Friday, 5 February 2016

#5 William Harbidge Sheaf - A Melancholy Accident.

Melancholy reads a small headline in an 1837 issue of an English newspaper. When I first started investigating the Sheaf family history I came across a small footnote on a family tree sent to me by Ian Tomes in England that simply said "drowned in Weston Lock". Although I looked long and hard for some evidence of this, I was unable to find out what had precipitated the sudden death of William Harbidge Sheaf, my 3x great grandfather, in 1837. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and the intervention of a lovely lady in Wales I finally have access to a contemporary account of what happened to him and have been able to solve several small research mysteries in the process.

William was born in Bidford on Avon in about 1790 and baptised on the 7th of April of that year. In 1813 he married Mary Tomes Holland of Mickleton and they embarked on making a family of 11 children, at least 8 of whom were still alive at the time of their father's death. If you have been following the blog to date you might remember that William and Mary were the parents of 'Great Aunt Lou' and the young Charles Holland Sheaf of previous posts.

William and Mary were farming in the Bickmarsh area near Bidford on Avon. As well as their farming and family responsibilities, William had other community roles. In 1827 for instance he was Surveyor of the Highways for Bickmarsh. A 1691 Parliamentary Act legislated for each parish to appoint a Surveyor of Highways or 'Waywarden', under the jurisdiction of the Justices and County Quarter Sessions. The person nominated would be served with a warrant by the Parish Constable confirming his appointment for the coming year. Acceptance was compulsory!

According to one website, his first task would have been to take over any balance of money from his predecessor and become acquainted with on-going works. Three times a year, at least, "he had to view all the roads, byways, water courses and pavements within his precinct and make presentation upon oath in what condition he finds same, to the next Justices".

It was a requirement that owners of land adjacent to the highway clear their ways of any timber, stones or other obstructions and cleanse and scour the adjoining gutters and drains. Overhanging growth and hedges had to be cleared in order that "from one end of the parish to the other there might be a clear passage for travellers and carriages" and "that the sun may shine onto the ways to dry same".

At all times he had to look out for "and waylay any waggons, wains or carts etc. that are not drawn by the statutory number of oxen or horses". The very next Sunday after discovering any default or annoyance, he was required to stand up in the parish church, after the sermon, and proclaim any offender in order that they may be prosecuted. Now that would add a little something to the Sunday worship!

There was also the organising of six days of the year when parishioners were 'recruited' to provide Statute Labour, with horses, carts and all necessary tools, to undertake highway repair. Statute Labour Duty is defined as the amount of labour or works of public utility formerly required by Statute to be perfomed by residents of the district. In addition there was the disagreeable duty of reporting any defaulter to the justices.

If all this was not enough, the person nominated as Surveyor, who could be fined for refusing to accept office, might himself be penalised a sum of forty shillings for any default or neglect of his duty.

It would perhaps have been a fitting irony if William had met his accidental death on the highways. It was however the river Avon that was to be his nemesis. According to a newspaper of the time he was returning home on the evening of February 17th, on foot, from Stratford market. When he got to the river crossing near Luddington the boatman was nowhere to be found, so William rowed himself across the river to the other side. It is supposed that in endeavouring to step out of the boat at the far side a jolt or bump threw him backwards out of the boat and into the water. His hat and stick were found in the boat and his body was found the next day very near to the boat crossing place.

The river Avon at Luddington
© Copyright David P Howard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
According to the newspaper he left "a wife and nine children, together with a large circle of relatives and friends to mourn the irreparable loss of a good husband, an affectionate father and a strictly honest man."

William was buried in the churchyard at Dorsington where his memorial stone simply proclaims "Sacred to the memory of William Sheaf, late of Bickmarsh, who departed this life February 17th 1837 aged 48 years".


  1. Well done. Makes him so much more memorable than just a name and date. This is what it is all about

  2. Very interesting about "Surveyor of Highways".