[This is a typescript of a transcript made from the original by David Couchman]
My grandfather William Couchman was born I believe at Cranbrook in the Weald of Kent and was put apprentice to a carpenter at Ightham in the said County of Kent. After he was out of his time he married Mary Alchin of Leybourne in the same County after which he kept the George Inn at Ightham aforesaid, at which time he also carried on the business of carpenter and joiner in the most extensive way of any of the trade in that neighbourhood, tho’ not very much to his interest, he never being able to do any better for his children than bring them up to laborious trades also viz. Thomas, a blacksmith and farrier; William, a carpenter and joiner; Henry, my Father, also in the same trade. Both my Father and my uncle were first rate men as to their ability but marrying young and settling both at Ightham aforesaid, each having large families, and only their father’s business to be divided between them, they had enough to do to rear their families by their trades, which however they did with much credit to themselves.
My Father married Sarah, the only daughter of Mr George Luck, a yeoman and freeholder of Wrotham, the adjoining parish to Ightham aforesaid in the said county of Kent. I was the eldest of five children and was born on the 8th of January 1737/38 in the same room my Father was born in, at Ightham aforesaid – a house which my grandfather Couchman lived in before he kept the George Inn on the opposite side of the same village. In the year 1740 my Father left Ightham and went to Borough Green and sent me to my grandfather Luck when he carried on his trade for the support of his family. I was christened on the 22nd January 1737/38 at Ightham Church. My sponsors were my two grandfathers and my two grandmothers. As soon as I was old enough I was put to school to an old woman Ann Jordan in the same village Borough Green where I continued about 3 or 4 years ’till I was rude enough to be master of my dame and all her other scholars.
From there I was sent to a day school to Mr Edward Hodges at Wrotham, a mile from home, where I remained ’till I was about 14 years old, when I had the credit of having learned almost all my Master could teach me having been leading Boy and an assistant to Master some time before I left school. My grandfather Luck being also my Godfather took on him to give me all my schooling on which acct only I was sometimes order by him only to stay at home, to drive plough or harrow and in the seed time, haying and harvest and also to pick hops. At all of which employments I was very untoward and I believe, to say the truth, very idle. However I remember one principle reason which made me dislike all these employments was that I really loved school and the credit I had there. My Master Mr Hodges never went to school at all himself but rose by his own industry, merit and application from being brought up to threshing in the barns, which barns are generally built of wood and covered with weatherboards, on which boards he first began to learn to write with chalk, from which he became the most excellent penman of his day, and though he never taught anything but English, which he had yet scarcely learned himself when I went to him, he for many years had scholars sent to him to learn the English language from I think all the four quarters of the World.
When I was stopped at home (which I think I never did by my own desire) I was always placed in the bottom of my class in spelling, which was very unpleasing to me, as well as the loss of a penny every Monday night for the boy who was the uppermost, as well as the honour of carrying a white wand from school that night and to school the next morning. When these unpleasant holidays happened I used to get up within 3 or 4 of the top of the class generally the first night. Our class was numerous – about 50 – some of the older boys who could spell perhaps as well as myself kept me from the penny and white wand on a Monday night, which was a great mortification to me – and also a great gratification when I arrived at my highest pitch of honour again. My good old grandfather Luck, who had never had much if any schooling himself, thought I had constructed such a habit of idleness by going so long to school that I should never take to any laborious trade. He therefore proposed that I should go to his youngest son Thomas Luck my uncle to be a surgeon, but as I knew nothing of Latin that was against me. It was therefore proposed that I should be a shopkeeper, mercer and tailor in hopes that I might some day cut and make up my own cloth, a custom in Kent at that time and said to be a very good business for profit, etc.
I was always so much attached to my Father that I was not really happy when I was from him, and tho’ he persuaded me from being of his trade on acct of the hard labour etc. and on acct of my being a slight built boy, yet nothing would do yet I must go to work with the men. I being the eldest boy it was not necessary that I should be bound apprentice to my Father, and I really believed he did all he could for about 2 years to sicken me of being Carpenter etc. However it was agreed that I was to go with my much beloved Father and his men into the Weald of Kent to repair several farms belonging to —- of Greenwich in Kent. We set out heavily loaded with tools of which I carried a saw only. The journey was about 14 or 15 miles. I believe my dear Father was in hopes it would sicken me. I remember as we were going along somewhere below Hadlow in Kent, the men called for a halt or rest at which time I amongst the rest pissed against an oak tree and, to show my spirit and courage, I said here is as good a fellow as ever pissed against this tree. This occasioned a laugh and a bye word amongst the men but made my dear Father shake his head.
The first whole day I ever stood to work was felling timber (which is mostly done by carpenters in Kent), which is generally sawed off close to the ground, the saw working horizontally and leaving the stub and roots in the ground. I believe it is as hard work as is done and my business was to pull at the strap to assist the man who draws the saw, which is done sometimes standing, but mostly on the knees. This happened to be the year the style of time was altered – 1752 – and the first old Christmas Day that came – which by some people was looked on as a wicked thing not to be kept holy – my Father lodged and boarded at Mr Peter’s, the Principal Inn at Greenwich. If Mrs Peter had not been almost more kind than a mother I think I should have given up the trade at the first outset. However she was very good to me and gave me all the nice things she had which enabled me to go thro’ the fatigue of that job, which by going to and from it lasted 2 or 3 years.
One time when my Father was going to survey and look over his man on this estate – I was at work in the shop at home – a dreadful storm and hurricane happened in that part of Kent. It was so bad at Ightham and about there many people thought that the last day had come, but in the Weald of Kent from Tunbridge to Maidstone about 11 miles in length and 1 1/2 or 2 miles in breadth the thunder, lightning, wind, rain and hail was so dreadful as to destroy all vegetation from that part of the earth where it fell. The farmers had the greatest prospect of great crops of corn and hops etc. and were busy hoeing turnips. Some had begun to mow oats. The storm was so violent that man and beast ran under cover. In an hour afterwards when they went back they found the hop poles almost all beaten down and branches and leaves quite demolished and almost invisible which had happened to the grain of every kind, the straw being more beat to pieces than it usually is by any wind was wholly destroyed so that for a year neither harvest, hopping or gathering took place. The growth of the woods were also beaten off. Many buildings were blown down and walling and barns were thrown down. Many birds were killed and some cattle were much hurt by the weight of the branches which came on the wind. Every pane of glass towards the side the wind came from was broken and in the town it cost upwards of 3,000 pounds to repair the damage … I remember my Father when my Father came home the next day he sent a letter to his employer who lived at Greenwich giving an acct of what had happened in part of the estate and by return an answer came declaring that no rent should be received for that year. A subscription in many parts of England was opened for the sufferers many months but I do not know how it ended. It was said that many people came far and near and some from the Continent to see the devastation made on that part of the Country.
My dear Father still had a wish to keep me from the trade on which acct he made me work in the hedges about gates, mounds etc. and kept a long time to sawing. Some months together I have walked 3 or 4 miles in winter morning and night to sawing and our task one day with another was to saw 125 feet money 4s 2d. I at last became tired of this work and used to call my dear Mother and complain I was not sent to the trade to carpenter’s and joiner’s work … with the sawed timber, I was allowed to make drawings in our lodgement to show that I had some knowledge tho’ not employed at it. My dear Father then gave his assent and I should have been. On the 9th of August 1757 I left my dear Father and walked up the hill and almost to Greenstreet Green where I went to work for a Mr Martin of Greenhithe, who had several new homes in hand. My wages were small but my uncle Thomas Couchman gave me access to his table … Though when I had more wages after finishing Mr Hards’s house I left Mr Martin and went to work for Mr John — of Chatham where I was mostly employed in the shop and also sent to work for the ordnance people who lay in cannon on the hill above Chatham dockyard at which time the new year began. The master carpenter I forget his name took notice and said what a pity it was I should lose my time as it seemed I was learning less and offered to recommend me to a friend in a Woolwich yard the war being sharp …
I went to Woolwich but did not get into work – returned back to Chatham again – but after stopping about a year marched off toward London but afraid to go too near the Bear lest he should bite me. My uncle William Couchman was repairing an estate at Beckenham in Kent 9 miles from London. I called there he happened to be there and I told my desire and fear about going to London. He said he was acquainted with the carpenter of Beckenham Mr Wooden, who wanted men. He went with me. Mr Wooden took me on promising to employ me ’till he could get me a safe shop of work in London, where he was well acquainted, having been brought up there. I went to work a day or two when the foreman of a set of London builders who were employed at Mrs Ashlands near the church came to ask for hands. Mr Wooden sent for me to know if I would go to them indeed he advised me to it. I accordingly went terrified almost to death lest I should not be able to do my part of work amongst these people … the foreman spoke in my favour and I was allowed 14d a week full payment. At that time I began to think I should soon be rich and wondered where I should put my money. I found myself very happy in my work but soon found methods to get rid of all my money and wished that I had as much more. In November our work was done and I was taken with them to town where the press was very active as at that time London temporary bridge had been burnt down and we passed it in a great hurry – which was so narrow that those going to the City went on one side and those going out of the City went on the other side and there was a press gang placed near the ends or stairs so that the impressed people were put on board without loss of time. These sights used to frighten me very much but I never was molested by any of them.
In the spring of the year following my master Mr Stevenson sent me to Beckenham again to build a greenhouse for Peter Burrell Esq of which I was to have the whole direction and of which I could not think I was a proper person. However I went and pulled down the old building and put up a new greenhouse, which I did with credit to my master and myself yet knowing my own poor abilities as a builder. However I began to get more daring and careless or fearless about myself, and began also to be very apt to swear at anything that went as I thought wrong. Before now I think that I had never sworn an oath in my life. The last thing that I did for Mr Burrell was unpack the marble statue of the Duke of Marlborough which he had bought at Cannons the Duke of Chandos’s place there which we set up in the gardens at Beckenham at which the men I had to help were very awkward and occasioned me to swear. Sadly Mr Burrell hearing me said he was … and could send me to prison for such behaviour … he gave me a line to Mr Stevenson in my favour … I returned back to Mr Stevenson’s shop but soon after I left him and went to work for Mr Flight at St. Stephen’s Church Walbrook …
… finest of all Gothick houses in London there I was a few months when in consequence of belonging to a club of workers in a plan to raise their wages I with many others was released. At that time I had been paid off from my Master. I had become much master of my own trade and began to have experience as a builder I mean understanding the other branches of building. I spoke to my friends at Ightham and planned a place to go as Master man, which was with Mr Martin Driver of Dartford, an undesirable builder and ironmonger in that town. I was to work with him a while and then talk about the terms of his leaving off the Carpenter’s trade, etc., for me. There were two reasons why the place was not very likely to succeed. Mr Driver liked the advantage of my optimism so well he did not wish to give up the trade and when he was pushed to it he wanted more money than I could raise to take it. On which acct I was again going off for London when Mr Driver persuaded me to go and assist a Mr Rhodes to finish some rooms at Mr Archer’s at Sutton about 2 miles from Dartford, where I went and finished the work, my master being only nominal for he was very little or none at all consulted, the whole thing being managed by me, and I daresay strangely too. When I had finished I went a few days to see my friends again when Mr Archer came after me again he had had a misfortune by having a well fall in that supplied his engine. He would give anything if I would come and see and take upon me to repair it again …
I caught a bad cold by which I lost 13 month’s work and nobody thought I would get well again. Dr Nugent of Queen Anne Street, Cavendish Square prescribed for me – after a long time I recovered I thought by eating snails. However I went to work at Town Malling – for some time when I had done there I did some work for my dear Father and then, when quite recovered, returned back to London again – went to work for Mr Joseph Dixon, a great builder in Air Street, Piccadilly, who had just then built himself a very fine house, shop, etc., at Pimlico behind Buckingham House near Chelsea water works. I worked in the shop ’till he began to build Almack’s great rooms, King Street, St. James’s Square, when the foreman who had begun Lord March’s house, Piccadilly was taken from there to Almack’s rooms. I immediately was placed there as foreman of all the woodwork – and the other foreman being ill I also went to and fro to Almack’s in that capacity ’till he recovered again. I continued at Lord March’s, now Duke of Queensbury, ’till the work was almost done when I gave general satisfaction to all the people who were concerned there. Poor Mr Buck, Clerk of the Works, having hurt himself by drinking and inattention to his business, got paid off but made friends through Mr Brettingham to get in again. Whether Mr Brettingham had spoke to Mr Buck about me or not I don’t know but he was very jealous of me and wished to give me trouble about the business I had care of. Lord March took more notice of me and delivered his orders rather more to me than he did either to Mr Brettingham, Mr Dixon or Mr Buck.
About this time I got married and it appeared necessary to me to try if I could not do something better for myself. Accordingly I offered my services to Mr Brettingham as Clerk of the Works if he should want such a man. He seemed glad and told me he should soon want me and he should not wish a better man than myself. Soon after he began to build a house and offices for Dr Fordyce on Putney Heath where I was soon to go. I told Mr Dixon I was going from him and where – he went to Mr Brettingham and they disagreed about me so then Mr Brettingham gave me up when Mr Dixon offered me to be foreman and head clerk at the shop or that he would send me to Lord Exeter at Burleigh or to a new house in Gloucestershire, whichever I liked best. I told him that I did not think that he had used me kindly for he had deceived me when I had done all I could for his interest and credit. He has promised to give me as much wages as he did any man when I told him he gave me only 15s for 6 days when he gave Mr Bradley, an old experienced joiner who I believe richly deserved it, 18s a week for 6 days. He ordered his clerk to look back and pay me the arrears, which he did. I was uneasy at losing Mr Brettingham’s favour and I decided on not continuing with Mr Dixon whether I went to Mr Brettingham or not, which resolution I acquainted Mr Brettingham with, who said if that was the case he would take me only let Mr Dixon say what he would. Accordingly I soon went to Putney Heath for some time, long enough to get the goodwill of that good man, afterwards Sir William Fordyce, from whence Mr Brettingham removed me to a house purchased or given by the government to Hans Stanley, a great courtier. It is the house between the Duke of Richmond’s and Lord Loudoun’s. Lord Loudoun and Mrs Fordyce were great friends. I often saw Dr Fordyce as I stood at the door, who almost always gave me half a guinea, which was indeed a good thing for me for I was poor indeed.
A little before Mr Stanley’s work was finished after several times talking about it I was to come to Packington to begin a 7 to 10 years’ work. The plans were put into my hands to get acquainted with them. I was overjoyed and worked up to a high pitch of anxiety. When Mr Stanley found I was going he was very angry and asked me who was to take my place. I said as the business was almost done Mr Brettingham would look to it himself. Mr Brettingham be damned, says he, he never would have done it had it not been for you. Can’t you stay and remove my books, goods, etc., from the Admiralty to the house. I said that I could not, that I must go. How long shall you be, said he. I said several years. Damn it … I went to him in his library at the Admiralty where he gave me something to drink, he said, which was 5 guineas and told me to call on him when I returned. It was then an agreeable surprise to me for I had not for a long time had 5 guineas at one time. With part of the money I bought sundry little necessaries to bring with me into Warwickshire: wares, instruments, penknife, a razor, etc. I went and settled with Mr Brettingham for what I had done for him and, at the same time, the terms I was to be on with Lord Aylesford’s: viz, 1 guinea a week, my board and lodging etc., my travelling expenses on all journeys when on his business, etc.
I was to have been at The White Bear in Coventry on the 16th of September where a servant and horses came from Packington to meet me. I did not get there ’till the 17th of September 1766 when I arrived at Coventry by the coach about noon and at Packington about 3 or 4 o’clock on the same day. When I came to the house I stopped under the Dining Parlour window looking at the men who were digging at the foundations of the north wing. In less than a minute Lord and Lady Aylesford sent Mr Edser to inquire if I was not the man who should have come yesterday. On answering yes Mr Edser said Lord Aylesford desired I would go into the Steward’s room and get my dinner as it was then going on and desired I would be quick as his Lordship would soon want to talk to me at the building that is where they were getting out the foundations, etc. Before we had dined Lord Aylesford was waiting for me. I went and met his Lordship at the north-east corner of the present house, where his Lordship began by saying he was glad I was come and many civil things about me as though he expected me to be everything he wanted. He asked if I had brought the drawings. I told him they were in my box, which I had left at the farmhouse, Mr Larger’s, above in the road for that was then the entrance. On which he sent a man to order a cart to fetch this gentleman’s, that was my, boxes from Mr Larger’s. I told his Lordship that I had but one box, which was a little one. Any one of the labourers would bring it. In a few minutes the box appeared. I soon opened it and gave his Lordship the roll, which contained drawings of the house and some prints, etc., for that ingenious lady the Honble Miss Courtney, his Lordship’s niece. After talking over sundry things and his Lordship finding I was master of the subject as to what was to be done, his Lordship left me. But was with me again and the ladies also paid me several visits, sometimes together and sometimes separately. On the whole I had more notice taken of me than I wished – and I knew the wonder was that Mr Brettingham should send so young a man as I appeared to be – many people thought not above 20 years old, tho’ 28 years old – to manage so great and difficult a work. As it really was for it was no less than adding a wing to each end of the house, filling up the niche or half H which was in the west front and making a story under all the old house and then building another story all over the whole building, there being no attics in the old house, leaving it the most complete stone building instead of brick, having the timber to fell, the bricks to make, the stones to dig and work. Tho’ built at six different times no-one could tell where the joinings were.
I walked about saying as little as I could to anybody but Lord and Lady Aylesford ’till Saturday following when his Lordship before his Steward Mr Tomlinson gave me orders how I was to proceed and do everything to my satisfaction. As I alone was to be accountable for everything being done rightly and properly, I told his Lordship that agreed exactly with what had passed between me and Mr Brettingham before leaving London but that as most of the work was to be done by day by men who were not likely to give credit I must be able to settle accts with them every Saturday night, otherwise we should soon get into confusion, and that I should not otherwise have a proper command of the workmen. His Lordship said he himself would always supply me with money or drafts for that purpose, and that my accts were to be in a proper state for settling the first Monday of every month if he called for them. I made his Lordship a low bow and answered this was just as I wished it to be.
On the Monday following, the 22nd September 1766, I appeared before the workmen as their Master who they ever after applied to for orders and everything they wanted. And I having kept Lord Aylesford to his promise of supplying me with cash never missed paying them every Saturday night during the next ten years the work was in progress. This never having been the case before during the time that the stables were being built I had great credit amongst the workmen on this account. My diligence and close attention to everything I had to do soon procured me the confidence of both Master and my fellow servants, I mean the Steward, etc., etc. About Christmas Lord Aylesford went to London as usual came down to receive the rents at Easter. Mr Brettingham came with them on Easter Monday 1767. The first stone was laid at the north-east corner of the north wing … my diligence was unabated. Soon after, however, a dispute arose about the timbers which I had had cut and placed for the floor of Lord Aylesford’s bedroom over the Steward’s room. It was brought before his Lordship by the Steward and carpenter employed many years before I came. His Lordship yielded to them and my timbers were too large and had to be taken out and smaller timbers put in. I felt myself hurt and was much on my guard against them whom I found was beginning to be my enemies – but it was not because I did that which was wrong but because I did my duty and that which was right for let things go how they would I was always in my business. Some time after the timbers above-named were condemned for being too slight that they would tremble, etc., etc. I was order by his Lordship to take them away and cut out more as before and replace it. I think I never had any more trouble on that score afterwards, tho’ many complaints were made against me by the Steward and Bailiff, H. Shuttleworth, for being troublesome in asking for the teams, etc., etc. His Lordship sent for me one day after having heard a complaint and talked matters over about it. After having heard my reply he desired I would go on as I did or he believed that they wanted to persuade him that everything I did was wrong and he began to think that I never should be able to please them again.