How strange it seems today that a village carpenter, who died in relative poverty, devoted much of his life to documenting Upminster’s history through his books and scrapbook collections of local archives. That carpenter and local historian was Thomas Lewis Wilson, whose story follows below.
The birth of a healthy baby son at 9 a.m. on the fine Saturday morning of 17 August 1833 must have seemed a dream come true to Upminster carpenter Thomas Wilson and his wife Mary. The 43 year old Thomas had ten years earlier suffered the death of his first wife Elizabeth and their baby daughter, followed by the death three years later of his second wife Sarah. His third marriage in 1831 to Mary Lewis, two years his elder, almost certainly offered a last chance of parenthood for the middle-aged couple. Their prayers were answered in August 1833 by the birth of Thomas Lewis Wilson, taking Thomas’s Christian name and Mary’s maiden surname.
T L Wilson was born in a cottage in the “Broadway” opposite the parish church, where Locksley Villas later stood. Samuel Hammond, who ran Upminster main building business, had appointed Wilson’s grandfather Andrew as his foreman on a good wage and had built him this new rent-free cottage.
The Wilsons were non-conformists and on 13 October 1833 the eight week old Thomas Lewis Wilson was baptised in Upminster’s Congregational Chapel, which his grandparents Andrew and Elizabeth Wilson had been two of the six founding members of in 1800. Young Thomas attended a private school in Hornchurch High Street in the 1840s which had “under more than one successive master, already been long-known as a distinguished public seminary”. This school was the “Academy” run by Henry Garnham in premises which later became a butchers.
In his early-teens after leaving school Wilson would have joined his father in the carpentry and undertaker’s business which was carried on from the yard adjoining his cottage. After Hammond’s enterprise was dissolved in 1836 Wilson had set up his own business with his brother-in-law, Isaac May, another of Hammond’s employees, who had married Thomas’ sister Jemima And when Thomas junior joined the business in the late 1840s he would have worked alongside his uncle Isaac.
In February 1856 at the age of just 22-year-old this remarkable village carpenter’s son published his parish history entitled Sketches of Upminster – the opening sentence gives a flavour of his prose:
“Though Essex forms part of the tract of country on the eastern side of England which comprises the largest connected space of level ground in the whole island, it has many gentle hills and dales; and towards the north-west, especially, whence most of its rivers proceed to give beauty and fertility to almost every parish in the county, it presents continual undulations of surface, rising in some parts to a considerable height above the level of the sea.”
Wilson’s history drew on and expanded an earlier history by William Crowest, the late vestry clerk and village schoolmaster who died in 1834. Thomas Wilson senior had gathered together much historical material on Upminster and his son also benefitted from having a mentor in Thomas Johnson of Gaynes Villa, who had married Mary Clayton, the only daughter of Rev John Clayton, the renowned non-conformist minister who owned the Gaynes Estate. Johnson’s researches in the City Library and elsewhere provided a large amount of historical material used by Wilson, together with the encouragement to see through to publication the 140 page volume.
The young TLW was “an enthusiastic cricketer” and a founder member of Upminster Cricket Club who took part in the first recorded match between the married and single members of the club on 30th August 1858. Wilson was to continue as a regular player for over 30 years until he retired when he was 56 years old in 1889, then becoming the club’s Honorary Secretary.
For several years Thomas Wilson’s business and family interests meant he did little local history. On his 27th birthday on 17th August 1860 he married Martha Field at St Mary’s, Lambeth and the newly-weds lived initially in Upminster with Thomas’s parents and their first child, a daughter Clara Stone Wilson, was born on 1 June 1861 at the same house in the Broadway where T L Wilson had been born almost 28 years before. Wilson’s young family continued to grow with additions at two yearly intervals with the birth of sons Frank Field and Newton Harry in 1863 and 1865 and a daughter Grace Emily in 1867.
The early 1860s probably saw Wilson’s business thriving as in September 1867 he leased from Mrs Branfill of Upminster Hall a piece of land immediately south of the National School on which he had the architect Frederick Chancellor of Chelmsford draw up plans for a house which he built. Named America Lodge this was a substantial home containing four bedrooms, a box room, two sitting rooms, kitchen, scullery, store rooms, pantry, office and WC – enough to house his growing family. At the rear, running along Cranham Road, was a yard and a series of buildings which housed Wilson’s carpenters’ workshop, superseding the former premises where he had grown up. It was to remain his home for nearly 40 years. He also diversified his carpenter and undertaker’s business, also acting as an estate agent and a carrier, transporting goods – in fact anything to generate further income.
In his private life Thomas Wilson suffered two major blows with the death of his wife Martha on 16 December 1873 and his father’s death just over a year later on 3 January 1875. After advertising in Christian World for a housekeeper; after considering the 73 replies he selected Miss Louisa Steane, aged 49 to become the housekeeper to a widower with four young children aged from six to 12.
In May 1875 Wilson remarried at St Mark, Victoria Park, Bow, his second wife being Martha Clara Bridges, ten years his junior. The births of three children followed in successive years with Charles Andrew born in March 1876, Lewis Bridges in May 1877 and a daughter Agnes Helen safely delivered in November 1878.
It was also a productive period for Wilson’s business life. By 1876 he was in partnership with William Hook, son of the respected Upminster builder Edward Hook. In September that year Wilson & Hook took out a 21 year lease to run the Upminster Potkilns brick kiln and brick field previously operated by Samuel Gardener. It made perfect sense for Wilson & Hook to add the local brickmaking works to their business interests as it provided a ready supply of raw material for use in their thriving building works. In the 1881 Census Wilson was described as a Builder & Brickmaker employing 10 men and one boy, while Hook described himself as a Builder employing six men. The 1882 Directory entry expanded the description to “brick, tile and drain pipe makers”, with Hook again also listed as a builder, and Wilson as a builder and undertaker. The pair may have found that their lack of expertise in brickmaking meant that running the works in addition to their main building business was too much for on 12 November 1885, less than half way through their 21 year agreement, they sold the remainder of their lease to James Brown, an established brickmaker.
During the time that his business interests had expanded by taking on the brickworks Wilson also achieved a long-held ambition when in 1881 he produced an updated version of his parish history, some 25 years after the original. Not only was there much additional material but the edition was also enhanced by the inclusion of illustrations. There were four Woodbury type photographs of Upminster, by John Branfill, showing the Bell Inn and smithy, Upminster Hall from the south, St Lawrence Church and a view of Gaynes Bridge, and 50 engravings provided at his own expense by his brother Colonel Benjamin Branfill of Upminster Hall which appear amongst the text or as chapter headings. These delightful lithographic engravings were painstakingly carved in stone by Branfill from November 1879 onwards and their painstaking completion and the complex printing arrangements delayed the publication of Wilson’s work which was finally published in February 1881, just three months before Col Branfill departed to live in New Zealand.
Thomas Wilson became a property owner for the first time in 1884 when he bought two copyhold cottages and outbuildings west of the Mason’s Arms in Cranham Lane for £40 from Warren Danford, and in August 1886 he acquired the freehold for £26, extinguishing remaining copyhold payments to the Manor of Upminster Hall.
Wilson was a prolific correspondent and regularly had letters and articles on Upminster’s history and other historical topics in the local and sometimes national press. He gave talks locally and in the 1890s hosted visits from Essex Field Club and archaeological groups to the parish.
After his book was published in 1881 Wilson also decided to compile a living history of Upminster and started systematically to collect press items about Upminster. Eventually on 30 January 1893 he started his first of what was to be a series of 10 scrapbooks, actually using builders’ merchants’ and suppliers’ catalogues, in which he pasted all manner of local history material and his Upminster press cuttings. This unique series comprises thousands of items, often added as they came to hand and where a space existing. Luckily in later years Wilson conscientiously indexed these using his own classification.
As if he wasn’t busy enough with his business interests, family and local studies, when the first Upminster Parish Council was formed in 1894 T L Wilson successfully stood for election and continued as parish councillor until 1902, having already held office on the parish vestry which had previously managed local affairs. As the saying goes: “If a job needs doing, ask a busy man!”.
However, this later period of Wilson’s life was marked by tragedies. In August 1896 a tenant at his cottage in St Mary’s Lane died in a fall down the stairs and, as the landlord, Wilson was criticised at the inquest for not making the stairs safe. In April 1900 he suffered personal sadness when his eldest son Frank Field Wilson, who had emigrated to Australia in 1885, died due to lung trouble in New South Wales, aged just 36. Then on Christmas Eve 1902 his wife’s younger brother Daniel Bridges, aged 52, was found hanging in Wilson’s greenhouse, having committed suicide by tying his handkerchief to a hook on the door.
It seems that in addition to these tragic deaths, as Wilson reached his 70th birthday he suffered personal disappointments which led to his retirement from his carpenter’s and undertaker’s business. By December 1905 it seems he was “in great want of some kindly assistance”… “in consequence of heavy losses and other circumstances, added to nearly two years of severe affliction.” Frank H Rowe, publican of the Huntsman & Hounds issued a local appeal for “contributions to a small Fund on his behalf, so that he may have a small monthly allowance”. How sad it must have been that one who had given so much of his life to Upminster should be in such a straightened condition?
This probably led to him leaving his home of 40 years America Lodge with Albert Parrish, carman, taking on the annual lease from September 1906. Wilson’s new home was Grove Cottage in St Mary’s Lane which was his home for the remaining ten years of his life. During this time he continued to compile & index his scrapbooks, also bringing together information on a handwritten “Religious History of Upminster” and a detailed account of the Wilson family, both written in 1907.
He continued to contribute letters and articles and just a few months before his death an article “How to Collect a Local History” was published in the Essex Review, which provides much useful information about his lifelong local historical endeavours.
Thomas Lewis Wilson died on the 27th June 1919, almost two months before his 86th birthday, leaving a widow and seven surviving children, and was buried in Upminster churchyard, where as an undertaker he had himself been responsible for many burials. Despite his great contribution to village life for over 60 years, his death did not warrant more than a short account of his funeral in the local press. His wife Martha survived him by two years.
That his scrapbooks have survived is more down to chance. In 1923 they were sold by the family for five guineas to John Champion Russell of Stubbers, but in 1941 the County Librarian put out an appeal to track down their whereabouts. Some years later they were found in County Library and along with other chronological indexes of Wilson’s from Hornchurch Library, were deposited in the Essex Record Office, where they remain.
It’s impossible to put a value on T L Wilson’s contribution to Upminster’s history. Although very much a typically untrained Victorian antiquarian historian, he had from an early age developed an interest in local history almost at his father’s knee. Growing up in an Upminster surrounded by many who had lived through the major redevelopment of the parish of the Georgian period and often working for them, he was ideally placed to record its history, building by building, and person by person. Although a village tradesman, he was on good terms with the village gentry, working closely with Thomas Johnson on his first history and with Benjamin Branfill on his second edition.
Anyone researching Upminster’s history would have a much harder job without his remarkable legacy.
Sketches of Upminster – T L Wilson (1856)
History & Topography of Upminster – T L Wilson (1881)
“How to Collect a Local History” – T L Wilson (Essex Review xxviii – 1919 – pp.113-115)
A History of Upminster and Cranham – John Drury (1986) “T L Wilson – Upminster’s Historian” pp. 92-103
“Wilson’s ‘Upminster’: The Branfil Letters” – Janette Howell (Havering History Review no. 12 – 1991 pp.13-21)
Religious History of Upminster – handwritten notes T L Wilson (1907) – photocopy LB Havering Local Studies Library
Wilson of Upminster – Family Records – handwritten notes T L Wilson (1907) – photocopy LB Havering Local Studies Library