Capturing Cambridge: The Love and Life of Josiah Chater

Josiah Chater – A Draper’s Love

Off Hills Road, opposite Homerton College, you will find 21 Hartington Grove.  As was fashionable for middle class Victorian villas before street numbers, the house was given a name. Josiah Chater named it Agnes Holm after his wife, Agnes Barrett.

We  first learn of Agnes in Josiah’s diary in 1845 when he was sixteen; he was an apprentice at Lilley’s drapers [Eaden Lilley], 12 Market Street, living above the shop with other apprentices. The roost was ruled by the housekeeper, Fanny Goody who bullied the boys. In 1846, Mrs. Lilley sacked Mrs. Goody and kinder Miss Akin was appointed.

Agnes lived next door; her father John Barrett was also a draper. In 1846 Agnes was 12; the local teenagers hung out a lot together, meeting at lectures, the Choral Society and concerts, as well as private parties. Joseph was especially keen to improve his education and as well as attending St Andrew’s Baptist church, he would borrow books from the Mechanic’s Institute in Sidney Street and started to learn French.

In 1848 he joined the Barrett family on a ‘Gipsy party’ [a picnic]; Mr Lilley had noticed that something was going on between Josiah and Agnes. He was allowed to go on the party by his employer but was warned about getting too familiar with girls. This didn’t put Josiah off and he started to find Agnes self-improving books to read and taught her to play chess.

In 1849, Josiah’s uncle, William Adams, died. He was living in Fitzwilliam Street and had made a small fortune in the drapery business, much of which he left to charity. However, he did leave £300 to each of his two nephews, Josiah and William. Both were due to finish their drapery apprenticeships and the two brothers decided with their inheritance to set up in business together.

They chose 20 Sidney Street and on 13th September 1850 began business as W G and J Chater. Their sister Eliza came over from their hometown of Saffron Walden to act as housekeeper. Josiah records:

Eliza cooked our dinner for the first time – boiled ham and apple tarts she brought with her – and in the afternoon she and I went shopping, to grocers, bakers, butchers, ironmongers and one or two other places. She has set us up in crockery.

In 1851 Josiah became engaged to Agnes and by 1852 the two brothers had turned their £600 into a business worth £1000. The following year thy expanded into tailoring and on 6th July 1853 Josiah and Agnes were married at Holy Trinity. They honeymooned in Bath, Bristol and Chepstow and were due to move into a house in St George’s Terrace, Chesterton Road. Agnes found this too remote from the centre of town and the rest of her family however and they moved back to live over the shop while brother William, who had married in August, took up the Chesterton house. Josiah and Agnes stayed in Sidney Street until 1860 when they moved to his uncle’s old house, 19 Fitzwilliam Street, after the death of his aunt. In 1861 Josiah described himself as a woolen draper employing one man and two boys. Agnes and he had three children under the age of 5; his younger brother Alfred lived with them and they had two servants living in the house as well. The following year they moved their business to 1 Market Hill.

This post was written by Roger Lilley, one of our Trustees at the Museum of Cambridge.

Capturing Cambridge: The Love and Life of Josiah Chater