Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Great Witley gives up its secrets

Witley Court
(courtesy of en.wikipedia.org)

BBC's Country File visited Witley Court, in Great Witley, Worcestershire, this week. The house, once a place of splendour with a reputation for grand parties on a lavish scale, is now a spectacular ruin following a devastating fire in 1937. English Heritage now manages the ruin along with its stunning gardens which are now open to the public. Find out more here.

Ernest George Shelley

Great Witley plays a part in my family history. My grandfather (above) used to be employed during shooting parties in the village in the 1920s. When the film Gosforth Park came out, it became a firm favourite of mine, not only for being a murder mystery, but because it appeared to portray what my grandfather would have experienced in his role as a member of staff at the shooting parties, allegedly at Witley Court. I even imagined that my grandmother, a parlour maid, might have met my grandfather at one of these events.

The truth of the matter is less glamorous, as the timescale doesn't quite fit the facts. My grandfather was employed as a gardener in the 1930s at a country house called The Foxhills in Wombourne, some 20 miles away in Staffordshire. On shooting weekends he, along with all the under-gardeners, would be called to Great Witley to be beaters, walking across the fields with sticks, beating the undergrowth to flush out the game for the shooters.

But by this time the famous Witley Court had been sold by its extravagant owner and so the shoots were organised from the nearby Hundred House Hotel.

Hundred House Hotel, Great Witley
(sold in December 2013 and expected to remain a prestigious hotel)
photo courtesy of geograph.org.uk

But my grandfather had another link to Great Witley. His mother, Jane Hick, grew up there. 

I discovered Jane on the 1881 census in Great Witley, working as a domestic servant. In 1891 she was a cook and housekeeper in London. But I hadn't been able to locate her on earlier censuses. So thinking it was about time for another try, I decided to track her father instead, in the hope of finding Jane in the same household.

James Hick, born in 1834 in Herefordshire, duly turned up on the 1871 census with his wife Eleanor and his step-daughter Jane Williams. This explained why I'd failed to find her under the name Jane Hick. Perhaps Jane had been the result of a previous marriage.

Wind back ten years to 1861, the year Jane was born, and there is she is, Jane Williams, aged 2 months, grand-daughter to the head of the household, Thomas Williams, living in Little Witley, with Thomas's unmarried daughter Eleanor, aged 20.

And at the bottom the other inhabitants are listed. Two lodgers. One of them, James Hick, aged 27.

So, was James the father of 2 month-old Jane? Or did he take on the baby when he married Eleanor later that year? Perhaps Jane's birth or baptism records will tell the tale!

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