A tale of two Singers

mum_thecrest (328x464)
On 6 May 1892 the Lichfield Mercury carried a report of a court case involving Thomas Dennis (of the Railway Tavern) in the misappropriation of a sewing machine, the property of the Singer Sewing Machine Company Ltd., the world-famous Glasgow manufacturer.

Miss B Brown (pictured)

I wondered if this was similar to the machine owned by my mother, which was an elegant and fascinating piece of engineering. When not in use it was a simple, but well-made cabinet of mahogany, which was kept at a high sheen. The first step towards use was to open the doors. This revealed an upside-down metal device suspended from the lid, which could flipped over to make the machine upright. The machine had a simple elegance, black with silvery ornamentation and the “Singer” name, a by-word for excellence. At the base of the cabinet was a treadle, which turned a large wheel, which in turn drove a leather cord that drove the sewing machine.

sewing machine receipt (640x447)
A copy of the receipt survives, as a grainy photocopy from the 1980s, when sold by Dad, following Mom’s death in 1982. It was purchased by Miss B Brown on 1 January 1949. She was to be married in eighteen months’ time and, like many young women made her own wedding dress and bridesmaid’s dress. The cost, paid in cash in full, was £42 15s 2d. In modern money that is roughly equivalent to £1,355.70. More can be spent on some sewing machines today, but a machine that does far more complex stitching can easily be obtained for less than £100.

The model was 201K, which was manufactured at Singer’s Kilbowie works in Clydebank, Glasgow, Scotland. It was made of cast iron and very heavy. The high quality cabinet just about doubled the price. This really was the “Rolls Royce” of sewing machines. In the post war years a shortage of materials made new machines hard to get and there was a long waiting list. The serial number EE 667861 indicates production in 1948.

An unusual thing about the receipt is that is dated 1 January, New Year’s Day, which, presumably is the day on which it was delivered. Like most other folk at the time, Mom’s only personal transport was a bicycle.

Back to 1892.

Extracts from Lichfield Mercury – Friday 6 May 1892

Mr. A. W. Barnes, who appeared for the plaintiffs, the Singer Sewing Machine Company, said that the action was brought to recover from the defendant, Mr Thomas Dennis, possession of a sewing machine …

Enoch Williams, who lived in Brownhills, hired a sewing machine from the plaintiffs, and he and his wife agreed to pay a sum of £7 7s. … They had only paid £3.

One of the bailiffs then said, “We must take the machine away. We shall take it to Mr Dennis’s, but we shall not sell it, and you must pay as soon as you can. We will only keep it until you can get the money.”

Mr Russell … contended that the way in which the plaintiffs had acted disentitled them to relief.

The defendant, Thomas Dennis, Railway Tavern, Brownhills, was then called. He stated that he bought the machine on the 12th of January. … He did not know that the machine had been hired until three weeks after he had bought it.

The Judge said that he should give judgement for the plaintiffs for £5, to be reduced to one shilling on the machine being returned in forty-eight hours. He should not give any costs.

Who were they?

Enoch Williams (37) was a coal miner and lived on Watling Street, Brownhills, near to the Crown Hotel, which, as a pub, still stands at the junction of Watling Street (A5) and Chester Road (452). His wife was Emily (32) and they had 4 children and a nephew with them in 1891. Thomas Dennis (49), who knew Williams, was a licensed victualler at the Railway Tavern, Lichfield Road, Brownhills. He was represented by Mr Russell, presumably a lawyer, but I have not been able to find him in the 1891 census. Mr Arthur William Barnes (69) was a solicitor, proprietor of Messrs. Barnes & Son, Lichfield, Staffordshire, resident at 32 St John Street. He was clearly held in high regard given the report of his funeral in 1913. Judge Jordan was Thomas Hudson Jordan, County Court Judge of Circuit 23, which covered most of Staffordshire and part of Warwickshire. I don’t know where he lived as he was away from home in 1891 and still a barrister in 1881 at Prestwich, Lancashire.


According to the newspaper, Enoch Williams had agreed to buy the sewing machine from Singer with a sort of hire purchase agreement, value £7 7s, of which just £3 had been paid. Williams was in debt to the tune of £1 14s so the bailiffs turned up and took the sewing machine away. Presumably, they took it to the Railway Tavern (Mr Dennis’s place) because auctions were held there. On 23 December 1891 the bailiffs returned, but obtained no further payment. The bailiffs put the machine up for auction to recover their debt of £1 14s, perhaps with a reserve at that value. Then, on 12 January 1892, Tom Dennis successfully bid for the machine at auction, apparently unaware that it was still the property of Singer, but soon the truth would seek him out.

The fact that Russell could not prove that Singer knew of the sale meant that they were entitled to claim recovery their property, with an additional £1 in respect of detention. The Judge clearly found it annoying, given the inattention of Singer’s agent, that he could not bar them from reclaiming the machine and reduced the penalty to just one shilling and no costs. Tom Dennis had apparently acted in good faith and it would be, as Russell put it, “very hard on his client” if it was he who had to pay. As it was he was £1 15s out of pocket.

In 1885 Singer brought out the model 27 and 28, designed for domestic use by the average family. These lasted for decades with minor changes, eventually becoming models 127 and 128.  This may have been the model in question.


Findmypast – newspaper records.
Singersewinginfo.co.uk – Singer sewing machines 1865-1970.
Ancestry.co.uk – 1891 England Census.
Andrew’s Kindred

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