Algar family

Skeetsmere House, formerly Skeetsmere Farm

Whilst most small communities harbour a number of larger-than-life characters, and in the 19th century that was certain true of Needham, inevitably there are some who cross the line from being lovable rogues to becoming really unpleasant, anti-social individuals. Henry Algar is one such person, part of a large and sprawling tribe with branches of the family all over Norfolk and Suffolk, he was born in Needham in 1796 and baptised at the Parish Church on 27th January by his father Robert and mother Ann, whose maiden name of Gowing (or Goweing) was a family name which appears in the Needham Hearth Tax records as far back as the 1660s.

This branch of the Algar family seems to have been comfortably off as yeoman farmers who’d probably benefited financially from the agricultural boom during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1837 at the age of 40 Henry with his wife Phoebe was able to purchase the double cottage next door to the Red Lion pub (now numbers 119 and 121 High Road) from Mary and William Shygle for £10 – the old couple continuing to live there until the death of the longest surviving of the two and receiving a yearly annuity of £10 8s by equal weekly payments of 4 shillings. In 1840 we discover that Henry is renting Skeetsmere Farm with its smart red brick Georgian farmhouse from the Rev John Chambers and Phoebe has a typically substantial family of seven under her roof, including two eldest twin sons George and Robert aged 14 along, with 4 younger brothers and one solitary sister aged 12.

However, Phoebe was dead by January 1841 at 52 years old, leaving Henry to fend for himself with a large household and a farm of over 30 acres to run with the help of his older sons and one additional employee. Not surprisingly, the widower found himself a housekeeper but his choice of Hannah Barber to fill the post ends badly when he prosecutes her for stealing two handkerchiefs and two buskins (overboots made of cloth or leather with a thick sole) from the house. According to the report of the trial in the Norfolk Chronicle in July 1845 Ms Barber had given Henry “notice of her intention to leave his service. She took her box away to her sister’s house before the period for her leaving, which awakened the prosecutor’s suspicions; he went to her sister’s and examined the box, in which he found the articles aforementioned.” Hannah is found guilty and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment.

Fortunately for Henry, by the following year he had found a replacement for Phoebe and sweeps his second wife Esther Eliza to the altar at the Church of St Michael At Thorne in Norwich for a Christmas wedding on 27th December 1846. Their first child Arthur is baptised at Needham Parish Church on 16th June 1851, with a little girl named Phoebe following in 1855. But there are already signs of Henry’s behaviour deteriorating, In the Norfolk News on 10th August 1850 Henry is now in the dock himself charged with assaulting one of his neighbours in the village, John Blackmore – he is found guilty and fined 15 shillings or three week’s imprisonment. We can be pretty certain Henry would have paid the fine.

In the summer of 1856 we find Henry embroiled in the first of a series of incidents with serious and in this case, fatal consequences, clearly as a result of his excessive alcoholic consumption. The Norwich Chronicle on 26th July carried a very detailed report of the recent Inquest of Austin Simmins, a Needham farmer, at the Fisher’s Arms inn.

A gentleman called John Read from Syleham was the principal witness and told the court how, on the evening of 27th July, he was “returning home from Beccles, in company with a friend, when, about 10 o’clock, at a distance of 150 or 200 yards from the public house where the inquest was held, he heard someone coming in the opposite direction, driving furiously, and shouting. Mr Read pulled up and drove off the road, and when the deceased [Austin Simmins], in company with a dealer named Henry Algar, in a pony and cart, came sufficiently near, called out to them to turn out of the road. At first they appeared to do so, but then turned in again, and while the pony was at full gallop, came directly in contact with the off-side of Mr Read’s gig. The deceased was thrown out of the cart first and was insensible from the fall – blood flowing from his mouth and ears. Algar who was drunk, was thrown out too, and at first said he did not know who the deceased was, but that he had taken him up just past or at the Brockdish Greyhound, but Mr Read did not think he knew what he said at the time.”

An unconscious Austin Simmins was taken to his home at nearby Shingle House Farm but died just two and a half hours later. The landlord of the Greyhound Tavern in Brockdish who testified that Simmins and Algar had arrived at his inn having already been at a beer house at Weybread. They proceeded to consume gin, ginger beer and two bottles of wine before leaving for Needham “the worse for liquor, driving at the rate of seven miles an hour; and that he watched them past a public house kept by Mr Girling (Old King’s Head) and, as far as he could see them Algar was driving.”

Two members of the inquest jury then testify that they saw Henry Algar on the same afternoon driving furiously – the Victorian term for speeding – “in a state of intoxication.” When Henry takes the stand to defend himself he admits he was driving when they left Brockdish but claims that when they reached Mrs Brigham’s stackyard at White House Farm, Simmins insisted that he wanted to buy the pony pulling the cart and so would drive it home. So Austin then took the reins from Algar “and kept scraping a stick on the wheels of the cart and frightened the pony, and not long after they came into collision with Mr Read’s gig.” When asked why he’d told Mr Read immediately after the crash that he didn’t know Simmins, Henry explains that he “hardly knew what he said.” Despite the damning evidence that Algar has been intoxicated, and his rather unlikely claim that it was Simmins driving the jury deliver their verdict – that Simmins was “killed by a fall from a cart, but that there is no evidence to shew by whom the cart was driven at the time it came in contact with Mr Read’s gig.”

However, the Coroner “severely reprimanded” Algar and asked the local constable present to consider laying charges before the magistrate relating to drunken and furious driving by him on the afternoon of the accident. The article reveals that “the deceased was only 34 years of age, and has left a widow and 5 children (besides four which Mrs Simmins had by a previous husband) to lament his untimely end.” A coda to the tragedy was only to emerge a short while later in that the widow Emma Simmins was in fact pregnant with another baby who was born fatherless in 1857 – you can read more about her story in our section on Shingle House Farm.

St Stephens Lane, Norwich
St Stephens Lane, Norwich c1900s
Norfolk Chronicle 26th July 1856 Austin Simmins Inquest Report

At the next Harleston Magistrate’s Court on 1st August, Algar is duly in the dock facing four local clergymen charged with both furious driving and being drunk – found guilty of both offences he is fined just under one pound. One of the magistrates forcefully reminds the offender of the awful collision which led to Mr Simmins being “launched into eternity. He expressed his hope that the accident would make a proper impression on Algar’s mind, and make him more careful for his own life as well as that of others.” Sadly, this hope was to prove misplaced.

Having been instrumental in causing misery to one Needham family, the Algars are visited by their own tragedy in October 1857 when they lose their two young children within three days of each other – the death of 3 year old Phoebe is followed by that of her older brother Artur aged 6.  Although child mortality was so common in this period, perhaps the emotional impact this awful experience was a contributory factor to the downward spiral in Henry’s behaviour thereafter.  In the 1861 census Henry, now 65, has increased his acreage to 43 and with all his grown up family having left home, was employing two men and a boy. However, he appears to be sub-letting part of the estate to George Brown (42), also described as a farmer working a modest 24 acres with a family consisting of wife Jane, three sons and one daughter.

Algar was back before the beak in December 1863 being fined one shilling plus one pound costs for another assault – this time of Richard Birch at Weybread. And three years later in 1866, just to prove that the remonstrations by the authorities at the time of Simmons fatal accident had been fruitless, Henry is again involved with a collision where it was clear that he was again driving too fast. The case was not about the crash, but the inflated cost of repairs to his cart which wily old Algar had presented to the other party involved in the accident: one Robert Bird, a horse-dealer who lived with his extensive family in caravans in a field in Needham. The magistrates sided with Bird and awarded a reduced payment for Algar’s replacement cart shaft, although Bird did have to pay costs for bringing the case.

The following year horrid Henry was back in the headlines in a rather squalid case which must have caused quite a stir amongst his respectable neighbours. The Norfolk Chronicle of April 13th 1867 carried the juicy details of events at Norwich Magistrates Court where “Mary Ann Lynch, prostitute of the Barn Road, was charged with stealing 8 or 9 shillings from the person of Henry Alger[sic], dealer of Fish Needham.” According to the prosecution, shortly before midnight on Friday 5th April Mary Ann had met Algar in the St Stephen’s area of the city and they walked up to Castle Hill in conversation at which point she allegedly “put her hand into his waistcoat pocket, abstracted some loose silver and then ran away.” She was subsequently caught by a policeman as Algar started shouting that he had been robbed. When cross examined by the bench Henry claimed that he was “perfectly sober”, but this is disputed by the police, and he admitted that he paid for drinks for his new acquaintance in a public house. Mary Ann testified that Algar has given her the money, presumably for services rendered. However her story was not believed and she was committed for trial, having been up before the bench an impressive 13 times previously.

A few months later on 5th October the Norfolk Chronicle revealed that Algar was back in court accused of “wilfully damaging a window and shutter, the property of William Bryant, Fisher’s Arms, Needham. The parties wished to settle the case; but the Bench decided to hear the evidence.” It sounds like the local landlord had a belated change of heart and was hoping to minimise the adverse publicity, especially in relation to the notorious Mr Algar, by quietly reaching an out-of-court settlement. Consequently, his evidence was deliberately very sketchy and he was strongly criticised accordingly by the Magistrate, who then ordered Algar to pay a further 4s 6d in damages on top of the 10 shillings he had already paid Bryant, plus an additional 14s 6d costs. Even though a hard-drinking culture was the norm in this period, especially amongst male agricultural workers, I think we can assume that old Henry was by now a habitual alcoholic by modern standards.

In 1870, aged 74, and presumably on the basis that he wanted to retire from farming, Henry put his large five bedroom property with kitchen, parlour, washhouse, cart shed and stable up for sale in the Norfolk News, but it appear not have found a buyer as he is still listed as the occupant in the 1871 census. Long-suffering, 61 year old Eliza is still in residence, with a 15 year old general servant named Francis Burgess, and a young couple – farmer Daniel Brown (26) and his wife Emily (21) – probably some relation of the previous tenants with the same surname.

On Sunday 10th September 1871 at the early hour of 8.30am Henry, along with a labourer called Abraham Tacon, were found by Police Constable Mitchell at the White Hart beerhouse in Needham and charged with being present during illegal hours. They were both fined one pound each on Friday 20th October at Harleston Court with 12s costs. Half a year on Algar was back again – this time summoned to the Court up at Norwich to face charges for furious driving on the Sprowston Road where not one, but two members of the local police force observed him speeding. Sergeant Kirk testified that “while standing in his garden saw the defendant pass, driving at a furious rate, the horse galloping as hard as it could. He called to the defendant to stop, but he took no notice, and proceeded on his way at the same furious rate, the reigns laying on the horse’s back.”. Pretty damning evidence you would think – but Henry was, as usual, very ably defended by a (well paid) solicitor named Mr Kent who successfully argued the mitigating case that “there were no passengers on the road at the time and therefore no injury could have resulted.” The magistrates in Norwich would obviously not have had prior knowledge of Henry’s past record for this kind of offence  and so he got off very lightly with just a 5 shilling fine plus 8 shillings costs.

By September 1872 Henry has finally let his farm – probably to farmer James Gipson and his large family who are living there when the 1881 census is taken. He then sells off the tools of his trade at auction including “3 good cart horses, 2 fine cows, 4 head of young cattle, and all the useful carriages, implements, harness, tools, dairy and brewing vessels and a few lots of FURNITURE.” This must give him plenty more spare time to indulge his favourite hobby of imbibing and, sure enough, in May 1874 he is back up before the bench at the Guildhall in Norwich for being drunk, most appropriately in his case, in Rampant Horse Street in that city and is fined a meagre single shilling plus 4s 6d costs.

The last predictable, but rather tragic glimpse we get in the local press of horrid Henry Algar is when he is declared bankrupt on 21st August 1875 and his creditors are referred to Mr J Stanley, solicitor at Bank Plain, Norwich. Hardly surprising that his death at Harleston in early 1878 at the grand old age of 82 and subsequent burial at the Parish Church in Needham on 8th February receives no coverage in the papers.  Eliza soldiers on, living on her own in a house in the Market Place in Harleston and describing herself in the 1881 census as a “retired farmers wife” before dying 12 years later, aged 80, and being buried next to her errant husband in the graveyard of Needham Parish Church on 1st Feb 1890.

But the Algar dynasty continues in Needham – eldest son George Algar, now 68, is back at the old homestead of Skeetsmere Farm by 1891 with his wife Susan (75) employing their son in law William Reeve (51) as a farm bailiff, daughter Elizabeth as housekeeper along with a young female servant Sarah Pinner for the house, who probably looks after 7 month old grandson George Reeve, and her 17 year old brother Andrew helping with the farm work.