The Horner House at Mells

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Mells, Somerset, England
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States

This article originally appeared in House and Garden, A monthly magazine devoted to Architecture, Gardens, Decoration, Civic and Outdoor Art in 1905. The Magazine was edited by Charles Francis Osborne. This transcription was made from pages 83 and 84 of Volume 7, covering the period January to June, 1905 and Published in 1906 at Philadelphia, Pa., U. S. A. by The John C. Winston Co. of 1006-1016 Arch Street.

THE HORNER HOUSE AT MELLS BY MAHLON STACY

“This is the house that Jack built”. It is also a portion of the "plum" that little Jack Horner extracted with his thumb from the famous Christmas pie, according to the familiar rhyme of our nursery days.

Few people perhaps know that the "Mother Goose Melodies" are anything more than a collection of rather meaningless folk-lore nursery rhymes, which the Boston printer, Fleet[1], first published either to ridicule his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Vergoose, or perhaps with an eye to the profits he actually realized from the sale of the publication. And the old lady, when she sang "Little Jack Horner" and "The House that Jack Built" to her little grandson, no doubt would have been vastly astonished if she had been told she was amusing the infant Fleet with two political lampoons of the sixteenth century. Yet so it was, and she was singing about a person who really had lived and whose doings these doggerel verses were intended to satirize.

The house built by John Horner at Mells in the South of England is still owned and occupied by his descendants of the same name. The story of the Christmas pie, which was the basis of his fortune, has been handed down through the successive generations of the family he founded, and it runs as follows: During the time when the monastic establishments in England were being suppressed by Henry VIII., and their property seized, John Horner is said to have been connected in some lay capacity with a certain wealthy monastery[2]. The abbot[3], fearing a descent of the crown officers and wishing to place the title deeds of the monastery lands beyond their reach, caused to be made the empty pastry shell of a large venison pie; placing within it, instead of the usual contents, the parchment documents which represented the monastery's wealth and which in those days constituted the proof of ownership, titles not being recorded, but the actual possession of the deeds being essential evidence of claim. This pie with its valuable contents was intrusted to John Horner to be delivered, ostensibly as a Christmas gift, to some monkish brethren at a distance, in whose possession it was fondly hoped the deeds might be safely and secretly kept until the troublous times which were beginning for the Roman Catholic Church of England should be overpast. It is uncertain whether Horner knew of the ruse, or whether in ignorance of it he only suspected that the pie was not all it pretended to be, and proceeded to investigate in the natural manner indicated in the nursery rhyme by prying up the lid of the pastry with his thumb. At all events, instead of taking the pastry to its destination, he turned the deeds over to the officers of the crown, who proceeded to dispossess the monks and confiscate the monastic property, Horner receiving his share of the spoils. He is said to have been afterwards a crown officer himself. Perhaps he was so at the beginning and not connected with the monastery at all, only by a lucky stroke coming across the bearer of the pie in transit and divining what might be the real significance of his errand. At all events, the "plum" that fell to his share out of the famous Christmas pie seems to have been substantial and succulent, and was the foundation of his family fortunes.

As to "the house that Jack built," it appears to have had a very handsome church attached as a salve to the conscience, in the manner of the time, for having been concerned in diverting from the old church a large sum of which the builder had no scruple to keep a good proportion in his own pockets. The significance is doubtless now irretrievably lost of the malt and the rat, the dog and the cat, the cow with the crumpled horn, the man all tattered and torn, the maiden all forlorn, and the priest all shaven and shorn, which we read about in the little ballad. We might make a shrewd guess as to the man and the maid, perhaps as to the milking of the cow, and especially as to the House and Garden shaving and shearing of the priest; but the rest of it is now too obscure to throw much light on after the lapse of more than four centuries. The tradition as to the facts has, however, been kept in the Horner family in England, and the house still stands at Mells in excellent preservation.

The rhyming lampoons themselves would long ago have been forgotten had it not been for a foolish and noisy old woman in Boston a hundred and fifty years ago, who insisted on deafening the ears of her irritable son-in-law by singing them to her grandchild in season and out of season, and had not the exasperated man happened to be a printer, with an eye to the main chance, who saw an opportunity to turn an honest penny and to retaliate upon his wife's mother at the same time.

The unknown enemy of John Horner who lampooned him, perhaps never heard of the part of the world where his doggerel was destined to be printed centuries after he was dead and gone, having been handed down by word of mouth through succeeding generations and finally degenerated into tales for babes. It seems a queer fate, but then Dean Swift's vastly more important political satire, "Gulliver's Travels," has come to much the same end.

Notes

  1. Thomas Fleet 1685-1758, American colonial printer, b. Shropshire, England. He arrived in Boston c.1712, a refugee because of his opposition to the High Church, and became a prominent printer and publisher in the colony. From 1731 until his death he published a weekly paper first called Weekly Rehearsal and changed in 1735 to the Boston Evening Post.
  2. Glastonbury Abbey
  3. Richard Whiting the last Abbot of Glastonbury, executed November 15, 1539
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