Article Index

John Karslake was the Exmoor Estate Carpenter from 1857 - 1875.

John Karslake, sometimes spelt as Kerslake, worked as Simonsbath Estate Carpenter from 1857 – 1875.  He was born in 1826 in North Molton - a parish which adjoins the former Royal Forest of Exmoor.  We don't know exactly where his was born and spent his early childhood but his parents, William  and Elizabeth Kerslake  lived in East Street, North Molton at the time of the 1841 Census).   They had married in North Molton in 1816  and had six other children although, sadly, at least four of these seem to have died at a very young age.


An alarming riot

North Molton at this time was a thriving community with mining being the dominant industry in the town.  The population had grown from 1,541 in 1801 to 2,121 in 1841.  The relationship between some of the incoming miners and the local community were not always friendly.  A few months before John was born the North Molton Fair ended in a “riotous occurrence” described in the Sherborne Mercury.

“After the business of the fair an alarming riot took place between a party of Cornish miners, who were employed at the Molland mines, and some of the young men of the neighbourhood.  The former, it appears, engaged a room at the King’s Arms Inn for the purpose of enjoying a dance when the latter intruded themselves on their company, and, refusing to withdraw when requested, an altercation ensued, which soon led to blows.  Tables and chairs were speedily demolished to furnish weapons for the affray, and every missile which could be obtained was in requisition to maintain the conflict, which became general for more than two hours, during which time much blood was shed.  At length the countrymen were got out of the house and the miners were shut up in it when the former assailed the windows with stones, the whole of which were broken, in through which the Devonshire men again entered, and, renewing their attack took six of the miners in custody, while the remainder, leaping though the windows escaped and fled with the utmost precipitancy, which put an end to the riot about 2 o’clock in the morning.  Four of the miners who escaped to Molland, summoning their comrades to their assistance, on Thursday morning returned to the town to rescue the captives, but the Rev.Mr.Hodgins, having in the meantime provided sufficient assistance, read the Riot Act and the rioters were deterred from further outrage.  The injury sustained by the proprietor of the house extended upwards of £14 and having been paid by the miners, the men who were in custody were discharged.”

Both of John’s parents were weavers but this was at a time when there was serious price competition from the developing factories in Yorkshire and at times William is described as being a labourer.



There was very active Methodist community in North Molton and Methodism was to play an important part in John Karslake’s life.   He converted to Methodism in 1844, started to work in the local Sunday School and became a local preacher.  For over half a century he preached in most of the chapels in the South Molton, Barnstable and Ilfracombe circuits.  He was also for many years Superintendent of the North Molton, Braunton and Mortehoe Sunday Schools.

He may well have gone to a Methodist school as a child.  The local preacher of the North Molton Methodist Society, Mr May, ran an eminently successful school there in the mid C18th.   There was no state-aided, National School in North Molton at this time.  The first of these - built to house 90 – 105 boys upstairs and the same number of girls downstairs. - was not opened until 1841 by which time John was 15 and had left school to work as a farm labourer on William Passmore’s farm at North Radworthy.

The local interest in Methodism dates back to the mid-eighteenth century when a William Roberts promoted Methodism in Tiverton and “succeeded in introducing Methodism into Northmolton, between which place and Tiverton there was considerable commercial intercourse, the former having at that time a large trade in wool and yarns, and the latter being an extensive manufacturing town.”


A sticky end

There was clearly some opposition to the Methodists and John Karslake would no doubt have heard the story of one of the most vociferous opponents of Methodism in the area – the Rev Ward, a Church of England clergyman in Tiverton (in about 1752).  “The clergyman (Ward) being defeated in his designs in the town, continued his persecutions in several country villages, till, having filled up the measure of his iniquities, he was arrested in his career, and suddenly summoned to appear before the tribunal of God.  He was crossing the Forest of Exmoor, in order to attack the Methodists at Northmolton when he sank to his waist in a bog, and a fall of snow happening that night, he was not discovered until several days after.  When found he was quite dead – his body standing erect, nearly up to the waist in mire.”


The Wesleys in North Molton

John Wesley himself visited North Molton twice and in his journal for Tuesday 4 October 1757 he wrote that: “Between twelve and one the next day I reached Northmolton [from Bideford] and finding the congregation ready, began immediately.  There have been great tumults here since I saw them before, but God has now rebuked the storm.  When the gentry would neither head not pay the mob, the poor rabble were quiet as lambs.  We rode to Tiverton in the afternoon.”

His brother, Charles Wesley, visited on 5 September 1758.  “Set out from Tiverton in foul weather.  Took horse at seven.  To escape a shower, I baited at a little alehouse.  Gave word of advice to the poor ignorant landlord and his daughter and went on my way (and a vile one it was) without any more rain, till we came, between twelve and one, to Northmolton, twenty measured miles from Tiverton.  I dined on a cup of tea, which I had taken care to bring with me, and shut myself up till night, when I preached the gospel with more comfort and life than I have done since I left Bristol.  Not a word seemed to be lost upon them.  The seed fell upon good ground.  I had a feast with them, so wanted none elsewhere.  My friendly old host gave me the best he had, but the bacon and hen were such as my teeth could not penetrate.  However our clean, warm beds made us amends.  I found the room full at five and exhorted them to come boldly to the throne of mercy and grace.”

Charles Wesley’s journal 12 September 1758 records that: “Yesterday morning I hardly tore myself from poor Phill [his niece].  Her husband walked with me a mile [from Barnstaple] and parted with tears.  They forced a servant on me as far as Northmolton, fifteen miles from Barnstaple.  The afternoon was all my own.  At night I declared the end of the Lord’s coming “that we might have life”.  The door was again wide open.  I bestowed an hour on my host and his family in singing, conference and prayer.  Tuesday morning I rose at four, preached at five, set out after breakfast, and reached Tiverton, twenty miles from Northmolton by one.”

The first Wesleyan church began in 1831 – when John Karslake was 5 – in a leased cottage with garden which might be where the present Methodist church now stands.  The cottage served as the worship centre until the first Chapel was built in 1837 but this was soon found to be inadequate.  In 1890 an adjoining piece of land was purchased and a new chapel opened in 1891.  The original building was used a schoolroom and is still in use as the church hall.


Starting work and a family

At the time of the 1841 Census John Karslake was 15 and he had left school and was working as a farm labourer on William Passmore’s farm at North Radworthy.  However he later trained as a carpenter and wheelwright and nine years later he is listed in White’s Directory of Devon 1850 as a wheelwright.    He was described as such when, on 18 April 1850, he married Ann Burgess at North Molton Parish Church.  Ann was the daughter of Henry Burgess, also a carpenter.   Whether John worked with, or for, Henry is not known but seems possible.  Henry Burgess is recorded as one of the 12 carpenters in North Molton in 1850 and John Kerslake is one of the 5 wheelwrights.

The 1851 Census shows John, then aged 25, and Ann, 29, living in North Molton village with their 2 month old baby son, William.  (William’s middle initial is given as B, presumably for Burgess, his mother’s maiden name).

A second son, Michael, was born in 1852, and daughters Elizabeth and Mary-Ann were born in 1854 and 1855 respectively.  It appears that the family may have moved to nearby Heasley Mill because a John Kerslake is listed as being a Wheelwright there in the Devon Directory of 1856.


What a day!

We can be pretty sure that John, his wife and children came into North Molton to join in the remarkable celebrations to mark the end of the Crimean War held there on 9 July 1856.  There was a Grand Parade and perhaps he was one of the “Carpenters, two and two, with belts trimmed with shavings and rosettes, etc.”  or one of the “Carpenters, two and two, with saw, plough, and various other tools” who participated.  The Parade is described in glorious detail in the South Molton Peace Herald.  It was led by a trumpeter on horseback followed by Men of the First Devon Militia, the Yeomanry Cavalry, with both the North Molton and South Molton Bands.  There were horses, sheep, cows, flags and banners.  There were horse-drawn vehicles and decorated marchers and tableau representing local trades from rat catching - including a "menagerie of live white rats" - to mining, with the "Captain of the Poltimore Copper Mine [and] Miners, two and two, in their dresses, with candles in their hats as at work, carrying various tools, and specimens of Copper Ore."

The account in the South Molton Peace Herald goes on to describe how “The Procession having traversed the street, and across the bridge to High Bullen, marched round a field of Mr Merston’s (of Brinsworthy) and then returned to the Square.  The Bands playing their lively and merry tunes, the waving of handkerchiefs, and, above all, the immense number of richly dressed ladies, made one of the prettiest sights ever seen in the North of Devon, and certainly ever in North Molton”.

The paper then continued with a description of the dinner for 800 people, the many tables, the fare provided in the King’s Arms, the toasts and speeches.  It concluded with an account of the tea for the Ladies, the evening’s amusements and, finally, with a description of the decorations and use of almost four hundred fir trees, so that “The Town was never so gay before, and the Fir Trees (found for the occasion through the kindness of Lord Poltimore) gave it the aspect of an immense grove”.  As Normon Annett says in his book on North Molton "What a day!"


A move to Simonsbath

The following year, in 1857, John Karslake and his family moved to Simonsbath where John become the Estate Carpenter for Frederic Knight’s Exmoor Estate.   He would have known Simonsbath and the surrounding area well.  North Radworthy Farm, where John worked as a labourer in the early 1840s, is close to the boundary of the former Royal Forest of Exmoor and only 31/2 miles from Simonsbath.  It was the availablity of such an extensive area of summer grazing that was one of the principle reasons for the growth of North Molton’s wealth and trade.  Before the area was disafforested in 1818 large numbers of livestock were depastured there every summer.  For example in 1736, more than 30,000 sheep were grazed in the Royal Forest of which 7,721 were brought from North Molton, by far the largest number from nearby parishes.

John Karslake appears to have taken on a cottage and carpenters’ shop in Simonsbath and some land on Birch.   The property had previously been let to Charles Le Blanc.  The cottage was probably one of the Pound Cottages and the Carpenter’s Shop was probably the building at the far end of the Pound Cottage row, nearest to the Exmoor Forest Inn.

John Karslake paid £12.10.0 for half year’s rent of his cottage and land.  Married men employed on Frederic Knight’s Exmoor Estate did not pay rent for their cottages so it seems likely that he worked for the Estate as and when required but was also in business on his own account.    He is listed as a carpenter – the only carpenter listed in the parish - in Kelly’s directory of 1866 and Morris and Co’s directory of 1872.  This lends weight to the view that he was self-employed and doing work for the estate and elsewhere.

In the 1861 Census John’s  age is given as 35 and was living with his wife Ann (39), son William (10), Michael (8) Elizabeth (6), Mary Ann (5) John (3) James (1) and Edwin (3 months) .  James and Edwin had been baptised in Simonsbath; the others had been baptised in North Molton.


Services at home

When he moved to Simonsbath John Karslake was “practically shut away from Methodism, the nearest chapel being five miles away”.  As there was no evening service in the village he opened his house for religious services.  The population of Simonsbath at that time had risen to over 280 and a new ecclesiastical and civil parish was created,  In 1855, work began to build a parish church – St Luke’s – which was consecrated by the Bishop of Bath and Wells on 21 October 1856.

The first incumbent of the parish was the Rev William Thornton.   In his book The Reminiscences and Reflections of an old West-Country Clergyman he writes:  “The people come to church very well, and my wife had a good choir and a Sunday school.  I started a series of cottage lectures on weekday evenings, and held them here, there and everywhere, in order that I might better gain a footing in the place.  A man named Kersake was my devoted adherent and accompanied me on these occasions, wherever I went.  He was the Exmoor carpenter, and a Wesleyan.  He told me that he should stand by me stoutly until there was a Wesleyan Chapel built within two miles of his house.  No man, he urged, could be expected to go further than that for his spiritual advantages, and he liked my ministrations very much”.


Martyrdom beckons

The Rev William Thornton goes on to tell about a particular incident in which John Karslake was involved.  “One day I preached against the use of bad language, and on going out of church Kerslake told the young blacksmith, who was a most intelligent man and a great ally of mine, that the sermon was intended for him.  On which the blacksmith declared that he would fetch some more young fellows and duck him in the River Barle.  Thereupon Kerslake come back to me to say that he was a martyr, suffering for conscience sake, and by way of comfort I told him that in my opinion he was a fool, suffering for folly’s sake.”  Rev Thornton goes on to say that: “this candour only cemented our friendship the more.” 


Christening issues

Later John Karslake sought Rev Thornton’s advice on the christening of his baby – Edwin.  Rev Thornton offered to christen the child but John Karslake said that he didn’t like sponsors. “Now, look here, Kerslake” said Rev Thornton “do not let us have any nonsense.  Mrs Thornton and I will stand as two sponsors for the boy, and we will allow you to be the third; I will ask Mr Carwithen to come over from Challacombe and christen him”.  John Karslake was apparently delighted and after the service Rev Thornton asked him whether he was satisfied.  “Yes, sir,” he replied, in doubtful tones “but I do not like it as well as I like our Wesleyan service,”  Rev Thornton asked what the difference was and John Karslake explained that “the Wesleyan minister always came in after the ceremony to have a comfortable cup of tea with him and his wife”

Rev Thornton says that the christening took place in 1857 and “it was only the other day that I called upon my god-son in the goods’ shed in Queen Street, Exeter, and gave him a handsome Church Service.  He is a most pleasing young man.  The old man I tried to find in 1894 at Mortehoe, near Ilfracombe, but only saw the daughters”.


Is the gospels sound never hard in Simonsbath?

Rev Thornton recounts one other story about John Karslake.  “One day I walked down to Simonsbath village and found a man [from the Plymouth Brethren] on a tub, very hot, preaching!  Mr and Mrs Kerslake and some noisy children formed his entire audience.  As I went by he cast an angry look at me and declared that Exmoor was a place where the Gospel sound was never heard, and where all souls lay steeped in sin.  Presently I called on Kerslake and remonstrated with him for giving encouragement to such a spiteful, silly bigot.  “Does he know all our people here very intimately?” I enquired.  “Lord bless you, sir,” said Kerslake, “ he is not acquainted with one of them.”   “Then how does he know that they are all steeped in sin?  And is it true that the Gospel sound is never heard in Simonsbath Church, Mr Kerslake?” I asked.  “No it is not true and he ought never to have said it but, sir, I believe the man is mad, and I should not have gone to hear him if he had not walked all the way from Lynmouth to preach the Gospel on a hot day, a very hot day, sir.”  “Humph,” said I, “a queer reason surely.”  “Yes,” was the stout rejoinder, “and the day is so exceedingly warm that I really would have listened even if he had been a High Churchman.”

By 1862 John Karslake was one of the four constables at Simonsbath.    He gave up the cottage, workshop and land in 1875 when the cottage and shop (but not the land)  were taken over by William Hodge – his successor as Estate Carpenter – at a rent of £4.10.0 per half year.


A move to Boode

John Karslake moved to Higher Boode, Braunton where he was recorded in the 1881 census.  He was 55 and was living with his wife, Ann, 59 , and their daughter, then aged 15, who had been born on Exmoor.  John Henry (23) an unmarried agricultural labourer born in North Molton was living with them.

A few years later, in 1884, John Karslake moved to Mortehoe.  In the 1891 census he was living at 4 Beaufort Villas, Mortehoe (he was 65) with his wife and their unmarried daughter Mary (33) who was described as being a lodging house keeper and Martha (25)   Rev Thornton called to see him in 1894 at Mortehoe but only saw his daughters.


An ardent worker for Methodism

At that time the Methodist cause in North Devon was said to be “very weak and low”.  John Karslake was greatly instrumental in revving the class meeting and forming a Sunday school of which for many years he was the Superintendent and leader of the Society class.  He was an ardent worker in the Temperance cause, always taking a deep interest in the young.  He was blessed with good health and took an active part in the service of the Church he loved so much to the end of his life.. 

At the time of the 1901 Census he was living at Rayharden House, Woolacombe with his wife Ann and unmarried daughter Mary (44).  In January 1905 he went with his wife for  short visit to Oakleigh House, Lynmouth, the home of his daughter, Mrs J Crocombe.  He attended Lynton Wesleyan Chapel on Sunday 1 January 1905 and took part in the evening meeting and also the following Monday evening.  However, two days later he complained of pain and despite medical skill and human effort, gradually sank and passed peacefully away on 20 January 1905. 

He was buried at Mortehoe Cemetery on Thursday 26 January 1905 after a service in Mortehoe Wesleyan Chapel, which was draped for the occasion.  A large number of people attended with the spacious new church being full while many others assembled around the graveside.  On the following Sunday an impressive memorial service was conducted.

John Karslake's son, Michael.  Photo taken about 1920.

© Graham Wills