Francis Herbert Stillman

Author: Penelope Stokes
Date published: 19/02/2013
© Newbury Weekly News

The Stillman family first came to Newbury in the form of Shute Stillman, born in Somerset in1739, son of a soldier who had fought at the battle of Dettingen (his eyewitness account survives in Yale University library). Shute settled here on his marriage to a Newbury woman, Hannah Griffin at St Nicolas Church, and thus began both a prolific local dynasty and a century and a half of church tradition. The Stillmans supplied parish clerks, vergers and organists to St Nicolas Church in an unbroken stream from 1800 to 1965.

The earliest record of a Stillman participating in church affairs appears in the vestry minutes for 1801, when he assisted the constable in selling wine and a saw which had been levied as a fine on some parishioners who broke the Sabbath by drawing beer. This might have been Shute, but was more likely to have been one of his five sons, three of whom settled in the Bartholomew Street and West Mills area as shoemakers.

By 1829 George, son of Shute’s eldest son Edward, was parish clerk. This preceded the renovation of St Nicolas church by some 20 years; there were still box pews, and within recent memory the floor had been strewn with sand. The church at that time owned two pubs: the Black Boys Inn and the Fountain on the bridge. The parish clerk’s duties included ridding the church of assorted verminous infestations, paying bills and a fair amount of social work that would later become a secular responsibility. A prominent role in church services was also taken by the clerk. In the 1830s the bells were rung each year to commemorate the restoration of Charles II, “not forgotten after 172 years” as George Stillman recorded. (What clearly had been forgotten was that the town of Newbury had been a staunch supporter of the Parliamentarian cause.)

At around this time the vestry minutes record a complaint of misconduct by the organist, Mr Byfield, who was alleged to have been drunk at his keyboard. Vestry voted to ban him the following Sunday, whereupon Mr Byfield (who denied the charge, blaming the singers) sneaked in and padlocked the organ to prevent a substitute being brought in. The charge of drunkenness was not upheld but Byfield resigned, and no fewer than 13 organists applied to replace him.

Such matters would have been George Stillman’s daily concern. His livelihood occupation is unrecorded, but may well have been metalworking or carpentry which, along with shoemaking, were the traditional family skills. He married one Eliza Newberry, and of their eight sons and two daughters the fourth son, John Redford Stillman, was chosen to succeed him at St Nicolas in 1864.

John Stillman was a cabinetmaker of West Mills, who also farmed crayfish in the millstream, and sent them to Billingsgate. The Kennet was at that time famous for such delicacies. He was also a keen genealogist; both he and his wife Sarah Larkin, a Londoner, were walking repositories of parish register information about local families. His term of office included the 1858-60 restoration of St Nicolas church, which would no doubt have involved him in a heavy burden of administrative responsibility. Another task was the election of children to places at Christ’s Hospital. John and Eliza Stillman lived at Church House, and had three children, one of whom, Edgar, was verger and organist at St Nicolas.

John Stillman died in January 1881, during a week of ferocious snowstorms followed by severe flooding, particularly in the West Mills and Craven Road area where so many Stillmans lived. Sarah Stillman survived him by 24 years, still serving the church in the areas then considered suitable for womanly effort. She it was who honoured the ancient local tradition of distributing pancakes to local children on Shrove Tuesday, although they came from a basket on her arm rather than thrown from the top of the tower, which was said to have once been the practice.

The parish clerkship passed to Arthur Septimus Stillman, John’s younger brother, in 1881, and he served until his death in 1892. Arthur also became apparitor to the Bishop of Oxford, was a freemason and a committee member of both the Conservative Club and the Working Men’s Club – not the contradiction that it might have been considered a generation later. His obituary described him as locksmith and gas-fitter by trade, although Stillman family lore describes him as a whitesmith (a worker in tin and lead). He married Clara Batten of Thatcham, who bore him five sons and three daughters. Arthur died in January 1892 during a flu epidemic, but it was TB that killed him. His death coincided with that of the Duke of Clarence, but it was the latter that commanded the black edging in the Newbury Weekly News.

The mantle of parish clerk passed to his son Francis Herbert Stillman, whose biography has been written up many times in the NWN as a former editor and lifelong servant of the newspaper. Frank Stillman put in some 44 years as a reporter before attaining the editorship in 1921, and was a much-loved man of near-saintly reputation. He bore a truly astonishing burden of voluntary public service in Newbury, the most noteworthy part of which was his unfailing commitment to the Union Workhouse, where he spent every Christmas Day of his adult life.

Frank Stillman lived with his wife Sarah Smith next door to the Diamond House in Craven Road. Their four sons and one daughter cannot have seen a great deal of their father at home, so many were his public offices. The four sons raised their families elsewhere, but the daughter Dorothy married and lived in Craven Road for most of her life, dying in 1985 at the age of 94.

She was the last remaining Stillman in Newbury, the last of the parish clerks having died in 1965. However the name has travelled far and wide, and a family tree compiled by Frank Stillman’s grand-daughter, Pamela Warner, has traced the current generation to Australia, Canada and the USA.

Sources:published in NWN Out & About: Newbury Families: Stillman

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