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James Harvey worked in the village from before 1833 to about 1852 and until recently was long thought to be the first carpenter known to have worked in Simonsbath.  While earlier carpenters have now been identified we know more about Mr Harvey particularly as the contents of his workshop were recorded in 1833.

1. James Harvey

James Harvey was first recorded working as the Estate Carpenter in 1834 and probably left in the early 1850s.  Other carpenters certainly worked here over the preceeding millennia.  There are numerous signs of prehistoric settlements and structures in the area surrounding the present-day village.  Some remain remarkably impressive, including the massive Bronze Age mounds at Five Barrows, the spectacular Iron Age hillfort of Cow Castle and the great trench of Roman Lode.  People particularly skilled in working with wood must have helped to build these places and to have shaped the structures, tools, vehicle and utensils used there but their names have not survived. 


2. James Boevey's House and Farm

There were no buildings in the vast Royal Forest of Exmoor - an area of wild, open moorland - in historic times, indeed erecting buildings was illegal under Forest Law.  This all changed in the mid 17th century when wealthy merchant, lawyer and philosopher, James Boevey purchased the land following the execution of Charles I.  He decided to build a house in this remote, isolated location close to where the ancient trans-Exmoor trackway crossed the River Barle.  A hundred years earlier in 1540 John Leyland passing this way described the scene: “There runith at this place called Simonsbath a river betwixt two great Moorish hills in a deep bottom and there is a bridge of wood over this water.”  His description of the River Barle rings true today: “in summer most commonly runith flat upon stones easy to be passed over but when rains come and storms of winter it ragith and is deep”.

It was here, overlooking the river and the ancient bridge that carpenters would have toiled to construct James Boevey house but their names are not known to us.  The house was completed in 1654 and when, after the restoration of Charles II, the Crown again took possession of the Royal Forest, it continued as a centre of Royal Forest activity for the next 150 years.  Carpenters, too, might have helped build the telling houses around the edge of the Royal Forest where the number of livestock being brought to the moorland for summer grazing were recorded.

In the early C18th a carpenter would certainly have been needed in Simonsbath to repair the damage caused to the house by the tenant, John Dennicombe, who, in 1718, had “burnt just about all the timber, doors, etc., in the house and buildings for fuel”.




3. Working for John Knight

James Boevey's old house and the associated farm buildings were the only structures  in the former Royal Forest when it was sold in 1815 to John Knight.  He was a wealthy Midlands ironmaster who planned to create a great country estate here.  In total he bought over 20,000 acres of Exmoor moorland and began to build an impressive mansion at its heart. 

At the height of all this activity James Harvey began working here as a carpenter.  He had been born in Clovelly in north Devon.  He was the son of Joseph and Maria Harvey and was baptised on 20 May 1798.  It is not yet known when or why he came to Simonsbath, which is about 35 miles from Clovelly.  He would have been about 20 when John Knight took over the management of much of the former Royal Forest of Exmoor in 1818. 

4. Mr Harvey's Shop

We do know, however, that he was working and well established on John Knight’s Exmoor Estate at Simonsbath by 1833 (when he would have been 35 years old) when an inventory of buildings and contents mentions “Mr Harvey’s Shop.”  This appears to have been a joiner’s workshop where there were “two workbenches, two circular head doors, one part made wardrobe, two wood chimney pieces, four window frames, etc.”  Some of these wood products may have been destined for John Knight's grand mansion still rising behind James Boevey's old house.  It is likely that James Harvey was a highly skilled and respected craftsman, perhaps brought in specially to work on the mansion and associated buildings.  In his later years he described himself as an architect and a builder.  His wife worked as a housekeeper for Mr Knight.

Exactly where James Harvey’s workshop was is not recorded but later carpenters used the building at the higher end of the Pound Cottages row, nearest to the Exmoor Forest Inn.


5. Other Carpenters

While James Harvey had his own workshop, other carpenters were employed in specific tasks during this period and were often sawing and cutting significant quantities of timber.   For example, in January 1835 the carpenters George Chapple and William Bradford were paid at 2s 4d a day for 23 and 20 day’s work respectively.  In May the same year James Pippen was paid for 7 days carpentry work @2s3d a day.  (In 1839 Mr Pippen was living in a cottage owned by John Knight near Exford.  It was situated near the old footpath from Chibbet Ford to Blacklands at a point about 200 yds south from its junction with the Chibbet Ford – Sellbed Cross road.  After he died the cottage was let down but his named lived on for many years in a building close by known as Pippins Barn).

Other carpenters were employed by the estate including William Burgess who in October 1835 was paid £3 for sawing 1,512 ft of timber at 4s 0d per 100ft.  The same month William Burnell was paid for cutting timber, spleating (sic) and making 8 doz of spoakes (sic), sawing and making ten hunting gates, and sawing and making 200 hurdles.  Later that year George Gooding was paid for 60 Larch Poles and William Burnell worked for the estate again cutting timber and for making doors, 12 dozen spoakes (sic), 2 wheelbarrows and 200 hurdles and for repairing gates and chaff boxes. 


6. The Carpenters' Shop and Yard

As James Harvey had his own joinery workshop, these carpenters might have been using the separate Carpenters Shop and Yard in Simonsbath which is also listed in the 1833 inventory.  This had, amongst other things, a work bench, pit saw and two saw benches, and, in the yard, a sawpit, with a roller, two bearers, and four dogs and a flywheel for a chaffcutter.  The flywheel implies that this machine was for use either by waterpower or horsepower.  (The same inventory also lists a “large shaft for a waterwheel by Cloven Rocks” implying that waterpower was already in use on John Knight’s estate by this time).

It is tempting to speculate that the Carpenters Shop and Yard might have been on the site of the current Simonsbath Carpenters' Shop and Sawmill buildings, close to the river bridge.  Here there would have been sufficient head of water to power sawbenches and other equipment.  The water could have been brought by the leat from Ashcombe, as we know it was in later years.  This leat also supplied the Simonsbath House and possibly to other buildings at what was Simonsbath Farm.  However there is no way to confirm this and the Carpenters Shop might have been situated behind Simonsbath House or elsewhere nearby. 

An early map (Greenwood’s 1822 map of Exmoor) appears a show a building south of the road past Simonsbath House and this has led to supposition that this was in approximately the same position that the current Carpenters' Shop and Sawmill in Simonsbath now occupies.  However closer examination of the early maps suggests that the building on the map was actually on the site of the later Wool Chamber (now holiday cottages) west of Simonsbath House.  At that time the old road passed between the west end of the house and the Wool Chamber (and not to the south of the Wool Chamber as the access road to Simonsbath House Hotel now does).  The extension of the house westwards to join up with the Wool Chamber buildings was carried out for Viscount Ebrington after his family acquired the propert in 1897.


7. Working on his own account

James Harvey himself does not appear with the other carpenters on John Knight’s Labour and Small Bills Accounts for 1835 and 1836.  Like some later carpenters he may well have worked for the estate as and when required but was also in business on his own account.  Other carpenters including, for example, John Karslake (Estate Carpenter from about 1857 - 1875) and William Hodge (Carpenter from about 1875 - 1894) were known to have paid rent for their cottages and workshops unlike typical estate employees.


8. Harriett Harvey

It is not yet known when or where James met or married his wife Harriet.  She was 14 years younger than him (born 1812) and was originally from Kinver in Staffordshire.  This is only a few miles from the Knight family home at Wolverley and this is where Harriet was employed as a housekeeper.  She may have travelled down to Exmoor when John Knight and his family moved into James Boevey’s old house in Simonsbath in 1830.  (Before that John Knight and his family stayed at Lynton in what was to become the Castle Hotel when they were in the area).  At this time work was progressing on the great mansion and it is possible that James met Harriet when he came to area from Clovelly to work on this  and other projects – but this is pure speculation.

We do know that James and Harriet had a son, John, while they were living in Simonsbath and his baptism was held in 19 December 1834 in Exford.  Harriet would have been about 22 years old at this time so she probably married James early in 1834 or in the few years before that.

The Harvey family were not in Simonsbath at the time of the 1841 Census.  This survey was undertaken in the same year that John Knight decided to give up the management of the Exmoor estate. The previous year he had learnt that the courts had ruled that a huge inheritance he had been expecting would instead go to a different branch of his family.  John Knight handed sole control of his Exmoor estate  to his eldest son Frederic, then 26 years old, and retired to Rome where he died in 1850.



9. Covering the sawmill

Shortly after Frederic Knight took over there were plans to convert the Carpenters Shop and “lumber rooms” to farmhouses.  In  1845 among the items to be sold at an auction of some of John Knight’s  implements was “A circular sawmill with jaws, etc., complete.”   This is clearly a piece of equipment but it is often  difficult to tell whether a reference to a “sawmill” is to a machine or to a building.  For example, in 1846 the Agent, John Mogridge, reported that:  “We have commenced covering the sawmill and part of the new stable is roofed.  I trust most of the present building will be covered in a fortnight.”

It is not really clear whether “sawmill” in this context is referring to a building or a piece of equipment.  If it is referring to a building, why does Mr Mogridge talk about “covering” the sawmill but “roofing” the stable or did he use these terms synonymously and interchangeably as is implied by the second sentence: “I trust most of the present building will be covered in a fortnight.”  (And why would they have “commenced covering” the sawmill if it was simply putting a cover over a piece of equipment?) . 

Furthermore, it is not clear whether he is referring to a single building (sawmill and new stable), adjoining buildings or perhaps even separate sawmill and new stables on different sites?  We may never know for certain but perhaps a reasonable interpretation of these two sentences is that he is informing John Knight about progress with putting a roofs on two separate buildings, one of which was to be used as a sawmill (and may have been an existing sawmill that had perhaps been open to the elements previously) and a second building to provide a new stables (perhaps even for working horses that were used to bring timber to the mill and other estate tasks).

Listed in the particulars for a sale held by Frederic Knight in 1851 (following the death of his father) is a “Circular saw with iron frame, bench grabs and driving pulleys.”    Roger Burton believes that this was the same sawbench as that offered for sale in 1845 and that it was not sold on either occasion.  (The oldest comparible sawbench at Simonsbath Sawmill today was manufactured by Sam Worssam and Co at the Oakley Woods in Chelsea.  The firm did not move to these works until the 1860s).



10. Simonsbath and Wolverly

For at least some of his time Simonsbath James Harvey and his family lived in Simonsbath House where his wife was the housekeeper (just like James Welch and his wife some sixty years later as we shall see).  However, there were big changes in Simonsbath after John knight died in 1850.  Simonsbath House was given up by Frederic Knight for some years in 1852, when it was let with 548 acres of land.  It seems likely that the Harveys left Simonsbath at about that time and moved to Frederic’s house at Wolverley in Worcestershire where Harriet Harvey continued to work as the housekeeper. 

James Harvey was still living in Simonsbath House in 1851, at the time of the Census, but his wife, Harriet, and their sixteen year old son were already back at Wolverley.  All three of them were living there at the time of the John Harvey's marriage in 1858.  James was then described as being an architect but a couple Of years later, in the Census of 1861, he is again described as a carpenter, aged 63.  His lived with his wife in  Wolverley House where Harriet continued worked to work as the housekeeper.

Ten years later, at the time of the 1871 Census, James, now aged 72, was living at Cookley House, a former residence of the Knight family.  He was described as being a builder.  His son John had worked as a clerk at the Knight family ironworks at Cookley and in the 1871 Census he is recorded as being an accountant.

It seems probable that James Harvey died in the 1870s as he was not recorded in the 1881 Census.  His wife, or widow, Harriet (69) was living in the house next door to Wolverley House.  She is believed to have died 1879.  Their son John continued to live in the Wolverley and he may have moved to Brierley Hill in what is now the West Midlands in or about 1886 when Frederic Knight moved his ironworks there from Cookley. 

© Graham Wills