It’s often strange where a line of research takes you. What starts out as a simple enquiry ends up uncovering parts of Weymouth’s history that I never knew about, their family lines and tales twisting and weaving through time and place and the story of Weymouth itself.
I was rummaging through the National Probate Calendar for one of my own folks when I came across a couple of other Weymouth residents, and being nosy, decided to take a peek. These records of their legacy can reveal a lot, or sometimes just an intriguing snippet about a person, their lives and place in society, but in reality these few lines are just an impersonal financial culmination of someones life, you have to dig a little deeper to uncover their tales.
What follows is a few of those characters who were wily enough to make their wills, an everyday function but one that left a trail for other inquisitive souls to follow, and those snippets of life in old Weymouth that I uncovered in doing so.
Thomas Horatio Adams was not of Weymouth descent, he in fact was London born and bred. Thomas was one of two brothers. One thrived and became an eminent surgeon, the other, our Thomas, was of a more sickly nature, right from childhood he suffered horrendous migraines and dizzy spells. Living his life pretty much as an invalid meant Thomas had to seek other means of earning a living, so he became an artist and painter, not that that he really needed to as he lived at home with his mother and they were a fairly well-to-do family.
It wasn’t until after the death of his mother, Mary Griggs Adams, in 1877 that Thomas left the family home and moved into lodgings, first in swanky Belgrave London, then for one reason or another he moved on down to Weymouth. One suspects he chose this sea bathing resort specifically for it’s clean air and cold water immersion with its much promoted health giving properties.
By the year 1883 artist Thomas finds himself safely ensconced within the home and care of spinster Mary Knight, a genteel lady who supplemented her income as a lodging housekeeper at no 8 Clarence Buildings. It’s light and airy rooms having stunning views out over the beautiful Weymouth bay, beach and the New Gardens, complete with its program of daily entertainments laid out in front them.
As you might suspect, being in such a prime position on the seafront, this was no ordinary lodging house, it’s long term guests were of the more wealthy and well-educated variety.
If proof were needed in the Victorians strong beliefs of fresh air and sea breezes as a cure all, just a few doors down from Thomas’ lodgings stood the new and larger Weymouth Sanatorium, (the first one built in 1848 had stood somewhere in the middle of Clarence buildings.) This larger, purpose built hospital was opened in 1863 on the corner of Clarence buildings and Belle View. Its nursing home was under the strict rules and beady eyes of 53-year-old Annie Wadsworth.
It was a very busy place, funded wholly by donations and subscriptions from wealthy benefactors, though many folk who entered these doors paid what they could for their treatment, its whole ethos was mainly taking care of those who couldn’t pay.
During the 12 month period of 1898/99 they had treated 353 inpatients, of those 278 were cured, 50 ‘relieved’ and only 4 didn’t make it back out through the grand doorway on their own two feet. At the time of the report, there were 21 folk who were still undergoing their treatment. Out patients for that year totalled 1,169, of those only 319 were Weymouth residents, the rest were admitted from the surrounding counties.
Far more women were treated here than men, but that may be because the sanitarium was ‘especially adopted towards the requirements of women, and where there were specialists who could attend to the peculiar ailments to which women alone were liable.’
I must confess, before I started to research Thomas’ life, I never even knew that this building had once been a sanitarium…surprising what secrets lay behind the doors of some of our every day houses. One lady tells me of her friend who used to have a flat in the basement of this building, who mentioned a gully that ran around the edge of one of the rooms…which apparently was the old morgue…no guessing what the gully was for then.
Anyway..I digress somewhat, back to Thomas and his tale. From his window, our ailing Thomas would have had no end of lively and colourful scenes to capture with his sable brushes and paint stained palette. The bustle of the busy park below with its ornate wrought iron bandstand, was home to the many military bands who performed here. This drew in the elegantly dressed women parading in the sunshine, their pale faces protected under their twirling parasols, chattering children suited and booted in the latest sailor fashions. Joining the throng were sturdy soldiers in their bright scarlet uniforms, arriving in town to make the most of any entertainments on offer. All manner of humanity parading before his observant and artistic eyes.
For it seems that Thomas did not venture forth often, according to Mary Knight ‘he took very little exercise,’ preferring instead to admire these views from the safety and comfort of his own room. But those four enclosing walls of his room were also to become Thomas’ last scene viewed on this mortal coil.
On the morning of the 27th March 1897, as was customary, Mary Knight’s maid entered his room, only to confront a shocking and most distressing scene, for there laid the body of Thomas, or rather, what was left of his charred remains which were draped across the fender. Thomas would wield his brushes no more.
At his inquest his brother, Matthew Algernon Adams, confirmed that Thomas had never been in the best of health, nor had he ever enjoyed a pain free lifestyle. As both child and man he had suffered from terrible migraines that caused him to have fits, spells of dizziness and ‘insensibility.’
His remains were interred in the Melcombe Regis churchyard. I wonder if any of Thomas’ paintings of the local scenes are still around today?
The next name I came across in the Wills Index is name well known by many old Weymouth residents, though members of this family didn’t move here until 1861. Once settled here, the Bennetts played a major role in this resort, by designing, building and even supplying our town with a plethora of goods.
First to move to Weymouth was Robert Christie Bennett along with his wife Emma Albinia, ( this family seemed to have a liking for unusual names,) Robert was an architect and surveyor.
Also moving to Weymouth around the same time was his brother James Penman Bennet and his family, James was a builder. Between these two brothers many of Weymouth’s grand buildings came into existence including the magnificent Gloucester Street Congregational Chapel designed by architect Robert in 1864.
Robert also had a hand in the extension to St John’s church in 1868.
Richard James Penman was the father of Vilat Hackforth Bennett, a man who went on and played a principle role in Weymouth’s commerce and town council. Vilat became a major participant in the towns politics, going on to become Mayor at the end of the WWI. Here was a man full of big ideas and a view to the towns future, he wanted nothing but the best for his place of birth.
Whilst in his role as Mayor, so frustrated and ashamed did he become at the apathy of the council committee to agree to a memorial for those hundreds of local men who died during the war, that he went as far as to pay out of his own pocket for a memorial. It’s official title is the Armistice Shelter and it sits in prime position in our beautiful Greenhill gardens. It’s somewhere that I’ve often sat, or taken refuge in during showers. To my shame, I have to confess that until I began researching Weymouths history, I had never even realised its significance, that it is in fact a memorial to our brave men who lost their lives during WWI.
Vilat, as you might expect, was not just a council member, he was also the business brains behind the opening one of Weymouth’s largest and busiest department stores in the 1920’s, which went on to become the V H Bennetts, the locals first port of call for all manner of items.
It’s also where I got my first job at the age of 15, and indeed, where I shopped until its doors finally closed.
His uncle, respected architect Robert Christie Bennet passed away at his home, at no 10 Gloucester Terrace, on the 10th September 1893.
Perhaps he had been wily businessman and sorted his affairs before his demise, because he left to his widow, Emma Albenia, the rather surprisingly small sum, (considering what a successful architect and surveyor he had been,) of £344 11s 6d. There is no record of the couple having any children of their own, but his still thriving business was taken over by one of his nephews and another bore his christian names, Robert Christie.
The third and final probate notice concerns another Weymouth family…well, I say Weymouth, but as locals might gather from some of the names involved, they maybe denote their origins from a certain isle not too far from here. On the 14th November 1892, William Francis Bussell passed away at the age of 59, leaving behind the sum total of his worldly wealth, £766 3s, and a grieving widow, Susan Pearce Bussell.
William had been born into a sea faring family, his father, not surprisingly also called William, was a master mariner, a well-respected and hard working man who lived with his wife Caroline and their family in St Mary Street.
William jnr came along in 1834, he grew up with the sea in his blood, but his trade took him on a very different path. Not for him a life toiling on the high seas, hoisting salt laden canvas and dropping anchor, he turned his attention to making and repairing a vital part of every vessel, he became a sail maker.
Come 1861 and the eligible bachelor fell in love with and married a local lass, Ann Mary Wallis, she belonged to another sea faring family from Wyke.
Sadly, their life together came to a swift end. Just two years after William stood waiting for his bride-to-be to walk down the aisle towards him, so he was now following her coffin down that same aisle. On the 19th March 1863 the body of 23-year-old Ann Mary was laid to rest in the churchyard at Wyke Regis.
Despite his aching heart, life carried on for William and those around him, by now his busy sail making business was based in Hope Street on the harbourside.
Virtually next door to the home and business of the grieving widower lived the Ayles family. Thomas, a ship builder, and his wife Ann, son Robert and daughter Susan Pearce. This family ran the ship yard, son Robert was the manager under the ever watchful eye of his father. You can just picture how in this close knit maritime community, they would have taken young William under their wings, maybe cooked meals for him, advised him, perhaps even helped him take care of his house and business.
At some stage this closeness of these two households led to love between William and Susan, and consequently their marriage. The 16th January 1866, and for a second time in his life William the sail maker was stood before St Mary’s alter awaiting his bride to be, his thoughts that day probably a jumble of emotions, swinging between happiness and sadness, hope and trepidation.
Fate smiled down on the couple, they led relatively long and fairly prosperous lives, and within their first year of marriage a daughter was born, Caroline Annie, and soon after appeared son William Langrish in 1868. Like many households though during this period, it was not unusual to know the heartache of losing children, William and Susan experience such grief.
At the start of 1873, Susan gave birth to twin girls, Ethel Elizabeth and Alice Maud. Baby Alice was not destined for this world, before long her heart broken parents had to say goodbye. Her sister Ethel clung to life for the next six months, but she too was taken from them.
Their woes didn’t end there, a couple of years later Susan gave birth to son Sydney Percy Ayles at the start of 1877, like his twin sisters before him, he wasn’t destined to make old bones, and aged just one he was laid to rest in St Mary’s churchyard along side them.
Despite their tribulations, the family continued to prosper, they grew up living and working in their home and premises on the bustling quayside, son William of course toiling along side his father in the business. Life was good, the shipping trade in the busy harbour meant that they never needed to worry about money or where their next meal was coming from.
But, there is only one certainty in life, and that is at time or another, depending on luck, fate or the ultimate supreme being, we are all going to die and leave behind others to mourn. Such was the case on the 14th November of 1892, patriarch of the family, 59-year-old William Francis Bussell departed this mortal coil. His worldly goods were left to his wife Susan, they totalled a grand sum of £766 3s. It was she who carried on the business with the help of her children until her own death in 1899.
But William and Susan left an ever bigger legacy to Weymouth than just a purely financial one. Son William Langrish Bussell, born with the sea coursing through his veins, and a love of sailing in his heart, took over the family business, sometimes diversifying and moving with the times as needs dictated.
Not only was he a good businessman, but he was a passionate sailor, and played a major role in Weymouth’s first sailing club that was set up in 1882. This became known as the Weymouth Corinthian Sailing Club, its aim to bring weekly sailing events to Weymouth bay. Due to sailing virtually being a rich mans sport and only the wealthy able to afford such luxury sail boats, the club drifted along over the next few decades, not quite fulfilling its expectations, their vision that it would bring in sailors and their boats to the town didn’t quite materialise.
It wasn’t until it was formed into the founder of today’s Sailing club in the 1920’s that it began to flourish. Needing premises to base themselves as a social club and meeting place, William Bussell, heavily involved with the club at the time, offered them the use of a row of derelict coastguard cottages that he owned, they once stood at the present day club site.
After many years of additions and alterations, very little remains of these cottages bar a couple of the original bow windows on the first floor. According to a fascinating and comprehensive history of the Weymouth Sailing Club ‘a pane of glass in one of the windows had an inscription scratched on it by a byegone tidewatcher [dated 1839] and this is preserved to this day.’
in 1926 William donated a silver cup, known as the Bussell cup, one that is still presented today for the winners in inter-port racing. The name Bussells still remains synonymous with the boating fraternity in Weymouth, their premises are now further down in Hope Street, not far from where the two Williams first set out on their successful business journey.
If you enjoy reading stories of the close knit maritime community around Weymouth harbour of old, why not grab a copy of my book Nothe Fort and Beyond. Enough gossip in there to fill your evenings.
Available at the Nothe Fort and Weymouth Museum bookshops