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The Bishop’s Stortford wine merchant who has his own memorial in Castle Gardens





If you visit the Bishop’s Stortford war memorial in Castle Gardens, which stands in tribute to the sacrifices made by 314 local men in both world wars, it’s easy to miss the solitary memorial about 15 metres away dedicated to just one person.

But even that information was lost until, in recent years, Colin Woodward’s curiosity meant he could not resist a scrabble through some foliage. The memorial was hidden behind well-established conifers, making it impossible to be seen by casual observation. Colin, a former Conservative county, district and town councillor, saw to it that East Herts Council cut the plants back to make it visible. Later, they were removed entirely, finally revealing this oddity of local history for all to see.

The memorial has a water bowl cut into its top
The memorial has a water bowl cut into its top

Its construction is Masonic in style, with a triangular column mounted on a triangular plinth and encircled with paving slabs. The column has a bird bath bowl-shaped inclusion at the top and is inscribed on all three sides.

On one it says “William Smith”, on the next “1843-1927” and finally, on the third side, the inscription “Write me as one that loves his fellow men”, a line from the poem Abou Ben Adhem, written in 1834 by the English critic, essayist and poet Leigh Hunt about a pious Middle Eastern sheikh who finds the ‘love of God’ to have blessed him.

So who was William Smith? Local history is somewhat confused here, with suggestions that the memorial is a dedication to all masons who passed in wars between 1843 and 1927 and that the quote is attributed to William Smith. But this seemed unlikely, with the dates themselves not matching British or Commonwealth conflicts and the knowledge that the quote was from a poet contemporary to the engraved dates.

William Smith
William Smith

A review of online census documents for this period is usually a good start and this was no exception. William was born in Royston and into relative comfort for the 1840s. His father, George, was a wine merchant and so it was that William followed him into the trade.

By the age of 28, he was living on his own, with a domestic servant for good measure, on Hockerill Street, with his occupation listed in the 1871 census as wine merchant. By the 1881 census, William, 38, had moved to The Links, Windhill, where he would live for the next 46 years until his death. The records show he never married or had children.

His shop W. Smith Wine Merchant was a feature of the Bishop’s Stortford high street for many decades and was where Saffron Building Society is now, on the corner of Market Square.

Saffron Building Society, the site of William Smith’s wine merchant business
Saffron Building Society, the site of William Smith’s wine merchant business

William definitely kept himself busy outside of his business life in Bishop’s Stortford and was an active member of the community right up until his death at home on Christmas Eve 1927.

His obituary in the Chelmsford Chronicle of December 30 lists some of the organisations he was involved with: “For a considerable period he took active interest in the town’s affairs and he was a member of the Burial Board at the time of his death. He was also a Justice of the Peace for Hertfordshire.

“For many years he was hon. sec. of the Horticultural Society and was presented by the members with his portrait in oils. He was one of the few surviving members of the old 1st Herts Light Horse Volunteers, the pride of Stortford in the sixties, and when the regiment was disbanded in 1872 he held the rank of sergeant-major.”

An obituary and service details for William Smith in the Chelmsford Chronicle of December 30, 1927
An obituary and service details for William Smith in the Chelmsford Chronicle of December 30, 1927

His obituary lists many people who attended his funeral at St Michael’s Church and is a who’s who of Bishop’s Stortford in the 1920s, but it also gave a definitive direction to go for answers, because the last three words of the listed names are “including brother Masons”.

I contacted the Masons and was kindly helped by their Hertfordshire area archivist and librarian, Brian Tierney MBE, who filled in some of the details of William’s life as a Freemason.

Smith was a member of the Stortford Lodge, one of the oldest in Hertfordshire, having been founded in December 1831. He joined in 1880, was Master of the Lodge in 1884 and remained a member until his death.

William Smith’s own memorial near the war memorial in Castle Park
William Smith’s own memorial near the war memorial in Castle Park

After nearly 50 years as a Mason, it’s no great surprise that his monument would be in the form of a design so heavily linked to the Masons – but some questions remain.

Luckily, a few trips to the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies centre in Hertford yielded the answers as to how and why William Smith ended up with his own special place in the town and in its history.

Are you ready? Someone asked nicely and the old Bishop’s Stortford Urban District Council (UDC), the forerunner of the present-day town council, said ‘yes’. History can be a funny thing sometimes, but that’s essentially what happened.

Among the many Hertfordshire treasures that are stored at the archives are the minutes of the old UDC meetings. They clearly detail how this memorial came to be.

There are four entries relating to William Smith’s death and the memorial, starting with the UDC noting his death and offering its sympathies on January 3 1928: “The chairman referred to the death of Mr William Smith J.P. who for many years was a Member of the Council and it was Resolved:- That the Council record their deep regret at the death of Mr. William Smith J.P. And their sympathy with the relatives in their bereavement.”

A week later the council received a gift from Smith’s estate: the painting from the horticultural society that was mentioned in his obituary. The council resolved that it be hung in the council chamber. Unfortunately, it no longer hangs in the council chambers and its exact whereabouts are not known, to me at least. Some assets of the old UDC went to East Herts District Council, some to Bishop’s Stortford Museum and some appear to have been lost.

Charles Stacey Colman was a schoolmaster and treasurer of the Bishop’s Stortford Masonic Lodge from 1925 to 1931
Charles Stacey Colman was a schoolmaster and treasurer of the Bishop’s Stortford Masonic Lodge from 1925 to 1931

On January 24, the council received a letter from Charles Stacey Colman. The minutes of the meeting say: “Letter read from Mr C. S. Colman asking if the council would give their sanction to the erection of a memorial to the late Mr William Smith in the Castle Gardens to take the form of a bird bath or sundial. Resolved:- That the council give such consent subject to the approval of the Castle Gardens Committee as to the design and position.”

According to details provided by Brian Tierney, Colman was a “Schoolmaster of Stortford”. More importantly, he was treasurer of the Stortford Masonic Lodge from 1925 to 1931, which suggests that the Masons would have paid for the memorial.

It’s also not a stretch of the imagination to assume that Smith, with no direct descendants, probably left some of his wealth to the Masons, meaning he could well have ended up paying for his own memorial. He died a relatively wealthy man.

Details of Smith’s property sold at auction in April 1928
Details of Smith’s property sold at auction in April 1928

In March 1928, the Essex Newsman newspaper noted that William had left £25,333 in his estate. Then in mid-April, the Chelmsford Chronicle had details of an auction of Smith’s possessions, which took place at the then Messrs. G.E. Sworder and Sons. It said: “There was a large attendance and many experts.” Not surprising as Chippendale, Georgian and Jacobean furniture were among the many lots for sale, with several hundred pounds being added to the value of his estate.

Beyond the potential monetary question, it seems like this would have been a very easy resolution for the council to pass.

Councillors at the time were friends and colleagues of Smith, and some were brother Masons. He was also a long-standing and respected member of the community at large. It was probably made an especially easy decision with his painting literally hanging over them all in the chamber.

By our modern eye, it seems like an oddity to have a single memorial so close to the war memorial, a near-sacred landmark. But an attempt at post-Great War normalcy, some friends in high places and his genuine links to the communities of the town mean that William Smith and his memorial will forever be a part of Bishop’s Stortford’s rich history.



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