Sewells of Hitcham, Suffolk

Their Lives and Times – Part 3

By Gabrielle Stevens

This article was published in the December 2017 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

Parts 1 (December 2016) and 2 (April 2017) of my articles regarding my Sewell ancestors ended leaving one member of Edward and Mary Sewell’s family not considered. That is John Sewell, and he is my 2x great grandfather. He is shown in the 1841 census as at home with his parents. In 1851 he is still at home and his occupation is given as a thatcher, like his father. Later that year he marries, in Hitcham, Sarah Baker, and by 1861 they have three children:

  1. Lavinia Eliza, born 1852, died 1926, aged 73
  2. William, born 1854, died 1881, aged 27
  3. Harry Charles, born 1857, died 1932, aged 75 – Gabrielle’s great grandfather

The 1861 census shows that John is now the Parish Clerk, as well as a thatcher. This began a long association of the Sewell family with the Parish Council, with successive generations undertaking the role of Parish Clerk. The 1871 census indicates that by now John’s thatching business allowed him to employ two men. Then in 1881 he is recorded as being a thatcher, the Parish Clerk and a sub postmaster. In addition to this, the church guide states that he was also the sexton for the church (a sexton having responsibilities for the maintenance of the building and the surrounding graveyard). As none of his children are shown as still at home in 1881, this must have meant that he and his wife were very busy people indeed! Sadly this was not to last, as John died (of cirrhosis of the liver) in late 1886 aged only 56. His will shows he left a total of £177 14s 5d (£20,616 at current prices), a not inconsequential amount. He is buried at Hitcham, All Saints.
John’s will reveals that he and Sarah lived at a cottage known as the Police Station, which it would seem that he owned. In addition the will states that he also owned a total of four other cottages in Hitcham. This estate was left as follows: in trust to Lavinia – the Police Station, two cottages to William’s son (i.e. John’s grandson (see below), and two cottages to Harry (the latter cottages known as River Run). Sarah was to enjoy all the rents and income from this estate for the remainder of her life, the titles not actually passing to the legatees until her death in 1916.
Sarah remained at Hitcham and continued as sub postmistress – the Kelly’s Directory of 1888 (see part 1 in December 2016s journal) referring to her as MRS John Sewell! The 1891 census also states that she was a thatcher (!) as well, along with another entry which I cannot decipher. At this time she has her grandson, William Sewell aged 10, living with her. He is shown as having been born in Ely, in Cambridgeshire. She is still postmistress in 1896, as well as a shopkeeper according to the Kelly’s Directory of that year. She does not subsequently remain in Hitcham, instead moves to Bedford and spends some time there living with a cousin as a housekeeper (1901 census record). I believe that upon his death she returns to Hitcham some time before 1911 as she is shown living alone there in that year’s census. She died in 1916 aged 88 and again is buried at Hitcham, All Saints alongside her husband John.
Of the three children Lavinia lived at home until her marriage in 1874 to Charles Grimwood. Charles was an agricultural labourer. The couple stayed in Hitcham, and by 1881 they had four children. Three more children came along by 1891, although I believe one died very young. By 1901 another child has arrived, and now Charles is shown as a sub postmaster. Presumably he has taken over from his mother-in-law, Sarah, who is now in Bedford. Yet again however, tragedy strikes, and Charles dies, from meningitis/influenza, that same year aged only 47. Lavinia continued as sub postmistress (1911 census), with her daughter Mabel, to help her. By 1925 she is no longer postmistress, but is shown as a shopkeeper in the 1925 Kelly’s Directory. She died in 1926 and is probably buried at Hitcham All Saints.
I have not researched any of the children of Lavinia and Charles in detail yet. This is work for the future, and in any event outside the scope of this article for the Sole Society.
William lived at home until his marriage in 1878 to Mary Ann Butcher, who came from Little Downham in Cambridgeshire. They married in Ely, also in Cambridgeshire, where their first child was born. At that date he was a railway signalman. By 1881 they had two children, and had moved to Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire. However, William died later that year in Hitcham of phthisis (tuberculosis), at the young age of 27. It would seem that the family fragmented on William’s death with one son, also William, shown in 1891 as living with Sarah Sewell (see above), and the other, Percy, living with an uncle in Downham. It was this William who had inherited the two cottages from his grandfather John Sewell. By 1901 William had left Hitcham for March, Cambridgeshire to work as a railway porter, and Percy was an agricultural labourer in Downham. Both eventually married and had children, William surviving until 1965 and Percy until 1960. I do not know what happened to Mary Ann – some trees on Ancestry suggest that she died in 1916, but I have no further information at this stage.
John and Sarah Sewell’s last child, Harry Charles, is my great grandfather. In both 1861 and 1871 he is shown living at home with his parents. Then in 1880 he married Mary Ann Proctor, also from Hitcham. At this time he is also a thatcher. The couple have two children:
Jack Harry, born 1881, died 1966 aged 85
Sarah Kate, born 1882, died 1968, aged 85
By 1891 Harry has added the role of Parish Clerk to that of thatcher – the 1888 Kelly’s Directory (again see Part 1) includes reference to him. By 1901 his occupation has changed again to that of thatcher, rate and tax collector, and by 1911 to thatcher and income tax collector. He is shown as the Parish Clerk in the 1896, 1900, 1916 and 1925 Kelly’s Directories. In addition, like his father, he was the church sexton. He was also a keen gardener as you can see from the photo on this page, a photograph of Harry at the Bildeston Flower Show, date unknown, but at a guess about 1910.

Biddleston Flower Show, Mr Harry C Sewell’

The endorsement on the back is: ‘Biddleston Flower Show, Mr Harry C Sewell’

In 1926 he was still a tax collector. He and Mary Ann lived in Hitcham all their lives, with Harry dying in 1932 and Mary Ann in 1931 aged 75 and 77 respectively. They are buried together at Hitcham, All Saints – the gravestone recording the fact that Harry was the sexton for 50 years. On his death letters of administration were granted to his son Jack, with an estate valued at £100 3s 5d (£6,170 at current prices). For some of the time, they lived at Rose Cottage, in Hitcham Causeway – certainly from before 1901 until their deaths. At the time Harry and Mary Ann lived there, there would have been no inside toilet, no electricity and no bathroom. This is a small property which I visited often when a child in the late 50s and early 60s. I recall there was still a well in the back garden, and an outside toilet, although by the time of my visits an inside bathroom had been constructed.
Again, to quote from the Hitcham History section of the Hitcham Jubilee Website:
In the 1890s a scandal arose in Hitcham over water. A number of children died from infectious diseases and water was deemed to be a cause. The only supply of domestic water in the village was from ponds which in summer often became fouled. As a result of an enquiry carried out by the newly formed West Suffolk County Council, a water tower was constructed at Cross Green and the village was supplied with a number of water pumps and stand-pipes from which clean water could be drawn.
Note that this was not a supply to each house. That would have to wait until the 1950s. Thus life continued to be difficult for the villagers, although at least now they had clean water available.
Jack Harry was my grandfather. In 1891, 1901 and 1911 he is shown as at home with his parents. His occupation in 1901 is that of thatcher, and in 1911 an assistant overseer. He then married in late 1911 Margaret Emily Hopkin, from Downham, Norfolk, and they had four children:
Leonard Charles, born 1912, died 1994, aged 82
Kathleen, born 1913, died 2013, aged 99
Mary Elizabeth, born 1915, died 2007, aged 92
Joyce Margaret, born 1918, died 2011, aged 93
He served in the army during the First World War (see photo)

Gabrielle Steven’s grandfather Jack Sewell

Gabrielle Steven’s grandfather Jack Sewell

My mum told me he was gassed in the trenches early on. The Kelly’s Directory for 1916 mentions him as an assistant overseer and tax collector for the local area. My mother’s birth certificate gives his occupation in 1918 as a private in the 665 Agricultural Company Labour Corps (Rate and Tax Collector). The Kelly’s Directory for 1925 states he was an assistant overseer and tax collector. He was a keen cricketer, playing I believe for a club in Bildeston, which is a larger village a couple of miles away. I recall he won an award for bowling. He is described as a farm worker in 1932 when he was granted letters of administration in respect of his father’s estate. His gravestone states he served as clerk to Hitcham parish church for 35 years. Because of this long association and that of his father and grandfather before him, he was featured in a local news television programme in the early 1960s. He was also, like his father and grandfather, the sexton for the church. He is shown in the 1939 register as an agricultural labourer and a special constable.
One of the duties of the sexton was to maintain the church heating system. According to the church guide this had been installed in the 1860s, and involved a complex system of underfloor channels and a total of four coke fired stoves. Apparently if one stove went out, all stoves went out. If guaranteed heat was required for a special occasion then a sexton had to spend the night in the church to ensure that this did not happen!
Jack and Margaret are buried together at Hitcham, All Saints.
Sarah Kate also lived at home in 1891, 1901 and 1911. She married George Gosling in Hitcham in late 1913. Their marriage certificate shows her occupation as church organist and his as a carpenter. They did not have any children, but adopted two (boy and girl) in due course. They remained in Hitcham, living in a small house in The Causeway about 200 yards from Rose Cottage. Sarah Kate remained the church organist at Hitcham All Saints for 67 years, an amazing achievement. I recall having piano lessons at her house in the early 1960s – she was very patient despite my, at times, lack of enthusiasm! On her death the piano was given to the church, where it remained and was used until it became un-tunable, only being finally replaced a few years ago. She is also recorded as having taken part in amateur dramatics. Sarah Kate and her husband are buried together at Hitcham All Saints.
Of Jack and Margaret’s children, Len went into the building trade with his own company. He married Lily Pleasants in 1935. He was elected to the Bury St Edmunds council in the 1960s, becoming mayor of the town in 1964 for a year. The couple had four children and have nine grandchildren.
Kathleen became a teacher and moved to Bedford. She married William Shephard in 1947. They had one child and have one grandchild. She too is noted as having been involved in amateur dramatics whilst at Hitcham.
Mary moved to Birmingham when she married Samuel Freeth in 1939. They had one child and have two grandchildren.
My mother, Joyce Margaret started her working life as a nurse at the West Suffolk General Hospital, but this was cut short when she contracted septicaemia (she received £87.50 compensation – £5,390 at current prices). She then in 1938 trained as a hairdresser in Ipswich before joining the army in 1941. She married Ernest Bensley in 1947 in Southall, London and continued hairdressing until I was born when she gave up work. She was a very religious person, following in the beliefs of her parents, and was active in the local church where she played the organ and sang in the church choir. When she died in 2011 she was buried in the churchyard in Hitcham along with my father who had passed away many years earlier in 1978.
In conclusion, the Sewells of Hitcham, Suffolk did not have an easy time at all. They were no strangers to poverty and tragedy, with many children dying young, and many who did survive childhood succumbing to diseases such as tuberculosis. They lived through a time in the 19th century when life in the countryside was difficult, with poor wages and seasonal work, and at times indifferent landowners. Despite this, however, some prospered, and were able to pass on significant sums to their children. Eventually the range of employment options increased and those children moved away from the village so that today there is no-one with the name Sewell remaining, although there are probably some descendants of the early Sewells still there.

Meaning of Hitcham, Article in the Daily Mirror, date unknown
Kelly’s Directory for Suffolk 1888 and other years Available from
Parish register transcripts, Suffolk Family History Society
Edward Sewell, Sarah Balsham marriage, Suffolk County Council, Suffolk Archive Service
The Hitcham Village Web site:
Hitcham facts and church information, The Hitcham Church Guide, and the Discovering Historical Hitcham series of booklets, the latter by David Turner, a local historian
Various family trees, Public trees available from
Census data 1841 to 1911,
1939 census data,
Birth, death and marriage certificates, Government Records Office
Wills admitted to probate, Government Records Office