Life story retold by Paul Beecroft
In Reading Old Cemetery there are two graves bearing the name PHILBRICK.
1. Thomas PHILBRICK (1796-1854) and JUDITH SUSANNA PHILBRICK (1785-1865)
Sacred to the memory of THOMAS PHILBRICK who died
July 21st 1854. Also JUDITH SUSANNA relict of the above
who died June 29th 1865 aged 80 years.
2. John PHILBRICK (1804-1865) and Eliza PHILBRICK (1807-1850).
Sacred to the memory of JOHN PHILBRICK who died
January 15th 1865 aged 60 years and sacred to the
memory of ELIZA the lamented wife of JOHN PHILBIRCK
who departed this life in peace 16th November 1850 aged 43 years.
Thou shalt weep no more; He will be very gracious unto thee
at the voice of thy cry when He shall hear it. He will answer
thee. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again even so
them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.
Thomas was the second son of Samuel Philbrick and Elizabeth Sarah Swinborne. He was born 27th December 1796 in Great Dunmow, Essex. Samuel was a currier and leather cutter and had built up a successful business becoming a wealthy man.
John was the fourth son to be born which was on 16th July 1804 also in Great Dunmow. In total there were twelve children:-
Samuel (1793), Elizabeth (1795), Thomas (1796), Sarah (1798), Edward (1800), William (1802), John (1804), George (1807), Charles (1808), Robert (1810), Mary Ann (1812), Emma (1814).
Out of the 12 children, five of the sons, namely, Thomas, John, Samuel, Charles and Edward became involved in the currier business. Edward remained in Great Dunmow and most likely worked with his father. William became a Doctor but suffered ill health and died in 1842 in the south of France where he resided due to his ill health. Nothing is known of Robert who died at the age of 35 in Great Dunmow in October 1845. George died after what appears to be a strange accident. The Suffolk Chronicle for Saturday 18th October 1817 recorded the following:-
Thursday week, in the 11th year of his age, George, the 6th son of Mr. Samuel Philbrick, of Great Dunmow. The cause of his premature death originated at school, from a dangerous practice, to prevent which the strictest orders should be given, and most rigorously enforced. We allude to little boys endeavouring to carry upon their backs those larger than themselves; in so doing, this youth received injury in the hip, which brought on a wound, with which he suffered for many months, and notwithstanding every medical assistance was resorted to, in the end it proved mortal.
Early 1820s saw some of the Philbricks moving to Reading. The town of Reading was known to have a tannery as far back as the early 1700s. During the following 100 years there are references to tanners and tanyards in the Reading area in what was then ‘Kattsgrove Lane’/’Katsgrove Lane’ and premises leased at 61 St. Mary’s Butts, which was used in the leather trade and leased property in Katesgrove Lane.
Prior to their move to Reading Samuel (Samuel’s Senior son) had become a married man. He married Sarah Swinborne on 6th May 1816 at St. Mary the Virgin in Great Dunmow. It is not known if there were any children.
The Philbricks purchased the Tanyard in Katesgrove Lane from Mr George Higgs. The exact date of purchase is not known but was most likely 1832/1833. However, the Philbricks had already arrived in Reading, and this is confirmed by an advert placed to find their dog on The Berkshire Chronicle (5th November 1825):-
Strayed, on Friday morning, with a piece of string round its neck, a Wire-haired TERRIER BITCH, of a Foxy colour; answers to the name of “Flora.” Whoever will bring the said Dog to the Town Crier, or Messrs. Philbrick’s curriers and leather cutters, London-street, Reading, shall receive HALF-A-GUINEA reward.
It is also known that in 1827, both Samuel and Thomas were curriers and leather sellers at 4 and 5 London Street. By 1830 there was a partnership between Samuel, John and Thomas but in May of this year the partnership was dissolved following the death of Samuel (Junior). Samuel (Junior) died in May 1830 in Reading and is now buried in Great Dunmow.
Whilst now living and working in Reading, two further marriages took place.
John married Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Hooper on 24th January 1833 at St. Giles Church in Reading. The marriage was to result in thirteen children. Joseph (1833), John (1834), Ellen (1835), Charlotte Marion (1837). James Henry (1838), Charles (1840), George (1841), Eliza (1842), Thomas (1843), Annie Eliza (1846), Jesse (1847), Elizabeth (1848) and Edward (1850).
Thomas married Judith Susanna Collis the only daughter of the late Thomas Collis, a common brewer of Great Dunmow. Married in Reading on 23rd December 1833.
Charles Philbrick appears to have married twice. However, records for Charles appear inconsistent and sometimes ambiguous. On 21st April 1855 in Nottingham he married Ann Bennett. This marriage resulted in one child Edward Edwin in 1856, although this is not confirmed, as the birth appears to have occurred in Paris, France. His wife Ann sadly died a few months later. On 18th October 1860, again in Nottingham, he married Elizabeth Hardy. The marriage registers both show his occupation as that of Currier. One year later Charles died on 7th October 1861 and is buried in Nottingham. To add to the ambiguity, the census record for 1861 confirms Charles, a master currier employing two men and to be living in Nottingham with his wife Elizabeth and also a daughter Ann who was born in 1838. Adding to the confusion, his will was proved on the 15th of January 1862 by the oaths of Elizabeth Philbrick, the Relict and Ann Bennett, a Spinster.
The Philbrick Tannery was located on the south bank of the River Kennet in Katesgrove Lane and operated for over 100 years being run by four generations of the Philbrick family until the 1930s. Following the death of Samuel, Thomas was joined by John and in 1837 J & T Philbrick are listed a tanners at 1, Horn Street (now Southampton Street). Sometime later they in turn were joined by Charles forming the partnership of T., J. and C. Tanners and Curriers.
The Philbricks soon became well known and respected in the town of Reading. Both John and Thomas Philbrick made donations to various churches that required restoration and John made annual donations to support the Royal Berkshire Hospital. On 28th March 1839, John was one of five people to be elected to the Board of Guardians for the Reading Union. This Board ran the Poor Law, which had been created by the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. In theory it was to ensure that the poor were housed in workhouses, clothed and fed. Children who entered the workhouse would receive some schooling. However, not all people of this era agreed with this law.
Thomas Philbrick enjoyed country sports and is known to have held a Game Licence for many years.
On the night of 16th October 1839, just after 11 p.m. a fire was discovered at the Philbrick Tannery. The Berkshire Chronicle printed the full story on the 19th of October with a headline of:-
‘GREAT FIRE AT KATESGROVE’
The police promptly summoned the necessary assistance, and awakened many of the inhabitants by springing their rattles and calling “fire.” Shortly afterwards the Protector, the County, and the parish (St. Giles’s) engines were brought to the spot; and at this period the fire had made such extremely small progress that confident expectations were expressed of its being speedily extinguished. Most unfortunately, however, although a considerable stream of water flows past the western side of the premises, it was found impossible to get any communication with the water in the front yard; and the hose of neither engine was sufficiently long to reach from the rear of the building in flames. . . . In the meantime an effort was made to check the progress of the flames by throwing buckets of water on them, but it soon became evident that unless a continued stream of water could be obtained, the immense quantity of bark which was kept in the same range of buildings must ignite, and the adjacent property would be in great jeopardy. A scene of indescribable confusion ensued, when it was ascertained that no effectual means could be taken to stay the progress of the flames, men hurrying about from one part to the other, not knowing in what manner to direct their energies, and with a stream of water within a few feet of the fire – with plenty of men able and anxious to render assistance – with three engines on the spot – the flames burst forth with unchecked fury, and the destruction of property to a large amount became inevitable.
As the fire continued, the tradesmen and inhabitants living in the area saved a lot of the stock such as undressed skins, hides, leather, books, papers and accounts. Many of them ended up covered from head to foot in dye with some of them falling into the six feet deep tan pits! Later on two of the fire engines were brought into operation but with very little effect. The parish engine was placed in the centre of the tan yard and lines of people were formed and buckets of water were obtained from a pump but due to the repeated bursting of the hose it could not reach the flames. It was not until after 4 a.m. that the flames subsided. The property destroyed consisted of curriers shops, store-rooms, granaries and ware-rooms for bark, leather and hides etc and the damage was valued at about £5,000, which in today’s terms amounts to nearly £664,000. The premises were only partially insured. It was reported that at one stage the reflection of the fire could be seen in Newbury and was distinctly visible in Woolhampton. The Berkshire Chronicle further reported:-
Of the want of management and system, at the commencement of this calamitous event, loud complaints were made; and with the fact of a stream of water being but a few yards from this scene of unchecked devastation, we must say, from personal observation, that a great sacrifice of valuable property might, with common energy and judgement, have been prevented. The St. Giles’s engine was in a perfectly disgraceful condition, and we trust the parochial authorities will in future ascertain the actual working capability of the several parish engines; many of the buckets also leaked, and were nearly useless.
Following the fire rumours soon started on how it had occurred, but it was soon established that three boys all aged between 12 to 16 years old been letting off fireworks (squibs) and had hung a turnip-lantern so that they could have some light. On letting off one of the squibs sparks had ignited some of the dust and cobwebs adhering to the roof of the arch which was part of the building and the fire started. They tried to put the fire out, but failing to do so they ran off. Although they appeared before the Magistrates, the Philbricks decided not to press charges and they received a severe reprimand and were discharged.
A lot was lost but also a lot had been saved. Not only did the Philbricks thank everyone in person for the assistance given on the night but also thanked them via The Berkshire Chronicle:-
To the Gentlemen, Inhabitants of Reading, who so kindly assisted at the late Calamitous Fire.
We cannot (even under the present circumstances of excitement and confusion) allow an opportunity to pass without publicly and personally thanking you for the untiring and meritorious efforts so promptly rendered with a view to save our Property and Premises, and, although considerable loss and inconvenience has been sustained by the recent fearful conflagration, yet we owe it to your unprecedented and successful exertions that so much of valuable material was rescued from the devouring element, and that we are enabled without delay to resume our business in all its branches. We hope ever to cherish the liveliest feelings of gratitude for the disinterested and undeserved sympathy of every individual, and beg you will allow us to be thought Gentlemen.
Your obliged and indebted Servants,
T. J. and C. PHILBRICK
Katesgrove, Reading. Oct. 18th, 1839.
In November 1840 a meeting was held at a premises in London Street by what was known then as the Reading Mechanics’ Institution. This had been formed in 1825. The principles of the institution were “to open to the view of the Artisan the truths of Natural Philosophy and Science”; this was done by providing lectures on subjects including electricity, chemistry, geology, astronomy, practical mechanics and history, holding classes on specific subjects (the first being astronomy), and by providing a library for use by the members. At the November meeting the name was changed to the Reading Literary Scientific and Mechanics’ Institution with its objective the promotion of the study of literature and science. The name was changed due to the fact that only three genuine mechanics had joined, the majority of the members being respectable tradesmen. At this meeting one of the Philbricks was proposed as a Trustee. This was most likely John. The following month Prince Albert agreed to become patron and donated £10.
In 1841 the census shows Thomas living in Katesgrove House with his wife Judith. Although two children are shown living with them they are not named Philbrick and were born prior to their marriage. John and Eliza are also shown as living in Katesgrove Lane together with five of their children.
On Wednesday 1st May 1844, John and Eliza’s daughter, thought to be Charlotte, came close to being killed. A local newspaper recorded the incident:-
A more singular occurrence that the following has rarely come to our knowledge. On Wednesday morning last, as the maid servant of Mr. Philbrick, currier, was walking with one of her master’ children by the side of the river Kennett, on the Towing-path, in the Bear Meadows, a barge was being towed along between the two gates, nearly opposite the kiln; after passing through one of these gates, the horses were, as usual, made to quicken their pace, and the boy was running with them, when the rope suddenly snapped asunder, and, in recoiling towards the horses, tore off the young woman’s bonnet, and caught the child by the neck, round which it twisted itself several times. The poor little girl, thus attached to the rope, was immediately pulled down, and before any assistance could be afforded her, was dragged along by the neck, through a ditch and a hedge, several hundred yards, until at length she became entangled with a post, by which she must have been strangled, had not the boy who was following the horses succeeded in cutting the rope in two, and thereby setting the animals at liberty. The child though much bruised and exhausted, was, singularly enough, so fortunate as to escape any very serious injury, although no one who saw the accident could have supposed that she would survive the fearful occurrence. She was immediately carried home to her parents, and was heard to remark, on her way, “how happy her mother would be to find that she was not dead.” We understand the child was about seven years old.
In 1847 the Philbrick Tannery went through yet another partnership change when by mutual agreement the partnership between Thomas, John and Charles was dissolved on the 24th of June. John assumed all responsibility for any debts owing and carried on the business. Charles then moved to Nottingham. By this time John was living in Horn Street and Thomas was in Katesgrove House.
In August of the same year a municipal election took place due to a recent vacancy in the Town Council. The candidate first put forward was John Philbrick, but he declined the honour. It was then transferred to Thomas who was willing to stand for Church Ward but was beaten in the election by Thomas Harris by 170 votes to 150.
The early 1850s were to be quite hard for John. By now he was running the tannery on his own as Thomas had retired. On 16th November 1850 his wife Eliza passed away at their home in Horn Street. She was only 43 years old. John remained living in Horn Street with the children employing a Governess and three servants.
On the morning of Saturday 3rd August 1851, a fire broke out once again at the Tannery. The Reading Mercury described it as a fire of a most alarming character, and which proved more destructive to property than any that has occurred in this town for nearly twelve years past.
On initial discovery shortly after 7 a.m. it was a small, confined fire but no adequate means to extinguish it. Engines were sent for but within a very short space of time the tannery was a mass of fire before the fire brigade could get there and all attempts by the local residents to help had to be abandoned. A number of fire engines arrived and by 9 a.m. the fire was under control but much of the tannery was destroyed along with the contents of bark, leather and stores. The estimated value of damage caused was between £8,000 and £10,000. The precise cause of the fire was never discovered but was deemed accidental. John was insured and consequently the tannery was rebuilt. Following the fire, John once again wrote to the Berkshire Chronicle expressing his thanks to all that assisted at the fire.
In April 1852, what must have been embarrassing for him, was the fact that he had been summoned to court for non-payment of poor rates. John appeared by his clerk who lodged an objection as the payment had been due in relation to the whole of his property which had in fact been destroyed. The Bench considered this objection fair and recommended an arrangement being made between the overseers of the parish and Mr. Philbrick and the summons was dismissed.
Thomas died in 1854 on the 21st of July at the age of 57. The following month, on 14th August numerous contents of Katesgrove House were sold at auction. This included furniture, carpets, clock, china and numerous kitchen requisites. Also subject of the auction was two Alderney cows, a fat calf, eight handsome ponies, including a pair unrivalled for speed and beauty, Skewball Ponies, plated Harness and Carriages. Thomas’s wife Judith moved to Horn Street and resided in John’s house. However, at some point John and Judith moved to Katesgrove House and are shown living there in the 1861 census along with John’s sons Charles, George, Thomas and Edward.
During the years 1857 and 1858 the tannery was subject to a number of thefts. Court cases went on for many months with hold ups due to individuals being ‘wanted persons’, sorting out who had stolen the items, who had received them. Most of the property stolen was of course leather although pecks of oats were also stolen. Some of the receivers of the stolen leather were shoe makers. Punishment by the Court for two of those guilty was 12 months hard labour for stealing seven pecks of oats; for stealing one butt of leather another man was sentenced to two years imprisonment but due to a previous conviction it was converted to two years penal servitude.
Apart from the Tannery being in Katesgrove Lane there was also Reading Iron Works which had been founded in 1818 and located in Katesgrove Lane in 1836 and became one of the largest in the county. By 1841 there were some 200 people employed there. Reading is well known for pubs and breweries and therefore a local pub was needed and The Tanners Arms, so named for obvious reasons, came into being around 1854 and was located in Orchard Street on the corner with Katesgrove Lane. The pub still remains there today but the name was changed in 1984 to The Hook and Tackle.
Also in April 1858, the Tannery and premises in Barkham Lane, Wokingham owned by a Mr. James Twycross was leased to John Philbrick. John adapted it for fellmongering. John’s son, also named John, moved to Wokingham and ran the business.
On 25th February 1860, John (junior) married Rhoda Frederica Crewe in Wokingham.
On 15th January 1865, John (senior) died at the age of 60 and just a few months later on 29th June, Thomas’s wife Judith also died at the age of 80.
In 1866 Charles broke the Cattle Plague Regulations by transporting sheepskins from Reading to Wokingham. He was fined 6s 6d for that.
Following the death of John (senior) the Tannery was then run by two of his sons, Charles and George and was known as C & G Philbrick.
Both Charles and George did marry. George married Catherine Louisa Welch on 7th January 1869. They had 8 children, but two died when very young infants. Charles married Euphemia Webster on 7th August 1877. They also had a total of seven children. Initially they both lived at Katesgrove House, but it was finally sold in 1881. In 1891 George and his family are living at Parkhurst Lodge, Bath Road, Reading and Charles is living at ‘Summerfield’ Southcote Road and would remain there until he died.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century the tannery employed about thirty people. It was an oak bark tannery producing dressing hides and calf skins. It is not fully known how many employees there were for the following years. By 1911 Charles had retired from the business but George continued. Charles Alfred Philbrick, a son of George was now working in the business as a tanner and fellmonger. In 1900 Charles Alfred married Ethel Bazett a local Reading girl. In 1911 the census shows them living at 200, Tilehurst Road. The census also sadly records that Ethel had given birth to four children but only their son Leslie had survived beyond infancy. One of the children is buried in Reading Old Cemetery. The inscription reads:
In loving memory of Baby BRIDGET
infant daughter of CHARLES & ETHEL PHILBRICK
born Novr. 6th 1903 – died July 15th 1904
“neither shall there be any more pain.”
During the First World War, a total of 27 employees were in the forces. This was approximately 30% of the staff which suggests the tannery had, or was, doing well to employ that many.
Charles Philbrick died on 4th January 1921 and his brother George Philbrick died on 16th January 1922.
Charles Alfred died 11th January 1932. The Tannery was still operating and the son of Charles Alfred, Leslie Charles Bazett Philbrick took over the business becoming the fourth generation owner of the Tannery. Leslie married
It is often said that good things come in threes but sometimes it can also mean bad things, and the Tannery was not excluded. On 9th July 1934 there was another fire. The Reading Standard wrote:-
A RIVERSIDE BLAZE
Historic Reading Tannery Partially Destroyed
VALUABLE STOCK LOST
Thousands of pounds worth of damage was done by a fire at Messrs. C. and G. Philbrick’s tannery, Katesgrove Lane, Reading on Monday evening. A large T-shaped block of brick and timber buildings, three storeys high, was completely destroyed, together with a big stock of leather. The cause of the fire is unknown. The alarm was given at 7.5 p.m. when smoke was seen coming from an upper window, and so quickly did the flames get a hold that the top storey was well alight when the fire brigade arrived with two engines about three minutes after the call. Water was obtained from the river Kennet and from hydrants, and the firemen worked for several hours before the outbreak was subdued. The portion of the building destroyed consisted of drying sheds and finished leather warehouses, in all of which the leather was practically completely lost. Fortunately, however, the firemen were able to save the boiler house, leather, lime and washing pits although these were damaged. They also stopped the flames from obtaining a hold on a large bark barn, containing about 250 tons of oak bark. . . .Mr. L.C.B. Philbrick who is sole manager of the firm, told a “Reading Standard” reporter that the brigade’s success in confining the fire to the one block of buildings was a fine piece of work, and it will enable them to resume a considerable proportion of their output within a week. None of the staff, who number about thirty – and who returned to render the firemen valuable assistance on Monday – will not be thrown out of work.
Between 1935 and 1939 the tannery appears to have reduced in size and after 1939 there is no further mention of C. & G. Philbrick Tannery and after over one hundred years of Philbrick management it closed.
Information about the Philbrick family and the tannery can also be found on The Berkshire Industrial Archeological Group (BIAG) website and in the Berkshire Old and New, the Journal of the Berkshire Local History Association.
- Thomas and Judith Susanna: Section 31, Row B, Plot 30
- John and Eliza: Section 31, Row B, Plot 31
- Bridget Philbrick: Section 65, Row A, Plot 38