The Four Swans Hotel, Sudbury c.1900.
Image from the Historic Photo Archive for Sudbury

There must have been something in the air or in the pump water at the ‘Four Swans’, which encouraged longevity in North Street, Sudbury or perhaps it was just luck. ‘The Bury Free Press’ reported in January 1881 that there are ‘now living in North Street seven persons whose united ages amount to 595 years’. Charles Parsonson, the father of Thomas and George William and the grandfather of Joseph, was one of those fortunate residents who had reached their ninth decade without contracting tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles or other infectious diseases. Charles remained in very good health and lived until the age of 92 – a remarkable age for the time.

Recent research has shown that the 1880’s was the country’s happiest decade and Charles Parsonson was a contented man. He had a strong spiritual belief and a large family which included 12 children, (7 of whom were still alive when he died), 25 grandchildren and 34 great-grandchildren. He was the head of a famous family of basket makers in Sudbury.

One of his sons, George William, was running the shop in North Street whilst another, Thomas, had a basket making business in Friars Street. The eldest son, Charles, was retired from business in East Street. Other family members were basket makers in London, Colchester, Cambridge, Halstead and Bures.

Uncle Thomas Parsonson, basket making at Scheregate House, Colchester. (Image from the Parsonson family archives.)

Charles was still making and repairing baskets until two months before he died. He could read the newspaper without glasses, (a difficult feat as the print size was much smaller in the 19th century), and had not needed to see a doctor for 70 years.

Image of St. Peter’s Church from the Sudbury Town Archive.

He was born in Sudbury in September 1795 and baptised at St. Peter’s in December at the end of what Allan Berry described in his book on ‘Eighteenth Century Sudbury’ as ‘twelve months of almost unrelieved gloom, beginning and ending with poverty and disaster’. This was the year when many people in Sudbury, (and elsewhere), went hungry and a crowd of people, largely weavers, threatened to demolish Brundon Mill unless the price of flour was reduced. It was.

Brundon Mill c1900. Image from the Historic Photo Archive for Sudbury.

His father, George, was a basket maker just like his father and grandfather before him. They had all inherited the Freedom by birth although they were only Free of the Borough and not of the Common Lands which suggests that the family’s original claim was through apprenticeship rather than by purchase. (The Corporation refused to admit men free by servitude to the privilege of turning cattle on the Common Lands unless they purchased the freedom of the Commons for an extra fee.)

The war with France became more threatening and can never have been far from people’s minds as Charles was growing up. Later in life he would tell stories about celebrations for the Jubilee of George III in October 1809 when a bullock was roasted whole and there were great rejoicings amongst the rich and poor of the Town. He also remembered the battle of Waterloo as he had a brother who was one of the Volunteers training to protect the local area from the threat of invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Battle of Waterloo, 1815, William Sadler

Charles married Elizabeth, the daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Wheeler, in St. Peter’s Church, Sudbury, on May 22nd, 1814. Charles and Elizabeth were both aged 19. Later that year, their first daughter, another Elizabeth, was born.

Charles became a Freeman of Sudbury in an election year, 1818, two days before voting took place on June 19th. Judging by the large numbers of admissions in the two days before the election, monetary gain was sufficiently large to draw Sudbury men who had inherited the freedom by birth from far away places such as Tunbridge Wells, Hampstead and Paddington to register their votes. It is not known how often – if ever – Charles Parsonson left his native town but his name appears regularly on the lists of voters for each election until his death in 1888.

‘Eatanswill’ scene from the 1911 Coronation Pageant in Sudbury. Charles Dickens is said to have visited Sudbury during the election of either July 1834 or January 1835 and used his experience of an election in the Borough as the inspiration for ‘Eatanswill’ in ‘The Pickwick Papers’.

Having been taught the art of basket weaving by older family members, Charles was ready to set up his own business in 1820. Evidence from the Census Returns shows that from at least 1851 he was living at Number 7 North Street in a freehold cottage that was to remain in his family until the late 1920’s.

Number 7, North Street, Sudbury (Image from the Parsonson family archives.)

However, with the death of Charles on August 15th, 1888 there was a hint that the days of supplying all the different local needs for willow baskets were numbered. The Suffolk and Essex Free Press closed his obituary with a warning: “Of late years basket making – although it has extended to a variety of useful purposes besides baskets, such as chairs, fancy articles of utility &c., – has been greatly interfered with by competition with the foreigners, the French and Germans especially, who turn out most of the finer descriptions of baskets.”

Sudbury Cemetery, Newton Road

When the will was proved at Bury St. Edmunds on November 17th, 1888 by his sons, George William, Charles and Thomas, it was discovered that Charles Parsonson’s personal estate was valued at only £27.

We would like to thank Ann Eley for allowing us to borrow her family archive and for sharing her extensive recollections of Parsonson family history.