William Richards


The schoolmaster, butcher and baker who met a ‘barmy’ end.

On 19 November,1880, William Richards and his granddaughter, Annie, walked into St David’s Station, Exeter in time for the 4.08pm train back to Lapford. They were expected home for supper.

But as the Lapford train drew out of the station they were not on board. William’s motionless body lay flat on the cold stone platform; unconscious; his spine fractured; his head bleeding. 12-year old Annie was distraught. She had witnessed a horrific accident from which her grandfather would not recover. William died in hospital two days later.

The coroner was informed that William was Lapford’s baker and that his death had involved a barrel of brewers’ yeast purchased to bake the village’s bread. So, what strange circumstance befell William?

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1.William’s life in Lapford

William was born in 1821 to Lapford butcher, Thomas Richards and Mary (nee May). The family home was Park Meadows a 1½ acre plot with fine views towards Dartmoor. It ran from the end of Rattle Street (now Park Lane) along Eastington Lane and included the land on which Lapford Congregational Church now stands. William’s father rented the plot’s three houses clustered together at the end of Rattle Street where a block of garages now stands.

In the mid C19 this part of the village was home to a number of closely related “dissenter” families including the Challices, Clarkes, Howards and Richards—families characterised not only by their non-conformist religious beliefs but also their industrialism. They were Lapford’s butchers, bakers and machinery-makers! William’s father probably worked alongside butcher Samuel Challice and in 1843 William married Samuel’s daughter Mary Challice. It was one of several marriages between the Richards and Challice families.

William worked as schoolmaster, probably in Lapford’s “British School” which promoted non-conformist ideals and was established in competition to the church-funded National School. Census records suggest that it was located somewhere in the vicinity of William’s home. William’s sister and aunt also taught there. The school ran from about 1850 to 1870.

In the late 1850 most of William’s close family left for Bristol (see section 2 below) and he was left to run his father’s butchering business. It is not known whether William also continued to teach in the school.

William and Mary had eight children before Mary’s death in 1870, aged 50. They were presumably taught at Lapford British School (none of the children appear in the registration books of Lapford National School ). It may not be uncoincidental that the British School closed around the time of Mary’s death.

In 1871 William married a recently widowed neighbour, Harriett Heal, whose husband had run the bakery on the corner of Rattle Street. It seems that William moved from butcher to baker taking over the Heal business. He remained village baker for 9 years up until his fatal accident.

2. The rise and fall of an old village family

The Richards family had Lapford origins dating back to the C17. William lived during something of heyday for the village family. His father and three brothers had 27 children and family businesses were established to employ them: cordwaining, carpentry, wheelwrighting and butchering.

The village censuses of 1851 and 1861 show the Richards to be a prevalent, industrious and well-connected village family. However, the serge weaving industry was in rapid decline and the village was insufficiently prosperous to support large families. Moreover this was the period when religious disputes between Lapford’s infamous ruffian parson, Rev John Radford, and dissenting families like the Richards were common. Tensions were high.

Some of the Richards family saw better opportunities outside of Lapford and around 1857 there was something of a family exodus. William stayed in Lapford but his father, mother, three brothers, sister, eldest daughter and a close cousin all left for Bristol.

The graph below shows the family’s rapid decline in Lapford. This was partly due to the lure of towns but genetics also played a hand with a prevalence of female children; 6/8 of William’s children were female; all moved out of the village into service rolls; all remained spinsters.

3. The ‘barmy’ circumstances of William’s fatal accident

The events leading to William’s death were revealed on 22 November 1880 (the day after his death) at an inquest held at Topsham Inn, Exeter.

William was in need of yeast to bake the village bread and he headed into Exeter to collect some from the City Brewery. Louis Pasteur had discovered the role of yeast three decades previously but commercially manufactured bakers’ yeast was still a new concept. It was therefore commonplace for village bakers to use ‘brewers’ yeast’ found in frothy balm created on the surface of fermenting beer. The success of balm could be unpredictable—hence the word balmy—but its flavour was much sweeter than bakers’ yeast. Bread made from brewers’ was probably preferred by traditional Lapford palettes.

Before going to the brewery William had a drink at The Elephant on North Street (see illustration). He had a beer and threepennyworth of gin. It was, reportedly, not enough to make him drunk but it may have been a contributory factor in his fatal accident later in the afternoon. From The Elephant it was a 10 min walk down to the City Brewery on the banks of the Exe.

The yeast was purchased in a barrel and weighed 36lbs. It was a heavy load to carry the mile to St David’s Station. William placed the barrel in a sack so that he could carry it over his shoulder onto his back.

By the time he got to the station he must have been quiet tired. The train was only minutes away and he still had to climb the stone stairs up to the crossing to the central platform for the North Devon line.

Somewhere towards the end of the raised crossing William lost his footing. The brewers’ balm, known for its unpredictabilty cooking, now took on different form of erraticism as it sloshed in the barrel causing the sack to swing like a pendulum over the balustrade.

William did not let go. Perhaps he was unable to; perhaps, in a split second, he considered the cost; perhaps he considered the consequences if Lapford villagers did not get their daily bread. Whatever the case, William followed the yeast onto the stone platform 11 feet below. It is not reported if he ever regained consciousness, but he died from his injuries two days after the fall.

4. The misfortunes of Annie Richards

Annie Richards was only 12 when she witnessed William’s tragic fall. It must have been a scene that played over in her memory for the rest of her life.

Unfortunate circumstances led to the choice of Annie’s christened name—Thomazin— and her early years continued to be marked by misfortune. Thomazin was the name of William’s oldest daughter (one of the family members who had left Lapford for Bristol) who had died earlier in the year at the age of 25.

Annie was illegitimate and it was decided that she should be brought up in Lapford as the child of William and his wife Mary. Unfortunately Mary died when Annie was aged 1.

Annie’s true mother was William’s daughter Mary, who went into service in a distant part of Devon: probably for financial reasons; probably to prevent the family shame. Mary was 64 when she first appears on a census record with her daughter. It is both sad and poignant that an entry was made on the 1911 census to indicate that Mary had a living child but it was then deliberately rubbed away.

Following William’s death, Annie appears to have left Lapford rather than live with her stepmother in the village. In the 1881 census Annie is in Exeter with a distant cousin, Elizabeth Dymond, who was looking to start a family. Within 3 years tragedy strikes again with the death of Elizabeth (31) and her first born child.

All of William’s six daughters remained single but Annie married a piano tuner, Albert Stafford Reakes, and had a family. She spent her life in Exeter, Salisbury and Sittingbourne. She remained close to her spinster Aunts some of whom lived her in their later life.

The Elephant Inn dated to at least the early C15. This engraving by Herbert Railton has made about 16 years after William’s final visit and shows the inn on the right . Ahead, as the alley reaches North Street, the inn can be seen spanning over two archways. The Elephant was at 37 North Street. It was surrounded by a group of C15 and C16 dwellings. The houses and the inn were all destroyed in 1972 to make way for the Guildhall Shopping Centre
The City Brewery and the Old Exe Bridge as it looked in the year before William’s last visit. The brewery was on a leat of the River Exe by Exe Island and its machinery was powered by waterwheels. The brewery operated until 1967 and the building destroyed by fire during dismantling of equipment.. The leat was filled in the early 1970’s when and the site became part of the Exe Bridges road system. From an edition of Illustrated Police news, 31 May 1879
Above: Today’s footpath leading from the end of Park Road to Park Meadow Close. The wall on the right is pre 1840. The smallest of the three Park Meadow properties that existed at this time was located along the line of the wall where the fence now stands. A larger property stood approximately on the footprint of the garages to the left. Where the bollards now stand there was wall or fence , probably gated and leading into the yard of second large house. The length of house ran across the end of today’s Park Meadow Close (just behind the cars in the photograph below).

Below: Park Meadow Close stands on the site of former meadow land. The house that once stood at the end of today’s road would have been accessed through a yard from Rattle Street (now Park Road) or along a track that ran through the gardens on the left.

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