26/27 Sheep Street

sort of ghost-written by Sid Masters

Even since I joined the RFHG, its list of members’ interests has recorded that I am interested in anybody in Warwickshire whose name was MASTERS, especially during and prior to the 19th century.

On 13th October 2005 Graham Gare received an e-mail from Stewart (“Skip”)
McKinnell who lives in Victoria, British Columbia. The e-mail was worded as follows :

“I noted on the Rugby Family history page that there is a member with interests in the name “Masters”. My gtgt grandmother remarried a Robert Vernon Masters in the mid-1800s. Perhaps you might forward this message to your member to ascertain if your member has any interest in the name.”

Graham passed this communication to me and I couldn’t resist the temptation to dive in at the deep end.

Before I go any further, let me openly confess that during my lifetime there have been some names which I have found very difficult to remember …… and conversely there have been a few which have been impossible to forget. The name of Robert Vernon MASTERS comes into the latter category ……. a name like that has a noble ring to it …… its owner should have been at least an Admiral, if not a Count.

Act #1
I’m not sure but I am tempted to guess that I first bumped into Robert Vernon MASTERS about 7 years ago. I got the impression that he was employed during the early 19th century in McKinnell’s grocery shop in Sheep Street in Rugby. I also got the impression that he had married his employer’s daughter and, after Mr McKinnell died, he probably became sole owner ……. a Rugby trade directory of that period described him as a grocer and tea dealer.

According to various directories, Mr McKINNELL and later Robert Vernon MASTERS used to live in the shop building. However Robert Vernon’s circumstances must have improved because the 1861 census shows that he was then living at 18 Lawford Road.

But these were only hastily-formed impressions based on my less-than-thorough researches. I now know that they were far from correct.

More or less at the same time, I discovered that a certain Charles MASTERS used to farm half-a-square-mile of land which stretched from the Leicester Road in Brownsover to Clifton. The land was owned by Sir Egerton LEIGH and Charles lived in a house across the road from Brownsover Hall from about 1808 to about 1850.

Charles almost certainly had a canal bridge named after him. It stood for many years near where the Bell & Barge is now located and was known as the Masters Bridge. It was demolished in the early-1960s when the Leicester Road was straightened.

During part of his farming life, Charles was constable and Overseer of the Poor in Brownsover. Charles was also deacon of the Baptist Church in Gas Street. Furthermore it turned out that Charles was the uncle of Robert Vernon.

A couple of years after I made these interesting discoveries, I found myself intermittently in contact with a certain Geoff MASTERS who lives in Melbourne Australia. Geoff has descended from Charles, the farmer, and was able to add considerably to my knowledge of both Charles and Robert Vernon …… and before I forget, let me quickly tell you that I have no evidence that either Geoff, Charles or Robert Vernon are blood-related to me.

That was the extent of my knowledge when Graham Gare contacted me on 13oct2005.

Act #2
On 22oct2005 I e-mailed the gist of the foregoing to Skip Mc KINNELL who had originally contacted Graham Gare, and I copied the e-mail to Geoff MASTERS who was then probably trying to keep cool under a shady gum-tree in one of Melbourne’s suburbs.

And then, even before a fella could say jack robinson, I got hit by a whirlwind of e-mails which continued unrelentingly for four days.

Skip replied even before the ink had dried on the hardcopy of my first e-mail. He informed me that the original shop owner was his g-g-grandfather, James McKINNELL, who had almost certainly been born in Scotland and had married Mary Ann ADCOCK in Coventry St Michael’s in 1833. He said that the marriage record described James as a tea-dealer. Within a couple of years of their marriage, they moved to Rugby and established a grocery shop in Sheep Street.

James and Mary Ann had three children …… William born in Coventry in 1834, James Jesse born in 1835 and Robert born in 1837. Robert died in infancy. William was Skip’s g-grandfather.

In 1838 James McKINNELL died of tuberculosis at the young age of 31. I obtained a copy of his death certificate from the Registry Office in Rugby and the informant was identified as “Rob’t Masters Informant” but, rather curiously, the death certificate which Skip had independently obtained from the GRO identified the informant as “Rob’t Masters Inmate”.

The gravestones of both James McKINNELL and his infant son Robert can be found halfway along the southern fence of St Andrews Garden.

After her husband’s death, Mary Ann managed the grocery business by herself. Pigot’s Commercial Directory for Warwickshire 1841 included the following in its list of “Grocers and Tea Dealers” :

McKinnell Mary, Rugby

Act #3
In the meantime, Robert Vernon MASTERS had been born in Stretton under Fosse in 1811. At some time which isn’t recorded, he became associated with McKinnell’s grocery shop. This must have occurred before October 1838 when James McKINNELL died.

He married widowed Mary Ann McKINNELL on 24th December 1843 and became a joint partner in the business. Interestingly, the Rugby Advertiser dated 02may1846 (it was then a monthly publication costing one penny) included the following entry under the heading of “professions and trades” :

Masters R.V., grocer & tea dealer, Sheep st

In 1848 Robert Vernon and Mary Ann had a child whom they named Mary Ann.

The 3-inch thick 1850 edition of History, Gazetteer and Directory of Warwickshire contained an entry under Rugby’s “Grocers & Tea Dlrs”

Masters, Rt Vernon, Sheep st

Robert Vernon’s prospects improved further in 1861 when his Uncle Job died. Job used to farm 209 acres in Wolston and in his Will he left £100 to “nephew Robert Vernon Masters, son of Brother John”. On another occasion he was left four houses in Brinklow by his Uncle Thomas.

The association of Robert Vernon’s stepson James Jesse McKINNELL with the grocery business first appears in the 1862-1865 Rugby Almanak which included the following entry in its list of commercial establishments :

Masters and McKinnell grocers, 27 Sheep Street

Business was probably good because the same Almanak also included the following advertisement :

Masters and McKinnell
Tea and Coffee Dealers
Grocers and Provision Merchants
Huntley and Palmer Buiscuits
Dealers in Foreign and British Wines

After his wife Mary Ann died of typhoid in 1860, Robert Vernon MASTERS remarried to Elizabeth WALTERS. The 1871 census shows Robert Vernon, Elizabeth and Mary Ann (the child of his first marriage) living at 18 Lawford Road.

The 1871 census described Robert Vernon MASTERS as a retired grocer. The grocery business passed on to James Jesse McKINNELL, the founder’s son who had been born in 1835.

The 1872-1875 Rugby Almanak contains the simple entry :

J.J.McKinnell grocer, tea dealer, wine merchant &c Sheep Street

and page 919 of the 1874 edition of History, Gazetteer and Directory of Warwickshire included in its list of Rugby’s “Grocers and Tea and Provision Dealers”

McKinnell James Jesse, 27 Sheep street

The gravestone of Robert Vernon MASTERS in Plot 309 of Section C in Clifton Road Cemetery tells us that he died on May 12th 1877, aged 65 years.  

Act #4
James Jesse McKINNELL married Clara WHITEMAN in 1864 and their eldest son, born in 1869, was also named James Jesse McKINNELL Like his father, James Jesse (the 1st) died at a relatively young age in 1877 and shortly thereafter Clara appears listed as a grocer in the 1881 census. Clara seems to have been involved in the running of the store until her son was able to take over in the mid-1880s. James Jesse (the 2nd) was to have a prominent place in Rugby’s history.

The 1934 edition of Who’s Who in Warwickshire provides the following information :

McKinnell, James Jesse JP, Sedlecombe, Dunchurch Road, Rugby
Born 1869 at Rugby. Son of the late James Jesse McKinnell
Educated at Rugby School
Married 1894, Grace, daughter of the late James Eldridge
JP for Warwickshire; Chairman of Rugby UDC 1914-19; County Councillor 1917-21
Mayor of Rugby 1932-33 and 1933-34
Heir - James Jesse Mc Kinnell

This James Jesse retired from the grocery business circa 1927 and sold the shop to Mr A.J.BAND.

James Jesse Mc KINNELL (the 2nd) was made a CBE in 1935. He died in 1950 but his name survives in Rugby as McKinnell Crescent which was named after him. He had a son, also named James Jesse McKINNELL, born in 1895, who died in 1968 after a life of teaching music in Rugby, in Australia and in Oxford.

Circa 1932 Mr A.J. BAND sold the shop to F.W.Essex & Co. Later still, it became known as International Stores. For a short period, Baxters had a butcher shop there. From around 1971 to about 1989, the building was occupied by the Heart of England Building Society.

The premises are now occupied by the Cheltenham & Gloucester. Part of one of the upper floors is occupied by Tender Loving Childcare Ltd.

Curtain Down
My 1962 copy of the Rugby Directory refers to 27 Sheep Street as the House of McKinnell. The same directory also shows that J.J.McKINNELL (the 3rd) was then living at 20a Clifton Road.

Many of the people mentioned in this story had close connections with the Baptist Church, especially the one in Gas Street in Rugby (later Brotherhood House).

I wish to acknowledge the help given by two girls, each named Christine and employed by Rugby Library. Without their help, it is unlikely that I would have been able to identify the occupiers of the building during the 30 years following 1960.

If there are any extant descendants of either James Jesse Mc KINNELL or Robert Vernon MASTERS or his uncle Charles MASTERS, please get in touch with me and I shall happily put you in touch with Skip and Geoff without whom this story would not have been penned because they provided the bulk of the basic information.