There are not many buildings left standing where an ancestor of mine once lived. One of the few exceptions that I know of is a quaint yet ordinary-looking, four-bedroom house called Ash Villa, in Upper Colwall, Herefordshire. Nestled behind the border with Worcestershire on the Malvern Hills, the house lies on the edge of Beacon Road, which connects Colwall proper with the British Camp above. The Wyche Cutting is located a few feet away.
Ash Villa may not look imposing, with its four bedrooms and its simple façade overlooking the valley. All the same, its location and surroundings make it an idyllic property, in my eyes at least. Having a direct personal link to the place naturally naturally makes it a lot more special, but what is even more exciting is the fact that at one point Ash Villa -and practically all the houses around it- once belonged to my English ancestors, the Allens. To both sides, and even behind the house, a whole network of siblings, nephews and eventually grandchildren once lived. Today, alas, not a single relative of mine owns or even lives in the area, which I suppose is an all-too-natural occurrence in most people’s family history.
How and when my ancestors came to live in Ash Villa is a bit of a mystery. Inspecting tithe maps and property records could hold the answer, I am reliably told by Hereford Records Office. If I were to check the Tithe Map of c.1840 and the Finance Act map of c.1910, I should be able to ascertain whether the building existed in 1840 or if it was built between that year and 1910 (thanks to census records, I know that the building certainly existed by 1911). The 1840 tithe map apparently holds an “apportionment” mentioning who a building’s owner and occupier were at the time, and what the name of the property was. However, if the house changed name after that date, it would be practically impossible to follow the houses’s history in subsequent decades. To all effects, it would be like searching for the same individual under an alias. In addition, the only way you might be able to find out about a particular property before 1840 is if it is mentioned within the records of a larger estate where it was situated… At any rate, as I live nowhere near Ash Villa or the Hereford Records Office, I need to rely on other sources of information to find out the truth.
My great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Allen (1760-1843), who was a land-owning farmer, lived all of his live in Colwall. In the 1841 census he is listed as living in the hamlet of Evendine, which is little over two miles away from Upper Colwall and the site where Ash Villa now stands. It is therefore evident that my ancestor did not inhabit Ash Villa almost 200 years ago, if the building even existed at the time, but this does not mean he had no link to the area that his descendants would one day call home.
Fast-forward ten years and the Allen family seem to have moved up from Evendine to Upper Colwall. By 1851 Thomas’s widow Sarah lived with one of her sons, Joseph Allen, sharing a farm called The Knell. Another of her sons, my 3x great-grandfather Edward, was living at the Wytch (sic) with his wife Ann, their daughter and two sons, a niece and someone who appears to have been a foster daughter of the family. The geographical shift looks like we are definitely getting closer to the truth.
In 1861 Edward Allen and his family appear to be living in Upper Colwall in a property called Portugal Cottage, near the Wyche. Portugal Cottage may have been the same property as the one they were occupying ten years previously, and may even be a primitive name of Ash Villa (or the house than stood there previously), but without specific references, such a link is at best questionable. Other families not immediately related to mine lived in surrounding houses on Wyche Road, going down to an area of the village called the Purlieu (often mistranscribed as Purleigh or Purley, which are both closer to the place’s actual pronunciation).
By 1871 Edward Allen had lost his wife, but he still lived in Upper Colwall with his daughter Clara (a seamstress). Her brother William Henry lived next door in Ivy Cottage (which, I believe, may well be the cottage currently standing next to Ash Villa under the name Victoria Cottage). Curiously, another brother called John (who incidentally is my great-great-grandfather) was not living in Colwall at all, but in Albert Road, Kings Norton, on the outskirts of Birmingham. The move may have been prompted by the latter’s profession -he was a carpenter and joiner- and he would certainly had found more job opportunities in the booming city than in sleepy Upper Colwall. John was not alone in Kings Norton, for he had his wife Jane and two infant daughters, Ada and Ellen (a third daughter, Annie, had been left behind, to live with her maternal grandmother and the latter’s second husband). We know the couple’s next child, Rose, was born in Birmingham, but for the next birth (that of my great-grandfather William John and his twin sister Maria) John and his wife went back to Colwall. We know they both resumed their existence in Birmingham (that is where they would both die and where, presumably, they are both buried) but it is likely they made regular trips to Upper Colwall to visit their relatives there.
By this time, and with all certainty, Ash Villa had come into the family’s possession, for an existing photo of John and his wife outside Ash Villa (above) has somehow miraculously survived. Although difficult to date, I am certain the photograph is from about the turn of the century. Although the couple no longer appear to have lived in Upper Colwall by the early 1900’s, they may well have been photographed outside their son William John’s house during a prolonged family visit.
Having left Birmingham for good, my great-grandfather William John decided to move back to Colwall sometime between 1901 and 1910, although it appears he did not set home in Ash Villa/Portugal Cottahe right away. The 1911 census shows that Ash Villa was inhabited by a Mr William Sombs (or Tombs) and his family, who were likely tenants of my great-grandfather. Around that time, William John married my great-grandmother, whose own house during her unmarried years, Hyde Ash, in Ivington, may well have given Ash Villa its current denomination. The couple had three children, and it was in Upper Colwall that they lived when World War I broke out. The young family lived for a time at Highland View (the house adjacent to Ash Villa) but by the time my grandmother was born in 1917 they had already moved next door to Ash Villa itself. It was next to the house, in what is today a garage, that William kept his workshop, and where he would later build a large bird-cage which came to house some 300 canaries. In the aftermath of the 1929 Crash, and to make ends meet, my great-grandmother (a decidedly excellent cake maker) decided to turn the workshop/aviary into a tearoom for hikers who were walking up to/down from the Beacon.
Both William and his wife died in Upper Colwall late in life, but their closest relatives still lived nearby. Their only son lived in Highland View, which I believe was still in the family until a few years ago, and one of William John’s widowed sisters lived in one of the terraced cottages until her own death in 1955. Later one of my own uncles lived in the property behind Ash Villa after his own marriage, but as time went on less and less people, particularly among the younger generation, wished to remain in the village. The properties that had been inhabited by various relatives over the years were gradually sold off after my great-grandmother’s death in the 1960’s. Although no longer part of my family’s present history, I have the satisfaction of being able to claim some degree of personal relationship with the place. I wonder if those who live in Ash Villa and the surrounding houses have ever even heard of the Allen family?