Arthur & Jane Cox of Edithmead Somerset - Sexton
This is the story of an 18th century peasant who lived at Edithmead near Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. It is partly fiction but based on some fact; facts that are recorded in the various documents of Burnham’s parish church of St Andrews, also various books recording the history of England and Somerset and Internet sites. Part of Arthur's life was the permanent task of looking after the candelabra of the church for which he received a salary, he was also very likely to have been the sexton of the church, even though the church documents do not record this possibility. To strengthen this supposition; and whilst there is no mention of a sexton until his son was recorded as such in later years, it is a strong possibility that Richard, in succeeding him in his work, being Sexton, was in fact, part of that work. The 18th century saw the Jacobite uprisings in 1715 and 1745 and between about 1717 and 1775, large numbers of Irish folk; mostly Protestants, leave Ulster to settle in America. Bad harvests had led to famine between the years 1726 to 1741 giving reason for the uprooting of the Irish populace not only in Ulster but from the south also.
Our starting point is at the time of “King George’s War 1744 to 1748” [George II] when Arthur Cox our first found relative and Jane his wife, had their 1st born child baptised Henry Cox in 1752 but who survived a few days only. It is from this baptismal date that we calculate from an assumed marriage age of 18, that Arthur was born c.1732, some 20 years after the Historic “Queen Anne’s War 1702 to 1713”. This presents a consideration that Arthur's father may have been a soldier, thus the reason for not being able to trace further back. We can go no further at this point as to where he married, who his parents were or in fact where he was born, except that he went on to have further children, and then from 1772 was recorded in the church wardens accounts (1771 to1835) - as being paid for much work he did either at or for the church until his death in 1794. It may or may not be also significant that national and international events during these years abounded – War with Spain 1739 – War of the Austrian Succession 1740 – Battle of Fontenoy 31st May 1745 – The coming of Methodism – Charles Edward lands in Scotland 1745, this last event ending with his defeat in 1746 and the survivors dispersing, not only to their own homelands but to other parts of the country more responsive to their plight, the weather in 1740 not helping matters when there was a very severe winter.
We can fairly accurately calculate that Arthur Cox married Jane at about the year 1750 from the baptism of his first born. He lived at Edithmead near Burnham in 1752, an area of countryside in the Somerset levels, rich in meadow land and prospering by the efforts of the farmers and yeomen; many were also of the same surname as himself, but, who may or may not have been related. The probability of this, is however not high, because the name Arthur does not appear in any other record for any of these other families.
Arthur may not have been of any particular skill but was almost certainly an experienced farm labourer, and would have sought out work from wherever he could find it; the churchwardens and overseers were always wanting for men such as he. Their rented home called “Cross Paddock” could hardly be called endearing but at least the thatched roof was firm on wattle and daub walls that enclosed their two rooms, one with a central fireplace around which the family lived and ate, the other being the sleeping quarters. Their home and a small outhouse, stood on 2 ½ rods of land, just sufficient for their needs for which they also kept chickens, ducks and/or geese, the latter inhabiting the nearby Rhine. Vegetables grew well normally and nearby moorland provided fuel for the fire and rabbits were in abundance.
One day in early 1752, Jane told Arthur that she was expecting their 1st child in October. The prospect of which brightened both their lives, the summer that year was cool and damp and an earthquake had been felt. The weeks passed quite quickly with Arthur managing to find himself much farm work to prepare for the forthcoming event, but as Jane’s time grew closer, she became aware that this was not to be an easy birth and during the 2nd week of that month the baby arrived. The neighbouring women folk who helped, did all they could to save the child but it was soon realised it would not survive despite the dry and warm weather. On the 20th October the infant was baptised Henry Cox, dying a few days later and was buried in St Andrew’s churchyard 31st October. This christening may indicate that the babe was named after his unknown grand-father as was the custom with some families.
Jane was overcome with grief for some while and Arthur would try to comfort her as best he could, but with winter fast approaching, they had to keep working to stock against the cold. At least the harvest season had been a success and they had been able to take part in one of the more enjoyable tasks of Cydar making, although it may have been having to work that had agitated Jane’s pregnancy.
It was a little over 100 years since the civil war when many of the Brent farmers were called upon to provision the Royalist troops. During the course of this many of the local population suffered indignities at their hands. Despite their loyalty being to the Crown they were treated as rebels. The local constable had been murdered whilst doing his job, travellers waylaid and farms were all but laid waste in the name of this requisitioning, until John Somerset, a local and well respected land owner, who, together with Thomas Gilling, banded together the local population and put a stop to the illegal actions. They were successful but John and Thomas were apprehended for Treason and sent for trial at Bristol. However, reason and truth prevailed and both were eventually set free with no case to answer and both lived their lives out as normally as they could in that day and age. A memorial is set in the wall to John Somerset inside St Michael’s church at Brent Knoll, but of Thomas nothing more is known, except the name Gilling features in the family of Richard Cox. John lived at Somerset farm in Vole Lane South Brent, a short distance from Edithmead.
Arthur & Jane went on to have four more children; Henry baptised 23rd July 1754; James baptised 16th July 1757; Lotty baptised 15th November 1767 and Richard baptised 1st December 1765. Sadly, history repeated itself and James lasted but 3 months and was buried an infant on 23rd October 1757 and then Henry aged 22; probably succumbing to the coldness of that year's severe winter, was buried 8th December 1775. Lotty seems to have survived although nothing further is known of her, so she may have married and then lived elsewhere, but Richard lived on to a great age, as the sexton of St Andrew’s becoming a respected and well known member of the local community as was his wife Molly (Mary Kennedy) who took part in many of the activities of St Andrew’s and was a regular attendee.
Twenty years on and Arthur was now working more for the church and in 1770, the vestry at their meetings, began to discuss the age old problem of lighting and warmth in the church. After much deliberation it was proposed and accepted that the church should have a ceiling installed and candelabra provided centrally. The whitened finish to the ceiling would provide an excellent reflector for the light from the 24 candle candelabra for the congregation, as well as preventing a certain amount of heat loss. The only other heat would have been the body-heat generated by the congregation of course, but not helped much by the floor that would have been earthen, and covered in reed on which the poor would have had to either sit or stand as best they could, unlike the not so poor who had appropriated privileged enclosures [Pews] for themselves, a nationally accepted practice by the end of the 18th century. Burnham, being no exception, had pews lining the north and south walls of the aisle, including one provided for the churchwardens below the pulpit, so the new lighting was the ideal addition. Although these pews were provided by those who used them, the fee or rental paid to the church for this privilege was a welcome source of finance. Little if anything, was said against the practice until Sir Christopher Wren commented - "much desired that there should be no pews in the churches he built" , but it was not until the addition of the gallery at St Andrews, that these pews were finally disposed of in order to accommodate a rising population and the present arrangement of seating installed.
The year 1771 saw the proposal agreed. This was followed by a great deal of activity in the church with scaffolding being erected so that the ceiling could be installed and whitened. In 1772 Arthur was paid 4s for 4 day’s work, cleaning out the sewer from the church which was very likely to have that been leading from the west end of the church, and following the line of the downhill path towards the churchyard’s eastern entrance. As the church sits in a depression, and almost in the centre of a slope from the seaward end going inland, this facility was very necessary to carry away the storm water exuding from the gargoyles of the church roof.
In 1773 the candelabrum arrived from the firm of Baileys' at Bridgwater and was hung centrally. A further vestry meeting agreed for the church to employ Arthur at a salary of 10s 6d per annum to keep them clean. Some called the apparatus “Branches”, due to its appearance and was attached to a rope which passed through a small pulley wheel fixed in the ceiling and then down to a cleat in the south wall near the south entrance where it was fastened. Arthur would have had to lower and raise this “quite a number of times” during the year also one must suppose that he would have been the one to replace the candles when needed, and to remove the melted tallow and/or wax, in addition to keeping the brass work free of sooty deposits for a clean and shiny finish.
Would Arthur have been able to live on the income from his work for the church does one think? Probably not, because he was renting his abode and although records at one time seem to indicate him to be not entirely poor, most in those days would work on a part-time basis for one or more farmers, especially during the haymaking season when as many hands as possible were needed to help secure the harvest.
He and his wife would have been fairly maintained from their cottage garden, growing their own vegetables and keeping poultry, and may have also grown produce for sale at Highbridge market to supplement their income, with milking at any one of nearby farms, also a possibility.
Arthur’s wife Jane died in 1793 and was buried on Sunday 28th June; ironically, Arthur's salary had just increased to £2. 2s. per annum that year,but before he could get the benefit from it, he died and was buried Saturday 31st June 1794, the year of the great frost. Both are buried in St Andrew’s churchyard. Richard carried on his father’s work being a little better known as St Andrew’s sexton than his father had, but that is another story!