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Broom Squires*

Anne-Marie Ford    -    3 May 2015

Paupers and Pig Killers: the Diary of William Holland, a Somerset Parson, 1790-1818, offers a commentary on village life that tells us a good deal about the people and perhaps even more about the social prejudices of Nether Stowey in Somerset in the early part of the nineteenth century. One November Holland writes in his diary:

A very foggy morning, I do not think my cold is much better . . . Joseph Palmer, a savage-looking fellow came here to pay tithe as I had threatened him. He grumbled at the sum . . . I told him . . . if he promises to come to church I would take but 1/- from him instead of two. He smiled at this, God bless you, I can easily do this . . . these broom squires . . . have no religion and I do not ever remember seeing this man at church.

Joseph Palmer was a member of an extensive family of broom-makers who used the local woodland to gather materials to maintain their craft. The living was often poor, even though many hawked their brooms and brushes around the villages, often as far afield as Bristol. Sons followed their fathers into the same occupation and the pre-eminent broom squires of the area were Palmers, Knights and Richs.

In Over Stowey, at the church of St Peter and Paul, Joseph Palmer and Mary, formerly Keble, had baptised a son Joseph in June 1792. Is this the family to which Holland refers? Perhaps. The cleric had to admit, of course, that occasionally the broomers did indeed come to church - in their multitudes:

In the afternoon we had a very full church. They brought a corpse from Spraxton, a pauper, and yet it is astonishing what a number of people attended. The brother, a Palmer, was at the expense which indeed was generous. The coffin was very handsome indeed.

For much the same reason he was also to write that:

We had here the church very full in the afternoon; several persons from other parishes having come on account of the woman that was lately buried, one of the Palmers, and so all the broom squires were at church and some of them I believe had not been at church since they were christened.

In the records of Nether and Over Stowey there are two Joseph Palmers who are broom squires, claiming birth in 1786 and 1799 respectively, perhaps the 1786 birth is the baptism of 1792. However, since they both married women named Elizabeth, the elder Joseph having two wives named Elizabeth, one can be forgiven for imagining an amazingly large family derived from one couple!

In fact, the elder Joseph Palmer found in census records had married a woman very much younger than himself, who claimed birth in 1816. This was almost certainly a second marriage, as the children with them in the 1841 census are much too old to have been this Elizabeth’s progeny, but it seems, from the records, that his first wife was also an Elizabeth, perhaps the Elizabeth Walford who married a Joseph Palmer on 26th March 1821 at Over Stowey. The family are staying in the Bridgwater Union, at Blind Well, Nether Stowey, with Caroline, baptised 10th May 1822, daughter of Joseph and Elizabeth, a broomer; Joseph, baptised 17th April 1825; Lavinia, baptised 8th July 1827; Solomon, baptised 21st April 1830; Matilda, baptised 19th August 1832; Emma, baptised 22nd March 1835; Martha, born about 1837; William, born about 1839; Henry born in 1840.

In the 1851 census the family are living at Hog Pit, Over Stowey, which was probably as grim as it sounds. With the couple are children William, born about 1839; Henry, born around 1840; George, born about three years’ later; Elizabeth, born about 1846; Robert, baptised on 27th February 1848, son of a broomer, and a baby, Mary Ann, baptised 25th August 1850.

By 1861 the family have added to their brood with Thomas, baptised 29th August 1852, son of a labourer, living at Castle Hill; Eliza, baptised 25th June 1854, daughter of a broomer, and James, baptised 22nd February 1857 son of a broomer of Castle Hill.

In spite of their occupation, and the use they made of local wood, heath and ling in order to provide the villagers with brooms, brushes and besoms, the broom squires were not immune to convictions for using such materials. The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser of 12th December 1860 records that “Henry Palmer, Solomon Palmer and George Palmer, three broom squires of Nether Stowey, were charged and pleaded guilty to cutting underwood . . . fined 10/- each.”

It is likely, surely, that these are brothers, all sons of Joseph Palmer, although Solomon, being older, the result of his first marriage. Solomon married an Izett Rich, also coming from a broomer family, in Over Stowey on 2nd December 1853.

In the parish of Stogursey, Somerset on 26th December 1862 Henry Palmer, 22, son of Joseph, married Sarah Ann Hurley, he worked as a broomer, and is probably the Henry mentioned in the court case, who would have been about 20 at the time of the offence. Together he and Sarah Ann had several children, Mary Ann, Robert, Harry, Ellen, William, Selina, Sarah Jane and Thomas. They are found in census records over the years at various locations in Over Stowey, but, on 7th April 1898, the Wells Journal reports an unsettling case regarding Henry:

Henry Palmer, 60, broom-maker, was indicted for attempting to commit suicide at Over Stowey on 18th February. Prisoner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment.

Such treatment was common until well into the twentieth century, although it seems that in Henry’s case, whatever tragedy or depression had led him to attempt to take his own life, he recovered. He can be found in the 1901 census, living at Warren House, Over Stowey, with Sarah Ann and two of their adult children, William and Sarah Jane. By 1911, at the same location, Henry is still working as a broomer, and is with his wife and daughter, Sarah Jane, who is helping keep house.

Henry’s brother, George, also continued the trade of broom-maker, and can be found at Castle Hill, Nether Stowey, in the 1871 census with his wife, Ann, and children George, William and Emily. They remain settled at the same address, and, in 1881, have added a daughter, Alice, and a son, Jessie, to their growing family. The 1891 census, still recording George as a broom-maker, has further children added, Lucy, about 9, Lily, about 7 and Florence, about 2 years of age.

Interestingly, a younger brother, Thomas, did not take up the trade of broom squire. In 1881 he is at Castle Hill, Nether Stowey, with his wife Emily, formerly Modley, and is found working as a marine store dealer. Like George, he was to remain at Castle Hill, but changed occupations, so that by 1891 he is recorded as a licensed hawker, and is living with Emily and their five children, Arabella, William, Edwin, Milborough and Tommy. In the 1901 census Thomas is a china dealer, and their five children are still residing at home. Life was changing, the role of the broom squire was a dying one, and Thomas was already adapting to the twentieth century.

* My thanks go to John Caple for much of the information in this story.

Copyright © 2015 Anne-Marie Ford