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Richard Fenning (1818-1881) and Elizabeth Pudney (1815-1884)

Richard’s father was a road surveyor, but Richard himself spent most of his life working for the railways, so their lives act as a mirror for the industrial age. Richard's family was from Gosbeck in Suffolk and were certainly educated, even if they weren’t always rich. For several generations they had been landowners and, despite a brief time on parish relief, were once again in happier times when Richard was born.


Richard’s father was also called Richard and, as a sixteen year old, had bought a psalter. The inscriptions inside the book written by Richard and his younger brothers and sister show that the whole family could write well indicating that schooling was important to the family. Richard (senior) had married Lydia Vincent in 1811 and shortly afterwards became the parish clerk, a position that, in those days, was given to ''“a man of honest conversation and sufficient for his reading, writing and competent skill in singing”''. His duties would have included reading the lessons and epistles, singing in the choir, giving out the hymns, leading the responses and serving at the altar, as well as opening up the church, ringing the bell, and digging graves if there wasn’t a sexton. Parts of this role would appear to require some literacy but, along with many others Richard was often referred to as a ‘labourer and parish clerk’ so it is not clear exactly what he did when not acting as clerk.


At some stage Richard (senior) had become a road and land surveyor. The first reference to his doing that job is in the 1830s but its many skills suggest that some training was needed. Not only did he draw the maps of the areas being surveyed, but advertisements placed in local newspapers show that Richard directed the road building and was responsible for collating and judging the tenders for those wanting to supply building materials and transport. Although described as a labourer when first married, he may already have been doing some of the more menial tasks for a surveyor while learning the job.


1805 signatures in the psalter


Map of Gosbeck in 1840 drawn by Richard Fenning

Richard's signature at the top of the plan


Richard and Lydia spent their whole married like in Gosbeck, a village only about seven miles from the county capital, Ipswich, which Richard must have visited in the course of his work. Early married life coincided with the end of the Napoleonic War a time that caused distress across the country as bread prices climbed and farmers continued to make good money on the back of the price of wheat. The end of the war meant there was access to other wheat markets, so prices dropped and farmers began to lay off workers and look to mechanisation for efficiency. Wages fell by 30% and discontent grew. In 1815 eight workers from Gosbeck smashed some machinery and attacked farm buildings, and were sentenced to one month in gaol (somewhat less than those imprisoned later when the riots had increased). Slogans such as ‘Bread of blood’ were daubed on walls in and around Ipswich, as people became desperate. Richard was still a labourer at this time, so may have felt the full effects of trying to bring up young children with little or no money.


One writer said that ''‘Years like 1816....were exceptional only in the amount of violence that took place. No year in the first half of the 19th century was a quiet year in the east. Every year was violent, and the amount of violence was very great indeed.’''  Over the next five years violent crimes rose by 75% and life in general was not the country idyll we might suppose. The shortage of food meant that poaching was particular rife and labourers continued to oppose the machinery. By 1817 one third of Suffolk’s men were unemployed and, though the entry for Richard (jun)’s baptism in 1818 suggested that his father was still employed, it was not a good time to be born as even the better off farmers were struggling to pay bills with consequent difficulties for the tradesmen.


In 1822 there were riots across East Anglia, with a number of fires around Ipswich and sustained problems in nearby Woodbridge showing how divided society was. Not everyone joined in and it was difficult to see why some villages were centres of activity while others remained calm. How much Gosbeck was involved after 1815 is not known and, more than that, where Richard stood on the issues no-one will know, but the family continued to grow and, in 1834, the baby of the family was born, seven years younger than any of his siblings. By that time about half of Suffolk was on some sort of parish relief, but not Richard.

In 1835 Pembroke College in Cambridge bought the living of Gosbeck and built a new rectory for the incumbent. This suggests the previous house was not suitable and it may be that the Fenning family took the priest’s place as they were living in 'Parsonage House' a few years later. Shortly after this Richard (jun) moved to London, presumably in a search for suitable work. He was successful because in December 1840 he joined the Metropolitan Police on the recommendation of a local farmer in Gosbeck and, with a regular income, he married Sarah Adams, a gardener’s daughter. The police force had only been set up in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel, but it appeared not to suit Richard as he resigned from the force the following August. Six months later he was working as a miller in Kennington in South London where their first child was born, and the following year they had moved across to Isleworth in West London where Richard continued as a miller and a second child, a daughter, was born. Richard (jun)’s life seems very unsettled at this time, as he tried out a variety of jobs in different ares of the capital, but stability was just around the corner.

In 1846 the Eastern Union Railway opened a railway station at Manningtree in Essex. The Easter Counties Railway had long been planning to extend their line beyond Colchester to Ipswich and perhaps further to Norwich, but after much debate the cheaper alternative proposed by the EUR was adopted, and two years after it was started in 1844, the line to Ipswich was finished.  It is possible that Richard (sen) found out about the proposed line through his surveying contacts and passed news of the possibilities to his son, but that is speculation. Whatever the reasons, Richard (jun) moved to North Essex to be the first station porter at Manningtree, and remained there for the rest of his life. His appointment would inevitably have involved a long process; the interviews took place in Ipswich and EUR executives made sure that all those appointed were men of good character, and many had relevant experience. Of the first six porters the directors engaged, on a salary of nineteen shillings a week, three had come from the Great Western Railway, and one was from the London and Birmingham Railway. Overall twenty-four porters and thirty policemen were employed to run the stations between Colchester and Ipswich, so Richard was probably not the only porter at Manningtree. The line was opened on 11th June 1846 and a train travelled along the line on the first official journey. It stopped at Manningtree where, as along the whole journey, cheering crowds would have welcomed it. Four days later the line was opened to the public. The railways were new and access to London was important for small towns; few of the residents of Manningtree would have regretted its arrival.


Manningtree in 1834

Life in the ‘smallest town in England’ was a world away from London, but much closer to what Richard remembered from Suffolk. Richard's parents were not very far away, and the train now ran all the way to Ipswich, only a few miles from Gosbeck. In 1847 his parents had been burgled - two silver spoons appear to have been the only things stolen - but, for Richard, Sarah and their young children, Oliver and Maria, life looked good. Then tragedy struck: Sarah died. Richard needed someone to look after the children and married a local widow, Elizabeth Hart, within months of Sarah dying. Elizabeth was a few years older than Richard, with a child of her own, and not as well educated, but ran a local grocer’s shop and, more importantly, could be a mother to Oliver and Maria. They soon had four more children of their own, and life appeared comfortable and stable.


Manningtree, with Mistley, sat on the South side of the River Stour and had a population of about 3,000. It was described as an 'improving town' in the middle of the 19th century and had some fine buildings. In Georgian times Richard Rigby had employed Robert Adam and others to turn it into a spa town but, following Rigby's mismanaging of his office and his subsequent public disgrace, the funds had dried up. However, evidence of the Georgian splendour could still be found in the town, particularly in the twin towered church whose main building was pulled down in 1870, leaving just the towers. It was a busy port, with nearly 500 ships registered there, and barges could sail twenty miles up the river to Sudbury carrying corn, coal, timber and fish. It held a small market every Thursday in the High Street; but there were also annual events that the family could look forward to, such as the fair for toys and pleasure on Whit-Thursday, and a regatta held on the river about the second week in September. A large National School, had been built in 1814 for children of Manningtree, Mistley, and Lawford parishes which the children may have attended.


An EUR train unloading in 1850

In 1849, after years of wrangling, building started on a new brach line from Manningtree to Harwich. Harwich was an important link to the continent, with regularly ferries crossing the North Sea, and it was a haven in a storm. During a particularly violent storm in 1845, over 600 ships had sheltered there; but it needed a link to the main railway. Five years later the line was opened and Manningtree must have become a busier place. The early railways were not safe and mechanical fault was common. In 1865 a train was derailed a few miles to the East of Manningtree and several lost their lves as the carriages rolled down the slope. This would not have been an isolated incident and Richard would have been used to dealing with the aftermath of incidents like this, as well as the day to day meeting and greeting of passemgers.


The 1865 accident near Manningtree

Despite the arrival of the railway, Manningtree (Mistley) port remained an important place and ships from exotic parts of the world visited regularly. A 'rich and distinctive aroma' in the air was caused by the malting and brewing industry that was central to Manningtree's existence throughout the 19th century and whose buildings lined the quay. The Fenning children would go down to the quay to watch cargo being unloaded and, on rare occasions, would be able to climb into the molasses barrels from the West Indies to lick the remains from the inside (Note 1). They would also, of course, have seen the railways in action from close quarters, so it not surprising that, while the girls followed the traditional occupations such as dressmaking, most of the boys followed in their father's footsteps. Oliver, the eldest, started as signalman before becoming a staionmaster; Richard became an engine driver; and James a railway gateman. George, the youngest, was the only one to turn his back on family tradition and train as a teacher.


Richard, himself, seemed to have spent his entire career as a porter. Working for the EUR and ECR would have been seen by many as an exciting profession, but it is difficult to see how he can have maintained enthusiasm in such a role for thirty-five years. Clearly educated, it would not be unreasonable to assume he had a certain musicality as well: his father's role as parish clerk required that skill and Richard's youngest son, George, became (as well as a teacher) an organist, composer and expert on Gregorian chant. Whether unambitious, unsuccessful in applications for promotion, or other reasons, Richard was a station porter when he died in 1881. Three of his sons and several of his grandsons had joined, or were to join, the railways; so perhaps his enjoyment (and therefore influence) was greater than it might first seem.


An Eastern train from 1873


1. George Fenning, the youngest child, told the story about climbing into the barrels to his granddaughter, Marjorie Fenning (later Holmes). She, my grandmother, passed it to me, so the only evidence is oral

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