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A BOY'S LIFE
Carl Harrison, archivist at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland
It is surprising how even the most jaded archivist's interest can still be quickened by some chance encounter among the archives. What sparks me is usually some especially human touch among the often routine and rather dry records we deal with – some glimpse of the individual behind the page – perhaps something akin to what James Joyce meant when he wrote of 'epiphanies'. One such occurred when I glanced into DE 4892, a small, slim volume stamped with the head of Minerva and the title Exercises at Wymeswold Academy. It proved to be one of the pupils' work books, and included the following.
What is my life that it should be recorded in a book? What have I done worth remembering? I have read the lives of Generals, Statesmen, Kings, and Poets, but I have lived in obscurity & very few know there is such a boy as Thomas Wamer Lacey. But whether Mr Potter is joking with us, or not is [sic] wishing us to write our lives, I will try to do my best. I was born at Loughborough, Octr. 20th. 1817. I am told I was very near leaving the world about three months after I was born, & I lost my mother in the following year. I was brought up by my Grandfather, who was I remember very fond of me. I lived with my grandfather about seven years, & he was a kind hearted & very respectable man. I had the misfortune to lose him about five years ago. The flrst school I went to was the free school, where there were about three hundred of us. It was of course all bustle and confusion, but I learnt ABC. Then I went to Mr Mowbray, but I was not there long, and I do not regret it. About this time I was very near being killed by a horse, which accidentally threw me, and trod upon my clothes. I was always very fond of horses and have had many accidents, l fear [I] was not thankful enough for my preservation. The next school I went to was Mr Stevenson's; nothing happened till towards the latter part, when my Grandmother was very ill, and I went to Boarding School for fear I should make too much noise. I remember I used to run away very often as my Grandfather lived in the same town. I then came to Mr Potters of Wymeswould, he is a very kind master, and Mrs Potter is a kind mistress, and was like a mother to us all, and will always be remembered by us. Mr Potter takes us a fishing, and bathing, and we have delightful walks, a pleasant playground, pretty little gardens, rabbithouses, &c. furnish amusements for us in the Summer evenings. In Winter we have a Library of Books to run to, a magic lantern to amuse us, and many a long hour do we spend in listening to Mr P~s tales round the cheerful fire. About four years after I had been at Mr Potter's school my mother-in-law died. She was a kind hearted woman, and as I never knew my own mother I felt a great respect for her. I attended her ufneral, and heard her funeral sermon. The Revd. Mr Bird preached it. His text was from Amos, "Prepare to meet. thy God". He gave a very pleasing account of my mother's experience. I hope she is gone to rest. She had but a brief life. She was but twenty seven.
I have now brought my life to the thirteenth year, when thirteen more have rolled over my head, if I be spared so long, what changes I shall have witnessed. If this sketch meet my eye, it will serve to remind me of my schooldays. I hope I may find the future as happy as the past has been, and with as few cares. I wish also it may be as free from error, and sin, though I know I have already committed many.
Thomas Wamer Lacey.
This touching sketch is accompanied by several other exercises: a translation of the Life into French as 'Ma Propre Vie', thoughts on an eclipse on 2 September 1830, a speech given to his schoolfellows on 2 October 1830, and 'Verse Sketches of my Schoolfellows' by a another pupil, Thomas Towie, copied Into his book with a proper letter of thanks from Lacey. Among the 'Verse Sketches' is one which is presumably the thirteen year old Thomas Wamer Lacey himself.
Now De Lacey thee I see
Immediately I want to know more. Who were his family? Could the elusive details of his troubled early life be fleshed out? Could we learn more about the various schools he attended and particularly about the benevolent Mr and Mrs Potter of Wymeswold Academy? And what of Thomas's later life? Was he 'spared', and if so what sort of man did he become? What changes did he see when he looked back to his eventful youth? A little rapid research provided some of the answers before time ran out. What follows is by no means exhaustive and there is more to be found; perhaps one day I will dig deeper.
The first discovery was the baptism of Thomas Wamer Lacey, son of William Lacey, a baker, and Sarah his wife (was her maiden name Wamer?) at All Saints' church, Loughborough, on 1 November 1816. So although (as you would expect) he knew his birthday, he got the year wrong – probably a simple schoolboy miscalculation since he was, as he said, still in his thirteenth year, in fact (assuming the 'Life' was written In September 1830) just short of his fourteenth birthday. His mother's death followed sooner after his own birth than he seems to suggest, perhaps sooner than he thought. Sarah Lacey was buried at All Saints', aged just 22, on 27 January 1817. Her son would then have been three months old. Just the age when Thomas was later told he was very near leaving the world . Did he also contract a disease which carried off his mother, or perhaps they were both weakened by a difficult birth? This we shall never know.
I was not able to establish Thomas's immediate family beyond this. There were a number of Laceys In Loughborough at this time (one Edward Lacy [sic] Is listed as a baker in New-row in Pigot's Directory of 1822-23 and in Nottingham Road in 1828-29) but since Thomas omitted to give his grandparents' names (or indeed the names of any of his other relations), some research Is needed to link them up. Thomas's circumstances seem not to have been uncomfortable (after his first stint in the Free School his education and board must have been paid for, and he had access to horses and could ride from an early age as his accident shows), so just possibly his grandfather was Mr Charles Lacey, the attorney buried at All Saints' on 5 February 1827, aged 67, and his grandmother Ann 'relict of Charles Lacey' buried at the same church on 18 July 1831, aged 81? But this Is all conjecture, as must be what happened to Thomas's father, William. He married again since Thomas, when he refers to his 'mother-in-law', who he also calls his 'mother' and who also died young at 27, must mean his stepmother. Unfortunately there is no appropriate burial at All Saints', nor was William buried there, at least before 1861, so at present there is no evidence of what became of him. For the record the 1828-29 Directory shows the Free Grammar School where Thomas learned his letters in Church Gate, Loughborough, Thomas Stevenson's school In Leicester Road and Thomas Mowbray's, which he left without regret, in Baxter Gate.
We can say a good deal more of Mr Potter, of whose school Thomas paints so idyllic a picture, and of Mrs Potter, 'like a mother to us all', and indeed for Thomas a second substitute for the mother he had never known. Those whose view of nineteenth century education is coloured by Dickens' account of Dotheboys Hall may be tempted to suspect that all this is too good to be true – after all the boy would probably write in this vein if he knew what was good for him, wouldn't he? Fortunately the tenor of the contents of Lacey's exercise book tallies with other accounts we have of Potter to suggest an urbane and cultured man, so Thomas's affection for him was probably genuine. A friend writing shortly after Potter's death noted that many of his former pupils 'still look back with much affection to their kind old tutor'. Lacey and Potter were to remain relatively near neighbours (and friends?) for many years.
The Record Office's Local Studies Index points the way to several brief accounts of Thomas Rossell Potter's life and achievements in literature and education. He even has an entry in the current Dictionary of National Biography. He was born on 7 January 1799 in West Hallam, Derbyshire, but in 1814 removed with his family to Wymeswold. His father had been a well-to-do farmer whose fortunes declined to the point where, after his death around 1827, Thomas was obliged to give up his ambitions to enter the church and found a school. I assumed initially that the Mrs Potter of Thomas Wamer Lacey's 'Life' was Potter's wife, but since he did not marry until 1836 it must have been his mother, assisting him with running the school. Potter's marriage to Frances Sarah, a daughter of Leonard Fosbrooke of Shardlow Hall, Derbyshire, and Ravenstone Hall, Leicestershire, on 14 January 1836, was said to have taken place 'under very romantic circumstances', following her being thrown from a carriage and tended at Potter's house, as a result of which 'an attachment' was formed. Despite the lady's family opposing her wedding a schoolmaster, the marriage was happy, producing five sons and four daughters, two of whom died in infancy. Both husband and wife spent the rest of their lives In Wymeswold, Thomas Rossell Potter dying on 19 April, aged 73, his widow on 11 November 1896, aged 89.
Potter's school at 'The Hermitage' in Far Street, Wymeswold, was quickly successful, attracting the sons of many of the surrounding gentry and well-to-do people . Thomas Towle's verse description of his school fellows in 1830 lists 39 boys, to which should be added Towie himself, and they include a son of a Mayor of Leicester and two brothers from as far afield as Birmingham. I was surprised then that although White's Directory of 1846 confirms the existence of Thomas Potter's 'boardIng school', neither the 1841 or 1851 census refers to him as a teacher, nor do they list any boarders in his household. In 1841 Potter is described as of independent means and in 1851 as 'Author History etc'. The latter description Is certainly justified – three of his works are in the Record Office's local studies collection: Walks around Loughborough (1837/1840), Rambles around Loughborough (1868), and his magnum opus, the History and Antiquities of Chamwood Forest (1842).
The key to the mystery is found in the published accounts of Potter's life which state that his school was suspended as a result of an outbreak of 'a violent fever' in 1842 and Potter removed temporarily to a cottage on Charnwood Forest to immerse himself in the history of the area. Clearly the date is wrong and the school was closed at least a year earlier, and perhaps there was more to it than simply an outbreak of fever since the biographer who knew him best noted that his teaching was not only a hindrance to his literary pursuit but also 'irksome to his feelings'. Be that as it may, Potter returned to teaching only on a much reduced scale and shifted his main energies into this earlier love of writing. Prior to the publication of the Walks, he had already turned his other main leisure Interest, hunting, to good use by publishing regular prose and verse contributions to the Sporting Magazine and Sporting Review under the nom-de-plume 'Old Grey'. From 1849 he turned more fully to journalism, editing successively the Leicester Advertiser, Ilkeston Pioneer, Leicester Guardian, and Loughborough Monitor (later the Loughborough News), the latter until his death. His Rambles were chatty sketches reprinted from the Loughborough News and recall the description of his. earlier hunting pieces as 'remarkable for their pungency, raciness, and pleasantry, . . . wit and humour'. His Charnwood Forest, while intended to be painstaking and scholarly is spoiled by his extending John Nichols' mistaken assertion that Charnwood was subject to Forest Law to invent a whole range of Forest officials for Charnwood who never existed. One is reminded that this is the man who as a young schoolmaster would spend 'many a long hour' telling tales to Thomas Wamer Lacey and his other pupils 'round the cheerful fire'.
What then of Thomas Wamer Lacey and his later life? Unlike Potter he had no biographer, and we must try harder to infer something of his character from the more formal records of his adulthood. Appropriately for a boy so fond of horses he went into farming, and made a considerable success of it. By the early 1840s, now a young man in his early twenties, he married and took a farm at Cotes just to the east of Loughborough in the parish of Prestwold. The majority (but by no means all) of his long working life was to be spent in Cotes.
Thomas's wife Mary, who was two years his junior, was also from Loughborough. They named their first child Mary also but lost her in infancy -the stone they erected In Prestwold churchyard records that she died on 23 January 1843, aged one year and ten months. Notwithstanding this setback, by the time the census enumerators called in 1851 both farm and family were well established. Thomas, now 34 years old, was farming 190 acres and employing nine labourers, as well as two farm boys and two female servants living in the household. He and Mary had two daughters, Sarah aged seven and Mary Elizabeth aged two, and two sons, Thomas Wamer junior aged four and Joseph Brooks (or Brookes) aged just seven months.
Thomas and Mary Lacey do not appear in the 1861 and 1871 census returns for Cotes, which is explained by the fact that in the 1850s he took the Forest Farm at Burleigh on the other side of Loughborough and occupied it, as his death notice later recorded, for 'about 20 years'. Whether he retained interests in Cotes throughout this period Is not dear, but If not he had certainly reestablished them by the later 1860s. In the course of his Rambles around Loughborough our old friend Thomas Rossell Potter passed, not surprisingly, through Cotes and noted 'The pleasant farmhouses of Mr. Wamer Lacey [etc]'. He adds approvingly that 'The reputation for good farming . . . Is still kept up by the present occupiers of the parish and park. Better land or neater cultivation can scarcely be found In Leicestershire.' Whether Potter Is referring to his old pupil or to his son Thomas Wamer Lacey junior (who would have been around 21 In 1868) is uncertain since the evidence of the 1871 and 1881 censuses seems to suggest that Thomas senior was engaged around this time first in setting up his sons in farming in Cotes and then returning himself in some style. In 1871 his second son Joseph, now aged 20, is recorded In charge of a farm of 145 acres, employing two men and three boys. Living with him were his older sister Mary Elizabeth, as housekeeper, his brothers John Henry, aged 17, an ironmonger's assistant, and Charles (should this be George?), aged 15 and still at school, together with a female domestic servant and a farm boy.
Altogether Thomas Wamer Lacey senior and Mary had either nine or ten children, four girls and five or six boys. The uncertainty arises from the fact that Charles, recorded in the 1871 census does not appear elsewhere, while George, who does, is shown in the 1881 census as either 28 or 25 – the entry is unclear. No doubt a more thorough search of the census returns and parish registers would clear up this minor mystery.
In the early 1870s Thomas Wamer Lacey senior returned permanently to Cotes and it was here, on 8 February 1877, that his wife Mary died. Like her first child and namesake she was buried in Prestwold churchyard, the stone (which was erected later) recording her age as 59, although the parish register says 58. Thomas himself was to live for another ten years, but he did not remain a widower – the 1881 census shows him married again. By this time he was aged 64 and his new wife, Fanny, a native of Ollerton, Notts, was 60. Their household consisted of Thomas's unmarried son George, a kitchen maid and house maid, and two resident male farm servants. Thomas was now a substantial farmer, working 490 acres and employing nine men and three boys. In this last phase of his life it is fair to describe him as a pillar of the community. Wright's Directory of 1884 lists him as 'farmer and overseer' and also as churchwarden of St Andrew's Prestwold. His death notice states that he was 'a member of the Loughborough Local Board, and also occupied a seat on the Board of Guardians'. The 1884 Directory shows that by then he had been able to set up his son George with his own farm at the Manor House, Cotes.
The end came three years later. On 26 May 1886 (already suffering from the onset of his fatal Illness?) Thomas made his last will and on 1 August he varied it with a short codicil. It is tempting to see the man reflected in the will, which is a practical and businesslike document, tempered with concern for his children and affection for his wife. He appointed five trustees and executors, his sons Joseph Brookes, George and John Henry and his sons-in-law George Beeby and George Henson, who must be the husbands of his daughters Sarah and Mary Elizabeth. All his household goods, plus 'one horse and carriage and harness to be selected by her', £100 In cash and his stock In the Loughborough Gas Company are to go to his 'dear wife' Fanny, which suggests that his second marriage was as happy as his first had been productive. All the rest of his estate is then assigned to his executors in trust to sell In order to secure the remaining legacies: £2000 to be invested to provide an income for his widow, cash to his two youngest children (£1500 for Arthur, £1000 for Anne), the residue to be divided equally between all his children or their heirs. The codicil revokes the bequest to Arthur since the money had already been given to him. Interestingly he stipulates that all the legacies are to be subject to any debts which may be owed to him by the beneficiaries and also that legacies to his married daughters are to be 'their separate property free from marital control' – two careful touches.
On 24 February 1887 the Loughborough Herald and North Leicestershire Gazette noted that 'Mr. Thomas Wamer Lacey, farmer, of Cotes, died at his residence on Monday [21 February], at the age of 71 years'. In addition to the details noted above it records that the deceased was 'well-known and respected amongst local agriculturalists'. He was buried In Prestwold churchyard, with his first wife Mary, on 23 February 1887. When his will was proved in March 1887 his estate was worth £8059 9s 3d gross, £7789 14s 0d net, more than enough to meet the main bequests and provide all his children with some £500 apiece.
So after this little bit of research, can we sum up the life and character of Thomas Wamer Lacey? Without the schoolboy exercise book, the facts would be fairly dry and bloodless. In the light cast by it we glimpse a more rounded picture. His life was certainly successful. From difficult beginnings, by hard work he built up a thriving livelihood in a sphere which probably appealed to him. He was respected by his peers and did his 'civic' duty in the social station in which he found himself. Perhaps if asked to describe him his neighbours might have used words like 'sound', 'solid', 'dependable'? Again given the uncertainties of his immediate family as a boy, it might not be stretching the evidence too far to suggest that the welfare of his own children was particularly Important to him. His support in setting up his sons on their own and his care to ensure an even-handed division of his estate suggest as much.
But what of his essential personality – what impression of his character would we have taken away if we had met him at church, at tea with his family, or at the market among his fellow farmers? This is even more conjectural, but it is tempting to see the essentials of the man in his own and his friend's boyhood descriptions of him. The boy who was so fond of outdoor pursuits, of fishing, bathing, walking, of the gardens and rabbithouses of Mr Potter's school, and of horses, made a good farmer. The schoolboy so full of energy – 'hopping, jumping, smiling, free'- became a hardworking and practical man, and probably an outgoing and sociable one too? The boy who could view what would now be regarded as a fairly traumatic childhood as 'happy' and with 'few cares' must have had a sunny disposition and perhaps was not given to thinking too deeply; one might expect him to grow into a man with an essentially optimistic view of life, not given to brooding. At the same time the boy who never knew his own mother had already come to value the care and affection of adults, particularly women, and to appreciate how precarious life was. He became the man who took the trouble to mark the grave of his lost first-born child, and who took special care for the welfare of all his children and for the 'dear wife' of his second marriage. So – practical, outgoing, optimistic, responsible, but also caring, alive to emotion, perhaps even a little sentimental? I suspect we might have liked him.
Originally published in WHO Newsletter 1999.
Copyright the author