from W.G. Hoskins and H.P.R. Finberg's Devonshire Studies, 1952, (the 'Three Studies in Family History' chapter).
TOWARDS the end of John Galsworthy's Swan Song, Soames Forsyte travels far down to the south-west, to Dorset, to visit the original home of his ancestors. Revisits the little grey church close to the sea and stumbles in the churchyard over the worn and lichened stone that marked the grave of his great-great-grandfather who had died in 1777 Jolyon Forsyte. Then, after a call at the vicarage, he finds his way round the Coombe to the lonely field called Great Forsyte, where only a stone or two of the ancestral farmhouse remains among the grass, and there he sits and muses nostalgically. "It had been the old England, when they lived down here the England of pack-horses and very little smoke, of peat and wood fires . . . A static England, that dug and wove, where your parish was your world, and you were a churchwarden if you didn't take care. His own grandfather begotten and born one hundred and fifty-six years ago, in the best bed, not two dozen paces from where he was sitting ... In the old time here, without newspapers, with nothing from the outer world, you'd grow up without any sense of the State or that sort of thing. There'd be the church and your bible, he supposed, and the market some miles away, and you'd work and eat and sleep and breathe the air and drink your cider and embrace your wife and watch your children from June to June; and a good thing too! What more did you do now that brought you any satisfaction? 'Change, it's all on the surface,' thought Soames; 'the roots are the same. You can't get beyond them try as you will!'"
Such a pilgrimage was made by Galsworthy himself in the autumn of 1912, not to the coast of Dorset but to that of Devon, at Wembury not far from Plymouth, for he was intensely interested in his own origins and descent through a long line of Devon farmers. The Forsyte family tree bears a striking resemblance to his own in each generation of the nineteenth century: headed by Jolyon Forsyte the Dorset farmer, then Jolyon his son, the builder, and then "Old Jolyon," the director of companies, and James the solicitor; and then Soames Forsyte, the solicitor and connoisseur.
Galsworthy spent some thirty years pondering over the history of his family. As long ago as 1903 he addressed a query to Devon Notes and Queries which shows that he was even then giving thought to the problem of his Devonian ancestry, for he knew that his grandfather had left Devon for London in the 1830s. He knew too that Devon was his native heath, for in the northwest of the county there is a remote farm called Galsworthy. No other of the thousands of farms in the county bears this name: clearly, this was the very origin of his family. And clearly, too, this interest in his ancestry and in the generations of his family, was one of the main impulses towards the creation of the Forsyte saga. He began to write The Man of Property, which was the first of the great Forsyte sequence, in 1902, and with its publication in 1906 his name was made. In 1908 he made his country home in Devon at Wingstone, in the parish of Manaton and here he lived for some years, completely at home. "He could never forget," says his biographer, "that he was of Devon origin, and to him Devon was home as no other part of the world could quite be."
Galsworthy's enquiries into his family's past history were apparently confined, so far at least as the earlier generations went, to research into the parish registers of Wembury and Plymstock, parishes to the east and south-east of Plymouth. But the surviving Plymstock registers do not begin until 1591, and those of Wembury not until 1611, so that the earliest ancestor known to him was Edmund Galsworthy, farmer, who died at Plymstock in 1598. For the next eight or nine generations the Galsworthys farmed in Plymstock and Wembury, down to John Galsworthy great-grandfather of the novelist who died in 1811 and whose prone and broken tombstone may be found in Plymstock churchyard. But let us begin at the beginning and turn back to the eleventh century.
The ultimate origin of the Galsworthy family is to be sought in a remote farm in north-western Devon, in the parish of Buckland Brewer and about seven miles south-west of the town of Bideford. Much of the country to the west and south west of Bideford lies high, six or seven hundred feet above the sea, on stiff and water-logged clays. It is a landscape mostly of thin and stunted trees, unlike the normal luxuriant growth of Devon, of poor pasture and cold, unrewarding ploughland. A good deal of it is moorland, where the bubbling note of the curlew is the only natural sound except that of the soft, rustling rain. It is in this country that we find the first Galsworthys, and once again, like the Cholwiches across the other side of Devon, their ancestry goes back into the dim period towards the middle of the twelfth century; and once more but with a very different history from the deep-rooted Cholwiches we can trace them into modern times. We are far from being able to write a continuous history of any of these lesser families who have contributed so much to the making of Devonshire history, least of all perhaps the Galsworthys, who moved around the county in the sixteenth century and left it altogether in the nineteenth. All we can do is to illuminate certain periods in their history between the twelfth century and the twentieth, mainly the earliest phase and the most recent.
Galsworthy, now and for long divided into two farms North and South, was a small pre-Conquest estate which belonged to Ansger the Breton in 1086. One Edwi had held it in 1066, in the time of Edward the Confessor, "and he could go to what lord he liked." He was a free man, but he was dispossessed at the Conquest and he disappears forthwith from history. The full Exon Domesday entry relating to Galsworthy is as follows:
"To this manor [i.e. Buckland Brewer] has been added a manor called Galeshora which Edwi held in the time of king Edward and he could go to what lord he liked and it paid geld for half a virgate. This one plough can till. Ansger [the Breton] holds it of the count [of Mortain]. There Ansger has three villani who have one plough and twenty acres of pasture. It is worth ten shillings and was worth the same when the count received it."
The meaning of the name Galsworthy has been variously interpreted. It is not a worthy (an enclosed farmstead) by origin, but has assumed this suffix in a countryside which is closely sprinkled with worthy*s, both villages and farms. It was originally Galeshora (1086), or Galshore (1244, 1249), and Galsore (1330); the worthy creeps in during the sixteenth century, perhaps even in the fifteenth. Ora means a slope, which suits the position of the farm well enough, running down as it does to the small stream which forms its western boundary. Gal- has been interpreted as possibly the Celtic name of this stream, but Ekwall derives it more plausibly from the Old English gagol, 'bog myrtle' or 'sweet gale', a plant which would flourish in these water-logged fields. Galsworthy was therefore "the bank or slope where the bog-myrtle grew," something, one feels, which would have pleased the novelist John Galsworthy had he known.
So far the Galsworthy family have not emerged in the records, but they do so in unmistakable fashion in an assize roll of 1249. The assize came to determine whether Walter Gerveys of Exeter, William de Bikeleg, and three others (named) disseised Gilbert de Galeshor' of his free tenement in Galeshor', apparently a piece of ground of 5 and a half acres with its appurtenances. William de Bikeleg (Bickleigh) asserted that Gilbert could not be disseised of any free tenement because Gilbert was his villein (villanus). Gilbert replied that he was a free man and that all his ancestors were free men. The two sides then produce rival pedigrees going back another three generations, back into the twelfth century.
The pedigree put forward by William de Bikeleg is worth reproducing in full. "He says that one Kin was villein of Walter le Bret in his land of Galeshor' in the time of king Richard, uncle of the present king (1189-99). And afterwards Walter le Bret gave the said land, with all its appurtenances and with the aforesaid Kin his villein, and all his brood, to William Bruer the elder. And William Bruer the younger, son of the foregoing, gave the premises with all (&c. as before) to Huward de Bikele, father of the aforesaid William, whose heir William is. And the aforesaid Kin had four sons, viz. Robert, William, Curnell, and Aleuric. And from Robert issued one Elvas, and from Elyas Gilbert the present plaintiff. From William no issue. From Kernell (sic) one Estrilda. From Estrilda two daughters, Agnes and Emelota. From Agnes one Thomas, who is present and avows that he is a serf. From Emelota one Roger, who is also present and avows himself a serf. From Aleuric two daughters, Claricia and Ragenilda. From Claricia issued Jordan; and from Jordan issued Gilbert and Roger, who are present and avow that they are serfs. He also says that the aforesaid Kin, the ancestor, had a sister, by name Aluina [AeIfwynn], from whom issued Gunnilda. From Gunnilda issued Robert, and from Robert John, who is present and avows himself a serf."
On the other hand, "Gilbert says he is a free man and all his ancestors were free men. And he says that one Dunewell his ancestor was a free man, and had three sons, Robert, Austin, and William, all alike free.
"William de Bikeleg' then comes and offers the king 20s. to have enquiry made whether all the ancestors of Gilbert were serfs of Walter le Bret and the others named above, and whether Gilbert is his serf.
"A jury chosen by consent of the parties declare on oath that the aforesaid Gilbert is a free man and his ancestors were free and held the aforesaid land freely. Therefore it is adjudged that G. shall recover his seisin by view of sworn men, and that he a free man, and quit against William and his heirs of all serfdom (nativitas) and earthly servitude. William, Walter, and all the other defendants are in mercy. Damages, 2s."
It appears from this record that Kin and Dunewell are one and the same man, and that Gilbert de Galeshore accepts the pedigree so far as William and Robert are concerned, but repudiates Kernel and AeIfric, to give them their English names. The contrast between the Old English and the French names is interesting; and there can be little doubt of the pure English ancestry of the founder of the Galsworthy family. What is also interesting is that while Gilbert is accepted as a free man, descended in the male line from Kin or Dunewell, his greatgrandfather, all his kinsmen John, Thomas, Roger, another Gilbert, and another Roger are all agreed to be villeins, and all have descended through the female line. Clearly, the female Galsworthys, born into a free family, have all married villeins, and their offspring are therefore born villeins also.
The pedigree below will make this somewhat complicated record clearer, besides furnishing an interesting example of an early peasant descent:
Galsworthy, which had been a separate though small manor in 1066, had been added to the great manor of Buckland Brewer twenty years later, no doubt because Ansger the Breton came into possession of both manors at the Conquest and there was no point in maintaining the separate identity of the smaller one. Under William Brewer, shortly after 1200, Buckland Brewer was divided into two moieties, one of which is the more valuable, he gave to his foundation of Ford Abbey on the eastern borders of the county. The other moiety, that which was given to Huward de Bikelegh, became known as the manor of Vielston after its capital estate of that name in the southern portion of Buckland Brewer parish, and Galsworthy went with this manor henceforward.
A survey of the manor of Vielston, made as late as I609,throws a little more light upon the early history of the Galsworthy family in their remote outpost; but it also raises questions which we cannot answer for lack of information. The manor of Vielston then had four freeholders, of whom three (John Bray, John Westcott, and Philip Risdon, esquire) divided South Galsworthy between them equally. Each of them held in free socage, paying a third of the ancient socage rent of eight shillings a year, and holding a third of the acreage of the farm and "a third part of half Galesore moor." We are told that John Braiy held his share as the heir of Agnes Bray, daughter and heiress of the last of the Galsworthys, and one assumes that John Westcott and Philip Risdon had acquired their shares by marriage with or descent from other daughters and co-heiresses. We are further told that the farm of South Galsworthy had originally been granted to Roger de Galsore by William de Alneto for ever, paying a rent of eight shillings a year for it in lieu of all services.
A William Daunay (de Alneto) had acquired the manor of Vielston some time before 1303, probably through an heiress of the Bykeleghs, so that the grant of South Galsworthy in socage to Roger de Galsworthy may be put back to the late thirteenth century or the early fourteenth. What is not clear is what had happened to North Galsworthy, a little further along the lane, but one is tempted to say that this was probably the free tenement about which trouble had arisen in 1249 and which another branch of the family had held freely since the late twelfth century at least.
It is also possible that the Roger who was granted the farm of South Galsworthy to hold freely for ever may have been one of the two Rogers (de Galesore) who were alive in 1249 and were then described as villeins. Such grants to villeins of their freedom and of a free tenement in return for large sums of money can be found at this period elsewhere in Devon, and it is possible that here at Galsworthy we have the villein side of the family purchasing its freedom and with it a freehold estate, as we should say in modern language.
The Galsworthys, then, were free tenants by the fourteenth century, and we find them still farming at Galsworthy in Henry VIII's time. In the lay subsidy assessment of 1524 for Buckland Brewer three are named, representing three different households:
Thomas Gallysworthy in goods 60s. 18d. Jane Gallysworthy executor of the will of John Gallysworthy in goods 40s. 12d. John Gallysworthy in goods 40s. 12d.
We have already seen that Galsworthy had been divided into North and South, possibly when Roger de Galsworthy received his grant. But the division may be earlier than this as the Domesday entry reveals that there were three villeins on the estate in 1086, who were probably working two or three separate farms. However this may be, South Galsworthy contained, in 1609, some 60 acres of land (each of the three freeholders had just about 20 acres) and a half of Galsworthy moor. Presumably the whole estate of Galsworthy contained about 120 acres, which corresponds closely with the one ploughland mentioned in Domesday. In the Buckland Brewer tithe award of 1842, Galsworthy added up to 128 acres, plus 81 and a half acres in three fields on Galsworthy Common. There were then two farms, but they were not distinguished as North and South.
By the end of the sixteenth century the Galsworthys at South Galsworthy had died out in the male line, leaving three co-heiresses who carried the ancestral farm by marriage into three other families; and it appears that all the Galsworthys had left the parish of Buckland Brewer by this time. The family had begun to disperse.
A John Galsworthy was assessed on goods (probably 'wages') to the value of 20s. at Hartland in 1524. He is probably the John Galsworthy whose son Thomas was baptized at Hartland parish church on 21 February 1558, the entry of which occurs on the first page of the parish register. In 1566 a John Galsworthy, possibly the same John (or his son) who had been assessed on his wages forty-two years earlier, turns up as the customary tenant of Moor Farm in Hartland parish, about ten miles west of Buckland Brewer and a mile and a half to the north of Hartland town. His descendants continued to farm Moor (a 46-acre farm in the survey of 1566) without a break for nearly three hundred years, until the last John Galsworthy died in 1848."
Moor Farm in Hartland is at the north-western extremity of Devon. Another branch of the Galsworthys turns up at the extreme south-western corner, just outside Plymouth, in the early sixteenth century, and it is from this branch that John Galsworthy the novelist was descended. Edmund Galsworthy died at Plymstock in 1598, as we have seen, but there were earlier Galsworthys at both Plymstock and Wembury. In the Plymstock assessment to the subsidy of 1524 William Galsworthy is named, paying fourpence, and at Wembury in the same year Benett Galsworthy paid two shillings, about the usual assessment of a small farmer at this date." One or the other of these is probably the father or grandfather of Edmund. In the absence of parish registers for this period, and the total destruction of all the wills at the Exeter Probate Registry in an air-raid in 1942, the main hope of linking these two ends lies in other tax assessments in the Public Record Office, or in a lawsuit in Chancery, the Star Chamber, or the Court of Requests, for sixteenth-century Englishmen were passionately litigious.
At Wembury and Plymstock the Galsworthys farmed for nearly three hundred years continuously, from the early sixteenth century until the early nineteenth. So far they had all been farmers all the way back to that shadowy, primordial figure of Kin, the father of them all, on his lonely north-Devon farm from which the family took its name.
The nineteenth century presented new opportunities to those who could take them, and it was now that the Galsworthy fortunes took an upward turn. Possibly, too, the great depression in English farming after the Napoleonic wars, and especially in the early 1820s, helped to bring about the revolution in the Galsworthy fortunes. In these years, from about 1815 to 1840, thousands of English farmers were forced to give up farming, after centuries of it in the family, and to seek a new livelihood in the towns. In the north of England many entered the factories, or started small businesses of their own; in the south the ranks of the mid-Victorian shopkeepers contained many who had been born on a farm a few miles away. My own great-grandfather left the family farm in east Devon in the great slump of the i82o's and went to Exeter to learn the baking trade. By 1834 he had his own business, and was a Ten-pound Householder. He got on in a modest way, but he never made his fortune (nor have his descendants).
John Galsworthy, born a farmer's son at Plymstock in 1782, made a better choice when he left his father's farm. The Exeter of my great-grandfather's time was a respectable, somnolent cathedral city of about twenty thousand people: its great days of industry and commerce were over. But the Plymouth to which John Galsworthy went was a booming war-town, especially its neighbour Dock, to the west, a roaring town of sailors and ships. Dock, created as a naval dockyard by William III out of empty fields and marshes, was in 1800 the largest town in Devon and one of the largest in the south of England. With its twenty-four thousand people, it now overshadowed even its ancient and jealous neighbour Plymouth. Another ten years of war and Dock's population rose to thirty thousand. With the end of the war in 1815 this rate of growth slowed up immediately, but the new town had been consolidated. In 1821 it had more than thirty-three thousand people, and three years later it was re-christened with the more dignified name of Devonport. Foulston's fine Column was erected to commemorate this event.
It was in this boom town, which trebled its population between 1780 and 1815 as a result of almost incessant wars, that John Galsworthy II (1782-1855) made a comfortable fortune as a merchant and ship-owner. A directory for Dock in 1823 names "J. Galsworthy, dealer in marine stores" in Dock-wall street. No man with a little capital and his head screwed on the right way could fail to succeed in such a town. He retired from business ten years after this (1833), migrated to London, and settled down with his money invested in house-property, advised no doubt by his brother Silas, who was a builder in London. And there he died, in March 1855, the man of property in the solid early Victorian age. His son, John Galsworthy III (1817-1904); moved at a higher level, a solicitor and a director of companies, another characteristically Victorian figure. And to him, at the prudent age of fifty, a son John was born, on an August day in the year 1867, at his large and ugly house at Kingston, just outside London. The Galsworthys now owned not a single acre of farmland in Devon: their wealth lay, not in crops and animals, but in the grey wilderness of the streets of London.
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