A Bristol Mercury article of 2nd October 1858 said Sir John Key owned the property that became Thornbury Cottage in Kington Lane Thornbury and that it had been empty for some years.
The report added that on 21st December 1857 an excise officer J. W. Dalby took possession of the cottage.
John Watson Dalby had been baptised on 22nd January 1800. He was the son of James and Elizabeth Dalby of Grays Inn Gardens. A website about his verse says that he was “placed with a bookseller in the West End of London” as early as 1812. We understand from the same source that “he was a contributor to and later editor of the Literary Chronicle, which in a review of his Poems (1822) describes him as labouring ‘under all the disadvantages of privation, disease, and domestic calamity.’ In 1828 the Literary Chronicle was incorporated into the Athenaeum, edited by Frederick Denison Maurice.”
The 1841 Census shows that John Dalby was an excise officer then aged 41 who lived with his wife Ann aged 36 and daughter Gertrude aged one. He was living in Amersham in Buckinghamshire.
By 1851 the Census showed that he had moved to Berry Lane in Wootton Northamptonshire aged 51. He was described then as an officer of the Inland Revenue. His wife Ann was from Bloomsbury in London and was aged 46. Their daughter Gertrude was a scholar “at home.” She had been born in Amersham.
Dalby and his family soon made an impact on Thornbury when they arrived there at the end of 1857. By 1858 they were involved in a fiercely fought argument over the use of family pews in St Mary’s Church. The case became an issue in the autumn of 1858 and was reported at length because there was fighting in St Mary’s Church and many irate letters to the newspapers on the subject.
Initially it was only reported locally but the interest in the case grew and went nationwide.
At that time several of the pews in the church were ‘reserved’ for eminent landowners and associated with the ownership or occupation of certain houses in the town. The pew in question was effectively owned by the Key family and it was customarily used by his tenants at Thornbury Cottage. The cottage had been empty for some time and so Sir John Key had allowed a young lady, Miss Elizabeth Sly, and an elderly gentleman, Joseph Williams, to use the pew, which could seat about six people. Miss Sly and Mr Williams sat there during the church services for nearly five years according to one newspaper report. The problem began when Thornbury Cottage was let out to John Dalby. He wanted to exercise his right to the pew and use it for his family and for the children who attended his daughter’s small boarding school.
In July 1858 the churchwarden sent letters telling Miss Sly and Mr Williams not to use the pews. By August a policeman attended the church to keep Miss Sly and Mr Williams from the pew. In September (by which time it was alleged in one newspaper that two policemen now attended church service to keep the peace) the Bishop of Gloucester wrote to the pair and told them that the churchwardens had assigned the pews and they had to accept the warden’s decision. This did not deter Miss Sly and the churchwardens actually dragged the lady from the pew and down the aisle. The two Sundays before a particularly unseemly scuffle in the church, Mr Dalby and his party arrived before the church was opened and entered through the vestry door. This meant they were in “their” pew when the doors opened and Miss Sly and Mr Williams were forced to sit elsewhere. On the third Sunday the Dalby party arrived two hours before the service and Miss Dalby and her friend, two children and Mr Willshen the churchwarden sat in the pew. Miss Sly arrived and tried to take her place in the same pew. The churchwarden held the door shut and tried to keep her out. The tussle went on for HALF AN HOUR “interspersed by sundry opinions from both parties.” Mr Dalby arrived and he took the place of the churchwarden, who it seemed had only been there to keep the others out. Miss Sly continued her efforts to sit in the pew. The churchwarden pushed out of the way. Miss Sly left the church with the churchwarden following and the congregation who were still arriving witnessed a most distressing scene of a very upset young woman. In the evening service, which was packed, Miss Sly got to church an hour early but the Dalby family were already well in place in “their” pew.
In October 1858 there was a meeting at the Swan Inn “at the request of certain inhabitants” to try and settle the issue. The authorities present appeared to favour the Dalby family but were disinclined to pursue the matter through the courts. Local opinion was largely in favour of the protesters. Letters were sent to all concerned.
Meanwhile the fight went on and Superintendent Gordon of the Gloucestershire Constabulary attended the service and he let the Dalby family pass through the vestry and into their pew. Church attendances were said to be higher than for many years. On the final occasion when both Joseph and Elizabeth were evicted with the help of the two policeman, between 150 and 200 other churchgoers also chose to leave the church in sympathy, and it was reported that a great many avowed that they would not return.
The case did actually come to court in November 1858 and Miss Sly was accused of causing the disturbance in church. Miss Sly was persuaded to give an undertaking not to repeat her attempts to sit in “her pew” and the case was dismissed.
According to some newspaper reports the feeling of the ordinary people in Thornbury was for the two protesters and against the churchwardens for brawling in the church. Joseph Williams was described as ‘a respectable local person residing at Moreton (who had for many years carried on a smith’s business in the town, and who had been a staunch attendant at church for upwards of 50 years having married his wife and had twelve children baptised there). ‘ On November 5th 1858 as part of the Guy Fawkes celebrations over a thousand of the local inhabitants burned an effigy of Mr Willshen wearing a white hat and spectacles on his nose after parading it round the town on a rocking horse and shooting at it. The same crowd gathered outside Miss Sly’s house to cheer her until she came out to bow her acknowledgements.
In December 1858 Miss Sly had writs served on Mr Willshen and Rev Rawle for assault.
Public opinion was also inclined against the newcomers themselves. In 1859 on 5th February there was a report in the Bristol Mercury of yet another court case. John Watson Dalby excise officer of Thornbury was summoned by Mrs Vaughan wife of James Vaughan for assault. Mr Dalby was fined 6d and cost of 13s 6d for an assault with his walking stick on her husband in his shop having called him “a dishonest liar.” He had also insulted Mrs Vaughan and threatened her with his stick.
In 1861 the Census showed that John Watson Dalby was a superannuated officer of the Inland Revenue. His wife Ann was 56 and a school mistress as was her daughter Gertrude who was aged 21.
They had Mary Anne Hickman aged 24 from Hitchin in Hertfordshire to help with the school. John Davidson aged 13 a scholar from Middlesex and Elizabeth File aged 7 from Berkeley were boarders. They also had a 19 year old servant.
The Bristol Mercury of 1862 showed another aspect of John Watson Dalby who was described as “among the friends who originally came to Leigh Hunt as literary correspondents.” In 1834 Mr Dalby had sent verses to a publication called “True Sun” edited by Laman Blanchard and in which Leigh Hunt was a literary reviewer. The verses were called a “Song in Honour of Burns.” Mr Dalby was also described as a copious contributor to “the Ladies’ Gazette.” Leigh Hunt reviewed Dalby’s works favourably. Leigh Hunt replied to Dalby’s letter of thanks “it is a great pleasure to be able to give any pleasure to those who are so sensible of it.” Another letter from Leigh Hunt showed that their friendship had progressed. “I shall be very disappointed indeed if I am not able to remind you of your kind invitation to Harefield.” He added “I enjoy your little cottage.” John Watson Dalby published several volumes of verse as well as his contributions to other publications. There are many examples of John Watson Dalby’s poems on the internet and Princeton university appears to have a collection of his letters.
John’s daughter Gertrude Mary Dalby married Samuel Ralph Townshend Mayer in 1867. This would appear to be about the time that the Dalbys left Thornbury Cottage to live in London. We believe that Samuel Mayer, Gertrude’s husband was the clerk to the Gloucester Union. He, like his father in law, was an active member of a society whose aim was to raise funds for a memorial to Leigh Hunt. He also had a slightly more intriguing interest. He was founder and active supporter of the “London Free and Open Church Association.” One advertisement for this cause said “all who are desirous of abolishing the pew system with its attendant evils are earnestly invited to support this association.” We cannot explain why Gertrude should now appear to be favouring the abolition of the pew system by marrying this man. However he was a friend of her father’s so perhaps Mr Dalby had had a change of heart as well.
Sadly on 28th June 1880 the then editor of St James magazine Samuel Ralph Townshend Mayer died in Richmond. He was aged only 39. His will reveals that he was formerly of 25 Norfolk Street Strand in Middlesex but late of Crown Terrace, Mortlake Road Richmond. It was proved in London and his estate was valued at under £400.
In the 1881 Census John Watson Dalby and his wife lived at 8 Crown Terrace in Richmond where they had a lodger Emily Hedges aged 62. In the same Census their daughter Gertrude lived next door in number 6. She was widowed, and aged 41. Her profession at that time was “a translator of German Literature.”
On June 13th 1885 the Bristol Mercury had an announcement;
“We regret to notice in our obituary column the death of John Watson Dalby which took place at Richmond Surrey on the 4th instance at the ripe old age of 85 after a very short illness. Mr Dalby in early life gave proof of literary ability which secured him the friendship of Leigh Hunt, Walter Savage Lander and other notabilities. Many years ago he retired to Thornbury to live and was for a considerable time an active and valued correspondent for this journal. The columns of the Mercury also from time to time published poetic contributions from his pen which were evidence of culture and taste while not a few of them were marked with a vigour of political sentiment which was characteristic of Mr. Dalby’s mind… Some years ago Mr Dalby removed to Richmond and the Richmond and Twickenham Times of Saturday last has a lengthened tribute to his memory.”
His last poem appeared in The Spectator of December 13th 1884.