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Early DaysThe Tailors' ShopThe William Junior YearsThe Next Generation
Thornhill Eras

Thornhill Business Card

The Thornhill Business Card


© David Hallam 2004 -


A History of the Thornhill Family in Beeston - continued


William Thornhill snr The Thornhill Tailors' Shop - William Thornhill (pictured left) opened his tailoring business on the High Road - then the Turnpike - in Beeston before 1829 and it was to operate from this site through three generations. It rapidly became a highly successful enterprise with William soon finding the right formula - operating at the top end of the market very early and so becoming the tailor of choice for any local gentleman able to pay. Crucially, the young William built up a wide clientele amongst the stately homes and titled families of Nottinghamshire - making both their liveries and personal clothing.

Mary Ann ThornhillWilliam married Mary Ann Lowe of Radford (pictured right), in her local parish church, St Peter's, in 1829 when he was only 20 and just starting in business. Nevertheless the partnership appears to have been an essential part of the success of the business. They had only two children; the first, a son named William died as an infant as he was followed in 1834 by another son, another William, in January 1834. Curiously, on at least one subsequent record - a daughter's birth certificate - his name is given as "William Riley Thornhill". The origins of this middle name is presently unknown.

The success of the business and the status as his only son, meant that William could ensure that William junior received the very best start in life and a well targetted preparation to enable him to continue the successful family business. At an early age he was sent to school at the King Edward Grammar School in Birmingham followed by an apprenticeship in London where he learned cutting from amongst the best in the tailoring world. On his return to Beeston, he joined his father in the High Road business.

Isaac Wibberley All was set for a golden era - but it did not happen without an early difficulty. It was about 1855 when William was 21 that he visited nearby Wollaton Hall, home of the Middleton family, on tailoring business. While there he met Eliza Wibberley, the youngest daughter of Isaac Wibberley, head gamekeeper at the Wollaton Estate (pictured left), and Ann (nee Fountain), his wife. Ann had died, aged 36, as a result of childbirth in May 1839, when Eliza was only three. Tucked away in a slightly forgotten corner of Wollaton churchyard, her memorial takes a little finding but remains a poignant record of her life - "Beneath this stone a matron lies, whom fraud and flattery did despise. She hated idleness and pride, industrious lived, respected died". The couple had had eight children, including this latest boy who died after one day and was buried with his mother. Six of their children, the oldest 11, all but one daughters, had been left to be brought up by Isaac alone - although we can expect, and records show, that he brought in domestic help.

The relationship between William and Eliza progressed and, by August they were looking to marry and turned to their parents for approval. William was 21 so he could decide for himself - although it is still likely that his father would have expressed an opinion which may not have been approving - but Eliza was just over 19 and needed her father's signature. The circumstances were not good. It must have been difficult, with a demanding job to fulfil, to keep control of his five daughters who, in turn, would have been keen to widen their horizens beyond life at Wollaton - and the years up to this time had seen several upheavals in the family. Sadly, his daughter Martha died, aged 17, in 1850. In February 1852, her sister Harriett, aged 20, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Emma; it was, no doubt significant that her father appears to have witheld his consent to marriage as her wedding eventually took place a year later on her 21st birthday. Two months later the eldest daughter, Anne, married. and, in September, 1854, although only 20, her sister Caroline was given permission to marry. The only daughter left at home was Eliza and Isaac probably expected, as was the tradition, that, as the youngest daugher, she would stay and care for the home. Well under 21, she was unlikely to get her father's consent easily.

Determined on their plans, the couple appear to have turned for assistance to William Higginson Ragg and his wife Sylvia who owned a thriving dyers and cleaners business at Five Ways, Birmingham. It was from their home at Islington Row, Birmingham, that they were married at the local St Thomas' Church, after banns, on 8th August 1855. The witnesses were William Higginson Ragg and his 15 year old daughter - William's cousin - Mary Ann Ragg. Eliza declared herself to be 21, so avoiding the issue of parental consent. Sylvia Ragg (nee Lowe) was William's aunt - his mother's sister - and it is quite possible that William had got to know the family well during his time at the local grammar school. Quite why they were prepared to help the couple in this way and whether the move was condoned by William's parents, is unclear but they were to help again some 15 years later when they took in William and Eliza's daughter Eliza Sylvia. The reason for this somewhat unusual step is also unclear; the girl was only 7 when she went to Birmingham to stay in 1870 but stayed for several years, finally returning to Beeston when she was 21 and about to be married.

The issues between William and Eliza and their respective parents seem to have passed eventually as they were soon settled down to life at the tailoring business on the High Road at Beeston. Curiously, for thir first first child, despite her mother being dead, the traditional custom was still followed with Eliza returning to Wollaton for the birth - as had been the case for each of her sisters' first child. Annie Thornhill was born on 2 February 1856 and was taken to the parish church at Beeston a month later for baptism. In the next 19 years, another ten children were born to the couple with all but two surviving to adulthood. Inevitably this would have taken a toll on Eliza's health and, two months after the birth of their last child, she died in July 1875 aged 39. She was buried in Beeston Churchyard where her memorial survives.

William Senior, now assisted by his son, continued to grow his business on Beeston High Road which was to continue to develop for two future generations of Thornhill tailors. The front of this property consisted of a shop with centre door with a fanlight, a workroom to the left and the shop with a counter to the right; the main living accommodation was above the shop and there was a smaller house to the left of the shop - enabling the two generations to live as seperate households while both had access to the shop and workrooms. At the rear, opening onto a yard with a laburnum tree and an apple tree and with access to Villa Street, were workrooms, cloth storage, William's own room with internal access to his cutting room above a kitchen. There also were the privies and, at least eventually, a pidgeon loft. These rear buildings, covered in virginia creeper had evolved from Roberts lace making workshops and some of the old machinery remained for many years.

Quality was the Thornhill key word and it was that brought custom from the big houses from all over Nottinghamshire and even beyond. Among its patrons were the Edge family at Strelley Hall, the Beaumonts at Cole Orton Hall, the Musters at Annesley Hall, the Barbers at Lamb Close as well as the Middletons at Wollaton and even Lord Byron at Newstead - and carriages with footmen and coachmen would often wait at the door while fittings were made inside. At its height the business employed up to ten tailors but Thornhill himself - throughout each generation - would do all the cutting. Besides formal clothes and liveries, the business was well known for fancy tailored waistcoats - an example survives in Nottingham's Costume Museum - which were trimmed with distinctive buttons, some even with butterfly wings, specially made in Birmingham for the firm.

In 1876, William senior died. His widow survived him for 14 years, before dying in 1890. Both were buried in the family grave in Beeston Churchyard with Eliza. In his will, William left the all his estate, including the property on the High Road to his son William subject to a life interest in the property and the income from 500 for his widow. And his eye was also on the future when he made provision that should his son predecease him, his grandson William was to carry on the family business should the executors think it appropriate.

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