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Biography of William Percival (1829-1889)

We’re indebted to John Priestley who has submitted this interesting piece about a resident of Chappel from the 19th Century.  If you have something similar in your family history, we’d love to know…

William Percival (1829-1889)

William Percival was my great-great grandfather. He lived in Chappel in the Victorian era. He and his family were farm labourers, just a few of the many dozen men who cared for our beautiful village landscape in those days. He and his like never feature in definitive history books, which name only the prominent villagers of the day, but his story is nevertheless part of the overall village history, and tells us something of the way of life of ordinary working families in those times.

William was born in Great Tey in 1829, the first child of James Percival and his wife Elizabeth Cream. James was part of a large family. He had brothers living in Coggeshall, Stanway and Tolleshunt D’Arcy, and sisters in Coggeshall, White Colne and Chappel, and, in particular, a younger brother, Moses Percival, who also lived in Great Tey. Both James and Moses were farm labourers, as were their sons and many of their later descendants, but some descendants of Moses were destined to become farmers in their own right. George Percival; of Pattocks Farm, and Joe Percival, of Lane Farm, Wakes Colne, who do feature in the history books, were both descendants of Moses. It appears that Elizabeth Cream, William’’s mother, was not a local girl. It is believed that she came originally from Stoke by Nayland.

By 1839 James and Elizabeth had increased their family to five children, William, Mary Ann, Susanna, James (the younger) and Moses, who was no doubt named after his uncle. Then, in 1840, Elizabeth died, aged just 32. James never re-married. His widowed mother, Susannah, who also lived in Great Tey, probably played a role in the bringing up of the children.

Records of the National School at Great Tey still survive. The four youngest children are all recorded as attending school, but there is no record of William. Education was not compulsory then, and it seems that William was among those of his generation who never saw the inside of a classroom. He may not have been familiar with “the three R’s”, but as the oldest child in a family without a mother, it seems likely that he would have grown up accustomed to taking responsibilities beyond his years.

The 1851 census shows them all living in Lamberts Road, and it seems likely that they were working at Lamberts Farm. William was, by then, a recently married man with a newly arrived daughter. He had married Eliza Willsher in 1850. She was a Great Tey girl, one of the ten children of James and Ann Willsher. James Willsher was also a farm labourer.

By the time the next census was taken, in 1861, James’s four other children had also all married. James and his three sons William, James (the younger) and Moses and their families had now all left Great Tey, and moved to Chappel, and so had his daughter Mary Ann, with her husband, John Herman. His other daughter, Susanna, lived in Earls Colne.

Somewhere hereabouts, William went to work at Oak Farm, Chappel, where he was destined to remain for the rest of his life. The other family menfolk may well have worked there too. Oak Farm belonged to Golden Goodey, a prominent landowner in the village. It may not have been simply coincidence that Golden Goodey’s wife was Mary Ann Elizabeth Willsher, who just happened to be the oldest sister of William’’s wife, Eliza Willsher. It appears that Mrs Goodey may well have used a little influence to ensure that Eliza, her sister, had a secure roof over her head!

And a secure roof it proved to be, for some time afterwards William and Eliza and their children moved into Oak Farmhouse itself, probably meaning that William was now regarded as head labourer. Oak Farmhouse, now demolished, and replaced by a modern house, was actually quite a small property, more akin to a cottage than a farmer’s residence. Golden Goodey had lived there in his younger day, but his growing prosperity had taken him to Broom House, down by the Colne. In those days, if the farm owner did not require the farmhouse for his own use, it was often made available for his head labourer.

Life seemed to be going well for William and Eliza at the beginning of the 1860’s. They had arrived in Chappel to a job with a family connection, perhaps making it more secure than many, and may well have already had a promise that they would soon be living in the farmhouse itself. During the 1850’s their family had grown to four children, and a fifth was born soon after census day, 1861.

Soon afterwards, however, they were overwhelmed by major tragedy. In the space of five short months, between December 1862 and May 1863, three of their five children died, of scarlet fever. The deceased children were Margaretta, aged 13, Elizabeth Ann, 9, and Shadrack, 5. The two survivors were Emily, aged 10, and their youngest child Rosanna, still virtually a babe in arms, both of whom may well have had very narrow escapes. In those days the child mortality rate was high, with many families of any size likely to lose at least one child, but three children, within only five months, was something exceptional.

If it is possible to find any crumb of comfort from such a devastating tragedy it is, perhaps, that both William and Eliza were part of large families, living in close proximity, who no doubt offered as much support as they could. William and Eliza did manage to rebuild their own family, inasmuch as two sons, William (the younger) and Shadrack, named after the son they had lost, and a daughter, Ellen, who proved to be their final child, were born to them by the end of the decade, and by 1870 they thus again had a family of five living children.

The 1871 census shows that they had by then taken occupation of Oak Farmhouse. Emily, their oldest surviving daughter, had left home, and was in domestic service at Windells, Great Tey.

It would appear that their children probably had to take long walks to and from school. The village school in Chappel was not built until 1871, meaning that Chappel children probably attended school in Great Tey until the one in their own village finally became available.

Mercifully, William and Eliza were spared any further infant deaths, and their five living children were all destined to grow up, and marry. Elsewhere in the family, however, tragedy took its toll. William’’s brother James (the younger) lost his wife, Anna Green, when she was only 29, leaving him with four children to bring up. A fifth child had died in infancy. One of the survivors died later, when still in his teens. William’’s other brother, Moses, and his wife, Jemima Everitt, who had no less than 12 children in all, also lost a son in infancy. In those days, many of the other families living in the village also suffered similar bereavements.

By the 1870’s, the country as a whole had lurched through various periods of depression, hitting the farming industry at least as hard as any other. Young people from the countryside were heading for towns and cities in droves in search of something better. Older people too, for William’’s sister Susanna, after 18 years of married life in Earls Colne, found herself accompanying her husband and her seven children all the way to a township in County Durham where her husband, William Crabb, obtained employment as a coal miner. It seems likely that William never saw his sister again after she had moved.

The 1881 census shows William and Eliza at Oak Farm along with their children Rosanna, Shadrack and Ellen. Daughter Emily was now in Clacton, where she was housekeeper in a boys’ boarding school. William (the younger), aged just 17, had left home and gone to London. He later joined the Metropolitan Police.

Four of the five children married between 1883 and 1889. Emily married a bookshop owner in Clacton, who later became Clacton Postmaster. Rosanna married a man who also came from Clacton, who was living in Chappel and working on the railway. Shadrack married a girl from Gestingthorpe. They went to live in Clacton, where he worked as a postman. It can hardly have been coincidence that his sister Emily already lived there, and was married to the postmaster. Family connections were important in those days! William (the younger) married in London, although his wife was also a country girl, who had come fromShropshire.

So, by 1889, William had just turned 60. Life had not been easy in the years of depression, but he now had only one child still living at home, who would probably be leaving fairly soon. He had already met his first grandchild, and was no doubt confidently looking forward to the arrival of others and, perhaps, the prospect of retirement not too far ahead. Sadly, it was never to happen, for tragedy was again destined to strike. One day in September 1889, he was helping to build a stack of clover hay, standing on the top of the stack and unloading hay from a wagon alongside. Suddenly, he fell over the side, very unluckily landing on the wagon shaft, rather than anything softer. He suffered a fractured spine, inevitably fatal in those days, and he died within 48 hours.

The Inquest heard that he had been suffering from dizzy spells of late, which is probably why he fell. Ironically, the accident was not at Oak Farm, but at Oldhouse Farm, Wakes Colne, up by the railway station, where he had been helping another farmer gather his harvest, as was customary in those days.

William’’s death brought his own family’’s association with Chappel to an abrupt and premature end.  Eliza then had to leave the farmhouse, of course, and she and Ellen moved in with daughter Rosanna, who was then living in Chelmsford. However, William’’s brothers, James (the younger) and Moses, and his sister Mary Ann all lived out the rest of their lives in Chappel, as did many of their descendants in the years that followed, and there are still descendants in the area today.

James Percival, William’’s father, outlived William. He was over 90 when he died in 1892. He also came very close to outliving his grandson, William (the younger) as well. William (the younger), who was my great-grandfather, was destined to have only a very short career in the Metropolitan Police. He suffered a serious assault whilst on duty, blinding him in one eye, and the family belief has always been that this was a factor in his subsequent early death. He died in 1892, aged 28, just a few weeks after the death of his grandfather, James, leaving a widow and two small children. Eliza, his mother, had to endure the grief of burying one of her own children for the fourth time in her life. Eliza herself died not long afterwards, in 1894, aged 68.

William’’s other children all enjoyed reasonably long lives. His children produced ten grandchildren in all, comprising seven grandsons and three granddaughters. William only met the oldest of the granddaughters. He would perhaps have been interested to know that his grandsons included two Essex policemen, a solicitor’s clerk, an engineer, and a Suffolk postmaster, while another of them gave his life in the First World War. Not bad for a man who never went to school, probably very rarely left his village, and who probably had very little to do with anything beyond caring for our beautiful village landscape!

When we study the surviving records of our ancestors, and see how often their lives were blighted by premature deaths, it is easy to overlook that they would have enjoyed some happy times, too. One such occasion might have been Christmas Day, 1860, when William’’s younger brother, Moses, married Jemima Everitt at St Barnabas, Chappel. Christmas Day weddings were quite popular in those days. We can easily imagine a sizeable gathering of family and friends, enjoying both the wedding and the spirit of Christmas. Furthermore, historical weather records show that temperatures were low, and there may well have been snow on the ground, providing a classic picture postcard scene!

Many of William’’s present day descendants know about his days in Chappel, and some have visited the village.

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