I was too late to visit the dairy, but I decided to tease out its story, finding not only a successful commercial enterprise generated between two dynastic trading families, the Maseys and Walkers, but also a startling account of seduction, scandal and ruin. The move over the hill, from the rural seclusion of Hemyock to the metropolis of Wellington sealed the fate of more than one member of the family, for better or worse.
It was really my great-great grandmother Catherine Masey, born in 1825, who was the power behind the dairy business. She learnt butter-making and butchery early in life on her parents’ smallholding in Hemyock. Family recollections of her fierce drive and thriftiness show that she was a force to be reckoned with. She was also known for boiling up the final scraps of butchery to make foul-smelling chitterlings, which she foisted on other members of the family.
In 1844, she married Thomas Walker, son of a local tailor, and they set up in business together in Hemyock. By 1871, this was running as a combined dairy, grocery, drapery, and tailor’s. Many of their twelve children were roped in to help out, and the growing dairy business gradually took over to become the family firm.
All was going well for the Masey-Walker family until one of their sons, Edwin, disgraced himself and hit the headlines. I only found the story when I idly searched on a digital newspaper database, and I’m pretty sure most of the Walkers hushed it up as best they could. Edwin Masey Walker had got a local Hemyock girl pregnant, actually a cousin of his, and then abandoned her. He moved over the hill to Wellington to set up his own business and up his social game. Wellington was, after all, more respectable, more on the map than Hemyock deep in the Devon countryside. Jane Salter wrote to him there in distress. Would he not marry her, as he had promised? Did he not love her after all? He coolly advised her to get rid of the baby, and offered her money to do it. Sidmouth was the place, apparently. She had the child though, and now her mother was suing for damages, for loss of her daughter’s services!
This might have been just another tragic case of seduction and illegitimacy had not Edwin mounted a robust defence. Mrs Salter senior kept ‘an improper house’ in Hemyock, he claimed, and her daughters joined in the servicing of young men there, who kept late hours drinking and gambling. He brought a witness, John Pursey, to say that he and his friend had ‘been intimate’ with the two Salter sisters ‘scores of times’ in their room – the sisters slept in the same bed! The mud-slinging was vicious: but was Edwin a heartless monster or a victim of a brothel-keeper’s wiles? Did he really abandon Jane because his parents had advised him to marry better (preferably to money, the court case stated) or was it a lucky escape to move to Wellington? The jury was understandably confused, and although Mrs Salter was awarded £50 in damages, the case of perjury against John Pursey, the witness, was dropped on the basis of doubt.
In 1870, Edwin Walker was made bankrupt; his business had failed, and he never appeared to prosper again, or to form a stable marriage even though he subsequently had a wife and child. Did the lure of big-time respectability and riches in Wellington prove his downfall? Others in the family succeeded, though. By the late 1870s, Catherine and Thomas Walker had made their own move over the hill from Hemyock into Wellington. They had risen from being country shopkeepers to important dairy owners, and could now afford a villa in Waterloo Road. Two of their other sons, Clifford and Eustace Walker eventually took over the dairy business and both became pillars of society. Eustace became a Justice of the Peace and Portreeve of Wellington, while Clifford built a classy mansion known as the Gables, where the cream of the town gathered for tennis parties on the lawn. They died well-established and wealthy.
There were mixed fortunes, then, from Catherine’s butter-making skills. I feel proud to be a part of such an enterprising family, and at this distance in time can be equally entertained both by their achievements and their disgraces.
Captions l to r : Edwin Masey Walker, wicked seducer - Catherine Walker, queen of chitterlings, Walker's Gate, commemorating the dairy in Wellington, Somerset, once owned by my family.