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Gingerbread House History Revealed

WITH their fairytale, "gingerbread house" appearance, the Romney Road almhouses almost look as though they have been transported to Kendal from the world of Hansel and Gretel, writes Rachel Kitchen.

Now local historian Dr John Satchell and his wife Sheila have shed light on the forgotten history of these most distinctive properties, and their meticulous research has earned them first prize in the Cumbria Local History Federation competition.

The investigation into the story of the two almshouses began during a tour of Kendal in search of the town's most noteworthy 20th century architecture, for a Kendal Civic Society poster.

The almhouses stood out, with their steep twin gables, original windows, "cat slide" roofs and spouthead dated 1928, but little could be discovered about them apart from their name - the Mrs John Aston Watkins Almhouses, built under her will of 1908.

The Satchells' search for Watkins graves led them to Parkside Road cemetery, where they scrubbed and cleaned two tombstones of lichen until the lettering shone like silver.

One of the stones recorded the death of Mary Agnes Watkins, widow of John James Aston Watkins, barrister-at-law in Tasmania.

Also in the family plot was Mary Agnes' father, Simon Myerscough, who was a carrier's agent at Canal Head; and her mother, Mary, who hailed from Colton, near Ulverston.

The family - not a wealthy one - lived in Lowther Street.

The Satchells followed up the Tasmanian clue by contacting the archives office on the island off the south-east coast of Australia.

They discovered John James Aston Watkins' family had come from Monmouth.

His father, a clockmaker, had emigrated to Tasmania, while his uncle was Vicar General of Van Diemen's Land (the old name for the mountainous island).

The Satchells can only guess at why the young Kendal girl, Mary Agnes, left behind her parents, her brother, and her dress- and bonnet-maker sisters and emigrated to Tasmania.

But there she married John James Aston Watkins in 1841, in the Catholic chapel in Hobart Town.

The couple bore no children, and Mr Watkins died of throat cancer in 1866, at the young age of 49.

His widow later returned to the family home in Kendal.

Two years before her death, in 1906, she made her will.

She left almost the equivalent of £1 milllion in today's money to be invested for her sisters, showing that her barrister husband must have died a wealthy man.

She also stated that after her sisters' death the money left should pay for almshouses to be built for four poor residents of Kendal - male or female, married or single, 50 or older, and not to be excluded on religious grounds.

"The most unusual bit of this story is the fact we've never been able to discover why Mary Agnes went to Hobart in the first place," said Mrs Satchell.

"How did she meet John James Aston Watkins? Did they know each other already?"

The Satchells visited Colton, where Mary Agnes' mother came from, to hunt for clues in the parish register.

"We were hoping for a reason as to why she might have emigrated," said Dr Satchell.

"It was obviously very hard times.

I was struck by the fact that about one-fifth of

the deaths were from people who were already in the poorhouse, so there seemed to be good reason to emigrate to anywhere where the grass might be greener."

So depressed was agriculture that country folk were struggling to make a living, so perhaps Mary Agnes made the long voyage to Tasmania in the company of a large group of people fleeing difficult conditions.

The Satchells have unturned many stones while uncovering the history of the almhouses, but this final riddle of Mary Agnes' emigration remains unsolved, and they would be pleased to hear from anybody who can shed more light on the story.

l To obtain a copy of The Forgotten History of Kendal's Romney Road Almshouses, contact Kendal Civic Society secretary Patricia Hovey on 01539-720388.



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