The Curtis Family

In tracing to the best of my ability the members of the Crowley family as far back as 1822, when my great, great grandfather founded the brewery at Alton and married in the same year, one cannot avoid writing about the Curtises. For two generations both these families lived almost opposite one another in the High Street: “Over-the-way” it was often referred to when the Curtises spoke of the Crowleys. They were also “friends” in the Quaker sense. The older ones were almost always involved in good works, doing what they could for the poorer members of their market-town in Hampshire. The two families intermarried and in many ways they had similar interests, but I think the Curtises were the more interesting. Several of them became well-known naturalists or botanists and one was a famous geologist. Also, in generation after generation there has always been a doctor among the Curtises.

I owe what information I have about them mainly to Hugh Curtis, the son of William Curtis who was Jane Austin’s physician after she came to live at Chawton. It is even thought that she based her character, Mr. Perry, in the novel Emma on William Curtis. Hugh Curtis’s book has been out of print for a long time. It was called A Quaker Doctor and Naturalist in the 19th century: The Story of William Curtis. The publisher was the Bannisdale Press.

William Cobett, a contemporary of the author’s grandfather, wrote in January 1833, in his Rural Rides, the following:

I was born in Farnham in Surrey, and Arthur Young in his survey of England says that from Farnham, Surrey, to Alton in Hampshire is a space containing the finest ten miles in the kingdom. It is very fine. It is a narrow valley, down the middle of which beautiful meadows are watered by the occasional overflowing of the little river Wey which afterwards passes through Godalming and falls into the Thames at Weybridge.

To continue quoting from Hugh Curtis’s book, Cobett writes:

At Alton we got some bread and cheese at a friend’s house and then came to Arlesford in Medstead in order to have a fine turf to ride on, and see on this lofty land that which is perhaps the finest beechwood in all England.

Hugh’s grandfather and his delightful wife, Jane Elizabeth (nee Heath) moved, when they were married in 1830, a little further down the hill from the Doctor’s house, into number 8 High Street, and there lived for twenty-two years. Opposite them in Normandy House lived Abraham Crowley and his wife Charlotte (nee Curtis) and their family. Jane often mentioned them in her spasmodically kept diary and in her letters to her husband when he was on his travels, as “the Crowley’s over-the-way”.

Alfred Crowley, one of Abraham’s sons, and William Curtis became great friends. Both were interested in collecting fossils and in wild life generally and they learned how to skin and stuff birds and animals. They were often together on exploratory walks or travelling in William’s chaise.

From what Jane has to say about the Crowleys in Normandy House it would seem that although Abraham has been described as a “masterful man” he was also a friendly and kind one. After much illness in Jane’s family - measles and scarlatina - it was thought a good idea to take the children away for a holiday by the sea and Bognor was chosen. This happened, I think, in 1844. Jane wrote, “Kind uncle Crowley lent a brewery van” and in this way they all travelled to Bognor. They were to stay a month but it was all so lovely and the children enjoyed themselves so much that they stayed on an extra week.

In those days picnics had become very popular and towards the end of August in 1843 “the Crowleys gave a large party at Selbourne Hill and about forty people were there.”

In May 1845 Jane wrote:

William’s sister, Elizabeth, was married to Henry Crowley. A large family party assembled to celebrate it and a fine bright day added much pleasure to all. It was a pleasant sight to see Father and Mother young and blooming-looking for their age, surrounded by their whole family- their own three sons and three daughters-in-law, and after the meeting, sixteen grandchildren were in the room at the same time. The ceremony took place at the Alton Friends Meeting House - Tom, Charles and little Willy were there, dressed alike in tight fitting black coats and white trousers, stiff black caps with a peak.

Henry Crowley and his wife went to live in Thornton Heath near Croydon. Thornton House was large with extensive grounds which included a fine garden. A ha-ha bordered the lawn in the middle, and some Gothic ruins on the further bank which could more easily be examined form a boat. Most members of the family sketched this pond when they paid a visit, as they continued to do at intervals for many years. Elizabeth Crowley lived to be well over ninety and at her death the house and garden gave way to bricks and mortar.

In 1847 Jane took Willy and Tom to stay their uncle James. He had married Catherine Morrison and they lived at Harpenden. William was too busy to come with them. While at Harpenden they visited St. Albans, Ayot St. Lawrence, then spent a few days in London. Jane had been there the previous year with her husband. And from London they went to Thornton Heath and Elizabeth Crowley took them in her carriage and pair to the Zoological Gardens and the Polytechnic and the Surrey Gardens.

After their return from this holiday Henry and Elizabeth came to Alton and there was a large family party held in the Hop Garden. The Crowleys seemed to love giving parties. By now Abraham’s and Charlotte’s family had increased to eleven children and Normandy House had to be extended and so did the Garden. Jane wrote in her diary:

Uncle Crowley made a tunnel under the road leading to the kitchen garden. At the bottom of this he excavated a small pond…

Hugh Curtis, having quoted from Jane’s diary, continues:

Summer houses and arbours sprang up in odd and unexpected corners and it became a regular paradise for children to play in. No one could have been more hospitable than these Crowley relations. They were constantly giving parties and picnics and the families on both sides of the road were greatest of friends.

Several years before Elizabeth had married Henry Crowley, her elder sister, Emma, became the second wife of Charles Sedgefield and they lived in London, in Cavendish Square. Alas, Emma, like Charles first wife died: she was forty-one. And Elizabeth’s husband died at the age of forty-two, quite suddenly, after dining with his brother Charles, in London, just after Charles had returned from a visit to America.

One wonders sometimes why the Crowley family- all of whom were Quakers- went in for brewing as an industry and a career, so many Quakers being tee-totallers. But this, apparently, was not always the case, for even the famous Elizabeth Fry- that great reformer of prisons- often took a glass of port when she was feeling low.

By the time Abraham Crowley was working as a brewer at Waddon, close to Croydon, brewing was carried out in a strictly hygienic manner, but until about the beginning of the nineteenth century all sorts of herbs, spices and peppers were thrown into the vats to disguise the taste of disagreeable things that had got mixed in with the hops and barley.

One day, a certain James Baverstock at the age of twenty-one, bought a thermometer to test the temperature and this led to much more careful examination of the ingredients which went into the vats. But his father would have nothing to do with the thermometer, so his son had to keep it hidden and use it secretly.

Among James Baverstock’s friends were Dr. Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, whose family were also brewers, and on May 1st, 1881, Dr. Johnson is reported as saying at one of the Thrales’ brewing houses: “Sir, we are not here to sell a parcel on boilers and vats but the potentially of growing rich beyond the dream of avarice.”

From that time on, I take it, no more spices and peppers were thrown into unfermented material and Mr. Thrale commissioned a certain Benjemin Martin, who had invented a hydrometer (a floating instrument for determining special gravities, especially of liquids) to present this instrument in silver in Baverstock: it was a gesture to prove the confidence which Benjenim Martin and the Thrales had in the reliability of the hydrometer for assessing the relative strength of unfermented “worts”. James Baverstock had already written a pamphlet entitled: A short address to the public on the Prejudices against Brewery but this was not published until 1811.

So by the time Abraham Crowley was involved in Brewery at Croydon and earlier at Waddon, the whole process was carried out in an entirely above-board manner, only barley and hops being used.

The brewery at Alton extended into another brewery at Croydon which was mainly run by Abraham’s two sons, Fredrick and Philip, while the eldest son, my great grandfather, Abraham Curtis Crowley, married to Anne Ashby, and his brother Alfred, ran the Alton brewery. Thus, for four generations the breweries at Alton and Croydon were in the hands of the Crowley family up to the end of the 1914/18 War.

The generation about whom I seem to know very little, was my great grandfather’s family. He was born in 1822, married in 1850 and died in 1875. His widow lived on until 1909. He was one of eleven, as has been stated. After him came Alfred, then Fredrick, Charlotte, Emma, Elizabeth who married Charles Ashby and then Edith who married Thomas Seaville. They eventually emigrated to New Zealand. Next came Walter, then Isabella always known as “Aunt Bell” and very popular with the younger generation: my great aunts and uncles. She did not marry. Philip, the naturalist, followed her and became great friends with William Curtis, and there was Marianna who married Henry Chalcraft and lived to be ninety. In her old age, I believe, she spent most of the day in bed, and most of the night up. And finally, there was Alice, about whom I know nothing.

As a very little girl I only remember meeting Aunt Bell and Aunt Marianna. They both wore black and white caps and I was much awed by their agedness.

My father always told me that Philip and Fredrick did very little work running the brewery at Croydon: they left nearly everything to my grandfather who certainly worked exceedingly hard until the brewery was sold. Both great, great uncles were wealthy and they travelled a lot. Sometimes, their niece, Aunt Gwen, went with them. She remembered with gratitude her time in Venice.

In Hugh Curtis’s book there are just a few more references to the Crowleys. On page 84 there is a short account of a splendid hop garden picnic given by the Crowleys and I believe that in Curtis Museum is a pencil drawing of this. It took place in September 1848 and as was the custom, these parties were held at Farnham, nine miles from Alton. At this particular one seventy-three people were present and in the evening sixty-eight guest were entertained “over-the-way”, playing charades.

On page 115 Hugh writes- quoting from Jane’s diary- “On May 6th uncle Crowley (Abraham) of Normandy House, had died unexpectedly, causing a great rift in their household and the management of the place devolved upon his widow, Charlotte, though she had unmarried daughters to assist her.”

The following year, 1865, Charlotte’s eldest son, my great grandfather suggested that James’s son, Arthur, who was not very strong and therefore discouraged from going to school, should join his children at Highfield House where they lived close to the brewery, and so Arthur went there for five hours a day and, as he wrote, “to learn to get wise.”

Recounted on page 132, Fredrick Crowley opened a new school : “A gift to the town.” In A History of Alton, a book to which I have not had access, I believe this enterprise is enlarged upon, but in Hugh Curtis’s book he quotes: “On May 1st, 1867, Mr. Fredrick Crowley presented to a number of gentlemen, acting as Trustees, a new British School, situated at the north-east end of the High Street. It is a handsome structure, built of red brick and white facings, and comprises a large school-room (capable of accommodating 150 children) and a class-room. It was opened with a soiree and tea…”.

There can be no doubt that in true Quaker tradition both the Curtises and Crowleys did what they could to further the education of their people in Alton and add interest their lives. Later on we read that Fredrick Crowley insisted on lending his carriage and pair to take Minnie Heath (Jane’s sister) to the Meeting House to marry Fredrick Green.

The last reference to any member of the Crowley family in Hugh Curtis’s book refers to the Museum. In its Jubilee Year, 1887, a memorial brass tablet was placed in the Museum with the following inscription:

The Alton Mechanics Institute was founded in 1837 by William Curtis Esquire M.R.C.S. who was forty-four years its President and the donor of the museum which now bears his name. In 1880 this building was erected by public subscription, the Crowley family being the largest contributors, on a site presented by Henry Hall Esq, and was opened by the Lord Chancellor Selbourne on October 1880. This tablet is placed to commerate the Jubilee years of the institution, and also of the reign of Queen Victoria. Frederick Crowley, President Charles Stewart Francis Whyley John Herbert Dyer

At this point we will leave Alton to write of something quite different and far removed from all that Quakers believed in and still believe in.

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