High Street Wheelwrights in Victorian Hadleigh

Charles Choppen, his daughter Ada and her husband Alfred Lawrence in 1900

In the 19th century nearly every village had its own wheelwright, a man skilled in his trade who would probably be assisted by his son or a boy, serving a five-year apprenticeship. During this time, increased use of iron in the building of wagons meant that the wheelwright became more dependent on the services of a blacksmith. Hadleigh in the 19th century had the services of John Choppen, and later his son Charles, as the village wheelwright, with his son Stephen the village blacksmith.

John Choppen, born at North Benfleet in about 1796, was first recorded as living in Hadleigh and working as a wheelwright in the Pigot’s directory of 1837.  The Tithe Map of 1847 shows that John Choppen’s wheelwright business was near the Crown Inn (roughly where the car lot is today). John lived in the house with his wife Mary and their six children.
The 1851 census returns give more information on John’s family. His wife Mary was born at Chelsworth in Suffolk in 1799.John and Mary had six children who were all born at Hadleigh ~John in about 1827, Mary Ann born in about 1829, Stephen in about 1831, Charles William in about 1834, Julia in about 1836, Alfred in about 1838 and Henry in 1841.
In 1851, John Choppen, aged 54, was being helped in the wheelwright’s business by two of his sons ~ John and Charles. His other adult son ~ Stephen ~ was working as a blacksmith’s apprentice in nearby Bowers Gifford. John’s wife Mary was helped in the house by her two eldest daughters. Mary was now 22 and worked as a dressmaker, while her younger sister Julia, aged 15, was a teacher at the village school held in Mrs. Baldwin’s house. The two youngest children ~ Alfred and Henry ~ were pupils at the school where their sister taught.

By the time of the 1861 census, Charles was still helping his father in the business. Henry had now left school and was working as a baker in the village, but still living with John and his wife Mary. Sadly, two of their children ~ Mary and John ~ had died. But there had also been two weddings in the family. Stephen had married Ann Harrod and moved back to Hadleigh to work in the smithy just down the road. His brother Alfred was living with him and working as a blacksmith in the business. 1853 was a busy year for Choppen weddings, as their sister Julia married William Phillips, a shoemaker. By 1861 they were living on Leigh Hill with their three young children.

John continued working as Hadleigh’s wheelwright until at least 1867, when he was listed in Kelly’s directory. He died in 1869, aged 73 years. His widow Mary died in 1878, aged about 83 years, having lodged in the High Street with the Wallis family.

At the time of the 1871 census, John’s son, Charles Choppen, was running the business, helped by Frederick Brown, his 19 year old apprentice from Canvey Island. Charles had married Eliza Potter in 1866 and they had two young daughters ~ Elizabeth Mary born in 1868 and Minnie born two years later. Eliza was born in 1841 at Thundersley in Essex, the daughter of an agricultural labourer.

In 1881 Charles and his wife Eliza were both in their 40s. Since the previous census Eliza had given birth to two more daughters ~ Ellen in 1875 and Ada in 1878. Their 11 year old daughter Minnie was living with her uncle Henry Choppen at his hotel at Leigh. All Charles and Eliza’s daughters attended school at this time.

Ten years later, the census records that Charles was still working as Hadleigh’s wheelwright. Eliza now had only three daughters living at home, as Ellen had died in 1884, aged 9. Elizabeth and Minnie were both working as laundresses, and the youngest daughter Ada was still at school.

By the end of the Victorian era ~ in 1901 ~ Charles was still working as the town’s wheelwright. His daughter Minnie had married Edward Smith in 1892. In about 1895, his daughters Elizabeth and Ada had opened a tobacconist and confectioner’s shop. Elizabeth married William Johns in 1896 and by 1911 had moved to Peterborough. Ada continued to run the shop after her sister’s marriage, and in 1902 she herself married ~ Alfred Charles Lawrence. Charles Choppen died in 1906, aged 73 years. His widow Eliza survived him by seventeen years, dying in 1923, at the age of 83. Until her death she worked in Ada’s shop, which was later known as Lawrence’s sweetshop.

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