Francis Witts

PUBLISHED: 12:00 16 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:55 20 February 2013

Turnpike house on Leckhampton Hill.  Witts describes the famous landmark of the Devil's Chimney as 'the Residence of his Infernal Majesty'.

Turnpike house on Leckhampton Hill. Witts describes the famous landmark of the Devil's Chimney as 'the Residence of his Infernal Majesty'.

volume two of the published diaries of francis Witts captures the highs and lows of this fascinating period of his life.

A new Act of Parliament has lately been passed, which considerably limits the operations of the Banks for savings and enjoins a regular and uniform system of management.

No, this is not a quote taken from a current newspaper, but an entry made in the diary of a Cotswold parson in 1824. The Reverend Francis Witts held the living of Upper Slaughter soon after his marriage in 1808 and within a few years until the end of his life held a prominent position in public life. Appointed as a magistrate in 1812 gave Witts judicial powers and standing in the county and, in his home patch, he assumed the role and status of local squire.

It is from the complete diaries of this Cotswold parson and those of his mother's, Agnes Witts, that a pen portrait of the man and his times from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries can be drawn. We left a look at Agnes Witts' life as 'The Lady of Rodborough' in the February issue of Cotswold Life as she and her husband made plans to escape the stigma and restraints of bankruptcy in the Cotswolds. We pick up on Volume Two of the published diaries of Francis Witts as he marries Margaret Backhouse, whose family fortune in the mercantile and banking business was, no doubt, the major attraction for the match with the assiduous hand of Agnes Witts guiding the way to secure a sounder financial backing for her son's future than his parental one afforded. It was Agnes who had carefully cultivated the relationship with the holders of the advowson at Upper Slaughter in her son's favour when it came to securing his position as rector. And it was from the prolific writing of Agnes and the strict routine of diary-keeping that Francis started his recordings. He, however, did not stick so rigidly to the habit as his mother did, and so it is from her papers that gaps in his work are filled to give continuity and completeness.

In the only surviving letter which could be termed as a 'love letter' from Francis Witts to his 'Dearest Margaret' before their marriage, he detailed the passing of 'an old and agreeable friend, yet he was not so near to me as to excite any very strong regret in you'. It is indicative of the character that emerges of the parson that social and financial standing coloured his life and influenced his thoughts of others. Many of his diary entries are terse statements of parochial and legal business, but he always records with whom he dined and consorted, often with details of any illustrious ancestry attached to his fellow guests. This obsession with class distinction extended to his categorising the depositors of the Provident Bank at Stow on the Wold of which he was Chairman of the Committee of Accounts. In 1820 Witts lists the 190 depositors with their occupations: 5 Journeymen, 38 Labourers, 3 Benefit Societies, 28 Minors, 3 Single Women, 7 Widows, 6 Farmers, 23 Male Servants, 34 Tradesmen, 30 Female Servants and 13 'Not particularly described'.

Some interesting domestic details are revealed in a letter Francis wrote to his wife two years after their marriage when she was staying with her parents, recouping from an earlier miscarriage. From the rectory at Upper Slaughter he writes in 1810: 'the servants well, and the house neat, and all as it should be, except an explosion of bottled Ale in the Cellar. The fever in Upper Slaughter is less bad than in other places round. One of Wilcox's and one of James's Girls have fallen victims to it. Farmer Cook is much as he was, Molly Blandford worse within these few days, Nancy Packer quite pure again. We have, I hear, a fine fat Calf. Mr Garland stays the Winter at Eyford not being able to sell his corn to advantage. The Stow Ball is put off on account of the Death of the Princess Amelia. Our Greenhouse looks very nice and full. The fireguards are come from Stanway and suit well. The window Curtains in the dining room were put up before I came. The Brewing has been well managed. . .. . Kiss this part for the sake of your tenderly attached Husband. F. E. Witts

Edward, their only surviving child, was born in 1813; Francis doted on his son just as he was always the apple of his mother's eye and the absolute centre of all her affections. Despite the obvious happy family relationship, there is no mention of any special celebrations and fun-filled events marking Christmas or birthdays. No doubt this was due in part to the family's limited finances as Francis took in pupils for extra income soon after his father died and his mother, as was her wont, made extended visits to save on her own living expenses. Like his mother, Francis enjoyed the social round and the arts in their varied form. A keen theatre-goer, he records seeing the great Edmund Kean playing Shylock at Bath in 1820 and reflects on the occasion when, as a young boy, he saw the legendary Mrs Siddons at Edinburgh.

An avid reader, Francis Witts writes at length on many of the works he reads, delving into the plot and characters and style of the author as though he were a literary critic. He took every opportunity of visiting art exhibitions and dabbled with paint and brush, pencil and pen, capturing a building or landscape or people that caught his eye on his many journeys. His invitation to become a Steward at the triennial anniversary of the Three Choirs Festival was recorded in great detail; the prestige of the appointment, anticipating that the occasion 'will certainly insure a numerous attendance of opulent and fashionable visitors' was tempered by the daunting prospect that 'whether in the case of a dearth of company a heavy surplus would be left for the Stewards to pay', he 'almost declined the offer'. On the home front, the letting of his farm caused him more financial considerations as in 1823 when he details the tenancy privileges attendant to the land bequeathed to him by his uncle. 'The bad coming on, owing to Gregory being entitled to take all the manure off and carry away all the hay and straw without consuming it on the farm, and in addition an off growing crop of wheat makes me almost despair of finding a tenant.'

The fall in land value is highlighted in the parson's diary entry for 29 July 1823: I let my Vicarage farm at Stanway to Mr George Cook, a farmer there of considerable property and credit: 156 acres at a rent of 25/- per acre. At one period, viz. in 1814, this land was let for 300 per annum, now it only amounts to 195. By October of that year Witts was forced to accept a tenancy of the farm for an annual rent of 140, with the condition of providing the tenant farmer a house or 'to build one by midsummer next', plus the privileges enjoyed by Gregory, regarding the manure, hay and straw.

Economic and social history, royal scandals, national and parochial policies and changes are all penned by Francis Witts. His was a world of turnpike roads and planning for the 'new rail roads', harsh hard labour at Northleach prison with the introduction of the dreaded treadmill (which Witts seemed mightily pleased with), inspecting the county gaol, vaccinating his parishioners against the smallpox, attending the consecration of the new churches at Cheltenham - Christ Church and Holy Trinity, overseeing the improvements at his own church at Upper Slaughter, raising funds for a National School as education was gradually introduced for all children. These are but glimpses into the times of this Cotswold parson from 1806 to 1825.

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