Thomas and Joseph Parsonson, father and son, who continued the family tradition of basket weaving and stood up to the Sudbury establishment

Joseph was the youngest child of Thomas and Mary Parsonson and had eight brothers and sisters. He was born on Christmas Day, 1865, at 8 Friars Street, (Buzzards Hall), Sudbury.

Buzzards Hall, Friars Street, Sudbury.

His father, Thomas, was a basket maker and a Freeman of Sudbury. Members of the family were very well known basket makers with a long tradition in the craft. It was said that the family had been basket weavers for well over two hundred years.

Joseph began his schooling in the Infant Department of the British School in Mill Lane, Sudbury, and entered the Boys’ Department in October 1873, where Mr. J. Leonard was the headmaster. Mr. Leonard had been a pupil teacher under the famous poet Matthew Arnold and the school flourished under his care. Many years later, an old scholar described him as a “straightforward, conscientious and thorough teacher who gave all the boys a good grounding and started them well on the way to success and the good positions that so many of them occupied in later life.”

The British School, Mill Lane Sudbury shown on the 1885 map of Sudbury. (Sudbury Museum Trust)
The British School, Mill Lane, Sudbury
Image from the Sudbury Photo Archive

The choice of a non-denominational school rather than St. Gregory and St. Peter’s Schools in North Street for Joseph may have been taken when his father suddenly decided to leave St. Peter’s. He was a regular attendant at St. Peter’s church, Sudbury, for over 40 years and was also a Sunday School teacher for much of this period, receiving a salary for his work. It is likely that he benefited from the charitable bequests which had established St. Gregory and St. Peter’s Schools in the mid-18th century and received an early education at North Street.

It has been handed down, by word of mouth through the generations, that one Sunday Thomas received a complaint from a churchwarden that his family was taking up too much room at the front of the Church. The seven children, (before the two youngest were born or old enough to attend Divine Service), were asked to move to the back. Thomas did not approve of this arrangement because it would have left his boys unsupervised and he preferred to sit with them in case they misbehaved.

Just like many of the Parsonsons, Thomas knew his own mind and would not be pressurised to do something that he did not agree with. He was also a very strict parent who insisted on good behaviour at all times so decided to transfer his family to the Old Independent Chapel in Friars Street. (Three generations of the Parsonsons occupied a back, named pew in the Chapel until the mid 20th century.) Thomas eventually held the offices of both deacon and superintendent of the Friars Street Sunday School and was associated with the Congregational Church for the rest of his life.

Image of the Chapel from the Sudbury Photo Archive.

The Parsonson family may have stopped attending St. Peter’s Church in the early/mid 1860’s – a time of religious tension in Sudbury when the vicar of All Saints’ Church, Rev. Charles Badham, was often at war with the Rev. John Molyneux and his curate, Rev. T. L. Green of St. Gregory’s and St. Peter’s Churches. All Saints’ favoured evangelism, (a simpler Protestant approach), whilst Puseyism, (Anglican Catholic doctrine) was encouraged at St. Peter’s and St. Gregory’s.

There was also a great divide between members of the Church of England and the Non-conformists. Sudbury had a long history of non-conformity and the dissenters were a powerful group in the town. When Thomas chose to leave St. Peter’s and move his family to the Chapel in Friars Street, it would have been one of the most important decisions of his life. By leaving the church where he had worshipped for 40 years and joining a non-conformist chapel, Thomas was taking a serious risk that could have affected not only his business but also his family. Eventually, much good came out of the move in terms of friendship and opportunities for social gatherings and business but it was an unusual step at a time when religion played a very important role in the lives of Sudburians.

As well as receiving a formal education at the British School, Joseph would have been trained as a basket weaver by his father, working in between school hours so that by the time he left school, aged 12 or 13, he would have made a good beginning in the trade that he was to follow as an adult.

Between 1880 and 1881 the Parsonson family moved to a new home, further down Friars Street, ( on the same side of the road), to Number 19 which had a range of sheds at the back of the property. The 1881 census shows that Thomas was employing 2 men as well as his son but some of his older children could have been thinking about moving into their own homes at this time so a smaller house may have been needed.

19 Friars Street, a school painting by Stanley, the grandson of Thomas Parsonson
(Image from the Parsonson family archives)

Number 19, (now known as ’37 Friars Street’), was a very good choice. It had been occupied by another family of Sudbury freemen – the Faux family – who had run a boot making business from the premises for much of the 19th century. Number 19 belonged to the daughter of the solicitor William Dowman and it is likely she sold the property to Thomas Parsonson.

(Map extract from the 1885 map of Sudbury. Sudbury Museum Trust.)

When this photograph was taken, Joseph Parsonson, (standing in the centre), employed 5 men to cut, peel and sort the osier rods, (species of willow used for basket making). The image shows the osier sheds in the Edgworth Road garden, Sudbury.
(Parsonson family archives)

Some of the osier rods in the photograph may have come from an osier bed at Liston. Every January or February, Joseph would walk to Liston with his employees and cut osiers. The rods would be put in a cart and taken back to Edgworth Road, Sudbury, where they would be kept under water in the ditch next to the garden until the bark was soft enough to peel off easily.

(Parsonson family archives)

The Parsonson family was very proud of their long association with the freemen and Joseph was admitted to the Freedom of the Borough of Sudbury on August 5th, 1887, aged 21.

The immediate effects of his father’s decision to leave the Church of England are unknown but Joseph encountered prejudice as an adult when he became engaged to a young Scottish girl, Elizabeth Angus, who was working as a cook at 16, (Number 31 today), Friars Street for the Ransom family. The head of the household was Robert Ransom, Town Clerk and solicitor, who had held many public appointments during his career, including Clerk of the Peace, Borough Coroner and churchwarden of All Saints during the incumbency of Rev. Charles Badham. Although conscientious and painstaking, Robert Ransom had a reserved nature and did not mix in society, particularly as he grew older. He continued to be a regular attendant at church but moved his loyalties to St. Peter’s.

When Elizabeth Angus came to work for the family there were 5 unmarried children living at home – 3 daughters in their thirties and 2 younger sons who worked in the office with their father. The Ransoms kept 3 servants; a cook and 2 housemaids. The Parsonson family were almost neighbours as they lived a few yards away from the Ransoms.

(1885 map of Sudbury) The red cross marks the location of the Parsonson shop in Friars Street whilst the blue cross marks the location of the Ransom family home where Elizabeth Angus worked as a cook.
The home of the Ransom family in 19th century Sudbury

Almost neighbours but two families of a very different social standing and religion. When Elizabeth and Joseph became engaged the Ransoms no longer wished to employ Elizabeth as her fiancé did not belong to the Church of England. She found a much more convivial job working at Hardwicke House, Stour Street, for Mrs Armes and her children.

Elizabeth Angus and Joseph Parsonson
(Image from the Parsonson family archives)

Mrs Sarah Jane Armes was the widow of William Linay Armes, of Kings Lynn, Norfolk, and the Chilton Mills, Sudbury. He had built up one of the largest coir mat and matting businesses in the country which employed over 250 men and women in Sudbury. His unexpected death in May 1888, a week before he was due to move his family to Sudbury, was a disappointment for the town. It was anticipated that he would have occupied an influential position in Sudbury as he had a reputation as one of the best of masters who cared deeply for the poor and aged; he was also a sound business man.

The Armes family in 1898 – Mrs Armes with her sons, daughters, son-in-law and two grandsons. (Image from ‘No Glorious Dead’ by Valerie Herbert and Shirley Smith)

Mrs Armes took over the business and moved into the newly refurbished Hardwicke House with their 7 children; the eldest son was just 16 whilst several of the daughters were close in age to Elizabeth Angus. It was a busy, lively household and Elizabeth was much happier working for the Armes family than she had been with the more reclusive and reserved Ransom family. She continued to work at Hardwicke House until her marriage to Joseph Parsonson in the summer of 1891.

Hardwicke House, Sudbury, home of the Armes family from 1888

Mrs Armes was also a kind and thoughtful employer. She had a holiday house in the Norfolk resort of Hunstanton – Irby Cottage. The Armes family had a long association with Hunstanton and, in June 1891, the second eldest daughter, Alice Evelyn, married one of their Sudbury neighbours, Isaac Ernest Clover, of Springfield Lodge. Elizabeth was asked to go to Norfolk and cook for the family but was worried that her ‘young man’ would not be happy if she was away from Sudbury for so long. Mrs Armes immediately asked if Joseph would like to come to Hunstanton with them and stay for a fortnight.

Joseph never stopped talking about that wonderful holiday – it was a very happy memory that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Joseph and Elizabeth set up home together at Number 5 East Street but moved back to Friars Street when Thomas retired and went to live with his daughters at their shop on the Market Hill. Joseph took over the family basket making business. By 1901, Joseph and Elizabeth had 3 sons, Joseph, Victor and Ernest, and a baby daughter, Lily. Another son, Stanley, was born in 1905.

Joseph and Elizabeth Parsonson c1902 with their children: Joseph, Victor, Ernest and Lily
(Image from the Parsonson family archives)

Thomas was blessed with good health and it was not until the age of 89 that he had a serious illness. Until then, he had been very active and was able to work in the Parsonson garden at Edgworth Road and go out and about in the town.

Joseph Parsonson with his daughter Lily standing in front of the door to the Friars Street shop
(Image from the Parsonson family archives)

Thomas and Joseph made meat hampers for local butchers, skips for vegetables and all kinds of baskets, chairs and bassinets. Thomas also used to go to London to buy brooms and brushes which were sold in the shop.

Thomas at work in the Edgworth Road garden where he grew fruit and vegetables for the family. His daughters Emma and Mary are in the background.
(Image from the Parsonson family archives)

When Thomas died in May, 1913, the first part of his funeral service was held at the Congregational Chapel in Friars Street. It was conducted by his old friend, the Rev. T.G. Boyne, who was a former pastor of the Chapel. Rev. Boyne travelled from Lowestoft on behalf of a friend and deacon whom he had held in great esteem. He delivered a warm eulogy in which he praised the “sweetness and joy, and the quiet beauty of the deceased’s home, the patient persistence with which he pursued his task , and for his example which was always for good.”

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.