Monday, August 18, 2014

Upper Slaughter’s squire

Francis Edward Witts, rector and squire of Upper Slaughter, in the Cotswolds, died 160 years ago today. Though not an especially remarkable character, he kept a diary for much of his life in which he recorded many details about the natural world, people he met, the fast-changing society around him, and his own life. When it was first published in the 1970s, the publisher claimed it shed ‘new light on a fascinating period of social history’.

Witts was born in 1783, in Cheltenham, the eldest son of the high sheriff of Oxfordshire. His parents moved to Edinburgh in 1795; and between 1798 and 1800, the family spent their winters at the court of the grand duke of Saxe-Weimar, where Witts attended a school for foreign students. After returning to England, he studied at Wadham College, Oxford, and was ordained deacon in 1806 and priest in 1807. The following year, he married Margaret Backhouse, and they had one child.

Witts was rector of Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire, from 1808 until his death, and was vicar of Stanway, about 10 miles away, from 1814 to 1854. He was also squire of Upper Slaughter, and became a long-serving justice of the peace. In 1852, he was appointed deputy lieutenant of Gloucestershire. He died on 18 August 1854. There is a little further biographical information available at the The Oxford Times, or, indeed, through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (although this requires a library card log-in or a fee). The manor house he occupied is now a hotel called Lords of the Manor.

Most biographical information about Witts comes from his diaries, and it is unlikely he would be remembered but for those. He left some 90 notebooks which were first edited by David Verey and published in 1978 by Alan Sutton as The Diary of a Cotswold Parson. Verey acquired access to the notebooks through Francis Witts, a great-great-grandson of the diarist. In 2008, Amberley began publishing a fuller edition - The Complete Diary of a Cotswold Parson - as edited by Sutton, owner, at the time, of Amberley. Some eight volumes of the edition have been published to date (I believe - I can’t find any evidence of volumes 9 and 10 being for sale, new or secondhand), each one a hefty tome, and having a hefty price.

Verey writes in his introduction to the original edition: ‘. . . Maybe [Witts] confided his daily activities to his diary rather than to his wife. It must have occupied quite a considerable time in his busy life, as he wrote at unnecessary length to our way of thinking. To make every point twice may be good practice in a sermon, but not in a diary. In making my extracts therefore I have had to reduce his verbosity - though not I hope his wit - for the sake of our readers. I have also endeavoured to use only those passages which illuminate the history of the city and county of Gloucester, paying special attention to the people Witts met, for they were the breath of life and Witts was a social being. Particulars of his day-to-day work, which take up the greater par of what he wrote, have, therefore, to some extent been excluded from these pages, owing to a certain dryness and greater suitability for the serious social historian, as have also the descriptions of his travels in other parts of England which do not have any direct application to Gloucestershire.’

The ONDB provides a useful idea of the diary’s contents: ‘[It] exhibits his full participation in local social and cultural life. Witts enjoyed dining out, and travelled in all weathers and by every means of conveyance - horse, phaeton, carriage, stagecoach, and steam train. He recorded new roads, buildings, and the spread of towns. Witts and his son both became keen botanists and conservationists, and he also helped organise the musical life of Cheltenham and Gloucester, attending many concerts. Quietly religious, Witts disapproved of hunting parsons and was generous to his parishioners. He records that he relied upon ‘three checks to the frailty of our nature; self-examination, prayer and professional study’.’

3 January 1820
‘Left Upper Slaughter for Bath in the hope that another course of the waters may essentially strengthen my dear wife’s constitution. Having sent forward my manservant and horse we travelled post with Edward and a maid. The weather very cold, frost and snow; more of the latter between home and Cirencester and between Petty France and Bath, than between Cirencester and Petty France. The road very slippery and though a horse fell in the chaise in the streets of Tetbury, we providentially escaped any accident.’

27 April 1821
‘The overseer of Halling brought up two gipsies, casual poor in their parish in order to their being examined to their settlement. Merach Lock the husband swore that he was born under an oak on Halling down as he had heard from his mother, being an illegitimate child and knowing nothing of his father; also that he was recently married to his wife Mary which whom he had cohabited twenty years, having by her six children. It seems that the Parish of Halling has little or no chance of proving him settled elsewhere. On examining the woman, she swore all the children to be Merach Lock’s - Lucas and Adam being born like their father in the Paris of Halling - Eve at Cold Ashton - Sarah at Brimpsfield - Temperance at Hawkesbury - Joanna at Cranham. The law was strictly interpreted and removal orders were made in respect of the last four children, sending them to their respective birth places.’

5 September 1826
‘The Stratford and Moreton railway was opened this day for the conveyance of goods from the former to the latter place, and a vast concourse of persons assembled at Moreton-in-Marsh. The market of this town, disused for a very long period, has on this occasion been revived with great spirit and will in some respects be injurious to the market at Stow-on-the-Wold. At an early hour in the evening all the provisions of the town were exhausted, the roasted ox demolished and neither bread nor beer to be had for love or money. The committee preceded the coal waggons with a band of music, and all was joyous. Behind the scenes, however, the proprietors have reason to mourn over mismanagement, exhausted means, and scant hopes even of distant remuneration; but the public will doubt be considerable gainers.’

29 September 1826
‘They say the march of intellect is wonderful these days. Men navigate by steam, tram carts travel by steam; but this is nothing to the present fashion of travelling by paper kites. To-day we witnessed the experiment made at Gloucester. For some days I had noticed two large paper kites hovering over the town. They were hoisted by a school master who amused himself with mechanical pursuits, letting off balloons etc. The wind being westerly, was favourable for an excursion to Cheltenham so he orders out his gig, or rather I think it was a four wheeled chair, attaches it to two paper kites, mounts with two or three companies and away they go, not very rapidly, not at a very regular pace, but progressing.’

2 April 1826
‘We walked to Over Bridge to view the site of the new bridge over the Severn, building under the direction of Mr. Telford, by the County. The work is in progress; many labourers, excavators, etc. were employed. On one side the masonry of an abutment is in a forward state, on the other they are driving the piles. There were collected great heaps of fine stone ready squared in large blocks, of different sorts, for the foundation and superstructure. A steam engine was erecting, and several cranes were in operation, lifting masses of stone from the barges in which they were conveyed.’

The Diary Junction

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