Recent refurbishments at the house built as Cotesbach Rectory revealed an inscription inside a window frame. Archive volunteers were asked whether any of our documents could shed light on the writers’ identity.

By permission of Mrs P. Lean

The joiners in question were George Bennett (1849-1903) and James (‘Jemmy’ or ‘Jimmy’) Edward Daniels (c1852-1908).  They are not mentioned by name in the Archive but there are records of a number of payments to their employer, the Rugby firm of J. Parnell & Son, who were charged with building the Rectory.

The two workmen were quite difficult to trace because they were always on the move. George Bennett, the son of a framework knitter, was born and bred in Lutterworth but in the 1871 census is living as a lodger in Stoke Albany, Northamptonshire. By the time of his marriage to Sarah Ann Foster in the chapel of Wroxall Abbey (where she was a servant) in November 1879, his address is given as Caldecote in north Warwickshire. The 1881 census finds George and his wife Sarah living in a village called Thursley in Surrey. Street directories (listing George as ‘foreman carpenter’) locate the couple in Rugby in the mid-1880s and their three children were born there in the years 1883-1889, but by 1891 the family can be found living in Walsall in Staffordshire. This move was George’s last; he left Parnell’s, took a job on the railway and died in Walsall in 1903.

It seems odd that a carpenter and joiner should need to move so often and so far afield to find employment, yet the pattern is not uncommon when we look at the censuses. Here is George Bennett in Stoke Albany in 1871:

His immediate neighbours include two other carpenters/joiners and a bricklayer, all from outside the area and all lodging with local families – and this circumstance is what gives the clue to the puzzle. The men are evidently in the village for a building project of some kind; they are not looking for work but are a team sent by an employer to complete a job. This prompts us to look a little more closely at the firm of J. Parnell and Son; what kind of projects did they undertake that would require them to send workmen around the country? The answer lies in their reputation not as a small local building company but as an esteemed national concern working with some of the best known architects of the day (Edwin Lutyens and Alfred Waterhouse, for example) and constructing some prestigious edifices. They specialised in ecclesiastical architecture, restoring and extending churches all over the country. Locally, they were responsible for the enlargement (including the addition of the second tower) at St Andrew’s, Rugby in 1877-1885 and the construction of the Chapel and the gymnasium (1871) and the Temple Reading Room (1878-1879) at Rugby School. Further afield, they built chapels, libraries and whole colleges (notably Keble) at Oxford, and refurbished castles from Lindisfarne to Herstmonceux in Sussex. They must have carried out the restoration (completed in 1872) of the church at Stoke Albany where George Bennett was lodging in 1871, and the church at Thursley (restored in the early 1880s) near which George and Sarah were living in 1881. The firm is known to have built Caldecote Hall in Warwickshire, which was constructed during the years 1879 and 1880; Caldecote was the address given by George Bennett at his marriage on 25th November 1879.

James Daniels (his usual name – of which more later) was also very mobile, although his various comings and goings were not quite so closely related to the demands of the building trade. He was born in Horsley, a village near Stroud in Gloucestershire, but not baptised until his family had settled in Rugby a few years later. Successive censuses in 1861, 1871 and 1881 place James in Rugby, but he married Emily Smalley at the Independent Chapel in Kilsby on 11th December 1873 (quite possibly while he was still working on Cotesbach Rectory) and the couple must have moved to Wales soon afterwards as their daughter, Florence Emily, was born in Abergavenny in the last quarter of 1874. Another daughter, Mary Jane, was born there a year later. By the beginning of 1877, the Daniels family was back in Warwickshire and a son, Frederick William, was born in Newbold. The 1880s were spent in Rugby, with listings of James in the census of 1881 and a street directory of 1889. 

We can place James (now calling himself Edward James Daniels) in Aston in the spring of 1891 due to an unfortunate brush with the law; on 31st March, as reported in the newspapers, he stole a woman’s purse. He was in custody in Warwick Jail when the census of 1891 was taken on the night of 5th April and, when his case came to court on the 7th, he was sentenced to a month’s hard labour. This was not James’s first court appearance; there was, in November 1888, the small matter of his being on a neighbour’s premises ‘for unlawful purposes’ and the subsequent assault of said neighbour, for which a £5 fine was imposed by Rugby magistrates. Neither would it be his last appearance, although by the time he stood in the dock in Derby charged with bigamy he was calling himself Harry Knight.

Giving evidence at James’s trial, his daughter said that her father had changed his name in 1897, after he had left her mother and ‘following some trouble at Birmingham’. It was in the name of Harry Knight (‘bachelor’) that he had married Jemima Elizabeth Hodgkinson (spinster) at St Werburgh’s Church in Derby on 21st January 1900. James/Harry was apprehended on the bigamy charge ‘as he came out of Derby Prison’ on Saturday 15th March 1901, according to the arresting officer. He had just served a month for ‘loitering with intent to commit a felony’ in Derby’s fish market. Bigamy having been proved to the jury’s satisfaction at the Summer Assizes, he was sent back to jail for a further three-month term with hard labour. James Edward Daniels, still using the assumed name of Harry Knight, died in Derby in the spring of 1908.