Fontmell Magna in Australia


Fontmell Magna in Australia

In 2011 a couple, Brenton and Therese Leitch from Highbury, South Australia visited Fontmell  where their their family lived and worked 150 years ago.  They were shown round the village by Member John Enderby, to whom they sent a delightfully-written and illustrated, privately printed  book of their family`s history. The book has been generously presented to the village archives.

John Gadd has picked out some interesting facts from the 79 pages.

Boldly titled ‘Fontmell Magna’ and written by Brenda Leitch, the visitors’ mother,  it  describes the origins and history of the VIRGO FAMILY. The surname Virgoe – the last letter has now been dropped – is also spelled ‘Virg’, ‘Virgyn’ and ‘Vergyn’ in antiquity. It stems from the Easter Passion Play mainly performed in rural villages, where a man always played the part of the Virgin Mary.

Originating from Devon, the family moved to Sussex where William Virgo (1819- 1887) eventually arrived in Fontmell Magna in 1858, being appointed Headmaster of the School – seemingly a paradox as William was recorded as a ‘Certified Teacher 4th class, 2nd division’ while his wife Elizabeth also taught there as a ‘Certified Teacher 3rd class, 1st division’. They were both very popular in the community and obtained good annual Reports from the school Inspectors.

However their ‘Anni Horribili’ arrived in 1866 when Elizabeth, then the mother of four children suddenly died (‘much mourned by the community’) leaving Wiiliam to look after his 4 children, the youngest aged 5. He appointed his eldest son William Vincent, then aged 12 (!), as a pupil teacher under him. But a year later he was informed by the authorities that his qualifications did not permit him to appoint and take charge of pupil teachers. Nevertheless he soldiered on at the school for two years but without his wife acting as a full-time teacher and his son to help out. Some respite came to the poor man in 1869 when he married 25 year-old Mary Edwards from Shaftesbury, who at least took the four children off his shoulders. Even so in the same year, the Inspector’s Report read             “Children all listless and indifferent”.   So, reading between the lines, things could have been getting on top of him at the school with two teachers short, especially as the Government had reduced the school grant by ten pounds (about £3500 today).

Not surprisingly the new family soon left Fontmell for Kent where William was appointed headmaster of the private ‘Holmes School’ near Tunbridge Wells, seemingly under more relaxed educational rules, as Wiiliam Vincent, now 16,  helped him as Assistant Teacher and his second son aged 14 as Pupil Teacher. But this school too eventually faced financial problems and William senior had to dispense with one Assistant Teacher. Dying peacefully as pater familias in 1887, aged 68, William Senior had named his final home ‘Fontmell Cottage’ in memory of his earlier very happy times there.

William Vincent, having had enough of teaching and presumably after being made redundant, joined the army (2nd Royal Lancers) then became a London ‘bobby’ for a time, finally emigrating to Port Adelaide, South Australia in 1875, meeting attractive 19 year-old Mary Harrington on the long voyage out.  They were soon to marry after William Vincent started work as a clerk in the then emerging copper mining business. Later he had a variety of jobs (engine driver and travelling salesman were two of them). He and Mary started a large family – the book lists their 46 great-grandchildren and 70 great-great grandchildren.

By 1914 William Vincent was 61 and despite his years, he enlisted, giving his age as 41!  A photo of him in uniform reveals that it was easy enough for the authorities to accept his claim, but anyone admitting to being over 40 was in those days drafted to the Australian Army Remount Corps, where they looked after horses in the back areas.  The war over, William returned home, and Mary plus their 8 children settled in Knoxville (now Glenunga) where William, like his father before him recalled the happy and far-off memories of their time in Fontmell by naming their house ‘Fontmell’.  There is possibly a Fontmell Road or Street there.  And some members of the family still live at ‘Fontmell Farm’, Barota, S. Australia today.

William Vincent died in 1944 aged 90, and his younger brother Edward, also enrolled as a pupil teacher in the Holmes school after the move from Fontmell, died aged 93 in 1950.

Both William, father and William Vincent his son never forgot Fontmell Magna; neither it seems, have their descendants.

We are honoured.

Edited by John Gadd