Choosing and Losing the Company Clerks

Diana Crane outlines the controversies associated with the comings and goings of the Stroudwater Company's clerks.

The proprietors of the Stroudwater Navigation Company met twice a year to manage the affairs of the company, holding an Annual General Meeting in April and a half-yearly meeting in September and a Special General Meeting if an urgent matter arose.  A committee was selected at the AGM to manage the general strategy of the canal company and the day-to-day affairs.  One of the most important actions of the general meetings was the election of a new Clerk when needed, an employee who in practice was the Chief Executive Officer of the company based at Wallbridge. The Company also employed a second Clerk at Framilode and, at times a third Clerk referred to as Surveyor. The appointment and departure of some of these Clerks were occasions for tensions and controversy - as will be explained.

Benjamin Grazebrook's account book (GA D1180/2/17)
Benjamin Grazebrook's account book (GA D1180/2/17)
Benjamin Grazebrook's account book (GA D1180/2/17)
Benjamin Grazebrook's account book (GA D1180/2/17)

When the Company was formed in 1774, the first to be elected as Clerk was Benjamin Grazebrook, a practical man who played a leading role throughout the building of the canal. Fifteen months later, he was elected to the Committee and his son Joseph took over as Clerk. This continued until 1788 when Joseph Grazebrook resigned, receiving the unanimous thanks of the Committee for his integrity and punctuality. 

The same general meeting ’confirmed the order of the Committee respecting the appointment of Mr Baylis and Mr Hains as our clerks’.  Nothing is reported of how they were selected, but in the next committee minutes their duties are defined: ‘In future two clerks to be appointed, one to keep Company's books, attend meetings, obey orders of Committee, attend and receive tonnage of all vessels at Dudbridge and upwards, pay money to the Treasurer every week and give business his constant attendance. The second clerk to attend and receive tonnage of all vessels below Dudbridge and account to the first clerk every week.’  The salaries were £45 p.a. for the first clerk and £40 for the second. This second clerk was based at Framilode. It was evidently realised that the clerks would handle and account for considerable amounts of money and might be tempted to peculation. Securities for their satisfactory performance were required: the first clerk to give security of £200, the second clerk £100.  

Good and Bad Clerks

Problems soon occurred, and later in 1788 Mr Baylis was demoted to second clerk while Mr Hains replaced him as first clerk. In 1794 Mr Baylis was still not giving satisfaction, and Mr Hains was asked to look for a replacement second clerk.  Mr Baylis remained in position and in 1796 was admonished and his appointment was continued on a temporary basis ‘on condition of his paying due attention to the Interest of the Company.’  In 1797 matters came to a head and Mr Baylis was dismissed from the company’s service. The Committee enquired for a suitable person to take over as second clerk and William Smith was appointed. His terms were £37 p.a. and a tenement and garden. Late that year William Smith fell ill and Thomas Beard had to take over his duties temporarily. Smith's illness continued and in January 1799, William Pavey, ‘having attended to offer his services as under clerk’ was taken on in William Smith’s place under the same terms.  In 1801 William Pavey’s salary was increased by £8, but sadly in 1809 he fell in the canal and drowned.  The Committee ordered that ‘another Person be appointed to serve in his room, as soon as a proper one can be found.’ 

The Company's headquarters at Wallbridge
The Company's headquarters at Wallbridge
The Company's headquarters at Wallbridge
The Company's headquarters at Wallbridge

Meanwhile at Wallbridge, in 1798 Edward Hains was permitted to reside at the Company’s newly built headquarters in Wallbridge free of rent and taxes. In 1801, he applied for an increase in salary and was awarded £75p.a., on condition the whole of his time was devoted to company service. A similar condition was applied to Barnard Hole when he was appointed second clerk and lock keeper at Framilode in 1809 for £40 p.a. and a house and garden. Unfortunately, he did not prove a satisfactory employee: in 1811, ‘It appearing that Barnett Hole, our clerk at Framilode, is much addicted to drinking and that there has been great neglect in the conduct of the business, the Clerk is to give him a reprimand and advise him to be more circumspect in the future or he will be dismissed.’ In February 1813, Barnett Hole died, and examination of his accounts showed that he had received a great deal of toll money which had not been accounted for. 

Thomas Beard was appointed in his place for one year at the salary of £70 per annum, with a bond of £200 as security, but worse was to come. One year later, following a tip-off, it was revealed that Thomas Beard had also withheld toll money and Edward Hains, the senior Clerk, was accused of embezzlement.  Thomas and Ambrose Beard were dismissed and obliged to vacate company houses and Edward Hains was suspended.  The proprietors were apprised of the situation and a special general meeting was called.  Mr Hains was allowed to resign.  

Choosing One of Their Own

The Committee received a number of applications for the post of senior Clerk which were collected for consideration at a hastily arranged Special General Meeting on 21 June 1814. The meeting voted for George Hawker, the actual minute reading rather oddly: ‘Having proceeded to ballot for a chief clerk . . .it appeared that Mr George Hawker was elected by a considerable majority.’  In this situation the body of proprietors had opted for one of their own:  George Hawker was a scion of a prominent clothier and dyer family: the first Committee of the Company had included his senior uncle Captain George Hawker and John Hawker of Kingston Stanley, a connection by marriage. Although no further details were recorded about this election, it is possible that the result was influenced by active canvassing of proprietors votes by family members and friends - as certainly happened in later elections. George Hawker was given a salary of £120 p.a. free of all taxes and was required to give a security of £500, backed by Messrs John and Charles Hawker. 

The Toll Clerk's house at Framilode (Michael Handford)
The Toll Clerk's house at Framilode (Michael Handford)
The Toll Clerk's house at Framilode (Michael Handford)
The Toll Clerk's house at Framilode (Michael Handford)

Meanwhile, William Purcell was appointed lock keeper and clerk at Framilode: his ‘salary to be £65 per annum (paid quarterly), he agreeing to pay £5 per annum rent for his house and garden, exclusive of the land on the opposite side of the canal which he is not to occupy.’  In 1821, this was raised to £80 p.a.

Initially George Hawker fulfilled the duties of both chief clerk and surveyor in an exemplary fashion, so much so that in 1821 his salary was raised to the sum of £200 per annum ‘as a consideration for his long and faithful services’.  The Committee even went as far as to order that his portrait be paid for from the funds of the Company and be kept in the Committee Room. However, he was aged 52 at the time of his election, and his long term of office was not to be without its problems. 

In 1831 a new crisis arose occasioned by the insolvency of Thomas Harper, the Company’s agent for sale of coals at Dudbridge Wharf.  Further investigation revealed ‘reason to attribute much of the Company's loss to Mr George Hawker, the Company's Clerk, in consequence of his not duly bringing before the Committee, and calling their attention as often as he ought to have done, to the state of the accounts between the said Thomas Harper and the Company’.  In addition, he admitted having knowingly misrepresented the amount of coal still in the yard in the Company’s accounts.  Mr Harper was immediately dismissed and a Special General Meeting called.  The final conclusion after full deliberation followed:  ‘nothing having appeared to this Meeting to show that the same was done or omitted to be done [by George Hawker] with a view to benefit himself, or with any intention to defraud or injure the company; - whilst the good conduct of the said George Hawker for a long series of years justifies this meeting in believing in the absence of all corrupt motive, or ill intention on his part - Resolved that this Meeting do not think it necessary to dismiss the said George Hawker from the situation of principal Clerk the Company: - But they do at the same time desire to express to the said George Hawker, their deep regret at his having failed in his duty in the respects before mentioned - their serious disapprobation of such default and failure of duty, and that he be ordered in future to use his utmost vigilance and care in and about the accounts and affairs of the Company.’

Preparing for a Future Vacancy

In 1839 the increasing frailty of George Hawker’s health (he was now unfit to carry out the more arduous elements of the clerk/surveyor’s duties) prompted the Committee to elect a subcommittee to ‘take into consideration the office of the Clerk to this Company with a prospective view to a future vacancy in the same and to report the same to the General Committee; suggesting any alteration which in that event might appear to them desirable to be made in the duties of the office, the number of persons proper to perform those duties, the residence of the Clerk or Clerks and the Salary or Salaries; with any other plan which might seem to them desirable to be adopted for the more efficient inspection of the Canal and the trafic [sic] thereof; and generally what might be desirable to be adopted in the management of the Canal and the concerns thereof.’ After deliberating and consulting with George Hawker, the general meeting decided to keep him on with restricted duties.  He had pointed out that his only means of subsistence was his salary: considering ‘the length of time (27 years) of his Service, his great age and infirmities, and the progress in the concern in prosperity during his Clerkship [ . . . ] and with a view to its moral Effect on the agents & Servants of the Company in general, and as an inducement to the faithful discharge of their duty, It is expedient to continue Mr Hawker's salary, as heretofore paid, etc, so long as he shall continue to discharge the restricted Duties of his Office to the satisfaction of the Committee.  

William Purcell, who had been taken on as lock keeper and clerk at Framilode at the same time as George Hawker, was not so fortunate – his services were dispensed with and he was required to vacate his house.  Mr Burbage (or Burbidge), the Superintendent at Dudbridge, was moved to Framilode to take over the position.

The Committee now advertised for applicants for the office of Clerk of the Navigation (to take over the Surveyor's duties given up by George Hawker), limiting the salary to £120 p. a. with a residence free of rent & taxes. The Committee had ‘the house occupied by Organ at Chippenham's Plat’ in mind.  A Committee was summoned for June 24th to consider the Tenders sent in. Bearing in mind perhaps what may have happened at Mr Hawker’s election,  it was ‘ thought desirable to warn the Proprietors of the Canal against the promises of support to any individual applicant of the Office of Clerk of the Canal for which advertisements have been published and to withhold the giving of proxies to vote in the Choice of such Clerk until all the tenders and testimonies have been received and considered’ and the Company solicitor was ordered to prepare a letter to ‘ be printed and sent to each proprietor to suggest the propriety of withholding such promises and proxies.’ The Committee received 57 applications and Mr Edward Wood Mason was selected from them and appointed.  In practice, he described himself as a Superintendent rather than a clerk and concerned himself entirely in caring for the physical structure of the canal.

A Difficult Transition

In March 1843, it became clear that George Hawker’s health was failing fast: Mr Cosham, a member of the Committee, was deputed to take charge of the keys and books of the Company and the dwelling house if the clerk became wholly incapacitated, and to ‘provide for the temporary performance of the necessary duties of the Canal Office. In August, George Hawker died. At an emergency meeting of the Committee, Mr Cosham reported that he had the keys, but the books were in the hands of Mr Charles Hawker, the younger brother of George, who had been keeping the books and accounts for him.  The Committee ‘resolved that Mr Mason, as the only present Clerk to the Company, do immediately take possession of the Books and other Papers belonging to the Company; and also of the Cash remaining in hand; and that he continue the same and the charge of the Accounts until the adjourned meeting of the Committee on Friday next. At this meeting, the Committee also ordered that Mr Mason be admitted to the occupation of the Company's House at Walbridge at Michaelmas next, subject to the use of the Office and Committee Rooms by the Committee and Junior Clerk for the purpose of the management of the Navigation.

As this would require both Clerks to work closely together, at their next meeting the Committee were moved to set out in full the requirements they felt were needed for the satisfactory performance of the Company’s clerks, as given below: ‘The following are the suggestions and [so far as in their power to direct] the directions of the Committee in regard to the future management of the concerns accounts etc of the Navigation, viz:-

  • That in future the salaries of clerks be paid quarterly by checks, to be signed in committee by the Chairman of the Day, & countersigned by one other of the Committee. 
  • That, in future, the Clerk who shall receive the Cash of the Company shall pay the amount in hand to the Treasurer at the Bank twice in every week viz: on Wednesdays and Saturday; and that the money received by the Clerk at Framilode be paid to the Clerk or accountant at Wallbridge once in every week.
  • That the attendance of the Junior Clerk at the office at Wallbridge be from the hour of seven in the morning (during the Summer half year) and from eight o'clock in the morning (during the other part of the year) until the shutting of the Wallbridge Wharf Gates as those respective seasons; allowing intervals of an hour each for breakfast & dinner. 
  • That the security to be given by the Junior Clerk now to be elected shall be the amount of two Sureties of £150 each for his faithful accounting, payment & general good conduct.
  • That Mr Mason, the Senior Clerk, do audit the accounts of the Junior Clerk, once every week, or oftener if he sees fit.  Mason to keep a book & enter work there.
  • That the senior Clerk do make a general Survey of the Navigation twice (at least) in every week; and enter a report of each Survey, in a Book to be kept, for that purpose, inclusive of the work done & in progress, and other necessary matters; which book shall be presented to the monthly Committee.
  • That the senior and junior clerks shall naturally assist each other in their respective duties, as occasion may be require.
  • That the Business of the Junior Clerk is to receive the Tonnages keep the books and perform the General duties of the office at Wallbridge & the Wharf.
  • That the mode in which the accounts are to be kept and the Tickets issued shall be taken into consideration, and any improvement therein which shall be thought desirable shall be adopted -- and that in respect to the latter subject, it is suggested that, in future, all tickets issued shall be signed by the Treasurer or certain of the Committee to be determined on.
  • That (as difficulties have sometimes been experienced in consequence of the great age of our late Clerk Mr George Hawker) in future it shall be regarded as a principle or rule, that no supposed claim or consideration of services, shall be considered as instituting a Clerk of this Company to be retained in his office, whenever age, or infirmity shall render him unable fully to perform the duties of it.’

Dock House at Eastington (Norman Leslie Andrews)
Dock House at Eastington (Norman Leslie Andrews)
Dock House at Eastington (Norman Leslie Andrews)
Dock House at Eastington (Norman Leslie Andrews)

At the Special General Meeting which followed, however, the Committee's allocation of the Walbridge house to Mr Mason was overturned when a majority voted that the clerk who kept the books and accounts must reside there. As that majority evidently wanted Charles Hawker to continue keeping the books (as he had done to help his brother), he was elected to the position of Clerk of the Canal at a salary of £80 p.a., commencing the following day. The house at Chippenham Platt (later known as Dock House) intended for Mr Mason since 1840 was to be put in order, and until then he was to be allowed £10 p.a. at least towards the rent of a house. A contribution of £22 was made to the funeral expenses of George Hawker.

Mr Mason was very unsatisfied with his treatment and the effective appointment over his head of Charles Hawker to the position of chief clerk.  The matter of housing was not satisfactorily settled.  In 1844 he complained that he was housed in a building suitable for a carpenter or mason valued at £6 while Mr Charles Hawker had a house valued at £30. He felt that this was a sign the committee wished to dispense with his services.  He announced his intention to resign and his resignation was accepted.  In June 1844 an advertisement was placed, testimonials from different persons as Surveyor were evaluated and some appeared before the committee. Mr Sherwood was elected Clerk / Surveyor. His salary was £80 p.a., with a house at Chippenham Platt, to pay taxes but no rent: 3 months’ notice to be given.  Mr Sherwood was in post until September 1846 when he was adjudged guilty of great neglect in looking after the business of the canal.  He was given three months’ notice.  

Once again the Committee advertised for a surveyor.  The testimonials of nine of the applicants were selected and four were examined by a sub- Committee which assessed them for general knowledge of canals, familiarity with carpentry and masonry, mudding canals, construction of lock gates and swing bridges and gauging boats.  Mr Nathan Driver was elected Surveyor ‘in the room of Mr Sherwood at a Salary of £70 per annum, with the House at Chippenham Plat for his residence, rent free, but he paying all Taxes and Rates. Security to the amount of £150 to be given. Three months notice to be given on either side in case of leaving.’ Much to the relief of the Committee, Charles Hawker and Nathan Driver worked well together, and ten years of calm prevailed.

Another Difficult Transition

In February 1854 Charles Hawker, now aged 76, announced his intention to retire as clerk in three months’ time.  His resignation was accepted, the Committee acknowledging ‘his valuable and long services and the entirely good understanding which has so long subsisted between him and the Committee.’  In fact, his services had been so greatly appreciated that he was appointed a member of the Committee, with his membership to begin on the day after he surrendered the post of clerk.  

In April the Committee advertised for applications for the post.  In addition they noted: ‘ Inasmuch as Members of this Committee have been canvassed for their Votes in favour of Candidates for the Office of Clerk to this Navigation and understand that a general Canvass of the Proprietors has been made for their Votes even before Mr Hawkers intention to vacate the Office had been announced and as the Committee have not any one in view or any object to serve except to concur in the selection of the fittest individual for the Office they earnestly entreat the Shareholders to join with them in an endeavour to select the best and fittest Candidate and to abstain from giving proxies or pledging their Votes to any person until the Candidates are known and their qualifications and Testimonials have been examined. The Committee deem it essential to the interests of the Company that a proper and fit appointment be made and in the present crisis of opposition from the Railway Company that it is most important for the Proprietors interest that the Clerk should be chosen as well as for suitable qualifications as for active and energetic habit of business.

It is resolved that this opinion of the Committee be forthwith printed and communicated to the Proprietors individually and that Mr Croome do get this resolution printed and circulated amongst the Proprietors.’  Forty eight applications were received and scrutinised; four were selected to attend a special meeting of the Committee and a Mr George Easton of Chester was selected for presentation as the Committee’s candidate for the position.  

Alas for the Committee’s  good intentions and the unfortunate Mr Easton: the shareholders put up another candidate, once again a member of a respected clothier and dyer family (the Partridges of Bowbridge) with no direct canal experience and in need of employment in the failing state of the cloth industry.  Nathaniel Alfred Partridge was elected with votes as follow: ‘For Mr Easton Present 16 Proxies 13 Total 29.  Mr Partridge: Present 14 Proxies 44 Total 58’.  Mr Partridge was duly elected, with a salary of £100 p.a., with use of the house at Wallbridge free of taxes, and sureties of £1000 to be given ; various members of the Partridge family and two others were named as surety.  Mr Hawker was persuaded to postpone his retirement until July, Mr Partridge to attend the office from the 19th June to be instructed in his duties.

In practice, Nathaniel Partridge appears to have been a conscientious and able clerk, dealing with the clerical and financial aspects of the Company’s affairs.  Nathan Driver continued as the surveyor attending competently to structural and practical matters to the full satisfaction of the Committee: testament to this is the record in the minutes of numbers of gratuities paid to him from time to time in recognition of his good services. This continued until 1864 when a sudden and severe deterioration in his health prevented him from carrying out his duties. A Mr Edward Peyton was appointed to assist him: Mr Driver was permitted to remain in his house, but required to give up a room to Mr Peyton for his use and to hand over the books.  In the event, in August 1864 Nathan Driver died and Edward Peyton took over his house and position with an appropriate increase in his salary.

A Qualified Professional

In February 1872, Nathaniel Partridge announced to the Committee that he wished to resign: ‘In consequence of declining health I find I am reluctantly compelled to resign the Office of Clerk to your Company. Whilst doing so I beg to offer you my sincere thanks for the patience and forbearance you have expressed towards my defects, and shortcomings, and also for the unvaried courtesy and continued kindness I have received from each, and all of you during the 18 years I have been in your service. I also feel most grateful for the liberal pension of £50 per annum you intend to allow me as intimated to me through your Chairman Mr Beard.’  Mr Partridge’s departure was set to take place in June 1872 and the search for a new clerk began. 

William James Snape
William James Snape
William James Snape
William James Snape

From 109 applications, 5 were chosen for further consideration and of these William James Snape was chosen: he was a thoroughgoing canal professional, qualified as a canal engineer.  He was duly appointed in April to the advertised position of clerk and sureties were taken, with a proviso that should he later also wish to take up the position of surveyor as well, his salary would be increased by £40 p.a. The Committee may have been aware that a vacancy was possible in the near future: on 25th June Edward Peyton, the incumbent surveyor, died at the early age of 31 years.  The Committee expressed ‘their great regret at the loss they have sustained by the death of so good and faithful a servant and one who was always most active and zealous for the interests of the Company.’ Mr Snape’s appointment to this post also was confirmed.  The Peyton family connection with the canal continued: Edward’s older brother Matthew Nathaniel was toll clerk at Saul Junction, having previously been lock keeper and toll clerk at Framilode.

At last, after so many thwarted previous attempts, the Committee had managed to elect the qualified professional of their choice:  W. James Snape, as he always signed himself, proved to be well-qualified, meticulous, intelligent and diligent, as well as of unquestioned probity.  Sadly however, the canal was already severely compromised in its business affairs by competition with the railways, and Mr Snape’s career was destined to be a prolonged, arduous and ultimately unsuccessful rearguard action to keep the canal business afloat in an increasingly hostile world. In 1912 he suffered but recovered from a serious illness; after his recovery the Committee clubbed together in offering congratulation on his 40 years’ service with the Navigation and asking him to accept a gift of 10 guineas in appreciation of the efficient and zealous way in which he had carried out his duties, as a mark of sympathy for his recent illness and in recognition of his long and assiduous work.  He had handsomely outstripped the previous longest-serving clerk and surveyor, George Hawker. 

In 1915 James Snape was again absent due to illness.  For a considerable period, his second son, Percy, had held the position of assistant clerk and was now deputising for his father. In August, James Snape died.  The Committee, commenting on his 43 years of exemplary service, expressed their regret at his loss.  Percy Snape was appointed clerk in his place, on a six month’s trial.  He must have given satisfaction as he remained in office until the 1950s, performing of course only a fraction of the work that had fallen to his father.