Harry Worsfold (1839-1939): The life and times of a gentleman of Surrey

Harry Worsfold (1839-1939): The life and times of a gentleman of Surrey

by Janet Hilderley

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In my grandparents' front parlour there hung a portrait of my great-grandfather, Harry Worsfold. His tales of old Surrey together with its ghosts and superstitions enthralled me. Close by lay the great family Bible. In this he entered the birth of each of his twelve children. Later he added their marriages and the arrival of his numerous grandchildren. Harry was born in 1839, when Queen Victoria was but a girl. As a boy he witnessed a public hanging, threw stones at passing coaches and tolled the church bell for the Duke of Wellington's funeral. At ten years of age he became "buttons" to Ripley's squire and lived in that village for most of his life. Service was not to his style and he became a stockman. As sexton to the parish church, his life became interwoven with that of the great and the good who lived in the surrounding estates. Harry lived through a period of intense social change and would boast that he was the last of the parish constables. The barbarity of the Great War shocked him. He agreed with George V: "Grandma would never have allowed this." When his son-in-law, George, left the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) garden at Wisley to fight in the Great War, Harry, now a widower, joined his daughter and her baby son in their RHS cottage. On 18 February 1939, George wrote in the family Bible, "Today Harry Worsfold (1839 to 1939) died. He said he was the last of the parish constables. He was certainly the last of a breed of men."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781898595632
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Publication date: 06/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Janet Hilderley is the author of Mr Disraeli’s "Rattle”, the love story of Benjamin Disraeli and Mary Wyndham Lewis as they traversed the politics and social scene of Victorian Britain, and the well received Mrs Catherine Gladstone: 'A woman not quite of her time’.

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Harry Worsfold (1839-1939)

'The Life and Times of a Gentleman of Surrey'

By Janet Hilderley

The Alpha Press

Copyright © 2015 Janet Hilderely
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-898595-65-6


Date of Birth, about 1840

Beginnings and Change

It is the 2nd of February 1939. Grandfather Worsfold goes for his after-dinner "lie-down". In sixteen days' time he will be one hundred years old. Harry falls asleep thinking of his party. In the kitchen, a hundred rock cakes bake in the kitchen range. On top of each one, a glacé cherry glistens. As the slate clock on the mantle chimes three, his daughter Florence climbs the stairs. There is no sound except for the bedroom door creaking open, then she calls out, "Father's gone!" Mrs Hilderley junior, his granddaughter-in-law, exclaims, "They'll be no good now, not for a funeral, not with those cherries on top." A week later, mourners mutter to each other, "are we to face another war?"

No birth certificate was found for Harry Worsfold. His death certificate states date of birth about 1840. However, he was baptised on 20th March 1842 in St John the Evangelist, Stoke. His marriage license shows him as Henry Worsfold, labourer of Stoke-next-Guildford, marrying Hannah Sale, a pretty, twenty-three-year-old Ripley girl. The certificate is dated 2 January 1864. Harry's age is given as twenty-two. The certificate is witnessed by is father, George, and Hannah's father, John Sale. Both men were labourers. No mention is made of Harry's bride possessing one eye. The young couple signed the certificate together, firmly. In 1829, George Worsfold had married Elizabeth Hopkins in the same church.

The ceremony took place in St Mary Magdalene, a small chapel of ease, a Norman place built about 1160. In those days, it was a Catholic priest who welcomed young brides. Certainly the Norman presence was strong in the area. The King came to nearby Guildford at Christmas, often dressed in swansdown, lavishly entertaining in the Castle. Beforehand, his steward visited the merchants in the High Street, buying new wine from Bordeaux.

The three million souls living in England enjoyed a particularly warm spell during the years of hated King John, but they found some consolation in the old religion. He was a distant figure, but the Bishop of Winchester was not. During the year 1200, the black-habited monks of the Augustinian order, on his orders, built a priory close to the River Wey in the parish of Send. St Mary Magdalene, in the smaller village of Ripley, was completed in a simpler style. It offered hospitality to wayfarers, and comfort to the sick and the dying.

Many years later, in September 1852, the young Harry Worsfold tolled the bell of St Mary's for three hours. Far away in St Paul's Cathedral, the funeral was taking place of the Duke of Wellington. In 1861, three years before his marriage, Harry Worsfold tolled the bell again, this time to announce a queen's grief. Her prince had died, leaving Victoria to mourn his passing for forty long years. The final time Harry rang the bell would be in 1918, telling folk that the Great War was over. The women of Ripley cried for husbands and sons whom they would see no more, many of them little more than boys. The lights had gone out all over Europe, but Harry said, "Things are getting better for us ordinary folk."

After the War, what remained of the young tried forgetting its horrors and entered into a state of mad gaiety. This was followed by depression, but Harry was right. Working at factory bench and on the land during the war years, women refused to return to being mere chattels. Now children stayed on at school until they were thirteen years of age. In summertime, few small boys went shoeless as Harry had. He thought modern boys "too mouthy and life dull for youngsters now", no carriages now came rushing down the Portsmouth Road nor coachmen swore as boys threw stones at the passengers. Harry considered it to be a dull pastime calling out rude remarks to the newfangled automobile drivers or cyclists.

The hunt still rampaged across the countryside, but people were more aware that animals too felt pain. His grandson Charlie did not go out into the fields waving a worm held high on a stick to tempt a lark to swoop down and get caught for supper: Take two dozen larks, clean and pluck. Cut off head and legs. Remove gizzards. Brush over with a well-beaten egg, dip the birds in nutmeg, breadcrumbs, then season and add a sprig of parsley. Roast in a baking-tin in a fairly hot oven. Baste the birds constantly else they will burn. Serve with good, meaty gravy. Dish will serve 6 to 8 persons. Allow one hour for cooking.

Like many young children, Harry learned his letters at Sunday school. His younger siblings may have attended the Stoke Parochial School founded in 1856 for affording a sound education to the children of the poor belonging to the parish at 2d a week. It is supported by yearly subscriptions and contributions, annual sermons being preached on its behalf. Nevertheless, Harry's life remained one of ghosts and superstition, but he was not one of Bettesworth's illiterate peasants, unable to think and only reacting like some dumb animal. However, when he reached five years of age, his parents set him to work. There were other mouths to feed. At harvest time, he delivered his father's "fourses", or teas. A small boy was useful in helping to stack the harvest. "Many a time," he recalled, "I lay down between the stacks after I had done work and bid my time till I started reapin' again in the morning." The idea appealed to Charlie, but Flo said, "You would find it cold waking-up towards dawn."

"We did," said Harry. "But then as soon as you waked up, 'twas time to set to again."

There was no question of "sleeping-over" when he helped to feed the shire horses which pulled the flat barges along Sir Richard Weston's canal. Rumour had it that the Wey Navigation nearly bankrupted him. In 1641, he sold to Sir Richard Onslow his hunting lodge at West Clandon, together with its thousand-acre estates. Sir Richard arrived at the turning point of the battle of Worcester. "Sorry, got lost," he told Cromwell. Angrily, the General called him the Red Fox of Surrey.

Sir Richard Weston's great-great-grandfather, also a Richard, was one of Henry VIII's favourites. Nevertheless, Henry beheaded his son for a so-called liaison with his Queen, Anne Boleyn. In 1525, Weston built a great mansion, Sutton Place, close to Oatlands Palace at Weybridge, where the King constructed a home for Anne of Cleves, his fourth and most unattractive wife. Despite disappointing her husband, she kept her head. His fifth wife, the young and beautiful Catherine Howard, also stayed at Oatlands. Her ghost haunts Hampton Court, crying out to her husband for mercy. Sutton Place is not a haunted palace or castle, but built in the style of a Tudor country mansion. It was surrounded by small manor houses and farms whose names are still remembered: Burchatt's, Stoke Park, and Abbot's Woods.

The great house stands in low-lying ground which the River Wey used to flood. Preserved in the house is the ruff of the beheaded Sir Thomas More, stained with his blood. In 1591, Henry VIII's daughter, Queen Elizabeth, came to stay at Sutton Place. Soon after her departure, the great hall burned down. It was not repaired until two hundred years later.

In 1635, Sir Richard submitted plans to Charles I. He wanted to improve the flow of the river. He cut, dug, and made a trench through the lands of his neighbour, Sir George Stoughton, Stoke's Lord of the Manor. The diarist John Aubrey commented that "Sir Richard's flowing river enabled six score acres of grounds to be flooded which was before most of it dry. The land next to the canal yielded two hundred loads of hay more per year." Sir Richard stated that a "hundred and fifty loads of my extraordinary hay sold at near three pounds a load".

At the beginning of the Civil War, as a Royalist and Roman Catholic, Sir Richard's estates were seized and he fled abroad. Uninterested in politics, he petitioned to be allowed to return. Following Charles I's execution in 1649, Oatlands Palace was destroyed. Sir Richard began to build his canal's bridges and locks using the narrow red bricks collected from the debris of the Tudor palace.

Sir Richard Onslow, now a follower of the Puritan cause, must have watched fascinated as work commenced again on the canal. When he refused to sign Charles I's death warrant, Lord Cromwell advised him to spend more time with his family. Nine months after the work began on 7th May 1652, Sir Richard Weston died. Ten miles out of the fourteen had been completed. However, the canal remained subject to confrontations and squabbles. In 1651, his son George engaged a partner, James Pitson, a major in Cromwell's army. By 1653, the Wey Navigation Canal was finished. The waterways of England had always been used to move goods, and now the Wey Navigation's barges carried easily cargoes, such as corn, flour, timber, coal, chalk, bark for tanning, rags for paper making, barrel hoops, ironwork, sugar, groceries, and gunpowder, from Guildford to London's docks. Usually, two horses in tandem pulled the barges, often Clydesdales. These were stabled at either Newark Mill or Worsfold Gates at Send. Something of a "sylvan scene", the River Wey flows through the Gates. The name is thought to have come from one of the original labourers who, in 1671, made a claim for £60 for work done repairing the banks at a rate of 5/- a week.

The canal did not immediately decline in competition to the railways. At the time when Harry was a boy, it had had many owners and was managed by William Stevens, who named his new barge Perseverance. His family followed in the old canal traditions. Harry watched fascinated as women sat knitting in the barges, jumping up as the lock gates came into sight and grabbing a crowbar. The paddles on the two sets of gates had to be levered up so that the peg could be put in place. The peg-and-hole method was easy when the water pressure on the paddle was low, but hard work when it was normal. Once the water returned to the right level, they returned to their work, hoping to sell the goods at Guildford's cattle market or the county fair.

Guildford found it difficult to site wharves for the barges to unload, especially as they often carried gunpowder. However, Stoke-next-Guildford had room for a large wharf. In 1654, the people of Guildford signed a petition complaining that the undertakers (canal managers) should find a place to land commodities within Guildford: "It is manifest that they intend to take the whole business and accommodation from the said town of Guildford to Stoke and other places to the impoverishment of the said town."

As a boy, Harry helped lift the cargoes out of the barges on to Dapdune Wharf. On leaving the canal, he wandered into Woodbridge Road. This area of Stoke still retains the feel of a village and, in Harry's day, prosperous Londoners thought they were buying a place in the country. Making his way to Joseph Street, he would pass two of the oldest cottages in Stoke: no. 35-37, part-built in the 15th century and thatched. Nearby stand nos. 9, 10, and 11, belonging to the 16th and 17th centuries. He wondered about the residents of these properties. Little documentation exists to explain who they were. As in every corner of Surrey, the presence of the Onslows is felt. Along the street, he would see a Tudor "farmhouse". It is one of the oldest in the district and, sadly, again few documentary sources exist, but it is known that the house was owned by Mr Middleton Onslow in the 18th century.

Acquaintances of the Worsfolds, the Smallpieces were a Surrey family of long standing. Evidence of this is shown when they were mentioned, in 1570, in the deeds of Watford Farm House of Stoke: "John Smallpiece of Guildford, clothier, conveyed to George Parvis of Watford, Stoke, yeoman, a half acre in Stoke Field next to Parsonage Path."

Harry thought his family origins were Germanic. Later research considers they may have been called Von Varsfeld, coming to England as mercenaries to fight for Edward IV in the 15 century. Since then, the name Worsfold has become synonymous with the Surrey countryside. Some authorities believe the name comes from the site of a deserted Surrey village or hamlet. During the 14th century, many villages were cleared to make room for sheep farming. Others say it comes from the Old English "werf", meaning draught cattle, and fields, called "felds".

Harry's own life possessed its excitements. He told tales of old Surrey but, of course, they are impossible to verify after all this time. He remembered a few occasions when, as a boy, he crawled through a hedge at midnight to open a farm gate. Black-hooded figures on horseback passed silently through, dragging kegs of brandy or "baccy" behind them — or, more likely, people who wished to escape unnoticed to the continent. Portsmouth was less than fifty miles down the road, and it was a straight run to London. Gertrude Jekyll talks in Old West Surrey of a new squire being informed that "there was a run last night, sir, and I've marked four." His rector told him, "If you wish to live in peace with your neighbours you had better fall in with the custom of the country."

No strong hand clasped Harry's shoulder. Young as he was, twenty years before he would have been strung up in Guildford's Tunsgate. Fortunately for him, execution by hanging was abolished in 1836, except for murder. Nevertheless, he would have done time. The town's House of Correction being closed, Harry would have spent a period in Surrey County Gaol, otherwise known as the New Gaol. The criminal classes referred to it as "Horsemonger Lane", after the thoroughfare in Wandsworth in which it stood. On release, the boy would have drifted into London and joined the flotsam and jetsam of the capital's underworld.

In 1849, Dickens wrote his famous letter condemning public hangings. The behaviour of the crowd shook him. When Harry was about eleven years of age, his parents took him as a special treat to Albury, to see the murderer John Keene hung. As the executioner tied the rope around the man's neck, he cried out, "I didn't do it! I didn't throw the little boy down the well!"

Sometime in 1850, a twenty-five-year-old single mother, Jane Broomer, married John Keene. Subsequently, she bore his baby. In January 1852, Jane told her mother that Keene had thrown Charlie, her illegitimate son, a toddler, down Warren Well on Albury Heath. Hearing rumours, Superintendent Josiah Ridley of Guildford police called on the Keenes. Jane was alone. She told him, "I know what you've come about — it's my husband having killed Charlie." Keene later denied the murder, saying, "I never put him in the water."

The well digger William Edsor climbed down to the bottom of Warren Well and found the body of the toddler. Ridley accused the couple of his murder. On 22nd March 1852, they were tried. Jane was found innocent; Keene convicted. He was hung before a lynch mob of several thousand, angered by the brutal murder of the child.

One of Harry's older brothers applied for the position of hangman. Sadly for him, the waiting list was too long. In old age, Harry said his youthful experiences helped to make him a successful parish constable. He boasted, "I am the last of the parish constables." Harry also reminded his family he had been butler to the 1st Earl of Lovelace, the man who married Ada, the computer innovator and Lord Byron's daughter, but the 1911 census shows Harry, in his seventies, as "road mender for Surrey County Council". A man who became something of a folk hero, known for his prodigious memory and intelligence, never mentioned that.

Harry preferred to work and rely on his own meagre savings rather than be means-tested and paid a pension by the state. He kept his savings: £5 note by £5 note, hidden behind the paintings hanging on the walls of his cottage. Fortunately, he never had to rely on his children, and all twelve grew into healthy adults. He knew that at least one of them would be able to care for Hannah and himself, if necessary, but not if he "disappeared into foolishness" — then there was only one place for him: Stoke's lunatic asylum, Leapale House, in Mad House Lane. Nobody knew when it took on this role, but it was thought it stood on the site of a medieval leper colony. The house was licensed to care for twenty insane persons, both female and male.

When Harry was an infant, the asylum was run by a Dr Sells, nicknamed "Butcher Sells". It was listed as a lunatic asylum until the 1870s, but in the 1880s, an engineering company took over and the house became the subject of many tales, usually told by an old woman "with a mouth like the village pump".

As Harry began earning his own living, he feared a bad harvest. Like most of his sort, he dreaded going into the Union Workhouse at Slyfield, which he assumed he would have to do in order to avoid starving in the gutter. He did not know of the minutes of the Board of Guardians dated 1st May 1836, which stated no relief be given to any able bodied paupers in the Guildford district of the Union from and after the 4th June. It was assumed that a young man would be able to find work. Like many young people, if disaster had struck, he would probably have joined the two million people living in London.


Excerpted from Harry Worsfold (1839-1939) by Janet Hilderley. Copyright © 2015 Janet Hilderely. Excerpted by permission of The Alpha Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


CHAPTER ONE Date of Birth, about 1840 Beginnings and Change,
CHAPTER TWO The 1850s and 1860s A Time to Sow and a Time to Reap,
CHAPTER THREE The 1870s Depression, Lily Wilson and the Last of the Parish Constables,
CHAPTER FOUR The 1880 A Time of Change,
CHAPTER FIVE The 1890s A Mauve Decade and a Time to Say Farewell,
CHAPTER SIX 1900-1914 Edwardian Summers but Winter Approaches,
CHAPTER SEVEN 1914-1930 Winter before Spring,
CHAPTER EIGHT 1930-1939 The Final Chapter,

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