The Gale family
Lacock carpenters through the centuries
The Gale family are of particular interest because in the 19th century it was John Gale who built the camera obscura for William Henry Fox Talbot’s research into photography. The Fox Talbot Correspondence project has transcribed several letters to or from William Henry Fox Talbot which refer to John Gale and his carpentry work, showing that he was a trusted local carpenter and he was obviously very trusted by Fox Talbot if he was given the honour of doing some of the work which would later be seen as an important time in the development of photography but which at the time probably seemed very strange to Gale. They must have also seemed strange to William’s wife Constance as she called them “Mousetraps” and there were several of them made and probably dotted around the house. John Gale also did a lot of valuations on the Lacock estate, valuing furniture in houses including Lacock Abbey and often valuing timber that had been sawn in the various forests on the estate.
His company name was John Gale and Son. He appears in Kelly’s Directory throughout the 19th century, mostly described as a wheelwright, carpenter or builder, and blacksmith, which shows that his intention was to do a variety of jobs. It appears from his bills that he employed many other people to help him with his work, and paid those men from the payments made to him, and in various census records he is described as being the employer of as many as 15 men, showing that he was running a successful business.
In every census from 1841 to 1881, he is shown to live in a house in West Street with his wife Mary and again is described mainly as a carpenter but also as a joiner, wheelwright and dealer in underwood. His son William, who was born in 1839, lived in the same house as John and went into the family business as he is also described as a carpenter, and once as a timber dealer, in the census records. It is clear that William continued his father’s business on his own after 1890 when John Gale died but that the business probably died with him in 1904 as he had no children. Another son, John Gale, appears in the 1861 census aged 23 and is described as a brewery clerk and cashier. So John Gale and Son clearly refers to John and William Gale; the elder son chose a different career path. We can tell this from a census record of John Gale junior who in 1871 was living in Buckinghamshire with his wife and working as a banker’s clerk.
A letter of the 26th January 1837 from William Henry Fox Talbot’s mother on the correspondence website says “The new book case we ordered is at length put up, after Gale’s usual dilatory manner”. We have no idea if Gale was actually a slow worker, but at any rate he was a good one as Fox Talbot used him for so much work not only on the estate but in his house. A letter from Thomas Holloway, surveyor in Lacock, to Charles Henry Talbot in 1890 thanks Charles for letting him know of John Gale’s death; he describes him as “a most useful man and the very essence of everything that is honourable and straightforward”, which shows that he was a respected member of the community, and it is lovely to have this honest and straightforward account of a man who was well known and well liked in his trade and his community. The fact that Charles Henry Talbot mentioned both him and his son’s deaths in his pocketbook when those events occurred shows that the family had been well-liked by the community and the estate owner.
John Gale is known for doing work on the workhouse in Lacock, now the pottery, and worked closely with the Banks family who were masons in the construction and furnishing of many estate properties. We know from the census records and the variety of information on his bills that he did a huge variety of work and was involved in building, valuing, measuring and carpentry. In another archival collection at the History Centre there is an account book of John Gale and Son which makes reference to work done for the camera obscura and other equipment for the development of photography. As part of the Lacock archive, we also have several account books from John Gale including a set of 9 books from very late in his life, in the few years before he died, showing the extent of work he was still overseeing. There are also countless bills and receipts from John Gale and William Gale detailing work done on the Lacock estate and showing the range of work that was carried out by John Gale, William Gale and their employees. One particularly interesting bill from John Gale lists in great detail the work done for the camera obscura.
We also have records from before John Gale’s time of carpentry and masonry in Lacock from the 17th and 18th century. Seemingly the most prominent carpenter in the Lacock estate in the 18th century was a man called Peter Cott: he and his son William, as well as someone called John Cott, presented countless bills to John Talbot over many decades showing that they were doing a lot of carpentry work across the estate. The Cott family were also known as the Dedicott family throughout the 18th century, and we not only have many bills showing what work the family did for the Lacock estate but also many leases and other legal documents which are just as useful in showing us what members of the family did for a living, where they lived (and, therefore, often where their businesses were based) and also how wealthy they were.
The Cott and Gale families were not the only families in Lacock who did carpentry. In the 19th century it is particularly easy to tell from the census records and trade directories who else was doing similar work; before these were available, it is more difficult to work out everybody’s individual trade because of the lack of the straightforward resources but we can still use bills and leases to determine what work people were doing. The Lacock archive is great in providing us with several such account books and normal accounts too, not just from the carpenters but also from masons, plumbers, blacksmiths and glaziers who were involved in the improvement of properties.