By James Wisdom, Val Bott and Sharron Clarke
Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 7 (1998)
Our piece in Journal No 5 about Colonel Robert Shipway told the story of a proud and eminent local man who was duped by a fake academic, “Dr” Davies, whom he paid handsomely to research his family history. We used contemporary press reports from the 1890s and an account by the historian, W P W Phillimore, who lived in Chiswick and knew Shipway. Since then we have tried to find out more. Phillimore reported that Shipway thought his family came from Gloucestershire, with possible connections to Beverstone Castle and to Littleworth where his grandfather was said to be buried, so James Wisdom and Val Bott followed up clues there while Sharron Clarke researched the real Shipway family tree.
Dr Davies’ research during 1896-7 appeared to be very successful very quickly, especially in the parish church at Mangotsfield. Everything he had found, including memorials and inscriptions recording the philanthropy of several mediaeval Shipways, together with wills from the county record offices, was attested to by lawyers or by museum experts. But the sharp eyes of Mr Phillimore, who had worked on wills in the same archives, spotted flaws in the evidence.
Already anxious about the poor quality of care of county archives, he knew that Shipway’s researcher must have modified the wills, either on the originals themselves or in the process of having them photographed. Since wills relate to legal title to property and were being effectively rewritten, the police took up the case and the forger was brought to trial.
Sharron Clarke first found the details of Shipway’s birth on 14 July 1841, the son of William Shipway, a tailor, and his wife Isabella, formerly Forsyth, of 38 Maddox Street, off Regent Street in London. A William Shipway is recorded at that address in the 1841 Census but no other family members were there on that day, so we have no more details about his wife. The Census entry lists him as born in the same parish and aged 30 years, so there was no clear link with Mangotsfield or Gloucestershire.
Shipway’s will and burial records at Kensal Green Cemetery and at the City of Westminster Cemetery at Hanwell enabled Sharron to identify his children and other family relationships. The link with Hammond & Co, the family business, a breeches manufacturer of Oxford Street, is confirmed by a small bequest to the company’s Head Assistant Secretary and Cashier.
James Wisdom and Val Bott went to Mangotsfield Parish Church and Beverstone Castle. Phillimore had also referred to a nonconformist burial ground at Littleworth on Minchinhampton Common where Shipway’s grandfather was supposed to be interred.
Beverstone is a pretty stone built hamlet; the ruins of the castle walls stand beside the church. Against their inner face large houses had been built in the 17th or 18th century. Robert Shipway might well have imagined himself in a long line of those who had lived here!
Minchinhampton Common stands high above a landscape of deep valleys, with old mills powered by fast-flowing streams, near Stroud. The area is scattered with hamlets, probably originally squatter settlements, where nonconformity might be expected. The chapel at Littleworth was being refurbished as a private home but the paint-spattered new owner took us behind to see the Shipway gravestones, one with incised names but no dates, the other with worn parts of both, from the mid 19th century. So far Sharron has failed to find any documentary evidence to link them to our Shipway.
At Mangotsfield today’s Vicar and the churchwarden knew a little of the story. Old photos of the then Vicar, the Rev Alford, and his curate son, who had left “Dr” Davies to do his worst, still hang in the church Vestry. We climbed into the belfry to search for the inscribed beam recording a gift of bells. We saw the effigy of a knight and his lady, restored at Shipway’s expense but now tucked behind the organ. But there were no Shipway inscriptions to be seen.
A Mangotsfield parish history written in 1899 dealt with the fraud (which it described as “a horrid series of systematic and deliberate forgeries”) in an appendix, separated from the real history of the place. The writer claimed that local people were suspicious about the “discoveries” long before the trial and, immediately after the verdict, the Bishop of Bristol directed that a faculty be applied to remove the inscriptions and to reinstate memorials and tombstones which had been tampered with. The Diocesan Registrar erased the forged entries in the Parish Registers and inserted a note about his action in the Register for the future.
For more on Lieut-Col Shipway see also:
Colonel Shipway’s Pedigree (Journal 5, 1996)