THE CURTIS FAMILY

OF BALHAM, EPSOM, EWELL AND EFFINGHAM

C. I. Curtis (Fitznells Farm) Milk Float c.1923
C. I. Curtis (Fitznells Farm) Milk Float c.1923
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

The name 'Curtis' derives, via 'courteous', from the Old French 'corteis', meaning 'having manners fit for a royal court'. The name has been ubiquitous across England since the Norman Conquest.

Background

'Our' Curtises can be traced back to the 1834 union of two gardener/nurserymen Curtis families, apparently unrelated. One line can be traced back to Bridport, Dorset in the late 17th Century and the other to Potter's Bar, Hertfordshire in the late 18th Century. Bridport records show the birth of a Thomas Curtis on 25 May 1702 to Thomas and Thomazina Curtis. Thomas II married Betty (maiden name unknown) and their son, Thomas III, was born in 1739 at Frome St Quintin near Dorchester. Thomas III married Sarah Bazely and they had Thomas William in 1775; there were eight children altogether. Thomas William had six sons and two daughters and the daughter who interests us is Harriett.

The Parish Church of Frome St Quintin.
The Parish Church of Frome St Quintin.
photographed by Chris Downer © and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Balham operation

By the 1841 census Thomas William had moved to London to live with his daughter Harriett (1808-78) and son-in-law John Curtis (1799-1871), who represents the Hertfordshire line of Curtises. Harriett had married John at St Bride's in the City of London on 5 March 1834. In 1841 John, a gardener, and Harriett were living at 5 Balham Place with three children, Thomas, Ann and William. The 1851 census places them at 69 Balham Road, Streatham. John (51) was then a nurseryman and florist, place of birth given as Hertfordshire, with the town illegible. Their children, all born in Balham, were Thomas (16), a milk boy, Ann (14), no occupation, and Charles (7), a scholar. The household also included Harriett's father Thomas William, then aged 76. In 1861 the family was at 22 Balham High Road, Streatham, with John described as a nursery gardener, as was his father, William, who had died on 12 February 1843 after falling from a cart and breaking his leg. The catalogue for the ensuing sale of the lease and contents of the nursery, on Balham Hill, Clapham, on 27 March 1843, described the property as 'of late Mr Curtis'; John purchased the lease and then sold it in 1863.

The 1871 census shows the family living at Chestnut Grove, Balham. John (71) was now a dairyman, born in Potter's Bar, Middlesex (it was in Middlesex then), employing 3 men; son Charles (27) was a dairyman's assistant and grandson John (8) a scholar (Mrs Curtis was away from home).

John and Harriett Curtis
John and Harriett Curtis
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

Harriett Curtis with her son Charles c.1860.
Harriett Curtis with her son Charles c.1860.
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

The rise of Curtis prosperity

It is clear that the Curtis family successfully metamorphosed from nurserymen into dairy farmers. This is not too bizarre considering the times. Until the invention of the refrigerator cows were kept in cities to provide fresh milk. When dry they would be taken out of town to the country to meet the bull for some R & R. Once the girls were delivered of their calves they would return to town. Land fit for a nursery would also be fit for cattle pasture. Indeed the sales catalogue of 1863 was addressed to 'Gentlemen, Nursery men, Builders, Cow-keepers and Others' and the items listed for sale included a heap of manure. Papers in the handwriting of Charles Curtis II (we will come to him shortly) show that when John and Harriett sold the nursery at Balham Hill in 1863 they started a dairy at Chestnut Grove, Balham. After John's death in 1871 the business was taken over by his son Charles I. When Charles I married Clara Isabel Lemon, the daughter of a rope-maker, at Ewell Parish Church on 8 May 1878, his occupation was dairyman.

Curtis Field, Balham
Curtis Field, Balham, painted by David Cox Jr. c.1838.
This was used as a playing field by Unigate Dairies until c.1970.
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

The family moved to West Farm, Horton in 1886 and later held Manor Farm and Greenman Farm, both also at Horton: these were run as dairy farms, the milk being transported to a dairy at Chestnut Grove for treatment and distribution. Handsome certificates in the Curtis archives show that in 1885 Charles Curtis of Balham won prizes for his Shorthorn cow 'Daisy' and his Guernsey heifers 'Milk Maid' and 'Rosy Maud'. The next year 'Milk Maid' won another prize, along with a Shorthorn cow named 'Countess'. In 1888 and 1892 respectively he won prizes for his Guernsey bull and 'fancy butter'; the following year a Shorthorn heifer from Horton won another award. These accolades demonstrate how the business evolved and grew. Presumably the herd at Balham was gradually run down and removed to the other farms, with the milk being transported to the dairy at Balham for treatment, bottling and distribution.

Plan of the Horton Estate July 1890
Plan of the Horton Estate July 1890 (shortly before the estate was purchased by the LCC)
Click image to enlarge but please do not copy
Yellow = New Farm, Purple = West Farm,
Blue = Horton Farm, Green = Green Man Farm
Brown = Woods
Image courtesy of Epsom And Ewell Local and Family History Centre © 2014.

The extent of some of the farm properties can be seen from the following 1890 sales particulars.

NEW FARM (a.k.a. The Principal Farm. We have assumed this is the 'Manor Farm' mentioned above) (shaded yellow on map),
With its comfortable residence comprising Six Bedrooms, Two Sitting Rooms, Kitchen, Offices, Stabling for Ten Cart Horses, Out-buildings, Cow Houses for Twenty-six Cows, Two Bulls, Cooling House and Dairy, and all useful and necessary appurtenances. Let upon Lease, including the Rectorial Tithe Rent Charge issuing thereout, for a term of fourteen years from Michaelmas, 1887 determinable at any time at six months' notice, by Landlord, at the rent of £515 per annum. The farm lands, buildings, &c. comprise about 312 acres 1 rood 22 perches.
WEST FARM (shaded purple on map),
Six bedrooms, bath room, three sitting rooms, kitchen, and domestic offices. Stabling for thirteen horses, large newly erected and well ventilated cow house on a modern plan for 34 cows, houses for 19 more cows and bullpens, extensive farm buildings, barns and outbuildings, Let on leases (inclusive of rectorial tithe rent charge), to Mr . Charles Curtis for terms expiring at Michaelmas, 1898, determinable by lessor or lessee at Michaelmas, 1894, at £178 per annum. The lands, comprising 109 acres 1 rood 39 perches.

And

The Park, home farm buildings and cottage, Let on lease (inclusive of rectorial tithe rent charge), to Mr. Charles Curtis from Lady day, 1888, at £225 per annum. The lands comprising 100 acres 1 rood 37 perches.
GREENMAN FARM (shaded green on map),
Four Bedrooms, Two Sitting Rooms, Domestic Offices, Outbuildings, Stabling for Six Horses, Farmery, and Cow Houses for Twelve Cows, Let on Lease (inclusive of Rectorial Tithe Rent Charge), for Seven years from Michaelmas, 1886, at the rent of £150 per annum. The lands, comprising 105 acres 2 roods 3 perches.

Charles Curtis I
Charles Curtis I
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

Business card, exact date unknown but probably c.1892.
Business card, exact date unknown but probably c.1892.
Business card, exact date unknown but probably c.1892.
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

Following the death of Charles I from a septic leg in 1896, aged 51, his widow Clara continued to develop the dairy business, establishing C I Curtis Dairy Farmers Ltd. By now the family was sufficiently prosperous for her sons, Charles II (Charles John), William Thomas and George Herbert to be sent to Epsom College. Charles and William joined in 1892, aged 13 and 12 respectively, and left in 1893 and 1895 to work on the farms. George entered in 1894, aged 12, and left in 1901 with a scholarship to attend Westminster Hospital, from where he went on to pursue a distinguished career as a dental surgeon. (An indenture dated 26 August 1921 records that Charles I leased West Farm and Greenman Farm prior to his death in 1896. When the 1921 indenture was signed William Curtis was living at West Farm, Clara Curtis at Fitznells Farm in Ewell and Charles II was running the dairy business in Balham.)

Guernsey cows at Ewell belonging to Charles Curtis, undated.
Guernsey cows at Ewell belonging to Charles Curtis, undated.
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

The 1901 Census shows Clara living with William and Edwin at West Farm; Charles II and George, described as dairy farmer and dental student respectively, were at 184 Streatham High Road with assorted dairymaids, book-keepers and domestics. According to family oral history, when Edwin was a small boy he was tossed into a hedge by a cow, and 'was never the same again', which may explain why his occupation in 1911 was given as florist and poultry farmer.

The London County Council compulsorily purchased Horton Manor Farm in 1906 and built Horton Asylum on the site. By 1910 the business was based at 184 High Road, Balham, with over 400 acres of land in West, Greenman and Manor Farms, plus the Fitznells Farm at Ewell. The herd had now expanded to 200 cows.

Fitznells Manor House
Fitznells Manor House c.1970 prior to restoration
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

In the 1911 census Clara was living at Fitznells with sons William and George (farm manager and dental surgeon respectively), daughter Clara ('Lily') and three domestic servants. Lily gave her place of residence as Fitznells when she married George Stone in 1914 and their son, John, was born there in 1917. It is not known exactly when the Curtises moved into Fitznells.

The kitchen range in Fitznells Manor House
The kitchen range in Fitznells Manor House, May 1968. Photograph by LR James.
Image courtesy of Epsom And Ewell Local and Family History Centre © 2014.

Charles Curtis II, dairy farmer, was at 16 Airdale Road, Balham in 1911, with his wife Florence, daughter Dorothy (Joan) and one servant. At some time during her childhood Dorothy lived at Fitznells for the sake of her health, the rural air of Ewell being deemed healthier than suburban Balham.

Business card of Charles Curtis II, printed in about 1910.
Business card of Charles Curtis II, printed in about 1910.
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

Curtis family photo
Curtis family photo, taken c.1910 in the garden of Fitznells.
Back row, Left to right: William, his wife Susan, Lily, George, his wife Florence.
Seated: Charles II's wife Florence, unknown lady, Clara, Edith Potterton (sister of Charles's wife).
On ground: Charles holding Dorothy/Joan.
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

In 1915 Fitznells farm was surveyed and the report mentions the heavy soil, 13 horses, 50 cows, 200 poultry, 2 cottages, 12 men, ample implements and a good style of farming. It covered 112 acres including 50 acres of arable and 50 acres of grass. The farm is said to have had a fine herd of Guernsey cows producing top quality milk and each afternoon at 4 pm a pony cart would leave the farm with milk churns destined for Balham. One signboard claimed that "A glass of Curtis' milk is a meal in itself".

Fitznells was sold in 1925 and by 1926 United Dairies had taken over a tranche of dairies in the district, including that of Mrs C I Curtis. The Valley Road Dairy in Balham was refurbished in 1926 to become capable of processing 30,000 gallons of milk a day. This establishment must have been the wonder of its age, since it merited a visit by the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI & Queen Elizabeth) in 1927. Charles II was put in charge of this operation, which he ran until he moved with most of the Curtis family to Effingham, when the Home Farm was purchased in 1935.

By 1928 Clara was living at 46 Merton Hall Road, Wimbledon, with Charles II at Terriston Lodge, Ullathorne Road, Streatham, working for Curtis Bros & Dumbrill (another family dairy concern, which had been bought by United Dairies). William resided at Court Farm, Ewell, George was a dental surgeon in London, and, Edwin, 'gentleman', lived at Hampton, Middlesex.

George also set up home in Effingham but re-located to Epsom Downs in 1939. William ran the farming, and Charles the pasteurising and retailing side of the dairy business. Under the Curtis ownership the Home Farm comprised some 400-500 acres, with about 50 cattle.

The Home Farm viewed from the orchard.
The Home Farm viewed from the orchard.
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

A 'state of the art' dairy (pasteurising and bottling plant) was built by Dorothy/Joan's husband, Harry Westcott Selley, in 1938, and was visited for many years by agricultural students from London University; the dairy distributed about 1000 gallons of milk per day via roughly half a dozen 2-wheeled horse drawn 'chariots', with shops at Bookham, Leatherhead and Ashtead. In the early 1950s hand milking was replaced by machine milking and at about the same time the horses were replaced by electric milk floats. This was not an immediate success because the former charioteers, now float drivers, often forgot to plug in their new steeds to recharge their batteries at the end of the day's round.

Decline

Clara Curtis died in 1952 at the age of 96. In 1955 Charles and William disposed of the Home Farm to Cow & Gate. Shortly afterwards the herd was sold and the fields leased to contractors; the farm effectively closed down. Dorothy/Joan moved out and William fell in love with a South African widow, emigrated to South Africa and married her - he died in 1965.

Clara, photographed at Effingham shortly before her death in 1952
Clara, photographed at Effingham shortly before her death in 1952
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.

Dorothy/Joan moved back to Effingham in due course, but her death in 1999 marked the extinction of the Curtis family there, after 64 years. For some 20 years, from 1935-1955, C I Curtis Dairy Farmers Ltd. was one of the biggest employers in Effingham and adjacent villages. The male Curtis line is now extinct, their fortune gone. Only Curtis Field Road, off Valley Road, marks the family's time in Balham, and Curtis Road, just off the Kingston Road, marks their sojourn in Ewell. The Curtises may thus be termed as spectral cattle herders, whose migration across the Surrey countryside over nearly two centuries has been lost to history, save in this document.

Original text by Richard Curtis Selley © 11 June 2014
Abridged by Linda Jackson 2014
With thanks to Effingham Parish Council for inspiring this page and
who cover the Effingham portion of the Curtis family history in much more detail.


Family tree of the descendants of Charles & Clara Curtis
Family tree of the descendants of Charles & Clara Curtis
Click image to enlarge
Image courtesy of Richard Selley © 2014.


References
Abdy C. 2004. Ewell. The Development of a Surrey Village that became a Town. Epsom & Ewell History & Archaeology Society. Published by the Surrey Archaeological Society. 47pp.
Abdy C. 1995. The Lost Farms of Ewell. Published by the Nonsuch Antiquarian Society. 36pp.
Epsom College Register from October 1855-1905. Published in 1905. London 336pp.
O' Connor M.M. 1973. The History of Effingham in Surrey. Effingham Woman's Institute. 137pp.
See also: Rice-Oxley, M. & S. 2006. Effingham. A Surrey Village Remembered. 50p.
Also compiled from family oral history & personal recollections, census records, birth marriage & death certificates & family papers