Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “bristol”

Mabel and Osterley

A question that has fascinated me is how Mabel Simmonds, formerly Butler, of Heston, Middlesex, wife of a market gardener and carman before WWI, could have been invited to garden parties at the spectacular Osterley House, which was so close to where the young family lived, but so far removed from the life they lived. Mabel was probably around 30 when she and her husband moved to Heston, from Surrey where they had been living, and where their first son, my grandfather, was born. In the years that followed their arrival they had 4 more children – Frederick (1908), John (1911), James (1913) and Mary (1916). In 1923 my grandfather left for Australia, and a few years later his brother John went out to join him. James died in 1928, as did their father. Mabel was by then 52 years old, with two of her children still at home with her, Frederick, who was 20 and Mary, who was 12. They lived at 1, The Circle, Lampton. Mabel had been together with her husband, George, for 23 years when she became a widow. She remained a widow until she died in 1946, and though Mary married and moved on, Frederick remained with her until she died. After Mabel’s death both Frederick and Mary (with her family) left for Australia.

The thing that stands out as I have tried to get a picture of this family’s life through the few documents I have been able to track down on the internet, is the relative lowly status of the family. They were an ordinary bunch, living in ordinary circumstances. But Osterley is not an ordinary house. It is a stately home, and the people who lived there were aristocracy.The owners of the house were the Earl and Countess of Jersey, but who were they I wonder? The people who were invited to Osterley for the famous “Saturday to Monday parties” (see previous blog), were prominent people in society, writers (like Henry James), politicians, explorers (like Ernest Shackleton). But Mabel Simmonds lived in another world, in the village next to Osterley. In Victorian and Edwardian England these worlds did meet of course, but surely not at garden parties, unless the one was in service to the other. They were not equals.

The answer to the riddle must surely lie in her earlier life. Mabel was 29 when she had her first child, my grandfather, George. But though she lived in Surrey then and worked as a laundress, and had previously been a nurse in London, she had grown up in Bristol, where she was a member of the famous Butler family. The Butlers of Bristol had humble origins further north in England. The father of the family, Joseph Frearson Butler, came from a little village called Risley, between Derby and Nottingham. He married a local girl, Sarah Theobold, when she was 15, and together they had 14 children. Sarah died when she was 48, in 1850 (from exhaustion I imagine!). Her youngest was only 3 years old. Joseph remarried and moved to Bristol, where his son lived.

Bristol had become the centre of a Butler family empire, not because of Joseph, but because of his first born son, William, who was born in 1819. As a young man he had moved south, and worked for the great engineer, Brunel, in his railway building projects. Railways required sleepers, and these were wooden, but wooden sleepers required preservation to prevent them rotting away. The product that was used for this purpose (creosote) was made from tar, and there was a tar works in Bristol which William ended up managing, in connection with Brunel’s engineering works. Apparently a fire almost destroyed the tar works in 1863, and William, 44 years of age, was able to buy the plant from the owners. He built the business up again and became one of Bristol’s most successful businessmen, and presumably extremely wealthy.

My great great grandfather Ephraim, Mabel’s dad, was one of William’s younger brothers. He was born in 1837, also up north, so he was 18 years younger than William. Ephraim must have also moved south, for in 1863, the same year that William took over the Tar Works, he married a girl called Jane Coombs, in Bristol. I assume Ephraim ended up working for his older brother, though I have no definite evidence of this. Ephraim and Jane seem to have had two daughters, Sarah, born in 1865, and Mabel, born in 1876. There may have been other children in between, I have no record. But within a few years of Mabel’s birth, both Ephraim and Jane were dead, and the girls were left as orphans.

William Butler had a whole lot of children. His first son he named William, and when Sarah and Mabel lost their parents, this William junior was already in his late twenties, married to Esther, with three children of their own: Mary, William (the third!) and Joseph. William took his younger cousin, Mabel, into his home where she grew up, together with his children (her “cousins once removed”). William junior by this time was managing the Tar Works, and the family was prosperous. They had servants and a governess. His son, William, who was the same age as Mabel, in his turn later took over the company, William Butler and Co. Mary, who was 5 or 6 years older than Mabel, was like her “big sister”. Mabel’s real sister, Sarah, lived in Gloucester with other relatives.

What kind of relationship Mabel had with her cousins is impossible to know, but there is no reason to think it was a bad one. Although Mabel travelled a different journey to them in life, she would surely have remained in contact. They were her closest family in many ways, even if they were rich and she was poor. By the time she was a young mother, in the years leading up to the Great War, her cousin (once removed), William (the third), was also in his 30s and running the successful business in Bristol. It is easy to imagine that such a prominent member of Bristol society should be invited to Osterley, though exactly who he knew and what his connection was to the great house and its owners is hard to know.

Mabel lived in Heston village, close by Osterley. She was like a sister to William. When he was at Osterley it was only natural that he should call on her, and why not ask her along to the parties at the big house? John (Jack), her third son, was a happy little lad. He could come too. Jack was 3 when WWI broke out. Perhaps it was those happy years before the Great War that he first visited the majestic house with his mother. Uncle Jack was old when I met him, a man who smiled easily, his face tanned and wrinkled from a lifetime in the Australian sun. But he remembered with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle those garden parties at Osterley, from another age and another world.


Growing up in Victorian England

Gloucestershire, Bristol, Clifton Suspension Bridge from the North

Clifton Bridge, Bristol

My great grandmother, Mabel Butler, and her sister Sarah were orphans. Sarah was 11 years older than Mabel. They lost their parents in unclear circumstances when Sarah was about 14 and Mabel was 3. Their parents, Ephraim and Jane Butler, lived in Bristol when they married in 1863 and Sarah was born 2 years later. Mabel was born in South Africa in 1876, but the circumstances of her birth are also uncertain.

In 1881 Mabel was 5 and Sarah 16. Mabel lived with an adult cousin, William Butler, and his family, in St George, Bristol (see the previous blog, The Butlers of Summerhill House), while Sarah lived about 50km away in Gloucester with an aunt and uncle, William and Louisa Hemmings and their son, William who like Sarah was 16 that year. Oddly, Mabel also lived with a cousin named William who was of the same age – William Butler, the first son of William and Esther.

As mentioned in the previous blog, Mabel as a five year old lived in a fairly well-to-do home. Her adopted family, the Butlers, had a successful family business in the manufacture of chemicals, chiefly tar. The Hemmings family were probably not as prosperous, but the fact that the census lists a domestic servant (Martha Monk, age 24) as part of the household, and that they had the means to take in not just Sarah who was 16 but also another cousin, Roberta Russell, who was 13 in 1881, suggests that they were reasonably well off. William Hemmings was a potato merchant and farmer according to the record, and both Sarah and her cousin William were assistants in the business, Their address, 79 Northgate Street, Gloucester, is however in town, so if William was a farmer he must have had property in the country too. I wonder how much contact Sarah had with her little sister in Bristol?

Sometime between 1881 and 1891 Sarah met and married Albert May, and moved back to Bristol. In 1891 she was 26, living with Albert at Staple Hill, Mangotsfield, which is in current day Bristol about 5km northeast of St George, where Mabel had lived with her relatives as a younger girl. But by 1891 Mabel, now 15, had moved in with Sarah and Albert, who had no children at that stage. Albert was a traveling salesman and Sarah is listed as a draper, a cloth merchant. Mabel worked as an assistant for her older sister.

Mabel then, despite her mysterious and rather exotic origins in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, grew up largely in Bristol in Victorian England in the 1880s and 90s. Bristol must have been an exciting place to live then, a thriving and growing industrial city. The engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was perhaps one of its most famous inhabitants, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, opened in 1864, the year before Sarah was born, stands today as a monument to his many achievements. Bristol was the home of Methodism after John Wesley had founded the first Methodist Chapel there in the 1700s, and during the 1800s this movement bore fruit with the growing middle class beginning to engage in charitable works: George Müller, for example, founded his orphanage in 1836.

Thomas Hardy was a well known novelist of the time: Tess of the D’Urbervilles came out in that census year of 1891, to a mixed reception. In fact, the Oxford Companion to English Literature says “the publication of the novel created a violent sensation” being seen by many reviewers as “immoral, pessimistic and extremely disagreeable.” I don’t imagine that Mabel read it, not at the age of 15 anyway, but perhaps Sarah was tempted to see just what all the fuss was about.

The Butlers of Summerhill House, Bristol

In 1881 my great grandmother Mabel Butler was 5 years old and an orphan. Her father Ephraim Butler appears to have died in 1879 when Mabel was only 3, and what happened to her mother is uncertain. Mabel was born in South Africa, but I have no idea of the circumstances.

However, from the census of 1881 I do know that at the age of 5 she lived in Bristol with her “cousin” William Butler, who was an industrialist of 30 years of age. William was married to Esther, and they had three children, Mary (10), William (5) and Joseph (3). So Mabel was contemporary with her cousin’s children (cousins once removed) – William the third was the same age as her – and their address, according to the census, was Summerhill House, St George, Gloucestershire. William and his wife may well have “adopted” Mabel. Mabel’s cousin William was the son of her father’s brother, who was also named William Butler. Cousin William became a man of some standing in Bristol society. Here is some more information I found about him on a genealogy site on the internet:

In the late 19th century, William Henry BUTLER was J.P. for the county of Gloucester. He lived at Summer Hill House, St. George, Bristol. William Henry BUTLER was born in the parish of St. George and educated at Redland. He was the senior acting partner in the firm of William Butler and Co., chemical manufacturers of Bristol and Gloucester. For many years he was chairman of the St. George School Board and for 14 years he was Overseer of St. George. He represented St. George Ward on the Bristol City Council. and was President of St. George Cricket and Football Clubs. William Henry BUTLER was a Nonconformist who took a great interest in Sunday School work. For 27 years he was the Secretary of the Sunday School in connection with Zion Free Methodist Chapel, Kingswood. (Information gleaned from ‘Bristol in 1898: Contemporary Biographies’)

Summerhill House does not seem to exist today, at least I can find no mention of it when searching on google. However, there is a Summerhill Road in the suburb of St George, Bristol, and at the start of Summerhill Road there is a Victorian water fountain which was given to the parish by William Butler, presumably senior, in 1890.

The Butler (junior) family home seems to have been fairly well off, upper middle class I suppose. According to the 1881 census, the children had a 19 year old governess called Florence Withers, a 22 year old cook called Mary Jefferies and a 16 year old housemaid, called Angelina Gallaway. William’s brother, Joseph Butler, also lived in the house, and not surprisingly was also involved in the family company, which was called William Butler and Co, Tar, Rosin and Oil Distillers. Here is a little about the company, posted on the internet by Josephine Jeremiah and taken from her book, ‘The Bristol Avon: A Pictorial History’ (2005):

In times past, Crews Hole was well known for the riverside works operated by William Butler & Co., Tar, Rosin and Oil Distillers. The firm was founded by William Butler in 1843. Besides the large manufactory at Crews Hole, it had another works at Upper Parting, Gloucester. In the 1890s, the company employed a small fleet, comprising six lighters and a steam tug at Bristol and three lighters at Gloucester. Using this water transport, they could ship goods from their works at Crews Hole and deliver them either to the railway yards in Bristol or alongside coasting vessels or ships bound for foreign ports, which were in the docks. Return cargoes were raw materials for distillation and freights of turpentine and rosin, which were imported in great quantities by the firm. At this time, four trows were also owned by the company. These were used to carry the firm’s products to ports in South Wales. A coasting steamer, the Clifton Grove, delivered tar and creosote to other ports in the country and on the continent.

Another post to the same discussion thread notes:

William BUTLERS Tar Works was started at the request of Isambard Kingdom BRUNEL to produce Creasote to protect the hundreds of thousands of Sleapers he was useing to build his Great Western Railway. They also made Naptha to burn in the railways flares and lamps.

The uses of tar changed with the years, as another site notes:

During the First World War, Butler’s made an important contribution to the war effort, since they were able to produce Benzole and toluene for explosives; they set up the first plant in the country to produce it, and in the process distilled 22 million tons of tar during the war. In the Twenties and Thirties came two more significant derivatives of tar: pyridine, which became a chemical for the drug trade for the making of M and B tablets, and the development of the earliest form of plastic, Bakelite, from tar acids. When the Second World War came, Butler’s were again supplying the war effort, with pitch for surfacing aerodromes, creosote for high octane aeroplane fuel, toluene for TNT, and naphthalene for plastics.

Mabel, then, appears to have entered this family at some stage after her father died, and lived with them for some time, though how long I do not know. The 1881 census gives us a glimpse into one day of her childhood, but whether that is representative of many years or not is hard to know. By the time of the 1891 census 15 year old Mabel was living with her sister. Suffice to say that my great grandmother seems to have been born into better circumstances than those of her later life. She was a child of Victorian England, though she was born in South Africa. Her father was apparently wealthy and he was related to the Butlers of St George, Bristol, who owned a Tar Works which was productive for over a century. I wonder if Mabel had any contact with her wealthier relatives later in her life?

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