Edward Henry Williams
The parish clerk of St. Mary's and his notebook

Sources for Epsom and Ewell History
Sources for Epsom
and Ewell History



Edward Henry Williams was born in 1824 and moved to Ewell as a teenager, following in his father's trade of gardener. In 1855 he was appointed as parish clerk of St. Mary's, commencing his duties on September 29th; the next day he made the first entry in his new notebook of 'fees received', recording a payment of 6d for calling the banns of J. Minet. He continued methodically making entries until he reached the bottom of a page on 30th April 1889; after that he must have transferred to a new notebook, since we know that he continued as clerk for another six years. At the back of the notebook he recorded expenditure (but only from 1855 to the beginning of 1858, when he must have run out of room) and Easter offerings from 1856 to 1858 with 1860 and 1862. As this suggests, there have been some losses to the notebook: most of 1876 is missing from the 'fees received', and so are 1880 and 1881. With these exceptions, it is a remarkably complete record of life and death in the Victorian village.

The new church
The new church.
Images courtesy of Peter Reed © 2013

Williams makes a cameo appearance in Cloudesley Willis' memories of church-going in the 1870s, following Sir George out of the vestry 'and rolling his eyes from side to side, in a way that made us children behave ourselves'. Over the forty years of his office, he came to serve as the collective memory of the village, and his notebook became something of a public record, which is doubtless how it came to be handed down in the family. We know that it was shown to the parish office in 1946, but after that it disappeared from view until 2000, when Maurice Exwood was contacted by a member of the family. Maurice had just published his book on The Churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, Ewell and a copy of this had come to the attention of John Shapley, a descendant of Williams who had inherited the notebook.

Williams wrote a good legible hand, although his spelling was a bit homegrown. In December 1883 he was 'wrighting out' a copy of a document, and he often presents names in phonetic form; Mabel is sometimes 'Mable' and Priscilla always 'Pricilla'. So some surnames may appear in variant forms, especially for people outside the village, while on one occasion (calling the banns in April 1887) he seems to have got the names muddled. But by and large, Williams' notebook is the accurate source which he evidently intended it to be.

It is also a record of expenditure and income – or opportunities for income that were forgone. When his aunt Susan and cousin Jane were buried (September 1864, December 1868) Williams 'Only charged what I paid Out', and in December 1865 instead of the expected Christmas Box from the curate came 'a very nice Book'. I don't think that was sarcastic: Williams was a pious man, and on September 29th 1866, recording that he had been Parish Clerk for 11 years, he added 'If it is thy will O Lord I beseech thee to guard and protect me through another period!'. Every year after that there is a short improvised prayer on the anniversary of his taking up the post.

The Lowe Memorial
The Lowe Memorial
Photo by LR James 1967.


Burials were charged by depth: starting at 4s for a 4-foot grave, the costs went up by two shillings for each further foot, so a 10-foot grave was 16s. (The costs don't vary over thirty years, as the value of money remained fairly constant in that period). The actual cost of digging was much less; it appears from a record of expenditure at the end of the notebook that Williams was paying James Waters 6d a foot for digging graves, though sometimes he did step in with a spade himself. The cost of tolling the bell (1s a time) was included in the overall burial charge. Williams is meticulous about marking his graves O or N, for the Old and New churchyards. When he started in office, only seven years after the building of the new St. Mary's, there were many families still burying in the old churchyard, but by 1888 almost everyone was in the new one. By then, it was the fashion to line the grave – with yew in 1884; with yew, ivy and flowers in 1885 and twice in 1887.

It was customary to present a hatband and gloves to the clerk at funerals, although some people paid a substitute fee of 7s 6d instead. A surcharge, normally 1 11s 6d, was levied on burials of out-parishioners buried in the churchyard; in 1888 the Vestry had decided to end out-burials, presumably due to shortage of space, although Henry Bowyer from Sutton was interred in January 1889 despite the ban. Out of some 1250 burials recorded in the notebook, 57 were out-parishioners. There were 9 burials of people from Cuddington, who were technically outsiders to Ewell: but of course they had to be buried somewhere, so in some cases Cuddington parish seems to have paid the fee. If a Ewell parishioner was buried elsewhere, Williams charged 5s for tolling the bell, as he did when George Torr of Bourne Hall was buried at Nunhead Cemetery in 1867.

When the Banstead Cottage Homes were established between the railway and Firtree Road, they lay within the parish of Ewell (though only just, and later the civil parish boundary was moved northwards). Staff and children who died there were thus entitled to burial at St. Mary's, although Williams clearly felt this was something of a special case, and on 9 occasions he records them as coming from the 'Kensington & Chelsea Schools'. He had a strong sense of who belonged and who didn't. Rose Rachel Bull in 1884 is minuted as '1st Burial by a Dissenter under the new Burial Act 1880', a law which allowed people to use parish burial grounds without a Church of England ceremony. As Rose was only 5 months old, her sectarian views are unlikely to have been very advanced.

They say that everyone is equal in the grave, but Williams never forgot his sense of social distinction. The cheapest option (at 3s) was a parish burial, and he records over 100 of these, starting with the eight-year-old Sarah Reeve in 1855. Parish burials were stacked six high, and from the summer of 1884 onwards Williams records the process of filling up each grave space. In 1874 he began recording parish burials from the Union Workhouse in Epsom. It's not clear whether they had been buried elsewhere before that (certainly the workhouse had no burial ground of its own) or whether Williams had received new instructions to record them distinctly. He also kept a record of the burials of still-born children (marked as SB in the original notebook), usually recorded under the mother's name with a 1s fee, although in 1865 the burial of 'an illegitimate Still Born child' was diplomatically entered without family details. Williams was not a harsh man. In 1874 he fitted in the unbaptised baby of James Neal – a child which could in theory have been excluded from consecrated ground – and didn't charge a fee.

Dealings with the bereaved were not always easy: they could be grief-stricken, or sometimes plain awkward. In January 1866 Williams recorded his frustration with one customer – significantly, an out-parishioner. 'An order was given by a man named Taylor living in Epsom for a 12 foot Brick grave for his Daughter. On the following Tuesday morning he refused to allow a brick to be put in the grave but Mr. Hooker went on and bricked it up ready for the funeral on the next day but after Mr. Davidson and myself waiting a considerable time and the Bell tolling no burial took place. I therefore have put the matter into the hands of Mr. Avaline my lawyer who had after writing to him advised me not to proceed any further with the matter as the said Taylor is only a man of straw'.

Signs of gratitude were more welcome. In 1883 Major Charles Birch sent him a present 'for attending to his wishes respecting his Mother's grave & giving him great pleasure in everything connecting with it'. A lot of Williams' time was taken up cleaning graves, doing them up, and keeping the headstones from tilting over. He had regular dealings with local undertakers, including the Hards family, whose name can still be seen discreetly carved on some of the monuments in the new churchyard.

Williams knew all about village life. After the burial of Elizabeth Staples in 1866 he noted laconically 'Old Staples' fifth wife'. Her husband William 'Staples the last' – followed her to the grave three years later. There were sad stories, like that of Elizabeth Westing in 1888 – 'her son Thomas found her dead when he went home to dinner' – and the loss of well-known people; James Smith, 'late Station Master' in 1884 and Mary Hyde 'former Infant School Mistress for 30 years', in 1886 ('she died… in my house after lodging with me 9 weeks'). 1884 saw the death of the Revd. Frederick Johnson who had been curate from 1873 to 1881 before moving to Bexley heath and finally dying at Eastbourne on Nov. 19th. And next year came a solemn entry for the 'burial of our beloved Rector & late Vicar Sir George Lewen Glyn, Bart… a Muffled Peal was tolled at the Funeral'. That was the end of a thirty-year working relationship between the vicar and his parish clerk.

Sir George Lewen Glyn
Sir George Lewen Glyn
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

They all came to the grave, the little ironies and tragedies of local life. Eliza Esther Scutt died an hour and a half before her 22nd birthday (1886); Mary Ann Pilgrim was 'a Wife of 13 months and Mother' (1862); Ellen Staley died aged 23 'after giving birth to Twins a boy & girl, only married 11 months' (1882); and 1885 saw a small grave dug for 'Susie May Blissett, George Mason's Grandchild… 9 weeks old unbaptised overlaid by its Mother'. Then there were the victims of smallpox which swept through Ewell, despite campaigns of inoculation and vaccination. For these, Williams made a careful note of the times of burial, to show that infected corpses had not been left any longer than could be helped. William Grant, Robert Ayling and James Botting died of smallpox in 1864; Ellen Jenner and Mary Strudwick in 1872. Their burials all took place at night.

In 1888 Williams sadly recorded the 'Burial of my Dear Old Friend William Robert Monger', and in 1871 the 'Burial of My Dear Old Next Door Neighbour Miss Mary Ann Spilesbury'. His most formal expressions of grief were resolved for close family, and the pages on which they appeared were ringed by a border of black ink. 'My dearly beloved father Joseph Williams' died in 1866, just before his 82nd birthday. Then, in 1873, it was the turn of 'my very Dearly Beloved Wife Lucy after 28 years and five months married life… after having suffered from a very painful internal disease for several years which she bore with Christian Patience.'. And then, five years later 'my Dearly Beloved Mother Mary Williams who departed this life on Wednesday January 2nd at ¼ before 6 o'clock in the morning, in the full possession of all her facilities after keeping her bed a fortnight and 3 days, her end was perfect Peace, Blessed are the Dead that die in the Lord. Her Children arise and call her Blessed'.

Outside the warm circle of home and family lay the deaths of strangers. 1862 saw the burial of 'a Man unknown found dead in Ewell Lime Kiln supposed 40 years'. In 1885 another unknown man in his 70s was 'found dead on shafts of a Roller in field at Mr. Page's Farm'; and a third stranger, in his 50s, was buried the next year. They all had parish graves. These tramps all died in the fields, as vagrants had done for centuries – a reminder of how rough life could be for the unfortunate, even at the height of Victorian prosperity.

But it was sudden death which made the greatest impression on Williams. Pen in hand, he set down as much as he could remember of the circumstances surrounding each accident or crime. 1858, Louisa Jefferies Stone. 'This created a great sensation. This poor young woman died suddenly at the Dentists in Epsom from inhaling Chloroform which was administered to allay the pain attending the drawing of a tooth'. 1861, John Bailey: 'This poor fellow was killed by a Threshing Machine'. 1863, Charles Hall the miller's son: 'Poor Charly met his death by being thrown from his Dog Cart at Framlingham, returning from market'. 1867, David Woodman 'This poor young fellow tumbled from the top of a load of Chalk and broke his neck on the Kingston Road'. 1887, James Hards the nephew of the undertaker: 'Poor Jimmy was drowned off Ilfracombe by the Capsizing of the Yacht "Monarch" on Friday Aug. 26th by which sad catastrophe 10 other Persons beside him lost their lives. His body was not recovered until Sept. 17th (Saturday). His keys were the only means by which his brother could recognise his body'.

Eight months before the first train ran to Ewell West, Williams learnt how dangerous railways could be. 1858, Thomas Bilsdon: 'This poor man died on 13th July after having both his legs taken off from an accident on the new Railway and was attended by about 60 of his mates to the grave & 300 or 400 others'. Bilsdon must have been a navvy working for the new London & South-Western Railway and one can only wonder about the impact made on the village by his arrival, along with more than 300 companions. The navvies had a reputation for being rough types, but they all turned out for the funeral of own of their own. Once the line was up and running, there were other risks. 1865, George Woodhouse: 'This poor fellow was killed by the 9.15pm train on the SW Railway near Gibralter'. Perhaps better restrictions on the West Street crossing might have saved him, but it seems that nothing could have prevented the next year's tragedy. 1866, Charles Hawkins Maplesden: 'This poor unfortunate man put his head upon the metals in front of a train and was killed instantaneously at Cheam. He had only left his home here in Ewell a little more than an hour. He was a grocer and only had been married about 2 months'.

Perhaps a little uncertain about the story, Williams crossed out all that entry, but he left in the record of another suicide in 1870. 'Abdiel Evans… This poor fellow was found in a ditch near the Powder Mills on Sunday evening July 10th having been missing from his home since 4 o'clock the preceding day. He was our Chemist and committed suicide by taking Prussic Acid while in a state of temporary insanity caused by Drink'. The verdict of insanity was a merciful one, and allowed Evans the decency of a proper funeral.

There were no such allowances for Thomas Huggett, given a parish burial in December 1869. Williams notes him down as 'the Murderer of George Spooner by blowing up his house with Gunpowder and afterward committing suicide by staking himself through the heart' A month later, at the burial of George Spooner, we hear a little more about these scandalous events, with exact timing. 'This poor man was murdered by Huggett throwing Gunpowder on the fire of his house in West Street on the morning of Dec. 22nd at about ¼ before 4 o'clock when the house was shivered to pieces and Huggett died by his own hand at ½ past 10 o'clock A.M. the same day'.

Gunpowder was dangerous stuff, anyway. 1863 saw the burial of Henry Hickhamand James William Baker. 'These two poor men, together with one who was taken to Hounslow to be buried, were killed instantaneously by an explosion of the Corning House at the Ewell Powder Mills on Wednesday April 15th at 5 minutes past 6am.'. Two years later William Dine Horscroft and Lewis Hills 'were killed & literally [sic] blown to atoms by an explosion of the Press House at the Gun Powder Mills, Ewell, on Saturday September 23rd at 8.40am. They were Brothers-in-Law – Horscroft having married Hills' Sister only last December. There was a very large number of people collected at the funeral to whom Sir George Glyn delivered a most solemn & effecting Address – they were both buried in the same grave'. Then in 1870 it was the turn of Layton Osborne and Raymond Mitchell — 'these two poor men died from the explosion of the Corning House at the Powder Mills on Wednesday Oct. 16th at 11a.m'; this time it was the curate, Mr. Salwey, who 'gave an excellent Address at the graves after the same Burial Service was over which was listened to by many hundreds of People who came to see the Funeral'.

Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion
Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion

Williams' business was not confined to funerals, although they take up a disproportionate amount of his notebook due to the associated costs and expenses. He was also indispensable at weddings. Although most of these went successfully without any payment, every now and then there would be a gift such as the 10s presented by the new Mrs. Blunden in 1857 'for acting as Father at her Marriage'. Had the real father of the bride simply not turned up on time? Or was there more of a story behind this? Williams received a routine 6d for calling the banns before marriage, although some couples felt embarrassed by having the parish told of their impending nuptials. In 1862 Robert Henderson of the Upper Mill paid 10s for a license, which meant that he could marry Ann Hall without any publicity. A further 24 couples took advantage of this arrangement, all of them local people, mostly from the commercial and industrial businesses in the village. No such compunction was felt by the Rector, and in 1859 Williams was proud to note down that he had called 'banns of The Revd. Sir George Lewen Glyn & Miss Henrietta Amelia Glyn'. He didn't charge this time.

Then came the children. Baptisms, like weddings, did not involve an automatic payment to the clerk, but Williams might receive a gratuity for his help — usually half a crown, but in 1886 there was a whole pound 'received from Mr. Edgar Bowyer at the Baptism of his "12th Son"'. (Williams isn't expressing any doubts about the paternity of the youngest Bowyer, by the way – he always uses double quotation marks as a form of emphasis, not as a sign of citation or uncertainty). About a month after the birth of the child there followed the ceremony of churching, where the mother came to St. Mary's to give thanks for surviving childbirth, and to mark her re-entry to society. This rite, now largely abandoned by the Church of England, was taken very seriously in the nineteenth century. Williams records 14 instances, beginning with Mrs. Torr in 1860; the women mostly came from the mansions and larger houses in the village, but this is probably because they were the ones who gave him a present, while their poorer neighbours came and went without appearing in the account book.

And there was always the ordinary business of the parish: Williams could find himself 'posting a Notice on Church Door for Mrs. Trowers' (1856), making out a 'certificate to Charles Allam (I acted as Father & Wife as Mother)' (1883) or 'making a Declaration before a Commissioner (Mr. White)' (1885). Maps were entrusted to his keeping; in 1856 he went to the Vestry with a lawyer to consult 'the Map of the Parish' (presumably the 1841 Ewell Poor Law map) and later that year he was paid 2s 6d by the London & South-Western Railway for keeping the maps of their proposed railway in his house, where they would be more readily available for inspection than in the church. Since Mr. Gadesden, Mr. Picknell, Mr. Stone, Mr. Batson, Mr. Northey, Mr. Gardner and Mr. Hobman promptly came round to inspect the plans, at a fee of 1s each, the arrangement was a profitable one. Then in 1862 it started all over again with the line proposals of the Chatham & Dover Railway Company. Once more, a Mr. Gadesden (Augustus this time, instead of his father James) was the first to inspect the plans, followed by twelve others. In 1865 the Kingston & Epsom Downs railway plans were deposited at Williams' house, but this time only five gentlemen came to look at them, and in February of the next year he received 2 12s for 'attending the House of Commons with the Plans of the Kingston & Epsom Railway for the Opposition Party which I do not agree with but whom through my Counsel I have made pay that is proper'. He returned to the Parliament in 1882 for another controversy, 'with the Plans of the Spring Water Company & the Map of the Parish for the Opposition Party'; and finally in 1883, he received the Ewell and Cuddington plans for the London, Reigate & Brighton Railway Company.

It wasn't all politics. Williams was evidently in charge of putting up the Christmas decorations at St. Mary's, for in 1870 he received a tip 'from Mrs. Torr for attending her son Richard to see the Christmas decorations of which she expressed herself much pleased'. He did easter sepulchres as well; in 1886 he found himself 'attending the Vicar of Dulwich & Family over the Church to see the Easter decorations'

Antiquarian visits to the church were another source of income – a shilling or two at a time. Two Artists came 'to Copy off the Brasses in the chancel; in 1856, and another gentleman for the same purpose in 1883 ; possibly the same who was accompanied 'to the Belfry to rub the Bells' that year. Could this have been Mill Stephenson? Another gentleman was accompanied up the Old Church Tower in 1888; so were two ladies in September 1857. The tower, which had only had its adjoining building demolished nine years before, must have been safer than it is now,. For the two ladies survived to view the new church in December.

In the winter of 1883 Williams was kept busy making 'a copy of the Index of the Award Map of the Parish in 1803 for Lady Glyn'. This is the source of the reconstruction maps which (a mere thirty years later) were incorporated in the instruction to Deedes' edition of the Register or Memorial of Ewell. Williams was forever producing official certificates of baptism, though this was mostly for legal use rather than family history; in 1855 it was 'Sir J. Reid & a Lawyer' who were searching through the parish registers. In 1864 he was paid for 'taking a copy of the Inscription on the Tombstone of the late Thomas Williams Esq. & making an Affidavit & declaration thereon before a Magistrate at Epsom (for Dr. Henry Croydon)', and in 1883 there was a 'present from G. Norris Vane Esq. for searching the Register Books for records of the Family of the late Thomas Hercey Barritt Esq', presumably successfully. In 1868 he was looking for the marriage of William Tansur in 1730; in 1884 he helped two more gentlemen search 'for Marriage of Parkhouse (about 150 years ago)'; earlier that year time had been spent 'searching the Register Books for 10 years for Baptism of a Sarah Cook 1778—1798'. The entry in April 1868 for the baptismal certificate of Matilda Dowdeswell is immediately followed by a note of 'George Dowdeswell searching the Registers for other Baptism not there'. Family historians will sympathise.

It is curiously to find Williams kept busy, so long ago, in historical research from the same sources that we use today, but somehow this brings him to life as much as any of the other records. He wrote prolifically about the births and deaths of other people in Ewell, but at the same time he was also recording his own story.

Many thanks to John Shapley, who kindly supported the preparation of a microfiche copy of the original notebook back in 2000 and Jeanne Wing for transcribing it.

Williams' Notebook


Jeremy Harte 2015




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