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Mad as Hatters – The Ricketts

Wadleys End 1844 Tithe Map

theserpentAs I remarked in another chapter, The Smerdon Link, a certain pleasure comes with discovering where our ancestors really came from in the country.  The migration of our centuries-old rural populations to England’s cities because of sheer economic necessity, during the industrial revolution, sometimes makes it difficult to break the 1800 barrier. Romantic old me, I always imagine that country life, whilst simple, had some true values, which, alas, we now lack in our 21st Century multicultural cauldron, which sometimes seems to have a surface coated with a grey world, when what we really want is colour. Yes true, there were many injustices and inequalities – classism, sexism even feudalism… but people had a place in the community and, importantly, most had a trade. This chapter is about hatters from Wadleys End.

On 20 July 1845 George Ricketts, a hatter, married Ann Hollister at The Parish Church of St Mary Redcliff in the County of Bristol. George was the son of Mark Ricketts, a butcher, and Ann was the daughter of William Hollister, a hatter. Both families were from of Wadleys End, a part of Winterbourne, Gloucestershire six miles northeast of Bristol. The Ricketts and Hollister Families were prolific in the area back to 1650 and many members of both families were hatters, as can be seen from the earliest census returns. The wonderful Winterbourne Family History Online [1] is the definitive source for these records, and this chapter could not have been written without reference to it.  There is also a ‘One-Name-Study’ for Ricketts [2].

Mad as Hatters – The Ricketts Family

The Hat making industry had flourished at Watley’s End and neighbouring Frampton Cotterell from 1770, in fact the world-renowned hatters Christys of Stockport set up their first Hat Factory at the latter largely due to the water quality. At its height, the industry employed as many as 500 felt hat makers. Each would collect fur and wool from a central warehouse, in Watley’s End it was located in Factory Road, and take it to a home workshop known as a ‘bow-garret’. Producing felt was a skilled, time consuming and hazardous task. Fur, imported from North America though the busy port of Bristol, was cut from the skin, soaked in urine and water, layered in wooden boxes and covered with a mixture of mercury, salt and nitric acid. The poisonous fumes resulted in memory loss, mood swings and tremors that affected significant numbers of hatters, hence the expression ‘mad as a hatter’.

Hatters used to meet near the Quarry in Swan Lane to discuss Trade Rules and afterwards adjourn to a tavern at Norman Cottages for a tankard of locally brewed ale, said to have been an inducement to attend the meeting.

George and Ann Ricketts story epitomizes families engaged in a trade that would see changes in this era. Their son Alfred was born on 10 May 1846 at Wadley’s End. In 1861, William HOLLISTER, Ann’s father then 65 years old, was a Master Hat Maker employing eight men at Frampton Cotterell, but by 1866, the introduction of industrial machines, powered by steam engines, for forming and blowing the hats, was to be the death knell of the small factories and the home worker in his ‘bow-garret’. After a hundred years, in 1871, factory owners closed their operations at Wadleys End and the loss of the industry would have been a sad blow to Winterbourne, which had grown in size considerably as the trade flourished. The men, however, were offered work either at the Christys factories in Stockport or London according to their skills and the necessity to continue gainful employment in the hat industry forced workers like, Charles Ricketts, born 1849, to move to Haughton, 3 miles from Stockport in Lancashire, whilst our George Ricketts moved to The Old Kent Road in London. We have yet to establish the relationship of Charles and George Ricketts. [3]

The occupational and geographical relocation of the people must have caused a total disruption to their old way of life. With their conversion into machine-slaves in the polluted factories of the cities, living a hand to mouth existence at the mercy of their employers in uncertain economic circumstances, their concentration in cities that were totally unprepared to accommodate them is judged to have resulted in moral and physical degradation. [4]

Quite when George Ricketts and his wife Ann left Wadleys End is not known but on 29 November 1868, at St George the Martyr Southwark, their son Alfred married Mary Ann Amelia Mansell, the daughter of Edward Mansell, a goldbeater, and Mary Ann Pirrie. Alfred Ricketts and his wife Mary Ann Amelia were to have seven children – Edward George born 1869, Sidney Charles born 1875, Arthur born 1877, Thomas born 1879, Mary Ann Amelia born 1883, Claris Emily born 1885 and Florence born 1888. By 1881, the family was living at 10 Caroline Street in Peckham, and Alfred was employed as a Silk Hat Maker and his son Edward George Ricketts had followed his father’s trade as a hatter. Styles of hats changed with the times and fashions; Alfred and Edward had clearly adapted their skills to the silk hat industry. It is interesting to note that during this same period, Mary Anne Smerdon was a Straw, Leghorn and Tuscan hat manufacturer in Bishopsgate The City of London. [5]

To paint a picture of this time, the parish of Bermondsey, on the south side of the River Thames, was the largest and densest industrial centre in England for a variety of trades and manufacturing. It had been the seat of the Leather Market for nearly two centuries, with its series of tidal streams from the Thames flooding twice in 24 hours supplying water for the tanners and leather-dressers. At the Neckinger Mills nearly half a million hides and skins are converted into leather every year and in the great Skin Market the skins from all the sheep slaughtered in London were sold. Steam-machinery was used in the factories and in Long Lane there was an engine chimney-shaft 175 feet high. This was Christy’s Hat Manufactory and, even in 1843, its premises in Bermondsey Street were the largest hat and cap-making factory in the world employing 500 persons. Other factories abounded with paper and lead mills, chemical works, boat and ship-builders, mast and block makers, rope and sail makers, coopers, and turpentine works, to mention a few.[6]

Housing conditions were appalling with often with families of 10 living in one room. In 1850, Bermondsey was known as the Cholera District and the disease took a hundred victims a week, a fearful mortality rate and, in that year, Henry Mayhew wrote, ‘The ravages of the pestilence in this malarious quarter, bounded on the north and east by filth and fever, and on the south and west by want, squalor, rags and pestilence. The very capital of cholera in London was JACOB’S ISLAND, powerfully pictured in Dickens’s novel of Oliver Twist, a patch of ground insulated by the common sewer. Spared by the fire of London, the houses and comforts of the people in this loathsome place have scarcely known any improvement since that time. The place is a century behind even the low and squalid districts that surround it.’ [6]

In this era of Victorian London a long life could not be expected, especially in the polluted parishes the family continued to reside, but against the odds George RICKETTS died on 31 March 1890, aged 70, at 30 Marlborough Road, Camberwell. The informant was his son Charles RICKETTS (presumably Sidney Charles). His wife Annie Ricketts survived him by 12 years, and died on 11 December 1902 aged 79 years. Their son Alfred Ricketts also had a long life and died in March 1920 at Camberwell. Alfred’s oldest son Edward George Ricketts was still a hatter by profession when he married Eliza Fletcher on 16 October 1915 at Southwark, so preserving the family trade.

In this family tree, our link to the Ricketts is Edward’s sister, Mary Ann Amelia Ricketts. Born on 16 Feb 1883, Mary married John James Brian, a Motor Driver and the son of a Police Constable, on 30 March 1907 at St Paul’s Parish Church Deptford. Her younger sister Clarrissa Emily Ricketts and her own future husband Charles Frederick Craig, were witnesses. Mary and John Brian would have two children Millicent Lillian, born 5 June 1910 and John James (junior), born 28 February 1913; they were living at 28 Meeting House Lane, Peckham. It would have been another great family tragedy when John James Brian died 17 October 1913, when his son was only eight months old.

Millicent Lillian Brian

There was much support for Mary from her family, particularly from Clarrissa Emily. Clarrissa married Charles Frederick Craig, and later a Samuel Swann. She never had children but did play an important part in Millicent Lillian’s early life acting almost as a guardian. Millicent received a good education and as time went on, she was treated much like a companion, living the life of a woman of independent means, thanks to Clarrissa; she was bought a small semi-detached house in Beckenham and, during 1930s, travelled on luxurious European holidays, including one foray to Switzerland in a Lagonda Tourer. They played golf at Beckenham Place Park Golf Club and it was there that Millicent met Gerald Mack, the manager of a Gas Board Shop. It was not in Clarrissa’s plan for Millicent to be anything other than her companion; she disapproved of Millicent’s attraction to Gerald and warned her that if the romance continued she would be disinherited.

And so it was the case when Millicent Lillian Brian, now aged 30, married Gerald Mack at Lewisham Registry Office on 9 June 1940. They had three children, Anthony Peter, (1942 – 1994), Hilary, (1945 – 1947) and Celia Anne Mack, born 1948. But this was not to be a lasting marriage, Gerald left Millicent in 1957, maybe Clarrissa had read the signs.

Mary Ann Amelia died 8 November 1953, aged 70, at St Alfeges Hospital Greenwich. Celia Anne Mack, born 1948, has an early memory of visiting her grandmother with Millicent Lillian shortly before her death. The last Ricketts is this family history, but I am sure there are many others to find.

And hats… the depression of the 1930s and changes in fashion greatly reduced the demand for hats, and cheaper wool products made elsewhere, for example the Luton area as well as from abroad, fulfilled the need. By 1966, all the major companies merged to form Associated British Hat Manufacturers, leaving only Christy’s and Wilson’s Hats as the last two factories in production. First Wilson’s, and then, in 1997, Christy’s closed its last factory bringing to an end over 400 years of hatting.


[1]  A very valuable source of information for genealogists reseaching the town of Winterbourne is Winterbourne Family History Online – it includes references to many Ricketts, Hollisters and The local Hat Industry – http://www.frenchaymuseumarchives.co.uk/

[2] Sarah A Dyson is responsible for The One Name Study of The Ricketts families – email ricketts@one-name.org

[3] Jo Jones is researching Ricketts ancestry, in particular Charles Ricketts, a hatter born in 1849 at Watley’s End Winterbourne.

[4] Consequences in the history of literacy – R. D. Altick, The English Common Reader (Chicago, 1957), P. 207

[5] Certified records can be found in Documents

[6] 1849-50; Henry Mayhew – A Visit to the Cholera District of Bermondsey – http://www.victorianlondon.org/districts/bermondsey.htm & http://www.victorianlondon.org/houses/slums.htm