Flora Thompson and The Real Charity Finch

Written by D. L. Woodhead – April 2017

Flora Thompson was not overly careful to select names for her characters which could not directly be traced to their living counterparts: a case in point is "Charity Finch," the authorial character from "Still Glides The Stream."

The real Charity Finch was baptised on September 1st, 1867, in St. Mary the Virgin, the 13th century church of Cottisford (aka Cottesford), a village on the northern edge of Oxfordshire. She was the daughter of David and Sarah Finch who, in 1871, were living in Waterloo Cottages. As he is described as being a "Groom," and Cottisford was owned by the Earl of Effingham at Tusmore, it is on this estate that he probably worked. He seems to have started his working life as a carpenter in Mixbury where he was born, and after the death of his father found himself working for his three elder brothers. Ten years later – in 1861 – at the age of 25, he was lodging with his married brother, Joshua, but working as a labourer. A month or two after the Census had been taken, he married a Juniper girl, Sarah Moss, no doubt because the young lady had discovered that she was pregnant – as in February, 1862, Lydia was born. She was followed by James (who died), Isaac in 1865 and then Charity, in 1867.

By 1881, David, Sarah, Lydia, Isaac, Charity, Sarah Elizabeth and Rosina Finch were all living in Liss, ten miles from Grayshott in Hampshire. It would appear that his older brother, Thomas, had taken his wife, another Sarah, and family to Hampshire in the late-1860s as his last child, Helen, was born there in 1870. In 1881, he is described as a 'Builder' and his three sons live with him and their mother, working as carpenters. They lived in Upper Green, so were close to David's cottage in Lower Green.

Towards the end of 1887, Charity Finch married a 'local lad,' James Bridger – a "Labourer in Watercress Beds." Charity's parents lived at 4 Spring Cottages, while she and her husband still lived at 2 Summerfield Cottages, near Pophole Farm and were five minutes' walk away. Charity and her husband apparently had no children but continued to live in Liss until 1911 and beyond. Her mother, too, was still alive in 1911. Charity died two years after her mother – in 1918, aged fifty.

In late-1853, Emma Dibber (aka Dipper) – Flora's mother – was born: her father was John Dibber and he had been born in Stoke Lyne in 1814. At the end of his life he lived in Juniper so Flora would have had input from him about his Stoke Lyne upbringing and his wanderings from Ardley after he became an itinerant preacher. In 1841, he was living in Fewcott with his 20-yr-old wife, Hannah, and their children, William (3) and Mary Ann (1). In 1851, the family, missing Mary Ann, were living in Ardley where Thomas (4) was born. His older sister, Ellen (9), had been born in Fewcott – considered part of Stoke Lyne in those days. This meant that when Emma became nursemaid to the children of Reverend Jocelyne, who lived in Fewcott, she and his family would have had to have walked the mile-and-a-half across the fields to church as her employer was assistant to old Reverend Marsham, the incumbent of St. Peter's, Stoke Lyne. Given that she worked for the family for over six years, the walk to and from Stoke Lyne would have been particularly memorable, so her stories to her children may well have included many details of this happy part of her life. In 1872, the old bachelor retired from St. Peter's and his nephew, not wishing to travel from Caversfield, as his uncle had done for fifty-five years, persuaded the Church authorities and his wealthy father to build a Vicarage for him and his family next to St. Peter's. Ann Hind of Fewcott had contributed to its cost by willing money to the project in 1870 and had, also, left money for a chapel to be built in her village, which was completed at about the same time as the Vicarage. The Reverend Jocelyne became its first incumbent.

In 1875, Emma – no longer a nursemaid – married Albert Timms of Buckingham. It is possible that Albert met his wife in the same manner as Thomas Hardy, as a stonemason visiting a rural church to assess its condition and do some repairs. Hardy married his Emma in 1874 but they had no children; Albert and his Emma, marrying a few months later, had ten, six surviving childhood. The Timms went to live in a cottage in Juniper Hill attached, like Fewcott, to the next village – where the church was. As Flora reported, she had had to walk over a mile – across the fields – to the school in Cottesford.
Gillian Lindsey, in her biography of Flora, describes how she was taught by Susannah Holmyard.

In 1871, about ten years before Flora arrived at the school, Miss Holmyard is recorded as living in "School & House," which appears to have been in Juniper, as the next – and last – dwelling is "Juniper Hill Cottage." The House is also described as "part of School Building." However, it has to be assumed that the last two entries were some sort of afterthought as there is no doubt that the School was in Cottisford. Susannah Holmyard became Mrs. Tebby by marrying the squire's gardener in 1885, and it is interesting to note that she appeared in 'Lark Rise' as a schoolmistress called 'Kate Holmes' who married a gardener and became 'Mrs. Tenby.' So, as the Finch family moved from Cottisford to Hampshire when, in all probability, Flora was about two, their departure would have been a major talking-point at the time – and after. Charity Finch's name may well still have been on a School or Sunday School board for Flora to read, retain and use without alteration in her last book, knowing that, so many years later, readers would not know that the name had Cottisford associations, given that the actual family had lived in Hampshire for so long.

Another woman Flora's mother and Kezia Whitton would have known was Jemima Butler. Born in 1831 as Jemima Hickman, at eighteen she set up a school at her cottage in Stoke Lyne. In 1853 she married Charles Butler and gave up teaching to raise a family. She had four children but two died, as did her young husband – in 1863; so she took up school-teaching again because Sir Henry Peyton, the local 'squire,' had paid for a school to be built in the village. A 'School House' was provided for her, too, next to the School and when she had to be replaced by a 'qualified' teacher, she was given the job of Sub-Postmistress – and School House became a place for her to work and successive schoolmistresses to live in: this included her only daughter, Sarah, who was described as 'Pupil Teacher in National School' in the 1881 Census. Jemima went on to live and work there, dying in 1918.

We can only speculate whether Flora knew of and used Jemima's story. More speculation is caused by the fact that Kezia Whitton chose to employ a half-educated local girl to work in the Post Office – and that the authorities accepted her appointment. It is supposed, as Flora's grandfather, John Dibber, and Kezia herself had both been born in Stoke Lyne, that there was a family tie as well as a long friendship between Emma and Kezia – accounting for a decision which must have raised a few eye-brows in upmarket Fringford. Kezia Whitton died in early-1898. Flora may have been aware of the large lady's frailty when she left in 1897 to gain more experience elsewhere. It is known that she spent a short time in Essex, presumably applying for and getting a temporary job there, and then in September 1898 she took a new position which, she hoped, 'would prove a permanency' in Grayshott, Hampshire – a sojourn which is well-documented in her book Heatherley. It is impossible to know whether she was aware that Charity Finch, now Mrs. Bridger, was living two hours' walk away.

At Fringford she had lived with a friend of her mother rather than at the Post Office-cum-smithy but in Grayshott she lived with the family. As is known, the Chapmans were always arguing and, after Flora had left, Walter Chapman stabbed his wife to death. Flora left, in fact, due to the opening of a telegraph office in neighbouring Hindhead after which "the number of telegrams sent and received at Heatherley went down 80 per cent" and they no longer needed her in Grayshott. However, the report of murder really upset her as she felt that she should have done more to warn people of her employer's state-of-mind. She had known that at least once Chapman had fired a revolver in the night but, not wishing to lose her job, had kept quiet about it.

According to the 1901 Census, she obtained a post in Yateley, 18 miles north-east of Basingstoke. This document, which called her 'Floria A. Timms,' described her as a 23-yr-old 'serv.' She was in the employment of 38-yr-old William Bettesworth – 'Grocer, Baker & Sub Post Master' – as a 'Post Office Clerk.' Flora, despite her previous experience, lived with her employer and his 26-yr-old wife, Jessie, at Church End, Yateley, near Hartley Wintney. As the same Census records that the 27-yr-old John Thompson was a 'Post Office Clerk' in Aldershot, just ten miles south of Yateley, their meeting might have been to do with their work in Hampshire rather than in Twickenham – whither Flora went in 1902, perhaps to improve her chances of passing the Civil Service examinations. Whatever the case, Flora Timms married John Thompson at the church of St. Mary the Virgin (shades of Cottisford) on the 7th of January, 1903 – and became Flora Thompson.

D. L. Woodhead – April 2017

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