A Wistful Contribution
(Reprinted from the Grantham Journal, Saturday 13th May, 1882)
LETTER FROM AN OLD MELTONIAN
To the Editor of the Journal
SIR, – On receiving the Grantham Journal of 11th March 1882, I was delighted to find a sketch of my old schoolmaster, the late Mr John Brereton, and several extracts from the life diary by Thomas North, Esq., F.S.A. I can confirm many of these notes being a Meltonian myself, and in my younger years lived very near to Mr. Brereton’s, in King Street, Melton Mowbray. My first experience or recollection of Mr. Brereton was on the 19th July, 1821, being the Coronation-day of George the 4th, and, as he says in his diary, “Children dine in School.” I was one of those who dined. I was too young to attend the National School then, and did not attend it for some time after that. But I attended a Dame’s School kept by old Mrs Rimmington in the Back-street. But to return – I have said that I was one of the people who dined; and my sisters and elder brothers being there, my mother was outside in the School-yard, and I along with her. Mr Brereton, seeing me , took me by the hand, and placed me near one of the tables, and loaded my plate with food. From being placed among strangers (I suppose) I began to cry: he noticing this, came to me and told me that if I cried he would have me put in the black hole, and pointed to the floor when he spoke. Whether this quieted me, I do not now recollect. I remember seeing the sheep roasting in the girls-yard: my father taking me out of bed about three o’clock in the morning, and putting a shawl round me carried me to see them before being taken down and the fires put out. I also remember seeing the roasting in the Market-place: this was in the forenoon.
There was also another one roasted in some other part of the town but I do not now remember where. On this same day my father had to travel on foot from Melton to Packington, in Warwickshire, the seat of the Earl of Aylesford, he being in his Lordship’s service, the distance, I believe, being fifty miles at least. These were days long before railway travelling was introduced; and there were few stage coaches. I do not know what a gentleman’s servant of these days would think or say if he had to travel the same distance now, and on a hot July day; but it was a beautiful day on that occasion. I remember perfectly well that a house in King-street, and afterwards occupied by a Mr. C. Hall, wine and liquor merchant, was building at that time, the scaffolding being all decked with flags and blue ribbons. There were several tea-parties in different parts of the town – some were “King’s men,” and some were “Queen’s men or women.” My mother joined me in the back street, where a table was erected on the footway in the street, between Mr. Thomas Shipley’s house and Mr. Thomas Black’s gate. Aunt Eyre, (who was everybody’s aunt), an old lady who was long a tenant and trusted friend of the late John Marriott, who kept the Golden Fleece in Back-street, was dressed and decorated as “Queen.” To enable my mother to enjoy the party, she persuaded me to be taken home early in the evening and put to bed; and in order that I might more peacefully agree to this, she either purchased , or some one else did so, one of those penny or twopenny wooden horses with four little wooden wheels, which had the desired effect; and I was taken home in the evening and put to bed, and slept soundly, no doubt, considering I was up that morning before three o’clock; I neither saw or heard anything more that night. Some time after this date I well remember Squire Norman and Lady Elizabeth and others frequently visiting the schools, and us boys were always taught to revere and respect them, and I think without exception we all did so. I don’t remember the Duchess of Leeds and her daughter, the Lady Catherine White Melville, visiting the school; but since that time I have seen Lady Catherine in Scotland frequently. She died only a few years since. Her husband, John White Melville Esq. (not a young man now), is still living in this county (Fife): I find that he was married to Lady Catherine in 1819.
On Saturday, the 5th October, 1822, Mr. Brereton’s diary appears to say – “the children of the schools, … to open the new bridge.” Mr. North says – “That is I suppose, the bridge over the Eye, on the Leicester-road.” I scarcely think that it can mean that bridge, for I think that it would be some time after that date, as I remember it perfectly well when building, and how a temporary roadway was made across a little higher up the river, with earth and wooden railings at the sides; and I frequently saw waggons and heavily loaded conveyances having much trouble to get across, the wheels of them often sinking deep into the soft earth.
Under the date 21st May, 1824, Mr Brereton records “a dreadful thunderstorm. accompanied by hail.” “Old Watchorn was killed by lightning on or near the Great Dalby-road.” I remember the circumstances perfectly well: he lived in King-street, at the first house next door to the Town Hall, and adjoining the entry that led up to the Bridewell, kept at that time by old John Black, the Town Officer. I also remember old George Watchorn’s clothes being exhibited,and saw them myself; they were exhibited in a passage or entry belonging to Dr. Reuben Whitchurch, I may mention some of my recollections of that family. I remember his brother Dr. John and his son Nathaniel: us boys always used to call him “Nat.” Nat was a great favourite with the boys. He used to be in his father’s garden sometimes – it was in Back-street, and not far from the bridge – and he would throw over to us some apples, pears, or other fruit. Dr. Whitchurch had two or three sisters, and these sisters had a carriage; I think it was called a curricle. It had two wheels, and only one shaft or pole, and it was drawn by two donkeys, one on each side of the pole; a steel bar was fastened to the pole by a strong leather strap, and then rested on the pad or saddle of each donkey. The reason I have said so much about Dr. Whitchurch’s family is to bring out something connected with my old teacher and his family. About 1822 or 23 either John or Robert, the sons of Mr Brereton made a drawing for the Misses Whitchurch of the two donkeys and the curricle, my oldest brother George being employed to hold them during the process, and a portrait of him and a portrait of him was also taken in the same picture. This picture may still be in the possession of some member of the Whitchurch family. I shall be very curious to know if such is the case. About the month of May, 1824, on coming out of School at twelve o’clock noon, and on my way home to dinner, on going through the Market-place I saw a number of people collected, and on getting nearer I saw a fine hearse standing at the corner of the Market-place, close to Mr Allan the saddler’s shop, and near the sot where Mrs. Short used to have her stall every market day, and where the boys would get their spare pennies and half-pennies changed for bull’s eyes, or ginger bread, or fruit etc. I learnt that this hearse contained the remains of the late Lord Byron on its way to Newstead, there to be interred; and one thing that makes this more memorable was, that it was the common talk that although Lord Byron’s body was there his heart was not, for it was taken out and was left in Greece; this latter piece of information surprised us boys much, and made us wonder and say what will he do at the resurrection when his body will rise and his heart so far away? The horses and the attendants accompanying the corpse were resting at the White Swan, in the Market-place. Bye-the-bye, when speaking of the White Swan – Do any of your readers remember the tame raven that used to go about the archway there about two years before the time mentioned above? If not, I have a reason to remember it, for when a child going about in frock and trousers, I remember him biting me on my leg, and which was very painful at the time. The person who kept the White Swan at that time I think was a Mr. Freer, but the house was closed as an inn for some time before the year 1830, and turned into shops, one of which was kept by Mr. Thomas Heaton, who died before that date. About 1823 or 24 the Parish Church was damaged in the roof by the wind. I think some of the stones from the steeple were blown down and went through the roof. I perfectly remember attending the Church when a Sunday School boy, and before the roof had been repaired, and seeing the clear sky through the opening that had been made. I recollect often noticing on one of the beams of wood that formed the new roof, and when sitting amongst the Sunday School scholars in their gallery near the western entrance to the Church, the date of the repairs, 1823 or 1824. This gallery had been taken away the last time I visited Melton old Church, some 14 or 15 years since. There were other repairs going on in the fine old building at that time, being done I understood by subscription, and to which I contributed my mite through the late Mrs. Thom. Lewin. Her late husband Thos. Lewin was and old schoolfellow of mine, and in those days an almost constant companion – in fact, almost the only one, with perhaps the exception of John Thorpe, the eldest son of the late Mr. Thomas Thorpe, shoemaker, in the back street now called Leicester-street. Mr Tomas Thorpe was also clerk in the Parish Church. The Rev. Mr. Shirtcliffe was the curate; and old Robert Johnston was the sexton. Old Bob, for that was the name he generally got, was a character in his way, and a terror to almost all the boys in the place – excepting, perhaps only two, and these were John Thorpe and myself; and I may state the reasons shortly. John Thorpe and myself were found to be useful to Bob in many ways. Amongst many of these we used to be at the belfry door on Sunday mornings before seven o’clock, and go up with him to ring the seven and eight o’clock bells. John and I used to take our turns in doing so, and on the winter nights we used to be waiting at the belfry door till Bob used to come with his big lantern, and all three of us went up to the belfry and ring the eight o’clock bell; and frequently on these and other occasions we wound up the Church clock, and also the Church chimes. At funerals Bob also found us to be useful: for John Thorpe’s father being parish clerk we always knew the hour and day these were to take place, and seldom did we miss one if it occurred at an hour at which we could get away – or, to speak more properly, not being in the hours we should be at School, which neither John or I ever failed to attend. At funerals, as I have said before, Bob found us to be useful. Bob had to attend at the grave, and also had to attend to the tolling of the big bell along with John Thorpe’s father; and John and I frequently relieved them both of doing this latter duty, both when the funeral procession was coming to the church and after the corpse was laid in the grave, and also when the mourners were returning to the home or house from which the procession had started or come from. How I as a boy managed to toll the big bell is now a puzzle to me, for when in Melton Church only a few years ago the sexton was tolling the bell, and I asked him to let me try: I utterly failed in making it give a sound, although as a boy, nearly forty years before that, I could do it wonderfully well. As I have said before, Bob Johnston was a character; and I will try and show you how he generally acted when there was to be a wedding in the church, but cannot give many instances as these normally took place during school hours. When a wedding was about to take place, Bob used to be at the door (usually the north one, I think), and when he saw the wedding procession approaching he used to open the door, place himself inside behind it, and as soon as the wedding party had entered he would bang to the door with all his might and push the inside bolt to prevent any further ingress, and lucky indeed were those who were near if they did not get their fingers squeezed. It was only on two occasions that I ever remember this system being departed from: one was when one of Squire Norman’s daughters was married to Sir. Francis Grant, and the other when Bob himself led his last wife to the hymeneal [nuptial] altar. The reasons for those two departures from precedent were these, viz.: In the first case I understood or was given to understand at that time, that squire Norman had given a strict injunction to Bob that the public were to be admitted, and I, along with some hundreds more were present. In the second case, viz.; Bob’s wedding – he being engaged in a different position to his usual one – had to be in the Church to meet his bride, and could not be in two places at one time; and the public hearing of Bob’s wedding took the opportunity of being present to witness the ceremony of the old man’s nuptials. But Bob is long since dead.
Another of my remembrances was old Tom Pollard, the muffin man. He was one of our Sunday School paid teachers, and used to March us all to the Parish Church twice every Sunday, and sit beside us in our gallery, and look after us when there. Well do I remember Tom and basket, and two long sticks, and how he used to travel the country for miles around accompanied by his little dog; his portrait used to hang in the lower school, Mr. Coates’s, when I attended there: it was painted by one of Mr. Brereton’s sons, either John or Robert. Us Sunday scholars all went to poor Tom’s funeral; his house was near the outside of town, beyond what we used to call the “Nottingham Toll.” John Chester was another of our teachers similar to Tom Pollard. John was a dear old man, and always spoke to, and treated the boys kindly. I may now tell you some reminiscences concerning myself. There is, or was at the time I am writing about, about the year 1827 or 1828, a foot-bridge across the Canal at the south side of the Play Close, and crossing at that time into what we used to call Prior’s Close. One Saturday afternoon I was fishing with my rod and line beneath this foot-bridge and standing on the beam of wood on which the boatmen used to walk to pass their cord or line under the bridge and then attach it again to the horse when all was clear. I was standing on this beam of wood; some of my companions spoke to me. I turned round, and in doing so lost my balance, fell into the canal, and in all probability should have been drowned, but fortunately was pulled out by two boys who happened to notice me; their names were Edmund Sharman and John Eagers. I do not know if either of these gentlemen are now living, but if they are, they may recollect something of the occurrence at this long period of time (viz.), about fifty-five years. From Mr. Breretons diary I notice that on 30th December, 1829 he mentions that a “temporary Picture Gallery was opened in the National School, Melton, for encouraging the fine arts.” I remember this exhibition perfectly well: it was open for several days, the scholars were admitted to see it, and I along with the rest. I think I must have been in more times than one, for I can distinctly remember some of the things I saw. For instance, a portrait of Mrs. Otho Manners, of Goadby Hall; the stuffed birds, and particularly the small humming birds; and also in a glass case a coat or dress made entirely of feathers – this latter article near the door that led out to the girls‘ yard. As I have already said, it was reading Dr. North’s extracts from Mr. Brereton’s diary that brought back to my recollection a greater part of what I have written. Well do I remember his pale round face, that had been so deeply pitted by the small-pox; he was not a severe man and seldom did he use the cane or birch, except for some great fault, and then, woe be to that boy that came under his lash. The last time I called upon him with Thomas Lewin and John Thorpe, he was very pleased to see me, and gave many advices; and when I left Melton for Leicester on a Saturday morning, he chanced to be my fellow traveller in the ‘bus’ to Leicester, where we parted never to meet again on earth. There used to be a full-sized portrait of the late Dr. Ford hung up in the Lower School at the girls’ end. I suppose it will still be there. It was paid for by subscriptions from the School children’s pennies, and at one time I was told that the names of the subscribers were all written down and pasted on the back of the picture; if so, they may possibly be there yet. Mr. North in his notes say’s that Mr Bickley’s birds that were exhibited in Melton School are now in the Leicester Museum; if so, I may have seen them again there without recognising old friends, as I was in the Leicester Museum a few years since, and was very pleased and interested in doing so, as it has been a great pleasure to me for a great number of years to study and collect natural and other objects, my own collection at the present time numbering upwards of four thousand; and should any Meltonian ever have a wish to visit Scotland, and would call on me, I shall be most happy to show them my collection. I may say that two gentlemen from Melton have already seen it, viz., Mr. Amos Ewing and Mr. Milford. My connection with Melton Mowbray ceased on the 8th of June, 1830 when I left for London by the mail coach under the charge of Mr. Frane, the mail guard; and I had for my fellow-passenger all the way the late Mr. Thomas Ward, a gentleman well known to me at one time, and I know one that was well known for Melton for years after from his acts of philanthropy. Although at a distance from my native place, I have always a warm feeling towards it; and through the kindness of a relative I receive a Grantham Journal every week, which informs me of what is passing. Mr. North’s notes I have now read with great pleasure and interest. I could give many, many more of my recollections of early life in Melton, but perhaps you may think the foregoing more than sufficient for the present. – I am sir, yours obediently,
Melton Mowbray Cottage, Markinch, Fife, N.B.