Having successfully researched my Suffolk family roots back to the 1750’s before being unable to find any positive information on the parents of one Henry Coe C1750 I thought I would look back and see who had lived in Ash Tree Farm over the years. According to the Listed Building register the farmhouse dates back to the early 17C.
Some years ago I visited the Suffolk Record Office with Frank and Margaret Scuffham on a mission to determine the possible route of an old footpath in the Parish but while I was delving through the records it became clear that Ash Tree Farm had at some time in the past be owned by the Church. Needless to say at that point I hadn’t even thought of researching the family history let alone the former inhabitants of the farmhouse so I didn’t record anything!
I started my search for the former inhabitants of our farmhouse by looking at the Census Returns, which didn’t prove at all useful as apart from 1911 and 1901 the majority of properties are only described very loosely “cottage by the common” or “farmhouse” very few are actually named. However, my attention soon fell to the occupants of Ash Tree Farm in 1911. Firstly it appeared that there were two separate dwellings on the site. Entry 98 records a Samuel Arthur Robinson, single a manure/horsecart worker, aged 68 living at Ash Tree Farm and Entry 97 is for a family by the name of Ruddock also living at Ash Tree Farm. William Ruddock (48) a farm bailiff, his wife Florence (42), and three young boys described as “boarder” – George Pattison (8) and two brothers David (8) and Louis (7) Vontourhondt. The birthplace of the three boys is recorded as “unknown”.
Being very curious as to where these three boys may of originated from I set about searching for more info. With an unusual name like Vontournhondt it was fairly easy to track down the origins of David and Louis (Lewis). It appears that they were born in Wales (David in Merthyr Tydfil and Lewis in Cardiff) the sons of Oscar Vontournhondt and his spouse Mary (nee Gething). The couple probably had at least six children, Lewis being the last child born to the couple to be recorded in the BMD Index in 1904. Oscar and Mary appear on the 1901 CR living in Aberdare, Glamorgan, Wales. Oscar was a colliery furnace man and was recorded as being born in Belgium. Neither Oscar or Mary appear on the 1911 CR but the two brothers Louis (Lewis) and David are in Mellis but where did they go after that? Their elder brother Oscar born around 1899 is an inmate at Somersetshire Industrial School For Boys, Lower Bristol Road, Bath, he later appears on the WW1 medal roll 1914-1920.
A bit more research reveals David and Lewis listed on the Fegan Homes Index as being sent to Canada in 1923. I had never heard of Fegan Homes but it appears that the founder was a James William Condell Fegan, who was born in Southampton, Hampshire, England in April 1852.
Working in London in 1870 he became aware of the appalling living conditions of the destitute street children. Over the years he opened several homes to train boys to live a better life, his two main homes were at Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire and at Goudhurst, Kent (a training farm). In 1884 he went to Canada to check out the opportunities available for his boys on farms. From 1885 until 1939 over 3,000 boys went out to Canada and were settled mostly in southern Ontario.
Mr. Fegan died at Goudhurst, Kent in December 1925 but his wife carried on his work until her death, also at Goudhurst, in a bombing raid in October 1943. The Fegans still exist today www.fegans.org.uk.
As for David and Lewis. It appears that David returned to England, sailing from Canada on 29 October 1937 aboard the Duchess of Atholl. In 1939 he was recorded as living in Halifax, W Yorkshire working in a coal yard. His death was registered in the Leeds area in the February quarter of 1987. Lewis seemingly stayed in Canada, the Voters List for 1965 records him in Broadview, Ontario working as a truck driver.
Why did the boys end up in care? Well this newspaper extract probably sheds some light on the matter:
"Cardiff Times 11 Tachwedd (November) 1905
NEGLECT OF CHILDREN. I Shocking Revelations at Penarth. The Penarth magistrates. Messrs L. Wood and D. T. Alexander, had before them on Wednesday a case of alleged wilful neglect of children. The defendant w&s seaman named Oscar Vontournhondt, of 40, Evan Street, Cadoxton. Mr Alfred Jackson prosecuted. Inspector New, of the N.S.P.C.C., said that he visited the home of the defendant, and found it in an abominably dirty state. There was no furniture, clothing, or food in the house. An old box served as table, and one of the children slept in a large basket. The children had no boots or stockings, and one of them, aged eight years, was very weak and suffering from rickets as a result of neglect. On November 4th he visited the house, and found that both parents bad been absent for two days. He thereupon sent for a cab and removed the children to the Workhouse. Police constable Phillips and Sergeant Rees gave corroborative evidence. Defendant said that his wife was nearly always drunk, and had several times been convicted of keeping a disorderly house. He went to sea, and when he was home he had to "turn to and do all the cleaning and cooking himself”. Defendant was sent to gaol for one month's hard labour without the option of a fine."
George Pattison, however, remains a mystery for now and as for who lived here apart from the Ruddock’s in the previous centuries will be for some serious research at the Suffolk Record Office at some time in the future. As for more recent history I do know the place nearly burned down in the late 1970’s and I also know it featured in the News of the World in 1994 with the headline “Hubby lets gardener take root in wife’s bed” And yes we do have a copy of the page from that edition – 20 November 1994, carefully framed and hanging in the downstairs cloakroom, new visitors are often gone for ages.
Again many thanks to Bill Spencer for allowing us access to his extensive collection of old photographs of Mellis. There is no date on the view of Ash Tree Farm from what we now know as the junction with the Gislingham Road but we believe it would have been taken in the early 1900’s (the village hall does not appear to have been built so pre 1920s) note the road is topped with “Marl” and that there are little piles of the same material all along the edge of the common ready to fill any potholes. The picture with the aircraft overhead was taken in the late 1970’s when apparently work being done to the house led to a fire in the roof – the story goes that an aerial crop sprayer working in the area saw the fire, went and filled his tanks with water and came back to douse the flames.