An account of the life of Charles Messer (1848-1915) by WJ Denman (no date).

A hand-written version of the following account is now in the Crawley Museum collection, courtesy of a donation by Nadine Hygate. It was written by William James Denman (1877-1945), a renowned Crawley figure: head postman, local councillor, JP, tireless committeeman, supporter of local sports and social organisations, and prolific journalist as ‘Wayfarer’, writing in the Surrey and Sussex Courier through the 1930s, chronicling the development of Crawley, past and present.

Black and white photograph of building with Bay Tree Coffee House written on the side.

Black and white photograph of The Bay Tree Coffee House, from Crawley Museums Collection.

This account gives a glimpse into the life of Charles Messer, this ‘most thorough Crawley man’, who lived his life in typical Victorian service to the local community.

“Mr Charles Messer, who formerly lived at 92 High Street (1), Crawley, was, probably, the most thorough Crawley man who has lived; in fact he was so completely Crawley that he was inclined to be unfair toward other places and other folk. Mr Messer was born in Crawley in 1848 and died on 10th November 1915, so was 67 years of age and the whole of that time was spent in Crawley.

Like the majority of boys of those days he had very little schooling; as a matter of fact he could not read and hardly write yet he was able to hold his own in conversation and he had a happy knack of seeing the humorous side of life, and could keep a company well amused by his jokes and quips.

At a very early age he commenced work and gradually worked his way up to the position of estate bricklayer at Tilgate and he was well known as a very able and efficient workman.

It is however with his public life that we are concerned. At the age of nine years’ he became a choir boy at Crawley Church but he proved such a mischievous boy that he was a considerable source of anxiety to the choir master (Mr J Sayers). The Rector of the Parish was the Rev. Mr Soper (John Soper, Rector 1856-76) and he recognised that Charlie was not a bad boy but just an imp of mischief. He conferred with the verger, Mr Stephen Bowers, who advised giving the lad some office, some responsibility so to speak, so we find him appointed assistant verger, his duties being to help with the seating, see books were in order, place fresh water in the vestry and in the tower. This did not lessen the spirit of fun, but only so far as the Church was concerned. It is (?) that he sprinkled snuff and pepper in the gallery and caused much sneezing thereby and on one occasion (when in a hurry) he actually dropped from the gallery onto the floor of the chancel. He succeeded to the office of verger at the retirement of Mr Bowers and for over 50 years he carried out the onerous duties never missing a practice night (then twice a week), never once missing a single service except when illness laid him aside. The Church was his all and, what is more, he began to look upon it as ‘all his’, for to all with whom he came into contact it was ‘my church’.

Mr Messer married a young lady (Mary) who had been engaged as a domestic at the Tree. Here it should be said that all Crawley men and women who were young people 70 years ago were always treated as children their after-life by the Misses Smith and even down to a few years ago little presents were received by many in the town inscribed ‘with love from your Sunday School teacher’. At the funeral of Mr Messer on the 15th November 1915 was a wreath with the inscription ‘In loving memory of a Sunday School Scholar’, Misses Smith’.

Shortly after being married Mr and Mrs Messer opened the Bay Tree Coffee House (2) and this proved a most successful venture, as the era of cycling was in the air. At first one saw the old velocipede, then the boneshaker, quickly followed by the penny farthing bicycle and then the safety. Mr and Mrs Messer were the first to cater for the new trade and then in turn they sold to Mr and Mrs Shaw who soon tired of the catering side and took up the machine side.

Mr Messer had a marked personality and exercised a wonderful power over men. From early days Mr Messer was fond of singing, jokes etc. and he formed what was for many years a most successful Band of Minstrels – the Sowhawk (Showhawk ?) Minstrels (3), some 18 in all, Mr Messer being their chief. “


(1) Rose Cottages, demolished in 1953.

(2) This is most likely the Bay Tree Restaurant that was open at 58 High Street between 1899 and 1904. N.B. The opening of the restaurant is dated to 1878 by N. Hygate (1993) ‘Wayfarer Denman’s Crawley Revisited’ p.60.

The Bay Tree Coffee House was run by the Shaws at 60 High Street, in Grand Parade.

In her memoir, Daisy Warren writes:

‘…I can just remember the Bay Tree cyclists rest kept by Mr Shaw. It had a square bay window and a little garden and fence and a sort of cycle wheel on a pole. Then it was turned into a motor engineers kept by Mr Ambrose Shaw.’

‘Scenes from a Window in Crawley High Street from 1900 to 1912 on the London-Brighton Road’. Daisy Warren, transcribed and edited by Pat Bracher 1992.

(3) Possibly a ‘blackface’ minstrel group, of the kind that reached a peak of popularity in Britain in the 1880s when the Prince of Wales took banjo lessons!

Graham Crozier

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