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The Scrivener: The Facts About A Gentleman's Gentleman

When you start digging into family history you sometimes find that facts have become somewhat coloured by myths.

Brian Barratt discovered that his forebear William George Barratt, who lived in the Victorian era, was not in fact a grand gentleman, though he had mingled with the high and the mighty.

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Genealogy can involve years of intensive checking and double-checking. It involves a lot more than merely listing names and dates. During research into a family tree, skeletons can emerge from closets; legends might be confirmed by facts; and myths are sometimes demolished.

Our family's knowledge of grandfather William George Barratt (WGB) was confined largely to what my father told us. Other snippets of information came from a cousin who was WGB's granddaughter. However, both my father and my cousin tended to exaggerate.

We understood that WGB went to a good school in Oxford; was a pupil at Radley College, which sounded grand; had owned part of a bishop's house; and was a publican. When we started digging, we found that facts had become somewhat coloured by myths.

WGB's father William Barratt had continued the family tradition and was a bookseller in London. His two daughters died in infancy before WGB was born in 1838. William Barratt himself died in 1842 at the age of about 26. This was during the time when terrible cholera epidemics killed thousands, especially in London.

WGB's mother moved away from London and remarried in 1856. The story was that she married a lawyer. Very prestigious! However, I discovered that someone had misread the long 's' in the handwriting on the marriage certificate. Richard Padbury was not a lawyer but a humble sawyer. Myth demolished.

When he was about 10, WGB was sent to the Blue-coat Boys School in Oxford. We wondered who could afford to pay the fees — until I dug out the facts. The first Blue-coat Boys School was Christ's Hospital, founded in 1553 for the education of children of the poor and financed by charitable citizens of London. Not quite the elite sort of school my father had implied. Another myth watered down.

From the age of about 13, WGB attended Radley College, Oxford. The Archivist (now deceased) of the college kindly provided me with a great deal of information about the college, students, and WGB's status. Our grandfather was a servitor, not a student. Servitors, often waifs and strays, were inferior to students. They certainly received an education but they waited on the other boys and were trained to be servants to the gentry. The facts unveiled the myth.

A John Parkinson was a student at the college from 1852, followed by his brother George in 1856. By 1854, WGB was in the service of a gentleman, their father, John Parkinson of Hexgreave Park. The estate still exists, between Newark and Southwell in Nottinghamshire, but the old hall is leased to commercial organisations.

Among our family heirloom books, there is a copy of The Flower, Fruit and Kitchen Garden published around 1851. It has the inscription 'W.G.Barratt, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire'. We know that WGB moved from place to place quite frequently but we have no idea when or why he was in Mansfield. It is probable that he was trained as a gardener as well as a domestic servant.

He married at Newark in 1871 and joined James Barratt, who was either his cousin or his uncle, in a coal business. The business was a flop. He might have lost money. In the old photos, the stern face of my grandmother, Mary Barratt née Morley, indicates that she probably had a tough time keeping the peripatetic and impulsive WGB under control.

The 'bishop's house' period was at the village of Southwell during the next few years. My cousin quoted her mother as saying, 'The house had glorious gardens, pagodas and steps, spacious rooms, etc.' It is possible that he 'bought half of a Bishop's house' as another of his financial whims. Given his occupation, it seems more likely that he was employed by someone in the Southwell Minster (cathedral) precincts. Unfortunately, the mists of time hide the facts behind what might be another myth.

Soon after that, WGB was a steward at Highfield Hall, Uttoxeter, in Staffordshire. It then belonged to the Hon. Enid Lawson and her sister, cousins of the Duke of Rutland. The hall was demolished in recent times and the material used to erect a residential care home for the elderly.

Later, we find WGB and his wife Mary in the 1881 Census, listed as domestic servants in Newark. My father was aged about 2 at that time. He often told us that our grandfather had been a publican.

WGB's mother, now Mary Padbury, left him money when she died in 1890 and 'insisted that he put it into the Railway Inn' at Burton on Trent, Staffordshire. We know from a rubber stamp and a photograph that he was there in 1892. However, one of the many good people who helped me with all this research could find no record of WGB in the lists of licensees at Burton on Trent in either 1896 or 1900. His time as an actual 'publican' must have been very short or verges on myth.
The ever-mobile WGB retired to Newark where he died in 1901. Queen Victoria died during the same year. Given that he had served the gentry and perhaps mingled with aristocracy during his life, that coincidence in death seems appropriate for a gentleman's gentleman.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


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