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Two historical views from an extended family perspective

The First Vicar of Stonnall and the Downes Family

Rosemary Graves (Part One) and Katherine Haworth (Part Two)

Edited by Julian Ward-Davies, September 2014 - February 2015

Part One

As far as I know, I am one of four great-great-grandchildren of Rev James Downes, the first Vicar of Stonnall, and it was a great privilege to visit St Peter's recently. I think I was taken to see the church by my parents as a small child in the late 1940s as its situation and name were familiar to me.

James and Maria Downes
Rev James Downes and his wife, Maria, pictured in about 1860.

My second cousin Kerry Downes is an art historian and having spent a working life with Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and others whilst teaching at Birmingham and Reading Universities and writing books on architecture, he has been studying the family archives.

James was born on November 9th, 1803. He was the son of Charles Downes, who was a master at King Edward's School, Birmingham, for nearly 40 years. Charles's brother, William, was a doctor. Going even further back, James, on his mother's side, was great-grandson of Rev Badger of Bedworth (1685-1756).

The National School
The National School (demolished about 1960) near the church.
From a sketch by A Heywood.
© Keith Heywood

James the artist
We have evidence that the young James was an excellent artist. Drawings by him found among personal family papers show a pencil drawing of a boy's head in a helmet. If he could draw so well at the age of 12, what might he have achieved years later?

Two family portraits by James have been accepted by Staffs Heritage and Arts at Shugborough. After some possible initial conservation work, it is planned that they will be displayed at that location.

Entering holy orders
Why then after such a great interest and talent in art did James turn to the church? Maybe the future as a portrait artist was uncertain in the 1820s or maybe his father suggested that he found a proper job (my own comments). So, after his degree, he became a clerk in holy orders and in the late 1830s he was appointed curate at St Matthew's, Walsall, living in a rectory or curate's house in Bradford Street. His father, Charles, died there one year before James became Vicar of Stonnall.

Stonnall School
St Peter's School, demolished about 1960 and replaced by the current school building.

His work and achievements
I was amazed at the amount of energy Rev James had for his work in Stonnall. I felt very proud to hear of the church extensions, the parish work in the area and the founding of St James's Church in Brownhills, especially when you think of the difficulties of getting about in those days, walking or riding presumably.

As the new church in Brownhills was to be built, his son James Charles, who was born 1845 and I think about 11 years old at the time, laid the foundation stone. That must have been a special family event.

One further reference to St Peter's: Rev James's son, James Charles, and grandsons James William (my great-uncle Will) and Francis Charles (my great-uncle Frank) were all baptised there. No mention of the two girls though! Not very important in those days I suspect. One of these girls would have been my grandmother, Constance Edith, (known as Consie).

St Peter's Church
St Peter's Church as Rev Downes knew it, pictured in about 1890.

Another really fascinating part of Rev James's work, particularly for me as a former teacher, is the role he played in the development of the village school, firstly the one close to St Peter's and then, following the 1870 Education Act, the creation of the new Stonnall School in the village.

The wider family
This a taste of what I have been learning about my grandmother's family. Consie did however have one important role that I would mention before I finish. The family was quite musical, I understand. One member stands out though, the late Ralph Downes, father of the aforementioned Prof Kerry Downes. He was an organist, who was nationally and possibly world famous and the great-grandson of Rev James. Ralph was a recitalist, teacher, designer and, in his early years, a cinema organist. My grandmother Consie helped him, apparently, in his early years of organ study.

I was very happy to visit Stonnall and St Peter's and now that one doesn't have to walk, hire a carriage or ride a horse to get there, I am sure I will visit again ere long.

Part Two

My husband is a direct descendant of Rev James Downes' half-brother, Charles Downes. The following account is based on material I researched a few years ago and it consists of information I gathered from visits to various record offices and correspondence with Oxford university, Edinburgh military archives, the archivist at King Edward VI School in Birmingham and a specialist in Military chaplains in the peninsular war.

Charles Downes senior, 1755-1839, Father of Rev James Downes
Charles Downes senior was born in Birmingham, son of Samuel Downes and Elizabeth Rock. His sister, Sarah Downes, married a cabinet maker in Birmingham called Thomas Cooper. She later moved to Hemel Hempstead.

His first wife was Catharine Rhodes, 1758-late 1790s. Her father was a threadmaker based at 7 Smallbrooke Street, Birmingham, as listed in trade directories, 1770 -1777. The brother of Catharine Rhodes was William Rhodes 1760-1815. He was a university academic at Oxford. He became a university coroner whose role was to investigate sudden deaths of university members, and he was proctor to the vice-chancellor's court. He had been a pupil at King Edward VI school and was awarded an exhibition there to Oxford in March 1777. This was an award of £25 per year for 6 years. When he died in 1815 he left the sum of £15,000 to his two Downes nephews Charles and Samuel and to his Downes niece Catharine. I've not been able to work out where this money came from.

From this first marriage, Charles senior had ten children, of whom only three survived to adulthood - as mentioned above. (Rosemary's account of his second marriage and the two sons from that marriage is explained in Part One above.)

Charles Downes senior first appears as a "painter and drawing master" in a 1781 trade directory in Thorpe Street, Birmingham and then from 1785 to 1791 at 7 Smallbrooke Street, which was the address of his father-in-law. He was a teacher at the elementary part of the King Edward VI school from 1794 to 1835. The archivist there found his beautifully handwritten letter of application from 1794, in which he describes himself as already having seventeen years experience of teaching. The elementary school had about forty boys.

The Master's house and schoolroom were one building in Shut Lane, which disappeared years ago under a mass of railway lines near New Street Station. In 1829 the governors decided to redevelop and build a completely new school. Charles Downes then wanted to continue running some sort of school himself and the estates committee was authorised to fix the rent he would pay for the house and schoolroom.

However, shortly afterwards the main school's writing master was dismissed on the grounds of "immorality and neglect of duty" and Charles Downes offered to take his place. He was able to stay in his house and was paid £100 per year. By 1835 however the governors decided that "a writing master of superior qualification and greater efficiency be appointed in place of Mr Downes" (he was 80 years old at the time). They agreed he could continue to live rent free in his house.

One other thing to say about Charles Downes senior was that he was a freemason. (More about this later)

Rev Samuel Downes 1779-1845, half-brother of Rev James Downes
He was the eldest son of Charles Downes senior. He was born in Birmingham and attended King Edward VI school (where he was awarded an exhibition to Oxford) and Wadham College Oxford, graduating in 1800.

At Wadham his status was "servitor". According to Cliff Davies of Wadham, a servitorship was specifically for the sons of poor men, and this enabled poor boys to attend the college in return for domestic duties about the place. In Samuel's case he was admitted as a "clerk" on 3rd October 1797, and would have had duties around the college chapel.

He was ordained in 1804 and appointed that year as second master at Durham School. In 1811 he became an army chaplain and served in Portugal from April to July. During this time he was attached to the first division of infantry. However, on 1st July he wrote to the Chaplain-General, John Owen, to say the climate was unsuited to him, and he was advised to resign his commission. There is a letter from the Duke of Wellington to John Owen in 1811 mentioning Samuel Downes' resignation, and giving his opinion that the pay was "not sufficient to induce respectable persons in a good state of health".

In 1813 Samuel Downes was appointed master at the Free Grammar School in the centre of Tamworth. Like his father, he lived in a master's house with an attached schoolroom. In 1817 the school was described as in a "flourishing condition".

In 1817 the fee for each boarder was 34 guineas per annum and for each free scholar who was taught arithmetic, writing and English grammar the fee was 4 guineas per annum. At its maximum, it had about a dozen scholars, of whom 3 or 4 were boarders. However, Samuel Downes stopped having boarders and the number of day boys reduced to only four.

He taught them Latin in the mornings for two hours, then sent the boys to other schools for lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic. Afterwards the institution became completely deserted, although Samuel Downes still resided in the house and received "emoluments" for his office. The buildings fell into a state of great dilapidation.

"The disapprobation of the guardians and governors at the existing state of the institution was strongly expressed at a meeting held on 29th September 1823 and soon afterwards Mr Downes placed his resignation in their hands." - The free schools and endowments of Staffordshire, Griffith 1860.

Samuel Downes was immediately appointed Vicar of Kilham in Yorkshire ( I think through his previous connections with Durham school) and remained the incumbent there until his death in 1845. According to information from that church, however, he never spent any time there.

He married Frances Phillips and had two daughters, Kate Rhodes Downes, 1815-1887 and Eleanor Frances, b 1823. There was a strong connection with Hemel Hempstead, where Samuel's cousin Elizabeth Cooper was based. Samuel Downes spent time there at the time of his ordination. His daughter Kate Rhodes was married at Hemel Hempstead in 1846, and the marriage service was conducted by Rev James Downes.

i think there is a good case here for arguing that Rev James was following in his half-brother's footsteps when he chose to become a cleric. They were both awarded exhibitions at King Edward VI (1795 and 1823 respectively)

Major Charles Downes 1781 -1844, the other half-brother of Rev James Downes
Charles Downes was born in Birmingham in 1781, his parents being Charles Downes senior and Catharine Rhodes. He achieved his commission in 1804 and was promoted to major in 1819, as an assistant military draughtsman at the Royal Military College at Farnham.

In 1809 he married Frances Granville, daughter of George Granville and Frances Brydges. George Granville was a pewterer and was part of the Grenfell family from Cornwall. He had been declared bankrupt and had changed his surname from Grenfell to Granville to make a new start in life, helped a lot by a large dowry he received when he married Frances Brydges. Frances Granville and her brother George Brydges Granville inherited Grenfell land in Somerset and were cousins of the MP, Pascoe Grenfell.

Charles Downes served in the Peninsular War with the 40th Foot in 1811 and again from January 1813 until July 1814. He appears on the Peninsula medal list, and of course it is intriguing to speculate whether he had any contact there with his brother during this time.

In September 1823 he was appointed superintendent of a new military academy in Edinburgh. There are three letters in the military archives in Edinburgh relating to Major Charles' time there. Written in 1832, they are a letter from him explaining what went wrong within the academy, a letter from the subscribers repudiating his version of events, and a second letter from him essentially contradicting their arguments one by one. He complained about the insubordination of the students and the "general confusion and disorder" and lack of support from the management of directors when he tied to impose discipline. He complained particularly that he had been demoted without warning while on leave.

Major Charles died in Edinburgh in 1844.

The Granville Family
Major Charles Downes married into the affluent Granville family. His brother-in-law, George Brydges Granville was a landowner and banker, who also wrote some interesting letters. In one of them he describes visiting Mr Downes (Charles senior) but I don't have a copy of that letter to hand. George Brydges Granville was involved in the administration of a trust fund which arose from the legacy of William Rhodes, which provided some income for Charles senior in his old age.

Arising from that legacy, which i mentioned earlier, was a court case regarding the share of the estate which went to Catharine Downes - half sister of Rev James. The problem was that her husband was declared bankrupt, and his asignee was claiming the capital. The court case went on for ages and it was eventually decided that the capital was not part of the husband's estate, that it certainly wasn't part of Catharine's estate, and that it had to revert to a trust fund for the benefit of Charles senior.

Major Charles had four sons and two daughters. The third son, Henry Granville Downes 1819 -1894 was my husband's great-great grandfather. He followed his father into the army as a surgeon, and served in the Crimea as well as other overseas postings. He retired from the army and went to live in Tiverton, where he was a keen angler.

The other sons of Major Charles were less fortunate. Two died in an asylum in Edinburgh and the other, George Brydges Granville Downes was an army lieutenant who died in mysterious circumstances when he disappeared from a boat near Yarmouth. The two daughters also died young. One of them, Julia, was apparently a good artist and there are said to be some sketches by her which unfortunately I haven't seen. Perhaps she had the family's artistic genes.

Written Material
I think the interesting thing about this family is how much I was able to find out about them because of written material they left behind. (Even Lt George Brydges Granville Downes wrote a lovely letter from Barbados describing a comet there in 1843.) It's striking how much has been written by them and about them, and that all helps to build this picture of a family of intelligent, ambitious, sometimes frustrated people, who sometimes behaved a bit oddly.

I have tried to trace the Downes family further back, but without much success. I know Charles senior's mother remarried a man called Elias Vallant, who was a sword maker in Birmingham, and the offspring from that marriage went on to be successful. We also know that Charles' sister married well, and Charles himself married into the affluent Rhodes family. Yet when Rev Samuel went to university, his role as servitor would imply that Charles was a poor man. So it's still a bit of a mystery.

Rev James Downes and Freemasonry
Rev James Downes was a Freemason and the Chaplain to the Walsall Lodge. In "Freemasons Quarterly" of 1854 there is a description of his appointment and a reference to his father's Masonic connections. "Brother Downes's father was, in his day, a most zealous and highly respected Mason in Birmingham."

I must admit, I found this quite surprising, and had not realised that vicars could be Masons.


© Rosemary Graves 2014 and © Katherine Haworth 2015

Design, image editing and programming are the work of the editor, Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons PGC, revised January 2019.

If you have any information, suggestions and/or photographs relating to the subject matter, no matter how trivial, please contact the author by one of the methods shown below.

Please revisit for additions, amendments and revisions.

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