This is the second in a series of blog post from students of Janet Few‘s Are You Sitting Comfortably?: writing and telling your family history (216) course.
Janet says: “I have been tutoring the course for several years. Three years ago the option to submit an assessed piece for feedback was added. Since then, each time the course has run, several students have taken this opportunity and have sent in a section of their family histories. They are given about six weeks after the course finishes to do this. I have been in awe of what they have produced in a comparatively short space of time. It is a pleasure to be able to feature some of their stories on the Pharos blog“.
This offering comes from student, Samantha Taylor, and tells the story of Farrington Family…
Our Farrington Family of Brightlingsea
The town of Brightlingsea is almost an island, bounded by muddy creeks, with a single road connecting it to the county of Essex. Brightlingsea Creek joins the river Colne just before it empties into the North Sea. On its way from Colchester the Colne flows past Rowhedge, Wyvenhoe and Brightlingsea, and meets the Blackwater which has travelled from Maldon, past Tollesbury and around Mersea Island. All these places were famed for their boatbuilding. This enclave of the Essex coast was steeped in the traditions of seafaring since before the time of Henry VIII. As a limb of the Cinque Port of Sandwich the townspeople were exempted from serving on juries and in the armed forces, safe from the press gangs, underlining the national importance of their occupations and skills.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the creek and hard would have been full of fishing vessels of every size, cutters, smacks and yawls (200 by 1861). The livelihood of the town came largely from the oyster beds of the Colne and Blackwater estuaries, and fishing as far as the Dutch coast and the Channel Islands. As an interest in yachting for sport and pleasure began around 1825, wealthy owners looked to the men of the Colne to not only build, but crew, their race winning yachts. These hardy men, brought up on the sea, knew well the ways of wind and tide and the most treacherous network of sandbanks. By the end of the century it was as well known for beach huts and boating.
Well inland from the hard is the centre of the town. The outline of Hurst Green and Chapel Road is strikingly recognisable, even on the earliest maps, and along with High Street and Church Road forms the very skeleton of the ancient settlement dating back to the Romans. The grassy triangular Hearst Green looks likely to have been the scene of sports and fairs, and its surrounding dwellings were home to two of our families in 1841. Joseph Farrington had married Susanna Kerridge in July 1840 and their first child, Joseph Thomas was born in the spring of 1841. Susanna’s father, James Kerridge, a widower, had married Joseph’s eldest sister, Ann Maria Farrington in October 1840, and they were living with James’s son George, then 13. Both Joseph and James were fishermen as were more than half of their neighbours.
Certainly in the early part of the nineteenth century the majority of properties were leased from the Lord of the Manor. As fishermen, I am sure they would have lived in the simplest houses, two up, two down, however large their family became. James, Ann Maria and their three children continued to live in Hearst Green. Joseph and Susanna settled in Chapel Road with their nine children. After Ann Maria’s death in 1867, James lived with his son Robert’s family in Hearst Green and their neighbours in 1871 were Joseph’s son Thomas Joseph Farrington and his wife Jane (Wright). Another of their neighbours was Jane’s father, Henry Wright, a widower, and her sister Charlotte. By 1891 Thomas Joseph, Jane and their four boys had moved to 59 Chapel Road, a four room house, probably with a garden. Thomas Joseph’s brother, George Farrington, his wife Maria Ann (Farrington) and their four children were their neighbours.
As widows, Susanna (Kerridge) and Jane (Wright) both lived on the High Street, albeit 20 years apart. In 1891 Susanna was living in a single room but there is no mention of employment, while in 1911 Jane lived as servant/nurse with the Harris family.
The railway appeared in 1866 running along the river from Colchester and crossing Alresford Creek. This branch of the Great Eastern Railway must have made a tremendous difference to a town which until then could only be reached by one road, or by sea. The town’s population had grown four fold in less than 100 years, from 1,020 in 1811 to 4,501 in 1901, and by 1874 had a gas works company and a water company. More houses were built on the north and south of High Street, and later in the century our families could be found in Nelson Street, John Street, and Sidney Street where my grandmother, Marion, was born.
Brightlingsea lies quite flat along the creek but gradually ascends towards the farmland behind. On this gentle hill to the north and slightly west, a mile and a half from the town, stands All Saints Church. Now a grade one listed building it dates back to the 12th century and is built on the site of an earlier Saxon church of which a small arch remains. The churchyard extends to six acres and the tower, built of local flint in the late 15th century stands 97 feet high, an important marker to those at sea. Inside the church runs a frieze of tiles commemorating every Brightlingsea native lost at sea, since its inception in 1872 by the Rev Arthur Pertwee, in response to the 36 local seamen lost that year in severe storms on the North Sea. Each tile is inscribed with the name of the deceased and his ship. Many members of the family were baptised, married and buried here including Marion, who was baptised on 23rd October 1902. This little pen and ink drawing of the church was made by Joseph William Farrington in 1938 and given to his niece, my grandmother, Marion.
Chapel Road, then and now, is the site of the Wesleyan Chapel, records of which go back to 1805, although the building you see today was probably constructed at the end of the 19th century. Wesleyan Methodism began in the second half of the 18th century but grew in popularity most rapidly in the first half of the 19th century. The simplicity of their creed appealed particularly to the working class communities like that of our fishermen. Between 1841 and 1855 at least eight of Joseph and Susanna’s nine children were baptised at the Wesleyan Chapel along with James and Ann Maria’s three children. The deaths of Joseph’s sister Eliza (21), Susanna’s brother George (22), Joseph and Susanna’s son Isaac (2), and James and Ann Maria’s son James (3) were recorded in 1849. They would have been buried elsewhere, possibly at All Saints, as there was no burial ground at the chapel. George, Isaac and James died within a month of each other and I wonder if this is evidence of the cholera epidemic of that year. A note in the burial record says that George’s body was brought home from the Channel Islands in the ship in which he sailed, but he may have been ill before he left.
“Brightlingsea men have never been afraid of going to sea. Their smacks earned a wonderful reputation for daring (and sometimes for piratical practices) in the last century” wrote Hervey Benham in the ‘Last Stronghold of Sail’ (George G Harrap and Co Ltd 1948).
It is hard for me to imagine the world of these fishermen as they slip between the pages of census return and parish register, just out of reach, but I have been able to give some substance to them through Hervey Benham and Garboard Streyke who wrote most evocatively of this way of life before engines and mechanisation changed it forever.
In February or March many smacks would sail to Falmouth and the Channel Islands to dredge deep sea oysters and would be away for two or three months. Others would travel to the Terschelling Light on the Dutch coast, more than 200 miles away, for as long as four months. In the sprat season from the mid-August to mid-February the smacks would work in groups of six or seven pooling their catch. Whether dredging or netting fish, their muscles would have strained with the effort of throwing and hauling the gear, and all while under sail. The storms could be savage and the sea often bitterly cold. The creek could freeze in the depths of winter. On top of that they would need to negotiate the most treacherous network of shoals, the Gunfleet Sand, the Long Sand, and the Sunk.
“Many persons who, whether on business or pleasure, have paid a visit to Wyvenhoe, Rowhedge, or Brightlingsea, must have looked with some curiosity on the black, rough-looking vessels known as smacks, with their crews of bearded and bronzed men, clad in canvas jackets and pilot-cloth trousers” wrote Garboard Streyke as the opening to ‘The Sea, The River, And The Creek’ (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington 1884).
Beneath their jackets a traditional, tight fitting knitted gansey and a waistcoat, and over their trousers, thigh length greased leather boots with wooden pegged soles, would have been worn, topped off with a hat, and oilskins if it was rough. They must have looked much like the men in the photographs by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, and I expect their wives also dressed similarly to the herring girls.
The crews of four to six men would have started their day as early as four o’clock, before dawn. Their meals would have been simple but nourishing, cooked on a small stove in the cabin. Bread and cheese would do for breakfast and a bit of salt beef stew and dumplings, cooked in an iron pot, for dinner, and always washed down with tea brewed in the kettle with sugar, but no milk. Although they may have frequented the many public houses in the town, when they were at sea not a drop passed their lips.
It wasn’t just the harsh weather and inhospitable terrain the fishermen had to deal with. On 21st December 1833 the Essex Standard reported that on Monday 16th December, the Magistrates in Colchester Castle heard depositions from the masters and crews of several vessels which had been molested in dredging for oysters off the coast of France. One of the depositions was given by Shadrach Martin, master of the fishing smack Globe, describing how the vessel had been boarded by Frenchmen and taken to Granville. Similar accounts were given by other masters who felt aggrieved by their treatment by the French when they were miles away from their coast, and considering that the French fishermen were not similarly violated when fishing off the British coast. A letter was sent by the fishermen to the bench of magistrates, and one of the signatories was Isaac Farrington. Born in Brightlingsea, he moved to Harwich with his young family and in 1884 his granddaughter Maria Ann Farrington would marry Joseph and Susanna’s son George. As a result of the letter and the depositions the Magistrates sent a letter to Lord Viscount Melbourne requesting protection for the fishermen. It was less than 20 years since the end of the Napoleonic wars. William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne was a Member of Parliament for the Whig party and at the time Home Secretary, but would later become Prime Minister and a favourite of Queen Victoria. Sadly I have not been able to find out if he acted in response to the letter from Colchester.
A life at sea started early and Joseph Thomas Farrington (14) and Thomas Joseph Farrington (13) were indentured to their father Joseph Farrington on 15th August 1855, as apprentices on the vessel Rose, of Colchester. I wonder if this infers that Joseph was at least the master of this vessel, if not the owner.
Both brothers, Joseph and Thomas worked aboard the fishing cutter Globe, which was registered in 1844 at Colchester but likely built at Wivenhoe around 1805. Benham describes her as a ‘powerful cutter smack’. At the time of the census in 1871 she was recorded at Dover with Thomas, aged 28, serving as Mate. Joseph, aged 19, had been serving as A B Seaman in 1861 when she was recorded at Guernsey, Channel Islands. The Globe’s Master, Hazel Polley was a neighbour of the Farringtons in Chapel Road. Joseph Thomas was recorded aboard Tartar in 1871 at Swansea, and the following year he married and settled there. In 1881 Thomas Joseph was recorded aboard the steam ship Castalia, built as a cross channel ferry but soon abandoned, as A B Seaman off Erith, Dartford, Kent. George, the youngest of Joseph and Susanna’s sons, appeared in Newhaven, Sussex in 1881 aboard the fishing smack Queen Victoria as A B Seaman.
Jane was born in St Osyth in 1849 to Henry Whybrough Wright, a farm labourer and Susan (Southgate). By 1861, when Jane was 12, they had moved to Brightlingsea. Jane married Thomas Joseph Farrington in 1869. They had four sons: George Thomas, born 1871; Frederick Joseph (my great grandfather), born 1873; Thomas, born 1875; and Joseph William, born 1882.
Jane was illiterate and my great grandfather’s birth certificate bears her ‘mark’, a simple and unsteady cross. It is impossible to know what opportunities if any she had for an education or whether or not her family supported it. A select committee report on Education of the Poor, 1818 said of Brightlingsea: ‘The poor have the means of education, but appear very indifferent in taking advantage of them.’
According to a House of Commons paper on education, by 1833 the town, with a population of 1,784, had four infant schools, six day schools and three Sunday Schools . However the greatest change to the provision of education must have come with the 1870 Education Act which provided schools for everyone, known as Board Schools, although education did not become compulsory to the age of 12 until 1899.
I like to think that Jane decided she wanted more for her boys, that the life of a fisherman was too hard and unrewarding. Probably the combination of freely provided education and a declining fishing industry played their part, but I imagine she took the initiative while Thomas was away at sea.
Their eldest son George was apprenticed to shipbuilding by the age of 19, and eventually joined HM Dockyard at Sheerness, Kent. In the summer of 1895 he married Sarah Emily Underwood who was born in Tollesbury. They had two children and continued to live in Kent until they died. Before she married, Sarah was a draper’s assistant in Brightlingsea and in 1911 was living in Brightlingsea and running Farrington’s Drapers at 77 High Street, while George was living in Sheerness with his mother-in-law. In 1939 they lived in Strood, Kent, and were listed as retired drapers.
Frederick was apprenticed to shoemaking by the time he was 17, and by 1902, when my grandmother Marion was born, had his own boot making business in Brightlingsea’s High Street. He had married Nettie Heaver in the autumn of 1899. Their second child, Muriel was born in Chobham, Surrey in 1910, and in 1911 they were living in Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire. At some point he visited the United States, perhaps to visit his younger brother, and was so enthusiastic he contacted Nettie and told her to sell all their furniture and pack ready to emigrate with their two girls. However by the time he returned he had changed his mind. Certainly by 1915 they had returned to Brightlingsea where Marion was at school, second from the left in the second row down in the photograph above.
Thomas did become a mariner and had achieved his Master’s Certificate in 1903 when he was 28. Otherwise he is something of an enigma but it has been suggested that he died at sea on a yacht that sank off the coast of Carolina.
Their youngest son Joseph William had become a mariner by the time he was 18, and living in Bightlingsea with his widowed mother. However on 7th June 1905 he left England from the port of Liverpool and sailed to Philadelphia on the Friesland. He didn’t return until 1927 when he sailed from Boston on the Aurania, arriving in Liverpool on 6th June. An account of his adventures in North America, prospecting in the silver mines of Canada, was recorded in a US local newspaper. Soon after his return he married Lily Martha Death on the 4th July in Chadwell St Mary, near to the home of his brother. He and Lily settled in John Street, Brightlingsea where he worked as a bus conductor.
Isaac Kerridge Farrington, born in 1891, was one of the four cousins living next door to my great grandfather, Frederick and his brothers, that year. I was kindly sent some ‘Farrington’ related information by Margaret Stone, curator of Brightlingsea Museum and at the time had not worked out the relationship to my own family. It was cheering to find the connection and satisfying to see the names Kerridge and Farrington come together. His story, though, is as sad as it is familiar. He was a corporal in the Rifle Brigade and was killed at Ypres on 10th July 1916. He carried a small bible in his tunic which contained a request, written inside, that in case of accident it be returned to Miss Lillian Finch of 77 Nelson Street, to whom he was engaged. The Brightlingsea Times included his photograph and a poem he had written while at the front, when they reported his death.