuanaland Police and Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer Column JCC found time for a spot of gold-prospecting with his brother Richard.

John Cooper-Chadwick (1864-1948)
serving with Methuen’s Company of Horse

His memoir Three Years with Lobengula contains vivid descriptions of conditions – a really gripping first-hand account of a time very different to our own comfortable present. Without even the most basic supplies of clothing, tools, medicines and food, the early European settlers in Africa were dependent entirely on their wits, their hands and their rifles. But special occasions still demanded special provisions, however meager the available resources.

Here’s JCC’s description of Christmas 1887:

We had no proper mining tools, dynamite or even rope for a windlass, which was a great disadvantage as the latter was absolutely necessary. … Many of the pioneers were laid up with fever, in want of medicines and the bare necessaries of life. … It was an everyday occurrence to see men walking about bare-footed, or with bits of hide for boots. … Pumpkins and mealies were then the backbone of Mashonaland, and what most of us depended on for our daily bread. …

John and Dick were re-digging ancient African mining shafts
(photo by Jono Terry)

We worked on until Christmas without striking anything, and so far escaped the fever. No doubt the active life, and a dry hut on high ground to sleep in, had a good deal to do with it, in spite of bad food and frequent wettings.

The few of us around made an attempt to keep up Christmas, and contributed what we could for dinner. A railway pudding was manufactured, a plum here and there, like the stations on a line, few and far between. Four diminutive Mashona fowls, blue-legged and skinny, flanked with biltong and a liberal supply of rice and pumpkins, composed the feast.

About ten of us assembled round the festive board, which was laid out on the hut floor, each man supplying his own cutlery and plate. Someone mysteriously produced two black bottles, which made a great sensation, as they were expected to contain whiskey, but they only turned out to be sour Cape wine.

John and Dick were mining near the Mazowe River,
which is still panned today (photo by Jono Terry)

In April 1888 Dick and John finally struck gold, although their triumph was short-lived. Dick got malaria, and John had a serious accident with his rifle which forced them both to return to Ireland. Both men survived however, and the memory of that Mashona Christmas must have made them grateful for all the family Christmases they enjoyed thereafter. Happy Christmas to you, dear reader! May your fowl be not blue and your black bottles not foul.

Saturday, 17 December 2011


In all my family tree research I am constantly in debt to the earlier and more thorough research of others. Recent contact with a cousin in my Pilkington line emphasises this: Isabel Pilkington Henniger has produced an invaluable book, full of photographs, based on the audio recordings of her late uncle Roger Pilkington. Isabel has done a really delightful job of editing Roger’s remarks into A Pilkington Memoir while still retaining the distinctive voice of Roger, a born raconteur. (She’s also tidied up the very occasional memory lapse on Roger’s part with discreet footnotes.) Isabel has sent me a copy of her book, which is full of the sort of detail and colour my own research could never have unearthed.

William Windle Pilkington (1839-1914)
industrialist, educationalist

Roger’s grandfather, Isabel’s great grandfather, my great great uncle William, was a pillar of the community, a leading industrialist in Lancashire. He poured a great deal back into the community and served in its offices as town councillor, mayor and alderman. He was made a freeman of the borough of St Helens in 1905 (the statue of Queen Victoria which he donated to the town on that day still stands there) and he was appointed Second Lieutenant of the county in 1908.

He was a member and trustee of the St Helens Congregational Church and chairman of the Congregational Union. He founded the St Helens YMCA, and co-founded two schools – the Ragged School where he taught with his wife on Sunday afternoons, and an infant school for which he provided land.

St Helens YMCA, founded by William Pilkington

His passion for education, typical of nineteenth century non-conformists, regularly brought him into idealistic conflict with the authorities over the way local schools were run. As you’d expect of a dynamic captain of industry, William was not one to stand idly by when he saw what he regarded as wrong being done. Roger tells it far better than I could:

“The schools were run by the Church of England and paid for out of the rates, and when he got his bill for the rates he worked out carefully what proportion of that went to support Church of England schools, and he deducted it and sent in the cheque short.

“Then, of course, he got another application, and eventually he got one of those red warning notices that unless he paid the rest within seven days, action would be taken. And this was the signal for the butler to clear out all of the furniture out of the front hall and lock the doors leading off it, and to put in the front hall certain pieces of furniture which my grandfather had bought at auctions.

The indoor staff at Windle Hall, 
home of William and Louisa Pilkington
(furniture-toting butler pictured standing second from right)

“He had a very good eye for furniture, antiques, and this furniture was bought specially for this occasion always and was put around the front hall, and eventually the bailiffs drew up and stormed in the front door and seized the furniture, and off they went happy to have done their job, but not so happy as was my grandfather, because they had to sell what they had taken by public auction, and they had to give him anything more than the amount owed plus presumably, some sort of bailiff’s costs.

“It was customary in those days when people did this sort of thing for the local people to go to the auction and make incredibly low bids in order to prevent the thing being sold at all. But in his case this was not so. The general public bid, dealers bid, the things were sold, and he managed to achieve what free churchmen always like to do, which is to be true to their ideals and make a good profit at the same time.”

I can hear the twinkle in Roger’s voice as he told this story, and see the sparkle in William’s eye as he got one over on the Church of England!

Col. W.W. Pilkington’s statue of Queen Victoria
in Victoria Square, St Helens

Saturday, 10 December 2011


I’ve been exploring the noble Scottish Hepburn pedigree lately – far more than I needed to really, but that’s genealogy for you! My genuine connections with the ancient family are only through a couple of early 19th century marriages, and it would be cheeky to claim much relationship with them. (If you must know, the Hepburn grandfather of one cousin of my grandfather’s, and the mother-in-law of another, share a 12x great grandfather with John Stuart Hepburn, the subject of this post!)

But at about the time I was discovering all this, I heard from a literary colleague who had recently begun a year travelling in Australia and who had just reached Daylesford in Victoria. And Daylesford, I had read only that morning, was one of the places where Captain John Hepburn made a mark.

Captain John Stuart Hepburn (1803-1860)

Young John Hepburn, born on the Hepburn lands of Whitekirk near North Berwick on the east coast of Scotland, went to sea. In 1833 he became Master of a 226-ton brig The Alice, which sailed between Britain and Tasmania. En route for Hobart in 1835 he fell to talking with one of his passengers, a former banker called John Gardiner who was going into the cattle business. When the following year Hepburn’s new steam ship The Ceres ran aground and sank off the coast of New South Wales, it was suddenly a good time to join Gardiner in his venture.

Gardiner and Hepburn drove a herd of cattle overland to Port Phillip in Victoria in the summer of 1836, and it seems to have gone well. In 1837 Hepburn’s wife Eliza and their two children joined him in Australia and he organised another drive with another partner, William Coghill, with a view to finding land worth settling on. While the land he had crossed in 1836 had already been claimed and settled by other pioneers, this time he was driving sheep from eastern New South Wales into new territory in the heart of Victoria.

John and Eliza Hepburn’s two-month journey in 1838

From Braidwood NSW they set off in February 1838, west to Gundagai where they hooked up with a third pioneer, William Bowman. The three parties pressed on southwestwards on the route now followed by highway 31, crossing the Darling river at Albury and coming across the tracks of an earlier pioneer Thomas Mitchell as they entered Victoria at Wangaratta.

Major Mitchell, a fellow Scot from the industrial port of Grangemouth explored and surveyed much of southeastern Australia for the government. In September 1836 he was the first European to climb and name Victoria’s Mount Alexander, a traditional aboriginal ceremonial ground and lookout. Following his route, Hepburn, Coghill and Bowman set up a lambing camp on the slopes of the mountain in April 1838. From its summit Hepburn saw the land around Mount Kooroocheang to the southwest. He had seen a lot of land in the past three years and the slopes of Kooroocheang looked good.

While Coghill and Bowman pressed on westwards, John Hepburn staked his claim on a stretch of grazing land he called the Smeaton Run (after Smeaton House the Hepburn home at Whitekirk), on the southern slopes of Kooroocheang. It was good land. John and Eliza’s next child was born at Smeaton later that year, and The Hepburns prospered, extending their property with purchases from a succession of new land releases by the governments of the day. At the time of his death it stretched over 24,000 acres. The townships of Smeaton, Blampied and Daylesford sprang up on its fringes to service the growing population of workers which the Smeaton run supported.

Smeaton House, Victoria
symbol of prosperity built in 1849

Conditions were rough in the early days. Governor Sir George Gipps reported in October 1840 that “a race of Englishmen are living in bark huts in a state of semi-barbarism because the conditions of their leases do not make it worthwhile to build permanent dwellings.” But in 1849 Hepburn built his own Smeaton House, a symbol of his prosperity which still stands today.

About the same time, to the east of the Smeaton Run, gold was discovered in the Jim Crow Diggings; the goldrush town of Hepburn became home to miners from China, England, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France. The strong European contingent also appreciated the properties of the many mineral springs in the area. When in 1865 pollution from the mines threatened to ruin the waters’ qualities, the government established the Hepburn Mineral Springs Reserve to protect them. Jim Crow Creek was diverted through the Blowhole Gold Diversion Tunnel (dug by Chinese miners) and the spa resort of Hepburn Springs developed to the north of Daylesford, complete with a bathhouse and a Palais de Dance.
Hepburn Springs Bathhouse and Spa
renovated in 2008 at a cost of $13 million

The town even boasted a pasta factory to feed its European and Chinese population. Let’s hope for the Hepburns’ sake they served it with mutton.

Saturday, 3 December 2011


My great aunt Helen’s ancestors, the Verrall family from Lewes in Sussex, were a prominent lot, at the heart of Lewes life for many generations through their inn-keeping, auctioneering and racing interests.

When I started to read descriptions of John Hubert Verrall as “a Lewes ne’r-do-well” and “the black sheep of an illustrious Lewes family” my ears pricked up. The more I looked into his life however, the less I thought those pejorative labels were justified. He faced a series of setbacks in later life from which, because of his character and upbringing, he was ill-equipped to bounce back. But I don’t believe he was as wilfully disreputable as those tags suggest.

John Hubert Verrall (1845-1909)
dressed for drill

Hubert was the sixth of seven children of John Verrall the auctioneer. The eldest, Frederick, was in line to take over the business and Hubert, with no responsibilities now or in the future to worry about, spent his time breeding and exhibiting exotic birds – canaries, parrots and so on. He lived with his parents, and like other reputable gentlemen of the time, he did his patriotic duty by enlisting in the local Volunteer Militia.

This carefree existence was powerfully shaken from early 1874 onwards when first his mother and then over the next three years his father, sister and eldest brother Frederick, died. Hubert, still living at home with his brother Marcus, never really rcovered from these losses. While Marcus stepped up to take over the running of both the family home and the auction house, Hubert turned to drink.

It quickly became apparent that he had a problem. In 1879, when his younger brother George (of whom I’ve written before) was getting married and beginning a successful career in racing administration and entomology, Hubert wrote in his diary:

Walking all day, did not eat or drink, only tea, all day, by doctor's orders … I am of a strong suspicion that I have been a trifle insane ever since Tuesday through drinking whiskey every day last week and eating and walking too much … From this day I intend trying to be if possible an abstainer from beer and spirits and have not tasted beer of any description since 14 June 1878.

Lewes Union Workhouse

Worse was to come. Marcus died, unmarried, in 1895. Hubert was in no fit state to take over the reins, and the business and the family home were both sold up. Hubert became homeless. I’m not sure what happened next; perhaps he moved into rented accommodation. Certainly he carried on drinking, and on 20th March 1902, having presumably run out of money and the ability to look after himself, he was admitted to the Lewes Union Workhouse. His brother George paid for his maintenance there – George, who shared with Hubert a passion for the natural world, had made a rather more successful career of it as an authority on British insects.

In 1907 Hubert moved in with his niece, but on 17th May 1909 he was admitted to the County Asylum at Hellingly “in a dying condition,” suffering from enormous enlargement of the liver and from the dementia which he had foreseen 30 years earlier. He died there of liver cancer three days later.

Hellingly Mental Asylum is abandoned now,
an unfortunate name and the subject of a moving photo essay by Joe Collier at

The bare bones of Hubert Verrall’s life make for a pretty sorry tale. Perhaps in his alcoholic final years he did build a reputation around Lewes as a ne’r-do-well (as the East Sussex Archives rather bluntly describe him).

But we know that he continued to enjoy, and take part in Lewes events at least until his entry into the workhouse. Hubert kept a diary, every day of his life until that date, which now forms an invaluable record of Victorian life in East Sussex. Hubert records local news, reports his service in 1890 on jury duty and describes the high days and holidays of his time – the Lewes races, Guy Fawkes Night and so on.

The diaries are preserved; they formed the basis for an exhibition of local history in October 2007, and were the subject of a BBC programme, Inside Out in 2008. So Hubert Verrall has in a way left the best legacy of all his brothers for the town his family made such a mark in.
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