I am in Kent, in the southeast of England. There are two villages and one town I’m here to see. All three places are related to the story of my Heather/ Eather ancestors, my paternal grandmother’s forebears, who lived in this little corner of England from the 1600’s.
Robert Heather and his wife Mary moved to the village of Chislehurst in about 1640. Together they had a daughter and five sons; each successive generation naming their eldest son Robert. For over twelve decades the Heathers were baptised, married and buried at St Nicholas’ church in the village.
Today that church stands sturdily, overlooking the expansive Chislehurst Common, a swathe of green within the suburban landscape of southeast London that has overlaid the village of yesteryear. The Common is threaded with quiet walking paths through stands of spreading oaks. Squirrels scamper up trees as I pass, a spring chorus of birds follows me through this timeless place.
A strange circular depression in the grass is a puzzle – a former pond? A bomb crater from the war? – until I see a small plaque labelling it as ‘Chislehurst Cockpit’. I have an awful feeling that I know what this was.
Later, I google it and my suspicion is confirmed – it is a leftover from the days when village pastimes were bloodier and more violent than today’s football or cricket matches. Cockfighting, single stick fighting and other such entertainments were pursued there until banned by more squeamish authorities in Victorian times.
Now to the church. St Nicholas has stood since the 15th century, though the site has seen worship for over a thousand years. The Norman font is still in use today: all those Heather babies baptised with water from its stone basin. When I look closer, I notice a very sweet modern addition: a garland of knitted babies’ booties and tiny socks around its base.
I stand at the altar, where I imagine successive Robert Heathers and their brides reciting their wedding vows. Were their eyes fixed on the embroidered tapestry or intricate carving behind the Reverend? Unable to read, they may have enjoyed the storytelling in these artworks.
The Heathers were not wealthy, too poor to have afforded a stone monument to mark the life and death of one of their number. Many Heather bones lie beneath the soil in the churchyard; if they once had a simple wooden cross to mark their places, they have long since rotted away. But the earth here has been enriched by the blood and bone of generations of the Heathers.
In Maidstone, I want to find the place where one of the Heather sons, Thomas, was tried, sentenced and imprisoned in 1788. I have researched the town’s history and learnt that the Court House and Gaol were once in what today is the Town Hall.
When I get there, I am disappointed to find the doors firmly closed and locked. This I had not anticipated. Then I notice a small old-fashioned doorbell with a sign above it that reads ‘Please ring.’ Should I? I decide that yes, I should: I am here for this one day; my only chance to see where these events played out. So I press the button. Nothing happens.
I swallow my disappointment and am about to turn away, when I notice a more modern-looking button. I press it. Long moments pass, before a young man pops his head around the door.
Quickly I say, ‘I’m from Australia, and an ancestor of mine was tried and imprisoned here. I was hoping to see the place where this happened.’
He hesitates, then smiles. ‘I was just about to do the fire drill, but I’ve got a few minutes. Come on in.’
Scarcely believing my luck, I follow him inside and up a flight of stairs to a large room where, he tells me, the local council meetings now take place. High on the wall at one end of the room is a plaque with the insignia of British justice, and the young man, whose name is Russell, tells me that it was here that judges meted out punishment to those who, like Thomas, had broken the law.
I can imagine it: Thomas in the dock, the bewigged judge stern-faced on a high bench above him. Thomas’ crime had not been a trivial one: he was accused of ‘Highway Robbery’, having stolen goods from a man on a road while brandishing a weapon – a hoe? A pick? Or even a musket or pistol? The place where this happened was very possibly a road near the same Chislehurst Common I recently walked across.
Whether he knew it or not, this was one of the many offences that attracted the Death penalty. Thomas would hang.
He was taken to a cell, which is where Russell and I now go. Up a flight of narrow stairs, through a heavy door with a small square peephole cut into its thickness. What was once a gaol cell is now an empty room. In places, letters and dates have been carved into the the bare walls and floor – this is Georgian-era graffiti by educated prisoners who could write.
I ask Russell how many prisoners would be accommodated in this room.
‘Up to sixty, at times,’ he tells me. ‘Men, women and children.’
Fortunately for Thomas (and his descendants) he did not hang. His death sentence was commuted to a term of transportation: fourteen years across the seas in the new penal colony of New South Wales. He spent a total of two years in that cell in Maidstone, before being transferred to one of the prison hulks on the Thames in London.
Then in 1789 he was on board the prison ship Neptune, bound for Sydney. He survived that voyage on the worst ship of the worst convict fleet to leave Britain – but that is a whole other story.
For now, I am grateful that he made it to Australia, and that I pressed that bell at the Maidstone Town Hall in order to see where these life changing events took place.
PS. If you are wondering how Thomas Heather became Thomas Eather, imagine this: You have just been disembarked at Sydney after a hellish voyage, and a pasty-faced clerk demands your name, quill poised over a ledger book. In your Kentish accent, you reply ‘Thomas Heather’, dropping the ‘h’ as you always do. What the clerk hears and records is ‘Thomas Eather.’ And so the Australian Eather family has his origins in a dropped ‘aitch.’
This is the fourth in the ‘Travels with My Ancestors’ series. You may like to read the first in the series to provide context – you can find it here.
My little travel party drive out of Bath, Somerset’s – and arguably England’s – most beautiful city. The gracious buildings of smooth Bath stone carry echoes of Georgian prosperity and indulgence, while the Roman baths and statues and the soaring Abbey remind us that people have worshipped and socialised here for more than a millennia.
Now we venture into the unknown – rural Somerset. My father’s forebears hailed from a cluster of small villages that circle the Quantock Hills in the northwest of the county. As we leave the busyness of Bath behind us, the landscape changes almost immediately, from crowded streets and town houses to lush, green farmland blanketing gentle slopes. Black faced sheep and spring lambs are dotted across the fields, their woolly bodies a contrast beside the vivid yellow of canola crops.
The Somerset Newtons were not people of means. Most worked as labourers on the many farms of the district, though there were occasional tradesmen such as butcher or carpenter, skilled trades in demand everywhere. Farms and farming have changed and grown since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the soil the Newton men and women tilled and the animals they tended, are much the same today.
The villages connected with the Newtons and the families they married into have almost unbearably quaint names: Crowcombe, Combe Florey, Nether Stowey, Bradford on Tone, Dunster. From Australia I have been searching out these names on Google Maps, drilling down to Street view on Google Earth to glimpse the places the Newtons called home. I was delighted when thatched cottages, green fields and timbered woodlands appeared on my screen: many of these places were still small rural settlements; the years had not transformed them or carved multi-lane highways through their hearts.
Now, I am here in person, for real, to see and smell and hear these places I’d been learning and writing and dreaming about for the past three years.
I am excited, of course. Mixed in with that is a hard to define emotion. A sense of arriving at a place that some part of me recognised. Despite all my research, Googling and map reading, I had not really known what to expect. A backwater, left forlorn as other parts of the county progressed into the modern age? Tattered villages populated by elderly folk suspicious of ‘outsiders’?
Instead, what I find are stunning landscapes and well-preserved towns and hamlets. The pleasure and relief I feel is almost overwhelming, and surprising. I feel connected with this country in a visceral, unexpected way.
This is the West Country, the land of origin of my father’s people, and I am loving what I see.
Of all the villages, the one in which I will leave a little piece of my heart is Crowcombe. Here I visit the wonderfully named Church of the Holy Ghost, where I stand at the baptismal font where generations of Newton babies were welcomed into the community of the then Church of England, back to at least 1630.
Like pretty much all of the village and parish churches I’ve gazed at on this visit, the Norman era tower is very tall and square. Sometimes they look more suited to top a castle than a place of worship. Inside, though, it’s a different story.
This particular church is famous for its mediaeval intricately carved bench ends: the wooden partitions at the end of each pew. They break the mould of church decorative art, depicting among the Christian symbols an array of folk tales and pagan imagery. The most imaginative ones, in my opinion, are those that tell of the battle between two men and a giant and fearsome ‘Gurt worm’, a kind of dragon, which they cleave in two. The divided creature went on to form two local hills. As I snap photos of these vivid carvings, I imagine young Newton children endeavouring to sit still during Sunday service, being transported out of the church into a world of legends from Somerset’s past.
The Crowcombe pub, the Carew Arms, has been the village meeting and drinking place since the 1500’s, when it was known as the Lion, then the Three Lions. Many Newtons would have enjoyed an ale or a local Somerset cider there. Today the pub shows its venerable age: the flagged floor, low heavy beams along the ceiling, and the stables (the stalls now cleverly converted to booths.)
There remains a sense of community and connection in the village. The Carew family have lived in the manor house for centuries, and continue their time-honoured role of support for community projects and events. In the village I spot a lovely mural of tiles, a Covid lockdown initiative, in which residents were invited to decorate a tile. It now hangs proudly on the wall of the pub.
It is Coronation weekend when we visit (the May 2023 Coronation of King Charles III) and Crowcombe, along with most of the villages and towns we pass through, is celebrating with a village BYO picnic in the field of one resident. I’m an avowed Republican but I am moved at the level of community connection this event has inspired.
Coincidence? Or a new family mystery to investigate
In Nether Stowey’s Church of St Mary, my husband spots a plaque on the wall commemorating three members of the Buller family. Husband Robert Beadon Buller and his wife Ann, both of whom died and were buried in the churchyard in 1841. Their son, also Robert Beadon Buller, was also remembered there after his death in 1880.
Martha Buller married a Newton man in that church in 1798. Were the Buller family members on the plaque related to Martha? Looking at the birth and death dates, it seems possible that Martha and the elder Robert were siblings, cousins, or some other close family relationship.
The intriguing thing is that ‘Beadon’, the Buller father and son’s middle name, is a name that appears several times in the Newton family tree. I have always assumed that it was a Newton family tradition – but is it possible it came from the Buller family, brought with Martha to the Newton line when she married? If Robert Beadon turns out to be her relative, that theory might well hold water.
That same day, a Crowcombe local suggests we look at a house in the village Main Street, which has ‘Beadon’ on a name plate on its front fence. Then I turn around and – directly opposite – there is a house with the name Newton Cottage on its gate. A coincidence? The tingle in my fingers and toes suggests not. I learn that Newton Cottage was built in the 1870’s – after my Newtons had emigrated to Australia – but surely the people who built and lived in that cottage were part of the larger Newton clan in and around the village. And surely, Beadon could be connected somehow.
For now, I don’t know, but it’s a theory I will be exploring once I am back home in Australia. The tingling fingers and toes can’t be wrong. Or perhaps I will uncover some other previously unknown connection or branch of the family tree.
As we leave Somerset, I feel an invisible skein unravelling behind me, connecting me to this West Country, the land from where the Australian Newtons came, one hundred and eighty years ago. I take with me that connection, surprising but so very welcome, and I hope I will return one day.
All photos by the author
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