Simon Somerscales found this Measham Ware teapot in a Kidlington charity shop several years ago. It tells an interesting story of temperance, religion, philanthropy and social attitudes in our village at the end of the nineteenth century. The starting point is Kelly’s Directory of Oxfordshire. The volumes for 1895–98 have entries for a Miss Sharp at Coffee Lodge, now 25 Nethercote Road.
Ada Madeleine Sharpe (not Sharp) was the daughter of Lancelot Arthur Sharpe (1806–91), rector of Tackley from 1839 until his death. She established the ‘Welcome’ Coffee Lodge in 1880 in order to “benefit… the lads and men of Tackley by providing a coffee and reading room where they are ‘welcome’ to spend their evenings free of any expense and with all kinds of games…” (Bicester Herald, 29/4/1892; Oxford Journal, 30/12/1899). The first explicit mention of the lodge is an advert (Oxfordshire Weekly News, 10/1/1883) for a ventriloquism performance with tickets available from the rectory, the Post Office and the ‘Welcome’ coffee room.
In 1890/91, around the time of her father’s death (on 12 February 1891), she said that she had spent £600 on improving Coffee Lodge—equivalent to £77,500 today! On 3 and 4 April, 1891 she organised a rag fair at St Edburg’s Hall, Bicester, to sell bric-a-brac with the proceeds being in aid of temperance work in Tackley, specifically the Tackley Coffee Lodge Improvement Fund (Bicester Herald, 27/3/1891, 10/4/1891). She also got her friends in other parts of the country to sell devotional pamphlets that she had written, including one titled Village Gossip Investigated, published under the pseudonym A. Bird, with proceeds going to the coffee shop: see the many adverts in 1891 in the Hastings and St Leonard’s Observer, e.g. for 3/10/1891. She organised another rag fair in Bicester in April 1892 in aid of the debt on the enlargement of the ‘Welcome’ Coffee Lodge (Bicester Herald, 29/11/1892), and a third in November for benefiting the ‘Coffee Tavern’ in the coming winter (Oxford Journal, 19/11/1892). She seems to have got her money back.
In 1894 she organised a ‘supper and smoker’ at the lodge which was attended by about 80 “lads and a few old men” who were given a substantial supper including a large joint of beef and a large leg of lamb. It’s difficult to see how the building could accommodate 80 people sitting down to supper. After supper came games and songs, including renditions by “Messrs A.J. Eborne, C.W. Leavey, W. Skidmore, P. Paine, R. Calcott, etc.” some of whom were from well-known Tackley families (Oxfordshire Weekly News, 3 January 1894). The Christmas dinner became an annual event. She organised her last one on Boxing night 1899 for about 30 people, who received presents of tobacco from Dr Elsmore of Woodstock as he had done in previous years, with a lucky few also finding sixpences in the plum pudding. After dinner and songs she thanked everyone for supporting the coffee room and shop for twenty years, and announced that she was giving up running it and had found a suitable successor—their name is not mentioned in the report, nor, unfortunately, is there any further information on the shop and what it sold. T.J. Hoare replied to the speech and the evening ended as usual with singing the carol In Excelsis Gloria.
The alternative name ‘Coffee Tavern’ indicates that the lodge’s origin was in the temperance movement, and Miss Sharpe founded it in 1880 at the height of the movement’s activity in Tackley which was led by the Church of England Temperance Society (CETS) and the Band of Hope. On 21 April 1882 a petition from Tackley opposing the sale of intoxicating liquors on Sunday was presented to the House of Commons (Bicester Herald, 28/4/1882).
From 1880, monthly meetings were held and a series of monthly winter concerts, organised by the CETS, were given by the St Nicholas’ church choir – which Miss Sharpe ran – and by local performers (Oxford Times, 3/1/1880, 6/11/1880, 19/2/1881, 8/10/1881, 22/10/1881; Oxfordshire Weekly News 4/2/1880, 7/12/1881; Banbury Guardian, 24/11/1881: some of these reports give the names of villagers who performed).
Train excursions were organised. The first of these was in July 1880 to Warwick, Kenilworth and Leamington (Oxford Times, 24/7/1880), and on 13 June 1881 nineteen members of the Tackley branch of the Temperance Society went on a day trip to London. They visited the zoo and Westminster Abbey, then took a trip to London Bridge by river steamer and crossed under the Thames by the Tower Subway to visit the Tower. After that: St Paul’s, the Metropolitan Railway, Ludgate Hill, Holborn, Oxford Street and Edgware Road. They took the last train back from Paddington, arriving at Oxford at 10:30, and then by conveyance to Tackley (Oxfordshire Weekly News, 22/6/1881). The article notes that the country visitors were in awe of the big city—and probably very tired too!
The temperance movement was also very active in Kirtlington with people from Tackley involved. A Temperance Industrial Exhibition was held in Kirtlington in April 1882 which included a display of “beautiful paintings” by Edgar Evetts (Bicester Herald, 14/4/1882). Temperance was closely linked to the evangelical movement which was also active in Tackley. A meeting of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was held in November 1883 (Oxfordshire Weekly News, 21/11/1883) and in January of that year John Harris gave a gospel address at Kirtlington (Bicester Herald, 12/1/1883). He had lived in Tackley for many years where he had been a plate-layer on the railway and was a well-known Methodist preacher before moving to London to become a leading figure in The Evangelization Society.
The dedication and date on the teapot indicate that E. Humphres presented it to Miss Sharpe on 11 March 1898, not long before she relinquished running the lodge. The teapot is made of Measham Ware which was produced around Measham, a village on the Ashby Canal in the Leicestershire coalfield. The distinctive and elaborately-decorated brown glazed pottery – predominantly tea pots, jugs and jars – was often bought by canal boatmen and given as presents. They would order a piece, often with a dedication, when passing through the village and pick it up from Mrs Bonas’s shop on their next journey.
It’s therefore pretty certain that E. Humphres was from a canal family. That would not be surprising—canal boatmen and their families had a reputation for drunkenness and immorality and were the targets of temperance campaigners and, of course, the Oxford Canal runs close to Tackley. Census data and research by family historians suggest that E. Humphres was probably Elizabeth (known as Betsy) Humphres, also spelt Humphris, Humphries or Humphreys (see discussions here, here and here).
Betsy was born in Thrupp in 1851, probably on a canal boat—the daughter of John Humphris, age 32, a boatman from Eynsham; and his wife, another Elizabeth, age 31, who was born in Kirtlington. The family was then living in Jericho Gardens near the canal in Oxford. They already had three children, all born in Eynsham, and John came from an extensive family of boatmen from Eynsham and Thrupp. The 1871 census shows that the family, excluding Betsy, were living on the boat ‘Sarah Ann’ on the Oxford Canal near Monks Kirby/Stretton-under-Fosse, between Coventry and Rugby. 10 years later both John and his wife were in the Oxford Workhouse on the Cowley Road where John died in 1883, while his wife was still alive in 1891.
In 1877, Betsy married Benjamin Johnson at St Barnabas church in Oxford, by the canal in Jericho. He was a boatman too and probably born in Thrupp. On the day of the census in 1881 they were living on a barge at Canal Cutt End on the Ashby Canal near Measham where the teapot was made, and 10 years later at Bath Landing Stage, also on the Ashby Canal. In 1901 they were on a boat in Neithrop in Banbury. Benjamin died in 1916 and Betsy in 1926, in Woodstock, probably in the workhouse.
The circumstantial evidence that Betsy was the donor of the teapot is strong and there seems to be no male E. Humphres who fits the bill, but if it was Betsy she would surely have used her married name, Johnson, in the dedication to Miss Sharp. However, it was common practice among canal women to continue to use their own names after marriage.
The question, then, is how might Betsy and Miss Sharpe have met? The answer is: probably through coal. In the severe winter of 1894/95 Miss Sharpe distributed 2 cwt of coals to each of the poor families of Tackley on at least two occasions (Oxfordshire Weekly News, 6/3/1895). She would have obtained the several tons required from the coal yard at Enslow Wharf on the canal, where canal boats unloaded large quantities of coal from the Midland coalfields, including the collieries around Measham. The coal was for domestic use in the surrounding villages and Woodstock, for steam-driven agricultural machinery and for the lime kilns in the area, of which there were at least two in Tackley—one at Quarry Bank by Enslow Bridge, the other in Waterleys Copse just outside the northern boundary of the parish. From 1907 even larger quantities were unloaded at the new Oxford Portland Cement Company works at Washford Pits on the Kirtlington bank of the canal just north of Pigeon’s Lock. The coal would have been brought up to the village probably by the local carter, John Broom, who lived in Nethercott (Oxfordshire Weekly News, 28/5/1890). Betsy and her husband’s boat was part of this coal trade and Betsy would have worked the boat and unloaded coal just as Jean Humphris (holding the barrow) was photographed doing in 1956 at the Juxon Street Wharf in Jericho, Oxford. Jean Humphris was probably related to Betsy.
Given the domestic importance of coal, Miss Sharpe would probably have done business with Enslow Wharf over the years and either she or other local temperance campaigners probably visited the wharf—and especially the Rock of Gibraltar pub, which was much used by boatmen and had a reputation. Betsy may therefore have met Miss Sharpe at the wharf, or she (and her husband) may have been persuaded to come up to Coffee Lodge.
Why the gift of a pot? We don’t know—and the date of the dedication, 11 March 1898, doesn’t give us a clue. But Measham Ware pots were significant gifts among canal families, and Miss Sharpe had been recognised for her philanthropy a few years earlier at the Christmas supper at Coffee Lodge when she was presented with a pair of Japanese vases, “for which the lads of Tackley liberally subscribed” (Oxfordshire Weekly News, 3/1/1894).
After she gave up running the lodge at Christmas 1899 there are no further mentions of it in the local press and we have no idea whether or not it continued, but Miss Sharpe continued her philanthropy, especially towards the sick. The last mention of her was in July 1920 when she held a concert in the garden of her house, Beth-Oni, on the Green, in aid of providing a cot for a wounded soldier at the Radcliffe Infirmary (Oxfordshire Weekly News, 7/7/1920). The house had a certain notoriety: between 1905 and 1908 she claimed that it was inhabited by a poltergeist, which was exorcised by the Rev Fitzgerald on 21 February 1908. She published an account of it in 1914, A Disturbed House and its Relief: A Narrative of Certain Occurrences at ‘Beth-Oni’, Tackley, Oxon, 1905–1908, a copy of which is in the History Group archive.
For all her good intentions and extensive philanthropic work, she was a divisive character. The Victoria County History chapter on Tackley notes that church life declined in the later years of her father’s incumbency and there was considerable dissension in the parish in 1890, caused in part by the way she managed the choir. Perhaps she was the anonymous person who wrote to The Oxford Times (17/6/1893): “A correspondent complains of the scandalous gossip prevalent in this village, and declares that now a decent and respectable female cannot walk through the village without being called disgusting names.” Her 1891 pamphlet, Village Gossip Investigated, might be an interesting read. The Bodleian Library has a copy.
Two women with parallel but very different lives that coincided in Tackley.
The local papers on which this article is based come from the enormous collection held by the British Library. They can be accessed online. Unfortunately, the library charges (about £9 per month) for access to this public national collection, but there is a wealth of information there to enjoy.