Friday, April 14, 2017

What would Swindon's early railway settlers say?

Yesterday evening I attended a very interesting meeting chaired by Robert Buckland MP for Swindon South.

The purpose of the meeting was twofold – to discuss how to better protect and use buildings central to Swindon’s heritage and the subject of the new Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.

Those present spoke with passion, although it has to be said, sometimes without good manners or respect for opposing views.

The new museum and art gallery is planned for a large, empty site between the magistrate’s court and the Wyvern Theatre in Princes Street, the designated Cultural Quarter of the Council’s regenerated Town Centre. 

Some felt it should be situated in the former Carriage Works on London Street.

So that was the gist of the meeting …

No one questioned that the town needs a new art gallery to better showcase the acclaimed modern art collection, acknowledged as the best outside London. No one doubted that the town needs a new museum to better tell the story of Swindon’s fascinating history, which can be traced back way beyond the railway years, with artefacts and exhibits currently stored in various locations across the town.

No one doubted the impact a new museum and art gallery could have upon the town’s cultural status, drawing in tourists, providing educational opportunities, income etc. It’s all a question of where to put it.

For some it was obvious. Why spend millions on a new build when buildings of national heritage importance are standing empty?

Others asked why can’t we have both? Why can’t we have an all singing all dancing new building and preserve Swindon’s heritage at the same time?

So, what did I take away from the meeting – apart from a headache? I was impressed by the desire to work together expressed by some, but I have to admit I was disappointed at the way others put across their arguments.

Last year we celebrated Swindon175 and the beginning of New Swindon – Old Swindon had been jogging along for many hundreds of years prior to this, thank you very much.

So, a hundred and seventy-five years ago Brunel and Gooch were steaming ahead with the Great Western Railway, buying up land left, right and centre in the name of progress. Some local landowners rebelled and refused to sell to them, but ultimately, they got the job done in the end. Hurray! Where would we be without the railways? No, seriously, where would we be? Life as we know it today owes pretty much everything to the coming of the railways, and New Swindon owes it's very existence to the railways. (Not Old Swindon which had been jogging along ...)

By 1843 building in the Railway Village was well underway and people were arriving in their droves from all over the country – to a town that had a huge railway factory and nothing else. The early settlers were innovators, movers and shakers and they created things and built stuff. They built the Mechanics’ Institute, the Milton Road Baths – new stuff, new builds.

I wonder what they would say today as we argue and debate about a brand-new museum and art gallery? I’m guessing they would probably say ‘go for it.’ But we can’t agree where to put it, we tell them.

I wonder what their advice would be?

published courtesy of Swindon Heritage

published courtesy of Swindon Link 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Can Court

So, what is the history behind Can Court Farm and where should I begin my research?

Last week I came across the grave of Margaret Fanny Willis in the abandoned churchyard at Eysey and traced her husband and sister in law, brother and sister Ernest and Ellen Willis, to Can Court, Lydiard Tregoze.

Now I want to know more about the farm where they grew up, and where best to turn to but the Friends of Lydiard Tregoz Reports published annually from 1968 – 2007. These reports are a mine of information to those interested in Lydiard Park and the surrounding area, and the St John family. The Friends are currently digitising the Reports and some of them are available to members through the website. Central Library, Swindon also have a complete bound set available on their shelves in Local Studies.

In Report No. 15 published in 1982, Canon Brian Carne wrote an article about Can Court and some of its owners and occupiers.

The Bradford family were tenant farmers in the parish of Lydiard Tregoz from at least the 1730s when Cornelius and his wife Mary Pontin raised a large family at Can Court. The family continued to farm at Can Court until 1858 when John Ambrose Willis, the father of Ernest and Ellen, took over the tenancy.

The earliest references to Can Court is 1564 when the property was held by Henry Compton as part of his manor of Elcombe in Wroughton.

Subsequent owners included Henry Compton’s son, William Lord Compton; Thomas Hutchings; Thomas Baskerville and Sir John Benet until 1624 when the Master and Fellows of Pembroke College, Oxford acquired the property.

Canon Carne quotes from the Victoria History of Wiltshire, Vol IX p.30, which provides a description of the property.

“The farmhouse is a tall stone building of four stories dating from the 17th century. There are three rooms to each floor, separated by stud partitions, and a massive oak staircase reaching from basement to attics. The twin-gabled front is flanked by projecting chimneys with tall diagonally set stacks; in the centre is a timber framed porch of two stories with a hipped roof. The stone windows, most of which have survived, have ovolo moulded mullions and are surmounted by relieving arches. The ground floor contains a hall and parlour with a smaller room and the staircase at the rear. Oak panelling in the hall is framed in narrow panels and there is an arcaded overmantle. The unusual plan of the house and the workmanship of its fittings may indicate that it was not designed as an ordinary farmhouse, while its architectural character suggests a building date of c.1650. In front of the house is a small enclosed forecourt. At the entrance to this there is a stone slab on which an inscription was still legible in the later 19th century. It apparently commemorated Cornelius Bradford (d. c.1750). The Bradford family were tenants of Can Court for most of the 18th century before leaving it for Midgehall.”

Can Court survived the 1980s West Swindon development and is separated from its former neighbours at Toothill and Blagrove by the M4.

In 1985 Can Court Farmhouse received a Grade II listing. The description on the British Listed Building Register reads as follows:

Farmhouse, late C16. Coursed limestone with ashlar quoins, stone slated roof. 2-storey, 3 bays; cellar and attics. Central hall with 2-storey porch, flanking reception rooms and rear extension.
Gable stacks with diagonal flues. Elevation: twin steep pitched gables with ball finials. Upper floor windows ovolo moulded stone-mullioned with square labels. Lower windows renewed. Stone
relieving arches. Porch timber framed with moulded jetty bressumers and moulded eaves.
Interior: not seen. Said to have panelling and stair brought from Broad Hinton Manor House.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Abandoned churchyard at Eysey

Last week the Swindon Heritage/Swindon Society team went in search of the abandoned churchyard at Eysey/Eisey. It’s relatively easy to find if you know where to look but it is far off the beaten track for cemetery followers.

The church of St Mary’s dated from the 13th century but was demolished and rebuilt in 1844. The parish registers date from 1571, and end in 1947 so as you can imagine there are a fair few burials in the churchyard. The Victorian church stood empty for several years before it too was demolished. Today there is evidence of the boundary wall and some memorials but the whole area is heavily wooded and overgrown.

And of course, as invariably happens when I start researching, I found a link to the parish of Lydiard Tregoze, although not, this time, the St John family and Lydiard Park, but the Willis farming family.
Amongst the nettles and fallen trees we found two perfectly preserved pink granite memorials both apparently dating from the 1920s and contained in a large family plot.

The inscription on one of the graves reads: In Loving Memory of Nelly, the dearly beloved wife of Henry John Horton who died at Eysey Manor Dec. 5th 1924 aged 55 years. On the other side of the memorial the inscription reads: Also In Loving Memory of Henry John Horton her beloved husband who died Sept 1st 1924 aged 64 years. The third inscription reads: In loving memory of Charles James Horton a loving brother & uncle who passed away Jan. 24th 1947, Aged 79 years.

In the neighbouring grave is a memorial to a mother and son. The inscription reads: In loving memory of Margaret the dearly beloved wife of Ernest Willis who died 24th July 1958. Aged 95 years.

On the opposite side of the memorial was the inscription that would lead me to Lydiard Tregoze.

In Loving Memory of Ernest Willis dearly beloved younger son of Ernest and Margaret Willis late of Can Court Wilts. July 5th 1891 – Feby 17th 1924 He served in the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster) Regt. & Royal Air Force throughout the Great War.

The Horton family had nipped back and forth across the Wiltshire/Gloucestershire county borders, farming at various times at the Manor Farm, Inglesham, Wiltshire and Broadway Farm at Down Ampney in Gloucestershire.

The Willis family had moved from Stanford in Berkshire to the parish of Lydiard Tregoze where John Ambrose Willis married farmer’s daughter Harriet Ellison and raised a large family at Can Court Farm, owned by The Masters, Fellows, Scholars of Pembroke College, Oxford.

John Ambrose Willis died in 1886 and is buried in the churchyard at St Mary’s, Lydiard Tregoze. His son Ernest took over the tenancy of the farm and in 1889 married Margaret Fanny Horton at Down Ampney parish church where a host of Horton’s are recorded as witnesses at the wedding. That same year Ernest’s sister Ellen Willis married Margaret’s brother Henry John Horton.

On census night in 1891 Ernest and Margaret Willis are recorded at Caln Court with their one year old son Edward Ambrose and Ernest’s brother Henry L. Willis who was visiting with his two children, Sarah and Robert.

Henry John and Ellen Willis are at Costow Farm, a neighbouring property across the parish boundary in Wroughton.

By 1901 the Willis family had moved to Caversham where Ernest worked as a ‘butcher & purveyor’ at 12 Church Street. The family are still living in Caversham at the time of the 1911 census. Ernest and Margaret had been married for 22 years. Still living at home was Edward Ambrose, their eldest son, who worked at a Clerk for the GWR, and their daughter Margaret Louisa. Younger son Ernest is not recorded with the rest of the family.

Ernest senior died the following year. He may be buried in the large family plot in Eisey, perhaps mentioned on the kerbstone that surrounds the two large memorials.

In 1911 Henry John and Ellen were living at Eisey Manor where Ellen (Nelly) died in 1920 and Henry John four years later. Henry John left £43,648 17s 9d with probate granted to his brother Charles James Horton and his three sons Robert Willis Horton, Henry Horton and Charles Horton.

Margaret, meanwhile, moved back to Swindon and a house in Westlecott Road. The son with whom she is buried died at the Sanatorium Linford Hampshire in 1924, most probably from the effects of his military service.

On the eve of the Second World War Margaret was still living at Southwood, Westlecott Road with her bachelor brother Charles J. Horton. Charles died in 1947 and Margaret in 1958 aged 95.