Wells, William Nathan

Also known as: Jinky or Jingy Wells


Collection date: Aug 1909

Area: Oxfordshire

William Nathan Wells fiddler and dancer of Bampton Morris (1868-1953): Bampton (in-the-Bush) is a village 4 miles S of Witney: William was known as ‘Jingy’ or ‘Jinky’ Wells (he said he inherited the nickname from his grandfather’s grandfather Thomas Wells b1761, who was known as ‘Jingle’ Wells): age 43, William gave Sharp 13 morris tunes (FT2255-67) on 11 Aug 1909 and then a further 5 tunes on 17 Aug 1909 (FT2284-88). Sharp then invited Wells up to Stow-on-the-Wold between 24-26 Aug 1909 and re-collected 13 tunes, this time detailing all the various steps and figures superimposed on the staves of the tune (FT2339-55). He recorded his interview notes (costumes, history, personnel) in Folk Dance Notes vol 1 p70 and then published tunes and figures in Morris Book 3 (1911). One final check was done by Sharp on a visit to Bampton on WhitMonday 1 June 1914 (Folk Dance Notes 3/154), when he must have attended the annual dance event:

William Wells was born out of wedlock on 4/1/1868 at Buckland (5 miles S of Bampton), where probably his mother Sarah Ann was in service. Sarah had been just a baby when her father Charles Taylor died in 1849 but when her mother Hannah was remarried in 1852 to George Wells, labourer, Sarah provisionally took on her stepfather's name of Wells. So on 23/2/1868 her illegitimate son William was duly baptised ‘William Nathan Wells’ at Bampton church, son of Sarah Ann Wells, ‘spinster’. There was no father’s name in the baptismal register.

William had a younger brother John Edward Wells (known as Jack), who was baptised at Bampton on 9/4/1871, son of ‘Annie Taylor’ - a reversion to her maiden name and again no father specified. In the 1871 census at Weald (a hamlet just outside Bampton) William (3) and John (3 months) were living in the house of their grandmother, Hannah (Maria) Wells, age 55, needlewoman. Their mother was with them, listed as Annie Wells this time, unmarried aged 21. Both her boys were, however, listed then with the surname of Taylor!

The full story is that Hannah Maria (née Radband, bp Jly 1814, daughter of Thomas Radband 1776-1854, a morris dancer) married Charles Taylor in 1838 but he died in 1849, leaving her with 5 children to support, the youngest being (Sarah) Annie Taylor (baptised 2/9/1849). After Hannah was remarried to George Wells, labourer, on 27/9/1852, they had one son of their own - George Wells Jr, born that same year.

(Sarah) Annie Taylor/Wells, having returned to her mother Hannah with her 2 infant boys in 1871, left them in Hannah's care in the 1881 census.   William, 13, had by then switched his surname back to ‘Wells’ (as did his brother John). They were still being cared for by grandmother Hannah and her husband George Wells.

Their mother meanwhile, still calling herself ‘Annie Wells’, had left Bampton altogether and was listed in the 1881 census as a ‘visitor’, occupation ‘housemaid’ in Marylebone, London in the house of Joseph Turner, 37 a plumber, and his wife Mary Ann, aged 39 (ref RG11/208 f31 p24). Mary Ann Turner was in fact a Bampton friend from the past – she was baptised 25/12/1841, daughter of Charles and Ann Tanner. It is not known what happened to William Wells' mother Annie – whether she stayed longer in London or married. Her younger son John did in fact marry and settle in London, so perhaps Annie did stay on there.

In 1953 William Wells looked back at his life (see Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society vol8, no.1 1956 pp1-15) and told how he went to the village school with his brother John (Jack). He then became a butcher’s boy at 14 and an under-gardener at Bampton Manor. He had a spell in London, perhaps with his mother Annie but returned to Bampton in 1887. He just got on with his life, marrying Ellen Mary Shewry on 13/10/1892. They had 3 children – 2 sons (Francis and Robert) and a daughter Ellen. William wrote: ‘I’ve been working on all sorts of work. I’ve been fagging, mowing, worked on the farms, thrashing – all sorts of work. I’ve walked six mile to work and six mile back at night for two bob – two bob a day.’

It was in 1887 that he took on the role of Fool in the morris side, aged 19 and proved himself a confident dancer too. He had 3 uncles* who were all dancers – Henry Radband (1836-1915), Alfred Taylor (1840-1909) and George Wells Jr (1852-1919). William took over as fiddler c1899 and would play for the side until 1925, which included performances with the Esperance Girls’ Club as well as at the Globe Theatre and the Albert Hall. He was coaxed into giving some further performances and recordings, notably for the American collector James Madison Carpenter in 1933, several times for the BBC and others. But his eyesight and his hearing both failed him towards the end. For a full account of the Bampton morris history and of Wells’ legacy, see http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/bampton.htm> by Keith Chandler (1992).

• Despite their different surnames, they were all sons of William’s grandmother Hannah Maria.

Note: Wells described how he played ‘Bacca Pipes’ (FT2262 & 2355) for 2 dancers to demonstrate the dance to Sharp and Herbert MacIlwaine, as the latter accompanied Sharp on this trip. The two men grappled with the tune and the stepping of the Bacca Pipes jig and required several demonstrations to ‘get it’. This was in preparation for Morris Book vol3 (1911), which was the last time MacIlwaine contributed his skills to Sharp.

In summary William Wells never had a father but spoke proudly of his (step)grandfather George Wells, who at one time led the Bampton morris side. George Wells (b1822) died in 1885 (when William was only 17) but his grandmother Hannah lived on till 1899, aged 86. William Wells is best remembered for his strong rhythmic playing and for his great enthusiasm to keep the Bampton morris going. He died aged 85 in October qr 1953 (Witney 6b 890). Douglas Kennedy described him as ‘one of Nature’s greatest gentlemen’.

Check out any of the 3 current Bampton morris sides + YouTubes. Or just visit Bampton on a Spring Bank Holiday!

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