Family History from Old Newspapers – Part 1

Old newspapers are a fascinating source of information to family historians. All the large public libraries have collections of local newspapers, and among the more obvious things to look for are obituaries. Since my great great grandfather, William Linfield, had been a public official in Victorian Worthing, I expected to find an obituary notice in one of the local papers when he died in 1892. I was duly rewarded in the July 20th issue of the Worthing Gazette; though brief, it told me he had a “genial temperament and obliging disposition” (true Linfield characteristics, I like to think!) However, when time permits, the best finds are usually made by chance.

I made such a find whilst browsing through an issue of 1883 (again it concerned William). The story describes the “shocking discovery” of a young man’s body in the Broadwater Brooks by “two lads” who were gathering watercress. PC Cross was appealed to, and he immediately went to the spot. He sent for additional aid, and “Mr. W. Linfield came provided with a horse and cart.” The report of the subsequent Inquest held at the Royal George in Market Street is fascinating because it reveals the exact words used by William to describe the events to which he was summoned. When he arrived at the scene, he “saw the body of the deceased lying in the brooks, face upwards,” whom he instantly recognised as that of “John Hammond, aged 23 years, recently working for his father, a poulterer in High Street.” He had known the deceased from childhood, but “there had been something very peculiar about him from a child. His habits would lead anyone to believe that he was not actually in his right mind. He had a very reserved manner, and would not speak to anyone, even if spoken to.”

Having retrieved the body from the water, they loaded it onto the cart and William conveyed it to the residence of the dead man’s father. The verdict of the Inquest was the rather ambiguous “Found Drowned.” But in view of the “mental weakness” of the deceased, the jury could not decide whether he had drowned accidentally or committed suicide.

Fairly gruesome stuff! But in order to boost sales, the Victorian papers were particularly keen to report interesting crimes or sudden deaths in unusual circumstances. The locals are much more detailed from around 1880, especially the newer ones seeking a solid circulation. Hence the fire which badly damaged the Chapel Road premises of Frederick Linfield, corn merchant, in August 1889 received a great deal of attention. Apparently the fire started in a part of the building which Frederick rented out to a Mr. Compton, picture dealer, who had converted the room into an artist’s studio. Sometime after midnight, a neighbour saw sparks at the rear of the premises and stones were pelted against the windows to rouse the occupants. “Mr. Linfield … proceeded, with the utmost promptitude, but with all the coolness he could command, to remove his wife and family to a place of safety.” He then went back to fetch his assistant and a maid servant, by which time the fire was raging with some intensity, and by all accounts they only just got out in time. Shelter for the night was kindly given by Mr. W.F. Verrall, solicitor, whose house was opposite.

As for the extent of the damage, the studio was completely ruined – since it was situated immediately above Frederick’s sitting room, the ceiling was badly damaged by the flames; other parts of his premises suffered considerably from water saturation. Apparently a Gainsborough “was fortunately removed from the studio only the day previously; but other paintings fell a prey to the flames.” A certain Sergeant-Instructor Keys, who was having his portrait painted by Compton, was particularly unlucky – not only did he lose his long service medal to the flames, but he also lost his sword and uniform. It goes on to state that while Mr. Linfield was partially insured, Mr. Compton was wholly uninsured.

The probable origin of the fire was put down to a thoughtlessly discarded match used by Mr. Compton to light his pipe. One of the firemen who tended the blaze was seriously injured by a broken pane of glass which severed a main artery in one of his wrists; but after a “very long and tedious operation” the unfortunate man seemed to be making “satisfactory progress towards recovery.”

Frederick Linfield (1861-1939) was the youngest son of William Linfield (1822-92) mentioned earlier. William had moved to Worthing in the early 1850s where he set up in business as a tailor, winding the business up around 1870 when he entered the office of Mr. Dennett, solicitor. He later became Assistant Overseer for the parish of Broadwater, as well as Collector of Rates for the town. Although born in Surrey, his father was a native of Sussex, being born in the parish of Nuthurst where his family had lived for at least the previous 200 years.

Frederick was very interested in politics, and he became one of the first borough councillors when Worthing was incorporated in 1890. He was Mayor of the town in 1906-08. His political ambitions eventually took him to the House of Commons as a Liberal M.P. in 1922.

(To be continued in the next issue – Ed.)

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