Herbert Fenton Williman
This section looks at one person’s struggle of being brought up in rural Norfolk. Herbert was born on the 27th October 1855 in Stanhoe, Norfolk. Herbert Fenton Williman was my Great, Great Grandfather.
A fascinating insight to the 1800’s. From being hung as a child, moving to Canada and pulling down a house of “ill” to preaching in Watford England, not forgetting marrying the bosses daughter !!
The memories of Herbert were aired on BBC Radio 4 July 1983. Herbert was the great-grandfather of Radio 4 presenter Kenneth McLeish.
Compiled and Presented by Kenneth McLeish
With Peter Tuddenham as Herbert Williaman
Transmission : Tuesday 26th July 1983, 1610-1640 Radio 4
W = Herbert Fenton Williman
M = Kenneth McLeish
W : I was born at Stanhoe, Norfolk, on the 27th October 1855. My parents
Were poor, but deeply pious. My mother was a seamstress, and at Kings Lynn was converted under the Primative Methodists. While I was still a child, there occurred the famous Docking Riots, occasioned by the introduction of machinery, which threw many out of employment. The rioters went from farm to farm, inducing others to join them, and smashing machinery wherever they went. After a short orgy of wilful damage, word cam of approaching soldiers. The rioters retreated to Docking in time to see Hussars ride in from Norwich, and hear their commander say “If I had been here two days ago, I would have made some shovel-work!”
M: “Shovel-work”! It is not necessary to know anything about the Docking Riots, or the rights and wrongs of the matter, for a phrase like that to freeze the blood. My ideas of childhood in the Victorian and Edwardian countryside were formed by books like “Lark rise to Candleford”, where all the horrors are soft focused by fine writing and a gossamer nostalgic haze. My great-grandfather takes all such rose-tinted spectacles, and smashes them.
W: My parents had a family of ten children; five of them died in infancy and were buried in a row under the churchyard wall; and if the truth had been recorded their death certificates would have been “DIED FROM MALNUTRITION”!
In such circumstances my mother became a heroine. She accepted the duties of carrying letters to Docking and back twice daily, a total of twelve miles, for twelve years, for a small pittance until she became quite deformed. It was in these circumstances that I was born.
M: The child was named Herbert, and seems to have has an idyllic first five years: his chief memory is sitting beside his mother while she sewed, and listening to her tell stories from the Bible.
At five, he went to school – and he found establishment Christianity distinctly more silent than anything his mother taught.
W: Once or twice a week, we had to look forward to the dreaded visits of the parson. We had to place our hands on the desk, and if our fingernails were dirty, we were smartly rapped with a heavy ruler.
On Feast-Days we were marched across to the church opposite, to listen to a wearsome service, which we didn’t understand, while the verger marched up and down behind us with a long stick which he sometimes brought down upon some offender’s shoulders saying “Sit still, do ! You are a nuisance to the Church”. These exclamations were often followed by a loud “Amen”. This he always did on Sundays, and it did not make us love the Church !
M: It’s only fair to the parson himself to say that he doesn’t seem to have taken much part in this casual unkindness.
W: He once said to my mother, “How can you expect to go to heaven if you persist in going to the Methodist Chapel and not attend the true church ?” My mother replied, “ Sir, I shall go to heaven by the same way as you must go – if you ever get there – by faith in the blood of Christ.” He said no more to her on that subject! He was a well-meaning but strange in his ways. He rode a velocipede, to which he fixed a sail to help him when the wind was favourable; he came to a sad and sudden end, poor man, on the Matterhorn.
M: Herbert’s mother used her iron principles and dagger-tongue not just to put down a parson. She took a poor view, for example of mid 19th Century charity.
W: There was a local Lady Bountiful, who helped those who cringed to her. This my mother would not do.
M: And the results were, first, these twelve-mile daily walks with letters which deformed her pelvis and second, that little Herbert’s education was abruptly and brutally interrupted.
W: At the age of seven years I was taken from school and set to keeping sheep for a shilling a week. One morning when I went to take out the sheep, the Steward said “Boy! You lost a sheep yesterday and if you don’t find if you’ll go to prision!” How frightened I was ! and how I searched all day for that sheep and went home crying because I hadn’t found it. Then the Steward said, “You silly boy! I sold that sheep last night to a butcher, after you’d gone home !” But it was no joke to me !
Harvest time came, and I was paid double wages. Our farmer had a large reaping-machine drawn by four horses , and I had to ride the near front horse, keeping him close to the standing corn. The horses worked in four shifts, but I had to ride from 5 am to 7 pm till I felt stuck to the sweating horse, had to be lifted on and off, and was so sore that I could scarcely walk home. And all this for two shillings per week and a horn of beer at ”fourses” time. Did I earn it?
After this came the autumn wheat-sewing, when I was sent to scare crows off a very large field with a pair of wooden clappers. But as fast as I put them up from one end of the field, they flew cawing over my head and settled down behind me. I think I earned my wage of 1/6 per week (of seven days). I celebrated my eighth birthday by cooking a Yarmouth bloater over a fire which I made in the field, and was very proud of the feat.
M: I suppose that if Herbert had lived in a town, he’d have been climbing hot chimneys at the same tender age. In the country, the real running battle seems to have been over who owned what. The Squire, who owned the land itself, clearly also regarded every stick, stone, blade of grass, pheasant, hare even cockroach and earthworm as his own personal property, and was prepared to defend it with all the savagery at his or his Steward’s command.
W: One afternoon I was sent, with a horse and cart to a neighbouring village and when I returned all the men had gone home. Just inside a gate I saw a turnip-sowing machine, from which I took a handful of seed and sowed if on the headland. Immediately, the Steward pounced on me, dragged me into the stable, put a rope round my neck, threw the other end over a beam, drew me up till my feet were well off the floor, tied the rope to a post, then went out and left me hanging there for several minutes. If I hadn’t been able to thrust my fingers under the rope, and hold it off from my throat, I should have certainly have been suffocated. Then he came in and released me, saying “That will teach you not to waste turnip seed !”
My father could do nothing.
M: Even so, despite all the Squire’s and Steward’s vigilance , their “property” (if that’s the word) did regularly and mysteriously tend to disappear.
W: In the autumn I was entrusted with a gun to scare crows. I was supplied with a flask of powder weekly, but with no shot. These I bought at the village shop. I also had a trap. One evening I set my trap at the bottom of a rat’s run, down the side of a wheat stack. During the night snow fell heavily, and when I came to the stack my trap was gone. Plainly in the snow were the trail of my trap, the footprints of a hare, and drops of blood! I followed the trail, trembling, until I met a man who said “ Hae ye seen her, boy?” Then he turned back with me in the next field we saw her hopping painfully along with my trap on one of her legs with the edge of his right hand he gave her one sharp blow behind her ears, and then offered her to me. I said “I dare not take it, my mother won’t have it ?. He then gave me a shilling for her, promising me a similar sum for each hare I could catch for him. It was a great temptation for shillings were very scarce with me ! But I committed other unintentional breaches of the Game Laws. One evening, as I started for home, I peeped through a hedge and saw a host of birds, feverishly scratching for food on the spot where thrashing had recently taken place. I fired into the heaving mass, and when I went to pick up the slain (thirty-one) oh horror; there were two partridges among them. My mother was greatly troubled, but I reminded her of her poor appetite for our rough fare, and that Providence had sent her something nice and nourishing for her weak state.
M: It’s difficult, more than a century later – and especially, perhaps, for those of us brought up under the wing of the welfare state – to imagine the qualities of the personality needed to help people cope with that kind of life. And what qualities, gifts or attributes could help you climb out of it ? In my great-grandfather’s case – as, I suspect, for many others of his time – the way out was his good fortune in being taught to read by his mother when he was four, and the use he later put his reading to in the fields as he watched sheep or scared crows. He was 12 at the time, and his reading-matter was the one book available to everyone in Victorian England, rich or poor.
W: While keeping sheep one day, I read in St Matthew 25 how the Judge will separate the sheep from the goats, saying to the sheep “Come!” but to the goats “Depart!” Then came the terrible question “which side shall I ne on ?” I could not answer it, but was tormented by it for weeks, till I could bear it no longer. So, on the 15th January 1868, I went to the little Meeting House, resolved to have the question answered, if possible. It was a Class-Meeting. The Leader asked each one of recent experience, giving suitable instruction, encouragement or exhortation, as the case required. Almost last he came to me and patting my head he said “Well, Herbert, we all know that you are a good boy. Keep on as you are and you will be alright.” But I knew that I was not alright: He closed the Meeting, the women drew their shawls close round them, the men took their hats from the pegs, but I dropped on my knees, weeping. The leader said “Why, the boy is in trouble! Let us pray with him!” They gathered round, and oh how they prayed! I prayed too; and presently the joy of pardon flooded my soul, and I sprang to my feet and sang:
Jesus my Lord was crucified,
He gave His life my heart to win,
And now He points me to His side
And bids me wash away my sin.
At once I to the fountain fly.
On Christ, my helpless soul I cast,
On Him alone I will rely
Till all the storms of life are past.
The meeting closed, and I passed out into the dark night alone. The inward glow vanished, doubt assailed me, and thus early I had to “walk by faith!” But as soon as I got home I them all and so, for me, there was no going back.
M: It’s impossible to overstate the change this event made in Herbert’s life. His being was irradiated: he talks about it was a happiness so simple and so direct that it’s almost embarrassing.
W: A new era began in my life. I was no longer oppressed by a sense of sin, for I had found a perfect saviour. I was no longer sad and lonely, for I had found a life guard and occupation. I could sing :
My Soul is now united
To Christ, the living wine;
Though long his grace I’ve slighted,
Yet now I feel his mine.
When alone I sang nearly all day long, and preached to the crows or the sheep.
M: Every time I see someone preaching in the street, or open the door to find Jehovah’s Witnesses on the step outside, I think of that radiantly happy child, windmilling his arms in the fields and singing about his saviour to startled crows and indifferent sheep, Soon, his extraordinary fervour began to find another outlet – and though he hardly suspected it, the road out of rural serfdom was beckoning.
W: One night, walking a little way with the Superintendent Minister of the Chapel, as he was going home, I mustered courage to say “Please, Sir, I should like to do something for Jesus.” “What would you like to do for Him, my boy?” “I should like to tell others what He has done for me!” At the next Quarterly Meeting (at Docking, June 1869) I was appointed to go with Brother Frank Sands on his preaching appointments, and began my public testimony at Burnham Market on Sunday 15th July following. I shall never forget how, at the close, the old folk crowded round the pulpit stairs, weeping, and saying “God bless you, my boy!” “How we wish we had begun to serve God as young as you have done.” There was talk of my becoming a Methodist Minister, but there seemed no prospects. I was poor, uneducated, and lacked influential friends.
My uncle, a Methodist Minister at St Albans [Joseph Willamott], heard of me and offered to take me to live with him; and so, on the 14 February 1871, I left home. I left for ever, a world which had been unkind to me as a child: which denied me education, and condemned me to loneliness, hunger and cold: which bullied, threatened, ill-treated me; and denied me love (except in my humble home). The Squire stole land from the roadside , and kept back the hire of them that ploughed, and reaped his fields; and at certain times of the the year, the gentry coursed and shot in the fields where I was, to them an insignificant mite, terrifying and sometimes endangering my life, and I was not sorry altogether to leave such an inhospitable scene.
M: At St Albans things went less well than expected. Herbert’s uncle was an elderly man, who had married late, and who had no idea at all how to cope with a growing adolescent. He introduced the boy to the local Methodist preaching circuit, and allowed him the run of book in his library – Milton, Spenser, Scott, Macaulay. But apart from that, he left him largely on his own. And if he suffered from none of the other seven deadly sins, he certainly made up for it when it came to wrath.
W: He used to vent his ill-temper upon poor “Aunt Mary” who was rather deaf. I specially remember two such occasions. One when she put salt into his tea! The other – most unpardonable – when, he having gone to Redbourn, leaving his study unlocked, she cleaned the room and put straight the heap of miscellaneous pamphlets and papers which lay in an untidy mess upon his round table or overflowed on to the floor! His anger on these occasions (amounting to loud-mouthed rage) was very great.
M: Buoyed up by his preaching, Herbert endured this lively house environment for several years. But at last he left, and spent some time trying all kinds of jobs. He worked in Mr Sheldrake’s panama-hat factory, and fell in love with the boss’ daughter. He was a draper’s assistant in Fenny Stratford, a thatcher’s helper for one harvest-season back in Stanhow, putting sloping tops on haystacks, and a builder’ labourer in Middlesbrough, where he particularly enjoyed preaching in the evening and then walking home by the light of blast-furnaces all across the town. In the end, he and his friend Charlie Smith decided to “carry the Lord to Canada” ( where there was also constant, well paid work). On the S.S Polynesian – the tickets cost £4 15s – and sailed for Ottawa. To someone whose longest previous journeys had been from Norfolk to Middlesbrough or St Albans, Canada in the 1870’s must have seemed as exotic as any of the fabulous locations of the stories and poems my great-grandfather devoured; the bridges of ancient home, Rob Roy’s stamping grounds in the Trossachs, the pleasure-domes of Kubla Khan. Even so – and despite a momentary awe at the sight of lumberman shooting the rapids in disintegrating rafts of logs – he managed to keep a spectacularly stiff upper lip, the attitude appropriate for a citizen of the most advanced mother-country in the world visiting one of its wilder provinces.
W: Despite the newness of Ottawa, which had been the Canadian capital for no more than seven years, I saw plentiful signs of backwardness. Its horse-drawn trams seemed vet ancient; water was still carted from the river for drinking purposes; hoop-skirts were still sold in the shops; and many abandoned ones lay, rusting and unsightly, on various pieces of unoccupied land outside the City. Its tavens (called Saloons) were the resorts of the dregs of the population; its Houses of ill-fame were numerous.
M: A month or two after my great-grandfather’s arrival – he was working as a labourer for the Ottawa and District Water Company – one of those houses of ill-fame fell victim to the righteous – or self righteous – indignation of its neighbours. This, presumably, is what , in those forthright days, was meant by “muscular Christianity”
W: At Mount Sherwood there was a “House of ill-fame” which became an intolerable nuisance. So, one night, the police raided it, arrested and imprisoned those found therein, and subsequently the Proprietress was sentenced to six weeks imprisonment, during which time the “House” was closed. The neighbours resolved to pull it down. I had been asked to assist in the work of demolition. We arrived at the house to find a large body of men sawing, chopping, levering and some on the roof, had fastened a rope to the ridge-pole. We were told to grasp the rope and stand by. Presently the order came “Pull boys, pull” and we pulled, till, with a rendering sound , the wooden edifice fell with a crash followed by the order “scatter, boys! “ And we scattered for our homes! Next morning the newspapers gave only faint condemnation.
M: Apart from extraordinary activities of this kind, and his preaching (which took up most of his leisure), my great-grandfather spent his time in Ottawa blasting drainage channels and installing water-drains and sewage-pipes. It was warm work in the summer – and from autumn onwards it was absolutely no fun at all.
W: I was at work helping to dig a trench in Sussex Street when snow began to fall on the 11th October. I soon had chilblained hands. From the 1st November the snow remained and accumulated, and we saw the ground no more till the end of April! We got to work in solid rock where frost could not stop us, for it made the rock no harder!
Boring holes in the rock was most strenuous. I had to stand on a boulder and grasp the upper end of a seven-foot drill, and my mate sat below and guided the drill into the hole. From my position I certainly had to do the heavier part of the lifting, which often made my heart beat too fast ! At least, a total physical breakdown made it certain that I could not stand the strain, so I had to fall out.
M: His health never did properly recover. He spent a couple of years trying, as he would have put it, to “ make a go of Canada
W: I had a succession of hard, temporary jobs, which more than once proved too much for my strength, and there was no prospect of my ever getting anything else. Then my Sweetheart [Sheldrake] expressed her inclination to come out and share my life in Canada, and this brought matters to a climax. Both her parents and my parents were opposed to this plan. They corresponded with each other. My father had inherited a few pounds, of which my share was to be £5; this he gave; to which her father, Mr Sheldrake, added £3, and wrote saying “Come home, and we will do ur best for you both!” . I booked a return passage on the SS Polynesian and sailed from Quebec on the 16th September 1876.
M: Back home again, he married my great-grandmother, his childhood sweetheart from the panama-hat factory, and set about finding employment and establishing a home.
W: On the 28th November 1878, I walked to Watford and called on my friend Mr Best at Messrs H Kingham and Sons, Wholesale Grocers. Mr Kingham had just discharged his Errand-Boy for dishonesty, and had nothing better to offer me but his vacant place at 16 shillings per week! When I demurred he added another shilling to this offer, which I closed.
M: He worked at Kingham’s for ten years, rising to the position of warehouseman and to the princely wage – which he says he got chiefly by expostulation – of 26 shillings a week. In the early 1890s he worked as a census-taker, a liberal election agent, caretaker of the committee room of the Watford and Bushay Temperance Council and most important of all , Watford Town Missionary for the Methodist Church – for which he says:
W: My pay was to be £84 annually, and I was told that we need not change our residence – in Vicarage Road, across from the football ground – and that I “need not wear clerical attire”.
H: So in the end, the church which had sustained him for 30 years became his living as well as his life. Not that everything was plain sailing, even now…
W: My first Sunday (13th October) was very trying. The afternoon Ragged School was crowded so that it was difficult to proceed from front to back. The noise was Babel, the scent repelling, and the disorder great. And when the children were dismissed, a large pailful of orange-peel, empty sweat-bags etc were swept up. And it took us some time to even to abate these nuisances !
I was soon informed that one of my duties would be to collect funds for a Christmas Dinner (of roast beef, potatoes and plum pudding) for the Ragged School and for poor people. I was not told how much it would cost , nor of a single subscriber: only that “People will certainly help the Ragged School!”. So I bought a sixpenny memo-book and went out, guided by instinct alone, and collected £22 5s. [after all the bills had been paid I had 2s 3 ½ d left]
This collection increased, year by year , until it reached the sum of £74, and for several years I was able to buy boots for many ill-shoed girls and boys. As other needs were pressed upon me I became acquainted with the Royal Surgical Aid Society, through whom, and by practical help of local friends I was enabled to supply many persons with Surgical appliances, teeth, and various other necessities.
But I found, among my clients, an amazing amount of ignorance and carelessness. Wet boots were burned through their soles when placed too near the fire to dry; sets of teeth were broken, or even thrown away ! and (worst of all) a one-legged tailor having obtained, through me, a Cork Leg with boot attached, allowed it to be palced in his bottom drawer while he, himself, remained in bed!
For teachers I had a band of earnest, born-again men and women, who really sought the salvation of their scholars, not without results.
In February 1908 I obtained permission for a 15 days’ mission by Mr James Bryant. During its course (which included two Saturday-night meetings for public house habitués), we had over 100 persons profess conversion. Eight years after, feeling the need for another Revival, we invited Miss Helen Coulthard (who preached the Gospel from childhood) for another fortnight and 84 professed to find their Saviour. I have not space, here, to mention every one of the almost innumerable Incidents attending my wotk in the Lord’s service. Suffice to say that many people thankfully told me that the knowledge of their sins forgiven had been brought to them by my ministry, and several of these promised, in turn, to pray for me.