The Torr family tragedy: I
When a hatchment was found earlier this year, in a cupboard at the base of the tower of St. Mary’s Church, Ewell, there was much speculation about its date and origin. This has now been solved, with many thanks to researches of Rosemary Ryall, a distant relative of the Torr family, John Lakeman (a descendant of Bertha Torr), Mac Douglas and the NAS Documentary Group’s much earlier work on Bourne Hall.
Hatchments are diamond-shaped tablets displaying the coat of arms of a dead person. The heraldry on the hatchment in question represents a union of the Torr and Jackson family arms. It commemorates the family living in Garbrand Hall (later called Bourne Hall) in the early days of the new church (dedicated 1848). George Torr, born 1914, married Elizabeth Jackson from Bethnal Green on 20th December 1848 at Greenwich. They moved to Garbrand Hall in 1859.
George had an engineering and animal charcoal manufacturing business in Deptford and Greenwich. The opening of Ewell West railway station in 1859 may have partly influenced their choice of Ewell as their home, as their fortune developed and they moved up in the world. The Torrs were active benefactors of the village and church. Among other things that George contributed towards were the widening of the road to the station, the new village school in West Street and the fabric and upkeep of St. Mary’s.
George died on 7th July 1867 at the age of 52. It is thought that the family most probably presented the hatchment on his death. Elizabeth continued to live at Garbrand Hall with her daughter Bertha, and also Emily Onions, adopted by Elizabeth after her husband’s death. She later moved to the Manor House in Highbury. She and George were both buried in Greenwich. Garbrand Hall remained in the Torr family until 1896. In 1882, at the age of 22, their last daughter, Bertha Diana Torr (born at Garbrand Hall in 1860), married a local barrister and London County Council Alderman, William James Bell (1859–1913) of Epsom. He was later knighted and Bertha lived until 1937.
The family’s story, however, is one of tragedy. They brought to Ewell one son, George, aged 6. In 1858, the year before the move, four children had been baptised at St. Paul’s Deptford. Later that year, George and Elizabeth Torr and a family of 4 children, together with his sister and her 6 children and Elizabeth’s niece, went to Worthing for a holiday. As reported in a West Sussex newspaper, George, Elizabeth and his sister watched the races at Littlehampton Regatta, while George had arranged with a local boatman for the children and their nursemaids to have a trip round the bay. It was a lovely sunny day with a calm sea. A sudden squall rose up. The boat flooded with water and sank in two minutes. Three Torr daughters, Elizabeth aged 7, Ada 3 and Florence 1, all drowned. With them five out of the six Smith children, Elizabeth’s niece and the boatman and his wife also drowned.
George and Elizabeth’s remaining son, George, born in 1852, survived the drowning incident, but sadly died only a few years later, on 8th November 1865 at Garbrand Hall, aged 13, from ‘congestion of the brain for five days’. This is now thought to have been a form of meningitis. There is no record of any Torr burial here, but as well as the hatchment, St. Mary’s has one other lasting memorial of the family. The original Father Willis organ (destroyed in the 1973 fire) was presented to the church in 1867 in memory of young George. It originally cost £800, but after her husband’s death Elizabeth further improved the organ in his memory.
In the memoir, now in the Lindley Library, of James Child, Elizabeth Torr’s gardener, we read ‘I always found Mrs. Torr and the young ladies most kind and considerate, not only to their own servants on the estate, but also those living in and around the village...Such was her generosity to the poor’. Yet understandably she must have lived at Ewell with sad memories. James continued ‘I believe she died of a broken heart’.