- he was a member of the Royal Academy; famous Victorian landscape painter
This lovely piece is Titled: "THE STREAM IN SUMMER TIME", original located
in The Guildhall Art Gallery, London, by BENJAMIN WILLIAMS LEADER R.A. (1831
1923), English painter. One of England's most outstanding late Victorian
landscape and coastal painters and one of my favorites. This artist's works
were mostly of Worcestershire and Welsh scenery, and of the Surrey country.
Note the cattle and sheep in the distance as though the outskirts of a farm
border the stream and the lad fishing from the bank at far left. A dog rests
near them. I have always found leader's work so realistic and inviting. To
view is to spur the senses. Worcestershire's leading artistic son. Leader
was born Benjamin Leader Williams in Diglis in Worcester City in March 1831.
His father was involved in the management of traffic on the River Severn, in
those days before Great Britain developed the obsession with road transport,
which has ultimately proved so mistaken. Williams senior knew and was a
great admirer of John Constable, and himself was a keen amateur artist.
Benjamin Leader Williams changed his name to Williams Leader, to distinguish
himself from the legion of artists called Williams. He attended the Royal
Grammar School in the city, and studied in the evenings at Worcester School
of Design. In 1854, following a number of years working for his father ( a
mistake the writer made too), he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools.
During his first year at the RA Schools, Leader had a painting in the Summer
Exhibition, and, more importantly, sold it. From the outset Leader's
interest was in landscapes, his early work, in it's detailed painting and
bright colours showing the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. Later in his
career he gradually changed to a looser, less detailed style of painting.
Unusually for the time he painted out of doors, if only at the initial
stages of work on his pictures. Leader was a typically industrious artist of
the second half of the 19th century, a confirmed sufferer from the Victorian
work ethic. He felt that his residence in Worcester made it more difficult
to secure recognition by the RA. In truth he was very successful, but that
success was always more marked with the public than the critics. Leader
married, in 1876, Mary Eastlake a niece of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake,
President of the Royal Academy in the mid 19th century. In 1883 he became
ARA, and in 1898, at the age of sixty- seven a full Academician. In 1888 he
had moved to Surrey, then a beautiful county close to London, and as a
result much favoured by painters. Leader was masterly at painting winter
scenes, with bare trees, and an atmosphere of bleakness, and cold the viewer
could almost feel. In 1914 he became a Freeman of the City of Worcester.
Leader exhibited three paintings at the RA in 1922, at the age of ninety-one
years, an indefatigable worker to the last.
Obituary: The Worcester Herald, Saturday, March 24, 1923- "We regret to announce the death, which took place at Burrows Cross, Gomshall, Surrey, on Thursday of Mr. Benjamin Williams Leader, RA, who celebrated his 92nd birrthday on the12th of March. Mr. Leader was a painter of great repute, his landscapes, which had a peculiar beauty of their own, being great favorites with collectors. He had sent paintings to the Royal Academy for 70 years, and among his best works were charming Worcestershire scenes. The dead artist was the son of Mr. E. Leaader Willams, and his education was received at the Royal Grammar School Worcester, the Worcester School of Design, and the Royal Academy Schools. He was a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. The Freedom of the City of Worcester was conferred on him in 1914."
Mr. Leader once confessed that he had never had any satisfaction to equal that of the sale of his first picture Cottage Children Blowing Bubbles. Perhaps one reason for that feeling was that it meant his father giving his consent to enable him to follow art as a career, and in that way it practically decided the whole of his future life. Mr. Williams, his father, was the engineer to the Severn Navigation Commissioners, and at one time was anxious that Leader should follow his own profession. It is worth noting, however, that the future famous artists's father was an amateur artist and a friend of Constable. For the subject of his first Royal Academy picture, Leader selected a cottage with some children playing in the foreground, and in order to make studies for every detail, he used to walk three miles to sketch the particular cottage he had selected. In the same way he made careful studies for the trees and background, and the various objects in the foreground, and used his younger brothers and sisters as models for the children. He thn painted his picture, which, in due course as sent to the RA. He had put a price of £50 on it, and it was bought before the exhibition ended by an American. From the point of view of the public, however, his first success was with February Fill Dyke. It attracted a good deal of attention at the RA, and the Chantry Fund wanted it, but it was already sold, and the buyer refused to part with it. At the time he painted it the young artist was living in Whittington. It was this picture, and In the Evening of Time It Will Be Light, that lead to him being elected ARA.
Benjamin Williams Leader (Note: surname was Williams), male, age 50, b Worcester, England, artist, landscape painer
Mary, female, age 29, b Plymouth, England
Benjamin E., son, male, age 3, born Worcester, England
Ethel, dau, female, age 2, born Worcester, England
Beatrice, dau, female, age 1, born Worcester, England
Mary Eastlake, dau, female, age 4 months, b Worcester, England
Mary Harriet Smith, visitor, unmarried, age 18, born Liverpool, England
Mary May, nurse, unmarried, age 36, born Little Aston, England, (dom nurse)
Alice Jane Mitchell, under nurse, unmarried, female, age 18, born Dublin, Ireland, (dom nurse)
Fanny Ross, waitress, unmarried, age 24, born Martley, Worcester, England, dom servant
Mary Ann Gennery, cook, unmarried, age 25, born Pershore, England, dom cook
Emily Evans, housemaid, unmarried, age 23, born Areley (England?), dom, servant
Edward Leader Williams was born in Reading, on 15th December 1802 and was educated at what is now the Boys’ Grammar School. He was clearly gifted but as a non-conformist ‘dissenter’ was not able to go to university; such was the prejudice of the day. He married Sarah Whiting, a Quaker at St Giles Church in Reading on 12 June 1827, which resulted in them being disowned by the Society of Friends for doing so. Sarah was nearly two years his senior, having been born on 21st January 1801, also in Reading. She was the daughter of Thomas Whiting, an umbrella maker, originally from Witney and his wife Mary.
At the time of their marriage, Edward was living in Worcester where he had followed his father Benjamin’s occupation in establishing an ironmongery business, on what is now the site of the Guildhall. This is where they settled and he eventually became an engineer.
Their first son, also named Edward Leader, was born on 26th April 1828. He was followed by Sarah Edgington and Benjamin Leader, born on 22nd March 1829 and 12th March 1831 respectively. The two sons were destined to become household names in due course but in very different fields.
More children followed at regular intervals: Helen Haydon arrived on 25 June 1832, followed by Alfred on 5th April 1834, Henry on 27th August 1835 and Theophilus on 21st February 1837. It was at about this time that Edward entered local politics and became the Councillor for the All Saints Ward.
Edward and Sarah went on to have eleven children in all: Thomas Whiting was born on 15th May 1839, Maria on 7th August 1840, Elizabeth Leader on 23rd December 1841 and finally, Sabrina on 29th June 1843.
Worcester was technically the highest tidal point of the River Severn with a half a metre difference in levels at spring tides. Even so, it was only navigable for four months of the year. Edward was of the opinion that the river could be made fully navigable up to the city for vessels drawing 12 feet of water. At a public meeting in November 1835 he used models and plans of his own to persuade others that his ideas were feasible. Following the meeting a public company was formed, with Edward as resident engineer. An act of parliament was needed for the scheme to go ahead but the initial application failed because of opposition from the people of Gloucester, who stood to lose trade. Eventually an act was passed and it was decided that the river should be dredged with a commission being set up to oversee it, rather than a company.
In June 1842 the Commissioners met for the first time and Edward was appointed River Board Surveyor and as such was the engineer in charge of the improvements to the navigation of the river. A trial weir was constructed at Lincombe followed by Diglis Weir and Lock, which opened in 1844. The river was then dredged between Diglis and Gloucester; something that was forced upon the Commissioners because of local opposition to any weirs below Diglis. In all, seven locks and weirs were built between Stourport and Gloucester with the overall result that the level of the river was raised by almost three metres, making it navigable as Edward had predicted.
In recognition of this work on the Severn, Edward was elected a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers and awarded a Telford Medal.
Edward was also involved in widening Worcester Bridge, which had been constructed in 1781 by the great engineer John Gwynne R.A., who also built Shrewsbury, Atcham and Magdalen bridges that still stand today. By 1840 the traffic had increased considerably and improvements needed to be made to relieve the congestion. Edward designed a cast iron footpath on each side, for pedestrians to use, and an iron balustrade. His plans were preferred to those of two other engineers and construction commenced the following year.
The graceful structure survived until the 1930's when it was decided to widen each side of Gwynne's bridge with stonework. This would make the bridge three times wider and also meant that the ironwork would be sent to the scrap heap. Sir Edward Elgar could not bear to see what they were doing to the old bridge he had known all his life. He bought two lengths of the old iron balustrades that were being removed, had them brought up on lorries to Marl Bank, his last home on Rainbow Hill and set up there on a concrete bed. He was so delighted with them that friends had to go out and study them from all points of view and discuss what colour they should be painted. According to a friend of his Billy Reed, "I think he used to go out and imagine that the Severn was flowing under them as of old." It was said that he scored his Severn Suite for orchestra leaning on ‘his’ bridge.
In 1845, at the time of the huge expansion of the railways, he gave evidence as a respected engineer to a parliamentary committee that was considering the Great Western Company’s broad gauge project, which he supported. This was one of many times when he did so.
The successes of the river navigation and the bridge did not stand for anything when he subsequently fell foul of vested interests amongst the Commissioners over the implementation of an Act of Parliament.
Like many towns and cities in the early part of the 19th century, Worcester suffered from problems with the supply of fresh water and with its sewerage, which was almost non-existent. In 1823 the Act for Better Supplying the City of Worcester and the Liberties Thereof with Water was given Royal Assent, which caused some anxiety in the city over the expense that was likely to result. In an attempt to force the more affluent citizens to take more responsibility, the Act created Commissioners, who were defined as those persons who occupied property within the city and enjoyed rents of £60 a year, or were possessed of £1000. Whatever the intentions behind the Act, the Commissioners managed to avoid making any significant improvements with the result that in 1832 there was a cholera outbreak with 293 cases of which 79 died.
In 1847 the Government proposed to pass a Public Health Act. This had much support from the working classes in Worcester because 700 of them signed a petition in its favour. It did not find favour however, amongst the Commissioners because it proposed the establishment of Central Board of Health with national responsibility for improvements in water supply and sewerage. They cited cost and centralisation in support of their argument against the Act. Despite this, Worcester Council adopted the measure and a petition in its favour, signed by the Dean, most of the clergy and all the doctors, was sent to Westminster. After a hold-up because of the General Election, the Government passed the necessary bill and in June 1848 the Act became law. In October the Council resolved to bring the provisions of the Act into operation. As a consequence Mr George Clark, the Government Inspector undertook a report into the sanitary conditions of the city.
Clark’s report was entitled a ‘Preliminary Inquiry into the Sewerage, Drainage and Supply of Water and Sanitary Condition of the Inhabitants of the City of Worcester’ and was highly critical in its tone. "The real deficiencies of Worcester are most apparent in its sanitary condition", it stated, referring to a manure depot adjacent to the waterworks, which belonged to the Commissioners and went on, "it is proper also to mention that the principal depot for stable manure, road-scrapings and a considerable portion of night soil is upon a plot of land rather above and about 50 yards from the waterworks, the drain from which enters the Severn about 56 yards above the suction-pipe”. Clark estimated that it contained between 2,000 and 3,000 tons of manure, chiefly from cesspools, stacked about 12 feet high. It was separated from the waterworks by a road just 20 yards wide and within reach of the river floods, which prompted him to comment, “The stench is very great."
Given this situation, it isn’t surprising to learn that there was another cholera outbreak in 1849 that claimed 43 lives out of 89 cases.
Under the terms of the bill, the Central Board of Health could order the application of the Public Health Act anywhere that the mortality rate was higher than 23.0 per 1,000, per annum. The rate in Worcester for the previous seven years averaged 25.05 per 1,000 and the Central Board made a provisional order, which was followed by a bill to confirm it in August 1849. In order to apply the Act, the Public Health Committee in Worcester reported that the city would need a clerk, treasurer, surveyor and medical officer of health. The first two were appointed immediately but there was concern about the likely overall expense involved and there was a delay in appointing the other two posts. Those against applying the Act met in September and a ‘Memorial’ was sent to the Central Board claiming that the mortality rate was less than 23.0 per 1,000 but the Board replied that the Registrar General had certified the figure and that they had no powers to overturn an Act of Parliament.
Against this background of antipathy towards the Act, Edward, who by then had resigned as a councillor, was appointed Surveyor under the Act by 23 votes to 8 for a Samuel Purchas. The appointment of the medical officer of health was delayed. In the municipal elections of 1850 the ranks of those who had concerns about costs were swelled by a number of the new members to the Council who were out to put a stop to the Act altogether.
Between November 1849 and the spring of 1850 there was further concern about the drainage and the water supply. In May of 1850 Edward was instructed to report on the current state of affairs and on a future plan. In the June he presented a drainage report, followed in February 1851 by his Waterworks Report. Amongst Edward’s conclusions was a statement as follows: "I hold it undesirable ever to take the waters of a navigable river such as the Severn for domestic use except in the absence of all other sources". Instead he proposed using springs to the East of the city.
A Mr Pierpoint stated that the report was very able and important in a Council meeting on March 6th 1851 and although the Council did not sanction the implementation of Edward’s proposals, it was agreed that 1,000 copies should be printed and distributed for public reading.
It would appear that when he was appointed to the post of Surveyor his remuneration was not set and, in the intervening period, the factions in the Council had continued to argue over the matter, with the result that he had gone unpaid. Furthermore, the fact that his salary hadn’t been settled was used as an excuse for further inactivity.
In July 1851 Edward registered his grievance with the Central Board of Health in London and the following month he wrote to the Town Clerk sending his account. The Worcester Journal, which had been diligently reporting the ongoing arguments, duly published it in detail. In the hysterical Council discussion that followed, Edward’s professional skills were impugned. Against such criticism there was little prospect for the report.
In the December Edward gave evidence to a Select Committee on the Metropolis Water Bill in which he spoke of the role and powers of the Commissioners. Although 500 to 1,000 people in Worcester were qualified to be Commissioners, only 10 to 12 normally attended meetings with 40 to 60 attending when there was an appointment to be made. The Commissioners are thus shown to be a small self-interested group seeking to retain their status, which they would lose under the Public Health Act. Where a complaint about the water supply had been made, the minutes read "that this report should be taken into consideration at the next meeting" and that was as far as it went. Meanwhile, the Commissioners acted to block any private initiative in the matter: pledges were exacted from those standing for the 1850 municipal elections that there would be no outlay in such a cause.
Further problems with the water supplies occurred in the spring of 1852, which resulted in further expense and the Council petitioned the Central Board of Health for the removal of Edward as Surveyor under the Act (which was refused). In their letter refusing this dismissal, the Secretary wrote that the "lanes and alleys of Worcester are the hot-bed of pestilence, undrained, uncleansed and destitute both of pure air and pure water". He concluded that it was hoped that the lives and health of the people should not be sacrificed to "certain vague personal objections affecting an officer against whose zeal, capacity and conduct in office they can allege nothing’’.
Unsurprisingly, Edward had refused the salary the Council voted to him and had stopped occupying the office in the Guildhall provided for the Surveyor. The result was that in August of 1852, the Council passed a resolution saying that he had in effect voided his appointment.
The following month the Council received a memorial from some 670 property owners and ratepayers requesting that the City be drained and supplied with water. This resulted in the Council forwarding it to the General Board of Health, asking them to "remove the difficulty which prevented the Local Board of Health from carrying out sanitary improvements, by confirming the dismissal of the Surveyor". This too was refused, the General Board pointing out that using it as an excuse for inaction was unjustifiable.
In October the Worcester Journal published a statement made by Edward and his solicitor before a Commissioner of Oaths. They described the agitation in Worcester over expenditure under the Public Health Act, the fact that Edward's remuneration claim had been published in the Journal and widely publicised in the city (allegedly at Council expense). This all had the effect of prejudicing the citizens against Edward making it impossible to obtain a fair hearing in Worcester of the action he was undertaking.
The stalemate continued during 1853 and deputations both for and against implementing the Act went to London to argue their respective cases. Reports appeared in the Worcester Journal, which supported the Commissioners (predominantly Tories), referred scathingly to the ‘clique’ (of Whigs) and the Worcester Herald, which supported those in favour of the Act.
In October 1853 the doctors of Worcester petitioned a special meeting of the Local Board of Health, urging them to clean up the city. The Commissioners pleaded that their hands were tied because of the situation over Edward. In reply, a Dr Malden said that if they were powerless, the doctors would go over their heads and appeal to other authorities. This had the desired effect and the Town Clerk eventually agreed that the Board had powers to do what was required, and resolutions were put in hand.
The Commissioners lost no time in character assassination; within a week of the doctors' petition, Edward was being cited in the Town Council as the cause of inactivity. Edward and his friends were said to have obstructed the sanitary improvement of the city by continual opposition to improvements. It was also pointed out that if his plan to use spring water as a source of supply had been adopted Worcester would have been without water because the one at Ronkswood, his preferred source, had failed the previous year. Furthermore, it was stated that it was now agreed that the tubular system of drainage, which he had advocated, was not a good system.
The pressure had obviously got to Edward because he wrote to the Worcester Herald (the Whig-leaning paper) offering to resign as Surveyor under the Public Health Act. He said that some were of the opinion that he and his friends were the only obstructions to sanitary improvements. This must either have been a misapprehension or the Council had undergone a “gratifying change”.
He proposed to put matters to the test: "let the Local Board of Health immediately pass a resolution (in which not less than two thirds of the members of that body shall concur) in terms satisfactory to the doctors of the city, pledging the Board to lay down .... a complete system of drains and sewers, to provide for all, both poor and rich, a full and constant supply of wholesome soft water, and to carry out the other sanitary provisions of the Public Health Act, in their integrity, and upon their passing such resolution, I hereby pledge myself to waive all personal feeling and at once to resign my office of Surveyor under the said Act". If, on the other hand, there was to be water supply which was a tinkered-with version of current arrangements, he would remain in office to protect the public.
At a Council meeting in early December 1853, it was proposed that the Council should carry out the provisions of the Public Health Act by laying down a drainage system and providing an adequate water supply. Alderman Hughes, who proposed it, said that this was in response to public opinion, not Edward’s letter. An amendment aimed at delaying matters once more was defeated and Hughes’ resolution was carried by 25 votes to 9. This was still short of the necessary two thirds because 12 members were absent. However, Hughes said that if Edward wished to reinstate himself in the eyes of his fellow citizens, he would not take advantage of the deficit and would resign.
The resolution was put to the doctors, who agreed in principle. When approached, Edward agreed that he did not wish to object on technical details and formally resigned as Surveyor. He was paid £50 arrears in salary for his two and half years as Surveyor under the Public Health Act, which brought to a close the period in which he had been at the centre of fighting between political parties on the Council and between local and central government.
Edward and his family lived in Diglis House, a large Georgian house not far from the weir. After his death the house was owned by Mr Binns, a leading figure in the manufacture of Royal Worcester Porcelain. It is now the Diglis House Hotel.
After his death on 26th February 1879, the Worcestershire Chronicle carried an obituary to Edward that included the following: "Whenever he took up a thing he conducted it with undeviating patience and unremitting steadfastness to the desired end, and never abated one jot of heart or hope under a concurrence of hostile circumstances which would have disheartened a less resolute mind and discomfited anyone not gifted with a well-grounded confidence in his own abilities and powers, and a firm resolution never to stop short on this side of success. He never gave in or knocked under, but bore up manfully through all contradictions and adversities, and by persistent encounter, overcame opposition and forced it to give way".
After Edward’s death Sarah seems to have spent time with other family members. In the 1881 census she is listed with daughter Helen in Gravesend, where son Thomas lived with his family. She died of old age in Reading at 33 Coley Hill on 18th August 1888. [2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]
- Although his parents were disowned because they married in an Anglican church, Benjamin’s birth was registered in the Quaker birth register.
- Designed by Norman Shaw for the artist Frank Holl.