George Baxter

[The following is an extract from ‘A Parish Divided: Bingham and the Rev John Walter, 1764-1810 by Adrian Henstock, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, vol. 85 (1981), and is reproduced with the kind permission of both the author and the society. Further publication is expressly forbidden.]

George Baxter (1755-1832) came from an old Bingham family with several branches flourishing in the town, most of them framework-knitters. He was the only son of William Baxter by Jane Shelton, but his father died when he was four and just over two years later his mother married Daniel Stafford, the recently-widowed parish schoolmaster. George was therefore brought up with his half-brother John Stafford, the later printer, in a scholarly atmosphere. During the 1780s he was working as a framework-knitter, possibly having been apprenticed to his uncle Samuel (1717-1789), one of the church singers and bell-ringers. However his early education no doubt assisted him in setting up in business as a grocer in Church Street in the 1790s, later becoming a mercer and draper in addition. He was a passionate supporter of the school in which he had been educated; following his step-father's death he took part in the charitable plays as both actor and singer, and subsequently added £10 of his own money to help make the £80 profit up to £100; in 1798 he added a further £25.

At the age of 33 he married 17-year-old Betsy Clayton, who produced a daughter three months later who soon died, apparently their only child. He was a churchwarden from 1794 to 1822 and a devoted chronicler of local affairs, frequently writing up the parish register and including details of ages and occupations together with notes of unusual deaths, and he also annotated and arranged the earlier registers. His own accounts as churchwarden were meticulously kept. In 1812 he subscribed to the framework-knitters' bill calling for the regulation of prices and wages in the hosiery trade. By 1822 he had become an agent for the Southwell bank but his business foundered and his property was assigned for the benefit of his creditors. (see below) He gave up his churchwarden's post and died 10 years later at the age of 77.

Surviving assessments of his character are all complimentary. When the Leicester antiquary John Throsby visited Bingham in c.1790 collecting material for his History of Nottinghamshire he recorded that details of the schoolmaster Robert White's biography were 'communicated to me by Mr. Baxter of Bingham, to whom I am under particular obligations of friendship for his assistance in my researches in the Bingham division of the county'. Andrew Esdaile, a Bingham watchmaker and local historian who had known Baxter wrote in 1851 that he was 'an active and intelligent man and did much good', and that 'his name is amongst those who performed for the poor and free school of which he was a principal'. The brief - and secular- epitaph on his headstone carved by his friend Thomas Wood is a quotation from Goldsmith's Deserted Village: 'A Man he was to all the Country Dear'.

The Quarrel with the Rector

George Baxter was involved with fellow prominent residents of the town in a long lasting feud with the Rector, John Walter who had succeeded ‘mad’ Henry Stanhope as rector of Bingham. Stanhope had been the illegitimate son of the Earl of Chesterfield and mentally ill. He had completely neglected his religious duties. In 1771 Walter built the imposing Rectory (demolished in the 1960’s) when he first arrived.

In October 1769 he was prosecuted with three others for encouraging an assault on another Bingham man. In 1782 George Baxter presented (prosecuted) him at the Quarter Sessions for omitting to read the Act for the Prevention of Swearing and Cursing. Walter was appointed to the Bench in January 1794 and in May Baxter was elected People’s Warden at the parish church. In July Walter presented Baxter for ringing the church bells at 4.00 a.m. The dispute dragged on for two years. Walter then prosecuted Baxter, Adcock, Granger and John Horsepool (the butcher who later lived at No 19 Church Street) for playing quoits in the Market Place. Baxter counter presented Walter for being drunk whilst conducting services.

Henstock (ibid) analyses the reasons for the dispute as follows:

The only likely cause of any personal animosity between Walter and Baxter which can be discerned from the details above is the fact that Baxter was overlooked for the post of parish clerk in 1792 in favour of the young Thomas Hart. This office had been held by William Baxter until his death in 1759 and then by his son John for the next 33 years. Although the exact relationship is not clear (John being either George's cousin or uncle) it seems highly probable that George would have wished to continue the family tradition, especially as he was so obviously well-qualified for the task (later, as churchwarden, he frequently acted as the unofficial clerk).

However, the seeds of his quarrel with the rector were sown at least ten years earlier in 1782 as has been demonstrated.

What, therefore, set Walter on such a collision-course with his parishioners, and Baxter in particular? An obvious reason would be Walter's decision in 1777 to collect tithes in kind. Tithes were a perpetual cause of parochial discontent and their collection in kind was obviously more open to abuse and contention than the payment of an annual rent-charge, involving perpetual observation by the rector of his parishioners' farming and inevitable arguments over the quality and concealment of produce. But whilst this must indeed have been a running sore, Walter had first appeared in court as early as 1769, and in any case, reverted to a monetary composition two years before the final showdown in 1794.

Another possibility is that Baxter and his colleagues may have turned Methodists and would therefore be opposed to the payment of church rates and tithes on principle. The fact that Baxter became a churchwarden does not rule out the possibility, and indeed it was not uncommon in the 19th century for dissenters to be deliberately elected as people's wardens simply to block the imposition of financial burdens. Although Methodism was well-established in Bingham by 1792 there is little evidence either way. Certainly Baxter's distinctive handwriting appears briefly in the Methodist chapel's accounts for 1808 but this may be purely circumstantial, as he could have been employed merely to keep the books. The volumes of religious works published by his half-brother John Stafford between 1803 and 1813 have a distinctly evangelical ring about them, but even so Baxter's actions give the appearance of intense devotion to the parish church.

It is also tempting to try to attribute a political motive, as the 1790s was an era of considerable social and political discontent nationally and locally. Both low wages in the hosiery trade and high food prices led to frequent riots in Nottingham at this period, and at Bingham itself in June 1795 there was a riot in the market place in protest at the high price of butter. The Whigs, who supported reform and were opposed to the aristocracy and the established church, were frequently drawn from the nonconformists and the tradesmen, and were opposed to the Tory government's policy of war with revolutionary France. However Baxter and his colleagues all appear to have been loyalist Tories. The Bingham bell ringers turned out regularly throughout the year to celebrate the anniversaries of King George's accession, coronation, and birthday as well as more distant events such as the Gunpowder Plot and the restoration of Charles II, and in June 1794 Baxter's own accounts as churchwarden include payment to the ringers to celebrate a British naval victory. In addition Baxter's shop was the Bingham agency for the Tory Nottingham Journal and his colleague John Strong, the defendant in the 'brawling' case, christened a child in 1810 with the unmistakably loyal names of George Augustus Frederick.

Perhaps the basic cause of the parishioners' discontent was a genuine concern at the laxity of the 18th century church, aggravated by the unclerical lifestyle and high-handed personality of Walter himself. The scanty evidence suggests that, as the wealthy son of a Birmingham nouveau riche Walter perhaps attempted to lord it over the inhabitants of Bingham. In the absence of a resident landowner he seems to have attempted to play the role of squire from his imposing new rectory, possibly epitomizing the hunting and drinking Georgian 'squarson' who regarded his living primarily as a source of income and neglected his spiritual duties. As a businessman's son he may also have been overzealous in extracting the maximum income from his tithes and other sources of income and overfond of resorting to legal action to gain his own way. Against this it must be pointed out that Walter's lifestyle was not especially uncommon in the 18th century and indeed, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was neither an absentee nor a pluralist. But Baxter was a stickler for correctness and tradition and may have adopted a Victorian attitude as to what was right and proper long before such ideas became fashionable.

Baxter's charges against Walter in the York court in May 1797 have a greater ring of genuine grievance than his other more petty-minded complaints. Listing the rector's neglect of his duty over the past 15 or so years, he claimed that originally it had been the custom to perform divine service and to preach two sermons every Sunday during the summer, and a sermon and prayers during the winter as well as prayers on each Wednesday, Friday and holiday during the year. Latterly, however, Walter had preached only once on Sundays, had varied the hours of prayers and had discontinued them for the previous five years except at the three major festivals. Baxter listed the dates of only 21 occasions during the years 1794-1796 when Walter had held divine service, and accused him of refusing to attend the church for the thanksgiving services after childbirth of Elizabeth Holles in September 1794 or Mary White in January 1795. He had also 'neglected for several hours after the time previously fixed' to perform the funeral of William Granger in September 1794 or of Sarah Woodhouse in October 1796. Baxter's irritation at Walter's laxity also appears in an entry in his churchwarden's accounts for February 1795 when he recorded a payment of 7s. 6d. to Mr. Whitworth 'for wine intended for the Sacrem't on the 1st and 8th of June last, but refused by the Rector'.

Viewed in more general terms the reason why such a dispute occurred at Bingham in particular appears to lie in the exceptional character of the local community. Here was a semi-rural small-town community situated in an area largely devoid of resident squires who could give a lead to the inhabitants in social and cultural affairs. In contrast to the majority of the local uneducated farm workers the existence of an excellent parish school at Bingham had produced by the late 18th century a small but vocal and literate middle-class of mostly tradesmen and farmers which was perhaps exceptional for a town of its size. The nucleus of this- 'literate elite' can be found in the performers in the charity plays of 1783-5, many of whom frequently appear as leading citizens of the town in subsequent years. These men believed that educational opportunities should be given to all, were proud of their cultural and community life, jealous of their traditions, and philanthropic towards the poor; indeed their general attitude would not have been out of place in the Victorian period. With no resident squire and after half a century without an active rector they became accustomed to running their own affairs and cultural activities. It was perhaps inevitable that the arrival of a new rector anxious to play the role of 'squarson' should produce friction, especially when he was both unsympathetic towards local traditions and not prepared to perform what was expected of him by his parishioners. The unwillingness of the educated parishioners to accept his interference in their affairs, coupled with a clash of personalities between their leader and the rector, set the scene for a dispute which dominated the life of this small community for much of the last half of the 18th century.

George Baxter’s bankruptcy

By 1823 Baxter, who lived at what is now known as White Lodge, Church Street, was in serious financial difficulties. He tried to obtain a second mortgage by writing on 29 March 1823 to Mssrs Swans, grocers, of Nottingham in the following terms:

Mssrs E & H Swann, Grocers, Nottingham.

I am willing and hereby undertake to give you a second mortgage on your debt of £300 and interest on my two houses, malt houses, stables orchard and premises situate in Church Street, Bingham and now or formerly in mortgage to Mssrs Wylde and Bolger, bankers of Southwell. Let your attorney prepare accordingly a second mortgage to yourselves (subject to aforementioned mortgage to Mssrs Wylde and Bolger) as security for the repayment of three hundred pounds and interest and I undertake and hereby agree to execute it.
I am gentlemen
Your obedient servant
Geo Baxter

But by April the game was up and Swann and Bolger took possession of Baxter’s property by an indenture of lease and release dated 24/25 April 1823 between George Baxter (of the first part), Thomas Bolger, banker of Southwell (second part) and Samuel Henry Swan, grocer of Nottingham (third part). The last two were described as creditors of George Baxter; there were several others.

The agreement recited that the said George Baxter was “justly indebted to his creditors in various sums of money and being unable to pay the whole of his debts he has proposed and agreed to grant release and convey all his real and personal estate and effects unto Thomas Bolger and Samuel Swan”. The agreement conveyed:

All and singular the freehold messuages cottages closes lands tenements hereditaments and premises whatsoever of him the said George Baxter being in Bingham and elsewhere.
And also

• Outstanding debts to him from others
• Sums of money and securities for money
• Stock in trade
• Books of account
• Household furniture
• Goods and chattels
• Personal estates and effects

Everything had to go!

In the first place Bolger and Swann were to retain and reimburse themselves all such costs charges and expenses incurred (as ever the administrators win first!)
And in the second place to pay off discharge and satisfy all such sums that shall be due and secured to any person by mortgage
And in the third place to pay distribute and divide the residue amongst the several creditors who declare themselves within six calendar months
And lastly to pay residue if any and anything unsold to Geo Baxter.

The second page lists signatures of creditors to say they had received payment and that they relinquished further claims on the estate. The total owing amounted to an impressive £1850. There were 21 names on the list (those starred are identifiable Bingham traders:

Wm Lever
Matthew Hall
Geo Shelton
Samuel Foster
Stephen Foster * (farmer)
Joseph Goodson (?)
John Welch * (plumber)
John Gamble * (Bingham farming family)
Robt Sheppardson * (carrier)
Ann James (mark X no signature)
Geo Skinner
James Slack * (Boot & Shoe maker)
John ?
Hannah Raven (?)
Mary Raven Holt
Henry Killingly
Edward Killingly
Joseph Killingly
Geo Bunting & Co
S and H Swann, John Wylde, Robt Green
and Thomas Bolger
Robert Jame




John Strong again witnessed George Baxter’s signature.

The agreement gave power of attorney to Bolger and Swan to act as liquidators and distribute proceeds from the sale of his property to his other creditors. This they did to William Pilgrim.

The final sale agreement, running to five parchment pages, was drawn up on 4th and 6th March 1825. There were 8 parties to the indentures of lease and release. In these papers Baxter’s creditors were mainly traders from Newark and Nottingham and included drapers (Christopher Swan), cheesemongers (John Newton) and a grocer (Edward Allatt Swan). They were presumably suppliers whom he had failed to pay. The list included his last mortgagors and also William Pilgrim, Innkeeper of Bingham (Chesterfield Arms), John Pilgrim, farmer of Shelford, and Joseph Andrew, gentleman of Bingham (in Piggot’s 1828 directory he is listed as an attorney of Market Place). The reverse of the agreement records receipt of payments by Swann and Bolger of £567 and £48 by the others.

In Piggot’s directory 1828 and again in 1832 Baxter is entered as a grocer, tea dealer, linen draper and stamp distributor in Church Street, but one cannot tell where. But of course the directory compilers may not have kept up with his bankruptcy so we do not know what accuracy we can ascribe to these entries. If the directories are correct he kept up the shop until his death in 1832, and indeed his widow Betsy is in the 1841 Census aged 70 and described as a grocer.

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