Writing down family history

“Ron is only about the same age as the Queen,” commented my mother. “He was younger than Guy.” Guy had died just short of his hundredth birthday, but what were a hundred years in a community of such long memories?

Perhaps it is important to document such memories while those who remember are still with us to tell of them. The life of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother is recorded in a four page leaflet. Her story belongs to countless numbers of descendants.

The story of Harriett, recounted by a distant cousin in the 1980s, tells of a woman living in the parish that is still home to the Crossmans. Family life through the years has been characterised by having just enough to hold on and never enough to move on; it was certainly the case for Harriett.


Harriett’s great-grandfather Thomas Culliford, married his second wife, Mary Larcombe, in 1753. There had been no children of his first marriage and there was to be only one child of the second, a son James, baptised in 1756. Like so many of the Cullifords, James grew up to be a butcher and at the age of 22 he married a local girl, Mary Keirle, whose family had lived in Othery for many generations. James and Mary had three children, Charlotte (1779) Ann (1782) and James (1785). Some time between the births of the latter two children, James senior was involved in a scandal. A local girl had an illegitimate son and claimed parish relief. As was customary, the parish council demanded to know the name of the father of the child so that the money could be reclaimed from him, and the girl gave the name of William Lowman, a local farmer. However, when Mr Lowman was approached he was so adamant that he was in no way responsible that the council recalled the girl for further questioning. Thoroughly frightened by this time, the girl admitted that she had lied and that she had been bribed to do so by the child’s true father, James Culliford. No action seems to have been taken against James over the bribery charge but no doubt he had to refund the relief money to the council. Before two more years had passed, James had died of tuberculosis at the age of 29.

Ann Culliford, second child of James and Mary, was four years old when her father died and within ten years she was working as a servant, ‘living in’ at the many and various houses where she worked.

When Ann was about 20 years old she gave birth to the first of her four illegitimate daughters. The child was baptised Harriett at Muchelney on 24th March 1805, but I believe she was born two years earlier in 1803. Ann was to have three more daughters all at different places and of different fathers, but she was a good mother and never claimed parish relief for any of the children. This was because she was able to keep working, helped by the young Harriett who took on her mother’s duties during the confinements. In 1819, Ann married Robert Crossman and took her three surviving daughters to live with him. She and Robert had a daughter in 1822 and named her Elizabeth, Robert died a few years later. That Ann was a good mother there is little doubt her girls grew up to marry well and stayed a close-knit family all of their lives. When Ann died in March 1855, the vicar with a marked lack of Christian charity entered the following in the parish register: “Ann Crossman (78) This old woman whose name before marriage was Culliford had several illegitimate children, the wife of William Case (i.e.Elizabeth) being the only one born in wedlock.”

This, then,was Harriett’s start in life, illegitimate, poor and with no formal education. In 1822, Harriett married Thomas Crossman, farm labourer of Wagg hamlet. They were both about 9 years old and shared a capacity for hard work.Thomas desperately wanted to own land and farm for himself. Like all of his family, he was a regular church-goer, a chorister and bell-ringer at St.Mary’s, Huish Episcopi and it was he who brought Harriett into the church, beginning a way of life that was to vary little over the years. Between 1823 and 1851, Thomas and Harriett had twelve children, two of whom died young Thomas gradually bought up various plots of land in the neighbourhood as they became available and was successful with his farming. The Crossman sons followed their family tradition by becoming choristers and bell-ringers, while the girls followed their mother with involvement in church work.

Around Christmastime 1851, Thomas became ill and pneumonia quickly developed. He made out his Will on 3rd January 1852 and died the following day. He was 48 years old. Everything he had was left to his dear Harriett, to be held in trust for the children. There was the farm at Wagg, six acres at Higher Bowdens, land at Aller and Wearne Witch as well as withy beds at Combe and other properties. Harriett could sell any of the property, but the proceeds of the sale had to go into trust for the children, while Harriett had rents and the interest on the money to live on. While not wealthy, she at least had no money worries. Thomas was buried on a cold grey day in January. The church choir carried his coffin from the house to the church singing all the way, as was the custom for a former chorister.

There were still seven children living at home, ranging from the 21 year old Winford to 6-month old Thirza, so there was little time for Harriett to indulge in griefs. With the help of her sons (and later, her grandsons) she managed for a long time, but as the boys left home to be married the workload became too much. Harriett was reluctant to let any of the land be sold.She felt that Thomas would have wanted it kept for the children and this gave her the idea of selling the land to her own children, the money going into trust for them (with interest) on her death. She retained the withy-beds and in 1884, when Harriett was about 81, Kelly’s Directory shows her as a grower and seller of withies. At that time she was living alone at Wagg but later took in a lodger, an elderly lady from Muchelney.

Harriett died on 16th November, 1897, the cause of death given as “senile decay.” Her daughter Harriett Burrows registered the death and gave her mother’s age as 97, but I believe it is more likely to have been 94. On the afternoon of Saturday, 20th November,1897 Harriett was buried in St. Mary’s churchyard and the following day the vicar made special reference to her during the service. He said that as far as he could ascertain, Harriett had 12 children, 96 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren, 56 great-great-grandchildren and 7 great-great-great-grandchildren, proof of the remarkable vitality of the family which he thought was without parallel. During the whole of her life, Harriett had set a noble example of piety and earnest religious conviction to her numerous descendants and to all who knew her and with the exception of failing eyesight had retained all of her faculties until the day of her death.

Life had never been easy for Harriett but from what was in those days a shameful beginning, she had become a much-loved and respected lady in the community. A woman without education but shrewd enough to successfully manage a farm and withy business alone while bringing up a young family. A truly remarkable lady.

Harriett’s descendants still walk along the same streets, travel the same roads, look at the same medieval buildings, as did her own ancestors. In eight generations’ time, there might be further descendants living in the same parishes.

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