Discovering the Welhams of Walthamstow

Welham House in Church Hill, built 1893
Welham House in Church Hill, built 1893

Tour guide Joanna Moncrieff, from Waltham Forest History and Heritage Network, delves into the story of an unusual family tree

There is a house on the corner of Church Hill and Stainforth Road in Walthamstow that deserves a closer look.

Until early last year, Welham House at 12 Church Hill housed an office for both the charity Barnardo’s and Waltham Forest Music Service. On the front of the house can be seen the words “Welham House 1893”. Further up Church Hill a row of Victorian houses carry the inscription “Welham Terrace 1894”. Over the years I had walked past these many times without noticing the name Welham, but now my curiosity was piqued and I wanted to find out more – so I delved into the census records.

The railways arrived in Walthamstow 23 years before Welham House was built. The area had vastly changed in that time, with the availability of cheap workmen meaning rapid house building could take place. Between 1851 and 1901, Walthamstow’s population increased exponentially from around 5,000 to 95,000, leading many of the wealthy people to decide to move elsewhere.

In the 1901 census, we find a man called Thomas Welham, his wife Alice Welham, plus 12-year-old son Henry and 16-year-old niece Mary. Alice’s widowed father Henry Osborne and Thomas’s widowed mother Ellen Welham were also living at Welham House. Thomas is described as living on his “own means” while Alice’s father Henry is a retired licensed victualler, having at one time run the Bull and Crown public house in Chingford. Ellen is also described as living by her own means. They even have a servant.

Ten years on, in the 1911 census, Thomas is described as a “gentleman” and is still living at Welham House with his wife, son and widowed father-in-law. Ellen is listed as a “visitor” alongside Gertrude Pluckrose.

But what were the Welhams doing before they built their impressive house? Back in 1891, the census tells us that Thomas was running a pub – the Coach and Horses in St James Street, Walthamstow. He was living there with his wife, son, niece and three servants.

When Thomas died in 1930 he left £2,845, and when Alice died seven years later she left £18,000. In today’s terms that equates to roughly £130,000 and £824,000. Alice’s bequests included her best diamond earrings”, “best diamond brooch” and many other valuable jewellery items. She also bequeathed at least 19 properties in Walthamstow and South Woodford.

Waltham Forest Family History Society have transcribed many of the monumental inscriptions in local cemeteries and from their records it can be seen that some of the Welham family are buried in a rather grand tomb in Queen’s Road Cemetery. The first name listed on the tomb is that of Clarice Welham, who died on 8th May 1918 aged two years and three months – presumably a grandchild of Thomas, who is listed underneath as having died in January 1930. Hilda Ethel Welham, the second wife of Henry Welham, is listed as having died in November 1977 aged 84 years. Not only is this tomb quite impressive to look at, but it is on the main path, close to the cemetery entrance. It must have cost a packet!

The Welham family tomb in Queens Road Cemetery
The Welham family tomb in Queens Road Cemetery

While delving into the Welhams’ story I also discovered that Thomas’s mother had a rather a sad life. Clarissa Ellen Welham, who died in 1912, is separately buried in Queen’s Road Cemetery with two of her grandsons. All four grandsons from her daughter of the same name pre-deceased their grandmother. Her son-in-law, Robert Girling Norman (not buried there), committed suicide in 1888 at the Chester Arms, Albany Street, Regent’s Park. The inquest verdict, reported in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in August 1888, read: “Suicide when of unsound mind induced by habits of intemperance.”

Clarissa’s grandson, also called Robert Girling Norman, drowned in the River Lea in summer 1909. It was a very hot day but the coroner recorded that there was a “history of insanity” in the family. A full report of the inquest can be found in the East London Observer on 21st August 1909.

Another grandson of Clarissa’s, a publican called John Girling Norman, is buried in Chingford Mount Cemetery following his early death aged 34 in 1910. He left a 38-year-old widow, Alice (née Bolwell), and three young children under the age of seven. Following her death in 1922 she was buried with members of the Bolwell family in Queen’s Road Cemetery.

My original intention in starting this research was to discover the story behind Welham House, but instead it has taken me in different directions and left many unanswered questions. Although I wasn’t able to get to the root of how this family came to build their house or where Alice’s fortune came from, this has been a bit of an eye opener into the hard lives suffered by the wider Welham family.