George Parsons has been described as a flamboyant Victorian entrepeneur. He was a farmer and land agent, but also an inventor and a businessman.
George Parsons was born in Kington Magna or West Stour in Dorset (probably on a farm between the two neighbouring villages) in 1807. His father George, was a son of William Parsons, who owned land in Kington Magna and lived for most of his life in Holton, near Wincanton, in an inn which he owned. George’s mother, Jane Peters, was the sister of John Weston Peters, a very wealthy land owner. John Weston Peters had no male heirs, and when he died much of his fortune passed to his sister Jane’s sons, George and his brothers.
George was the eldest son of George and Jane, and he spent his early years on his father’s farm in Kington Magna, near Shaftesbury in Dorset. But when he was a teenager, George’s parents moved about eight miles west to Charlton Horethorne in Somerset. He had three brothers who survived to become adults — Charles, Henry and Uriah — and one sister, Jane.
On the 27th of March 1839, George Parsons married Elizabeth Ann Gale in Glastonbury, Somerset. Elizabeth came from a good family. Her brother, Frederick, was a surgeon (trained at St.Thomas’, London) who had previously married Julia Peters who was the daughter of John Weston Peters. The diagram shows their relationship.
As a young adult, George’s life was that of a gentleman farmer. He lived at New Cross Farm near West Lambrook, in Somerset, about 5 miles north of Crewkerne. In 1835 George became a steward to Lord Portman, as was his uncle, John Western Peters. George’s younger brothers Henry and Uriah also became stewards to Lord Portman some years later. George’s job took him to Blandford Forum, in Dorset, for a year or two where he lived in the Steward’s House near to Lord Portman’s home at Bryanstone Park. But he soon returned to his farm at West Lambrook.
In 1844, George represented Lord Portman, who was the Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, at the annual meeting and cattle show of the Yeovil Agricultural Society. At the same show he also won prizes for exhibiting the best sample of Mangel Wurzels and the second best fat cow.
George became interested in the application of science and technology to agriculture and he was one of the early members of the English Agricultural Society, which later became the Royal Agricultural Society of England. Lord Portman became president of the society.
George briefly went into business with Edward Budge, a brewer and maltser, but their partnership was soon dissolved. George began to invent things and soon had a number of patents to his name. For example, in 1843 he patented “a portable roof for various agricultural and for other purposes” and, together with a Mr. Clyburn, “improvements in machinery for beating, cleaning, and crushing various animal and vegetable materials or substances”. In the next few years there were several more patents.
It was not long before George started an engineering business based on the ideas which he had patented. He also took steps to mechanise the flax-processing which was traditionally associated with his farm. (Flax, from which linen and canvas are made, was an important crop in that part of Somerset.) He built up a thriving business which employed 80 men and was especially well known for manufacturing agricultural steam engines. But in 1854 disaster struck; there was a large fire. Several newspapers reported the incident. The following is a typical example, published on the 22nd of February, in the Taunton Courier:
“FIRE AT LAMBROOK, NEAR SOUTH PETHERTON.
At six o’clock on Wednesday evening last, a fire broke out on the premises of Mr.George Parsons, at East Lambrook, and made such a rapid progress before an engine could be got to the spot, as threatened the destruction of the whole premises, which are very extensive. However, by the judicious management of the South Petherton fire engine, the dwellinghouse was preserved, although the whole of the attached outbuildings were destroyed. Had the wind, very high at the time, but slightly varied, valuable ricks, closely adjacent, must have been lost. The scene was truly distressing. The poor cattle, which were unavoidably burnt to death, consisted of 31 dairy cows with their calves. The amount of damage has not yet been ascertained, but we should conjecture it not less than from £4000 to £5000. Large quantities of flax, corn and other agricultural produce were entirely destroyed, besides a vast amount of machinery and workmen’s tools. Such a fire has not been known in this neighbourhood for many years. The conflagration broke out at 10 minutes after six in the evening. It was first seen by one of the men belonging to the establishment, and had then made but little progress, but within about 20 minutes had spread over almost the whole building. The premises, a double range of buildings, consisted of granaries, carpenter’s and wheelright’s shops, paint and colour rooms, plank and store rooms, stalls for cattle, stables, coach houses, and a large barn containing a quantity of mangel wurzel, swedes, and potatoes in the cellar, and in the upper floor thrashing, winnowing and blowing machines, as well as a whole range of shaftings with pulleys and bolts. In the centre of the building, at the north end, stood an engine of 20 horse power, which worked the extensive machinery, by means of which the engineering business is carried on. Seven steam engines on the premises were nearly completed; and amongst others there for repair was an immense locomotive belonging to Messrs Hutchinson and Ritson, which escaped the fire. The whole besides was completely destroyed. By this disastrous affair, 80 hands are thrown out of employ.”
The premises and goods which were destoyed were insured, but not sufficiently to cover the loss.
George had already been looking for other premises to expand his business and in 1853 he had bought Cary’s Mill, a disused corn mill on the River Parrett between South Petherton and Martock. (The mill had also been used to produce snuff for a while). It was well situated. A branch railway from Yeovil to Taunton passed nearby and the large mill-wheels could provide power for some of the machinery. George proceeded to build new premises on the site. He intended to continue his business as before — a mixture of, on the one hand, traditional flax processing and the manufacture of associated products, and on the other hand, the manufacture of engines and machines for use in agriculture and mining.
George took care to make sure that his new premises were as fire-proof as possible. Cast iron was used for many aspects of the structure. The complex included areas to manufacture woven cloth, sacking, ropes and twine as well as a large engineering workshop in which the agricultural implements and engines were made.
The following excerpts from newspaper reports give a flavour of the kinds of machines that were made at the Parrett Works:
“AGRICULTURAL IMPLEMENTS - Mr George Parsons, of the Parrett Works, exhibited a number of agricultural implements at the Royal Agricultural Society’s Shown at Plymouth. Mr Parsons was successful in securing a silver medal for a combined flax-breaking and scotching machine of exquisite manufacture.”
And at the Royal Agricultural Meeting at Worcester — “Stand, No. 226, Mr. George Parsons of Parrett Works, Martock, Somersetshire. An eight horse-power portable steam engine, suitable for driving, threshing, sowing, corn-grinding, chaff-cutting, pumping, &c., fitted with spring balance safety-valve, water and steam gauges, blow-off cocks, whistle and ash-pan. Cylinder 9 inches in diameter, 14 inch stroke, with steam jacket to prevent loss of heat by radiation.”
In 1865, George was able to launch a limited company, the West of England Engineering & Coker Canvas Co. Ltd. In doing so it seems that he took advantage of recent legislation which had established the modern concept of a limited liability company. This encouraged investment in new companies by limiting each shareholder’s liability to the sum they had originally invested. They could not be held liable for any additional debts incurred.
The objectives of the company were laid down in its articles of association — “The purchasing and selling or otherwise disposing of Flax, Hemp, Jute, Tow and all other Materials, Articles and things used in the manufacture of Ropes, Yarns, Twine, Thread, Canvas, Sail-Cloth, Sails, Sacks, Bags, Tents and Tarpaulins and of every other description of Cloth or Covering, whether linen, woollen, or cotton, or any other material; and also the spinning, bleaching, manufacturing, purchasing, selling, exporting, or otherwise disposing of Ropes, Yarns, Twine, Thread, Canvas, Sail-Cloth, Sails, Sacks, Bags, Tents and Tarpaulins and also the construction, building, manufacturing, repairing, purchasing, selling, exporting, lending on hire or otherwise disposing of other Engines, Machines, Implements, Tools etc.”.
George Parsons was the Managing Director of the new company, and its largest shareholder, but he did not have a controlling stake.
It seems that the company did not deliver the profits that the shareholders were hoping for because in 1868, at an Extraordinary General Meeting, they decided to wind the company up.
There was a closing-down sale in November 1869.
The Parrett Works today stand in a peaceful country setting between Martock and the village of East Lambrook.
This photograph was taken from the south west, from a footpath which forms part of the River Parrett Trail.
Several businesses today use the buildings for storage.
George and Elizabeth Parsons had three children, all boys. George Estcourt Parsons was born in 1841 at Lambrook. Henry William Parsons was born in 1846, also at Lambrook. And John Athelstone Parsons was born in 1850 at Bryanstone, Dorset, while his father was living there as Lord Portman’s steward. The boys were educated at boarding school in the village of Chardstock, on the border of Devon and Dorset. They also spent some time staying with Elizabeth’s brother, Dr. Frederick Gale, who was a General Practitioner in Street, in Somerset, near Glastonbury. All three boys emigrated to New Zealand in about 1870, and, years later, John moved to Australia.
In 1873, three years after George’s company had been wound up, George and Elizabeth joined their sons in New Zealand. He lived in Kaikoura which is in South Island, about 110 miles north of Christchurch. It has a beautiful seaside setting, with a peninsula backed by mountains. European settlers first arrived there in 1843 when a whaling station was established. But declining numbers of whales and high export costs meant that whaling soon became uneconomic, and the settlers turned to farming.
George Parsons died in Kaikoura on the 30th of November 1876. He left a will which named his three sons as executors. His wife Elizabeth continued to live in Kaikoura until she died there in 1888.
The pictures below show George Parsons and Elizabeth Anne Parsons née Gale.
You are free to make use of the information in these web pages in any way that you wish but please be aware that Mike Parsons is unable to accept respsonsibility for any errors or omissions.
The information in these web pages comes from a number of sources including: Hampshire County Records Office, Somerset Heritage Centre; Dorset County Records Office; Southampton City Archives; the General Register Office; several on-line newspaper archives; several on-line transcriptions of Parish Register Entries; and several on-line indexes of births, marriages and deaths. The research has also been guided at times by the published work of others, both on-line and in the form of printed books, and by information from personal correspondence with other researchers, for all of which thanks are given. However, all of the information in these web pages has been independently verified by the author from original sources, facimile copies, or, in the case of a few parish register entries, transcriptions published by on-line genealogy sites. The author is aware that some other researchers have in some cases drawn different conclusions and have published information which is at variance from that shown in these web pages.
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