Captain W E Johns
Creator of Biggles
By Jennifer Ayto
February 2013 will mark 120 years since the birth of Captain W. E. Johns, the creator of the flying ace, James Bigglesworth, known as Biggles. He spent his childhood in Hertford (a blue plaque commemorates this in Cowbridge) and went to the Richard Hale school.
The 1901 census recorded the family at 41 Cowbridge. Richard W E Johns, the head of household, was described as a “Working Tailor Shopkeeper”, aged 34, born in Okehampton, Devon , his wife, Elizabeth, aged 32, was born in Hertford as were their two sons, William Earl and Russell. The household also included Alice Hill, a general servant. Elizabeth was the daughter of William A. Earl who can be found on the same census at 9 Elton Road, Hertford, a Butcher, and like her husband, not born in the county, he came from Huntingdonshire. The household comprised his wife, three daughters, his son, Edgar aged 20 (also a butcher) and a widowed visitor, Hannah Hawkins. Another son, Ernest, a butcher’s assistant, lived with his wife, born in Norfolk, near the Johns family at 37 Cowbridge.
Looking at their other neighbours, several were not born in Hertford. David Coston, a Carpenter at 37 Cowbridge was born in Hampshire, as were his three children; his wife came from York. Andrew Gray at 10 Cowbridge, an Architects Assistant was born in Scotland and John Rolls, running the Great Northern Tavern with his wife and niece acting as Barmaid was born in Wiltshire. There was another inn in Cowbridge, the Bell and Crown. This was home to Walter Frogley, described as a “Licensed Victualler and Printers Pressman”. In this case his wife, Carrie, was enumerated without an occupation but as Walter had two jobs and their daughter, Minnie, was “Assistant in Bar” it would be a reasonable assumption that his wife was also involved. Another wife who was undoubtedly involved in a family business was that of Frederick Fisher at 5d Cowbridge. She was recorded without occupation. No doubt the fact that the household included their three sons and two grandchildren gave her plenty to do and as Frederick was enumerated as “Carrier and General Shopkeeper”, it must have fallen to her to mind the shop in his absence.
Women were recorded with a variety of occupations. At 27b, Alfred Miles was a Gravel pit labourer; his wife, Mary, was a charwoman as was George Field’s wife at number 27a. As both households included four children, paid employment for the wife was a necessity and this would certainly be the case at number 11a where there were six children. Joseph Hill was enumerated as “Bricklayer Journeyman Confirmed Rheumatics”. His wife was a laundress; his daughter a charwoman. At the other end of the scale, Louisa J Sauerbrey, a widow at number 6 was a Teacher of Singing living with her sister and a general servant. Hannah Wyman, another widow at number 14 also had a servant but she and her daughter were described as living on their own means. Cowbridge also contained the Inland Revenue Office at number 8. The head of the household was Loxley Ford, a Coach builder but his wife, Louisa was “Housekeeper in Charge of Office”.
The occupations recorded demonstrate a mixture of the traditional and the new. Local trades were represented by Harry and Alphonse Warren, sons of Samuel Warren (a “Gardeners Labourer”) at number 27c. They were both Oil Mill Cake Trimmers and again at number 11b where Edward Foster was a “Maltster”. At number 25 John Green was described as a “Writer and grainer” (a sign writer and painter making soft wood look better with a grain finish) and at number 13 Jesse Pluck was a “Cabinet maker”. The household consisted of his wife and Harriet Calway, a boarder, an “Upholsterer”. At 11c Timothy Newland was a “Coachsmith”. Horses were still an important means of transport. Albert Hart at number 31 was an Ostler but the contrast between old and new can be seen at number 27d where the widowed Charlotte Currell lived with her two sons. George was a “Horse slaughterer”; Alfred a “Carman Oil company” and at number 17 where William Nicholls was a “Bricklayers labourer”, his wife, Ellen a “Cook”, one son, Charles, “Assistant Groom Livery Stables; the other son, William, a “Conductor on bus”. The railway makes an appearance with Dick Bottoms, “Fireman on Railway Engine”, a boarder with Caroline Chapman and her daughter at number 11d.
By the time of the 1911 census, William Earl Johns had embarked on his career and did not live in Hertford. His parents were still at 41 Cowbridge with his uncle, Ernest Earl, with his family at number 37, still carrying out their trades of Tailor and Butcher respectively.