Cox and Robinson

One of Stoy Stratford’s more venerable businesses is the chemists Cox and Robinson.

Charles Cox was born in Middlesex in 1828 and came to Stony Stratford to work as an assistant for Joseph Howe, and established chemist and druggist. Joseph House was born in 1814 in the village of Milton Keynes and he brought in his nephew, William Robinson, as an apprentice about 1852. Charles Cox married Julia Howe from Milton Keynes in 1854, another relative of the Howe family.

It is not clear what happened to Jospeh Howe. He may have retired early, or possibly he died at the relatively early age of 46. At any rate Charles Cox was able to take over the business with William Robinson as his assistant. Both now had family connections and the two men formed a partnership and the business was from this point known as Cox and Robinson. They appear in the trade directory of 1864 as such.

Charles Cox did not live long either, dying in his early forties. William Robinson now became the senior chemist and Charles’ widow, Julia, became a partner in the business. The Cox’s had no children.

William Robinson did live to a good age, dying on 20 March 1916. He married late and there were no children from this marriage either. Therefore, the business was bequeathed to his long time assistant James McLean, who kept the business name. So either Charles Cox nor William Robinson had family that they could pass the business to, so it is all the more surprising that the name of the business continue to this day.

Some years ago the business moved from its old premises on the High Street to its present location on the Market Square.

(I am indebted to Paul Cox for the use of these images. Paul has prepared a pamphlet about old merchants’ flagons and includes several Stony Stratford and Wolverton merchants. The link to his paper can be found here.)

Stony Stratford in 1885

I have just discovered these two photographs published in Cassell’s Family Magazine in 1885. They may be some of the earliest Stony Stratford photographs we have.

This first shot is looking north to the river. Some of these houses survive today, but others have been rebuilt. The sign hanging out from the house at the end is that of the Barley Mow.

The photo on the Square shows the police station – at the time a relatively new building. The houses along Church Street are relatively unchanged.

Spencer Perceval and Stony Stratford

On 18 October 1806 the manors of Calverton and Beachampton were up for sale at an auction at the Cock Hotel. The successful bidder was John James Perceval, 3rd earl of Egmont. Earls of Egnont and the name Perceval are quite obscure in history but for one event, the assassination of Spencer Perceval in 1812.

Spencer Perceval was a younger brother of the earl of Egmont and had entered into politics as the MP for Northampton. In fact, there is a statue of him in Northampton’s guildhall. He held several cabinet offices before becoming Prime Minister on 4 October 1809.

On 11 May 1812, Spencer Perceval entered the lobby of the House of Commons and a man stepped forward, pulled out a pistol, and shot him in the chest. Efforts were made to save him but he died within a few minutes. His assassin, who made no attempt to escape, was a man called John Bellingham. He was a merchant who had been thrown into prison during some dealings with Russia. He got it into his head that the British Government should compensate him, and as no recompense was forthcoming, nursed a grievance against the government, which was directed at the unfortunate Prime Minister.

Justice was swift. Only four days later, Bellingham was tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed win May 18th.

Spencer Perceval remains the only Prime Minister in history to be assassinated. It was a freak circumstance and was unconnected to any policies he may have implemented. It was not even personal.

Cofferidge Close

Cofferidge Close is known today as a redbrick shopping precinct in Stony Stratford. Originally, it was a field bounded by the High Street, Horse Fair, Silver Street and the Market Square. It was called a close because it was an enclosed piece of land.

A map showing Cofferidge Close in 1680

Cofferidge Close (sometimes Cofferer’s or Coffereys) began to be developed, as far as we know, at the beginning of the 17th century. There were three cottages on the site of the George, which was built c 1610 or later, so there may have been houses on the High Street in the late 16th century.

How did it get its name? The answer is that we don’t know because it does not appear in any documents until the late 17th century. Some say that it was named after an official – a cofferer, that is a kind of treasurer, who, in an age before banks, kept money in a strong box – a coffer. Some have suggested that it might have been named after a man named Godfrey – hence Godfrey’s Close. Certainly, the name Godfrey (spelt “Godfree”, does turn up in the 17th century).

One completely unusual rendering of the name occurs in a document dated 6 October 1691, referring to the house of Thomas Fulford, “which house adjoins the Cow Fryers.”

Now, before we start conjuring up images of butchers cutting steaks and reaching for their frying pans, we should realise that this does refer to Cofferidge Close. Assuming that this was written down as it was pronounced in 1691, this must cause us to question once again the origin of the name. On the west side of the close is Silver Street, which until 1862 was known as Cow Fair. Was this close therefore leased by some friary and was, in medieval time known as the “Friar’s” and might, since Cow Fair was adjacent, been called the Cow Friars?

This is wild speculation on my part but it is still plausible. we know that Chicksands Priory and Luffield Priory once owned little pockets of land in Wolverton and Stony Stratford, so it is quite plausible that a Friary held some land to generate income.

So there are no conclusions here about the origin of the name. The place, however, can be identified with certainty.

How York House got its name

York House Centre on the London Road is a thriving youth and community centre since 1963, when the building was taken over by the St Giles Youth Club. Two years later, in 1965, the organisation changed its name to the York House Youth Club. So where did the name come from?

York House Centre today

Well, it doesn’t start here. The name comes from the house at 77 High Street, for many years now the Conservative Club. It was built by John York as a private house in 1840. He was the owner of the Tannery and for a time a partner in one of Stony Stratford’s early banks.

77 High Street, the original York House

In 1892, Adeline Slade moved her school for girls to Stony Stratford and took out a lease on 77 High Street. She named her school, York House School, and it operated from these premises for a decade. In 1902, after some unsatisfactory experiences with her landlord, she moved to a large house on the London Road for a rental of £50 a year. Three years later she was able to buy the property at auction for £810.

York House as a Girls School

She wished to keep the name of the school, and notwithstanding the name of the house at 77 High Street, she named it York House, a name that survives today.

Saint or Sinner?

Some time ago I wrote about the Reverend William Thompson Sankey, Stony Stratford’s great benefactor of the 19th century. The vicarage, New Street, and St Paul’s School (later Fegan’s Homes) re all part of his legacy. The earlier post can be read here.

But all was not sweetness and light after all. I have just read the petition for divorce which Mrs Sankey made in 1871 and a very different picture emerges.

Just to recap, Sankey was born in 1829 and in 1858 married Jane Royds, a very wealthy widow. She was then about 40 and already had four children. She gave birth to another son by Sankey in 1859.

She was the source of all the money for his building program in Stony Stratford and now appears to have been a source of friction between them. No doubt she was willing to fund his projects in the first years of their marriage, but by 1867 she was drawing in the purse strings, and this drove Sankey to inexcusable behaviour.

If the divorce petition is to be believed (and it certainly bears the ring of truth) Sankey turned to violence. She claimed in the petition that he was a man of violent temper who had frequently abused her and her children, used threatening language and on one occasion in 1867 struck her in the face and left her with a black eye. This apparently was after he had asked for money and she had refused. There were other incidents: he snatched a chair that she was sitting on away from her and caused her to fall on the floor; he kicked a candlestick out of her hand in a fit of temper; he threatened her with a poker and when she said that she would write to his mother to complain, threatened to cut her throat. On one occasion he dragged her around the room by her arms and put his foot upon her face.

She was granted a separation but not a divorce in 1871. Sankey died only a few years later in 1875 so she was relieved of any further burden. He was only 46.

William Thompson Sankey is regarded as one of Stony Stratford’s greatest benefactors and I suppose this still holds true, but there was a darker side to his character, which is now revealed. We may regard him partly as a product of his times – a Victorian male, who believed he had an absolute right to spend his wife’s money – but this hardly excuses his violent behaviour towards her.

The school that W E Sankey built with his wife’s money

The Woodville Chronicle

My recent book moves a few miles away from Wolverton, four miles in fact, to Grafton Regis, home to the Woodville family, who gained much prominence in the 15th century, when Elizabeth Woodville became queen of England in 1464. I in the landscape and with some of the stories and legends of the Woodvilles, told to me in some earnestness by my primary school teacher. The “Queen’s Oak” at Potterspury, reputed to be the meeting place of the widow Grey and Edward IV, was still a substantial tree when I was young. At that age I believed the legend without question.
I revisited the Woodville story a few years ago as a by-product of a developing interest in 15th century history and discovcered (not completely without surprise) that historical assessment was somewhat at odds with the innocent tales of my childhood. The family has not enjoyed what we might call “a good press.” Some criticism is fair and justified, but it appears to me that much is an unconsidered reflex founded on snobbery. To characterise them as “greedy and grasping”, for example, when they were doing no more or less than any other 15th century family in a similar position, is a judgement that is founded on prejudice.
This book is a product of my investigation into the family and is not simply an account of Queen Elizabeth’s sudden rise to power. I have tried to give a balanced account, although I am doubtless guilty of giving the family the beenfit of the doubt.
The years when the Woodvilles hit the headlines, so to speak, covered a relatively short period of 20 years, but the longer history of the family was quite an honourable one and part of this book is designed to flesh out the Woodville antecedents
The family reveal themselves to be highly intelligent, athletic and cultured; they showed leadership ability and were able to hold their own in the highest ranks of 15th century society. 
Some families rise and maintain their place, like the Cecils or the Spencers or the Russells, but the spectacular rise of the Woodvilles, coming as it did with the sensational marriage of Elizabeth Woodville to Edward IV possibly could not hold. Such power as they had was entirely due to the king and was immediately vulnerable after his untimely death in 1483, and so it proved. They may have been unlucky. Had the males survived into a Tudor generation they may have taken a firm place in the establishment and their origins may have become rather less than the central fact about the Woodvilles.
The grandchildren of Elizabeth Woodville included Henry VIII and his sister Margaret, whose descendants became the Stuart kings in the 17th century. Jane Grey, was also a great grandchild and she was encouraged to press her claim to the throne in 1553. She lasted nine days.
The 15th century was one of the more turbulent periods in English history and at its close there were some winners and many losers. the story of the Woodville family therefore reflects the story of the century. They began their rise in the first decade of the century and by the seventh decade they were a power in the land. And then Fortunes Wheel turned unluckily for them and by the end of the century the Woodville name had disappeared from history. Their influence lasted a little longer as their bloodlines continued in the royal family and in the aristocracy. 
The book is available in bookstores, from Amazon at
or from the publisher, direct:

A Gunpowder Plot in Stony Stratford

George Atkins was something of a retail entrepreneur. He established (and later sold) a drapery business in New Bradwell, leased the Radcliffe Arms at Wolverton in 1861, and had a grocery on the High Street in Stony Stratford in middle of the 19th century. Like most grocers of that period he employed a staff of about 8 or 9 people and prospered in business.

On the evening of November 25th 1859 one of his staff noticed a cord trailing from under the door of a locked room. On closer inspection, the rope was found to have been drenched in salt petre, and once the door was unlocked they discovered a trail of gunpowder and a keg of about 100lbs connected to this trail.

The intention must have been to blow up Mr Atkins’ premises, possibly that night. There was certainly enough gunpowder to cause destruction and possibly loss of life. However, although Mr Atkins had his suspicions about the culprit, he had no proof, and if anyone knew anything, they were not telling. As a result, the authorities were informed but no one was ever brought to court. Mr. Atkins probably sacked the disaffected employee and that was the end of the matter.

There are no further details. We don’t know what kind of employer Atkins was. As a Victorian, he would probably demand hard work for little reward, but, then as now, some employers were able to create better relations with their staff. Atkins himself was in court a few years later for using illegal weights. By this time Imperial measures were standard. Weights were stamped as proof of their legality and inspectors, from time to time, checked against abuse. if george Atkins used a 15 ounce weight for 1lb, for example, this would make a healthy difference in his profits over time.

The Battle of Passenham

One of the more obscure events in English history occurred in 1382 over a land dispute between Stony Stratford and Passenham. The two principals were Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby, and later to become Henry IV, and Sir Aubrey de Vere, chamberlain to Richard II, who held the manor of Calverton. Both principals were extremely well-connected. de Vere was the brother of the earl of Oxford and the uncle of Robert de Vere, who was a close friend and advisor of Richard II, and Henry was the son of the rich and powerful John of Gaunt, who was uncle to Richard II.

John of Gaunt had granted the manor of Passenham, amongst others, to Henry, his eldest son when he was only 15 years old. Some of de Vere’s tenants in Stony Stratford saw this as an opportunity to grab the use of the land just across the river for their own purposes. They probably had the blessing of their lord of the manor. Young Henry got wind of it and sent two of his men in April to enquire into the matter. They were met with some hostile resistance from the Stony Stratford men, sufficient to cause Henry to send 60 armed men on May 29 to arrest the offenders. A week later, another of his servants, Hugh Waterton, was dispatched to retrieve a horse which had been stolen from Passenham and was met by 500 men who had come from Coventry to strengthen de Vere’s side. Waterston managed to calm things down by buying breakfast for everyone at a Stony Stratford inn.

Even so, the dispute, which had by now raised passions on both sides, would not be settled and John of Gaunt advised his son to tell the king his side of the story. Presumably Richard II already had been briefed by de Vere and presented with one side of the case, but it does appear, that once the version of the Passenham tenants was presented, the king was able to restore good behaviour on both sides.

To call this a battle, is perhaps overstating the matter. Armed men were involved on both sides but it is unlikely that the matter escalated to a pitched battle.

Locking up Criminals

This drawing of the Market Square was done in 1819 and illustrates a very different range of buildings on the Church Street side. The building on the left was a market house, largely open but providing some shelter during market days.At the west end were the stocks and a pillory and a lock-up known as the Cage. According to Markham it measured 20 x 27 feet. It was probably open to the elements and sufficed to lock up troublesome drunks and prisoners who needed to be restrained before being transported to Aylesbury. A couple of those villains are reproduced below.
There was also a pub here known as the Crooked Billet which had a rather dubious clientele.
By the middle of the 19th century the Cage was becoming dilapidated and was no longer a secure lock up. There was a campaign for improved accommodation and a new Police Station was opened in 1862 on the land formerly occupied by the cage and additional land purchased from the Lord of the Manor, Mr Selby Lowndes, for £50. The cage, market house and several slum cottages, known as the Shambles, were demolished.
The new building was typical of the architecture of the period and in some respects resemble the structure of the Science and Art building at Wolverton, built at around the same time. The cottages for policemen were probably later additions.