A Fistful of Dollar Street- cataloguing a Cirencester collection

by Hannah Dale 


In this article, Hannah Dale, who is Collections Management Archivist at Gloucestershire Archives, provides a fascinating insight into what sort of information (and amusement) can be gathered from the detailed cataloguing of town archives, in this case a recent project on important deposits from one of the historically most significant solicitors’ offices in Cirencester, and which still remains today at the heart of town life. Thanks are also due to the group of volunteers who undertook the bulk of the work on this project. 


History is made of stories, although precisely where they start is not always clear. The story of this collection could start when Mr Newmarch commenced practice as a solicitor in Cirencester in 1797, establishing what was to become the Sewell firm of solicitors; or possibly in 1819 when Mr Mullings, a bright young man from Devizes, moved to Park Street and established his office. The story of this project begins in 1991, when the firms of Mullings Ellett and Sewell, Rawlins and Logie merged to form what became Sewell Mullings Logie, later depositing a large mass of their records in Gloucestershire Archives. Previous deposits had been accessioned and catalogued in the preceding years, although research trends and cataloguing standards have changed much since then.


Another starting point could be in 2013 when the National Cataloguing Grants Scheme provided funds for the ‘Boxes of Delights Project’ to catalogue this collection, intending for an archivist to spend 18 months cataloguing the 1998 accession (alongside some smaller ones), update the existing catalogues and stitch them together into a coherent whole. This plan also allowed for the assistance of volunteers whose skill and dedication would prove invaluable as the project progressed. The plan worked despite a number of setbacks (including a substitute archivist arriving in month seven) and the catalogue was just about completed, just about on time.


The biggest deviation from the plan was the decision to treat the records of the Mullings firm (D1388) as separate from those of the Sewell firm (D181), not only to be consistent with previous catalogues, but also to reflect the very separate nature of the two firms. (There are no post-1991 records in the collection so this presents few difficulties.) This has been a particularly large project involving 630 boxes of records, the production and alteration of over 8,000 catalogue records and the donation of over 1,100 hours of volunteer time.


Cirencester solicitors provide good stories 

The main role of the solicitors of Cirencester was to provide legal advice and service to their clients who were many and varied with their own stories which are reflected in the firms’ archives. The collection provides an excellent insight into the development of Cirencester during the Victorian period and a view of some of its inhabitants. There are good series of wills and draft wills as well as deeds relating to property throughout Gloucestershire and beyond. There is also a good section of client papers which tell their own, often unexpected stories.


One of the finest tales is that of the Bown family which can be read through their correspondence with their solicitor, Mr Stevens.(Ref 1)  This particular set of documents, dated 1835-1862, has provided an excellent demonstration of the limits of archives as it had been reviewed by three different people and we have all produced a slightly different story as to the tangled affairs of this family. For my part, the story begins when John Candler dies leaving a will which made provision for his grandsons Alfred Bown, Frederick Augustus Bown and Robert Bown but nothing to his son-in-law Robert Bown senior. Robert Bown senior then begins to employ suspect tactics to increase his lot by claiming that each of his sons had died by a variety of different causes, 


If this presented Mr Stevens with difficulties they must have been compounded when he received a letter from the ‘dead’ Alfred Canter Bown claiming to be a free settler in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) working on agricultural improvements on behalf of the government. Indeed, the only death we can be certain of in this case is that of Mr Stevens. He left the case in the hands of Mr Mullings who was distinctly unimpressed by what had transpired and undertook some investigation work. A few well worded letters reveal that Alfred Cantor Bown was indeed in Van Diemen’s Land but a convict using the alias William Little which therefore presented problems with the legacy due to him. These could not have been too grave as Mr Mullings seems to have resolved the matter promptly. 


A little further investigation reveals that Alfred Cantor Bown was convicted of larceny in 1839 (ref 2)  in Suffolk and was transported to Australia on the Marquis of Hastings. Records of his imprisonment can be found in the Tasmanian State Archives and describe the 24-year old Alfred Cantor Bown/William Little as standing just over 5 feet tall, having hazel eyes and working as a confectioner (Ref 3).  Unfortunately, on his release, Alfred fell into bad ways and on hard times but the colourful saga of the Bown family remains long after the family are gone.


A colourful character

In the Sewell collection, another colourful character is featured. On his death, the Revd Charles Darkin’s estate was subject to a legal dispute. He had bought land in Cirencester using money inherited by his wife, Elizabeth Jeffries Darkin. He then persuaded her to advance further money to build a house on the land, on condition that on his death the property would revert back to her; this was arranged.

He then wrote a second will, leaving the property to his brother John, and placing Elizabeth in a difficult position (ref 4).  Mr Sewell was able to act on behalf of Elizabeth to challenge the settlement and went on to act as trustee for the charity she established (Ref 5).  The case papers survive in the Sewell collection alongside Revd Darkin’s personal papers, which include attempts to establish a new Baptist Chapel at Woodstock. About this one of his correspondents wrote: ‘being well acquainted with the moral and spiritual destitution and the consequent depravity of the inhabitants of the Otmoor Villages…” (Ref 6) This was clearly a man who was very serious about his business, which makes it surprising that his notebooks include, alongside theological notes and plans for sermons, a series of quaint illustrations (Ref 7).


A story from 1859

Very few criminal incidents appear in the papers of the two offices. Two of the fines relate to the behaviour of the people of Cirencester on the same day, that is to say, Election Day in 1859. This was before the secret ballot and the franchise was restricted. John Kibblewhite was entitled to vote on the election of Cirencester’s two MPs. Unfortunately, he was waylaid and invited to an acquaintance’s home for tea and ‘plied with ale, tobacco and tea, the second cup of which was very dark and tasted very queer’ (Ref8).  He later found himself at the King’s Head Inn in Ashton Keynes with no recollection of how he got there. Upon questioning, the landlady admitted that the defendants in the case had provided her with an unlabelled bottle and instructions to add three drops into Kibblewhite’s rum; this substance was believed to have been laudanum. Fortunately, the landlady disobeyed her instructions and he was able to recover sufficiently to vote. 


A more direct approach was taken in the case of Admiral Charles Talbot who was commander of the British Fleet at Cork but arrived by train to vote in Cirencester with a few minutes to spare, bumped into a candidate’s brother at the train station and got into a fly (Ref 9).   The gate into the station was closed and the route out of the station was blocked by a mob who grabbed the horse’s head and tried to turn it around before overturning the carriage. At this point, the flyman began to use his whip on the crowd. The admiral escaped even though the carriage was broken. The defendant in the case appeared at this point, charging through the crowd shouting ‘I’ll look after the admiral’, then held Talbot in a bear hug until the clock struck four and the poll closed.


Central to town life

One of the most striking points of this collection is how firmly embedded within the society of the town the two firms became. Aside from the private clients whom the solicitors advised, they also acted for the Rural District Council (Sewell) and the Urban District Council (Mullings) and on which E.C. Sewell also served. Satires on the Local Board Election describe Joseph Sewell as ‘Jovial Joe’, while more formal records show that Mr John Mullings was the returning officer (Ref 10).  Papers relating to the establishment of various local institutions appear in the collections of both firms, including the Royal Agricultural College, for whom Edward Brownlow Haygarth acted as secretary as well as legal adviser (Ref 11).  Haygarth was also an early trustee of the Bingham Library through whose office some early papers of the Library entered the Sewell Collection (Ref 12).  Mr Mullings acted for Powell’s Charities and so was heavily involved with the running of Cirencester Yellow and Blue Schools (Ref 13).


Value of apprenticeship indentures

A fine example of this type of charitable service may be found in the apprenticeship indentures produced by the Cirencester Society in London. These provide a fascinating overview of trades in the town and warrant further study (Ref 14).  Service was also provided to the inhabitants of Cirencester at the end as Mr Mullings also sat on the committee of the Cirencester Burial Board (Ref 15).  The Sewell office was no less active in the town’s development, as evidenced by the series of railway papers and plans within the Sewell Collection, alongside records of Cirencester Swimming Bath (Ref 16),  book club (Ref 17),  and Moreton-in-Marsh Infant School (the latter via a client). (ref 18)   


Many of the affairs which passed over the solicitors’ desks were very local including a dispute relating to the organist of Cirencester Parish Church in 1837 (Ref 19),  and the construction of Cirencester Corn Hall (Ref 20),  as well as records of many property transactions and wills of local residents (Ref 21).  The people of Cirencester and the surrounding villages are seen in a different light in the surviving records of the National Registration Act (1915) which were administered by the Sewell office. While this is incomplete it provides an insight into the lives of women in the county, and it formed part of a volunteer project to support the Gloucestershire Remembers WW1 project, and so contributing to a fuller understanding of how Cirencester fits into the broader picture of Gloucestershire at war (Ref 22).


E.C. Sewell, Esq – an interest in archaeology 

In summer 1926, a Cirencester solicitor stood over a dead body and with a smile on his lips and a glint in his eye, began to make notes (Ref 23).   This was not E. C. Sewell’s first excavation and, given his long-standing interest in the Roman remains of the town, he was a sensible choice for the luckless workmen who found their work encumbered by a skeleton (Ref 24).  Various Messrs Mullings also seem to have had an interest in archaeology and on occasion assisted as a guide to the archaeology of the town (Ref 25), organised archaeological society meetings (Ref 26)  and, along with a selection of other local solicitors, were subscribers to the new Cirencester Museum when it moved to its present site in Park Street (Ref 27).  


Edward Clare Sewell wrote up these notes for the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society and appears to have corresponded widely on the subject, ultimately becoming honorary curator of the Cirencester Museum, aided and abetted by his wife (Ref 28).  He relinquished his curatorship of the museum when he retired from practice and moved to Dorset in 1932 (Ref 29). 

Unfortunately very few of Sewell’s papers remain in the collection to shed more light on his activities, the only clue to this man’s curious hobby is a single sheet of tracing showing two stones, one labelled ‘Facsimile of Roman Inscription Stones found on pulling down Cottages on the site of St John’s Hospital in the Paen-Cirencester- Apl 1884’ and ‘Facsimile of inscribed Stone used as Jamb to Fire Place to Cottages in the Paen discovered on pulling the cottage down Apl 1884’ (Ref 30).  Although there seems to be more in the Corinium Museum, my suspicion is that the majority of Edward Clare Sewell’s archaeological notes followed him to Dorset leaving just his published work and a few odd snippets as testament to his work outside the office.

One of the most frustrating aspects about this collection is the professional nature of the solicitors who produced it. Any glimpse of the solicitors themselves is fleeting and often accidental. Mr Mullings could not have predicted that records of his library fine would find its way to permanent preservation via the Sewell office (Ref 31).  The early-morning swims taken by clerks also offer a brief insight into the lives of the men who created the records (Ref 32).  There is hardly any personal correspondence of the solicitors in the collection, although what is there is intriguing; it can tell us very little about the most prolific of them or their relationship in the office. Fortunately, these were men who moved in particular social circles and who were very active in the recreational activities of their class. As a result, it is possible to spot an off-duty solicitor in other (occasionally unlikely) places, for example on cricket teams (Ref 33) , golf courses (Ref 34)  and refereeing a rugby match. (Ref 35) 


Images are reproduced by kind permission Of Sewell Mullings Logie LLP and are deposited in Gloucestershire Archives.


1 GA D1388/box9447/1


2 Tasmanian Government Archives Convict Conduct Record CON31/1/25  http: http://search.archives.tas.gov.au/ImageViewer/image_viewer.htm?CON31-1-25,332,280,F,60 (Accessed 11/5/2016)


3Tasmanian Government Archives Convict Descriptive List CON18/1/16 page 239 http: http://search.archives.tas.gov.au/ImageViewer/image_viewer.htm?CON18-1-16,165,134,F,60 (Accessed 11/05/2016)


4 GA D181/box98102/3 and GA D181/box98102/4 Law Journal Reports Vol 23 1854


5 Gloucester Journal 7 May 1898 p.7: annual distribution of prizes, children of the Board Schools, Lewis Lane


6 GA D181/box98102/5


7 GA D181/box98102/7


8 GA D1388/box9408/4


9 GA D1388/box9408/3


10 Jean Welsford, revised by Alan Welsford, Cirencester, A History and a Guide, (Stroud) 2010, pp.117-118


11 Roger Sayce, History of the Royal Agricultural College, (Stroud) 1992, pp.136-137


12 GA D181/box96618/1


13 GA D1441


14 GA D1388/box9524/1 – D1388/box9524/4


15 GA D1388/box9476/5 – D1388/9476/8


16 GA D181/box96599/23


17 GA D181/box96609/6, D181/box96599/18


18 GA D181/box47514/1,GA  D181/box47514/2, GA D181/box47514/3, GA D181/box47515/1


19 GA D1388/box9392/11


20 GA D1388/box9409/5


21 GA D181/1/4; GA D181/2; GA D181/7; GA D1388/3; GA D1388/9


22 Gloucestershire Remembers WW1:  http://glosremembers.co.uk/ and GA D181/box96612/1-GAD181/box96612/8; GA D181/box96613/1-GA D181/box/98813/8


23 E. C. Sewell, ‘Discovery of a Romano-British Interment at Stratton’, Proceedings of the Cotteswold Naturalists’ Field Club, Vol 22, 1924-1926, pp.299-301


24 Professor Rolleston, ‘On the three periods known as the Iron, the Bronze and the Stone Ages’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Vol 2, 1877-78, pp.145-9, burial in Oakley Park


25 Worcester Journal 13 August 1846, p.4, visit of British Archaeological Society


26 Gloucester Journal 1 September 1877, p.6, visit of Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society


27 Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic, 21 November 1936, p.2


28 E. C. Sewell, ‘The Corinium Museum, Cirencester, and its Curators’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Vol 55, 1933, pp. 317-321


29 E. C. Sewell, ‘The Corinium Museum, Cirencester, and its Curators’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Vol 55, 1933, pp. 317-321


30 GA D181/box96609/1


31 GA D181/box96599/18


32 GA D181/box96599/433 

Cricket Archive: http://www.cricketarchive.com/Archive/Players/32/32669/32669.html


34 Golf’s missing links: http://www.golfsmissinglinks.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=728:glos-royal-agricultural-college-golf-club-cirencester-glos&catid=50:england-central-west&Itemid=85 (Accessed 12/05/2016)


35 Gloucestershire Chronicle 7 November 1874 match report http: http://www.gloucesterrugbyheritage.org.uk/documents/Press_Report_GRFC_Match;_1874_07_Nov._RAC_Cirencester_v_Glos._Chronicle_7_Nov.pd