James Willing Junior by Pamela Willing
My interest in family history was first aroused at close the age of about 6 or 7 by my maternal grandmother who would tell me tales about her mother and her mother’s mother. Unfortunately, like many people, I did not start to investigate further until I was much older and most of the people who could have answered so many questions for me had sadly passed on. Nevertheless I have been fortunate in the help I have received from various family members, and since my retirement from teaching I have been able to devote quite a lot of time to what is now a passion. I am a member of three family history societies and regularly attend meetings of my native Shropshire society as well as acting as a society volunteer. Through my membership of the Devon and Cornwall societies, I am able to make contact with others who have similar interests, and access society indexes and interesting articles on local history.
I started researching the Willing family about twenty-five years ago and quickly found that having an unusual surname was a great advantage. As I delved deeper I began to feel that the name I had disliked so much when younger was, in fact, a name of which I could be proud. James Willing junior was my great-great-great-great-grandfather and someone I can identify with. He was a person of strong religious principles who wanted to help his fellow man and yet, at the same time, was ambitious for himself and his family. Although nothing is known about his own education, it is clear that education was important to him, and those of his children who survived, went on to have interesting careers. He also lived at a time when many important changes were taking place, not least in his native parish of Stoke Damerel. I hope you will enjoy this glimpse into the kind of life he led.
Pamela M. Willing
1. Growing Up In Plymouth Dock
Sir Walter Raleigh was apparently the first to suggest that a dockyard should be built in the Hamoaze. King Charles II also favoured the idea but was advised against it by the Master of Trinity House so it was not until the reign of King William III, in 1690, that work began on a new naval dockyard at the mouth of the river Tamar, in the parish of Stoke Damerel. Within five years the first ship was able to use the dry dock, but as late as 1700 there were no houses in the area, with the exception of Barton on Mount Wise, which had been built by Sir Thomas Wise. The war with the French led to an increase in ship building and workers flocked to the area, so that by 1750 the population of the area was about 4000; Plymouth Dock flourished and grew steadily northwards along the river. In 1758 work started on encircling fortifications with batteries on Mount Wise, a redoubt and blockhouse on Mount Pleasant, and walls or “lines” as they were called locally. Built mostly at right angles to each other, street after street went up outside the dockyard wall.
Photocopy of Aveton Gifford Parish Register
(courtesy of Devon Record Office ref: 328A/PR3)
It was to this thriving area that James Willing senior came in the last quarter of the 18th century and set up in business as an undertaker and slopseller (a term applied to someone who sold ready-made clothing). On three consecutive Sundays in February 1782 banns of marriage were called in the local parish church of Stoke Damerel and in the nearby parish of Aveton Gifford, and on Tuesday 4th June 1782, James married Elizabeth Scobell, at Aveton Gifford Parish Church and brought her to live in Plymouth Dock.
Although many people were still adjusting to the loss of the American colonies, formalized by the signing of the Treaty of Paris, James and Elizabeth found 1783 a year to celebrate, as it saw the birth of their first child, a son, whom they named James, after his father. The parish of Stoke Damerel was divided into Higher Stoke and Lower Stoke and the parish church stood in the latter. Originally consisting of one aisle with a 15th century oblong tower, in order to accommodate the growing population, a second aisle, furnished with box pews, was added in 1715; and a third aisle in about 1750. James junior was baptised in this church on Tuesday 13th May 1783. Times were changing and the practice of swaddling infants had given way to a preference for dressing them in soft, loose fitting clothes which were less restrictive and his mother may well have favoured this new idea. Two years later James had a brother, John, who was also baptised in Stoke Damerel parish church on Sunday 10th July 1785.
In 1746 Charles Wesley had made his first visit to Plymouth and concluded his mission by preaching to a crowd of four thousand people gathered in Stoke Damerel churchyard. On 3rd September of that same year his brother John made his first visit to the area. Cornwall was to prove a more fruitful area for him but in total he was to make thirty preaching tours to Devon. Methodism was and is not theologically different from the established church; Methodists still believe in sacraments, ordain ministers and use Anglican prayer books; and for many years Methodists would attend evangelical Anglican services as well as their own. This was the case with James’s parents who became members of the Morice Street Wesleyan Chapel, situated between Granby Street and Cannon Street, whilst continuing to worship at Stoke Damerel parish church.
As young James grew, his baby clothes were replaced by dresses, no different from those worn by little girls of the same age. For modesty sake pantalets were worn beneath the dress and these plain white frocks could be easily washed. For centuries there had been no such thing as children’s clothes; children had just worn scaled-down versions of their parents’ clothes: but attitudes towards children were changing and increasingly they were being seen as individuals in their own right. The age at which a boy was allowed to wear breeches varied enormously from family to family and James may have continued to wear dresses until he was five or six or even older, but eventually he would have progressed into knee breeches similar to his father’s, or perhaps he had one of the new skeleton suits which consisted of long comfortable pants buttoned on to a matching shirt or jacket.
Nursery rhymes from books such as Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book and Mother Goose gave way to tales of the fantastic and miraculous such as Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe, although by the end of the century some sections of the population would condemn these books as “escapist”, afraid that they would unsettle children and make them discontented with everyday life. Whipping tops were still amongst the most popular of all toys for boys but a board game which was gaining in popularity was the Game of Goose. There was no skill involved in this game, it was entirely governed by luck and featured a spiral track consisting of 63 numbered spaces. Thirteen of these spaces displayed a picture of a goose and landing on one of these meant you could move forward again by the same number you had just thrown on a pair of dice. There was, though, an element of betting attached to the game and as nonconformists, it is likely that James’s parents would have frowned upon this. Toy theatre was another popular form of entertainment at this time, better suited to amuse the children of a household which endeavoured to live its religion rather than just attend services on a Sunday.
These were exciting times for young James. In 1784 a turnpike road had been created to link Plymouth Dock with her neighbour, Plymouth, and six years later a diligence (a travelling carriage popular in the mid-18th century) began to run from Fore Street in Plymouth Dock to Old Town Street in Plymouth. The cost of a single fare was one shilling. Mail coaches began to dash up and down to London and pack-horses and carriers’ carts frequently came to town from the country. The sound of iron-shod wheels on stone streets must have provided a constant background to the street-cries of hawkers and tradesmen. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday a market was held at the junction of Market Street, Duke Street and Catherine Street; here butter, poultry, butchers’ meat, fruit and many other items were on sale. James would also have spent time in the family shop at 10 and 11 Boot Lane, next door to the Boot Inn, perhaps helping his father and learning something of the business.
Education was important to middle-class dissenters and it is possible that James senior and Elizabeth wanted a modern type of education for their sons. The boys may have attended an academy where subjects such as Geography, History, the Sciences and Modern Languages were taught as opposed to Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Divinity and Philosophy; helping them to grow into more liberal and humane people. The exact nature of James’s own education is not known but the education of his own children, both boys and girls, was certainly to be a most important consideration in later years.
When James was five years old a baby sister, Elizabeth, was added to the family and three years later another brother, William, arrived. Both of these children were baptised at the Morice Street Wesleyan Chapel. Now there was to be a final addition to the family with the arrival of another girl, born on 11th April 1794 and baptised Mary at the Wesleyan Chapel about a month later. The family was complete now and with James Willing senior’s business expanding into drapery all seemed well, but the cosiness of the family’s existence was to be shattered with the death of John, the second son. This must have been a bitter blow to the thirteen year old James, losing the one person who had probably been his closest companion throughout childhood. John was laid to rest on Sunday 25th September 1796 in Stoke Damerel churchyard and on that day James Willing junior became a man.
2. A Nation of Shopkeepers
The 18th century ended with America mourning the death of George Washington and France under the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte; the start of the new century appeared to be no better. On 15th May, as the King was about to enter his box at the Drury Lane Theatre, a would-be assassin shot at him at close range; thankfully he missed. The world around James was in turmoil but he was probably oblivious to much of this as he was now courting a local girl, Susanna Rickard.
In 1801 Nelson’s victory at Copenhagen led to a cease fire and when William Pitt resigned and was replaced by Addington, the way was open for the creation of a peace treaty. During this time, Addington also abolished the much disliked “income tax”, but for many people life was very hard and the year saw food riots in many parts of the country. James was to witness one such riot at close quarters when a mob broke into the bakers’ shops in Plymouth Dock and carrying about loaves fixed on poles began shouting “Who’ll buy a shilling loaf for sixpence?” Some of the rioters were captured but, after dinner, the dockyards men, armed with axes and hammers, marched out determined to rescue the prisoners. At the head of Fore Street the authorities planted a cannon and when the rioters refused to disperse, Justice Williams was called upon to read the riot act and the order to fire was given. Thankfully the sergeant of artillery refused to obey orders and the young lieutenant in command, who had snatched the match from him and was about to touch off the gun, was thrust aside by General Mercer, a man with a cool head who was much respected by the local populace. The General then addressed the dockyards men and promised that if they would go to their homes he would ensure that the prisoners received a fair trial. Gradually the men began to disperse but not before they had pelted the men of the Enniskillen Dragoons with loaves of bread. The militia, which had sided with the rioters, had to be confined to barracks for the rest of the day and a sentry guard of regulars posted to make sure they remained there. These riots had a lasting effect on James junior who was to devote much of his later life to ensuring that the poor and needy were fed and cared for.
Like many early 19th century couples, James and Susanna probably considered romance and passion an insufficient basis for marriage. Both sets of parents would have been involved in this most important step, but finally, the necessary parental permission was given, the banns were read and on Thursday 17th June 1802 the couple were married at the parish church of Stoke Damerel. At the signing of the register, James’s father stepped up to act as an official witness.
Just over twelve months later Susanna gave birth to a baby girl and on Sunday 14th August 1803 the proud parents took their daughter to Stoke Damerel parish church where she was christened with the name Eliza. James junior now had a wife and child to support but he had established himself as a mercer and draper and it appears that business was booming. Just as well, since with the resumption of hostilities with France, income tax was reintroduced, penalising James under Schedule B (tax on commercial occupation of land) and Schedule D (tax on trading income). By 1805, having acquired a lease on a property in Fore Street, he also became liable for tax under Schedule A (Tax on income from U.K. land). The following year, on Tuesday 6th May 1806, James’s first son was born. He was baptised with the name James on the last Sunday in June, the same year. Three years later James and Susanna had another son and this one they named John, probably in memory of James’s dead brother.
Meanwhile the war with France was at its height. Nelson had achieved a great victory in 1805 at Trafalgar, but the naval town of Plymouth Dock was devastated when news of his death finally reached them. Now Napoleon had resorted to economic warfare believing that Britain was vulnerable to a trade embargo. Ultimately it would seem that the embargo damaged the continental economies more than the British and Napoleon’s exclusively land-based customs-enforcers were unable to prevent British smugglers, many of whom operated from the small coves around Devon and Cornwall. The population of Plymouth Dock was growing at an amazing rate and a new prison was being constructed nearby, on Dartmoor, to hold French prisoners-of-war, but until its completion, these prisoners were being held on board six hulks which had been anchored in the Hamoaze.
For James junior all of this activity meant only one thing - more potential customers for his drapery business. Fashions were beginning to change in men’s clothing and the frock coat, which had started life as an informal garment and was therefore not highly decorated, was losing ground to the cut-away tail coat. The Powder Tax, which had been introduced in 1795, had initially only affected wigs, but now, as the war dragged on and the need to economise on starch and flour increased, ruffles and frills gradually began to disappear. At the end of the eighteenth century men’s cravats had been large square pieces of linen, folded in half to form a double triangle and then wound round the neck. From the early nineteenth century coloured neck cloths and silk cravats, worn swathing the neck and tied with a bow at the front came into vogue.
In October 1810 the country celebrated George III’s Golden Jubilee. The king’s courage had proved a great example to his people and he was very popular. At 72 years of age he appeared to be vigorous and still able to deal with day-to-day government, but this was not the case, as an illness which had plagued him four times before was about to recur. The king’s illness triggered a political crisis and the ordinary course of public business was stopped. Towards the end of December the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, introduced a bill establishing a restricted Regency for twelve months but debate dragged on into the new year. It was therefore 5th February 1811 when the Regency bill was finally passed and the Regent surprised everyone by retaining his father’s Tory ministers in government. James may well have wished for a change in government policy.
James and Susanna’s home was now bursting with young life since the addition of two more sons, Samuel Thomas Richard born 24th August 1810 and George Frederick born 23rd April 1812, and early in 1814 Susanna found that she was again pregnant, this time expecting twins, but the year was to be an emotional rollercoaster for the family. The winter of 1814 was extremely cold and severe frost lasted from 8th January to 20th March. All travel ceased, the shops remained closed and the streets were empty for three weeks but at last the thaw came. Sadly the spring also brought illness to the family. George Frederick was the first to succumb and less than two months later he was to be joined by his brother, Samuel Thomas Richard, in the churchyard of Stoke Damerel church. The family may have rejoiced with others at the prospect of peace at last when Napoleon agreed to an unconditional surrender on the 11th April, but their happiness was tinged with sadness. Susanna was safely delivered of twin boys later in the year and on 30th October the twins were baptised George and Samuel after their dead brothers but less than a month later Samuel died. George survived into the new year but was laid to rest with his twin on the 14th January 1815.
The following month Napoleon escaped from Elba and was back in Paris by March. His freedom, however, was to be short-lived and after defeat at Waterloo in June he finally surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland of the “Bellerophon” off Rochefort and was taken to England. The “Bellerophon” anchored in Plymouth Sound on 26th July and remained there, with Napoleon aboard, until the 4th August, while his fate was decided. Everyday at 6.30 p.m. the former Emperor would appear on deck attracting much attention from the local people who hired boats to row out and see the man who had caused so much misery. Napoleon and his fate must have dominated the conversation in James’s shop that summer.
After the defeat of Napoleon the English economy was in poor shape. There had been a boom in agriculture but now deflation set in and in many parts of the country there was real hardship and unrest. James was not one of these unfortunates; his business continued to expand and make money but fate had one more cruel twist in store for him. His wife, Susanna had been weakened by the birth of her twin boys and their ensuing deaths also took a toll on her fragile health. Early in 1816, after less than 14 years of marriage, she died leaving James to cope with three children aged between 6 and 1
3. A Second Chance Of Happiness
Photocopy of entry in Ermington Marriage Register
Courtesy of Devon Record Office ref: 904/4
The next twelve months must have been bleak, and even the weather seemed to match James’s mood. In the East Indies the volcano Tambora erupted and that year there was no summer as the sun failed to pierce the dark skies. James did, however, have three things to sustain him; his family; his work and his faith, and eventually he was to meet and marry a young lady ten years his junior. It is impossible to know if this was a love match or a marriage of convenience, but by now James was acquiring some standing within the local community and Miss Lucy Brutton came from a good background, so James bought a special licence and on the 10th June 1819 at Ermington church, he married for the second time. About twelve months later James was a father again, but not forgetting one of the sons he had lost, this latest addition to the family was baptised George Frederick Brutton on 15th June 1820. Twelve months later a daughter Henrietta Lucy Brutton was born.
The manor of Stoke Damerel belonged to the St. Aubyn family who wanted to retain their ownership, therefore most of the property in Plymouth Dock was held on leases for 99 years or three lives. In December 1817 James obtained the lease on a new property and taking out an advertisement in the Plymouth & Dock Telegraph he availed himself “of the present opportunity of returning his sincere thanks to those of his friends who have hitherto honoured him with their commands, and respectfully informs them and the public in general, that he has REMOVED from No. 73 Fore-street to No. 38 Catherine-street, Plymouth-Dock, (the house lately occupied by Mr. Tollett, grocer).” The advertisement went on to say that he intended to carry on the business of draper, tailor and man’s mercer “in all its branches, and hopes by keeping a good assortment of BROAD CLOTHS, KERSEYMERES, WAISTCOATING, &. &. and a strict attention and assiduity to business, to merit a continuance of those favours he has so long experienced. N.B. READY-MADE CLOTHING of every description. Clothes made to measure with neatness and dispatch. HATS, GLOVES, AND BRACES.” [The advertisement ended with a reference to the property he was vacating, advising interested parties that he intended to let it and that they should apply to him.]
Once more fashions were changing. The three-cornered hat had remained the dress hat for men until the end of the 18th century when it had been replaced by a two-cornered hat, often known as an opera hat. For informal wear, a wide-brimmed hat with a shallow rounded crown had been adopted, but now this was being superseded by a hat with a tall cylindrical crown which was to evolve into the top hat. The finest quality top hats were made first of beaver, and later of black silk plush. Frock coats had also reappeared about 1815 but now they had full skirts overlapping at the centre front, turned-down collars and could be worn single- or double-breasted. In fashionable circles breeches and pantaloons were still worn, but trousers were gaining in popularity, and waistcoats, which previously had only come down to the waist, were now lengthening and developing a point at the centre front.
James was also beginning to play a more active role in the community. In 1807 his father had acted, with various other worthy townspeople, as a trustee in order to lease a parcel of land on the west side of Morice Street, between Granby Street and Cannon Street, on which a Wesleyan Methodist chapel could be erected. By 1819 the chapel was ripe for expansion and this time it was James junior who agreed to act as one of the trustees so that a chapel in Ker Street, where John Wesley had preached at least three times, and a dwelling house in Windmill Street could be leased, and the Ker Street and Morice Street Methodist Chapels combined.
Devonport Column and Mount
Lithograph by Nettleton
Courtesy of Devon Library
& Information Services
By 1820 most people felt that the town should have its own Town Hall. Designed by the local architect John Foulston, it was to look similar to the Parthenon in Athens, with Grecian Doric columns. Land opposite Ker Street was donated by the St. Aubyn family and the cost of the building, some £2,000, was raised by public subscription. In June 1821 the foundation stone was laid and the following year the building was completed, but Plymouth Dock was still subject to Plymouth for all its local and judicial arrangements and the local populace disliked being referred to as “Dockers”. By 1823 some of the more influential members of the town had decided to do something to change the situation and petitioned George IV to change the town’s name, leaving the choice of name to the King. In due course they received a reply from the secretary of state announcing that it was “his Majesty’s pleasure” that in future the town would be known as Devonport. The towns christening ceremony took place on 1st January 1824 with a procession comprised of all the principal inhabitants; and to commemorate the event it was decided that a column should be erected. Once again John Foulston was the architect chosen for the job and the column he designed, which was 125 feet high, on a 22ft high rock, was to be topped off with a statue of the king. The column was to be paid for by subscription in £20 shares, but when the time came, some of the subscribers failed to pay up, so the statue of the king had to be abandoned.
Britain was being hit hard now by a trade recession and with the death of Canning in April 1827 and the subsequent failure of Goderich to form a cabinet, the Tory party was in trouble. The Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo, tried to hold things together but his government was racked by division. James was particularly interested in events in Parliament at this time as their outcome could make an important difference to his life. In 1672 a significant piece of legislation called the “Test Acts” had been passed making the holding of public office in Britain conditional on being a practising member of the Church of England; but now there was mounting pressure amongst dissenters for this act to be repealed. At an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Protestant Dissenting Ministers of the Three Denominations, held on Tuesday, 13th November 1827, it was unanimously resolved that “this Body esteem it to be a Christian duty to renew the Declaration of the injustice… of the Corporation and Test Acts; their injustice, in excluding Protestant Dissenters from civil and political advantages, accessible to other classes of his Majesty's subjects, not more loyal, or more zealous or active in the support of the constitution of the country than themselves….”. The following year Lord John Russell made a speech to Parliament in which he stated “every man ... should be at liberty to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience, without being subjected to any penalty or disqualification whatsoever... History will not justify you in maintaining these acts.... The Dissenters of the present day feel nothing but loyalty towards the House of Hanover... .” In May of 1828 the dissenters were to have their victory when the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed, but James’s pleasure was to be short lived as life prepared to deal him more blows.
4. Do They Rest In Peace?
Like his son, James Willing had expanded his business in order to carry on the trade of a tailor and mercer, but in May of 1829, at the age of 69, he was taken ill and died. On Monday 25th May James junior watched as his father’s body was laid to rest in the churchyard at Stoke Damerel Church. Little did he realise that just under two months later he would be back again in this same churchyard, this time to bury his second wife Lucy. She had given him five children, ranging in age from 3 to 9 and once again he must have wondered how he was going to cope; but there was worse to come.
From a copper engraving by Cooke
Courtesy of Devon Library and Information Services
At the end of 1828 the country had been outraged by the crimes of Burke and Hare, the notorious corpse-stealers. Stoke Damerel churchyard had already acquired a bad reputation following a murder which had taken place there some time earlier, therefore most people kept well away from the area at night. This and the high wall which surrounded the churchyard made it an ideal place for grave-robbers to work, so it was not surprising that rumours began to circulate. The rumours persisted into the autumn of 1830 when the County Constable, Richard Ellis, acting on a tip-off, attended the funerals of an 18 year old girl, Eliza Hanger and a 54 year old man, Thomas Webb. At these funerals he noticed two people, Richard and Mary Thompson, mingling with the mourners and asking questions about the age and cause of death of the deceased. Ellis returned to the graveyard, with other peace officers, about 7 p.m. and prepared to keep watch. About 10 p.m. he heard the sound of shovels digging in the ground and about half-an-hour later the thud as something was thrown over the graveyard wall. A while later a second thud followed and about five minutes later a man was seen walking around the eastern edge of the graveyard. It looked as if he was checking out the area, but because of the dark the constable was unable to make a positive identification, although he was fairly sure that the man was called John Jones.
Next morning about 5 a.m., Ellis and his men went to John Jones’s home at 4 Mill Pleasant and set watch. At 7 a.m. Ellis went and knocked on the door and using the pretext that he was searching for some soldiers who had deserted, he gained access to the house. In the kitchen he found two sacks containing two dead bodies, the remains of Eliza Hanger and Thomas Webb. A further search of the kitchen revealed one hundred human teeth hidden in a cupboard and in another cupboard, in the parlour, piles of grave clothes were found. The occupants of the house, John Jones, Richard and Mary Thompson and Thomas and Louisa Gosling, were all arrested and taken into Devonport to appear before the magistrates. Meanwhile Ellis returned to the graveyard to supervise the opening of the newly-made graves. On inspection it was found that the screws at one end of the coffins had been taken out and the lids forced off. Most of the grave clothes had been left behind but the corpses which had been interred the previous day were missing.
News spread like wildfire through the town and a huge crowd assembled. Feelings were running so high that when the prisoners were taken before the magistrates, they had to be escorted between a double row of constables for their own protection. Crowds also gathered in the churchyard where concerned relatives worried if their loved ones had suffered a similar fate. The Rector, William John St. Aubyn, did what he could to offer comfort and afforded every facility for the examination of all the graves formed in the six months or more since the gang had moved into the district. All the graves and vaults had been tampered with and nine coffins were found to be empty. In other cases the positions of the bodies showed that the corpses had been disturbed though not removed, possibly because they were already in an advanced state of decay. Several bodies had been decapitated and the heads removed.
What must have been James’s thoughts? Just eighteen months ago he had buried his father here and only fifteen months ago he had laid his second wife to rest in this very churchyard. Could the authorities be sure that this gang had only been operating for about six months? Had there been another gang at work prior to this? Were his loved-ones indeed still resting in peace?
The grave-digger, a man named Thomas Wood, was also later charged with assisting the others and admitted that he only half-filled the graves so that his accomplices would easily find them in the dark. He was sentenced to twelve months with hard labour. Mary Thompson was acquitted but Louisa Gosling, Thomas Gosling, Richard Thompson and John Jones were all found guilty and sentenced to “transportation beyond the seas for seven years”. Several inches of snow fell that December, but soon after Christmas Day, they were removed from Devon county jail and taken aboard the captivity hulk at Devonport. The men were not sent ashore to work as labourers, as was the custom for convicts, but were kept on board until the first transport ship bound for Botany Bay touched port. Feelings against them must still have been running high and concern in the parish was to continue for some time to come, with friends and relations keeping watch by gravesides as the notoriety of the churchyard grew.
This whole sad episode of the grave-robbers in Stoke Damerel parish did, however, benefit one member of the Willing family. For several years the medical men of the country had been petitioning Parliament to make dissection and the supply of bodies for the study of anatomical science legal. The local medical society supplied the M.P. for Finsbury, who was a well-known medical reformer, with details of the grave-robbings in the parish and they were given as evidence to a Parliamentary commission. As a result of this commission the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed permitting the use of unclaimed bodies by specially licensed teachers, so that by the time James’s second son, George Frederick Brutton, left to study to become a doctor the science of anatomy had moved on considerably.
After losing her husband, James’s mother had continued to live on in the house which they had leased at 13 Charlotte Row, but by 1830 she too began to feel her mortality and decided it was time to make her own will. Nineteen months later, in October 1831 she too was laid to rest in Stoke Damerel churchyard. As the sole executor, James finally obtained probate on 4th September 1832 on a will which named him and his sister Elizabeth as beneficiaries. James inherited the lease on his mother’s house and an insurance policy number 6833 with the West of England Insurance Company for £200-00-00. The rest of her estate went to his sister Elizabeth.
5. A Dissenter And A Gentleman
At the age of 46 James was once again a widower with a young family to raise, and as before he found comfort in his family, his faith and his work. Parliamentary affairs were also to provide him with an interesting diversion from more gloomy thoughts.
In 1832 there was a great deal of pent-up anger in Devon against the rotten boroughs and the close corporations. Out of a total of twenty-two members of Parliament returned by the county in the recent election, only one was Conservative, and he sat for Honiton. The country now had a Whig government and this was much more to James’s taste. Electoral reform was the hot topic and with the passing of the Great Reform Act in June, James finally gained the right to vote, but this could not compensate him for yet another devastating loss; the death of his eldest son, James, at the age of 26.
1833 saw the passage of several other important bills through Parliament, including an Education Act which made grants of £20,000 to the Anglicans and the Nonconformists who controlled education, and there was also cause for family celebration when John, now the eldest son, married a young Cornish girl, Elizabeth Anne Dawe. John had not followed his father into the drapery business but had preferred to branch out on his own setting up shop in Fore Street, as a grocer and tea-dealer. Early in 1835, John and Elizabeth were to present James with his first grandson. Like his father, John was a Wesleyan Methodist and it must have given James an immense feeling of pride when, the following year, his son together with several other dissenters in the town, joined James as trustees on yet another lease. This involved a plot of land measuring 24' by 20' 6" on the west side of Tavistock Street on which they intended to build a Methodist chapel and schoolroom.
Prior to 1834, the parish of Stoke Damerel had been incorporated under a local Act of Parliament for the management of its own poor law administration and a residential workhouse which had been erected in Duke Street in 1777. As a result of this status, when a new Poor Law was enacted in 1834, the parish found itself exempted from many of the new provisions. Each year Overseers of the Poor were nominated at a vestry meeting and appointed by the magistrates, and in April 1836 James was nominated to fill this office for the coming year and duly appointed.
The rector, the Reverend W.J. St. Aubyn, was unpopular with many of his parishioners and it was not uncommon for parish vestry meetings to end in uproar. In fact the meetings had achieved such notoriety that it had been claimed that it was “the rowdiest vestry in the kingdom”. It fell to James to appear at one of these meetings in order to ask for a greater portion of the parish rate to be allocated to relief for the poor. Some of those present felt that an increase was unnecessary and James found the meeting a very unpleasant experience; he was later to observe that he had “not been treated like a gentleman” and would not wish to go through that experience again “even if the parish would give him 200 guineas”. Nevertheless, perhaps remembering the look of desperation on the faces of those rioters back in 1801, he doggedly stood his ground only to make himself some enemies.
It was a tradition in the parish for the man who had held the post of Overseer of the Poor the previous year, to be elected as one of the churchwardens, therefore attending the vestry meeting held on Easter Monday 1837, James fully expected to be nominated for this office. The meeting appeared to get off to a good start, but things quickly got out of hand, when James’s enemies decided to exact their revenge. Firstly a gentleman named Mr. Elms stood up and said that the churchwardens of the parish had numerous legal duties to perform in addition to those which concerned the fabric of the church. Because of the nature of these duties he felt that a dissenter could not conscientiously take the office and he was therefore going to propose a churchman who was a well-known and tried friend of the parishioners. James was not without supporters and a gentleman named Mr. Rooke, said that James had “… performed the duties of the office with zeal and fidelity” and that he would move an amendment that “Mr. Willing be appointed churchwarden”. Now the meeting began to turn really ugly with another of James’s enemies pointing out that the rate-payers of the parish had never voted James into office as overseer and claiming that he had not given parishioners any opportunity to examine the financial records, hinting that there may have been some irregularities. It was also suggested that James’s actions during the last twelve months had been politically motivated. Mr. Elms weighed in again stating that James was the last man he would choose to hold the office of churchwarden, and calling on the rate-payers, “if they have any regard to their pockets or characters”, to vote for his candidate, Mr. Abbott. A Mr. Ryder summed up by saying that his greatest objection to Mr. Willing’s election was that it was “impossible for him, as a conscientious dissenter, to do his duty at once both to the religion he professed and the church from which he dissented”.
James was equal to the attack on his character and defended himself robustly. He said the ledgers containing details of relief to the poor were “open for inspection at all reasonable hours” and reminded the meeting that with regard to his appointment as overseer, he had not elected himself but had been appointed by the Magistrates. As to the objection on the grounds that he was a dissenter, he said that it was well known that persons who were dissenters had held the same office in the past.
Finally the matter was put to a vote which James lost by 21 votes, but his supporters were not to be silenced so easily and Mr. Rooke demanded that a poll of the entire parish be taken. This sparked off another argument but finally it was decided that a poll should be taken opening at 12 o’clock the next day and closing at 8 p.m. on Thursday. The results would then be declared on Friday evening.
Devonport Town Hall 1849
Courtesy of Devon Library and Information Services
The next day, Tuesday 28th March, supporters of both candidates set to work campaigning. The walls of the town were covered by placards and hand-bills were circulated. By the close of the day, in front of one of the largest groups ever to assemble in the Town-hall, the result of the day’s poll was announced; Mr. Abbott’s majority had increased to 75. Wednesday saw more claims and counter-claims and by evening the size of the assembly in the Town-hall was even greater than the previous night. Both candidates addressed the assembly then at 8 o’clock the poll was declared closed for the day. By now Mr. Abbott’s majority had increased to 101. On Thursday evening the Reverend William St. Aubyn was called upon to declare the state of the poll, but after giving his vote in favour of James he left the hall without making any statement to the meeting. Confusion prevailed for a time and the vicar was censured for the partial feelings he had displayed, but this could not change the result; James had polled just 458 votes but Mr. Abbott had polled 632.
The bitterness which had grown throughout the week continued to find expression in the speeches which followed the announcement of the result and in spite of claiming the victory, Mr. Abbott could not resist writing a barbed letter to the Devonport Telegraph & Plymouth Chronicle which was published the next day; it read as follows:
James did not reply immediately but considered calmly what he wanted to say before penning a letter which appeared in the newspaper a week later.
So ended James’s first venture into public life but in the fullness of time he would be elected to an office which would afford him the opportunity he so longed for, to serve his community.
6. Mr. Alderman Willing
In 1836 British trade had collapsed and many of the manufacturing and trading classes, finding their profits threatened, had thrown themselves behind the Anti-Corn Law League. Many dissenters and humanitarians like James also added their support to the movement, believing that cheap bread was a fundamental need. By the end of the 1830’s the Whig government was under increasing pressure from the resurgent Tories.
James now had three grandchildren and his eldest son, John, continued to trade as a grocer and tea-dealer from premises just around the corner from James’s shop. The eldest son from his second marriage, George Frederick Brutton, was training to be a doctor; Herbert William was preparing to follow his father, learning the trade of draper as an apprentice in Plymouth; the youngest daughter, Ethelinda Fanny, was away at a boarding school for young ladies at Rock House in Alphington Devon: and the youngest son, Edwin Washington, was at a boarding school for boys in Fore Street, Saltash, Cornwall. James, together with his daughters Eliza and Henrietta Lucy Brutton, and two female servants continued to live in Catherine Street.
Early in the new decade, the Tories, led by Peel, won a clear majority at the general election and set about fiscal and financial reform. Two important “free-trade” budgets implementing a sliding scale of tariff duties were introduced. As Prime Minister, Peel was also concerned with national defence and between 1841 and 1846 increased expenditure on the army and the navy. This provided a boost to the economy of Devonport of which James decided to take advantage.
Obtaining the lease on the neighbouring premises in Catherine Street, James decided to expand his shop. James Piers St. Aubyn, a local architect, who was also related to the Lord of the Manor, drew up detailed plans for an elegant three storey building which would house James’s drapery business and provide living accommodation for a family and servants above.
Design for a shop and house at 37& 38 Catherine
Street, commissioned by James Willing
Part of the St. Aubyn Estate Papers ref: 153/44/10
Courtesy of Plymouth & West Devon Record Office
The first floor was to contain a large storage area, a kitchen measuring 22' by 13' and a pantry all accessed by stairs at the rear of the property. On the second floor there were to be two large chambers measuring 23' by 17' 6" and 19' by 10' 9" and a bedroom at the rear. Next to the bedroom was to be a W.C. and all the rooms were to be lit by means of gas mantles. James, however, did not plan to live here himself; instead he acquired number 64 George Street in a quieter residential area of the town and it was his youngest son, Edwin Washington, who was to move his young family into the new house when it was finally completed.
As the 1840’s turned into the 1850’s James, now in his late sixties, was able to reflect with pride on his achievements. All seven of his children held respected positions in society. His eldest daughter Eliza had become the wife of Charles Row a local chemist, who was later to become Mayor of Devonport. His son John had given up the shop in Fore Street, in 1845, in order to become the secretary of the Devonport Gas and Coke Company; a position which he was to hold until his death. George Frederick Brutton, James’s eldest son from his second marriage, had become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1849, and was now working at Charing Cross and University College Hospital in London; later he was to enter general practice. Henrietta Lucy Brutton had become the wife of Edwin Bilton, who ran a shoe manufacturing business in Finsbury, London. Herbert William had moved away to Broadway, in Somerset where he had become a fellmonger and farmer, and had also established the firm “Franklins & Willing”. Ethelinda Fanny, James’s youngest daughter, had remained at home to care for her father; and Edwin Washington, the youngest son, had taken over the hat manufacturing interest from his father.
From the minute book of the Borough of Devonport 10th November 1851
Courtesy of Plymouth and West Devon Record Office ref: 1814
James, too, now held a respected position as his desire to serve his community found fulfilment in his election as an Alderman to the Borough Council. A much appreciated voice of reason, James was repeatedly elected to serve on a variety of committees such as the Watch Committee, the Finance Committee, the General Purpose Committee, and the Quarter Sessions Committee. From 1849 to 1852 he chaired the meetings for the Tamar Ward of Devonport; in 1852/53 the St. Aubyn Ward meetings, and in 1853/54 the meetings for the Clowance Ward.
He was now in his 73rd year, and had created a thriving business, successfully raised 7 children and served his God and fellow-man as best he could.
His attendance at Council meetings had always been exemplary but he had been unable to attend the meeting in December 1854; nevertheless on 18th January 1855 it was resolved that he should again “preside at all meetings of and elections for Clowance Ward until after the new elections on the first day of November 1855”. Sadly this would not happen.
January 1855 had ushered in very cold weather and there had been frost for 18 days. At the end of the month the doctor was called to attend on James who was suffering from congestion of the lungs but ten days later, on the 7th February 1855, he passed away at his home in George Street.
7. His End Was Peace
Stoke Damerel Workhouse
On Thursday 8th February 1855 The Plymouth & Devonport Weekly Journal contained the following announcement:
The Board of Guardians was a body which met regularly to administer the Poor Law in the area and govern the running of the workhouse. It had supervised the building of a new workhouse which had only just opened the previous October and which had room for 500 paupers and 35 inmates in the attached lunatic asylum. Right to the end of his life, James had been working to better the lives of the poor and needy.
The funeral took place the following Tuesday at Stoke Damerel church. Following the service, which was attended by Mr. R. J. Laity (the Mayor), the town council, and many of James’s friends and family, his body was interred in the churchyard. Now all that remained to be done was the appointment of a successor for James as alderman and the proving of the will.
On the 15th February 1855 the council met with the following result:
The will was quite a complex document and proving it took a little longer, but eventually, on 20th March 1855, probate was granted at London. James had taken out a mortgage for £6,000-00-0 with Robert Moon, the Navy Agent, on the shop in Catherine Street. This mortgage was now to be paid off with a cash payment of over £1,000-00-0 and the proceeds arising from the sale of 24 shares in the Devonport Gas and Coke Company and James’s household furniture, plate and books. If necessary any short fall was to be made up by using some of the income from the rental of 55 Fore Street. Once the mortgage was settled part of the income generated from the rental of 38 Catherine Street was to fund an annuity for James’s youngest daughter. Ethelinda Fanny was to receive an income of £40-00-0 per annum for as long as she remained unmarried.
The remaining income generated by all other sources was to be divided equally between Eliza and Henrietta Lucy Brutton, James’s other daughters; but if Ethelinda Fanny were to marry then her annuity would cease and the income from the Catherine Street property would be added to the other incomes, each of the daughters receiving a third of this total. As a daughter died the others would inherit her share equally and only when the last of James’s daughters had died would his sons, or their heirs, inherit a quarter share of the income generated.
The will also included some interesting bequests of a more personal nature including James’s pianoforte, a portrait of himself, one of his wife (presumably Lucy his second wife) and one of his ancestor Judge William Chapple which went to Ethelinda Fanny. Portraits of his mother-in-law and father-in-law (Mr. and Mrs. Brutton) were left to Henrietta Lucy Brutton and portraits of his mother and father were left to his son John.
James’s life had spanned two different centuries and seen many changes including the advent of the railways and industrialisation. He had lived in the reigns of four different monarchs and amassed personal wealth but seen poverty at close quarters and not looked away. Now as his obituary said “his end was peace”.