11 August 2017

Edward Scrimshaw and his Neighbours: A Parody Poem

One of the hardest of genealogical struggles is to find information on the ‘character’ of an ancestor. Sometimes it can be inferred from a newspaper article, a court report, or a letter that has passed down the generations. Often the information is sparse and fragmentary.

Some time ago I was delighted to receive a transcription of a poem in the back of John Peck’s diary from 1834, held at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum. Many of my extended farming family are mentioned throughout the diaries: friends of the diarist, or married to members of his family. However, one of my great-great-great-grandfathers, Edward Scrimshaw, was not seen in a favourable light. The transcription had the following note attached: ‘Peck appears to have found a neighbouring farmer, the litigious and occasionally aggressive Edward Scrimshaw, rather a problem over the years. A printed cutting of a ballad, with [Peck’s] own notes in red ink, is pasted to the back endpaper of the volume.’

While the transcription was helpful, I was curious as to what Peck had said in the additional notes and contacted the museum, who sent me an image of the endpapers of the diary, including the poem and the notes written by Peck. 
John Peck’s Diary, 1834, Endpapers, WISFM: 1996.99.21, Wisbech and Fenland Museum, http://www.wisbechmuseum.org.uk/

The background to the poem

Scrimshaw has been concerned at the condition of Murrow Lane which ran along the edge of one of his pieces of land. He took the inhabitants of Wisbech Saint Mary to court for not repairing the road. The case, which was heard at the Cambridge Assizes on 13 March 1834, resulted in a verdict of ‘not guilty’, and was greeted with satisfaction by the inhabitants of the parish. However, Scrimshaw was not pleased.

Peck’s notes provide more contextual information. He names the author as a ‘young man at St Marys named Fullerlove’. At this time Richard and Robert Fullerlove, sons of John and Sarah Fullerlove, were working as agricultural labourers at Wisbech St Mary. As the only ‘young men’ of this name in the neighbourhood, it is probable that one of them created this poem - entertaining themselves and their friends in the local public house after a hard day of work for the local farmers, possibly even working for Scrimshaw.

Peck goes on to explain some of the references in the poem. ‘Accommodation Coach’ alludes to a notice that was circulated before the trial advertising the beginning of a coach service from The Bell at Murrow to the Chequers at Tholomas Drove. ‘Buy the Murrow Mill’ refers to the sale of four drainage engines belonging to the Fourth District, which were sold by auction after the court case. At least one of them was bought by Scrimshaw and converted to a flour mill, known as Murrow Mill, which he leased over the ensuing years. I have found no evidence of him working the mill on his own behalf.

Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 11 Jul 1834, p 3 [British Newspaper Archive] 

John Peck’s Diaries: Wisbech and Fenland Museum

John Peck (1787-1851) was born in Newton, near Wisbech. He kept a diary from 1814 until he died in 1851: highlighting local and personal events, as well as providing extensive information on farming in the Wisbech area. Dian Blawer has written two booklets using Peck’s diaries: John Peck of Parson Drove: An Exceptional Fenman, and The Trade of a Farmer: John Peck of Parson Drove, both of which are available from the Wisbech and Fenland Museum.

This parody poem highlights the continuing importance of doing research in local archives and museums. Today research in archives far from our homes is easier than it has been in the past. Online catalogues can provide initial access, but the knowledge of local researchers and archivists is invaluable. It is important to look at the original document. While the transcription that I received initially was a wonderful gift; the image sent by David Wright, a curator at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, provided the handwritten notes on the poem and the following page, leading both to the possible identification of the original authors; and Peck’s hand-written explanation of the circumstances surrounding the events parodied is enlightening. 

I am looking forward to the day when I can spend more time in the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, researching the library and archives collections which tell me so much more about the lives of my family in the 17th-20th century East Anglican landscape.

Edward Scrimshaw was a well-known figure in his community, living a full life and leaving an extensive trail in documents and newspapers. He will figure in more stories.


1. L. Alan Bullwinkle, a fourth cousin and noted local genealogist and researcher, has always been supportive of my endeavours to find out more about our shared families and their connections to the Fenlands. Alan sent me the original transcription of the poem, together with extensive extracts from the diaries, full of family information and context.
2. The staff at the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, who have provided access to materials in person and by email. I acknowledge their permission to publish the image from John Peck’s 1834 diary.
3. The court case that led to the writing of the poem was reported in local newspapers: Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette, 15 Mar 1834, p 2 [British Newspaper Archive].
4. The poem was published in volume II of Fenland Notes and Queries: A Quarterly Antiquarian Journal for the Fenland in 1894, (Rev W D Sweeting (ed), Peterborough, Geo C Caster, pp 286-7). https://archive.org/details/fenlandnotesquer2189pete

© 2017, Maureen R West
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