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lecture notes 2017-2018

The Ingenious Mr Elwick and the 18th Century Furnishing Trade in Wakefield
by Andrew Cox-Whitaker, furniture restorer and Regional Furniture Society researcher 
14th February 2018

Our annual joint meeting with the Civic Society in the Elizabethan Gallery was very well-attended. On this occasion a sound system was set up to ensure that everyone could hear comfortably; there were even ‘Question Time’ mikes for the audience queries at the end of the lecture. In her welcome Pam had the opportunity to congratulate Civic Society chair, Kevin Trickett, on the MBE he has been awarded in the New Year’s Honours list for his services both to Wakefield and the Civic Society movement regionally and nationally.

Our speaker was Andrew Cox-Whitaker who is a furniture restorer and conservator with a background in antique dealing and auctioneering. His work has brought him into contact with many of the country houses and museums in our region. A member of the Regional Furniture Society he has gradually become aware of the huge output of the eighteenth-century firm of Wright and Elwick and has for some time been reassessing their significance. Surprisingly little has been written about their furniture produced in Wakefield during the eighteenth century.

Richard Wright and Edward Elwick established their partnership in Wakefield in 1745. Under the general term ‘upholders’ or upholsterers such firms carried out not just the manufacture and sale of upholstered goods but were cabinet-makers, undertakers, soft furnishers, auctioneers, valuers and retailers. The firm’s workshops and warerooms were housed in the buildings surrounding Gills Yard, off Northgate. They supplied all kinds of finely-made furniture, sumptuously decorated wallpapers and almost every article that a genteel man or woman would need to furnish their interiors in the very latest and most fashionable taste.

Elwick was born in York where he served his apprenticeship, but in the 1740s he went to London. There he met Richard Wright, whose wife had been Queen Charlotte’s needlework teacher, a role which must have lent the couple great prestige. Wright became senior partner in the new business and the pair decided to move out of London, where there was a great deal of competition. Perhaps Elwick’s origins brought them to Yorkshire where a vast new furnishing market was emerging as a result of a boom in country house building and alterations. Andrew emphasised the mercantile wealth and genteel society in the town of Wakefield, where spacious elegant homes needing decoration and furnishing were being built. Wakefield was also an excellent centre for transport by road and water, and a town patronised by many local gentry. 

Leading architects in the region such as James Paine and John Carr would recommend Wright and Elwick as trusted craftsmen and suppliers who could rival the work of the best London upholders. The firm’s success appears to have been instant and bills indicating purchases from the firm are in the collections of many great houses such as Wentworth Castle, Wentworth House, Campsmount near Doncaster, Temple Newsam, Nostell Priory and Cusworth Hall.  Andrew described Elwick as the Laurence Lewellyn-Bowen of his period providing an interior design and supply service, and Elwick was able to write in 1775 that he had the ‘honour to serve most of the Nobility & Gentry in the West and North Riding.’ 

It is difficult to be sure of the attribution of existing pieces of furniture when interiors have greatly altered or some houses have been demolished. There are some items that were definitely made by Elwick and Wright, such as the Marquis of Rockingham’s writing desk, or the chairs for the Masonic Lodge which still exist today in Wakefield.  But often Andrew has only had recourse to old pictures of rooms with long-dispersed furniture which reveal sets of chairs or other items which correspond to existing pieces. He has been able to pick out recurring motifs such as the use of fretwork and pagoda tops, or characteristic techniques such as the combination of horsehair and grass stuffing in upholstery, or the use of ash in seat rails. Great inventiveness was often used – a reputation that led to his contemporary, Thomas Chippendale, making reference to the ‘ingenious Mr Elwick’.

Andrew traced the later history of the Wakefield business following the death of Wright in 1771. Elwick continued in the same trade forming a number of short-lived partnerships. Craftsmen and apprentices who had developed their skills in the workshops of Wright and Elwick set up on their own, but as these businesses expanded, the demand for their luxury items was slowly decreasing. Firms failed, partnerships split and those that did survive had to diversify or change in order to survive; even Elwick himself was to struggle.  He had brought his son Edward into the business but the young man died in debt in 1787. Following this Edward senior retired to Northallerton and his business was run by John Elwick, his nephew, in a new partnership with John Robinson. Some of their work furnished Woolley Hall and they supplied other items there such as the billiard table. John Elwick patented a design for screw threads to join legs and rails for ease of assembly, useful perhaps for military campaigns. The partnership continued until John’s bankruptcy in 1816 although Robinson remained in business.  Andrew has identified a 1777 painting of a young man which he believes to be John Elwick in his youth.

This was a particularly fascinating talk because of Andrew’s long working experience in the region’s antique furniture business. He has had opportunities to study the subtle differences in design, materials, and construction techniques of the furniture in many collections and is identifying more of the work of this highly-regarded Wakefield firm. By gathering documentary evidence from the archive collections of local landed families he is gradually able to support these findings. 

A useful question confirmed that there are no surviving records from the firm itself, making  some of Andrew’s findings necessarily tentative.  John Whitaker from Wakefield Museum indicated that they are hoping to acquire items attributed to Elwick and Wright. Andrew was involved in the restoration of the Cabinet-makers box which is now on display in the Museum.

Editor’s note:  Volume 16 of our Wakefield Historical Society Journal contains an article on this Cabinet-maker’s box and the late eighteenth-century Wakefield craftsmen whose Society is recorded in it. Available to purchase, see: publications

Oh Susannah!
Joe Williams, Heritage Corner, and Deborah Sanderson, Urban Angels.   
13th December 2017             

This was a performance about a black Victorian circus proprietor Pablo Fanque and his wife
Susannah who set up Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal in Wood Street in 1841. There was an excellent turnout of members and other guests for our December meeting in the Elizabethan Gallery and mince pies and drinks ensured that the evening started on a convivial note. Having space to circulate and chat was very welcome.

Pam spent a few minutes outlining the development of Wood Street from its origins in the first decade of the nineteenth century to its present role as the town’s Civic Quarter. During the Society’s research for the Heart of Wakefield Project a large scrapbook collection of nineteenth-century paper memorabilia, the Cryer Collection, was identified in our Local Studies Library.  It contains a number of circus posters with illustrations of the various acts and lists of items to be performed, which Pam showed. These originated from the 1840s, and most of them advertise Pablo Fanque’s Circus.  Before the building of the Town Hall its site had been utilised by visiting circuses.

Pam then introduced Joe Williams and Deborah Sanderson who assumed the characters of Pablo and his first wife, Susannah, to explore their relationship through several significant events in their lives. On one occasion a great storm devastated their marquee during a performance at Harewood whilst touring several North Yorkshire centres. The irony of such destruction occurring to Pablo’s circus on this estate, founded on the profits of sugar plantations and slavery, was pointed up in a theatrical aside. Another event of 1848 was the collapse of one of the more permanent circus venues in Leeds. There were 600 people seated in the gallery who fell with its collapse, but Susannah was the only fatality. 

The performance was set against the background of showmanship and circus which brought out the highs and lows of the life with lively humour and occasional pathos. There were announcements of the various acts: Wallett the clown, the acrobats, the tableaux based on exciting or exotic stories, and the many equestrian displays. The prices and times of performances were heralded loudly and the texts of other archival records were used. The Wakefield printer of the period, Mr Nichols, was applied to as their local source of publicity. Audience participation involved warm-up exercises for the tightrope, and a brave volunteer, our very own Derrick, was coached in tightrope walking.

The question and answer session which followed the play was integral to the evening, providing much of the precise story’s historical context, researched by Joe. Pablo was born William Derby in Norwich in 1810, and at aged 11 he was apprenticed to a circus proprietor, William Batty, almost immediately becoming a performer on tightropes and with horses. As time went on his training and riding of horses became his main circus skill. As a young adult he took the name Pablo Fanque.

His first marriage was to Susannah Marlaw from Birmingham. She was likely to have been an acrobat but was later credited as a costume maker.  It also seems that she was influential in the running of their circus business: after her death Pablo found himself bankrupt on at least one occasion. They had a son called Lionel, who, in 1918, was recorded as ‘the oldest clown in England’. Upon Susannah’s death Pablo married a young performer, Elizabeth, but this does not seem to have become a working partnership in the same way as his first marriage. He had two further sons, Charles and Edward, and the family was based in Stockport.

With Susannah, Pablo had established his own circus by the early 1840s and performed across the North of England, becoming recognised as ‘the ruler of the circus world in Yorkshire and Lancashire’. His advertisements always included riding displays, perhaps using cavalrymen. There were buildings in some towns which could be rented for larger events like markets and circuses, but a marquee was also used to tour around smaller centres. Pablo’s reputation grew and he had influential support and contacts through his membership of the Freemasons and of the Oddfellows fraternity. He was interviewed by Dickens whose novel ‘Hard Times’ includes a circus. Upon Pablo’s death in 1871 his hearse was watched by a huge crowd, reported to be 10,000, as it progressed through Leeds to Woodhouse Cemetery. His gravestone is located there at the base of his first wife Susannah Darby's grave.

The evening’s mix of entertainment and history was an interesting experience for the Society.  Joe and Deborah morphed in and out of character, carrying us into the hectic circus world to which the audience responded with much enthusiasm. There was curiosity about the circus of the period, and the leading role of ‘a man of colour’ within this. The research by means of newspapers and posters is revealing the huge popularity of this and other circuses in our town and region during the Victorian period. Joe commented after our meeting on the gratifying response from our audience, interested in all the detail. Deborah was rather rushed: she had to return to London immediately as she had been asked at the last minute to take part in a ground-breaking project to make circus training accessible to amputees, who will then perform in a professional show by highly acclaimed theatre company Graeae. Circus continues to fascinate.

Of course it is the Beatles’ introduction to Sergeant Peppers’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which has provided the peg for our publicity. However John Lennon used poetic licence in his lyrics. The first lines of the actual poster he read show that the advertisement was for Pablo’s Circus:

Pablo FANQUE'S CIRCUS ROYAL,Town Meadows, Rochdale,
Grandest night of the Season! and positively the last night but three!
Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite (late of Wells’s Circus)
and Mr. J. Henderson, the celebrated Somerset thrower, wire dancer, vaulter, rider etc.

The People of the Manor of Wakefield, 1781-82, by David Scriven
8th November 2017

Our November talk was given by David Scriven editor of ‘The Court Roll of the Manor of Wakefield, 1781-1782’ recently published in the prestigious YHAS Manor Court Rolls Series.

With an area of over 100 square miles the manor of Wakefield was one of the largest in England. During its long history it was the property of royalty, nobility and gentry and in the period covered by this talk its lord was Thomas Osborne, 4th Duke of Leeds, whose Yorkshire seat was at Kiveton Park. The duke left the management of the manor to its steward, the Rotherham barrister Samuel Tooker, and to Tooker’s deputy, Robert Lumb of Wakefield. These two men organised the three-weekly meetings of the manor court which were held in Wakefield’s moot hall where the chief business was the registration of transfers of copyhold properties recorded in the court roll.

The numerous people mentioned in the 1781-1782 court roll had many occupations. There were farmers such as Anthony Abson of Stanley and Thomas Fletcher of Northowram, both of whom bought land to enlarge their farms. There were large numbers of cloth manufacturers, among them Michael Coope of Horbury, who like other clothiers combined farming and manufacturing. Then there were merchants like John Edwards of Northowram who grew rich exporting cloth to Portugal and importing wine and dyestuffs. In addition, there were men in the professions – medicine, the law, the Church and the army.

The social status of the copyholders also varied, with members of the gentry at one extreme and at the other labourers. Most copyholders, however, came from the middling ranks of Georgian society, today’s middle classes. Among the most successful was John Royds whose Halifax house was fit to entertain the King of Denmark during his visit to England in the 1760s. Only a small number of copyholders were women, all either widows or spinsters, a reflection of the legal position of women at the time. Among the women’s wills annexed to the roll is that of Elizabeth Tillotson, who made careful provision for a tomb to be erected over the grave of her parents in Sowerby churchyard. Other wills reveal family quarrels such as the one between the Reverend Sutcliffe and his nephew, a quarrel which had, in Sutcliffe’s words, ‘embittered his nights and days’.

The meetings of the manor court in 1781-1782 took place during the final stages of the American War of Independence. Among the harmful economic effects of the war on the country as a whole was a rise in the number of bankruptcies and the roll shows that a number of copyholders were in financial difficulties. One of the political effects of the war was the creation of a movement for parliamentary reform which was led by the Yorkshire Association whose leadership included not only Samuel Tooker, the manor’s steward, but also prominent copyholders such as the Reverend Zouch of Sandal.

In brief, then, David had introduced us to some of the people of the manor of Wakefield in 1781-1782 who represented a cross-section of provincial society at a particularly troubled time in British history.

A lively questions session followed allowing David to explore further aspects of manorial and general West Riding history of the period.  In the western areas the clothiers around Halifax produced worsted cloth, and in the east around Wakefield they were making woollen cloth. Wakefield’s own cloth hall, the Tammy Hall, traded in tammies which were worsted cloth with a glaze brought to Wakefield from the west.

The copyhold tenure of the Manor of Wakefield survived into the 1920s. David described the two jurisdictions of the manor: the Court Baron relating to property transactions, and the other, the Court Leat, which served various manorial roles and controls such as bye-laws, minor criminal offences and weights and measures. The two jurisdictions were slightly different in geographical coverage, the Court Leat being more extensive than the Court Baron. Although the Court Leat existed in the eighteenth century the records have been lost from the 1730s so that his volume recorded the work of the Courts Baron only.

David’s choice of the year 1781-2 took place several years ago at Claremont, the former home of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, where the Rolls were held until their recent move into the Brotherton Library, Leeds University.  He worked from photographs taken then. Many of the eighteenth century rolls are in poor condition but not this one: it was legible, and not too bulky. As has been seen his choice proved fascinating because it was a year of crisis with war and threats of invasion. The economic impact of these events in West Yorkshire was felt in its main industry of making cloth: the system was a chain based on credit and, as the markets from America and then Europe disappeared, the whole area suffered a recession.

Finally David was asked about the success of the Yorkshire Association. He felt that although the Associations’ economic reforms had met with some success, their desire to reform a corrupt political system, based on bribery in elections and the control of sinecures, had not. Some aristocrats who had favoured the Association did not want to lose this control, and so the hopes for an extension of the franchise to include copyholders were dashed.           

11 October 2017   
Nurses of Passchendaele: Caring for the Wounded of the Ypres Campaigns, 1914-1918  
Christine Hallett, Professor of Nursing History, University of Manchester
Professor Hallett’s new book on this subject was reviewed in the Society’s August Newsletter, and at the end of our October meeting a long queue waited for the author’s signature in their newly-acquired copies. This outline will therefore cover the talk briefly, followed by some of the questions raised by the audience.

Christine introduced us to some of the nurses working at Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) at Brandhoek during the third Battle of Ypres in the summer of 1917. Sister-in-charge at No 32 CCS was Kate Leward, a very experience nurse, and at No 44 CCS Minnie Wood, from Sandal, was the newly-promoted sister-in-charge. Working under Minnie Wood was a recent arrival, Nellie Spindler from Wakefield. The Australian Clearing Station No 3 arrived in late July. Together they formed a large, mainly-tented hospital with a number of surgical teams. They were very close to the front lines in order to treat casualties as speedily as possible.

From the allied assault on the Messine Ridge of 7th June 1917 casualties flooded into No 32 CCS.  By 31st July the big push had begun. In the early part of August all three Stations were open as mud-encased men with horrendous injuries arrived. The nurses fought for the lives of those who had survived the journey from the battlefield. Clinical techniques were constantly adapting to the types of injuries caused by the new industrial weapons of war, such as mustard gas. Even in the Centres, shells constantly pass overhead and aerial bombardment increased: the nurses were ‘on the front row, the dress circle‘ of the battle.

Christine used photos of some of the individual nurses she mentioned and read passages from their letters and journals to illustrate different aspects of their working lives and their responses to the overwhelming intensity and danger of their situation.  On 21st August, after an exhausting night shift, Nellie Spindler, the young Wakefield nurse, was killed by a bomb which landed within the hospital compound. It was believed that the CCS’s were being targeted and 100 personnel were evacuated. When they returned on 25th August the safety of the compound had been somewhat improved and the shifts were more normal for a time, with occasions for some entertainment, such as piano music and singsongs, at which the presence of the women was much appreciated.

The final assault in this campaign was on 10th November. This period had been the most horrific of the war: at the battle of Passchendaele over 70,000 men had died and there had been 275,000 casualties as a result of the weapons of mass destruction and the apparent strategy of ‘attrition’.

The talk generated many questions. Asked about her sources Christine mentioned an array of Archives which reflected the Commonwealth involvement in the medical work as well as the fighting. In England there are many letters and diaries at Kew, and there are also two nurses’ diaries at the West Yorkshire History Centre. Christine has found that as she publicises the subject she is being given access to material from people’s lofts and private collections.

Christine was asked how nurses adjusted to civilian life after their traumatic experiences in the war. In general Christine felt they did not find it easy on their return to the hierarchical structures of hospitals at home - on the front they had been given a great deal of autonomy. Many went into relief work with organisations like the Red Cross and a number wrote their memoirs.

The high use of morphine raised another question about the lack of addicts after the war. One explanation was that the medical profession had tried to limit usage of morphine when possible. The survival rate of the wounded who reached the CCS centres was about 80%.

Rest periods and length of duties varied: nurses often spent two or three years at base hospitals with breaks every two to three weeks. When on CCS duty they tried to ensure a rest period after 6 weeks, but it was often nearer 6 months and leave could be cancelled in emergencies.

Asked about the retrieval of bodies for burial, Christine reminded us that there were 55,500 men who had not been identified at all. Even in the spaciously-organised British cemeteries the inscriptions often do not reflect what is below ground, especially when original burial areas were disturbed again by bombing.

Finally we were reminded of the Cathedral evensong service to be held on Nov 12th at 3.30pm. The collection will be in aid of the Nellie Spindler Appeal which will go towards a memorial to British nurses who died in two world wars: £70,000 out of the £80,000 target has already been collected. Also it is possible to sponsor a nurse - Christine herself has sponsored Nellie Spindler whose father was a police inspector in Wakefield. The family lived on Stanley Road until his retirement when they moved to Horbury.

Information about the Nursing Memorial Appeal can be found at:

13 September 2017: The plight of human fortune and the pitilessness of death: The Black Death and the Church in Yorkshire, 1349 by Gary Brannan, Access Archivist, Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York.

Gary will be familiar to many of our members in his former role as an archivist at Wakefield, and as our guide at the Borthwick Institute on a recent excursion. He has remained a member of our Society and its Council despite his move to the Borthwick a couple of years ago. Gary introduced his subject by reminding us that our venue, the Chantry Chapel, which was packed for this lecture, was a new building at the time of the Black Death.

In July 1348 Archbishop Zouche of York described the ‘great mortalities, pestilences and infections of the air’ already occurring in other parts of the country and Europe.  Here there was a sense of foreboding, with floods and earthquakes, but it was not until about February 1349 that the ‘great pestilence’ reached Yorkshire ports, quickly spreading through the Diocese of York. From 1339 this outbreak of infection had slowly moved along the great overland trade route from China, crossing Mongolia and the steppes of Russia. In Europe Genoese trading ships probably carried the disease nearer and in 1348, the disease appeared in British ports. The source of the disease seems to have been marmots, susceptible to infections of bubonic plague and able to infect the black rat, the common flea of which could transfer the disease to humans. The infection in humans was so deadly that there was little to do if it took hold but to pray. Today it is identified as a form of Yersinia Pestis, which still recurs in different parts of the world. As this plague continued to spread across the country it was seen as apocalyptic. To illustrate its impact Gary asked us to stand and turn over the A5 sheets he had distributed at the start of his talk. Those people with a picture of death sat down, the rest remained standing. Such was the loss of population in these few years, with 80 million people in Europe reduced to about 30 million -  a mortality rate of about 60%.

Gary’s research is largely based on sources at the Borthwick where he is managing a project to index  the Archbishops’ Registers for the period. He argued that registered wills made during this period are particularly useful in showing personal reactions to the proximity of death, and also providing a means of tracking the spread of the plague. As a Batley boy, Gary was delighted to find the will of  William Aberford, the Vicar of Batley, the only will from 1349 from the modern West Yorkshire.  Aberford was a member of the secular clergy and thus allowed to own goods. His will shows a spread of bequests to local institutions, the parish, the community and to specific individuals. Altogether he left a considerable sum which would have had a significant impact on the lives of his community. His will is dated between 17th and 24th May 1349, the plague year, and, although it cannot be certain that he died of the ‘pestilence’ which had arrived in York by the beginning of April 1349, it seems likely. The parish clergy were very vulnerable, many dying within a few months.

Such wills, recorded at the Archbishops’ Courts, were proved within a month in general, and thus probate instruments are another very useful source. In the York collection there are 266 of these completed between 1339-59 with a peak, of course, in July and August of 1349.  By July 1349 the Archbishop’s Registers were not entering full wills, only shortened Probate Acts, the record-keeping becoming less careful because of the loss of suitable manpower.  Gary’s map of the geographical spread of these 1349 probate records clearly shows movement inland along the river systems from coastal ports.

Gary has also referred to the Manor of Wakefield Court Rolls to explore evidence of the impact of the disease within this huge tract of the West Riding. The Court of the Manor sat every three weeks but from July to Oct 1349 there are no entries. Although the pestilence is not directly mentioned there are later entries relating to property which indicate high mortality, and the value of the Manor’s mills and other annual fees dropped by more than half between 1342 and 1350. From an unpublished study of the rolls Gary found that women became more visible after the plague years, with a third of debt cases involving widows trying to collect what they were owed. The loss of life was immense but for survivors opportunities emerged, for example workers could demand more because of the shortage of labour. The miracle of survival had created a world with new possibilities.

Despite the subject matter, Gary’s talk was very entertaining with audience participation, lively background exposition, and stories of individuals. Ever the archivist, Gary showed us fleeting glimpses of the different types of documents he had used, the writing and language indecipherable to most of us, but he skilfully revealed their possibilities for research through meticulous and imaginative analysis and presentation of findings. These led to - inevitably tentative - but convincing hypotheses about the impact of the Black Death in our region.

Questions included reference to the skeletons of victims of this pandemic unearthed during the recent Crossrail construction in London.  The mortality among the upper echelons of society it seems was less extreme, perhaps because of their better general health and nourishment, and their greater mobility.