Until a few days ago I had no idea that Peter Wakenham ever existed, but he did and he has left an interesting paper trail for a man who described himself as a labourer.
We know where he lived in the middle decades of the 19th century, the names of his wife, two children and when he died.
To this we can also add his birth year and the fact that on September 5th 1833 he was invited to the slap up meal in honour of the Rev. J.K. Shaw Brooke who had completed fifty years as the vicar of Eltham
Now none of this is unusual but men like Peter have tended to be forgotten by history. It is not that they have been written out but rather no one thought them significant enough to be written in.
|Peter in Court Yard from the 1841 census|
All of which is a shame because Peter lived in Eltham for 74 years, worked the land as an agricultural labourer and unlike some of his contemporaries could write his own name.
Now this we know because at the wedding of his daughter in 1840 he signed his name as a witness while both his son in law and his father left their mark.
|His signature in 1840|
Illiteracy was still a real problem and to get some idea of the number of people who couldn’t read and write in 1851 the authors of the census on Education fell back on the simple test of how many were able to sign their marriage certificate as against those who put a cross or mark.
The “test of marriage marks” was not in itself an over accurate form of assessment as the report pointed out “the art of writing is with great facility forgotten by the poor who find no application for it, while for various causes some who can write nevertheless decline to sign the register.”*
It did however show that the number of people signing with a mark had progressively been dropping from 1839. In that year it was 41.6%, in 1840, 42%, and down to 40.8% in 1841 and by 1851 was 38%.
|Wedding record for Ann Wakeham in 1840|
And while there was a 4% fall in the numbers of men and women who used their mark this hid a disparity between the sexes. Men using their mark dropped from 33.7% in 1839 to 30.8% in 1851 while in women it fell from 49.5% to 45.3%,
But both his children could write. Ann signed her name at her wedding and his son was to rise to become a farm bailiff.
What is more remarkable is the way that Peter came to my attention. There were plenty of agricultural labourers in Eltham all of whom have been remembered in some official records but by sheer chance Peter’s invitation to the Jubilee dinner for Shaw Brooke survived and was recorded by the historian R.R.C. Gregory.
One side was printed “1833. Eltham Jubilee, in commemoration of the 50th year the Rev. J.K. Shaw Brooke has resided within the parish as Vicar, universally beloved and respected” and invited “Peter Wakemean ... to partake on Thursday , the 5th day of September, of a dinner provided by public subscription in token of the respect and regard entertained the Vicar of the Parish Of Eltham, 1833
N.B. You are quested to wear this card with the other side in front, in a conspicuous manner, to attend on the day in the Court Yard and to bring with you a knife and fork.”
And that was what Peter Wakeman did for according to Mr Gregory “around the card are the needle marks to shew that it had been carefully sewn upon some conspicuous part of his attire.”**
The day went well and the invitation card was kept, eventually being attached to the back of an engraving of the vicar where it stayed for nearly 75 years.
|Court Yard in 1844|
Peter died in 1852 and for part of his later years he had lived with his son and family. Before that we have him on Court Yard which was a densely packed row of 17 houses on the east side and another smaller group facing them.
I can’t place him exactly along the row but this was where he was in 1833 and where he was still living eight years later.
But there is still more to do. Sadly the parish records are incomplete for the period that his children would have been baptised, but the entry for 1815 gives us the name of his daughter Ann and his wife Sarah.
Now the hunt is on for both Ann and Sarah. At present I know Sarah married in Woolwich in 1840 and that Sarah had died before the June of 1841, but there will be more.
It is all just a matter of patient research and perhaps another lucky break like the invitation card, which is how I like my history, a bit messy and always full of surprises.
Next; A walk down Court Yard in the June of 1841
|Baptismal record of Ann Wakeman 1815|
Pictures; of Peter’s invitation card from The story of Royal Eltham, R.R.C. Gregory, 1909 and published on
The story of Royal Eltham, by Roy Ayers, http://www.gregory.elthamhistory.org.uk/bookpages/i001.htm detail of Eltham High Street, 1843 from the Tithe map for Eltham courtesy of Kent History and Library Centre, Maidstone, http://www.kent.gov.uk/leisure_and_culture/kent_history/kent_history__library_centre.aspx
*1851 Census of Great Britain on Education
**The story of Royal Eltham, R.R.C. Gregory, 1909
Baptismal records and census extracts from ancestry.co.uk courtesy of The National Archives