Street View: 37
Address: 17 Smithfield Bars
When writing the post on Benjamin Edginton of 2 Duke Street, I already mentioned that there were other Edgingtons in the tarpaulin business which made it difficult to sort out who was referred to in some cases. And is was not just me as an historian who tried to disentangle the family strands after nearly two hundred years who had a problem; the prospective clients of the tarpaulin manufacturers were confused as well. A case in point was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who wrote to the wrong address to order a marquee (see for Benjamin Edgington and the court case resulting from this confusion here). Fortunately, I had a comment on the Benjamin Edgington post from Charles E. Alexander who has spent a long time researching the Edgington family and he very kindly sent me a long document of information on the early history of the family and also on Thomas Edgington, so for this post I will – with his consent of course – gratefully quote extensively from his research (quotes from his text in red italics; black text, footnotes and illustrations are mine).
The earliest person it has been possible to define is Richard Edgington living in Abingdon, the county town of Berkshire in those days with a business trading as a sack cloth weaver. His parentage has not been possible to establish, but we do know that he married Sarah Fletcher at Abingdon’s St. Helen’s Church on 18 March 1777 (Parish records). It is thought, but not confirmed, that Richard and Sarah moved to an address in Ock Street, one of the areas of the town heavily identified with weaving. Also in Ock Street was a Baptist Mission, which they subsequently joined and were ‘received’ (baptised) into this church on 5 March 1780. They remained active members until they left for London less than twenty years later. As was the case in those days, large families were the norm and Sarah gave birth to eight children – three boys and five girls – all births recorded at the Baptist Mission, the boys as follows: Richard 14.12.1780, Thomas 27.5.1786, Benjamin 4.9.1794.
Back in 1761, the Abingdon Borough Council passed a by-law prohibiting the weaving / working of flax by candlelight. It is entirely likely that this law was perceived as a contributing factor in restricting Richard’s business, plus there were another 15 to 20 similar sack makers in the Ock Street area offering stiff competition. Whatever the reason, sometime between 1795 and the end of the century, Richard upped sticks and resettled his family and business in Bermondsey. It is entirely reasonable to assume that he thought that London offered better long-term prospects. The eldest boy, Richard, appears to have become involved with the Ock Street Baptist Church, serving on various committees and is thought to have remained in Abingdon – the family property there was possibly retained as there is some evidence that the family were property owners (Ock Street Studies Group). But his next brother, Thomas, served his time in his father’s business, and subsequently branched out on his own.
Thomas started with premises in Bermondsey in early 1805, but after a short period was established at 244 Tooley Street. He was in competition with his father, but as was the case in later years, the family production / weaving facilities may have been shared. It was stated on the successor building in Old Kent Road that Thomas supplied flags and bunting to the ships which fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but if this was so, it is most likely that he acted as the supplier or chandler and not the manufacturer (unless supplied by his father?). In the early years Thomas struggled to make a living, and in sheer desperation, added stationary, chandlery and rags to make ends meet. Life was hard. The last son, Benjamin, was eight years younger than Thomas, but also served his time with his father. In January 1821 Benjamin went into partnership with his brother Thomas to help consolidate his business. Benjamin, however, was a bit of a goer and the two brothers did not entirely see eye to eye. Their father, Richard, however, was now getting on, and in order to keep that business going, Benjamin decided, after less than two years with his brother, to leave and take over his father’s business. In 1823, he very quickly found and acquired better premises at 5 Tooley Street and moved his operations there. Richard duly retired, and may have returned to Abingdon as a death for a Richard Edgington occurs in Ock Street on 1st February 1834 aged 80. Age-wise it fits, and is too coincidental not to be considered relevant, there is also the fact that his burial was in the Baptist denomination in Abingdon.
Thomas worked hard at his business in Tooley Street, and eventually decided to get married. The marriage, by licence to Sophia Farncombe, took place at St. Nicholas Church, Brighton on 20 April 1813. A large family followed consisting of four boys, Thomas Farncombe 10-1814, John Farncombe 2-1817, Alfred Richard 6-1819 and Frederick Farncombe 7-1828, and three girls. The first five of these births recorded at Jamaica Row, Independent Chapel, Bermondsey, with the last two at Locks Field’s, Independent Chapel, York Street, off Walworth Road, Southwark. On reaching the appropriate working age, all the boys in time served an apprenticeship in their father’s business. A settlement made between Thomas and Sarah on their marriage was brought before the High Court of Chancery in 1855 to determine whether all children of the marriage still living at the time of their mother’s death were to inherit, or only the children born before the bankruptcy of Thomas in 1829.(1) The case itself it not very interesting in itself, but it does tell us that things did not go so well for Thomas in 1829.
However, he picked up the pieces and in 1832 took over better premises at 108, Old Kent Road – where the firm traded for 136 years until the property was purchased to make way for The Bricklayer’s Arms flyover. On the 9th February 1838, Edgington’s factory in Old Kent Road was entirely destroyed by fire. The business which occupied a large area was constructed mostly of wood; and from the inflammable nature of the materials used in the business, such as 300 and 400 barrels of tar, pitch and resin, nothing was left after an hour (Gentleman’s Magazine). The company was soon back on its feet though, and with the opening of the railways, demand for tarpaulins increased considerably. Around this time, an order was received from Dr. David Livingstone for tents and equipment for his first London Missionary Society Expedition to Bechuanaland. A number of subsequent expeditions to Africa during the next 30 years were similarly equipped. In the early 1840’s the family were living in Devonshire Place in Peckham. This address is thought to have disappeared later in the century when the South Metropolitan Gas Works were built.
Thomas Farncombe started his business sometime in the late 1830’s, which was known as T.F. Edgington, and in 1850 was operating from 79 Bishopsgate Street Within. The business mirrored that offered by his father, and almost certainly used the same facilities and workshops for his products as that of the main family business. His business steadily expanded, and at some point after completing his apprenticeship, John Farncombe assisted his brother, but it is not clear whether John had some other employment elsewhere beforehand and during this period, or to what extent he was assisting his brother, Thomas. Thomas married Mary Ann Harvey at Camberwell in the summer of 1839, but there were no children. Both he and she devoted themselves to the business. While on business and staying at 103, Marina, Hastings in November 1852, Thomas F. took his daily dose of Dinniford’s Magnesia, a cure-all concoction widely available at that time, and immediately collapsed and died. At the inquest it was revealed that his local chemist – Jackson & Townsend had by mistake filled the bottle with Burnett’s Disinfecting Fluid instead. As it happens, the chemist was only a few doors away from Thomas’s business in London and was well known to him. The inquest found that the chemist was guilty of negligence, but nothing else and was released. So sad to die under those circumstances at the age of only 38. John, the second son was assisting Thomas at the time of his death, but the business was left to his wife, Mary Ann, with management passing to John. Mary Ann, however, didn’t last long and died just a couple of months after her husband. To comply with the wishes in Thomas F’s Will, the business passed to John on Mary Ann’s death. John had married Sarah and it is thought they had three children – a boy and two girls, but confirmation is sought. Whether John did actually take over his brother’s business has been impossible to confirm. There is a possibility that it was just merged with the family business, but information is sought. John had no experience of running a business and may have decided not to take on the responsibility.
By 1850, Thomas senior was 64 and becoming an old man for the age. His business was substantial, employing upwards of 50 people, but he seems to have worked only part time during the last years, no doubt with a manager in charge, or more likely, his youngest son Frederick looking after things. The business overall however, must have jogged along reasonably well to enable Thomas to have, in addition to his residence in South London, a country home on Golden Ball Street at Petersfield in Hampshire, where he unfortunately died aged 71 in 1857. He had a niece and her family living in West Street, Havant, to where he was an occasional visitor. We are now entering a period where it is difficult to know what exactly happened next. From the death of Thomas senior in 1857 to the first references to John Edgington & Co in 1862 is a bit of a mystery. John was the older of the two remaining boys – Alfred having died from pneumonia in 1844 at the age of 25, having spent his entire working life in the family business. Frederick was eleven years younger than John, and all the indications are that at some point in the late 1850s or early 1860s John decided to take control. Was there a family feud? Did Frederick feel usurped by John? I certainly don’t know at this time, but we next hear of Frederick Edgington starting up his own business in Bedford at 25 Adelaide Square with connections to Old Kent Road. Later he had premises at 52 Old Kent Road as well. Frederick married twice. His first wife, Penelope died a couple of years later leaving a son, who, it would appear, spent most of his childhood with his grandparents from when Frederick married Sarah in 1853. His second marriage produced two more boys, and all three boys helped in expanding the Bedford business, but sadly Frederick died on 18th December 1880, aged just 53. It seems that this business just fizzled out.
Meanwhile, John took over his father’s business and changed the name to that of his own to give the Old Kent Road business a new style and impetus. It also provided a degree of immortality for John, as the enterprise now carrying his name lasted after his death for well over 100 years. Sadly, on November 18th 1870, John Farncombe Edgington died at Bethlem Hospital, Southwark from Pneumonia and exhaustion. He was only 54. And although the firm survived, John Farncombe did not escape some financial troubles. A few months before his death, the London Gazette of 1 July 1870 announced that “Proceedings for Liquidation by Arrangement or Composition with Creditors” were instituted by Edgington. The paper mentions premises at 48, Long Lane, West Smithfield, 108 Old Kent Road, and 11 Globe Terrace, Forest Gate, Essex.
In the early 1860s, a drapers business under R.D. Hilton occasionally assisted John Edgington to mutual benefit, but some years later, he joined the Edgington business. When John died he and a Mr Thomas Pewtress took over the running of the business. In 1878, Pewtress retired from the business to pursue other interests (he died in 1902). Tallis not only describes the Edgington firm as tarpaulin manufacturers, but also as twine makers and evidence of that is given in 1888 when John Edgington & Co. are given a contract to manufacture and supply ropes to the Home Office to be used in public hangings. These execution ropes consisted of 13-foot long Italian hemp, five-eighth of in inch in diameter and bound with soft chamois leather at the neck area to avoid burns on the neck.(2) One of Edgington’s employees, Harry Moakes is described as working on the hangman’s ropes here.
Robert Drewitt Hilton pushed the business forward, became a well respected member of the community and Mayor of Southwark for the year 1906-07. He died in office. His wife, Elizabeth Letitia Hilton, was appointed chairman at a meeting held in November 1907, while her son, John Edgington Hilton was appointed Managing Director for life. At the same meeting, the company was incorporated. When J.E. Hilton married, his son was named Robert Drewitt Hilton, after his grandfather, and was the last Hilton to own the business. He died in 1977. In 1910, the company received an order to fit out Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, and at a company meeting a few weeks later, decided to donate £20 to the expedition cause. Scott, at this time was also President of the Amateur Camping Club. In keeping with all firms engaged in the outdoor trade, the J.E. Co suffered badly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Discussions between the Black & Edgington Group and the J.E. Co had been going on for many years, but finally in 1976, the J.E. Co were acquired by Black & Edgington – finally bringing together the two great Edgington companies. J.E. & Co. had lasted longer than most.
Grateful thanks go to Charles E. Alexander who kindly sent me his notes on the family. For more Edgingtons, see the post for Benjamin Edgington of 2 Duke Street and 208 Piccadilly.
(1) Reports of Cases decided in the High Court of Chancery 1854 to 1857, compiled by C.S. Drewry, volume 3 (1857), pp. 202-207.
(2) Steve Fielding, The Executioners Bible (2008), p. 1832.