William Saunders and James Holliday

Sidelights: I nearly had second thoughts. Some of William Saunders’s testimony was rather vague. He doesn’t know how old he is. He repeats himself. He has a brother with a different surname, Holliday, which is the same surname as the next witness – not that William draws the connection to our attention. The next witness is his brother. He also goes on at great length, dragging up a bewildering array of names for just one property in Northchurch, a property he had moved into over forty years ago after moving from next door – through the wall – of the house where he was born.

But I love it. Today we have databases and search-engines. Social media companies know more about us than we’ll ever remember about ourselves. William Saunders is vague because he is human. The answers to questions put by the lawyers are lengthy because he has a lot of memories. If his testimony suffers from repetition, so much the better for us: the memories are reinforced. If he is vague, shouldn’t we always approach eyewitness testimony with caution?

Sometimes it is the seemingly incidental details that bring a story to life.

‘I was along the Broad Green Drive about a month before it was stopped up [closed by Earl Brownlow’s fences]. I drove along in a light cart with my daughter who was sadly.’

Berkhamsted Common
Berkhamsted Common

I guessed the meaning of sadly – poorly – but still looked it up. The OED quotes an example (see Transcript footnote 18) from George Eliot’s novel, Felix Holt, published in 1866, the year William gave his evidence to the court.

Another detail, incidental to William Saunders’s testimony, but of interest to a modern reader, is the source of wealth of the land-owning commoners of Berkhamsted. William describes how he and his brother, Thomas, took advantage of Thomas’s employment as a shepherd to Robert Sutton of Rossway to build up their own flock of sheep. But who was Robert Sutton? The history books describe him as a mercer. It took a while for me to understand that mercer isn’t a job description but denotes membership of the livery company in the City of London. He was, more prosaically, a stockbroker who owned Jamaican sugar plantations, before and after Emancipation in the 1840s (see Transcript footnote 6).

Perhaps it is still too easy to look at the nineteenth-century world of the common as a lost Arcadia. The witnesses at the trial are nearly all old men: a certain amount of nostalgia goes with the territory. They are speaking of ways of life which will soon be lost forever. The country is changing from a mainly agricultural to an industrial one. Farming itself is becoming an industry. The old commons around London are disappearing under housing.

Part of the economic heat blowing across the common at the beginning of the nineteenth century had travelled a long way indeed. For Sutton perhaps, owning an English country estate was always more about shine than sheep. Land hid the origin of his wealth from other people; charitable work hid it, perhaps, from his own conscience.

I need to return to William Saunders. I don’t know him, but I’ve come to like him a lot. I feel for the loss of his brother, Thomas, and for the brakes that put on William’s sheep-farming operations. I hope his daughter made a speedy recovery after their cart ride along the Broad Green Drive. I wonder if she was the daughter, Ann, who took over The Anchor leaving William to concentrate on farming? I hope William’s accident wasn’t too serious, and that he enjoyed a long and happy retirement. I suspect the concept of retirement would have been both anachronistic and of little appeal to William Saunders, publican, farmer, and commoner.

William Saunders

For more detail on the family links between James Holliday and William Saunders please see Rob Gorr’s email.

The Holliday family are well-known to local historians in Berkhamsted and have generated some web discussion – for example at the excellent hertfordshire-genealogy.co.uk.

There is a Holliday Street in Berkhamsted which may be named after a shop run by James Holliday’s brother cousin, John Holliday. Interestingly, given Robb Gorr’s research, Burt Hosier, the Northchurch historian (who was born in one of the Outwood Kiln cottages), suggests that the road which became Northchurch New Road was once known as ‘Hollidays Lane’, after a farm on the site of Northchurch School.1

James Holliday
  1. Corrected 14/09/20.

Published by Richard Shepherd

Richard Shepherd is a writer and musician and lives in Kentish Town.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *