William Henri Colchester Mollett Early life
Peckham, Chalfont St. Peter 1848-1871
William seems to have been the youngest child of a large family. I know of ten siblings, but even though he was the youngest he must have known his grandfather who did not die until 1866. The portrait at left is of William Henri himself as a very young boy - very Victorian - he could be a girl, which was just how it was with very young children. We think the portrait is by Sir George Hayter, and I have this photograph of it, courtesy of Philip Mollett, great-grandson? of William’s oldest brother.
His mother would have been about 43 when he was born, so I guess there could have been more children after him, though none have been found so far. Maybe she just drew a line in the sand! They were living at 1 Hanover Park in the heart of Peckham Rye, shown on the map above. Not sure which end would be no. 1 - you would think the left-hand end. (the left-hand marker) This was apparently one of the first areas to be developed, but as you can see from the map - not many properties in that street and they seem to be large. The photograph at right is from Hanover Park today - largeish but maybe not quite as large as I would expect the Molletts to have been living in at the time, because his father was a merchant/banker/company director so probably making stacks of money. So I would be thinking it looked more like the street in the painting below - large mansions behind high fences. The painting is by John Atkinson Grimshaw.
The Suburbia in Focus site says of the area:
“To the north development was stimulated by proximity to the Old Kent Road, and impressive villas and terraces were built in this area. A new district called Peckham New Town was built, centred on Peckham Hill Street, on land owned by the Hill family, hence the name of its main axis, Peckham Hill Road. ... Rye Lane evolved into a new shopping street encouraged by a new and young and relatively prosperous population, and good transport. Stores such as Jones & Higgins became the best known in south London.”
Rye Lane is the main road going north/south on the map and as shown in the photograph below.
William Henri must have enjoyed a privileged childhood, and being the baby of the family must have had its pluses and minuses - does it get you more or less attention I wonder? The household at Hanover Park, in 1851 (William Henri was 3), included five live-in servants, one of whom was a needlewoman, which seems to be a pretty specific, not that essential, task. Does it denote thrift though - did they make all their own clothes? Did they patch and repair everything? The other servants included a housemaid, a nursery maid and a cook. There might have been other servants too, who didn’t live in - a gardener perhaps? They also always seem to have had a lot of visitors - mostly relatives, with whom they exchanged visits. In 1851 there was William’s maternal great-aunt Susannah, who (I think) may have lived with them, and his cousins Joseph Beckwith and Frances Topham. The Tophams (maternal aunt who married an artist) - crop up frequently, as do other Beckwiths (his mother’s family). So a large home filled with people - must have been something like the picture at the top of the page. It all demonstrates that this was a family that was big into family. Many of his father’s siblings worked with his father at one time or another, and his mother’s siblings and families were in and out of each others’ homes, not to mention intermarrying with them, all the time.
It seems some of the children, mostly the girls, were taught at home, though by whom is unclear. Another visiting servant - or a string of them? A clue is in the fact that there are two missing children, in the 1851 census - Lewis Charles (aged 12) and Alexander Edward (aged 9). Lewis was away at school in Hoddesdon and Alexander Edward or Sasha was away at a different school in Hove. However, big brother John William (now 16) was at home. Maybe he had finished his schooling (in 1841 he had been away at school in Buckinghamshire), and was having a gap year or two - for I do know that he, at least went to university. So maybe the boys were sent away to school (here, there and everywhere it seems) once they reached a certain age, and the girls were educated at home. We don’t know where William Henri was educated because the only census record we have of him in his teens is when he was on holiday.
The more I investigate this family the more they seem to typify what the Victorian upper middle class did. In 1861 William Henri is on holiday with his mother visiting relatives - the Tophams again. This time they are in northern Wales - Snowdonia in fact - because this is something else the Victorians did - they ‘did’ the country. The railways had made the entire country accessible to all and it was good to commune with nature. I think Francis Topham was working on illustrations for a book on coastal places. The engraving below is one of his. They were actually staying at a place called Carreg Coediog which is near the small town of LLanwrst. The picture below left is of Carreg Coediog today (a bed and breakfast I believe) and the picture i on the far right s of Llanwrst bridge. They probably rented the house - complete with servants of course.
But meanwhile back in London the rest of the family had moved to Peckham Road, - the left-hand marker on the map of Peckham - just north of their former home (the marker to bottom left). This is a house in a terrace, but no doubt it was a rather grand terrace, because the household still had five servants. The cook is the same person. The neighbours were of similar social status. And the Tophams are there again! More of the children have left home - John and Mary Ann, Alexander is visiting John, but the rest are hanging in there. Education seems to have finished for those over the age of 14 and the wives (Mollett and Topham) have swapped houses.
So a happy, privileged childhood I would guess. Late in life his parents moved to the country - well what is now the stockbroker belt of north-west London - Chalfont St. Peter in Buckinghamshire. It is all rather beautiful, and the house was apparently always full of children and visitors, with the by now, maiden aunts - William’s big sisters - doing the duties of mother to everyone. But the sixties brought major change with the death of his grandfather in 1866 and his father just a few years afterwards in 1869. But his mother stayed in Buckinghamshire for a while, and William Henri, like all of his siblings lived at home until he married and, in 1871, just a few weeks before the wedding, his future wife was there too.
Ideal Homes - A really valuable resource for all things Victorian/Edwardian to do with the development of South London
British History online - from Old and New London by Edward Walford, published in 1878. A fairly comprehensive history of Peckham.