The Swan Circle

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‘I’ll tear your henge out’ – a Victorian feud

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Totnes Guildhall

Totnes Guildhall

Last December some idiots vandalised the historic granite pillars supporting the canopy outside Totnes Guildhall. This fine building has been the hub of town and community life since the sixteenth century, serving as a guildhall, magistrate's court and prison. During the English Civil War, soldiers were billeted there and Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax used the large oak tables in the Council Chamber for planning and discussions in 1646.
   My Holman family have had a long association with Totnes and in particular with the Guildhall – they were sometime Mayors of the town in the 15th century when it grew prosperous from trade with France eventually becoming one of the 20 richest towns in the kingdom. The pointless attack on the Guildhall reminded me of a couple of incidents concerning my relatives James and Helen Holman which saw them appear before the magistrate's court on two separate occasions.
   James and Helen resided in Fore Street, the long main road that winds its way up to the top of the steep hill in Totnes. He was a master blacksmith following on the profession of his father, she – typically of the time – warranted no more than a mention as a 'blacksmith's wife' and whatever chores that involved. At the time of their appearance at the Guildhall they had been married for seven years and had three very young children.
   Next door lived master cordwainer John Perrott with his wife Jane and young daughter Mary. The two families were involved in some spat that boiled over on 17th August 1860 when Perrott leaving his garden to enter his house at 9 o'clock in the evening was confronted by Helen Holman. Helen had rushed from her house towards Perrott shouting, 'I'll limb you, you b**??**?,' then once in close proximity she aimed a punch towards Perrott, but missed and the blow struck against the door. Unperturbed, she said 'Come out here and I'll limb you and I'll tear your henge out.'"
   With his 'henge' still firmly in place John Perrott charged for assault and the case appeared before Totnes magistrates on 20th October 1860. Sadly there is no full account of the hearing, but it has to be presumed that there were witnesses – or Helen still had a very sore hand – as she was found guilty and fined in total 9s and 6d expenses.
  Seven days later it all kicked off again. This time John Perrott decided to lay into James Holman – obviously deciding he was the safer of the two because scary iron-fisted Helen was too much of an adversary – accusing the blacksmith of using threatening language against him. However, the magistrates at the Guildhall who heard the case on 3rd Nov 1860 contended that there was no evidence against James Holman and threw the case out, but cautioned him against such 'riotous behaviour' – I think the inference here is drunkenness…
  Hopefully the rift was forgotten and no-one was killed. James and Helen continued on into the 20th century and lived out their lives in Newton Abbott and thankfully John Perrott survived until the next census.


The Butterwalk, Totnes

The Butterwalk, at the top of Fore Street, Totnes


What is a henge?

I had never heard of it before this story except of course in reference to Neolithic stone or wooden post circles. The OED has a definition of it's usage as coined by Helen Holman:

The ‘pluck’ (heart, liver, etc.) of an animal.


1469    in Coll. Ordinances Royal Househ. (1790) 96   Every sheepe to be brought in whoole, except the hedde and the henge.

1787    F. Grose Provinc. Gloss.,   Hanje, or Hange, the head, heart, liver and lights of any animal, called in Somersetshire the purtenance.

1888    F. T. Elworthy W. Somerset Word-bk.,   Hange, the pluck, i.e. the liver, lungs, and heart of any animal. In dressing sheep, the head is usually left attached by the windpipe – this is always called a ‘sheep's head and hange’.

Brest’s Coffee-House, 1773

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Seven Dials circa 1740

Seven Dials, Covent Garden circa 1740


William George Brest advertised the trial opening of his new coffee-house at Christmas in the year of 1773. Two years earlier he had been working as a book-keeper to Mr Prater of Charing Cross and was a close friend and brother-in-law of William Mercer (see previous post). His coffee-house was situated in the area of Covent Garden known as the Seven Dials. Today it is swanky, upmarket and home to one of my favourite theatres 'The Donmar', but by the 19th century the area had become a slum and part of the notorious St Giles rookery.
   The fate of Brest's Coffee House is unknown, but Brest's advertisement serves to illustrate the expectations and requirements of the gentlemanly patrons of coffee houses during the eighteenth century:


Soups, Dinners, Wines, Coffee, &c.

"BREST'S Coffee-House. WILLIAM GEORGE BREST previous to acquaint his Friends and the Publick, that he has very com…..lly and genteely fitted up his House, the Corner of Great Earl-Street, Seven-Dials, near Long-Acre as a Coffee-Room and Tavern. For the Coffee-Room (the entrance of which is in Earl-Street) he takes in all the Morning Papers, Evening Papers, &c. and Gentleman resorting it will always find different Soups, Coffee, Tea, Wines, and every other requisite Article of the very best Kinds. He has also engaged a professed Cook; and any Gentleman or Company may always depend on dining or supping in the Coffee-Room, or in a Private Room as a Tavern, equal (in respect to Dispatch, Attendance, Accommodation, and Goodness) to the first Houses in London, and on Terms that will, he flatters himself insure him the Continuance of those Gentlemans Custom who now honour him with a trial."


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