James Holt (1821-97)

Verger of Christ Church Epsom Common, 1876-97

James's memorial in Christ Church
James's memorial in Christ Church
Photograph by Roger Morgan © 2019

This memorial - mounted on the wall at the west end of Christ Church's North Aisle - to its first Verger is an exception to the general case that (other than on War Memorials) the great majority of individuals commemorated in our churches were from the wealthier strata of society. (The memorial is even more unusual in that all those involved in its commissioning and execution allowed a greengrocer's apostrophe to slip through.) The wording is:
The responsibilities of a Verger - normally a lay member of the parish - are the order and upkeep of a house of worship, including the care of the church buildings, its furnishings and sacred relics, together with preparations for services. In smaller churches, such as Christ Church, the duties generally also extend to care of the grounds - responsibilities which, in a larger church (particularly if, unlike Christ Church, there is a graveyard), would fall to a separate "Sexton".

Various census returns note James's birth year as 1819, 1820 & 1821. When he was buried in Epsom Cemetery on 26 May 1897, he was reckoned to be aged 77 which would indicate a birth in either the second part of 1819 or the early months of 1820. Anyway, the first certain date comes from the record of James's baptism at St Martin's, Epsom on 22 April 1821. This notes that his mother was Elizabeth Holt of Epsom, "Servant", but makes no mention of the father - but see below.

The 21 year old James is not readily found in the first modern Census of 1841, perhaps because he was away from Epsom training in his craft as a "whitesmith" otherwise known as a "tinsmith", "tinner", "tinker", "tinman", or "tinplate worker". This is a person who makes and repairs things made of tin or other light metals. Unlike blacksmiths (who work mostly with hot metals), whitesmiths do the majority of their work on cold metal in fabricating items such as water pitchers, forks, spoons, and candle holders.

James's next certain appearance in the records is his marriage at St Martin's on 7 March 1846 to Ann Powell, when they were both aged 25. The record gives James's occupation as "Smith" and names his father as George Holt (a "Carter").

While that record notes his bride's father as John Powell (a "Labourer" - the record of Ann's baptism at St Martin's on 23 June 1822 had logged him as a "Carpenter"), it omitted to add that he was dead. The 1841 Census records Ann's 45 year old widowed mother - also an Ann - living in Pound Lane, Epsom together with sons Peter (aged 10) and John (aged 8). 20 year old Ann Junior was not at home, being recorded in the 1841 Census as a "Female Servant" in the household of Robert Burn on the site of what is now 68 High Street.

Robert Burn was an Ironmonger, who advertised his services as a "Manufacturer of all kinds of Stove Grates, Ranges, Ovens, Iron Fencing, Gates and Hurdles, Copper, Zinc and Iron Guttering. Cutlery of all kinds. Baths of every description. Smith's Work in General." It is more than likely that the whitesmith James was at least a customer for supplies, and perhaps also a sub-contractor. And was this connection how he first met Ann? (Alternatively, there was a 40 year old Jane Holt and three children - including a James who, aged 15, was at least 5 years too young to be ours - living two doors away from Ann's family in Pound Lane. Were these members of James's extended family?)

We get onto more solid ground in the 1851 Census. The married James and Ann were recorded living on "Clay Hill, Epsom" (later named as West Hill) - where they lived for the rest of their lives -together with their young children Elizabeth and Mary as well as Ann's 18 year old brother, John (a "Labourer") and their 54 year old widowed mother, Ann (a "Pauper"). James is listed as a "White Smith Journeyman" - a journeyman being someone who has completed their apprenticeship, but not yet a "Master" employing others.

The family appears to have reached its peak size by the time of the 1861 Census - in which James is listed as a "Postman". His and Ann's children are listed as:
14 year old Elizabeth;
10 year old Mary;
8 year old Ann;
5 year old Frederick; and
newborn Alfred.
By the time of the 1871 Census, James had returned to being a "White Smith" and only teenage son, Frederick, was still living with his 50 year old parents. The 1881 Census, records the 60 year old couple (now with no children left at home) living at 2 West Hill, Epsom - probably the same cottage as earlier returns. James is still listed as a "White Smith", with no mention of his duties as Verger at Christ Church which, according to his memorial, he had begun at the church's consecration in 1876.

In 1885, a photograph was taken of George Good and his choir at Christ Church. On each side of the choristers are various other Christ Church people. In the section of that photograph reproduced below the central figure is Christ Church's then Vicar, the Revd Archer Hunter. It is likely that the person behind his left shoulder is the 65-ish year old James: he is wearing a typical verger's gown.

The figure on the right is likely to be the 65 year old James in 1885
The figure on the right is likely to be the 65 year old James in 1885
Picture courtesy of the Furniss family & Bourne Hall Museum

By the time of the 1891 Census, James and Ann were recorded living at Derby Cottages, West Hill, Epsom - perhaps still the same cottage as in previous Censuses. James is now listed solely as "Sexton to Christ Church" (The offices of "Sexton" and "Verger" were commonly confused.)

Ann died in Q2 1895. The record of her burial in Epsom Cemetery on 10 May 1895 noted her age as 73. James died two years later, in Q2 1897. He was buried 26 May 1897 in the same grave (A119A) as Ann, and the Epsom Cemetery records noted his age as 72 and his occupation as "Clerk".

Roger Morgan © 2019