5 The Dispersion


So far, it has been comparatively easy to keep track of the West family, at least in the male line. Some of its members had large families, but they were thinned out in childhood by plague, tuberculosis or the various fen diseases: but of the nineteen children of John VII, ten survived to old age, some of them with very large families of their own, and with a far higher survival rate. Furthermore, the onrush of the Industrial Revolution was felt in Lincolnshire in that dispersal began to take place in a way not experienced before. It seems unlikely that unless others enter into these labours at a later date, the story of the family may never be completely told. However, there is reasonably full information about several of John's children and their families and we will deal with these first of all.

James, the grandfather of the writer, was born at the White Horse on 16th July, 1831. He was the llth child of Elizabeth who was now 34 years old. It seems likely that there were at least nine older children in the home at the time, though some of them left while he was still a child. But at least he did not suffer from loneliness. He attended the village school where he gained the kind of education outlined by the Rev. I. Elsom in his Jottings. At any rate, he learned to read and write fluently and to keep accounts. There is, as far as I know, only one letter of his extant, given in the appendix, written in his old age. It shows an incomplete mastery of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and it seems likely that he left school at 11 or 12 years of age to work on the land. it is worth while noting, however, that he received his education fully twenty years before it became compulsory.

James must have formed an early association with Harriet Taylor, whose parentage has not as yet been traced. Harriet was nearly two years older than James, but she was only 20 when she bore him an illegitimate child, Joseph Taylor. Presumably James was too poor to marry at this time, but he married Harriet two and a half years later, by which time Harriet was again three months on in her second pregnancy. Their Wedding Card is still preserved.

This was an inauspicious start to married life, but James was a good, steady reliable workman and Harriet a good housekeeper and mother. A landless labourer in the mid 19th century had very limited opportunities of rising by his own talents, but James did rise. James, working at Kirton Fen, was highly valued by Mr. James Ward of Swineshead, his employer, for whom he became foreman. When Mr. William Sharp, son-in-law of Mr. Ward bought Westfield Farm at Covenham, it was James who was installed as bailiff, though Mr. Ward was reluctant to part with him. It was thus that this branch of the family left the fenland for the marshland just north-east of the Wolds.

During the seventeen years of married life, the family of James and Harriet had grown to twelve children, of whom ten were surviving, and three more were born to them at Covenham. Joseph Taylor was working away in Sheffield, but John Hides, now in his late teens, was training up as a hard but efficient waggoner the 'charge hand' of the farm. The girls were sent out to service as soon as they were old enough; the boys had little else to look forward to but work on the land, and at a tender age they began by tending a few sheep at the roadside. Apart from a brief period of retirement at Mablethorpe, James and Harriet spent the rest of their lives in Covenham, James dying in a cottage there at the beginning of 1911, and Harriet nearly two years later at the home of her youngest daughter, Kate, at Ludborough Station. For the last two years of her life she was, to all intents and purposes bedfast. Both are buried in the churchyard of Covenham St. Bartholomew.

Whatever dashing qualities James displayed as a young man appear to have been restricted to his love-making. In all else he was sober, earnest, God-fearing and supremely honest. He was a most capable farmer, producing a good return for his employer even during years of depression, and a change of ownership of the farm did not affect his position. If anything, he was overcautious. Jonathan, one of his younger sons, begged him to launch out on his own, but James was too afraid of losing his little all to make the venture. There was really no risk of failure; his capability was well-known, his credit good and able labourers willing to work for him. As it was, he managed Westfield farm for over 30 years and retired with just about £200 as his life's savings.

The writer knew him only during the last five or six years of his life, when he was patriarchal in appearance and genial in his attitude to his grandchildren, but accounts show that he could be strict, masterful and even stubborn. Children were to be seen and not heard and woe betide any offender who inadvertently began to eat before Grace had been said, or who left a 'saucy' plate. Bed-time was rigid. "Do you see that clock?" was not a question but an ultimatum. Harriet could indulge her children only on the nights when James had a meeting in the village. Then she would allow them to remain up until just before seven when the waggoners came in for their supper. James was equally strict with his men. He knew what was a day's work and expected to get it without question. James had the handicap of having to run Westfield at the Swineshead rates of pay, which were lower than the Louth rates. It could not be done, but it had to appear to be done and James had to exact a full day's work for a day's pay and haggle over rates. He lost the services of Jonathan over a matter of £1 a year as he could not bring himself to pay the £13 a year which Jonathan demanded. The most he would offer was £12; but next year, when Jonathan asked for £16, there was no argument. The only trouble he appears to have had with his men was over the introduction of a horse-drawn mowing machine to replace the traditional scythe. The men were surly about it, with the suspicions of the Luddites about machinery; but James stood firm. Nobody would be losing his work or his wages and the work would be easier; the machine was going in. James won the day.

Domestic life appears to have flowed evenly and smoothly mainly due to the tact and good sense of Harriet. There is one little tussle recorded from their early life. James had gained some little promotion which entailed removal from the scenes of Harriet's childhood and her family. She bitterly opposed the move and declared that she would not move. James made his arrangements quietly and when, the night before the projected move he once again heard her protests, remarked, "Well, my dear; tomorrow I'm going, and the furniture's going. You can do just what you like!" She went.

James had little illness in his long life except the inevitable rheumatism of the fens and marshes, but he is the first in the family of whom we have definite knowledge of hay-fever, which afflicted him to the end of his days. In a bad year he could take no part in leading the hay, but locked himself indoors.

In politics he was Liberal, but neither a Radical nor a Home Ruler. He was far too cautious to have the enthusiasm and burning sense of justice of the one or the foresight of the other. In religion he was a Fundamentalist, attending the village Wesleyan Chapel with unfailing regularity. He had no quarrel with the doctrines of the Church of England, but these were days of clerical domination in the countryside, with a great gulf fixed between clergy and ordinary people. James was one of the many in Lincolnshire who rebelled silently by throwing in his lot with Methodism.

The writer knew eight of the children of James and Harriet and can vouch for the respect and affection in which they were held. Life on the farm was Spartan and discipline was rigorous, but it seems to have been softened by a genuine family affection and a good-humoured geniality.

Eliza and the Elsoms

It is probable that the Rev. Isaac Elsom was right in regarding his mother, Eliza West, as "the pick of the family". He says of her, (Jottings, p.10)

"As a young woman she was of attractive appearance, and in her old age she was beautiful! At the time of her marriage she was five feet four inches in height, was proportionately built and of good carriage. She was thoroughly domesticated, could milk a cow, make up butter and was an excellent cook. In addition, she was an excellent reader, a good pen-woman, and had a useful knowledge of accounts. She kept her husband's books and did his business and, other correspondence for upwards of forty years. She had also a taste for poetry, especially blank verse and could recite effectively considerable passages of Milton's Paradise Lost."

His daughter, Eveline, when she herself was 80, said of her in a letter to the writer, "The Eliza West you mention was my grandmother and I still have a very vivid recollection of her in her eighties - a beautiful woman with snow-white hair and a pink and white complexion, and always fine white lace in her cap and kerchief".

The importance of Wrangle was fading from the family story, and for a time at any rate, Spalding took its place before the final and inevitable dispersal. Isaac Elsom, son of a prodigal and intemperate cabinet-maker, was trained as a ropemaker at Boston before setting up on his own account at Spalding in 1845. Eliza was at this time in service at Pinchbeck, almost certainly having already met Isaac during her service at other villages near Boston. A good tradesman, Isaac was successful, and in 1846, Isaac married Eliza at Leake Parish Church. The story of the struggles, setbacks and triumphs of the Elsoms, their conversion to Methodism under the leadership of the Rev. (later General) William Booth, their joys and sorrows in the births and deaths of their family, are beautifully related in the "Jottings", but the scale of the present essay does not allow them to be given in full.

Eliza certainly attracted members of her family to Spalding. Edward, two years her junior, became her husband's farm foreman at the age of 28 and remained there several years before seeking his fortunes elsewhere. Her sister Joanna, two years younger than Edward, was for many years a lady's maid in the Spalding area and treated the Elsom house as her home. It was there that she died at the age of 45, sick in body and sick in mind at being jilted. The youngest of the family, Frederick, at thirteen years of age became Isaac's first apprentice and was treated as one of the family during his eight or nine years in Spalding.

Isaac Elsom was a man of outstanding character whose business, based on quality of craftsmanship and honest dealing, prospered. It passed through the hands of his son George Elson (1860 - 1901) and his grandsons, George Elsom (1887 - 1957) and Albert Elsom ( -1947), changing in character with the needs of the times to become "Elsoms, Seedsmen and Growers of Farm and Market Garden Seeds", which is the title it bears in 1961. Male heirs who were interested in the business were lacking and soon after the Second World War, Mr. John G. Keeling, one of the present directors, a partner from 1943, acquired the controlling interest in what now became a Limited Liability Company.

Isaac's eldest son, another Isaac (1852 - 1929), was trained for the business, but at the age of 20, offered himself for training for the Free Methodist Ministry and left home and returned to Spalding only in his retirement. The second son, John, (1853 - 1898) left home to learn and practice farming in Hertfordshire, married a farmers daughter, by whom he had a large family - now scattered over the Midlands and southern counties but died of tuberculosis at the early age of 45. The youngest son, William West Elsom, after preliminary training in the timber business at Spalding, decided at the ripe age of 21 to launch out in the business on his own, in partnership with another Spalding youth, Alfred Smart. The scene of their enterprise was Derby, and "Smart and Elsoms" became a flourishing business. Mr. William West Elsom became Justice of the Peace for the city and lived to see the business being taken over by his sons William Elsom and John Elsom.

It was the third son, George (1860 - 1901) who remained in Spalding and by his enterprise, expanded the business still further. With four sons to follow him, it looked as though the family business was firmly established. Alas, he himself died of tuberculosis at the age of 41 and it was his wife, Christina, who carried the business on her shoulders for some years. Of the four sons, Harold was killed in action in France and William died of tuberculosis. George (1857 - 1957) and Albert ( - 1947), conducted the business until it was necessary for them to take a partner from outside the family.

Isaac and Eliza had a large family, including eight daughters, four of whom, Eliza (1848 - 1856), Mary Ann (1850 - 1871), Kate (1865 - 1872) and Florence (1867 - 1871) died young, while Harriet (1863 - 1956) who lived to the ripe age of 93 did not marry. It is remarkable that the three daughters who did marry all had chemists and druggists as husbands. Ellen (1855 - ) married Mr. Major Shadford who carried on business first in Nottingham and then in Derby. Jane (1857 - 1913) married Mr. John Hewitt, formerly of Spalding, whose business was in South Tottenham. Of their family of two sons and two daughters, the younger son was killed in France during the First World War, while Hubert, the elder, succeeded his father in the business. Eliza (1859 - ) married Mr. William Barker of Cambridge, whose business was in Watford. Of a family of four, a daughter married a civil servant, the eldest son entered his father's business and two younger sons qualified as medical practitioners.

The Rev. Isaac Elsom called Eliza West "the mother of the Elsoms of Spalding", but Spalding, like Wrangle, was too small a world for the next generation. Eliza was the mother of a family of reasonable intelligence and initiative, and as we have seen, "trade or occupation" largely becomes "business or profession". This is, of course, no peculiarity of the Elsoms or the Wests, but was a mark of the times with very many families. Incidentally, this precis of the "Jottings" gives some indication of the task of tracing even the family of John West of the White Horse Inn. Eliza was but one of his nineteen children, ten of whom raised families, and some of them nearly as numerous as John's.

Other Children of John VII

The family was probably too big and too scattered to be closely knit once John had died in 1869 and most of them were well and truly in the labouring classes or not much above. The only uncle mentioned by William Frederick to his family was Frederick, the ropemaker of Louth. Johathan, the brother of William Frederick, who had never left Lincolnshire, knew Frederick well, but of his other uncles, knew only Thomas who had worked at the near-by Ludborough, and Edward, who had been in charge of the Railway coal-yard at Mumby. Albert, son of Frederick of Louth, was able to give further information about Henry and Thomas, and much more about his aunt Eliza Elsom.

The family fortunes, as far as has been discovered so far, were much the same in all cases. The children of John VII started at rock bottom, knowing nothing of the more affluent yeomen from whom they were descended and having nothing but the quality of their stock to help them. Thomas became a foreman platelayer; Edward a foreman and Methodist local preacher; Eliza helped her husband to raise the size and scope of the ropemaking business at Spalding, and Frederick, having served his time with them, set up his own business at Louth. The story of James has already been told.

Some search has already been made of the families of Edward and Frederick and the family trees will be found in the appendix. They show the same characteristics as the family of James - an inherent respectability and a refusal to accept the status of labourer, strong religious convictions influencing life and character, good sense combined with more than average ability and sturdy independence, with neither servile truckling to authority nor doctrinaire opposition to it. Perhaps the greatest in stature of John's descendents is Albert West, honoured both in this country and in India as the first European friend of Gandhi.

Others of the family have gained academic honours or have reached positions of responsibility and authority. There can be no doubt that the qualities which have enabled them to do so were present in their fathers, but unfortunately, they lived in times when opportunities for the landless labourer were either severely limited or completely lacking.

William Frederick

William Frederick West was the eleventh of the fifteen children born to James and Harriet West at Kirton Fen, Swineshead, on 9th March, 1870. While he was still a child, James made the move to Covenham, and in due time Frederick attended the National School which still stands about a mile away on the road leading to the Louth - Grimsby Road, for it was erected to serve five villages. His was the normal education of the time, with its annual examination in the Three Rs. But he was a ready learner and a reasonable scholar and he had pleasant memories of his schooldays. He was, of course, familiar with the ways of the farm and of the careers of his elder brothers. He expected nothing different from leaving school at the age of 13, spending a year at home as a waggoner's lad, and then, at each May Fair, being engaged at either the same or a different farm. In turn he worked at Utterby, Fobherby, Ormsby (as 4th waggoner) and finally Grainthorpe (as 2nd) before returning home also as 2nd man. He was now some 20 years of age, earning £13 a year in addition to his food and lodging. Hiring time was at the May Fair, and normally a man did not see any of his wages until the end of the year, though by the turn of the century it was becoming the practice to pay part but never more than a third, at Michaelmas. The waggoner rose at 4 a.m. and after tending to his horses, came in for breakfast at about 5.30 to 6 a.m. He then worked on until dinner time at about 2.30, after which he worked on until he returned after bedding down his horses, for supper at 7.30 p.m. Normally, he went to bed soon afterwards. ho wonder that farmers were fond of saying to their men:

Early to bed and early to rise,

Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Frederick was reasonably healthy; wealthy he certainly was not, but he was wise enough to see that this kind of life held little prospect for the future. At about the age of 22 he decided to follow his elder brother James to Netherfield, Nottingham and seek his fortunes on the railway. James certainly found him a job - the roughest possible kind of labouring with the ballast and relaying gang. Frederick had not been delicately brought up, but this was the kind of work undertaken by the lowest and coarsest type of labourer. On a visit home at this time, Frederick confided in his brother Jonathan that but for what people would say about him, rather than stay at this work he would return to the land. However, the more intelligent of this gang were picked out from time to time for other kinds of work, and it was not long before Frederick was selected for a platelaying gang, where the work was less arduous, the task more interesting and the company less crude. The weekly wage as about 18/- to 19/- a week, but reasonable workman's lodgings coup be secured for about 12/ a week, and Frederick settled down to his new life. His brother, James, as a guard, was in a higher grade of railway service, and as his wife, Eliza, was very conscious of these distinctions, his visits became infrequent and Fred made friends of his own. One of these was Jack Ward, with whom he was in the habit of attending St. Paul's Church in the adjacent village of Carlton-in-the-Willows. It was there that he became acquainted with Mary Ann Whitt, two years his junior, to whom he became engaged and finally married on 24th December, 1895.

Mary Ann Whitt came of an old Nottingham silk-weaving family. Her father, Samuel, was the talented but improvident survivor of the hand-loom days and could still have prospered if he had put his mind to it, but he thought more of his hobbies than his work, and more of the company of the ale-house than either, and it took Elizabeth, his wife, all her scraping and contriving to keep her family of six daughters and a son fed and clothed. The domestic system was still in full swing and from childhood Mary Ann and her sisters had spent weary hours at night at 'chevening', which is hand-working the silk decorations on socks and stockings. It was tedious and ill-paid work, but Elizabeth was driven to it by the care-free ways of her husband. These were also the days of the "half-timer", and Mary Ann and all her sisters from the age of 11 were engaged at Bourne's factory at Netherfield, starting as doffers and working their way up the scale as they acquired skill. They left school finally at the age of 12 or 13 and normally spent the rest of their lives until they were married, working at this mill from 6 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. for a few shillings a week. This was the basis of Victorian prosperity.

Carlton is an old village, though even by the end of the 19th century it had outgrown its little cluster of houses on Main Street on Carlton Hill. Netherfield was entirely the creation of the railway age on the flat, swampy ground alongside the Trent over the hill away from Nottingham. It was the nearest convenient place for the construction of engine sheds and shunting yards, and a series of speculative builders had met the needs of the workers by providing a village which still lacks plan or centre. Here it was, as near to his work as possible, that Frederick and his bride set up the matrimonial home. It was decided that Mary Ann should continue at work until the arrival of children so that the home should be furnished. There is no doubt about Frederick's passionate love for his wife, which continued throughout his life; but James, the cautious father had his doubts. Mary Ann looked anything but healthy with her pale face, deep set eyes, hungry looking figure and stooping shoulders. He remarked to Jonathan after one of their visits that he liked Mary Ann well enough, but that he was afraid that it would not be long before Fred was a widower. She lived to the age of 86, surviving her husband by 32 years.