My grandfather Frank Elliott Birks left two notebooks, one of which included two brief memoirs written by his mother, my great-grandmother Jane Elliott Stephens (later Birks).
She was born in Plymouth in 1860; her father was John Stevens who was born Kent in 1794 and her mother was Mary Elliott born in Devon in 1830. (There is an other, unrelated Elliott family from Derbyshire in the genealogy of the Birks). Her father had been previously married to Ann Dodd who was a few years older than him and distantly related to his second wife. He married his second wife in 1858. Jane was their only child and her father had no children from his first marriage.
Jane married William Birks in 1878; he was almost twenty years her senior and already established as a Unitarian Minister. He was the son of another Unitarian Minister, William Birks of Flagg (1805-1867) and had two brothers, both notable Unitarian Ministers, Richard Elliott Birks and John Birks. Jane’s grand-daughter, recalls that her grandmother told her that her parents had been quite old and, although fond of her, her childhood had been quiet and lonely; because of this she had wanted to marry and have a large family. She was to have a family of nine surviving children and a marriage to a Unitarian Minister who moved around the country serving congregations from Devon to Aberdeen. Her life was not an easy one, and two of her children predeceased her. She died in 1937 and is buried in the non-conformist section of Fareham cemetery; her husband and her son Ernest and Rosa his wife are all buried in the same cemetery.
Her memoirs are handwritten and probably date from the 1930s. They are both in the family history papers collected by her son Frank Elliott Birks. These are her words and her memories have survived. The first is about her husband and her picture of a difficult, unsettled life with a man who was clearly rather unworldly; but it also emphasises her love of her family.
Rev William Birks (1843-1921)
“When the Rev. Wm Birks of Flagg was very ill, he called his son Wm. to his bedside and said ‘You must do my duty’ and though at first he said he could not he was persuaded and coached into reading a sermon. Everybody was very sympathetic and encouraged him, so he carried on until his father’s death and for some little time after, although he was then only turned 17. His elder brother John was at College, where he managed to get in, and at the end of his training was sent to Hastings to conduct services in a large room. The new chapel there was built during his ministry, Sir John Browning (?) helping him a good deal.
After two years at Hastings he tired of the place, and it was also too relaxing for his mother, who lived there with him, and he came and preached a Topsham, then a vacant place, was liked and received an invitation to become minister. There were 2 chapels, Topsham which had an afternoon Sunday School and an evening service, and Gulliford trainstop on the way to Exmouth. Miss Lee of Elford Barton and Genl. Lee her brother attended regularly in their carriage and were the chief supporters. He remained at Topsham a little over 2 years then left and went to Gloucester, Barton Street Chapel between 4 and 5 years. His brother Richard, having managed somehow to get some college preparation for the Ministry in America, followed him to Topsham, Whilst at Gloucester Wm. visited Topsham every year and in 1878 we were married at Guilford Chapel by his brother John. We went to live at Stannington near Sheffield. The chapel he took for one year, but it was too countrified (?) for him to stay longer, although the whole congregation begged him to do so; we were the first to occupy the Underbank Parsonage.
At Xmas we moved to Wolverhampton where we lived at no.1 Goldthorne Terrace, Penn Rd; the ground in front was a large open field at that time and a lovely view across about 20 miles of country with the Wrekin as background. We must have been there about 3 years, during which time he raised about £120 for a new organ. The chapel was then on Snowhill but has since been removed.
I have forgotten to mention Kendal where he went after Gloucester, a very old place. His mother was still with him – she was then about 70 but wished to settle for a time at Ashover, and it was for her sake that he bought ‘The Grove’ and adopted the first house for her needs. Kendal was the last of his bachelor live and I know very little of it, but is likeness is in the vestry as a previous minister of that Chapel.
From Wolverhampton we moved to Stroud in Gloucestershire. It was a very pretty chapel and a rather select congregation. It was a very pretty neighbourhood and my uncle said when he came to see us ‘I should think Mr Birks will stay here’. However, it was too quiet and he was eager for a large town again, and Portsmouth becoming vacant he came a preacher one Sunday and got it, so with Hilda (the 3rd child) a small baby about 6 months old we were off again. There was an official present and many personal gifts for us both.
After that then came High Street, Portsmouth, the oldest non-conformist chapel in the city and at one time a fashionable chapel we have been told, with many carriages drawn up outside. John Pounds the old cobbler whose name was a household word on account of his philanthropic spirit was a member. The Rev. Henry Hawkes, who when we knew him was minister emeritus and a great friend of ours, used to tell us a lot about him; indeed he wrote a book of his life which I had. When we were at High Street there was a good congregation, 2 large school rooms, 1 for boys and 1 for girls, a library of nearly 3,00 books, evening lectures during the winter, a sewing circle, an endowment of £20 a year for the poor sick people, a paid organist, and altogether plenty to do. Mr Fraser (Fraser and White Coal Merchants) was a liberal supporter through his wife was a staunch church-woman and attended Vicar Grant’s services at that time in the cathedral, she came regularly to our chapel with her husband every Sunday morning. At W Fraser’s death many years after we had left Portsmouth, the family asked the Rev William Birks to officiate at the funeral service which he did. The Governor of the Workhouse W……. and family attended the chapel regularly also and though at the time we were living in Diss they wrote and asked him to come to Portsmouth to bury him, which he did and on his return he told me he had never seen such a service with such numbers attending. He was very proud of these last wishes of old friends. After 5 years at Portsmouth we went to Banbury.
At Banbury the chapel is directly opposite the Parish Church; a pretty chapel lying back in its own grounds with ornamental gates in front. The congregation were middle working class. It was here that Ernest developed severe abscesses and we found that many families suffered in that way. but they became frequent and we had the advice of 3 different doctors we were far from satisfied and at last consulted a very clever doctor we were advised to see. He said ‘You must take him away from here or the trouble will be serious.’ so off we wrote to Scarborough and Sunderland as both were vacant. He preached at Scarborough but found they had appointed a minister the previous Sunday. Soon after he went to Sunderland and was appointed there. At the farewell service at Banbury the Secretary after the benediction walked quickly to the altar rails and asked all to remain in their places. He then made a short speech asking the Rev. William Birks to consider if he would return at the end of a year provided it was safe to bring the child back. However, we would not entertain this idea, so with the youngest child 6 months old and 4 other children we were on the move again.
We had very little salary in Sunderland but many good friends, especially a Mrs Bunnup (?) whose house was my children’s second home and Mr Rutherford, the Sunderland editor of The Newcastle Daily Leader and his wife. I was very happy among them, but the pay being really insufficient William managed to get Aberdeen in about 2 years time so much to my regret were again moved on. By this time Ernest was strong and full of life and I shall never forget when we moved into May Bank, our new home, his running to me with an armful of rope and shouting ‘Where shall I put this, mama, ready for when we move next time.’
In addition to several gifts we had testimonials from both Banbury and Sunderland but somehow William never would take care of these illuminated addresses and always said ‘oh don’t worry about them, they don’t matter.’
The Scotch people were not so easy to understand. They were very hard-headed. I well remember William preaching a sermon, the text was ‘Take no anxious thought for the morrows ect.’ and he was taken severely to task, their point being you must do so or go to the wall. This he did like and in many little ways there was friction so one day he announced he was going to give it up. ‘But’ I said ‘we have nowhere else in view.’ ‘I don’t care’ he said ‘I’ll soon get something.’ This greatly disturbed me, as there were o many little mouths to feed. His notice expired about 5 weeks after John was born and by the end of 6 weeks we were on the way to London 1st class passengers on the steam boat but not knowing what was before us, but with William’s usual hopefulness it was all rosy. However, he had just then to find it was not so and in London the supplying was not plentiful. He got as many supplies as it could but rail fare took a lot from the Sundays’ fee in many cases. Then began the selling of personal property – first Ashover which his brother John bought. Whilst living at Lee (London S.E.) we sent May to Channing House School as she wanted to be a nurse, but she had never been strong and was not really fit to leave home. Later she was very ill and the Dr gave her 18 months of life, she ‘wanted to go home’ (meaning Portsmouth) so we moved down to our property Wanstead Villa (Villiers Road). Then William bought some property in Clarendon Road and Gilbert was born there. At this time William was in York – a 6 months engagement and as soon as Gilbert was big enough for me to travel we followed him there. He was there on a 6 months engagement 4 times one after another, as a law suit was on. A lot of atheists got into the chapel and wanted to oust the Unitarians so they went to law and the trust deeds were so worded that was the only way a minister could be there. It was a difficult post and I felt sorry for him.
On leaving York we came back again to Portsmouth and lived on supply money. By this time Wanstead Villa was sold and our other property money until it was nearly all gone except a very few pounds.
Last of all we went to Diss where we spent nearly 12 years. Then came May’s death and 3 months in the London Hospital, my bad arm and after that the war and all its horrors and anxieties. Our chapel principal W. Taylor dead and no sympathy from Mrs Taylor. William’s breakdown, our removal to Bournemouth, no house to be got, our return to Ernest’s and our new home in Wickham Road, Fareham, 2 boys in France and not knowing from day to day what we might hear, and William partly helpless now with paralysis, Trissie (?) in London with Hilda in all the raids, Ernest at the Crystal Palace with the Air Force. At last came Peace from War, Williams’s death, and my ill-health – Hilda’s and Gilbert’s operations and finally the shock of Ernest’s passing on. Among it all the kindness shown me by my old friends and the many pleasures given me by my children and my friends, which I value highly, and helps me pass the time left to with you all. There have been so many of you and so many anxieties that I have not been able to do half I would have liked to do. This is just a sketch of the main things, much of which you can fill in yourself. My wish has always been to do what I could for you all. A difficult mission so can only ask you all think kindly of me as can and forgive any seeming neglect and be sure that it was not intentional.”
John Stevens (1794-1881)
Her second memoir is of her father, a self-made man born in Ightham, near Sevenoaks in 1784. His father was also John Stevens, probably from Ightham; his mother was Jane Jeshope; they married in Ightham in 1787. His energy and drive, along with a first marriage to an older, wealthy woman, appear to have allowed him to retire to Devon at the age of 37. His second wife was Mary Elliott, born in Devon in 1830, the daughter of John Elliot and Mary Noseworthy’ she died in Plymouth in 1889. It suggests something of a lonely childhood for a child with such an elderly and rather strict father. It also has a certain melancholy tone, especially when she remarks that her father really wanted a son.
My father John Stevens of Topsham was born in Seven Oaks in Kent. His father was a small farmer and had a family of nine children. When the ninth arrived John ran away from home with very little savings and just a change of clothes. His threw up his stick at the cross roads determined to go whichever way it point, which was to London. Near London he was hired for employment in a glass factory which he was passing, was successful and became a glass froster. While here he married Anne Dodd, 20 years his senior, but she had a few hundred pounds. On her instigation he took up a hotel type of public house somewhere in Westminster, which he ultimately sold for £1500. He was entirely self-educated but was businesslike and very successful on the Stock Exchange, but being threatened with consumption was advised to leave London, and accordingly retired to Topsham before he was 37. It is said that the wife was a Devon woman, in some way related to my great grandfather’s second wife. He lived to be 83 and never did any work in Topsham. He bought some property in Chapter Street with a nice garden and devoted himself to gardening, but being an energetic churchman he was made a churchwarden, also took part in other public offices connected with the parish; ‘had his nose in everything’ my mother used to say. We had some funny skits of him discussing Parish affairs with other wardens etc. At last he got into loggerheads with the curate and a picture of him with his hair on end and the curate on a tar barrel rather upset him. About this time Mr Pollard a Trustee of the Unitarian Chapel invited him to hear Rev. Follet preach there. He was so extremely taken with the sermon that he enquired into the belief, got a lot of literature on the subject, and so agreed with it that he left the church and lived and died after that time (over thirty years) a staunch Unitarian. He became a trustee of the chapel and held that office up to his death. He was of a rather fiery temper and loved a joke even if against himself. He continued to take great interest in town affairs. He was received in good houses and could hold his own well.
He married a second time, Mary Elliott, 35 year years his junior, sister of W.N. Elliott, alderman of Plymouth. I was his only child and I believe he never forgave me for being a girl. I stood in great awe of him as he was a very severe though a very just man.
He once refused a house because the man who wanted to will it to him had a daughter whom he had fallen out with. My father told him that he would not have it; if his daughter had offended him her children had not, and he must leave it to them. Thy quarrelled over it but in the end my father had his way.
Upon his death in 1877 he left to me 4 small houses in Topsham. The income from this property was £40 per year, but the vicinity has since deteriorated. The property was sold by auction Jul 14 1904.
John and Mary Stevens are buried in the non-consecrated ground No.55 on plan, at the cemetery situate in the Parish of Topsham Devon.
A Note on Topsham
TOPSHAM, a parish, seaport, and market town in the hundred of Wonford, county Devon, 4 miles S.E. of Exeter, and 5 N. of Exmouth. It is a station on the Exmouth branch of the Great Western railway. It is situated on the left bank of the river Exe at its junction with the small river Clyst, here crossed by a bridge, and on the direct road from Exeter to Exmouth. It was anciently called Apsham, or Apsom, and was for many years the port of Exeter, which city purchased the mano perial rights of the Courtenays in 1778. Since the formation of the ship canal vessels can ascend to Exeter, and the shipping trade is now transferred to that city and to Exmouth. A good general business is still done in shipbuilding, rope making, the coasting trade, and shipping assurance clubs, which have lately been established. The quays, building yards, and bonding warehouses are principally the property of the town council of Exeter, and of Messrs. Holmans and Davys. The town consists chiefly of one street, extending about a mile along the bank of the Exe, and terminating in the strand at the lower end of the town. The streets. are paved and lighted with gas. The parish includes, besides the town of its own name, the chapelry of Countess Weir. The soil is fertile, resting on a subsoil of red gravel and sandstone. The principal residences are Wear House, the seat of Sir J. T. B. Duckworth, Bart., M.P., Grove Field House, the Retreat, and Newport House. The living is a perpetual curacy,* value £325, in the diocese of Exeter, and in the patronage of the dean and chapter. The church, dedicated to St. Margaret, is on a cliff near the centre of the town, and was enlarged in 1794; in the interior are two monuments, by Chantrey, of the Duckworths. The Independents, Reformed Wesleyans, Wesleyans, and Unitarians have chapels, and the two last schools attached. There are National schools, partly endowed, and also a good museum of local antiquities and fossils belonging to F. W. L. Ross, Esq., of Broadway House, Fore Street, open to the public on Mondays. The charities produce about £250 per annum. Saturday is market day. A fair for pedlery is held on the Thursday preceding the 19th of July.
The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)
Related names include Kingcombe, Perring, Birks, Elliott (as a separate Devonshire name), Noseworthy, Dodd, Jeshope and Else.