Joshua Kirby Trimmer 1767–1829 by Greg Finch

Joshua Kirby Trimmer c1810, attributed to Henry Howard, RA © Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service.

Joshua Kirby Trimmer was an energetic, enterprising and thoughtful native of Brentford but his interests ranged over much wider horizons. This short article is part of longer term research into his life, and the author would be grateful for further information on his business and civic activities.1

Joshua was named after his maternal grandfather, friend of Gainsborough and erstwhile Tutor of Perspective to the future George III, and was the eldest son of James and Sarah (née Kirby) Trimmer. James (1738-92) was a long-established brick and tile manufacturer in Brentford and Sarah (1741-1810) was to become the renowned Sunday School pioneer and authoress of improving books for children, with whom readers of this Journal will probably be familiar.

Their ten surviving children were educated mainly at home next to the wharves and brickworks adjacent to Kew Bridge by Sarah and latterly by her daughter Selina, who became governess to the children of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Joshua and the next two sons, William Kirby (1770-1811) and James Rustat (1773-1843), followed their father into the brick making business. Judging from Sarah’s diary, their youngest brother, Henry Scott (1778-1859), appears to have had a more delicate constitution, and became the first family member to go up to Oxford, and thence into the church.3

Family connections
The Trimmers occupied an interesting social position during the late Georgian period. On the one hand some family members appear to have moved easily in royal and aristocratic circles: Sarah was received at Kew and Windsor by the Queen in support of her Sunday School movement, and was highly regarded by the Dowager Lady Spencer, while Selina laid down the law to the future Duke of Devonshire and his sisters and did not hide her disapproval of the habits of their mother Georgiana.4 The energetic scientific curiosity of the elder Trimmer sons aroused the interest of Sir Joseph Banks and Sir Charles Blagden of the Royal Society, and William’s paper on fossils found in the Brentford brickfields was published posthumously in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1813.5

Henry obtained the rich living of Heston in Middlesex when just 26 years old, almost certainly helped by his mother’s acquaintance with Beilby Porteous, Bishop of London, who held the right of presentation.6 On the other hand, the family remained unashamedly rooted in the tough, dirty and often precarious trade of brickmaking until the 1830s, and members of the next generation, sons of Joshua and William, were not above digging the clay, moulding the bricks and loading the barges.7 Joshua married into another established local business family – the Thompsons, owners of the Chiswick Brewery, now Fullers, in 1794. Eliza Willett Thompson (c1775-1868) bore Joshua a dozen children.8 Doubtless this marriage entrenched Joshua’s position within the local trade network, and perhaps his active membership of the Clothworkers’ Company was intended to extend it. Alone amongst the many family members who were admitted to the freedom of the Company, before and after him, he went on to become Master (in 1825). It is also possible that he found an outlet for his philanthropic interests through the Company.9

Brickmaking in London and Ireland
Joshua’s range of business interests ultimately ranged far wider than the brickmaking trade alone. In the decade or so after 1799, however, the scale of their brickmaking operations was sufficient to consume the three brothers’ energies, for they were contracted to provide the millions of bricks required to build the West India and East India Docks and accompanying warehouses. Difficulties with the quality of clay and bricks, and the scale of the operation made it clear that it could not be run from Brentford. Joshua moved his young family to Poplar from 1804 so that he could direct matters on the sprawling site.10

Kew Bridge seen from Strand on the Green, soon after it opened in 1759. Newly-made bricks are stacked for loading into the nearby barge. The Trimmers’ tile works just beyond the image to the right

In 1808 his brickmaking skill took him to Ireland, for the Board of Ordnance. The lack of suitable building materials for Martello Towers to defend the western and southern approaches to Ireland led to the creation of an Ordnance brickworks at the small port of Youghal, and Joshua Trimmer was commissioned to start up the venture.11 Perhaps this had been assisted by government connections at a senior level. Spencer Perceval, who became Prime Minister in 1809, had moved to Elm Grove on Ealing Common a year before and was therefore a near neighbour.12

A son born to Joshua and Eliza in late 1809 or early 1810 was named Percival, a name not used before in either parent’s family, and perhaps therefore given out of admiration or gratitude. The state of Ireland and what he saw as the potential of its people, in stark contrast to the dismissive prejudice back home, led him into print on his return. The pamphlet he produced conveys a sense of both the need for pragmatic and practical action (in stationing English troops, it would help to send men from Norfolk to improve the grain growing districts, from Cornwall and Northumberland to support minerals and coal mining respectively) and also a trust in the beneficial influence of a rejuvenated Established Church, which echoed his mother’s evangelical faith.

He returned to Ireland several times and published two further, extended, versions of his tract.13 His belief in the ability to alleviate poverty through encouragement of self-help also found expression closer to home. In 1800 he was active, as a member of the Ealing Vestry, in seeking to set aside six acres of the common for potato growing by the poor.14

Mining and quarrying
The journey to Ireland would have taken him overland to Anglesey, and thence by the sea crossing to Dublin. It must have been while waiting to cross the Menai Straits on one of his later journeys that he saw the potential for copper mining and slate quarrying in Caernarvonshire. A letter to Sir Robert Peel in 1815 suggested he was also interested in the potential of gold mining in County Wicklow.15 In the same year he took out mining and quarrying leases in North Wales, and in sending his eldest son Joshua there to oversee them (at the tender age of 20) he helped to foster the younger Joshua’s career as a geologist, ultimately a renowned one. The younger Joshua lived in North Wales for many years, but during the famine years of 1846-7 was asked to return to Ireland as the inspecting officer of the County Cavan Relief Committee, presumably based on his experience of travelling in Ireland with his father to inspect the Clothworkers’ Company estates in the 1820s. He found his later visit to be a harrow­ing experience.16

Sheep farming
Joshua Kirby Trimmer was also an improving farmer with an abiding interest in merino sheep, which he kept on his 300 acre farm in the Brentford neighbourhood. He had perhaps been farming when a resident at North Cray in Kent for a few years after his marriage. Certainly by the time he returned to the Brentford/Ealing area from Poplar in around 1808 he started building his flock of merinos, probably encouraged by Sir Joseph Banks, who, with the King, had been quietly importing merinos from Spain since the 1780s despite a Spanish export ban.17 By the late 1820s his prize winning flock had grown to 700 in number, and he pub­lished a tract of Prac­tical observations on the improvement of British fine wool, extolling at some length the virtues of his own flock.18

A prize-winning merino sheep similar to those reared by Joshua Kirby Trimmer

On the whole the merino did not thrive in England, so Joshua was either partic­ularly adept at market­ing, or had the focus and ingenuity to make his flock stand out. The sheep did ultimately thrive in Australia, and three of Joshua’s neph­ews, the sons of William Kirby Trimmer, were among pioneering emi­grants to the Swan River colony (Western Aust­ralia) who took some of their uncle’s merinos with them in 1829.19 Joshua spoke highly of the quality of farming he saw in Northern France on a tour in 1826. He had, therefore, continued to travel, but his home had been in the Brentford area since around 1808.

Last years
In 1825 Joshua was left a riverside house at 45 Strand-on-the-Green by a deceased aunt, and here he spent his last years, with some of his younger children. He died there in September 1829, the day after making his last will, in which he left his estate to Eliza, ‘my dear Wife well knowing her tender even and truly parental affection for each of her children fully confiding that she will do what is right by each’.20 His was a varied and successful career.

Joshua comes across as industrious, entrepreneurial, curious and thoughtful, a man of practical action, energy and a sense of public duty. He was buried in the family vault at St Mary’s Ealing.

Picton House, 45 Strand on the Green, where Joshua Trimmer spent his last years

Gradually the family moved away from the land and the brickyard. Although his second son, John, remained a farmer, three younger sons, Henry, Kirby and Herbert, entered the church, and Charles became an inspector of factories. His unmarried daughters lived out a life of quiet gentility with their art-loving brother Kirby at his parsonage in Norwich.21 The Trimmer brickmaking business was carried on for a few more years after Joshua’s death by his younger brother James Rustat, but appears to have been sold up during the cyclical downturn in the trade in the 1830s.22

Notes and references
1        The author can be contacted at gregpfinch@hot-

2        DM Yarde, The Life and Works of Sarah Trimmer, (1971); D M Yarde, Sarah Trimmer of Brentford and her Children, (1990). I am grateful to Andrea Cameron and the late Doris Yarde for help with my research into the Trimmer family over the years

3        The Life and Writings of Mrs Trimmer, (London, 1814), vol 1, p 342, vol 2, p 23

4        A Foreman, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, (1998), p 251

5        William Kirby Trimmer, ‘An Account of Some Organic Remains Found near Brentford, Middlesex’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol 103, (1813)

6        Lambeth Palace Library, Porteous papers, vol 22, ff 171-6; Guildhall Library MSS 9532A/1

7        For instance Joshua’s son John: Proceedings of the Old Bailey: http://www.OldbaileyOnline.Org/html_units/l 820s/t 182 70531-3.html

8        Ealing parish registers, 1797—1812

9        Clothworkers’ Company, Irish Committee reports 1823-33. My thanks to Jessica Collins, the Archivist, for her assistance

10      Museum of London (Docklands): East India and West India Dock Company Minutes, passim; ‘The East India Docks: historical development’, Survey of London’, vols 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, (1994), pp 575-92

11      Joshua Kirby Trimmer, Further Observations on the present state of Agriculture and condition of the lower classes of the people, in the southern parts of Ireland…(1812), pp 55-6; Board of Ordnance papers, National Archives (TNA) WO 47/2598

12      l am grateful to Vai Bott for this information; personal communication, 12 Nov 2009

13      Joshua Kirby Trimmer, A Brief Inquiry into the Present State of Agriculture in the Southern part of Ireland and its influence on the manners and condition of the lower classes of the people; With some considerations upon the Ecclesiastical Establishment of that Country, (1809); 2nd edition 1812, 3rd edition 1822

14      DM Yarde, Sarah Trimmer of Brentford and her Children, p 61

15      British Library Add MS 40245 f 109

16      Lindsay, Jean Olivia, A history of the North Wales slate industry, (1974); Univ Coll N.Wales Penrhyn MSS 711, 1975; BL Add MS 38271 f 450; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry for Joshua Trimmer, geologist, by H S Torrens

17      H B Carter, His Majesty’s Spanish Flock: Sir Joseph Banks and the Merinos of George III of England, (1964)

18      Joshua Kirby Trimmer, Practical Observations on the improvement of British fine Wool, and the national advantages of the arable system of sheep-husbandry, (London: James Ridgway, Piccadilly, 1828), pp 5, 31

19      D M Yarde, Sarah Trimmer and her children, p 67; Centre for Kentish Studies, Cornwallis MSS, U24/C16

20      PCC wills, TNA PROB 11/1769

21      881 Census of England & Wales, RG11/ 1941 f 95; Will: Principal Registry of the Family Division, 22 Nov 1887

22      James Rustat Trimmer will: TNA PROB 11/1990; H A Shannon, ‘Bricks – a trade index’, Economica, new series, vol 1, (1934)

Dr Greg Finch is a self-employed corporate financial planning consultant who lives in Northumberland. He is treasurer of the Hexham Local History Society, and a descendant of Brentford author Sarah Trimmer.

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