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James Welch was the Estate Carpenter from 1892 - 1911.James Welch

John Karslake was succeeded as Simonsbath Estate Carpenter by William Hodge and when he retired in about 1892 James Welch moved to Simonsbath to take up the post.

James Welch had been baptised at Goodleigh, in North Devon on 29 March 1863, the son of John and Mary Welch.    At the age of 16, in 1879, he was indentured to Thomas Isaac, Wheelwright and Joiner of Instow for the term of six years.  The 1881 Census shows James Welch, aged 18, as an Apprentice Wheelwright, living with Mr Isaac and his wife, at Cleave Cottage, Instow.

In 1889, at the age of 26, he married Elizabeth Clarke at Heanton Punchardon, Devon.  Elizabeth was 23 and the daughter of Thomas Clarke, Master Mariner, of Wrafton, Devon.  The following year the first of their three sons, Thomas, was baptised.  At this time James Welch was described as being a Coach Wheeler of Tawstock.

In about 1892 James Welch, his wife and son moved to Simonsbath where he succeeded William Hodge, the then Carpenter and Wheelwright, on the latter’s retirement.  (It is possible that he was employed by William Hodge, Master Carpenter, whose  wheelwright brother, Henry, had left Simonsbath by the time of the 1891 Census).

When James and Elizabeth’s second son, William, was baptised in 1892 James was described as being of Simonsbath and his occupation is given as Coach Wheeler.  It seems unlikely that they needed a full-time Coach Wheeler in Simonsbath so possibly this is James’s description of his trade but he was actually working as a general estate carpenter.  James and Elizabeth Welch's third son, George, was born in 1895 at which time James was described as being “of Exmoor, Carpenter.”  According to Mrs Edith Mary Welch, widow of James’s son, George, James Welch lived at Wheel Eliza Cottage at some time, and also in one of three cottages in the village for a while before moving into No 2 West Cottages, where the family is firmly established by 1897. 

James Welch

This was a time of great change in Simonsbath.  In 1879 Frederic Knight’s only son had died at Simonsbath, aged just 27, after a short illness.  Frederic Knight never fully recovered from his tragic loss and with no other immediate relatives to succeed him he decided to sell his Exmoor and Brendon estates.   They were sold to Lord Fortescue (3rd Earl) of Castle Hill, Filleigh in 1886 subject to Frederic Knight retaining a life interest.  He was still running the estate when James Welch came to Simonsbath.   It had been in the Knight  family for about 75 years and Sir Frederic Knight was then in his 80s.

In 1897, after James Welch had been there about five years, Sir Frederic died and Viscount Ebrington, the son of the 3rd Lord Fortescue, took over the management of the estate. 

The Fortescues immediately started a programme of improvements – refurbishing Simonsbath House, building some new cottages and renovating existing farmhouses, cottages and buildings, including the workshops and sawmill by Simonsbath Bridge.

It had been customary in both John and Frederic Knight’s time for a housekeeper to be in residence in the caretaker’s quarters of Simonsbath House when they were absent and probably for much of the time when they were in residence.  In Viscount Ebrington’s time this tradition was followed and it appears that James Welch’s wife, Elizabeth, acted as housekeeper. 

The family were living in Simonsbath House in February 1898 when the local doctor, Dr Sanders, reported that one of the children had Diphtheria.  George Smyth-Richards, the Land Agent, wrote to Viscount Ebrington’s to tell him that “This little boy was unwell when I was there on Monday, and had been ailing for a week his mother said and complained of his throat ...I cannot understand how he got Diphtheria.  I never knew of a case of it on Exmoor before.”  It is not clear which of James’s children this "little boy" was.  Thomas would have been 8; William 6 and George 3 at the time.

George Smyth-Richards wrote again to say that the “little boy passed a good night last night and appears better, and they have cleared out of Simonsbath House to prevent any further infection.” He also reported that James Welch had taken his other two children down to Wrafton to stay with his Mother-in-law.

As a consequence of this illness, two weeks later James Welch had the task of stripping and fumigating at Simonsbath House.  George Smyth-Richards wrote to Viscount Ebrington that “I gave Mr Molland [the Bailiff] and Welch particular instructions as to the fumigating of the different rooms and had one room fumigated for the purpose of letting them see how to do it”.   Presumably this was in order to reduce the risk of further exposure to the bacterium that causes Diphtheria.


One of the main projects at this time was the refurbishment of the estate buildings by Simonsbath Bridge.  This is covered in more detail elsewhere but in summary, George Smyth-Richards had become increasingly concerned about the condition of the water wheel at the old workshops and sawmill.  A few months after Sir Frederic died and Viscount Ebrington took over the management of the estate, Mr Smyth-Richards contacted Messrs Garnish and Lemon, the well-known Millwrights and Engineers of Pilton, near Barnstaple for their advice.  

In October 1897 Mr Smyth-Richards wrote to Viscount Ebrington saying that “I think the water wheel must be repaired or we shall be unable to do anything this autumn to sawing or chaff cutting” but it was recognised that more fundamental changes were necessary to make the equipment adequate for the needs of the estate.  Some remedial work must have been carried out because in February the following year Mr Smyth-Richards told Viscount Ebrington that the saw and water wheel were working very well.  However he was concerned that, despite the fact that they had some excellent timber available, the saw and water wheel would break down under the strain of cutting the joists needed for new cottages under construction in the village.

Garnish and Lemon’s report was submitted in October 1897.  They came up with two options.  The second, preferred, option would involve taking water from the River Barle and tributary streams.  It was estimated that, with a 22 ft head, this would develop about 50 - 60 BHP and would give ample power for the estate’s requirements all year round.

Garnish and Lemon also provided a plan showing the necessary buildings for the saw mill, carpenters shop, chaff and mill house, and also for a dynamo and accumulators for electric lighting.  To save money they proposed that the existing main building would be repaired and new extensions added for the chaff and mill house and for the electric light plant.

Viscount Ebrington sought further advice on Garnish and Lemon’s ideas and in particular, on whether he should go for a new water wheel, a turbine, or perhaps an oil or steam engine. 

Discussions about the Garnish and Lemon proposals continued into 1898 and while George Smyth-Richards said that the saw and water wheel was working very well he was clear that “the present water wheel will not to any advantage cut timber.”

Work appears to have started on the weir and leats in about March 1898 but discussions about what George Smyth-Richards in June 1898 described as “the old Saw Mill and barn” continued and he gave some thought to the site for the proposed new Saw Mill.  He favoured siting the new Saw Mill on the South side of the river and thought that the old barn could be altered to make two good cottages which would be “prettily situated”.

By October 1898 the main issue was the location of a new granary.  Mr. Smyth-Richards felt that it would be better to build it at the west end of the existing building and for the old chaff house to be utilised for the dynamo and accumulators.  He was worried about interfering with the old walls of the existing Carpenter’s Shop as they “are not calculated to carry heavy weights or bear the jarring of machinery.”

It had been more than a year now since George Smyth-Richards had raised his concerns about the water wheel and Garnish and Lemon had produced their report and estimates.  As 1898 drew to a close George Smyth-Richards appeared to be seeking to bring these discussions to a conclusion by setting out what he proposed to do.  His previous suggestions of a new saw mill south of the river, and of new barn at the west end of the existing buildings, had not been accepted but a plan that is consistent with what was actually built appears eventually to have emerged.

Garnish and Lemon employees 1915

Garnish and Lemon employees 1915

On 20 December 1898 George Smyth-Richards sent Viscount Ebrington a new plan.  He saw that advantages of this being that the farm buildings would be kept quite separate from the saw mill.  It envisaged that the granary would be an extension at the west end of the existing buildings.  By pulling down the wall across Saw Mill and building a wing southwards, logs could be brought in on trolleys to the saw bench from above and the sawn timber and outshells can be run out to be stacked in the yard below.  This would save labour in handling the timber.

The Carpenters Shop, Ironmongery Store and the foreign timber store would be provided in the old building in addition to one half of the saw mill.  Because of the fall from north to south across the site, a chaff house could be provided in the basement.  This would mean that the mill and chaff cutter could stand on the floor of the barn again saving labour in chaff cutting.  A granary would be provided over part of this building. 

Two days before Christmas 1898 further changes were suggested by George Smyth-Richards.   Following discussion between Mr Bowden and Mr Lemon it was suggested that it might be advisable to somewhat alter the position of the turbine so as to let the shafting run East to West instead of North to South.  The course of the tail race at the higher end would need to be altered and this might allow the barn to be shifted to the West side.  George Smyth-Richards felt that “ the principles laid down are correct and we have to consider the best way of carrying them into effect bearing in mind the old buildings, position of machinery and with due regard to economy.”

Mr Smyth-Richards assistant, Mr Bowden, met John Lemon of Garnish and Lemon on 28 December 1898 and they went through the plans in detail.  Mr Lemon apparently thoroughly approved of the position and arrangement of the barn and granary and considered that this block would be situated in exactly the correct position.  Mr Smyth-Richards sent Viscount Ebrington a pencil tracing the same day showing the result of their joint ideas.

He explained that the main issue related to the saw mill and carpenter’s shop.  He felt that the previous plan – presumably the one showing the shafting aligned East to West - had been workable but its value was reduced because of the extra cost of shafting, pulleys, and so on and the alteration of the wheel together with the need to alter the tail water race,.  The new plan showed the retention of the existing tail water race with the turbine in its original position and so only about 30’0” of extra shafting would be required plus two new pulleys.

He suggested that the saw could be provided with either a rack bench or trolleys and in either case the logs would be rolled in from the timber yard above, through the big opening.  After being converted they would be taken to the carpenters shop, put into a new lean-to drying shed or stacked in the yard outside as required.  The small portion of the existing lean to could be used as a store for ironmongery or any other purpose.  He thought that flooring boards, deals etc. could be stored in the roof over the saw mill.

Mr Smyth-Richards advised Viscount Ebrington that Mr Lemon considered “that the plan as now worked out is very convenient – as convenient as any saw mill that he knows of – in fact more so than most.”

By June 1899 work was underway.  The Estate Mason, Mr Bament/Balment had been given the task of constructing the sluice at the head of the leat and the chamber at the intake from the leat.  Mr Brailey, who in December 1898 was working on the leats, had made a good job of the waste weir and fender (presumably by-pass leat) but was not getting on well with the sinking of the tail water trench.  He apparently had difficulty in getting men to work on this task but Mr Smyth-Richards offered to do what he could to hasten on the work.  A year later, in December 1899, George Smyth-Richards was becoming increasingly concerned at the progress being made by Mr Brailey with the turbine pit and while it appeared that he had got over the worst of the work it was anticipated that it would be some time yet before it was absolutely finished.  He was greatly relieved when, in March 1899 he was able to write to Viscount Ebrington to say that “Brailey has cleared out of Simonsbath of which I am very glad.” 

At about this time the building previously used to house a steam ploughing engine was converted into two new houses at West Cottages and in  1898 James and family moved into one of these.  The Baliff, Molland, moved in to the other. In a letter from George Smyth-Richards to Viscount Ebrington on 3 May 1898 he says “The cottage now occupied by Welsh (sic) will be unoccupied on his removing into the new cottage by Molland's.”

There were plans to recruit an additional carpenter and Mr Smyth-Richards told Viscount Ebrington on 24 May 1898 that he had “met the Carpenter Pring at Simonsbath yesterday and I rather like his appearance.  He is a young man about 25 and should I think make a very good jobbing Carpenter.  I am to hear from him in the course of a day or two together with his referees.  I presume he would go into Welchs's (sic) Cottage at West Cottages or he might have the Cottage beside of Kingdoms and let Ridd have the Cottage at West Cottage.  I should prefer having him take one of the West Cottages although the Cottage by Kingdoms would be the most convenient for his work”.

While these discussions and projects were progressing James Welch was still hard at work in the old Carpenter’s Shop.  George Smyth-Richards went to Simonsbath on Boxing Day 1898 and wrote to Viscount Ebrington the following day that “Welch was very busy putting together the principal timbers for the roof of the addition to Simonsbath House.  He was about the only man at work yesterday the remainder having taken a holiday.”

James Welch’s work at Simonsbath was very varied.  In June 1899 George Smyth-Richards “gave Welch particular instructions … to finish the Nurseries and I have no doubt that he will have completed the painting in this portion this week and I think that from the 18th to the 20th it will be perfectly ready for your lordship's children.  I will push this on as fast as possible.”  A week later he was able to report that “Welch has practically finished out the painting on the East wing of the house and I hope therefore it will be fit for occupation early next week.”

Presumably James was delighted when the work to create the new sawmill and associated buildings was completed.  He was given the task of operating the water-powered dynamo to generate electricity for the village.  How much of the village was served by this plant is not known but, according to Roger Burton, Simonsbath House and stables, the Exmoor Forest Hotel, the Parsonage and Rose Cottage were connected.

James Welch applied for an increase of wages of 4/- for looking after the Dynamo during the evening and on Sundays.  It was arranged after consultation with Lord Ebrington that he should have 3/- per week. 

In 1906 the Welch family moved back into Simonsbath House and George Smyth-Richards’ records in his diary on 31 March 1906 that “I also made enquiries as to the Welch’s going into the house and Molland [the Bailiff] is to let me hear as to this.  On 16 April 1906 he records that “I saw Mrs Welch as to taking charge of the house and I suggested she should have 8/- a week for this and I so reported to her Ladyship who afterwards saw Mrs Welch and it is arranged she should take charge of the place for a time.”

There is a photograph of the Welch family standing by the main door to Simonsbath House.   It is not known when the photograph was taken.  Could it have been in April 1906 when Mrs Welch took charge of Simonsbath House?  The boys would have been 15, 13 and 11 at this time, which seems to fit their appearance in the photograph.

James Welch kept a daybook in which he recorded his tasks.  The book covering the period from 27 August 1906 – 17 November 1911 still exists and is held by James’ great nephew, Thomas Welch of Braunton.  This provides an invaluable insight into the day to day activities of the estate carpenter.  It has been transcribed and analysed elsewhere. 

Typically during this period Mr Welch records “charging” – generating electricity for the to be stored in the accumulator batteries - for 4 hours each day ,with "attendance" for 1 or 2 hours.  Presumably this was operating and supervising the water turbine-powered dynamo.

Later,  "stoke hole fire and water" became a routine daily task.  Typically Saturdays were spent doing "barn work".  Sunday's seem to have been an issue.  Until 3 February 1907 Mr Welch regularly recorded "charging" on Sundays.  There was then a gap until Sunday 18 August 1907.

Among the interesting work recorded is preparing planks for the iron mines being opened/re-opened during this period.

However, generating electricity became an increasingly significant part of James Welch's role.  Presumably increasing demand led to the Agent deciding in February 1911 that "some check must be put on the use of [the Electric Light at Simonsbath]" and he thought that “meters should be put up at the Rectory and at the Hotel."

The following week he had a long talk with James Welch about working of the turbine and it was agreed that the Electric Lighting "shall be done when wanted and ordered by Mr Molland."

A couple of months later James Welch’s records in his daybook a trip to " Braunton Electric" - the Braunton Electric Light Company which had been set up the previous year and in which, among many other ventures, his wife’s family were principal shareholders. 

Four months later (on 23 September 1911) he was away from work "From Saturday after dinner to Tuesday evening at Braunton about the Electric Job.”  Shortly after this he handed in his notice and on 9 October 1911 George Smyth-Richards notes in his diary some of the changes that had to be made as a consequence of James and Elizabeth Welch leaving the village: “Blackmore to look after house and Elworthy to do Electric lighting.”

On the final page of his daybook on 17 November James Welch noted “This ending my services for Earl Fortescue.  Left Simonsbath 18 November 1911.”

On leaving Simonsbath James Welch moved to Braunton to take up employment with the newly-formed Braunton Electric Light Company.  He helped build the engine house and install and then maintain the generator.  He erected poles, which he carried around on a handcart and connected electricity to the principal houses and pubs in the village.   His starting salary in 1911 was £2 per week – a considerable increase on his wages in Simonsbath.  This increased within a very few years to £3.50 and later to £5.00 – exceptionally good wages in these difficult times. James died after a short illness on 18 March 1935.  By the time of his death the Braunton Electric and Power Co Ltd was supplying an area of 98 square miles. It was acquired the same year by the Bideford and District Electric Supply Co Ltd .

James Welch’s son William stayed on in Simonsbath after his father left and  worked as a carpenter there until he retired in 1957 after 47 years with the Fortescue Estate.  But that, as they say, is another story….l 

© Graham Wills