Sketches of the History and Life of Witham Friary

in the Nineteenth Century

 

by the Rev. E.B. Prince, Vicar  of Witham Friary, 1909

 

Cherice Mayer kindly provided the copy of the pamphlet from which is transcribed below. It belonged to her great grandfather, Benjamin Edward Rawlings. Inside the front cover is a handwritten note, “Mr Benjamin Rawlings/ from/ Cousin Lilian Hoddinott/ Decr 1930.” There are annotations in the text, which are reproduced as footnotes to this transcript.

                                                                                                                                                                                        


THE little village of Witham Friary, in the County of Somerset, has a long and interesting history. The period most frequently investigated or alluded to is that connected with the estab­lishment of the Carthusian Priory, by Henry II, about the year A.D. 1173. Very few traces of this remain besides the Church and the Colum­barium, or Dovecote, both of which, however, have been so altered as almost to belie their origin.

 

Many Books, Pamphlets and Lectures have dealt with this fertile and always interesting subject, among which may be mentioned “The Somerset Carthusians,” by Miss Thompson, and a Lecture by the late Bishop Hobhouse, and to these may be added the many publications which have been issued from time to time on the life of Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, who previous to his elevation to the Episcopate had been for 11 years the Prior of Witham Charterhouse.

 

There is, however, another period in the history of Witham, not so far back, nor of the same character, but possessing an interest to many still living whose memories can travel back to the early days of the Nineteenth Century.

 

During the 11 years in which I have lived at Witham as the Incumbent of the Parish it has fallen to my lot to commit to their last resting-place in our Churchyard many of the old inhabitants of the village who had reached advanced years, and who were connected, either as actors or spectators, with the early days of Witham, about which they were always ready and pleased to speak on the occasions of my visits to them. A few only now remain, and when these pass away there will be none left to tell of the people they knew, or the things which they saw in those bye-gone days.

 

Such opportunity as I have had may never again be at the command of my successors, and it is because I desire to keep alive this period of the history of our village, which is already fading out of people’s memories, that I am moved to record in this little booklet what I have gathered from such sources of information as were placed within my reach.

 

These sketches, for they are nothing more, will be short and unconnected but such as they are, they will, I hope, remind some of the older Witham people of the days that are gone, and will give the younger generation an idea of how their fathers and grandfathers lived in the time when Queen Victoria began her long and memorable reign.

 

For my information I have depended chiefly upon the Parish Books, statements from old residents in the village, and such facts as have been supplied by persons at a distance whose families were formerly connected with the parish

 

The Ministers of Witham.

 

They called themselves Ministers in those days, and so I will call them now - for it is a good word well worthy of being preserved.

 

The first Minister of Witham in the nineteenth century was the Rev. Charles Nosworthy Michell, M.A., of Oriel College, Oxford - he was licensed as curate to his father, the Rev. Edward Michell, on the 2nd September, 1792, and on the death of the latter in 1799, succeeded him in the Incumbency of Witham. He resided at Bruton. In 1818 he resigned the living of Witham, and I became Rector of Llangattock Vibonavel, in Monmouthshire - he died on the 18th April, 1843.

 

The next Minister of Witham was the Rev. Thomas Valentin. There is no record at the Diocesan Registry of his Licence or Institution to Witham, but from the entries in the Registers he appears to have been the Minister of Witham from 1818 to 1821. It is probable that he resided at Wanstrow, of which Parish he became Rector on the 1st December, 1828.

 

The next Minister of Witham was the Rev. Charles George Ruddock Festing, M.A.; he is said to have been appointed to Witham in 1822

—the inscription on his tombstone (he died in 1857), states that he was “for 35 years Incum­bent of this parish “ - but the date of his Licence, as supplied to me by the Diocesan Registrar, is April 1st, 1827 - and all entries by him in the Parish Registers commence in that year.

Mr. Festing at first resided at Maiden Bradley with his brother, Michael Festing, Agent to the Duke of Somerset, coming down to Witham every Sunday to conduct the services in the Church, accompanied on each such occa­sion by Thomas Ford, who acted as Clerk, and carried with him the Books and the surplice - so I am told.

 

The first thing Mr. Festing took in hand was the improvement of the Church - an entry in the Parish Book states that “At a Vestry held on May 5th, 1828, it was unanimously agreed that the Parish Church should be increased and repaired, and a new Tower built according to the plans given in by Mr. Long, Builder, of Frome.” The work was carried out at a cost of £650,and the Church re-opened for Divine Service on Thursday, the 30th April, 1829. One can form some idea of the original size of the Church from the following entry: “By the enlargement of the Church 132 additional sittings are obtained, 102 of which are free and unappropriated” - this appears to have been necessary, as nearly all the seats in the Church were not only appro­priated, but the actual property, by purchase, of the Farmers, whose ownership held good for 10 years, after which time the Pews reverted to the Farms of which the original owners of the Pews at the time of purchase had been the Tenants. Part of this enlargement consisted of a Gallery at the west end of the Church, access to which was through a door from the Tower - here the school children, and the singers, and the village minstrels, who on various instru­ments provided the Church Music, used to sit. I remember visiting one George Ashford soon after I came to Witham, who told me that he used to play the cornet in the Church Gallery - his brother Charles, I believe, played the bassoon.

 

In 1832 the Vicarage was built, and Mr. Festing came into residence, soon afterwards marrying Miss Louisa Seagram, a member of a well-known family at Warminster - of this marriage there were two children born, a son and a daughter who is now the only survivor.

 

In 1838 the School was built by the then Duke of Somerset - it is still the private property of the owner of the estate, and is held by the Vicar and Churchwardens on an annual lease at a nominal rental, for Educational purposes, as a Church of England School. A Class Room was added in 1884, and a Cloak Room in 1899. From the first the School was most ably managed by a local Committee, and supported by a Voluntary Rate until the Education Act of 1902 introduced new methods.

 

In 1850 Mr. Festing was appointed Vicar of S. Paul’s, Penzance, in plurality (it being then permissible for a Clergyman to hold more than one Living at the same time), and removed there with his family, leaving the Rev. John Lowry Carrick as the Curate-in-Charge of Witham.

 

Mr. Festing died at Warminster on the 30th August, 1857, and was buried in Witham Churchyard, where his widow, who survived him for 51 years, is also interred - the old East Window in the Church, which was originally a memorial to Mr. Festing, has been lately re­placed by a new one, the memorial now including Mr. and Mrs. Festing, and their only son.

 

On Mr. Festing’s death Mr. Carrick succeeded, and was instituted to the Incumbency of Witham on the 13th January, 1858. Mr. Carrick had several pupils. Only a short time ago, as I was returning home from Bath, I met in the train an elderly gentleman, who told me that he had been one of Mr. Carrick’s pupils - I was much interested in listening to his re­miniscences of Witham as it was in his time.

 

In 1859 the Church Band of Minstrels was displaced by an Organ. A paragraph in the Somerset and Wilts Journal of Saturday, Feb. 26th, 1859 (a reprint of which has been kindly sent to me by a friend), states “that an order for the new organ at Witham Friary Church has after considerable investigation and competition, been given to Mr. Bryant, of Frome.” There are also numerous entries in the Parish Book referring to this. The organ was erected at a cost of £121 10s. 0d., and placed in the Gallery.

 

On the 9th July, 1860, a disastrous fire occurred at the Vicarage. I have not been able to discover its origin, but it took place while some repairs, probably “dilapidations,” were being carried out. I have seen in the possession of Mr. Rezia Hallett, of Sweetnap Farm, a Bible, an inscription in which, in Mr. Carrick’s hand­writing, records that it was presented to Mr. Hallett’s father in recognition of the assistance rendered by him at the fire.

 

Mr. Carrick resigned the Living of Witham in 1870.

 

There followed as the next Minister the Rev. Alexander D’Arblay Burley, M.A., who was instituted on the 22nd August, 1871.

 

Mr. Burney’s tenure of the Living will always be remembered as that in which the Restoration of the Church took place, 1874-1876. It was of an exceedingly drastic character - the Tower and the Gallery being removed, the Church lengthened westwards, and the east end greatly altered. New buttresses were also built, being exact copies of those erected at Lincoln Cathedral by St. Hugh.

 

During the work of restoration the old Font, placed in the Church in 1459,was found built into the masonry of the Tower - it was replaced in the Church, and the Font which had been used meanwhile now stands in the recess in the north wall of the Church.

 

Opinions vary as to the wisdom of this restoration. Miss Thompson (The Somerset Carthusians, page 200), gives it her unqualified approval, but there are many who think that the Architect was wrong in removing the Tower - personally I regret the loss of both the Tower and the Gallery, the latter of which seems to have been a feature specially suited to this Church.

 

There is an excellent model of the Church as it was before the restoration to be seen at Quarr Hill Farm. I hope this will be preserved.

 

It was made by a young man, Edward White, for competition at a Flower Show, some time during Mr. Carrick’s Incumbency.

 

The two Bells which were in the Tower, with a third added, now hang in the Bell Turret.

 

The Organ was at this time removed from the Church and placed in the Schoolroom, where it remained until it was sold.

 

The painting of the Royal Arms (A.D. 1660), which used to hang in the Ringers’ Room in the Tower, was consigned by the Contractor to the scrap heap, but was picked up by the Sexton, and carried by him to his tool-house, where it remained forgotten until 1905, when it was restored by subscription and replaced in the Church.

 

The two handsome brass Sanctuary Lamps were given to the Church about this time, one by Mr. Edgcomb, the other by the Church Choir, the money having been raised by carol singing from house to house at Christmas. The brass Altar Desk was the gift of Mrs. Herrington, a member of a well-known old Witham family, and the long kneeling cushion at the Altar Rail was, I believe, given to the Church by Lady Bath.

 

In 1881 Mr. Burney accepted the Living of Berrow, near Burnham, but just when he was about to remove there lie was seized with sudden illness, awl died in a few days. He was buried in Witham Churchyard on the 21st July, 1881.

 

The next Minister of Witham was the Rev. John Thomas Edmund Westropp, B.A.; he was instituted to the Living on the 6th December, 1881.

During his Incumbency a handsome new Altar (which I believe was copied from one in the Church at Zeals), a brass Alms Dish, and brass Altar Vases were placed in the Church; but the chief features of Mr. Westropp’s Incumbency were the establishment of a Village Library and the opening of a Village Reading Room. These two institutions did valuable work, and were the means of promoting much good feeling and friendly co-operation among the parishioners.

 

Mr. Westropp, who had been in failing health for some time previously, resigned the Living of Witham in 1898. He died at Bourne­mouth on the 6th March, 1900, and was buried in Witham Churchyard.

 

The next Minister of Witham is - myself. I was instituted to the Living on the 4th July, 1898.

 

So ends the record of the Ministers of Witham in the Nineteenth Century.

 

The Churchwardens.

 

It might seem only right that there should follow some record of the Churchwardens of Witham during this same period, but they are too numerous, and the proceedings of the Vestry with which they were connected too extensive to be included in this little pamphlet. That department of Parish life moreover deserves separate treatment, for which the old Rate Books would provide both material and interest.

 

The Parish Registers

 

These date far back beyond the Nineteenth Century, but as three new Registers appear to have been purchased at the same time in 1813, I have thought these sufficient for my purpose.

 

(1) The Register of the Baptisms.

 

The first entry in this is dated March 21st, 1813.[1]

 

On examining this book one is struck at once by the unbroken line of family life which has been preserved in the Parish; you find one hundred years ago the familiar names of Crees, Hughes, Stride, Macey, Hallett, Stickler, Edwards, Ashford, Bown, Hoddinott, Croom, etc., etc. - you notice also the disappearance of many old families, such as Battels, Pitman, Urch, etc., as well as the disappearance of many trades, e.g., cordwainer, spade-tree maker, tailor, etc., etc.

 

Another thing to be noticed is that as a rule the children of labourers had only one Christian name, many of these being taken from the Bible, witnessing to a more general ac­quaintance with the Sacred Book, and the influence it exercised upon village life in those days. The children of farmers (who were then called yeomen) seldom had less than two Christian names.

 

The saddest feature of this Register is that it records so many illegitimate births – “base-born” is the term employed; you can hardly open the book without seeing on the pages facing you some entry or entries to this effect.

 

(2) The Register of the Marriages.

 

This commences on the 15th February, 1813. The first thing you notice is that in the early days of the century nearly all marriages were between persons actually resident in the Parish of Witham. The boys and girls grew up together, and were satisfied to make their homes among their own people - a very happy arrange­ment, if somewhat simple and primitive - to be accounted for no doubt by the isolated character of the Parish, for after the opening of the Rail­way this feature of social life gradually disappears.

 

The next thing that attracts attention is that so many signatures were made with the mark X. In several instances the contracting parties, as well as the witnesses, were unable to write their own names. No better evidence of the result of improved education can be found than by a reference to this book. The progress was gradual, but sure. After 1880 only one or two entries occur in which the X was used - now all are able to write.

 

This Register also records the fact that the little hamlet of Charterhouse-on-Mendip, be­tween Cheddar and Blagdon, was (and, so far as I know, still is) part of the Parish of Witham - for persons living there had their Banns called, and were married in Witham Church as their Parish Church.

 

(3) The Register of the BuriaIs.

 

This begins with the date January 13th, 1813.

 

This Register is full of unusual information, for successive Ministers of Witham have in many instances stated the cause of death when it has been the result of an accident, so you find entries such as the following, “run over by a threshing machine,” “killed by a falling tree,” “fell from a waggon,” “burnt playing with matches,” etc., etc.

 

Three accidents on the railway are also mentioned, one that of Mr. Besant, the Station Master at Witham Station, which took place in March, 1882, being particularly sad. He was a young man, 25 years of age, and this was his first appointment.

 

Old Houses.

 

Only a few remain. Two stand at the corner on the left side of the road leading up to the Vicarage - both are thatched. Rumour has it that they were originally built by squatters, and afterwards added by purchase, or lapsed, to the Estate. A row of old and very dilapidated cottages may be seen just beyond the Railway Arch, two of which are still inhabited. These also were originally built and occupied by private owners, and eventually became Estate property; they are not so old as those previously mentioned. Five cottages also were at one time between the Manor Farm and the Yew Tree Cottage. These were taken down, and the ground on which they stood is now used for allotments. From a description given to me by those who can remember them, I believe that these cottages were part of the old Monastic buildings; if so, they were the oldest in the village.

 

But the most interesting of all the old houses was the Red Lion Inn. It stood near the School and the Church on the site now occupied by the Teacher’s House and the two adjoining cottages. It formed three sides of a square. On the right was the Club Room, on the left the Brew House (behind which was the “ Blind House,” or village prison), and facing you was the Taproom, the Dwelling House, and the Dairy, in one long building. The space in front and between these was a large courtyard, paved with flag-stones, on which the villagers used to dance on the occasion of any village festival.

 

The Red Lion Inn was demolished in 1867, the Club Room and Brew House being taken down, and the main building converted into the three cottages mentioned above. The last Landlord of the Red Lion Inn, William Munday, was also Clerk of the Parish Church, and at one time played the clarionet in the Church Band of Minstrels. He moved into the New Inn, the Seymour Arms, in 1866, and remained there until 1869, when he retired, and went to Weston-super-Mare. He died in 1875, at the age of 83, and was buried at Witham. Another old house was that now used as the Parish Room; it was occupied during the latter half of the nineteenth century as two tenements, each consisting of three floors. One of these tenements was opened as a Reading Room in 1888, and continued as such until 1898. After the demolition of the Red Lion Inn, a room at the back of this house was used for some years as the “Blind House.” The conversion of this building into a Parish Room, and the discovery of its having been the original Dovecote of the Monastery, belong to the present century.

 

New Houses.

 

Four new houses were built at Witham in the nineteenth century - three of these were farmhouses, the other the village inn.

 

The first, “Tynemead,” replaced an old farmhouse which was removed to make way for the railway line. It was built in 1856-1857, and, I believe, partly paid for by compensation from the Railway Company.

 

The second, “Witham Hall,” was built about two years after, many of the workmen who had been employed at Tynemead going from there to work at Witham Hall. The old f arm-house, originally called Witham Hole, still stands in a deep hollow, about 100 yards from the new house, but is now converted into three cottages.

 

The third house, built in 1865-1866, was the Inn called the Seymour Arms; its position was evidently determined by its proximity to the Railway Station. It is an exceedingly well-built and attractive house.

 

The fourth house, Quarr Hill Farm, also replaced an old farm-house; it was built in 1869.

 

(The dates given in the above paragraphs cannot be guaranteed as strictly accurate, but they are as nearly correct as can be obtained.)

 

Wages and food.

 

It is almost impossible to realise the fact that fifty years ago the weekly wages paid to the farm labourers were eight shillings to married men, and seven shillings to single men, and one wonders how a man earning eight shillings per week was able to bring up a family; yet it was done, and there are still living a few old people who were reared under such conditions. There was, however, some compensation in the sim­plicity of life which prevailed, which made wants fewer. The farmers also were generous, not only paying the extra harvest money, but allowing gleaning, or “leezing,” as it was called, and giving of the produce of their fields, e.g., turnips, mangolds, etc. Butter, too, was to be had from the farms at 6d. per lb., and cheese at 4d. per lb. Potatoes also were plentiful and free from disease. Luxuries were absolutely out of reach, and what are now considered necessaries were but sparingly used. Bread was 11d. per quartern loaf; sugar in 1854 was 8d. per lb., tea 5s. to 8s. per lb., flour £3 per sack and even dearer. The price of salt was 5d. per lb., and it was a common thing for a man to sell one-half of a pig which he had killed in order to purchase the salt for pickling the other half.

 

The daily food of farm labourers was bread, butter, cheese, and potatoes, but “pot cakes” or barley “bannocks” often took the place of bread. Bacon was the usual meat diet. Tea was bought by the ounce; a very old woman, about 86 years of age, told me that she used to buy ¼ oz.of tea for a 1d., and 2 oz. of sugar for a 1d. every Saturday for the Sunday afternoon Tea! Another old woman informed me that her husband often used to eat the raw horse beans, which were then grown, in order to keep down his hunger.

 

One can understand from this the meaning of thefts of turnips and mangolds, for which many a poor man was transported beyond the seas in those hard times. Thank God those times are gone for ever, and though there may still be some hardships to endure, starvation and injustice are not among them.

 

Clothes, too, were coarse and scanty. I have been told that children were often put in bed on Saturday afternoon so that their under­clothing might be washed and got ready for Sunday.

 

The Village Club.

 

Like many another Somersetshire village in the early days of the century, Witham had its Club, but unlike most other clubs it still exists.

 

It is not known when it was founded; the earliest recorded date is the 4th February, 1788. It was at first a Benefit Club, but was afterwards re-organised as a Burial Club; after some years it was again turned into a Benefit Club. It is managed by a Committee of four Stewards. The subscription is 1s. 3d. per month. The sick pay is 7s. per week for the first twelve weeks, then 3s. 6d. per week for the next twelve weeks. At the end of every five years there is a division of the funds of the Club among the members, £20 being left to meet any immediate calls.

 

The Club holds its Annual Meeting on Whit-Tuesday, when the members, headed by a magnificent Banner and a spirited Brass Band, march in procession through the village, and attend a service in the Parish Church, after which there is a dinner at the Village Inn. The rest of the day is spent in various amusements, the whole village making holiday. On the fol­lowing evening the members meet in the Club Room for supper, when the remains of yesterday’s dinner are cleared off.

 

In days gone by this Annual Festival was continued until Thursday evening, the last day being known as “Wheelbarrow Day.” The explanation of this is that it was the custom for the young men to provide themselves with wheelbarrows, and to stop any one passing through the village, demanding money for “drinks,” etc. In the case of refusal the un­fortunate person was placed in the wheelbarrow, wheeled to the Club Room, and tipped into the doorway. Most people under the circumstances were only too glad to pay; but it was rough work, and was eventually stopped.

 

“Whitepit.”

 

It was usual in this particular week to eat a special kind of cake called Whitepit, made of flour, eggs, treacle, and spices. It is still made by one or two of the old families, but tastes have changed, and the custom has almost died out.

 

Witham fifty years ago believed in witch­craft. There are many people still living who remember a well-known character, “Betty Ames,” who had the reputation of being a witch. She was tall, and limped (Witham people call this going “up and down “), so naturally made use of a walking stick. She lived by herself in a thatched cottage at Upper Holt, and on the opposite side of the road there lived a baker who kept a pony and cart. Ill luck seems to have attended this man, for pony after pony “went wrong,” and the blame was laid at Betty Ames’ door. Speaking of this to one of the old Witham people, and asking whether he knew anything about it, he replied at once, “Ay, she witchcrafted he.” Everyone was afraid of her, especially children, who fled at the sight of her.

 

There is a story still current that a woman once mocked her limping walk, and that her child, born soon afterwards, was lame from its birth. Witham people traced this back to Betty Ames. She died in 1875, aged 89 years.

 

Panwell

 

Panwell is a spring just above the Vicarage, in a field commonly called Bertix (Birketts is the real name). This is certainly one of the old Somersetshire Pin Wells, into which in former days the boys and girls of Witham used to throw bent pins as they wished for the love of a Jack or a Jill. The old Wishing Well no longer has bent pins cast into it, but often on Sunday evenings may still be seen a young couple leaning on the wicket gate near the Well, with an expression on their faces that indicates the same desire for the fulfilment of the same old wish.

 

The Railway.

 

No sketch of Witham would be complete which did not take into account the opening of the Railway. What Witham was before the G.W.R. reached it few can remember, and fewer still conjecture. Frome (the nearest town) was six miles distant, Bruton six miles, Nunney four miles, etc., etc. Witham was, in fact, a self-contained, isolated parish. Then came the Railway, and changed the character of the place and the people, for now was added to the old rural population the men who worked on the line and the staff at the Station.

 

In 1856 the Railway was open only as far as Frome; in 1857 the line was extended from Frome to Yeovil, and continued to Weymouth early in 1858.

 

It was a single line from Frome to Dor­chester, worked by telegraph and crossing orders. All the passenger trains both up and down came to the same platform. The line was afterwards doubled from Frome to Witham, but it remained a single line from Witham to Dorchester until 1884 or 1885.

 

The Branch Line was opened to Shepton Mallet on November 9th, 1858, and carried on to Wells about two years later.

 

Before the Branch Line was opened, only three trains each way called at Witham. There was only one Parliamentary train (1d. a mile) to Frome or Bruton, the rest were first and second class, the second class fare to Frome being, single 10d., return 1s. 5d.

 

When we compare the present conditions with these, we can appreciate the advantages which the Railway has introduced in greater facilities of transport and greater facilities of travel; and there is no reason why at a perhaps not very distant date, the Railway may not be the means of introducing into the parish of Witham some great commercial industry, and of turning the quiet little village into a busy little town!

 

My task is ended. I have tried in these few short sketches to preserve for this generation something at least of the past history of Witham which was in danger of being lost. I can only wish the result was more perfect, but such as it is I send it forth, confident that those for whom it is written will overlook the faults of the writer and accept the book for its own sake.

 

So good-bye to the old Witham! Good-bye to the old names, the old customs, the old follies, the old sorrows. The Witham of the twentieth century may be more outwardly decent, better paid, better clothed, better housed, better fed, but no advantages will compensate for the loss of that which made the past so valuable - I mean that spirit of kindliness and sympathy which bound together the rich and the poor, and that fear of God which made Religion a reality, the Bible a delight, and Worship a privilege!

 

The pen drops from my trembling fingers, and the pale mists of this new century creep up and hide the past once more!

 

E.B.P.

 

May 25th, 1909.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1]    Handwritten note in left margin: “My grandmother Rawlings [?]/ Witham my father Mended [??]…

      Handwritten note in riggt margin: “My Great Aunt & Uncle”