Unlike many in my age group, I admit I have an aversion to family research, but all my life I have been asked where my (allegedly) unusual surname comes from. It has become more and more difficult to avoid some degree of family tree climbing, even if only to satisfy the curiosity of others.
There are two more compelling reasons.
One is an odd memory, with a subsequent explanation. I recall being with my mother, shopping in Wembley High Road, and being accosted by an old man who apparently recognised my mum. I think he may have called out her name (Alice). I would probably not have remembered the incident at all had it not been for my mother’s extreme reaction, as she grabbed me and ran away from him. I think she told me that he was some kind of tramp.
As a child I became naturally curious about the complete, and rather unfair, lack of grandparents in our family. School friends seemed to have plenty of them, so the question was not unreasonable. When I would ask about it, the answer I always got was that they were all dead, but years later my mother confessed that the “tramp” had in fact been my father’s father, one William Dewrance. I was also told that he was the black sheep of the Dewrance tribe; having fathered four sons and a daughter in wedlock, he had allegedly deserted them and run off with another woman. Hence Alice’s embarrassment and extreme reaction I guess. (More recently I have been contacted by some American Dewrances who are descended from William. Some of them believe that he remarried.)
The other motivation for delving into the Dewrance past was provided by my father, Henry. At some point he told me that we were related to a wealthy Victorian engineering pioneer tycoon by the name of Sir John Dewrance and that there was still a company called Dewrance and co., based in Great Dover Street, London.
After my father’s death, my mother asked if we would take her to a village in Norfolk called Wretham, for a last visit to the church there which bears evidence of Sir John Dewrance and his family. As we were pottering about we were accosted by a rather grumpy churchwarden who asked what we were up to. As soon as the I identified myself as a Dewrance, his attitude changed from suspicion to almost feudal servility. The upshot was that he went home, came back with the keys and gave us a tour of the church and churchyard. He also confirmed that Sir John had retired to Wretham Hall, and had been the man to whom the locals doffed their caps. I got the impression they still did.
He also mentioned something called the Chislehurst Habitation. It seems that in 1925 the Dewrance family lived in Cranmor Place, Walden Road, Chislehurst, and that Sir John was involved in some way with this project, about which I can find little except it was supported by the Primrose League. This was an organisation for spreading Conservative principles in Great Britain, founded in 1883, active until the mid-1990s and finally wound up in 2004 despite the earlier support of Margaret Thatcher, among others.
I already understood from my father that Sir John was his father’s uncle, and my sister and I inherited a small bundle of letters written by Sir John in the 1890s, apparently to my grandfather, William, the Wembley stroller. These letters, though appallingly written and difficult to decipher, do contain references to William’s father, Joseph, whom he, Sir John, had helped in at least one instance when he arranged the sale of Joseph’s house after he left the country, so the story does seem to stand up.
When I did eventually get round to Googling the family name, I was quite confused until I realised that there were two John Dewrances, father and son. John Dewrance, the elder (c.1803 – 1861), was one of the original pioneers of steam railway engineering. Some railway historians apparently believe he was the man who built Stephenson’s Rocket, but according to at least one other commentator this is unlikely. What seems less contentious is is that he was responsible for locomotives of the Bird class: 2-2-2.Embed from Getty Images
Hawthorne class locomotive named after the early railway engineer John Dewrance
In 1844 John Dewrance also established an engineering business in South East London, later to become John Dewrance & Co. John (the elder) became known as an innovative manufacturer of products for steam application.
Incidentally, by chance I once had confirmation of the company’s existence when driving my bubble car round Marble Arch sometime in the sixties (as we did back then…..); a dark blue van pulled out in front of me bearing the legend Dewrance, Great Dover Street, in large gold letters. Luckily I didn’t run into the back of it.
John Dewrance’s business was taken over by his more famous son in 1879. “Under his guidance, the pioneering work of his father continued. In 1882 he married Isabella Trevithick, granddaughter of Richard Trevithick, one of the leading early railway pioneers. He became a director and Chairman of Babcock & Wilcox Ltd in 1899, a position he held until one year before his death in 1937. At this time, the company became a wholly owned subsidiary of Babcock & Wilcox eventually moving to Skelmersdale in 1965.” [Dewrance & Co. Website]
Sir John was dealt a good hand, and evidently played it well – a private education, Charterhouse and later at King’s College London, marriage to Richard Trevithick’s granddaughter, and later a visit to the palace to pick up his KBE. And more besides, according to Grace’s Guide:
In 1882 Dewrance married Isabella Ann (d. 1922), second daughter of Francis Trevithick, of Penzance, and granddaughter of Richard Trevithick. They had a son and a daughter. In 1880 he started a research laboratory, taking over Professor Frederick Barff’s assistants and apparatus and working up his process for protecting iron from rust by treatment with superheated steam. Dewrance was a prolific inventor who took out more than a hundred patents, mainly relating to steam fittings and boiler mountings. From 1899 until a few months before his death he was chairman of Babcock and Wilcox and from 1914 of Kent Coal Concessions and allied companies. In 1923 he was President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and 1927 President of the Institute of Metals.. He died at his home, Wretham Hall, Wayland, Thetford, Norfolk, on 7 October 1937.
As if that wasn’t enough, during World War 1 he was a member of the Advisory Committee of the Treasury, the Ministry of Munitions, the Ministry of Labour and the Department of Overseas Trade. He was made a K.B.E. in 1920 and High Sheriff of Kent in 1925. [steamindex.com]
So, all in all, a big wheel, you might say. If you care to look up the name Dewrance on the internet, the chances are you will find numerous references to ships’ gauges and pumps, to this day.
There have been those who think I made all this up! In 2001 we were visited in Lincolnshire by some old friends from Southampton days and, after a few tinctures, I found myself telling them the whole Dewrance story, despite my wife’s yawns. Peter, a sailor and denizen of marine scrap yards on the south coast, didn’t believe a word of it. Some years later they turned up again, this time with a mysterious object wrapped in newspaper. It turned out to be a brass Dewrance pressure gauge, which I have now mounted in our dining room.
But what of my grandfather William, of Wembley High Road fame, and his letters from Sir John? As I mentioned, the letters, dated between June 1894 and August 1895, are pretty hard to make out, but they all seem to relate to assistance which Sir John gave to Joseph and William.
In a letter dated June 22nd 1894, headed 158 Great Dover Street, London S.E., Sir John writes:
I thank you for your letter and I sympathise with you on your trouble since your father left England. I have ……..at his request I sent him £122. 6.4, the amount that I received in payment for his house. I do not in any way begrudge any assistance I may have been to your father and I should have been glad to have been of further assistance to him had I felt……. have done him good, but cannot help reflecting that all appearances….. indicate that my assistance has at all times had a demoralizing …….effect upon him. It was your father Joseph who wrote to me…….memory failed him as I showed him the letter he must have known at that time it was not you.
In other letters it seems clear that Sir John also helped William out, both financially and by providing career advice, seemingly in response to requests for help. Some telling insights into both characters here:
Oct 16th 1894 Hotel Burlington, Boscombe, Bournemouth
I have given careful consideration to your letter but I do not approve of your idea of going in for a cadet service appointment……The £5 is no doubt for ……..your fare and keep. I cannot see why you should be dissatisfied where you are. I entirely sympathise with you to improve your education and I have sent you a book …… that I strongly commend to your careful perusal. Why should you give up your present livelihood? The evening classes at the polytechnic…….would give you plenty of opportunities and as a thoughtful mechanic a man has a better chance than in any other branch. Improve your writing, practice freehand drawing, lodge with superior people (sic) and study in the evening and there is no reason why you should not get on as many have before you.
Oct 29th 94: I will pay the fees for you. I should recommend you to take a course irrespective of the …… Have you a certificate of your birth? Let me know the amount…….send it you.
Incidentally it seems that Dewrance is not such an unusual name, even though its origins are unclear. There are concentrations of Dewrances in England, Scotland, Ireland, The USA, South Africa and Australia.
Thanks to my friend and steam railway buff Geoff Thompson, to my sister Janet for passing on photos and documents relating to Sir John, Getty Images and Jim Norman.