Continuing the story of the Friern Manor Farm Estate:

Part 2: The Dairymen - William Blackmore Noble and John Mee

By Gavin Bowyer

A large part of the Friern Manor Estate, some 118 acres, bounded by modern day Barry Road, Forest Hill Road, Wood Vale and Lordship Lane, were listed on the 1838 tithe map as being tenanted by William Blackmore Noble and John Mee. As the joint tenants of the Friern Manor Farm, they leased 90 acres of grass and 28 acres of arable land.

William Blackmore Noble was born in Rotherhithe in 1789 and joined the Royal Navy in 1803. John Mee was born in Ireland in 1790 and joined the navy the following year. Both joined as midshipmen at the age of fourteen, soon after the start of the Napoleonic Wars. They soon saw action.

In early November 1805, John was serving with Sir Richard Strachan’s squadron when they pursued and captured four French ships of the line fleeing the Battle of Trafalgar. William became a lieutenant in 1809 and John achieved the same rank a year later. They probably met for the first time when their careers overlapped when William joined the HMS San Josef in November 1810, the ship on which John had been serving since June. The San Josef had been captured by Nelson in 1797 from the Spanish at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. During the period that William Noble and John Mee served on HMS San Josef, it was stationed in the western Mediterranean and was part of the Channel Fleet blockading the French ports.

After HMS San Josef, they served on different ships patrolling home waters. Then in January 1814, during the largely forgotten War of 1812, fought against the USA, they both saw active service again. John Mee transferred to HMS Tonnant, the flagship of Rear Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane off the eastern coast of the USA. In June 1814, William Noble joined the newly built 56 gun HMS Prince Regent on Lake Ontario supporting the British forces in Canada.

On 24th August 1814, Cochrane’s fleet supported the army in the capture of Washington and burning of the White House and Capitol Building. The British next began to prepare to assault Baltimore, Lieutenant Mee was present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry guarding the approach to the city, which inspired the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner. In the event the attack on Baltimore was not pursued and instead the task force sailed south to attack New Orleans. The campaign ended at the Battle of New Orleans when Andrew Jackson led the American forces to a resounding victory against the British troops.

In March 1815 John Mee transferred from HMS Tonnant to HMS Narcissus but, with an end to the war with United States that same year, the Royal Navy much reduced its strength and in May 1816 he was placed on the Navy List at half-pay and retired from the Royal Navy. One year senior in rank, William Noble had retired a year earlier, serving his last 11 months on HMS Charwell in Canada.

On 1st September 1818, William Noble married Esther Allen at St Leonard’s in the City of London. They had three daughters, Mary Ann born on 27th May 1819, and Maria on 27th July 1820. Both were baptized at St Leonard’s and the family was living in Newgate Street, with William’s occupation given as mariner, presumably still on half-pay. The third, Eliza Esther was baptized on 30th May 1823 in St Giles Camberwell. This time, William is recorded as a gentleman but without an address. As former ship-mates, Noble and Mee had clearly stayed in touch and perhaps had already formed a business partnership. On 5th April 1832, at St Bride’s Church, City of London, John Mee married Elizabeth Allen, Esther Noble’s sister with William listed a witness.

In 1838, William Noble is recorded as appearing as a witness at the Old Bailey in the prosecution of one of his servants, James Smith. William gives his address as parish of St Andrew, Holborn, and states that he kept a dairy farm with John Mee of Peckham Rye.

It seems, John was running the farm day to day. In the 1841 census, both John and William with their wives and William’s daughters are at Friern Manor Farm. In the neighbouring lodge lived Charles Austin, dairyman, and his family. 

Newspaper reports from 1842 show that they were still running Friern Manor Farm. On 12th July 1842, James White, a 53-year-old employee, was brutally assaulted by William Webb, a fellow employee, using a billhook in the stables on the farm. John Mee gave evidence along with Mr Barnes, his foreman, and two employees, Taylor and East, at the hastily convened trial.

Later that month, there was a great storm across much of London. Two of Mee’s men were mowing rye grass when they were struck by lightning. The lightning scorched the grass and burnt off the scythe handles from the blades. The men survived and speedily left the field. 

Evidence of the expansion of Noble and Mee’s business enterprise beyond Dulwich, comes in a newspaper report of a fire in Fetter Lane, Holborn, on 21st August 1843, when a terrific explosion destroyed the entire back of a house precipitating a chest of drawers and a bedstead onto the roof of the Friern Manor Farm Dairy, some 50 yards away. In 1846, Mee and Noble are listed in Kelly’s London Postal Directory as Dairymen, 1 Bartlett’s Passage, Holborn, however, the 1851 Census suggests that they had by now retired from the business. John Mee had moved to Lambeth and William Noble to Swanmore, Hampshire. Both retained their reserve naval status, eventually being made Royal Navy Commanders on the retired list. John Mee died in Ventnor on his 82nd birthday in 1872. William Blackmore Noble died in Redhill, on 16th March 1889 at the age of 99 years.

Benjamin and George Wright

In 1851, Benjamin and George Wright are listed as the occupiers of Friern Manor Farm and Trade Registers show that they have taken over and further expanded the dairy business. The brothers were from Clerkenwell and respectively 29 and 25 years old in 1851. They were two of the sons of Joseph Wright, a manufacturer and major leaser of Royal Mail coaches to operators, with up to 250 coaches leased out at one time. In 1836, Joseph obtained the contract for the London to Birmingham Royal Mail service. He realised that the days of horse drawn mail coaches were numbered and moved into the manufacture of railway coaches and wagons, setting up a large works, in 1847, at Saltley, near Birmingham, selling and leasing wagons to operating companies. So, although in their twenties, Benjamin and George had a substantial family business behind them.

In 1851, also listed as living at the farm are two maidservants, a cowshed hand, five milk carriers and a groom. Additionally, Will Steele, the cowshed foreman and his family were living at the Friern Farm Cottage. Charles Dickens mentions a Mr Wright in his glowing description of the farm, in his article, “The Cow with the Iron Tail”, in the 9th of November 1850 issue of Household Words of which he was editor. The article described the problems of the adulteration of milk sold in London. Dickens holds up Friern Manor Farm as an example of the production and supply of hygienic and pure milk. He described the farm in detail. The dairy herd contained up to 300 cows of varying breeds and types. They grazed lush grass, supplemented with mangold wurzels, turnips and even kohlrabi. This rich diet meant they each produced 18 quarts (about 19.5 litres) of milk a day. 

The workers all lived at the farm. The milking took place at night in two sessions, one at eleven o’clock and the other at one thirty in the morning. The milk was passed through several strainers, and placed in churns, barred across the top, and sealed. The milk was despatched in a van about three o’clock each morning and arrived at the Dairy, Farringdon Street, between three and four. The seals checked and taken off. Next the milk carriers, or " milkmen," all wearing the badge of Friern Farm Dairy, collected their pails, filled, fastened at top, and sealed. and away they went on their early rounds, delivering to the early breakfast-people. Late breakfasters were supplied by a second set of men. 

On 11 June 1853, the Illustrated London News printed a similar article extolling Friern Manor Farm husbandry practices, especially regarding hygiene and the quarantining of newly bought cows before their release into the herd and the careful disposal of manure.

In November 1851, the two brothers went their separate ways, dissolving their partnership in the farm by mutual agreement. The notice of the dissolution lists two dairies, 20 Farringdon Street in the City and 8 Charles Street off Grosvenor Square. Benjamin’s interests in the farm and Charles Street were bought by Henry Benwell. Benjamin retained some interest in the Farringdon Street dairy and George retained his interest in the Farm, managing it and supplying the two dairies. In 1857, there was a legal dispute between Benjamin Wright and Henry Benwell. Benjamin claimed that in their agreement Benwell was restricted from serving his customers within a three-mile limit of the Charles Street dairy. The judge decreed this over restrictive and proposed the restriction on deliveries only to Benjamin’s former customers. 

In September 1855, George married Anne Mary Cadwell, in Clerkenwell. In 1861, George and Anne are living at Friern Manor Farm with two servants. As in 1851, there are six milk carriers and John Legg, dairyman, and his wife lived at the Friern Farm Cottage Farming on the Friern Manor estate ended when freehold of the farm was purchased by the British Land Company in 1865 and the leasehold agreement had terminated at end of September 1867. George Wright moved to Watford and expanded the milk business still further, opening a dairy in Hornsey. This still exists and is today a pub restaurant and retains a remarkable set of sculptured wall panels depicting the activities of the farm. Even the name of the Friern Manor Farm continues to exist as a shell property company, interestingly with some property in Peckham.

On 4th December 1880, George died at Pareora, Merrow Road, Guildford. In the statutory notice for creditors, his businesses were listed as 20 Farringdon Street, City of London, 191 High Street and 20 Fairlight Terrace, both in Peckham and 64 Hanley Road, Hornsey.

In October 1853, Benjamin married Anne Turton and moved to Edgbaston, to join his other brothers at the railway works, now called Joseph Wright and Sons. In 1862, the company went public, as the Metropolitan Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Ltd. Benjamin retired to St Leonards in Sussex and died in 1871.