The Piermaster’s Wife

In April 1870, William Mants was appointed Pier Master by the Clevedon Pier Company.  His contract of employment is a lovely handwritten document and makes a fascinating read.  His salary was 12/6 a week with use of the Tollhouse to live in and provision of house gas and water.  You can see the document and read its transcription on this link:

Recent investigations elsewhere into what were considered occupations for women worthy of inclusion in the Census at the end of the 19th century reminded your Archive Volunteers[1] of the section in William Mants’ contract which says that he:

further undertakes and agrees that his said wife will assist daily in collecting the Rates and Tolls to the best of her powers and ability

Does Mrs. Mants’ daily job of collecting rates and tolls on the Pier translate into an official occupation in the Census?  No doubt she worked hard at this role but the 1871 census tells us that the Beach Pier Toll House, Clevedon is occupied by:

1871 CensusAgeRelationOccupation
William Mants54HeadNavel (sic) Pensioner and Pier Master
Ann Mants49Wife
William Mants16Son

So Ann Mants has no occupation registered.  The Report on the 1871 Census tells us a bit more about how women’s’ occupations are seen.  It says:

As girls and women of all ages now constitute more than half of the population of England, their occupations are of vital importance. 3,948,527 are wives, and a large proportion of them are mothers. This is a noble and essential occupation, as on it as much as on the husband’s labour and watchfulness depend the existence and character of the English race. But …………. their employments are now becoming infinitely diversified; a married woman of industry and talent aids her husband in his special occupation, or she follows different lines of her own; even when she has children this is possible, for it is only in a few cases that the whole of a wife’s lifetime is filled up with childbearing, nursing, and housekeeping.

Apparently this somewhat flowery and imprecise language made it difficult for those collating census data to decide how to actually categorise and then tabulate women’s occupations.   The Report on the 1881 Census aims to set this right and is much clearer. It states that women needed to be doing waged labour in one of the following categories to be listed with an occupation in the Census:

  • Teaching
  • Nursing and similar offices
  • Lodging-house keeping
  • Domestic service
  • Laundry and other services
  • Agricultural labour
  • Textile manufactures
  • Dressmaking
  • All other industries

So how did Ann Mants fare when the 1881 Census for the Beach Pier Toll House was taken?  The transcription from that Census record shows:

1881 CensusAgeRelationOccupation
William Mants65HeadPier Master
Ann Mants58Wife
Flora Browning18ServantGeneral Servant

Well, it seems that Ann still has no occupation recorded in the census so couldn’t even be counted in the catch-all category of ‘All other industries.’  Flora the General Servant is however listed as having an occupation.    

When William Mants died in 1889, Ann wished to stay on living in the Tollhouse and working as the Pier Mistress.  The Toll House is described, at this time, as being a 5 Roomed Dwelling so was probably a reasonably comfortable home.  Ann’s son William writes a charming letter, now digitised and held in the Pier Archive (below). In it he asks the Clevedon Pier Company Directors to consider letting his mother stay on at the Pier.  Clearly this is an issue requiring ‘man to man’ communications.  Feltham – mentioned in the letter –  was involved in building the Pier and in the 1871 and 1881 Census he is registered with the occupation of Pier Porter.  So clearly a chap with a lot of experience and a good ‘right hand man’ for Ann.

The letter reads:


No doubt as Directors of the Pier you will shortly be considering the course to be taken consequent on my Father’s death you will therefore I trust excuse the liberty I take in writing you (in common with the other Directors) on behalf of my mother.  She feels a great reluctance to leave Clevedon and hopes that, as the Pier matters are somewhat unsettled, you will in consideration of the long term of service of herself and my Father, allow her, at any rate until something definite as to the future of the Pier is settled, to remain here.  She feels she could with the assistance of Feltham do all that is at present needed and that if the Directors consider a modified payment should be made for her services she would be prepared to meet them.

Trusting you will give this your kind consideration and that you will do what you can on her behalf.

I remain Sir

Yours very respectfully

W. P. Mants

Hurrah!.  The letter seems to do the trick as by 1891, the census record for the occupants in the Tollhouse on the Pier, shows:

1891 CensusAgeRelationOccupation
Ann Mants61HeadLiving on Her Own Means
Maude Mants10Grand ChildScholar
Henry White19Grand ChildCane Planter
Selina Parsons27ServantGeneral Service Domestic

But…..Ann still has no occupation. She is recorded as living on her own means.  This usually means that the individual had an annuity or a pension of some kind.  Perhaps Ann is doing the Pier Master’s job in return for her husband’s pension from the Clevedon Pier Company and continued free accommodation in the tollhouse which, it appears, is now also providing a home for her two grandchildren as well as a servant.

Like most of these sorts of heritage interpretation investigations they end up posing more questions than answers: 

  • Did Ann actually work for no pay?
  • What were her private means?
  • Where did grandson Henry work as a Cane Planter?
  • What was the 5 roomed Tollhouse like as a home?  

For now we leave the story of Ann Mants having learnt that she lived and worked on Clevedon Pier for, at least, 20 years of her life during which she raised at least 1 son, at least 1 daughter and 2 grandchildren. But she was never recorded as having any kind of occupation.

Stop Press:  Unpaid Pier Master’s Wife  Unfair.

Nearly half a century later the issue of the Clevedon Pier Master’s salary and his wife’s contribution hit the local press. In January 1946,  Nobby Clarke, a Plymouth man, ex-Royal Navy and qualified in pier building and road making was appointed Pier Master. There had been 51 applicants for the post, which had a salary of £182 per year, plus a War Bonus of £59 16s and free use of the Toll House. One of the unsuccessful applicants felt the pay was too low and the expectation of his wife’s contribution too high. He took to the press and his views were reported in the Clevedon Mercury on January 12th, 1946. The article says:

One of the other applicants wrote to the Clevedon Mercury to say of the job, ‘that the Piermaster’s post is underpaid. His wife is expected to work in the Toll House as an unpaid assistant. Working year for both is 351 days, during fourteen day holiday the one covers for the other. Duties start in the early morning and end at dusk. Wage is less than a labourer’s.

Watch this space….if we find out more we will share it on the Archive Website.

UPDATE 29th September 2020:

Thanks to Jane Lilly’s transcriptions of the Clevedon Pier Company Chairman’s personal diaries (made available from a private collection) we can see that the Chairman recorded William Mants appointment in his diary as follows:

Friday. Jan 14. Stormy, specially at night. Mants accepts appointment of Pier Master 12/6 a week – house gas water – assistance for wife at toll collecting when unusual number of excursionists & visitors on the Pier.”

Mant’s contract reads that he “undertakes and agrees that his said wife will assist daily in collecting the Rates and Tolls to the best of her powers and ability.”

As ever, trying to seek out historical accuracy requires careful research and interpretation of all the records available. Thanks to Jane Lilly.

If you have information to share please feel free to contact

[1] Bette Baldwin, Jane Lilly, Michael Batchelor who put this blog together.

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