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Villagers: 750 Years Of Life In An English Village



Pop! goes the weasel

His grandfather, Nicholas Paine, was described as a baker when he married Ann Malden in 1753. He was from Great Gransden, but settled down in Gamlingay to make money through land and property, produce children and become a stalwart of the Baptist Church.

  His energy, enthusiasm and intolerance of vice permeates the pages of the Baptist Church Minute Book. When he died in 1796 at the age of 73 the Minute Book gave fulsome praise to his devotion to religion. He was, it said, ‘a wrestler at the throne of Grace’, remarkable for ‘lamenting before God his own sins, in particular those of the Church of God of the Neighbourhood, of the Nation, and of the World in general’. Well, there’s nothing like having a good moan to brighten your day.

  His will shows him to be a wealthy man, possibly the wealthiest man in the village at the time. Three years before he expired Nicholas Paine had built a comfortable new farmhouse opposite the parish church for himself and Ann, and just to make sure everyone knew whose home it was he had the initials ANP and the date 1793 put up on the gable end. The farmhouse and initials are still there today.

  Between them Nicholas and Anne had six children - three daughters and three sons. With their father’s money and property behind them the sons were all substantial men in their turn: John, who died in 1812, Jabez, who was living in the farmhouse in 1844, and James, who became the richest farmer in the parish and was ensconced in the grand surroundings of Brook End House, nowadays known as Merton Grange.    

  For some reason James only became a Baptist in the early nineteenth century, several years after Nicholas had died, but like his father he bestrode the Church until his death in 1831. The obituary that appeared in The Baptist Magazine the following year records his demise and, if you believe the over-fulsome language, paints him as something of a saint as well. Naturally the writer was less concerned with his business affairs than with his spiritual life, describing him as


‘...a man whose usefulness and devotedness to God, rendered him highly respected by his relatives and pious friends, many of whom dropped the tear of genuine sorrow over his grave...

   As a husband and a father, the kindness and tenderness of Mr Paine were exemplary. His affection for his bereaved partner and children increased with his days. About an hour before his death, observing a friend speaking to his afflicted wife, he said, “Don’t forget the dear woman.”’


   This kind of Dickensian sentimentality goes on for two and a half pages. Forgive my cynicism, but there’s plenty of evidence that James Paine was a hard-nosed, sometimes ruthless businessman, no matter how many pious friends shed tears for him at his burial. Even his wife - ‘the dear woman’ - was not averse to a little sharp practice.

   After her husband’s death in 1831, Mrs Ann Paine employed her 19 year old nephew to assist her in running the farm as her bailiff. They eventually had a disagreement, and he took her to court in 1839.

   He said the verbal agreement between him and his aunt was that he should have £60 for the first year, and £40 a year after that. His aunt claimed she had agreed to pay him only £20 a year while he was in her service. It was his word against hers, and after a long trial the jury found in favour of what the reporter for the Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette described as the ‘widow lady’.

      Twenty pounds a year even if board and lodging were thrown in, as I expect they were, was a meagre sum to pay a bailiff responsible for looking after the size of business that James Paine had left behind at his decease. The widow lady was being very mean.




Paine's will, made in 1829, shows just how rich he was. In it he lists ten children, and makes provision for any as yet unborn children (there was in fact another child, a daughter, born after the will was written). In all, he had eleven children to provide for, nine girls and two boys.

   The girls each received £2,000, except for Ann, the eldest, who was married and had to make do with half that. He provided for his wife by giving her a house in Mill Street with enough furniture, plate, china and linen to furnish it and a £150 annuity to live on.

   His eldest son David was a farmer in his own right, having already been given £3,000 to help him on his way, which was topped up with another £1,000 by his generous father.

   The rest of the estate was placed in trust for the youngest boy, also called James, who was aged six when his father died. Given what followed when young James reached adulthood, I wonder what it did to him to grow up knowing from childhood that he would inherit a large estate worth an estimated £20,000 when he reached the age of 21?

  Reach it James duly did, in March 1846. Almost immediately, on 2 April, he married 19-year old Sarah Ellis. She was the daughter of Joseph Ellis, a well-to-do farmer from a nonconformist family in Thriplow with a similar background to the Paines, and the couple settled down to married life and the enjoyment of James’s fortune in the comfortable surroundings of Brook End House.

   The 1851 Census gives us a snapshot of the family. There’s James and his wife Sarah, their three children Alice Ann (3), James Albert Ellis (2) and Lizzie Sarah (7 months). (Another child - Edward Thomas - would arrive in 1853.)

   Living with them was John Dew, the farm bailiff; Thomas Jakes, the groom; Emma Easy, the cook, who was from Thriplow, and Sarah Wittamore, the housemaid.

   The Census states that James Paine was farming 450 acres of land and employed 30 labourers. He was also in business as a miller. What the Census doesn’t tell us but the 1844 Enclosure Award does, is that of those 450 acres some 340 were leased from Merton College, comprising basically the whole of what was the ancient East field.

   The remainder, consisting of most of the land between the brook and Hatley Road, running virtually to the parish boundary with Hatley St George, he owned outright.

   In addition young James owned Maypole Farm in Church Street, several closes in the parish, and would receive the house left to his mother in Mill Street when she died.

  Gardener’s History, Gazeteer and Directory of Cambridgeshire published in 1851 lists him - with the addition of ‘Esquire’ to his name - as one of the principal inhabitants of the village, and describes Brook End House as ‘an ancient but handsome mansion, situate on a slight eminence, and approached through a fine avenue’.

   By any standards James Paine had it made. The good life as a wealthy Victorian gentleman was his to enjoy. What could possibly go wrong?




Nothing much is known about his activities between his marriage and the year 1852, save for a couple of reports in the Cambridge Independent Press which mentioned him in their sporting columns..

  Both reports concern cricket matches between Gamlingay and St Neots. The first records a four-innings match that took place on St Neots Common on 11 August 1848, in which James Paine ‘Esquire’ took at least seven wickets and top-scored for the village in both innings with 31(run out) and 17 (bowled) respectively. Gamlingay lost the game but as the paper noted, the day was ‘everything a cricketer could wish’.

  The second report concerns the return match, played at Gamlingay on Monday 21 August 1848 - probably in the grounds of Brook End House. Heavy rain prevented play before noon, and both sides agreed to the result being decided on the first innings ‘if not played out by seven o’clock’.  

  At seven the stumps were drawn and St Neots were declared the winners. They had scored 57 runs in their first innings, Gamlingay replying with 43, with ‘Paine Esq’ contributing four runs. St Neots made 64 in their second innings, and Gamlingay were on 40 for 2 when the game ended. Paine had scored 15 of them, unbeaten, and again finished the match with at least seven wickets to his name.

  Betting on cricket matches - even village cricket matches - had always been popular, and there’s a hint in the report that this may have been the case with this game:


‘There was a little dispute among the spectators, as to the game not being continued, but this was owing to their not sufficiently understanding the conditions of the game.’


Perhaps those who had bet on a Gamlingay win (and the team only needed another 39 runs to do so under the usual rules) were the ones doing the disputing.

  Those tantalising glimpses of James Paine playing the squire and being a good sport are entirely consistent with his status as a Victorian gentleman but mask what must have been going on behind the facade.

  That something was going on is clear, because by 1852 he was in deep trouble. I don’t know how he did it, but in the six years or so after coming into his money he had blown the lot.

  Given what came later, it’s more than likely that drink was at the root of his problem because he did what many people who like to drink often used to do and bought a pub, but he would have died of alcohol poisoning long before he got through £20,000’s worth of booze.

   Gambling was the usual accompaniment to an evening’s drinking bout (as well as a game of cricket), and it would have been relatively easy to gamble his way through a fortune in no time at all. Plenty of others had done so before him, and plenty more would do so after.

   The other classic way to lose a lot of money very quickly, as any reader of the novels of the period will know, was to make unsound investments.

   But in the absence of any direct evidence, how he did it must remain a mystery. Perhaps it was a combination of drink, bad investments and gambling.




Whatever the reason, in October 1852 he took his family to live in London, first to Thistle Grove in Brompton, then to Richmond Road, Islington. Sometime in 1853 he purchased The Ambassador public house in York Road, just north of King’s Cross.

  Although King’s Cross station had just opened the pub was in a rather poor and seedy area of London. If James was happy serving his customers and perhaps drinking away the profits, it must have seemed like a fall from grace to his wife and children.

   Perhaps it was as well that she did not know what else was going on. Not long after becoming mine host, in September 1853 James Paine began an affair with Mrs Louisa Knight, whose occupation was described as an ‘actress and singer’ at The Eagle.

  The Eagle tavern with its adjoining Grecian Saloon was situated in City Road, within walking distance of The Ambassador, and it was presumably here, at her place of work, that he first met Louisa Knight.

  Later evidence gives her husband’s name as William, and if my deductions are correct (and I can find no other candidate) her husband was a 32-year old warehouseman from Suffolk. Louisa, born in Salisbury, was 24 and the couple had a two-year old daughter Maria. The child had been born in Middlesex but at the time of the 1851 Census the family were living at 8 St Patricks, a terrace in Newington near present-day Waterloo station and within easy reach of The Eagle across the Thames.      

  As most people will recall, The Eagle in City Road is immortalised in the nursery rhyme Pop! goes the weasel. It was famous for its popular brand of theatrical and music hall entertainment, although some contemporary writers vehemently attacked it as an immoral and tawdry place where prostitutes plied their trade. Charles Dickens loved it, even setting one of his ‘Sketches by Boz’ stories there.      

  Surviving posters give a flavour of the entertainment on offer. One from 1846 - in the typical typographical mish-mash of the era - promises the delights of ‘Clapp’s Pandean Band’, the comic song ‘Little tootle-tee-too’ and a performance of Don Quixote of La Mancha. Entry to the balcony and stalls cost two shillings, the saloon just a shilling.

   Most of James Paine’s money had already gone, but enough remained for him to entertain Mrs Knight for ‘some days’ at the Green Dragon, a large tavern in Bishopsgate Street. Presumably he entertained her for ‘some nights’, too.   

Preston Theatre Royal 1854 Merton Grange Ambassador 60 York Rd black ball pkt Columbia Green Dragon Bishopsgate 1871 Maypole Farm 14 Feb 1981

Brook End House, nowadays known as Merton Grange

The Ambassador pub today

The Eagle 1841

The Eagle and Grecian Saloon, City Road, in 1841

The Green Dragon, Bishopsgate Street

There doesn't seem to be an image of the Patrick Henry. This is her sister ship,  the  Columbia 

Maypole Farm, Gamlingay

The Theatre Royal, Preston, 1854

Pop! goes the weasel

The story of James Paine: a Victorian morality tale

Grecian Theatre 1854 JISC East London Theatre Arch

Poster for the Grecian Saloon,1854

ANP 1793

Nicholas Paine's farmhouse 'ANP 1793'  pictured in 1979

Cambridge County Gaol 1824

Cambridge County Gaol in 1824 with the old castle keep on the right and the castle mound in the background.

   In October 1853 his short-lived venture as a landlord came to an end when he sold the pub and went to France for a few weeks, leaving his wife and children behind. Someone of a suspicious turn of mind might conclude that he probably did not travel alone.




On his return he told his unsuspecting wife he was ‘going to America to improve his condition’ and asked her to accompany him to Portsmouth, where he would board ship. Just before Christmas 1853 the couple travelled to Portsmouth, and after seeing him safely depart for New York on board the Patrick Henry packet ship, Sarah returned to London.

  There, Mrs Paine was on a voyage of discovery of her own. She soon learned of her husband’s affair with Louisa Knight and the time they had spent together at the Green Dragon, and no doubt had her suspicions about the trip to France and her husband’s sudden and precipitous flight to New York. If she had enquired for Mrs Knight at The Eagle then she would have had those suspicions confirmed.

   Sarah Paine’s response was to take herself and her young brood back to Gamlingay, although whether it was to Brook End House or elsewhere in the village I cannot say.  

   Two of the passengers aboard the Patrick Henry were listed as ‘Mr and Mrs York’ but it will come as no surprise to learn that their real names were Mr James Paine and Mrs Louisa Knight. If the runaways had had any thoughts of a romantic interlude as they crossed the Atlantic they were quickly disillusioned however, because the journey turned out to be one of the most difficult the Patrick Henry ever made.

   The Patrick Henry was a three-masted, square-rigged sailing ship built in 1839 for service on the transatlantic route, and for twenty-five years she was one of the fastest vessels in the last great age of sail. Commanding her on this voyage was Captain John Hurlburt.

  On 18 January 1854, while the ship was hove-to in the mid-Atlantic during a storm, it was struck by a wave which carried away the bowsprit and the knight heads (timbers which support the bowsprit) with all the rigging attached, and one of the crew was washed overboard and lost. One unfortunate man fell overboard and was drowned, while another fell from the fore yard and was severely injured.

   ‘It was blowing a gale at the time’, Captain Hurlburt told the New York Times after bringing the ship to port on 4 February, ‘and impossible to save them’. The voyage had taken forty days.

   Perhaps the wretched journey was an ill-omen, because whatever plans the lovers had in mind when they fled to New York did not turn out well. Within a few months James Paine was back in England.

  To be exact, he was back in Gamlingay. Evidence produced in court later said that he was living with his family at this time, presumably with his widowed mother.

   Although both he and Sarah were now living in the same village, he never went near his wife and children, nor contributed a penny towards their support.




In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act, which for the first time widened the availability of divorce beyond a privileged few - and incidentally gave readers of the popular press a diet of scandal that proved very much to their liking.

   Two years after the Act was passed, in June 1859, Sarah Paine visited the London offices of solicitors Boulton and Son in Northampton Square to begin divorce proceedings against her husband. (Ironically, Northampton Square, is not far from the City Road.)

  It must have taken some courage to go to the courts so soon after divorce became possible for ordinary people, and to withstand the inevitable press reporting and the equally inevitable local gossip.

   Stating that she now lived in Harston, Sarah Paine set out in a sworn affidavit the reasons for asking for a divorce, citing her husband’s ‘adulterous connection’ with Mrs Louisa Knight, his subsequent desertion and refusal to support his wife and family.

   Her solicitors petitioned the Divorce Court, and on 20 July 1859 a judge ordered the petition to be tried in court. The law being the law, the case was not heard until the following June.

   Reynold’s News of 3 June 1860 gleefully reported the case in all its sordid details for the delectation of its readers, noting that when James Paine was served with the citation ‘he was a soldier, in the barracks in St. James’s-park’. The report concluded with the not-unexpected news that ‘Their Lordships dissolved the marriage’.

   Around the time of the divorce, Mrs Louisa Knight’s name also reappears in the press. She may have returned from the United States with her lover in 1854, or stayed on to try her fortune, but by early 1859 she was back in England and performing on the stage again.

   The Preston Chronicle carried an advertisement for some ‘Garrison Amateur Theatricals’ to take place on 4 February 1859, in which ‘The Officers of the Garrison, supported by the Ladies of the Theatre-Royal’ put on an evening’s entertainment. ‘Miss’ Louisa Knight was evidently one of the Ladies.

   She played Mary in a production titled ‘THE CAPTAIN’S NOT A-MISS!’, which seemingly involved some cross-dressing antics, possibly with hilarious consequences.

   It could have been worse: two of her companions were cast as ‘Emily (disguised as Capt. Darling)’ and ‘Fanny (disguised as his “Tiger”)’.




What had James Paine been doing during the five years between his return from America and Sarah’s visit to the solicitors? I don’t know for sure, but two newspapes reports hint that his life was beginning to run out of control.

  The usual response of a Victorian family to having a black sheep in their midst was to pack him off to the Army. Evidently this was the Paine’s solution; equally evidently, the plan failed, for the Cambridge Independent Press of 10 October 1857 carried this note among a list of people committed to Cambridge Castle:


‘James Paine, Gamlingay, a deserter from the Grenadier Guards.’


Apart the bare fact of his imprisonment I have no further information, but one assumes the Army reclaimed him and punished him themselves.

  That things were far from well is confirmed by another report three years later, in the Cambridge Independent Press of 28 January 1860:


‘DRUNK, &c. - James Paine, tramp, was charged with being drunk and disorderly, and using obscene language in Saint Andrew’s-street, about eleven o’clock on Saturday night. - P.c. Williams requested the prisoner to go away, which he declined, and then threw some money at the officer which he had in his hand. - Discharged with a caution.’   


Despite his dubious character and divorced status, his background and upbringing meant he was still considered a gentleman, by his relations if by nobody else. Having sunk so low as to be described as a tramp, his family -  for I guess it was they - made one more attempt to rescue him from utter ruin.    

   They bought him a commission as an officer. The London Gazette of 14 December 1860 carried the official announcement:


‘44th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps

James Paine to be Captain. Dated 7th December, 1860.’


Perhaps his commission was a part-time position that allowed him to hold another job, rather like the Territorial Army today, because by the time the Census was taken a year later in 1861 James Paine was home in Gamlingay, living with his mother Ann and a servant at Maypole Farm. His profession is given as ‘Surveyor’.

  Whatever the terms of his commission James Paine was now working for the parish of Gamlingay as their Clerk and Surveyor. I doubt if his family was particularly surprised when he was soon in serious trouble again.

  ‘Apprehension of a Swindler’ proclaimed the writer who submitted the Sawston news to the Cambridge Independent Press on 19 October 1861.


‘Our village has again been visited by one of those notorious characters who prowl about from place to place, victimising those who are unforunate enough to be caught in their traps.

  ...a well-known character, named James Paine... drove into the village, accompanied by one of the Barnwell fraternity, and put up at the Greyhound Inn, where they had some drink, and offered in payment a cheque for £10...’


The landlord of the Greyhound was suspicious and refused the cheque. Paine ‘made several attempts to obtain the needful’ before leaving with the account unpaid. Eventually he succeeded in duping Stephen Mackie, the landlord of the Exhibition pub in Whittlesford. He reported the dud cheque to the police, who arrested Paine at another pub in Linton.

  Before his trial, Paine’s name came up in connection with another case heard in January 1862. Although the details are not clear in the newspaper report, Paine had used a forged bill of exchange signed by William Taylor (’butcher and publican’), who was drunk at the time he signed it, to buy some clothes from a tailor named Peters, who was now claiming the money from William Taylor. The judge found for the tailor.

  At his own trial for forgery in March 1862 an unedifying tale was told. On Saturday 6 October 1861, a man called John Bass from Sawston was summoned to the Greyhound Inn in the village, where he met a stranger who claimed to be a relative. The supposed relative was James Paine. The pair drank brandy together and then Paine went to Bass’ house where he spent the night.

  The next day the two of them set off for Thriplow. Perhaps Paine was hoping to cadge some money from his ex-wife’s family. Whatever the motive, on the way to Thriplow Bass and Paine called in at the Exhibition pub in Whittlesford, where they consumed 3s. 6d. worth of ale and ginger beer. When it came to paying for the drinks Paine produced a cheque for £10 and asked the landord, Stephen Mackie, to give him change. Mackie had only £5 in change, which Paine took, saying airily that he would call back for the rest another day.

  The cheque, drawn on Messrs. Foster & Co’s bank, had been given to Paine by William Taylor, described as a butcher from Dry Drayton, at the Red Lion in East Road, Cambridge. Taylor was drunk at the time, but was sure he had not filled in the amount for ten pounds, although he admitted the signature on the cheque was his. Presumably this was when Taylor also signed the bill of exchange referred to above.  

  The judge explained that the case rested on whether James Paine had filled in the amount with Taylor’s permission, or without it. The jury convicted Paine and the judge deferred sentence until the Monday following.

  There was a twist when the court reconvened. Another witness turned up, and gave evidence that Taylor had in fact told Paine to fill in the cheque for ten pounds.

  The judge’s opinion was that it was ‘only’ a case of obtaining money by false pretences. He told Paine that had he thought it forgery he would have sent him to penal servitude, but as it was ‘he thought the justice of the case would be met by his being imprisoned for nine months with hard labour.’ Paine was lucky. If he had been convicted a year or two earlier, before a change in the law, he would have been executed.

  As a convicted felon he could not continue his Army career. The Morning Post of 17 June 1864 announced that the Queen had been graciously pleased to accept the resignation of the commissions of a handful of officers. The last on the list was Captain James Paine of the 44th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers.

  In November 1865 Henry Waldock, a farmer at Tetworth, received a letter from his brother William in Australia. Henry had not heard from his brother for ten years.



   One of his descendants has published the text of Henry’s reply online.* In the letter to his brother, Henry Waldock endeavours to inform him of all that has happened during the previous ten years. Most of it, not surprisingly, is family-related, but he adds some interesting snippets about Gamlingay: the arrival of the railway in 1862, the weather (of course), the new houses being built at the Cinques and so forth.

   Then, almost at the end of the letter, he adds this titbit [my punctuation]:


‘James Paine of Brookend Gamlingay has run through all his property, is divorced from his wife, and turned out quite a vagabond. He has been a soldier and turned out of the service; has been several times in prison. I think sometimes he is obliged to beg his bread. I think he got out of something like twenty thousand pounds in six or seven years.’


  Paine appeared in court again in 18 October 1867 on a charge of larceny, but according to the England and Wales Criminal Register he was aquitted. It’s difficult to imagine how much further he could fall: from a rich young man to a beggar and a jailbird. Paine’s story is like the plot of a Victorian novel, but one by the cynical Trollope rather than the sentimental Dickens, who would conjure up some long-lost relative to restore his fortune.

   Trollope would leave Paine in the gutter, which is more or less what happened in real life. His inevitable end is recorded in the pages of the Cambridge Independent Press, in the Deaths column published on 5 March 1870.


‘PAIN - Feb. 26, at St Ives, Mr. James Pain, aged 40, son of the late James Pain, Esq., of Brook End, Gamlingay.’


The age stated is incorrect, and although the cause of death is not given, it would seem more than likely that James Paine had finally succeeded in drinking himself to death.




What happened to Sarah Paine? I followed her through the census records and discovered that in 1861 she and three of her children plus a servant from Thriplow were living in St Paul’s parish in Bedford. Sarah was described as an annuitant. Missing from the list was her eldest daughter Alice, then aged about fourteen.

   Ten years later Sarah was back home in Thriplow, living in Middle Street with her 73-year old widowed mother. Also sharing the house in 1871 (in addition to the obligatory servant) was her eldest daughter Alice, and a ‘Visitor’ called Ebenezer Saunders, a farmer and seed merchant from Horningsea.

  They were married in 1879 and had four children. Alice was to survive until 1935. Her brother James Albert Ellis also had a long and productive life, marrying in Sheffield in 1885 and producing three children. He retired as the managing director of a cutlery company and died aged 80 in 1929. Of the other two children of James and Sarah - Lizzie and Edward - I know nothing.  

   In 1881 Sarah Paine was living alone, in Middle Street, Thriplow, with a servant for company. Nothing had changed (except the servant) by 1891, nor by 1901, by which time Sarah was in her seventies.

   By the time the 1911 census rolled round, 84-year old Sarah Paine was not in Thriplow, but visiting the Lambert family of 21 Chester Terrace in the parish of St George, Hanover Square in London. George Henry Paterson Lambert, the head of the household, was an electrical contractor, and so far as can be discerned none of the household were related to Sarah.

  She died aged 86 in 1912 having outlived her husband by more than forty years. Perhaps I’m reading too much into census returns, but she does seem to have lived a very quiet life, spending the last thirty years of it living alone. After the turmoil of her marriage, it must have been something of a relief.


*,g/pafn160.htm, accessed 26 September 2013.