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Fairey, John (1804 - 1869) and Elizabeth (1800 - 1885) and their daughters. BLACKSMITH

Fairey, John (1804 - 1869) and Elizabeth (1800 - 1885) and their daughters. BLACKSMITH


The art, if you want your descendants to find you, is to have an obscure Christian name and, most importantly, an unusual surname. When you come across the name Fairey it would seem that it is likely to meet this second requirement. Unfortunately, in Ringstead in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, you would be wrong. Every garden seemed to have one at the bottom and, just to confuse matters a wide range of variations were used including Feary, Fairy, Farry and Farey. Even more annoyingly, the various families seem to keep their distance from each other and we end up with a shrubbery rather than a tree.

It seems that there were at least two lines which may be completely separate or join some time in the seventeenth century. Broadly there were the blacksmith Faireys and the shoemaker Faireys and it is with the former that we will be looking at in this story and, in particular, at a black sheep member of the blacksmiths. 

The Faireys were an old Ringstead family which reaches back at least into the seventeenth century. We will start with John and Elizabeth who married in Ringstead Parish Church on 1st January 1700. We are in the reign of William and Mary and a new century has just begun. They have a son, Samuel who is baptised on 19th December 1703 and lives long enough to have three wives. He first married Elizabeth Desborough on 12th November 1730 and has at least one child, a daughter, Elizabeth. His wife dies in June 1735 and within six months he has re-married, to Ann Jones, and has a further four children. It seems likely that Ann died in giving birth to her fourth child, Joseph in 1754. Just two months later he marries again, to Keziah Pell and has two further sons.

We do not know Samuel’s profession but his son, the oldest child of his marriage to Ann, who is called William was a blacksmith. He was baptized on 12th September 1737 and married Ann, probably when he was about twenty, although I have not yet found their marriage. They had at least five children before Ann died in 1774, but it may be that only one girl, Mary, survived into adulthood. William re-married on 3rd May 1779 to Mary Wright and had a son, William who was baptised on 25th December 1780. It is at the death of William, the father, in 1784 aged about 47, that we find him described as a blacksmith. His widow dies some twenty years later in 1804 so we have to wonder how she managed until her children grew old enough to work. Did she employ men to run the forge or did it pass into other hands?

When we look at these rapid re-marriages we may see it as callous and perhaps sometimes it was. We must remember, however, that, unless there were available older children, aunts or parents to take on the raising of a young family, a father, or mother, often had a choice of re-marriage, child neglect, or pauperism.

Whatever happened in the intervening years we know that William, the son, continued with his father’s trade and married Elizabeth, probably some time after the turn of the century. Again I have not yet found the marriage but we know, once again from his entry in the Burial Register that he was a blacksmith. They had some six children, four of them were girls and the youngest son, William, born in 1811 died just twenty years later. In fact, one wonders at the cluster of deaths in the family. After William’s death on 17th November 1831, his father died aged 53 almost exactly a year later and, in the following month Elizabeth his mother also died aged 52. Was it from these clusters of deaths in a family that Ringstead’s reputation for witchcraft grew?

Before these sudden deaths, John, the eldest child had married, on 24th December 1828 to Eliza Betts, across the Nene, in Woodford Parish Church. By the end of 1832 he was a husband, a father and the head of the family left by his parents, although even Lucy, the youngest surviving sister, would have been nearly eighteen. Unfortunately he was not equal to the task. We must be careful in defining someone’s character by a few bad actions but it does appear that John was a feckless man who literally ran away from his responsibilities.

As Henry VIII looked to succession and wanted a son, so a blacksmith would have hoped for a boy to learn the trade, to help his father and finally take over in his old age. We see the sadness of Joe Gargery in Great Expectations when Pip blithely leaves the forge to become a ‘gentleman’. John, like Henry, struggled to father boys and he had between 1830 and 1839, six girls in quick succession, none of whom were christened as children. Is this a sign of non-conformism or negligence? One also wonders at the mindset of parents with the surname Fairey who call their first child Mary (and their last child Fanny). Perhaps it may indicate that they pronounced their surname more like ‘Farry’ or 'Feary'.

As might be expected, the Faireys struggled to feed and clothe their family. The Ringstead Charity Account Book reveals that in 1837 John received 8yards of cloth at 9½d a yard and 3yards at 13d a yard: also one handkerchief. In 1838 he again received sheets and other cloth items. 

It is when we get to the first personal census, in 1841, that we realise that something is really amiss in the Fairey family. We find Eliza aged 35 with her six girls; Mary (11), Emily (9), Louisa (7), Sophia (5), Hannah (4), and Maria(h) (2). There is no sign of John, and Eliza is described by that feared word, ‘Pauper’. When we search for John, we finally find a John Fairey (34) blacksmith, living in the small town of Thorney, on the edge of the Huntingdonshire fens. With him live William and Mary Wood and Henry Harvey.

It is possible that he is away getting work to feed his family but when we look at the Northampton Mercury we find the truth. It reports that John Farey from Ringstead was sent to the House of Correction for running away and leaving his wife chargeable to Ringstead. Perhaps absconding once, overcome by the recent deaths and his responsibilities, we might excuse his inability to cope. The following year, in 1842, it happens again. John is sent, this time, for two months ‘to the House of Correction for neglecting to support his wife and family, whereby they became chargeable to the Parish of Ringstead’. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 had attempted to stop outdoor relief and force recipients into centralised ‘Union Workhouses’ where conditions should be harsh enough to deter paupers using them. The local workhouse was at Thrapston but the Parish would still have to pay for their upkeep and, as the vicar Percival Sandilands pointed out in 1864, Ringstead considered that it paid a very high Poor Rate. William Howitt, who was no radical, was appalled by this new harsher regime and, writing in 1838 in the ‘Rural Life in England, stated:

…. Every poor man’s family is liable, on the occurrence of some chance stroke of misfortune, to have their misfortune, bitter enough in itself, added the tenfold aggravation of being torn asunder, and immured in the separate wards of a POVERTY PRISON. The very supposition is horrible; and, if this system, this iron and undiscriminating system, - a blind tyranny, knowing no difference between accidental misfortune and habitual idleness, between worthy poverty and audacious imposition, between misfortune and crime, - be the product of Philanthropy, may Philanthropy be sunk to the bottom of the sea! 

John would have been called one of the 'undeserving poor' and it was his wife and children who suffered.

When we look at the blacksmiths that worked in Ringstead a pattern emerges of a group of young men travelling around the countryside and sometimes getting into mischief. Flora Thompson writing of the blacksmiths tells us:           

….it was the custom at that time that after apprenticeship, a young smith should travel the country and work in various shops to gain experience. That was why they were called ‘journeymen’, Miss Lane said, ‘because they travelled about.’

This may not be the whole story. Certainly for some young smiths it was their Grand Tour when they gained skills working away from their ‘home forge’ before returning to the family business. These groups of travelling young men were not uncommon in a number of professions, from agricultural labourers to shoemakers. Most travelled to find work rather than to improve their skills. In those days when holidays, as we know them, did not exist for working people the ‘tramp’ would also be a time when the young men saw the world and perhaps sowed their wild oats. In this they were not so different from the rich young men who went to Italy. It is also true that, although some blacksmiths prospered, many found it increasingly difficult to make a living

Of course there were horses to shoe but this was not always work for the blacksmiths. The 1851 Ringstead Census has George Buckby, ‘farrier’, living with William Teel, a gamekeeper from County Fermanagh in Ireland. Many larger farmers brought in specialised farriers to shoe and attend to their horses. The blacksmiths' other stock-in-trade had been the production of all the ironware for the home and farm. The agricultural implements became increasingly more mechanised and were produced in centralised factories. The well-named ‘Smiths of Thrapston’, was a large local producer of farm implements for horse and, as the century progressed, for steam engine. The home and garden goods; the gates, door furniture, tools, nails, kitchen implements, etc. were likewise made cheaply in the new industrial cities or imported from abroad. The village blacksmith was left mainly with minor repair work and some horse-shoeing and, for many, this was not enough to make a good living.

Going back to the 1841 Census we find two young blacksmiths, John Hitchcock (25) and his wife, Sarah (nee Hewitt) with their young son, John; and John Jeffrey, with a Mary Jeffrey who is only shown as fifteen (although this has been probably rounded down) who may be his sister or wife.

It is in the life of another black sheep, Korah Dicks, that we first met Henry Hitchcock. Korah was sent to the ‘House of Correction’, for one month for assaulting Henry. He was an outsider, from Kimbolton and one wonders if this is part of the reason for the assault. By 1851 Henry and his family have disappeared from Ringstead and we find him, by 1861, in Plaistow, London and still a blacksmith.

Returning to John Jeffrey, he too disappears from Ringstead and possibly moves to Linton in Cambridgeshire. We cannot be sure because the 1841 Census does not give places of birth and ‘John Jeffrey’ is a popular name for smiths from Cornwall to Scotland.

Our final example is John Tomlin who is listed as a blacksmith in Ringstead in Whellan’s 1849 Directory. It also records that a ‘blacksmith’s shop has lately been converted into a Methodist Chapel’. John Tomlin is one of those elusive people who seem to dodge between the official records. He is, almost certainly, the John Valentine Tomblin who married Caroline Wallis on 12th September 1847 in Alconbury-cum-Weston in Huntingdonshire. The couple have a child, William, who is baptised in Ringstead on 25th April 1849 and buried two years later in Thrapston. It seems possible that John had already left Ringstead for there is no sign of him in the 1851 Census. On 30th November 1856, a John Valentine Tomlin, ‘a traviling Blacksmith Aged 35 years’, was buried in Lincoln. 

John Fairey was, therefore, part of a constant movement of young men around the countryside but he was no longer so young and he had many dependants. It seems that John did return home and the couple were, to some extent reconciled, because another daughter, Fanny, was born in about 1845 and baptised on 12th August 1849 with her older sisters, Louisa, Hannah and Maria. Is this a sign that John has finally become a proper family man? Certainly, the 1851 Census has John with his family in Ringstead. He is working as a blacksmith and Eliza is making lace, as many women in the area did in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her daughters, Sophia (16), Hannah (14) and Maria (12) are also lacemakers and Fanny, the baby of the family is just five years old. 

By 1861, however, we find the rift between John and Eliza has opened up again. He is a journeyman blacksmith which, at 56, means that he is still working how and when he can. He is living by himself. Meanwhile, Eliza, and her youngest child, Fanny, are living elsewhere in the village. She is still trying to earn a living as a lacemaker.


Former Blacksmith’s shop taken by Roy Dickens in 1980s

(Carlow Road end of High Street)

Roy remembers Mr Davies working there and, with few horses to shoe, finally having to spend his day making rods with screw threads each end to reinforce ladder rungs

(By kind permission of Roy Dickens)

John dies in 1869, aged 64, which seems a reasonable age for a nineteenth century blacksmith. Perhaps his lack of time in the blacksmith's forge added years to his life. If we look at some of the blacksmiths that we have encountered, we see that many died in middle age or earlier. John Fairey’s grandfather, William, died when he was about 47 and his father William was 53: William Bradshaw, who later became the postmaster, was 52 and his nephew Frederick 53, and John Tomlin just 35 years old.

It is easy to have an idealised view of the village blacksmith (albeit from America) ‘under the spreading chestnut tree’. Richard Jefferies, another lyrical writer of the countryside from the Victorian era, gives a more realistic picture of what a typical smithy would have been like.

Twisted iron, rusty from exposure, lies in confusion on the blackened ground before the shed. Coal dust and the carbon deposited from volumes of thick smoke have darkened the earth, and coated everything with a thick crust. The windows of the shed are broken, probably by the accidental contact of long rods of iron carelessly cast aside, and some of the slates of the roof appear gone just above the furnace, as if removed for ventilation and the escape of the intense heat. There is a creaking of stiff leather as the bellows rise and fall, and the roar of the blast as it is forced through the glowing coals

A ceaseless hum of wheels in motion comes from the rear, and the peculiar crackling sound of a band in rapid revolution round the drum of the engine and the shaft. Then the grinding scrape of sharp steel on iron as the edge of the tool cuts shavings from the solid metal rotating swiftly in the lathe. As blow follows blow the red hot ‘scale’, driven from the surface of the iron on the anvil by the heavy sledge, flies rattling against the window in a spray of fire. The ring of metal, the clatter, the roaring, and hissing of steam, fill the air, and through it rises now and then the shrill quick calls of men in command

This may have been a larger blacksmith’s shop than the ones in Ringstead but, like the water mills we have written about elsewhere, they were not always the fragrant, healthy places that the poets and artists depict.

Interior of a Forge

(Country Life Journal March 1904. MERL P DX1091/8)

With the kind permission of The Museum of English Rural Life

The 1871 Census finds Eliza, aged 69, a visitor at 20 Russell Street Cambridge. It is the house of Alfred Pateman, a railway servant and his wife Emma (38). It seems likely that ‘Emily’ is Eliza’s daughter Emma. Eliza may be already losing her sight, perhaps, like many other women, through the making of lace for years by the dim light of a candle. Certainly in 1881 she is, I believe, in Thrapston Union Workhouse, although it gives her home town as Stanwick, and it records that she has been blind for eight years. On 25th September 1885, aged 85, she dies at Thrapston Workhouse but is buried back in the Ringstead churchyard.


Postscript: The Daughters

Eliza Fairey had had a hard life, with a large family of girls which she had to bring up, it seems, with little help from her wandering husband. I wondered what had happened to these daughters. Did they manage to shake off the effects of their difficult childhoods and enjoy a fulfilled adult life? We can only look for hints that the records give us.

Mary, the oldest child, probably married John Hale in 1855 in Meldreth in Cambridgeshire, and the 1861 Census finds her living in nearby Melbourn with their two sons, John and George. It is difficult to find her after that as there are a number of alternatives, none certain. It could be that her widower, John, with his children, George and Eliza, is in the Cambridge 1881 Census but we cannot be sure.

The life of Mary’s sister, Emily, is also somewhat confusing at present. She  is probably the Emma Fairey who married William Stockridge in 1857. William died a year afterwards and just a few months later she married railway servant, Alfred Pateman. We have seen that Eliza, her mother was staying with her in Cambridge in 1871. There is also a niece, Emma, the daughter of Mary.  They are together in 1881 but Emma died in1883 aged about 52, the same age as her grandparents. In 1891 Emma Hales, aged 27 is Alfred’s niece and housekeeper.

Louisa, after working as a farm servant on the farm for Henry Gale at Denford, married John Underwood in 1856 and moved to Finedon. She spent the rest of her life there. Her husband, John, was an agricultural labourer and it would have been a tough life. She had six children and also worked as a charwoman. Her husband became a railway labourer, then a ‘higler’s labourer’ (perhaps for his brother-in-law) and finally in 1901 as a farm labourer again. In this census we find her and John in Pear Tree Row, Finedon. She died in 1905

Sophia Fairey married John Griffin in 1855 in Ringstead and she was the only daughter to remain in her home village all her life. Her husband was an agricultural labourer and we finally find the couple in 1881 with John an unemployed waggoner and Sophia a laundress. In 1911 she is a seventy-seven year old widow visiting Leonard and Laura Bryant at 28 Regent Square, Northampton. She probably died a year later

Hannah, the fifth child, had one of the most interesting lives. She had been born in about 1837 and was the only daughter never to marry. In 1871, she is with her mother visiting her sister in Cambridge and her profession is given as a ‘domestic servant’. By 1881, her mother has gone blind and is in Thrapston Union Workhouse. Hannah, however, has moved to London and, at 44, is a ‘Matron’ in Reverend C.H. Spurgeons’s Orphanage in Clapham Road, Lambeth. She is still there in 1891 where she is one of seventeen matrons.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a charismatic Baptist preacher in London. By 22 he was the most popular preacher of the day who regularly preached to crowds of 10,000 people. A clergyman’s widow who was a member of Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle Church had seen an article in the Sword and Trowel (the Tabernacle magazine which is still published) for August 1866 advocating the establishment of schools for’ ‘our poor adherents’. The widow, a Mrs. Hillyard wrote to Charles Spurgeon telling him that she would fund an orphanage where boys could be ‘trained in simple Gospel principles’. Spurgeon went to her modest house with another man and said that they had called about the £200 she had mentioned in her letter. In his biography of Spurgeon, W.Y. Fullerton continues with the conversation:

                ‘Did I write £200?’ exclaimed the lady. ‘I meant £20,000.’

‘Oh yes,’ said Mr. Spurgeon, ‘you did put down £20,000, but I thought perhaps there was a nought or two too many.’

The orphanage was opened in 1869 with a girls' wing added ten years later. Hannah, who one would have expected to have become a recipient of the charity given by the great Victorian philanthropic movement, became, instead, one of its agents. If we judge from the experiences of Peter Paterson, who was an a boy there later, in the years before it was bombed in the Second World War, it was a harsh and cruel regime with regular beatings but one where the 3 R’s were taught. We can only hope that Hannah was a kinder matron than the one that he encountered

It is possible that Spurgeon had preached in Ringstead and this had inspired Hannah, although he was, perhaps, too big a fish for the Ringstead pond. Certainly, Rev C, Spurgeon Junior, his son, preached in the Baptist Chapel in May 1882 and again in 1883. We do not know just how long Hannah worked at the orphanage but, in 1901, she is still in Marylebone, staying as a friend, with a woman ‘living on her own means’ and her lady companion. She does not appear in the 1911 Census.

Maria married Thomas Smeathers Pettit in 1859 and, like her sister Louisa ended up in Finedon. Thomas was, a carter in 1861, a General Dealer at Wilby in 1871 and a ’Rag and Bone Buyer’ in 1881. By 1891 they are living in a’ Railway Carriage’ with their four children, in Finedon, next to the Co-operative Field. Thomas has a ‘Dealer Shop’. By 1901 he is a ‘Rag and Bone Merchant’ again and they are living in Thrapston Road, Finedon. Maria dies in 1904 aged 65. Thomas was obviously a colourful local character for a rhyme about him, under his nickname of Tom Tottles, was recorded in a local book.

 Tom Tottles breaks bottles

Sifts cinders, mends winders,

Goes round with his bags

To collect your old rags.

He mumbles and moans

As he buys your old bones

And kicks up a din

As loud as sin

When he hollers ‘Rag-bone!’

Rag-bone! Rabbit skin!’


[From Pageant of Finedon]

Finally we come to Fanny, the last girl, perhaps a product of John’s temporary return to the bosom of his family. She married Charles Frederick Coggins from Raunds in 1864 when she was just eighteen. Seven years later she has four children between two months and six years old and is in Thrapston Union Workhouse. I have not yet found Charles (or Frederick as he is usually called) in 1871 but perhaps he is away looking for work. In 1881 Frederick, Fanny and their family are living in St John’s Place Marylebone and he is working again as a shoemaker. 1891 finds them still there, and with two extra children, bringing the total that Fanny has given birth to, to at least nine. They are now living at 87 Devonshire Street, Marylebone with three other families. Charles Frederick Coggins died in 1892 and the 1901 Census finds Fanny a widow at 54 and having to work as a charwoman, with her youngest daughter, May, who is just 14 years old. She is probably the Fanny Coggins who died in the Paddington District in 1911 aged sixty-five.

So it is that names come and go. William Feary baptized in 1737 had six children and his son William had six also and his son John had seven more, yet by the end of the century no-one from that family branch was named Fairey. Such is the power of the male name in ancestry.


Ringstead BMD (Northampton Record Office and Rushdenheritage)

1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 Censuses

Northampton Mercury 1841, 1842 exact dates later. (

Charles Haddon Spurgeon. A Biography. W.Y. Fullerton ( )

Ringstead Charity Account Book (Southwick Hall archive)

Whellan’s Directory of Northamptonshire 1849 (Northampton Record office

Lark Rise to Candleford. Flora Thompson (Oxford 1845)

Hodge and His Masters Vol II. Richard Jefferies (1880; 1966 MacGibbon & Kee)

The Rural Life of England Vol.II. William Howitt (Longmans, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans 1838)

Wellingborough News 3rd June 1882 ( )

Blacksmith Shop Photograph 35/4492 (Museum Of English Rural Life)

Pageant of Finedon. Reginald Underwood (Fortune Press 1943)

Much More Of This Old Boy..? Peter Paterson (Muswell Press 2011)