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The Interesting Life of George Thomas Purser.  1

George Thomas Purser, my Great Grandfather was born in The Bedfordshire village of Turvey in 1862, he died in 1942 in Sydney Australia, his adopted home. From what I remember of the tales Grandma used to tell us, it seems that he may have been a somewhat larger than life character.

His family had lived in the area around Turvey for several hundred of years, I have traced his direct line of ancestors back to 1450 and they would appear to have been there for quite a time then. To be fair, back then people did not move around much, certainly the peasant farmers didn't.

George's Father and Grandfather had both been  Bricklayers and George followed them. He however was born into a different world to that even his Father grew up in. The Industrial Revolution was well under way and most of all, the railways had arrived. By the time George finished his apprenticeship, every town and even large villages were connected up in a web of interconnecting lines. People were able to move around the country like never before and they could do it cheaply. There was not much comfort, but third class got you to your destination just as fast as first class. People could move around the country for work. 


In his younger days George's Father William could only get work on buildings accessible from his home in Turvey. Later in his life William and family would move around the country as described previously, by the 1880's they had settled in London and William had established a successful Building business with himself and his son George as Master Bricklayers.

George was clearly an ambitious man, as rather than knowing his place and get on with laying bricks, he wanted to be a "proper builder" and take on the entire contract. He formed a partnership with a friend ( whose name I don't know ) and they started to bid for contracts, slowly at first with smaller projects but always aiming for the bigger money. They moved around the country presumably from contract to contract and prospering. 

Things must have worked out well as by 1911 they were contracted to carry out extensive repairs and re-roofing much of Westminster Cathedral. ( not Westminster Abbey but the Catholic cathedral ) To get that contract must have been quite an achievement for builders of such low birth, however to get it they presumably must have undercut the more established firms on price.

This contract sadly was their undoing. One evening in January / February 1911 George arrived home and told his wife and family to pack up the house as he had booked a passage to Australia for the entire family , leaving the following day !! His wife must have been well pleased by this! However it seems that they did indeed go, or George, His wife Eleanor and their youngest three children did. Of the others Elenor Eliza was already married and settled, the other two were to lodge with her until better arrangements could be found.

So what was this all about ?  Grandma's tale was that they had stripped a large part of the cathedral roof and were renovating some loose masonry had been removed. The roof was closed with huge tarpaulins firmly died down. Much of the loose masonry was piled at the top of the scaffolding, not taken down to the ground as it should have been. This presumably would have resulted in a considerable saving of time and therefor money. A big corner was cut.

The previous night a big storm had blown in over London with very high winds. One of the big roof tarpaulins was not properly secured and came loose. With this huge sheet flapping in the wind, it soon took the other tarpaulins with it. The heavy masonry left at the top of the scaffolding made it unstable and before long the whole lot came down.

The sight that greeted George the following morning must have been one of devastation. As if things were not bad enough, they then got worse, much worse. George needed to speak to his night watchman who was there for just such an eventuality. If anything happened in the night, such as something blowing loose it was his job to secure it if he could, or to get help from the work gang lodged nearby. He could not be found, it was supposed that he perhaps left his post early due to the bad weather. His wife was contacted, he had not been home. Slowly the dreadful truth dawned on George and others at the site, was he under the pile of collapsed masonry ?


He was indeed. Under a heap of stone and very dead. He presumably was sheltering from the storm when tons of scaffold and masonry fell on him.  Fortunately nobody else was hurt but that would have been little consolation. For George this was going to be the end of life as he knew it!

His building firm had cut corners, and the consequences of this would fall on George. As he would have been fully aware, leaving the stone on the top of the scaffolding was a foolish and very dangerous practice. There would be little sympathy for his attempting to save money with such practices.  Equally the tarpaulins should have been correctly secured. As George was the owner of the building company so he got the benefits of its profits, he was also liable for its sins of omission and commission.  To put it bluntly, he had been negligent and his negligence had wrecked the cathedral and killed a man, he was going to get screwed ! He faced bankruptcy and a probable substantial time in prison for Criminal Negligence and Manslaughter.


George's immediate future looked grim, he decided that the only way out of this was to skip the country before the Police caught up with him, and that is exactly what they did, and presumably got away with it, as he died many years later living in a rather nice district of Sydney. I can only assume that back then nobody had invented extradition! Seems a bit odd though seeing as back then Australia was very much part of "the Empire". Perhaps he just had a good lawyer, but one way or another our George did OK !

There is however a much more intriguing aspect to George's life, that being his various wives, or should I say womenfolk.

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