SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: No need to go all Dick Van Dyke, when Croydon had its very own chimney sweep to the Queen, no less, as DAVID MORGAN has discovered in his latest delve into the Croydon Minster archive
“Good luck will rub off when I shakes hands wiv you.”
Some of the chimney sweep’s good luck has certainly rubbed off for Bill Nighy, the internationally acclaimed actor who has starred in Love Actually and Living, and many others in a stellar career.
But Nighy could never claim to have been the chimney sweep by Royal Appointment, as his great great grandfather once was.
A search of the registers of Victorian times at Croydon Minster shows William Nighy living just around the corner from the old church. He advertised himself as a chimney sweep and fire defender of 140 Old Town.
He could be found listed in the General Directory for Croydon in 1866. I wonder whether, as a fire defender, he went to the church on that fateful night in January 1867 when the fire raged through the building?
In an advertisement placed in a local newspaper in 1875, he described himself as chimney sweep to Her Majesty and to his Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Not all his customers were so high profile, though. As an enlightening example for modern day Croydon, tenders that year for sweeping the chimneys at the New Workhouse and Infirmary were reported in the local newspaper. Two chimney sweeps submitted a price: Mr James Harris of Smith’s Yard, High Street, and William Nighy.
Nighy… ahem… swept all before him. He was awarded the contract to sweep all the chimneys and flues as required, to the satisfaction of the Master, and to leave the soot on the premises.
The price of the contract was £8 10s for the year – worth about £1,250 today.
One year later, Nighy won the contract again, this time in competition with a Mr Pearce.
William Nighy first appeared in the church registers in 1848, when he married Sarah Rowland on May 7. Both he and his wife signed the register with an X.
At that stage of his life William was listed as a bricklayer. William’s parents, John and Mary, were married at Croydon, too, on November 3 1825. William was born a year later. In the 1841 census, aged 15, he was listed as a labourer, like his father.
Three years after their marriage, William and Sarah were living in 46 Union Street. He was described as a carman – he drove a horse and cart. The first clue as to when or why he became a chimney sweep can be seen in the 1851 census. Living just three doors down in Union Street from the Nighys was Thomas Straten, whose profession was listed as a sweep. Did William talk to him about his work?
Tragedy struck the Nighy family twice in the 1860s. William’s wife Sarah died on July 13 1868, aged 39. However, four years before that, the following report appeared in the local paper:
“On Monday last, Mr Nighy, chimney sweep, of Old Town Croydon was proceeding along the Borough in his pony and cart, accompanied by his wife and child, an infant some seven or eight weeks old, when endeavouring to avoid another vehicle, his pony fell and the infant was jerked out of its mother’s arms and fell into the street, where it was instantly killed by a horse’s hoof striking its head, crushing it in a frightful manner.
“The grief of the parents at this melancholy occurrence may be better imagined than described.”
Nighy had calamities with his business, too.
In May 1865, his chimney sweeping machine was stolen. The culprit was tracked down and the case came to court in August. George Harris pleaded guilty to stealing the machine, which was valued at £2 10s 0d and selling it on to Joseph Grainger of Bagshot for 17 shillings. Harris was sentenced to two months hard labour for his crime.
By the time the 1871 census came out, William had remarried, this time to Anna from Trowbridge in Wiltshire. At the time of this census, the Nighy family was living in Old Town with the six surviving children from his first marriage together with baby Kate who was just four months old.
Several stories appeared in the local papers about Nighy, which are an interesting insight into life in Old Town Croydon back then.
In March 1878 Nighy had taken William Childs, an engineer from Old Town, to court for unlawfully taking his dog away from him. The dog was valued at £1. In his defence, Childs said that Nighy had agreed to sell the dog after Childs told him it had bitten some children. Nighy had told Childs that he had two dogs anyway and that he would sell him the one that had run at the children for “3/6 and two pints of beer”.
When Nighy got home, he discovered from his wife that the dog hadn’t bitten anyone, but on returning to Childs, he wouldn’t return it. The magistrate sensibly adjourned the case for a week so that the two men could sort out the issue of money and ownership themselves.
Another case in August 1880 saw Nighy summon a boy named James Batchelor for cruelly mistreating a horse, owned by Nighy, by throwing stones at it. The boy pleaded not guilty.
Nighy said that he saw Batchelor throw stones at the animal as it was tied up by his shed. There were lumps the size of walnuts on the horse’s head where it had been struck. Nighy went on to say that other boys were also involved in the incident but their parents had expressed sorrow at their sons’ cruelty.
Batchelor’s father appeared in court to say that he didn’t believe his son had thrown any stones as he had only been outside for a minute. He also added that Nighy’s cattle were a general nuisance because they were constantly roaming about the streets. The case was adjourned for further evidence to be produced.
The magistrate might have been aware, too, that in 1878 Nighy was fined five shillings with seven shillings costs for allowing three horses to stray.
Nighy was included in a list in March 1878 for contributing 10 shillings for the Croydon General Hospital appeal. The hospital authorities had been grateful for all contributions and stated that they had treated 352 patients for that week, including a man who had fallen from some scaffolding and broken his right leg.
William Nighy died on February 7, 1881, aged 55. He was “much lamented”, according to the short entry in the Croydon Times. Two of his sons took over the business – and it was still a going concern run by one of his grandsons, Alfred, the father of actor Bill, who would attend John Fisher School in Purley before embarking on his brilliant acting career.
And that legend of the lucky chimney sweep, as entwined in song in the Disney film Mary Poppins?
A few years ago, when my niece got married, her Park Run friends celebrated the event with a special fancy dress run and one of them dressed up as a chimney sweep.
The legend of the lucky chimney sweep began back in the 18th Century when George II’s horse was startled by a barking dog. A man bravely stepped forward, seized the reins and saved the day. Before he could be thanked, the man slipped away into the crowd.
When the King discovered it was a chimney sweep who saved him, he declared everyone in that trade to be bearers of good luck. “Or blow me a kiss, cos that’s lucky too…”.
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
Other articles by David Morgan:
- Croydon Airport was take-off point for a life of innovation
- The ‘incompetent’ Lebombo scout who helped win Boer War
- Croydon gold rush that saw thousands move to the outback
- Spectacular history of Addiscombe college is required reading
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
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