1811 – 1879
Thomas James Pryor was born in Fenchurch Street, London, on 2nd August 1811. His father, Joseph Pryor, son of John Pryor, of Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, died two years later at the age of twenty-eight. Nothing is known of Thomas James’s childhood, and little of his mother, who probably also died very young, but on May 16th, when not quite fifteen, he was apprenticed to John Purdoe, grocer, of Cheap Street, Newbury. His maternal grandmother brought him up and paid £84 for the apprenticeship. Although the terms of his indentures forbade him to “contract matrimony”, he no doubt had been courting Ann Trumplett Woodley, one of the twelve children of Hannah and John Woodley, of Hampstead Norris. Thomas James came to Harwell in 1833, to start a grocery business, and Thomas and Ann were married at Hampstead Norris church on 6th January 1834, when she was twenty and he two years older.
The house and shop where they began married life in Harwell must have been destroyed in the disastrous fire of 1852; the house and shop, now (1985) premises for Napper’s newsagent, into which they moved, were built in 1852. Thomas James also had a bake house and a stable in his new premises. The business prospered, and there were three sons of the marriage: John Thomas, b.1834, Edward Joseph, b.1835, and George William, b.1842. In 1861, Thomas James started another shop in Didcot, near the station; the railway had come to Didcot in 1842. John Thomas, the eldest son, stayed in the family business, and was the enumerator for the 1871 Census return for Harwell village.
Thomas James, the founder of the Harwell family business, which was bought by a member of the family in 1925, had a loving, sensitive nature, according to family tradition; the following letter illustrates his concern for the poor of Harwell village:
The Somerset House Cormorants, and their veracious report
Letter from T.J. Pryor
My attention has been called to the last report of the Poor Law Commissioners relative to the working of the atrocious Poor Law Bill. Therein they state that it has been the means of bettering the condition, and raising the wages of the labourers, and that their masters are kinder to them now than they were before the Whig Law came into force. Now as to the measure having bettered the condition of the labourer) and raised the wages, the statement is completely false. The rate of wages of agricultural labourers in 1834 was 8s. per week, and those who had families received bread-money for their children, which often made their money 12s. and 14s. per week. Since this law came into force the bread allowance has been done away with, and the wages of the labourers is now in some places 8s., and in others 9s. per week; but if they get the additional shilling per week, it is not in consequence of the Poor Law Bill, but owing to the produce of the farmer having risen nearly 50 per cent. in value to what it was in 1834. I will give a case in point which is that of a most honest industrious labourer, with a wife and eight children, the eldest 12 years of age, one of them only being able to go out to work, who receives 2s.6d. per week, which, with the 8s. the father earns, makes 10s.6d., to keep 10 persons, and who, if he received bread-money as under the old law, would now have 16s.6d., so that the law robs him of 6s. per week.
This is only a solitary case out of thousands; we have widows in the parish in which I reside, upwards of 60 years of age, who only receive at this inclement season, 1s.6d. in money and a 4lb. loaf to keep them 7 days; the poor labourers in the agricultural districts are nearly starving, whilst their employers are basking in the sunshine of plenty. As to their masters being kinder to them, it is completely false, for what is the consequence if the men should happen to grumble at the miserable pittance which they receive. The masters hold up the terrors of the workhouse to them as their portion, if they are not satisfied; and where is the man whose heart would not recoil at the idea of being thrust into a prison, and the dearest ties of his life separated from him? I would recommend the Bashaws of Somerset House, ere they issue another of their manifestoes, full of fallacies and falsehood, to institute an inquiry into the rapid increase of sheep stealing and other crimes, and they will find that it is this abominable bill which has driven men to commit these crimes, to satisfy the hunger of their starving children.
T. J. Pryor, Harwell
Sleep sound, dear love! Though the winds be high,
And the dark clouds drift through the troubled sky;
Though the rising waters foam and roar,
And mournfully howl round the tortured shore;
Ill sounds from thy slumber be far away,
And soft be thy dreams as a summer’s day.
Sleep sound; Though the world be weary with fears,
And eyes that love thee be sad with tears,
Yet never a sorrow break thy rest,
And never a pang shoot through thy breast;
No shadows pass o’er thy closed eyes,
But their visions be visions of paradise.
Sleep sound, sweet love; Till the morning’s light
Lead up a new day with its fresh delight;
Till the welcome sun, as it mounts above,
Recal thee to duty and peace and love,
To a calm existence, untouched by strife,
And a quiet round of a holy life.
Thomas James Pryor’s poem (or did he find it somewhere, like it, and copy it? We don’t know) indicates a loving sensitive nature, as does his letter in the Weekly Dispatch.
Reg Prior tells the tale that his father and his uncle who were direct descendants of Thomas James and were both in business in Harwell at the same time, suffered from confusion with their mail. Reg’s father changed his name to Prior and so brothers and sisters of the same family have different spellings on their birth certificates.