John James Jeal was born into an ordinary working-class family in Lewisham in 1850. His father was a sawyer and he had an older brother and sister and four younger siblings. John became a carpenter, but he was ambitious and after work went to night school (he probably left full-time education at twelve or thirteen).
He married Emily Edwards in 1874. Their first child was a daughter, the second a son who lived only a few weeks. Another son, Ernest, was born in 1880. By this time, John had set up his own builder’s business, employing ten men and he was doing well enough to have become a rate-payer.
His widowed mother died and he had no other ties in Lewisham, so he took the decision to move to Hythe in 1881. He must have visited – perhaps on a day trip or holiday – and seen the potential in the area for a builder. Both the Seabrook and Sandling Estates on the outskirts of the town had been established and there were plans for all sorts of houses, from the small to the very grand. For a man with ambition, it was irresistible.
He settled the family at Cavendish Villas in Seabrook Road and proceeded to make his name. He soon realised that he needed influence with the Town Council – so stood for election himself in 1884 and was successful. By now he was building houses along the road in which he lived, of the ‘less pretentious’ type. They all sold. In 1888 he started building small houses and cottages in Saltwood. Two more daughters were born. The family had also brought with them to Hythe Alice Putnam, who did the firm’s book-keeping and lodged with them. This arrangement lasted until John’s death.
John took a particular interest in the provision of public transport – good links to Folkestone and London would make his houses more desirable. He wanted an electric tramway to run from Hythe down Seabrook Road to Folkestone and visited Paris and Bournemouth to look at their systems, but there was too much local opposition for his plans to come to fruition.
The South Eastern Railway, under the chairmanship of Hythe’s MP Edward Watkin, bought as much land and property as was available between and around Hythe and Sandgate railway stations. In 1886 it embarked on a road-building scheme for the developing Seabrook Estate. The new Cannongate Road ran from the seafront to Hythe station, and another, Cliff Road, branched off the main road at Seabrook and ran just south of the railway line to Hythe and then via a bridge to the north of it. Here, it was hoped, substantial villas would be built – and they were.
Victorian houses in Cannongate Road Google Maps
John himself built a shorter road, now Sea Road. leading to the sea front across the first bridge on the Royal Military Canal, which the local press believed would be ‘a great convenience for carriages’. It enabled the owners of the houses in Cannongate and Cliff Roads to get to the healthy sea air without driving too far.
Sea Road & bridge before World War 2, when it was demolished for defence reasons…
And as it is today, with just a footbridge
John’s other concern was for proper drainage in Seabrook – he claimed that Sea Road was often a foot deep in storm water. He was persistent in his demands and eventually took drastic steps to achieve his aim. In 1891 he refused to stand as a candidate for the Town Council as he could harass them about drainage more effectively as a free agent. Then in 1893 he cancelled his membership of all the local clubs and institutions of which he was a member – including the golf club – as a protest. In 1894 the Council conceded that he was right, the drains went in and in 1897 John was back on the Council, elected unopposed for the East Ward.
He was also a Guardian of the Elham Union Workhouse and made it clear that while he was happy to support people whose poverty was due to sickness or old age, he objected to helping the ‘lazy or will-not-work types’. He was in favour of detaining vagrants and subjecting them to forced labour. A hard-working man himself, he expected the same of others, but could be fair: he offered his own workers a pay rise if they attended night school as he had done.
He was a man of contradictions. A church-goer and sometime churchwarden of St Martin’s in Cheriton, he regarded the opposition to Sunday working by some of his fellow-councillors as ‘mock-sentimental’ pointing out that they no doubt allowed their servants to cook their dinners on Sunday. He won this argument and the streets of Hythe were swept on Sundays.
Inevitably, he made enemies, especially among his fellow councillors. Frank White, a committed Republican took every opportunity to frustrate the plans of ‘the King of Seabrook’ as he called him and often their disagreements became petty. John was presiding at a meeting of the Finance Committee and brought his dog with him. Frank White insisted that the dog be removed; on a similar occasion his own dog had been ejected. Another councillor, John Bennet Tunbridge, a former Commissioner of Police for New Zealand, took every opportunity to needle John. Even a discussion on allegedly indecent postcards for sale in a Hythe shop ended in a squabble between the two men.
John as Mayor of Hythe in 1902
It was all water off a duck’s back to John, who became mayor of Hythe in 1902 and 1903 and who by 1911 was living in a splendid fourteen room house in Seabrook. His interest in politics, both local and national, continued as he grew older. That year he heard Sylvia Pankhurst speaking at Hythe Institute and proposed a vote of thanks to her: ‘I was once a believer in women having the vote, but when the militant tactics started, I dissociated myself from the Movement. After hearing Miss Pankhurst tonight, however, I am with them.’ The vote of thanks was carried, to loud applause.
His only surviving son, Ernest was still living in Seabrook, in Eastcott Cottages. After an expensive education at Folkestone Grammar School and Kent College at Canterbury, he had trained as a carpenter, but now worked as his father’s clerk. Presumably John wanted him to have a sound knowledge of all aspects of the business so that he could pass the concern on to the younger man when the time came. It was not to be.
In 1903 Ernest had married Minnie Stiles in Dover and their daughter, Emily Joyce, was born the next year. In 1910, he put a notice in the press to say that he would no longer be responsible for his wife’s debts, though he declared in the 1911 census that they were still co-habiting. He had already been taken to court by one creditor, a confectioner, with whom Minnie had run up a bill nearly twice as large as her weekly housekeeping allowance of thirty-five shillings. Then in December 1913, Ernest emigrated to Australia, alone. It must have been a bitter blow to John.
War broke out and Ernest enlisted at Melbourne on 30 October 1914. He embarked on the transport ship Berrima at Melbourne on 22 December and was killed in action at Gallipoli on 27 April 1915. He was buried the same day Quinn’s Post Cemetery. His effects – a knife, handkerchief, notebook, curios and hairbrushes were returned to his father in Seabrook.
John’s reaction to the news of Ernest’s death was swift. He changed his will to ensure that the money he would have left to Ernest would not now go to his granddaughter, Emily Joyce, until she was twenty-one. Presumably this was to stop the girl’s mother getting her hand on it. This is the last mention of the child, or indeed of Minnie, that I can find in any public record.
During the war, meat rationing governed the purchasing of “butchers’ meat”, bacon, and offal; there were other regulations to deal with rabbits, hares and birds caught by members of a household; and separate ones for poultry and game birds. In the past, many families had kept their own pig in back yard or garden, until bye-laws forbade this on grounds of hygiene. Now, the Town Council agreed to allow it on condition that the sties were kept clean. John not only supported the practice, but was responsible for the building a large co-operative piggery behind the Sea View Hotel at Seabrook to be run by local allotment holders district. Once the pigs were established he set about organising the collection of swill from all the neighbouring houses.
Away from the council chamber, he found time to be president of the Hythe Royal National Lifeboat Institution and to play golf – he was a founder-member of Hythe Golf Club. In January 1920, the club gave a dinner to celebrate his seventieth birthday.
John Jeal in later life
His death on 19 June 1920 was unexpected. That afternoon he had been at the Golf Club acting as host to four of the delegates to the next day’s conference at Port Lympne: Lloyd George, President Millerand, Field-Marshal Foch, and General Weygand. Despite recent illness he seemed in good form, but was later taken ill again, and died that same evening.
His will was short and to the point. He divided his estate into six equal parts. One part would go to his wife, another to each of his three daughters, another to Emily Joyce at twenty-one and the sixth to the devoted Alice Putnam, his secretary and bookkeeper for nearly forty years.
With thanks to Ron Greenwood for the aerial photo of Sea Road