Sir Thomas Comes of Age.

David Dyble

In the Spring of 1857, the Lord of the Manor of Audley decided to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of his eldest son and heir in a manner befitting his station. To avoid confusion we must distinguish between the father and son, both of whom had the same names. Sir Thomas Fletcher Fenton Boughey, 3rd Baronet, (1809-1880), had succeeded his father to the Lordship of Audley in 1823. His son was also Sir Thomas (1836-1906), the knighthood being automatically granted to the eldest son of a Baronet when he reached his majority. The actual birthday was 5 April, and was celebrated at the family seat of Aqualate Hall which is close to Newport, Shropshire. The main Audley event to commemorate this coming-of-age, with the Bougheys in attendance, was held on the afternoon and evening of Friday, 22 May 1857.

The Bougheys had owned the Audley estate since 1790, when the 3rd Baronet's grandfather, Sir Thomas Fletcher of Betley Court, had purchased the land and titles from Hugo Meynell. Their territory stretched from the bottom of Halmerend to Diglake, sharing borders with Heathcote's Apedale-Podmore estate and Wedgwood's Bignall End estate. It contained nearly a dozen farms and well over a hundred dwellings, a total of 182 rateable properties. In the Return of Landowners for 1873, the Boughey's combined Aqualate and Audley estates totalled 10,505 acres, yielding gross annual rents of £15,849. In addition the royalties from mining would be much more than this.

The main coming-of-age celebration was a ball held in the large room of the Boughey Arms Inn, paid for by the squire, and attended, we are told, by 300 guests. The family travelled there by carriage from Aqualate, and were greeted at the entrance to Audley by a large procession which included several musical bands, who led them through the village to the square by the inn. Indeed, so enthusiastic was the crowd that they unhitched the horses and pulled the Boughey carriage by hand along Church Street. Floral arches had been erected, and flags and banners hung from many windows. At the square the young master stood up in the open carriage and briefly addressed the huge crowd. He thanked them for their welcome and goodwill, modestly disclaiming that he deserved any such honour on his own merits. Their generosity, he believed, was a proof of their regard for his family. In the future, he would carry out his duties to the village following the example which his father had set him. The ball which followed continued into the early hours of Saturday morning.

This glittering function was attended by neighbouring landowners, some of whom, like the Twemlows of Betley, were related to the Bougheys through marriage. Also invited were the major tenants, who were mostly farmers, and leading tradespeople, in fact the middle classes of Audley. However, the large body of workers who actually created Boughey's wealth from the coal mines and the farm fields were not forgotten. The pits were laid off for the day and the mine agent, Robert Rigby senior, who managed their Boyles Hall colliery, which had opened in 1803 close to Boon Hill, organised two entertainments. The wives of miners were given tea at the Red Lion Inn, and their children were given commemorative mugs, while their husbands had a bountiful supply of ale provided in a tent nearby.

On this special occasion many Audley people would remember the events which accompanied the birth of this heir, twenty-one years earlier, in the Spring of 1836. To one family in Boon Hill those birth celebrations had been unforgettable, and marked a turning point in their lives. To welcome the new-born infant the church bells had been rung for "three entire days", and on the fourth day, Friday 8 April, a great celebration was held in the village. These festivities were similar to those described above, but no one from Aqualate Hall attended on that occasion. A large dinner was organised at the Boughey Arms by the tenant farmers and the minor gentry of the parish, presided over by the vicar, Rev. Thomas Garrett, assisted as vice-president by farmer Daniel Booth of the Wall. This feast began at four in the afternoon and continued to the close of the day. The fare included the fashionable "Roast Beef and Plum Pudding". A speech from the vicar praised the Lord of the Manor, pointing out to the assembled farmers that during the then agricultural depression he had, like other local landlords, remitted a portion of their rents to mitigate their hardship. Such reminders of their Lord's largesse were cheered to the echo. From the large number of toasts made, much wine must have been consumed. How else could they have sustained cheering "the birth of the Heir of Aqualate ..... 4 times 4 cheers were given, and again and again, 'one cheer more' , bespoke the enthusiastic sincerity of the party".

The ordinary folk were also entertained, though with less formality. A beer tent was provided for the men during the afternoon, the pits having been closed for the day. Robert Rigby had organised this for his workforce on Boughey's behalf so that all could "wet the baby's head". Ale was invariably provided in barrels and was decanted into pitcher jugs for pouring into tankards, usually their own brought by the drinkers. Such occasions were repeated at coronations, ending of wars and overlords weddings, so these infrequent treats were not to be missed by ordinary folk, whose own family event celebrations were meagre by comparison.

It may be wondered why so much ale was consumed in an area with a growing Methodist influence. Bob Rigby who organised the alcoholic refreshment on Boughey's behalf was a Wesleyan preacher, and many of his workforce belonged to the chapel. The Primitive Methodists were strictly abstainers, but were in a minority locally. The Wesleyans were more liberal, particularly in the first half of the century, and merely encouraged temperance. Indeed ale was served to the men at Circuit functions in various parts of the country, and preachers could even be offered a glass of wine in the vestry before a service. In October 1846, Audley Wesleyans began a serious campaign to curb excessive drinking. In their schoolroom in Chapel Street a lecture was given by Dr.Warham of Newcastle. His subject was "the effects of alcohol on the human system" and was illustrated by "beautiful drawings" .

At Boyles Hall colliery the banksman who controlled the movement of cages was a man whose general behaviour over the years had earned him a terrible reputation. He was given to heavy drinking and other intemperate habits, and was noted as a bully to his family, neighbours and workmates. He particularly disliked the growing band of Methodists, many of whom worked in his pit, and who were sponsoring the growing Temperance movement. A particularly bad habit of his was to hold out a half brick over the shaft when he recognised a chapel-goer ascending at the end of a long shift. "Sing, or I'll drop it", he would taunt them, and the person beneath, knowing his reckless character, would wisely strike up a Wesley hymn. This oft-repeated prank earned him the nickname of "Drop it".

His actual identity was William Statham (1796-1873) and some of these events are loosely related in George Sudlow's now elderly, but much treasured book describing life on the slopes of Boon Hill. Sudlow, who admits in his preface to adding some imagination to his narrative, was writing over half a century later and relied both upon the collective hearsay of his older contemporaries, what he called 'fireside talks', and the recall of "Drop it's" daughter Amy in her later years, as she had witnessed some of the events which follow. George Sudlow (1852-1913) spent much of his life in Halmerend earning his living from various occupations including as a carter and a shopkeeper. His father Samuel had been the Halmerend township roadmender, and his elder brother Robert (born 1842) was a forgeman who had become a Wesleyan local preacher in the mid-1860s. George, who by 1875 was also a preacher, had for several years in the 1890s been contributing anecdotes on chapel life in the Audley district to the Local Preacher's Magazine, and the editor of that journal had been instrumental in facilitating the book of 1905. He was clearly a man of ability, who felt that his evangelical predecessors should not fade into unrecorded history.

On 8 April 1836, "Drop it", who always liked his tipple, could not resist the offer of free ale in such large quantities. He went early to the fountain, on his own, and stayed late. As dusk was falling, his wife became anxious for him. She imagined him lying paralytic in a ditch or injured after a brawl - he had often attracted trouble. He was now 40, and as a family man, he was getting too old to behave in this manner. She set out to search for him. The Statham home was a cottage near the summit level of Boon Hill Road, close to the present site of Bignall End Cricket Pavilion. A small building and garden rented from Sir Thomas for £3 a year, it occupied 5 perches of land, approximately 150 square yards. In 1836 all of the 34 homes on Boon Hill belonged to the Lord of the Manor. As the boundary between two townships was the centre of the road, the 13 houses on the west side of Boon Hill were in Audley, and the 21 on the east were in Bignall End. Successive Census returns show that "Drop it" lived in the last house on the east side, almost opposite the track which led down to Boyles Hall Colliery, where he worked.

Unfortunately for his wife, there were two possible routes between their home in Boon Hill and Audley, one by the main road, Ravens Lane, the other through the colliery workings and along Delph Lane to the pump at the junction of Chapel Street and New Road. Mrs. Statham chose one of these routes, while her inebriated husband was staggering home at the same moment by the alternative way. When "Drop it" arrived home he found his children there, but no dutiful wife awaiting him with his supper ready, and he was somewhat annoyed. "Where's your mother? A nice thing this, when a mon comes home for a bit o' meat, for find his wife out. If that's it, now hers out, her stops out."

He secured both doors and windows, allegedly with a hammer and nails, and was then overtaken by a morbid depression caused by his larger than usual intake of ale, and the gloom of eventide, so he decided upon his own illuminations to match those created in Audley for the celebrations. As a banksman he kept a large number of pit candles in the house, which he proceeded to light, and placed them all round the room, many in precarious positions. According to Sudlow, presumably quoting the elder daughter, "the mantelpiece, chest of drawers, sofa, chairs, everything was covered with tallow candles, and lighted". His two frightened girls, Amy and Eliza , were ordered to bed, and he soon fell into a deep, unconscious sleep in his chair, his frantic wife outside unable to enter. Under one of the beds was stored a quarter barrel of blasting powder belonging to the pit, twenty-eight pounds of it! It is a miracle that no fire or explosive tragedy occurred, not only to the Statham household, but to several of their Boon Hill neighbours as well. This was before the stringent regulations governing the storage of explosives at mines, when keeping powder dry seems to have been more important than safety. We can speculate that several of these neighbours, realising the danger, must have later assisted the wife's entry into her home.

Next morning, this near disaster would have been the main talking point in Boon Hill. One neighbour took it upon himself to intervene in "Drop it's" affairs. This self-employed nailmaker, four years older than Statham, lived at the bottom of the bank where it meets Ravens Lane. He had been a Wesleyan local preacher since 1824, and although he had little formal education, or literary skill to his credit, Samuel Brindley (1792-1875), was by then a character well-known in the area for his zealous, and most effective evangelism. He set his sights on "Drop it" and would not cease until he had "won him for the Lord". After much man-to-man talk, which Sudlow partially recreates as "Come, owd mon, this sort o' work wunner do. Thee'lt blow us all up. Nah let me give thee a bit of advice. Thee come chapel wi' us o' Sunday: give thy ear to God; it'll make a mon o' thee" It worked! "Drop it" was converted soon after and became not only a worthy member, but eventually a trustee, of Audley Wesleyan Chapel.

This new life brought its own rewards. With sobriety and its associated thrift, the Stathams saved enough money to be able to live in reasonable comfort in their retirement. In his final summer William is reported as sitting by his garden gate giving out bags of sweets and nuts to Sunday School scholars as they passed his home. When he died in 1873, aged 77, Statham's will included "I also leave £10 towards the erection of a new Wesleyan chapel at Audley." This was a large sum for a working man at that time. He never lost his nickname, however, and when he died, a miner in Wood Lane, who was a leader in the Wesleyan chapel there, recorded in his diary: 10 August 1873 - William Statham died at Boon Hill -"Drop it".

Sammy Brindley lived for a further two years, and died on 23 October 1875. The last decades of his life were lived against a background of increasing poverty. Domestic nailmaking had succumbed to factory-made competition by the middle of the century, when he was too old to take up a new trade. He continued in minor blacksmithing for a few years, but with limited financial reward. Fellow local preachers devised a scheme to enrol him into the Wesleyan LPMA , but the premium for such a late entry, like any insurance scheme was prohibitive. They raised the money by selling a photograph of Sammy which had been taken by some well-meant deception, as he was both a proud and a shy man. Many copies of this portrait were sold within local chapel communities at a shilling each, and Brindley received a regular small pension till the end of his days. He had continued conducting services in the Audley and Chesterton area up to the summer of 1873 at the age of 80. He had chosen the verse for his gravestone in Audley Churchyard some time before, It reads:

Before his death he was a crier in the wilderness;

His form of crying was to say, 'Turn, sinner, from your evil way.

Repent and have your sins forgiven; and you and I shall meet in Heaven'.

Sir Thomas Boughey the 3rd Baronet died in 1880, and the press had difficulty finding any of his achievements which they could praise in his obituary. It concluded "Indeed he may best be described as having lived a singularly uneventful life." One is reminded of W.S.Gilbert's description of the House of Lords in Iolanthe " ...(they)..did nothing in particular, and did it very well:" He was succeeded by his heir, the 4th Baronet, whose key birthdays we have seen so well marked in Audley. He in turn died in 1906. Both are buried in the family vault at Forton Church, in which parish Aqualate Hall is situated. As young Sir Thomas had no children, the eldest of his seven brothers, Rev. Sir George Boughey, succeeded him to the titles. He had been the Rector of Forton for many years and died in 1910. Three more childless brothers succeeded in turn, Sir William (died 1912), Rev.Sir Robert, vicar of Betley (died 1921) and Sir Francis who died in 1927. As each of these twentieth-century deaths attracted growing Estate Duties, the frequency of the calls for large sums of money by the Exchequer necessitated the sale of assets. It was the Audley property which was sold over these years, thus severing the Boughey link with the village. Aqualate Hall was destroyed by fire in 1910, and a new house built on the site in 1927-30.

In newspaper references to the manorial events mentioned above, the word noble often occurs. One might ponder whether this nobility was to be found in marbled halls in spacious estates, or in a humble nailmaker's cottage at the foot of Boon Hill. One of the motives for producing this article is to mark the Bicentenary (1796-1996) of the recognition of accredited local lay preachers within Methodism, who have done so much during two centuries to prosper that cause.

[ If any reader is descended from any of the people mentioned above, and/or can add any further information on any of the events or situations mentioned, the writer would be delighted to hear from them.]

Next: Shocking discovery at Halmerend