My earliest known Ashley ancestor arrived in Chitterne round about 1797, in which year he married a local girl, Elizabeth Hart. The couple produced a large family, many of their descendants living in Chitterne until well into the twentieth century, and so it followed that a great deal of my initial family research was centred on records of the two parishes. This, in turn, led to an interest in the history of the village and demographic trends. The picture, in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is one of mobility and a dwindling population and, although numbers had increased until a high point of 791 in 1851 they then fell gradually to 487 in 1911, the downward trend accelerating thereafter and proving to be irreversible. The reasons for this decline are, of course, well known: Wiltshire farm labourers, already overworked, underpaid and under increasing competition from machines, were struck in the 1870s by an acute depression brought on by the repeal of the Corn Laws and consequent influx of cheap foreign wheat. The entire farming industry was affected and the area did not recover until 1914. If this were not enough, a series of bad harvests put many farmers out of business with dire consequences for their workers. This was also the heyday of the dreaded Union Workhouse in Warminster. It was inevitable that many able-bodied countrymen, even entire families, should turn their eyes to the cities or colonies where opportunities for employment were substantially greater. Bristol, a comparatively short distance away, was the favoured refuge for Chitterne emigrants and my own greatgrandfather made his way there in 1874, aged just twenty, followed by his younger brother a few years afterwards. Both found work initially with the Great Western Railway. Another Chitterne “Bristolian” was Frank Ashley who left the village in about 1884 and was taken in by my greatgrandfather – clearly there was a Chitterne old boys network in existence! George Ashley, the real subject of this article and who will, I promise, soon make an appearance, left Chitterne somewhat earlier than the main period of flux; nevertheless, the themes of despair, exodus and loss clearly underline his story.
I mentioned Frank Ashley because it was through his grandaughter that I first heard about George. In 2005, I received an E mail from a Nick Thomas who lives in Keynsham and is carrying out family-history research on behalf of his wife. His wife’s mother is the granddaughter of Frank Ashley and she had presented Nick with a set of five letters sent from West Hebron in New York State between 1886 and 1901 to Frank’s sister, Ann, by a George Ashley who addresses her as “dear niece.” Nick’s mother-in-law was unable to recall a George Ashley in the context of her family. She had found the letters in a travelling writing-case which had belonged originally to Frank Ashley and was used later by her father who must have inherited the letters from his Aunt Ann for whom he had cared at the end of her life. Nick asked if I could identify George from my records. I found myself equally bemused since, although I had baptism dates for all members of the family concerned George’s was not among them. Fortunately I was able to resolve the problem by checking the parish registers at The County Record Office where I found that George, not unusually, had been born out of wedlock and baptised under his mother’s maiden name in 1819. His parents were married two years later.
The letters are both surprising and saddening. The first, dated July 1896, is headed “George Ashley, Custom Tailor and Dealer in Ready-Made Clothing, West Hebron, N.Y.” and is written in a clear hand and coherent style, though with frequent reference to old age and infirmity. It is evident that the correspondence with the niece, Ann, has been ongoing and that George has also heard from one of his other nieces in England. He refers to his daughter, also named Anne, who died in 1872 leaving a son now aged 30 and living not far away. The second letter, dated January 1897, contains similar references to old age and incapacity but also reveals a pronounced religious element. George mentions a third niece who has written to him and asks if Ann can tell him which of his brothers is her father. It is the second page of this letter which is crucial to realising what had occurred to George and his family sixty five years previously and to understanding the lasting effects of this on an old man’s state of mind. He writes:
“When we all left England in the Spring of 1831 we sailed from Bristol in the Brig James, Father, Mother, Myself, Brothers John, Charles, Job and sister Louisa. They all left the City of Quebec in Canada to return to England and I left to fight the battle of life alone among strangers and I have never seen the face of any living being since that was any blood relation, only by marriage.”
The third letter, dated January 1900, shows a considerable deterioration in handwriting and George informs Ann that his wife, Martha, has to help him around the house. Religious fervour has become more explicit and rhetorical. He writes again in November but, apart from apologies for untidy handwriting owing to infirmity, he is concerned with wishing God’s blessings upon Ann and with encouraging her to call upon Him in prayer. In the fifth and final letter, sent in January 1901, George speaks again of poor health and explains that Martha is too ill to write. There is, however, no self pity in this and he is obviously sustained by his religious convictions. He returns to the theme of leaving England as a result, I think, of questions asked by Ann in her letters to him. He says:
“We sailed from the Port of Bristol when we came from England to America but the family went back to England in 1832. They went in the first steamship that ever crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It is a good while ago but I remember how she looked as she left the Port of Quebec with all on board that was near and dear to me upon Earth and I left alone a lad of 13 years to fight the battle of life alone in this world. The reason I did not go back with the rest I was bound out to learn the tailor’s trade. It is a good while ago. It is nearly 70 years. I am a few months over 80 years of age.” I feel that this is about the last letter I will ever be able to write. My prayer to God is his richest blessing may rest upon you through life and at death take you to himself in heaven. From your feeble old uncle George Ashley. Please answer. 59 years ago today we were married. Our grandson Ashley Reid and wife were over to see us last month and wished to be remembered to you.”
It is assumed George must have died shortly after sending this letter though his exact date of death is not known. Nick Thomas has, however, been able to discover more about his middle years through contacts with an archivist in the West Hebron and we have learnt that George and Martha had a son, John, who was married but died childless at an early age. We knew, of course that George was a tailor but it would appear he was an influential member of the community, a trustee of the local school and a justice of the peace.
In a book, published in 1987 by The Hebron Preservation Society and entitled “Hebron, a Century in Review,” the following appears:
"George Ashley and Son Clothing. George Ashley was an English tailor and general promoter in the village of West Hebron. His tailoring business began about 1841 and was operated from his home, now Mrs. Robert Pinkerton's. His shop was in the west wing of the house, the cutting department in front and the sewing girls in the rear. He also employed journeymen tailors. He gave out large quantities of work to other women throughout the town. After 1853, he built a store, now belonging to ART and Dorothy Worthington and is thought to have been in business with W.W. McClellan. He was a prime mover in building up the main Street north of the bridge during the 1850's and 1860's. He was one of the people responsible for establishing the West Hebron Classical School in 1855. He purchased the old Ashgrove Methodist Church and moved it across the street when the new Methodist Church was built in 1874. The old church was turned into Ashley's Hall to house community events. Mr. Ashley later built another store for his tailoring business. It was sold in 1880 to James Barkley for his furniture store. The building was torn down for the site of the West Hebron Firehouse. In 1875 Ashley's shop processed 900 yards of cloth and made $9,000. He employed five women who earned $26 a month. In 1884 he moved to the second floor of another store (Ed and Evelyn Dooley's tenant house ) and there sold ready-made, and made - to - order clothes for men and women. He also sold horse blankets, lap and buffalo robes, hats and gloves. As he got older his business was operated out of his home, the first door north of the Methodist Church. His tailor shop was located in the north wing of the house which he had purchased from Robert Copeland. Mr. and Mrs. Ashley lived in the village sixty years.”
Many questions remain. Why did George’s father, an agricultural labourer, decide to emigrate to Canada only to return to England the following year? According to the letters, George was indentured to a tailor and saw the family off in Quebec. When and why did he go to The USA? Why is there no mention of his son, John, in the letters? In view of his apparent longing for home and family, why did George, a reasonably prosperous man, not consider a visit to the old country? Above all, since the family appears to have been close-knit and relatives were obviously encouraged to communicate with George in America over the years, how was it that the parents could bring themselves to abandon a boy of 13 in a foreign land? The answers could rest with some of the many other letters sent to by George to England which may lie forgotten in writing cases or similar repositories. For now we can only be grateful to have learnt so much about a man, a child of his time, who not only attracts our sympathy but our admiration at his triumph over a start in life which could scarcely have been worse.
Peter Ashley, July 2006.