John Spence (or Spense) was born in Channelkirk around 1790. John would qualify as a “writer”, the old Scottish title for a solicitor and he lived and worked in Earlston as a writer and Clerk to the Sheriffʼs Court.
In 1820 he married Margaret Bell in Melrose. Around that time John had commissioned the building of The Thorn, one of eighteen listed buildings and monuments in Earlston Parish.
"The Thorn" was completed around 1830 and Historic Environment Scotland considers the building to be of special interest since:
“The house stands on ground formerly known as Thorn Park on account of an ancient thorn which once grew there. The site is thus marked on the Ordnance Survey maps. In 1825 the land was feued to one John Spence, writer in Earlston, who subsequently built the house and other outbuildings."
"Presumably the house was designed so that Spence could conduct his business from offices entered from the W, whilst the private living quarters were entered from the S. For many years the house was owned by local doctors who operated a similar arrangement.”
Thorn House Today
In 1836, George Lindsay, Earlstonʼs Post Master died. John, who was related to Lindsay by his wifeʼs family, took on the role of Post Master.
He may have used the side entrance (W) for the post office, but by 1850, John now had premises on Earlstonʼs High Street that was officially designated as the Post Office. When John died in 1852 his wife, Margaret, took over the role of Post Mistress.
In 1855, when the Ordnance Survey was compiling a map of the Earlston area it noted that:
"An apartment of a dwelling house is occupied as an office where letters are received and dispatched to and from Melrose daily also to Legerwood, Gordon, Fans and Redpath etc. Mrs Spense Post Mistress."
We know from the 1841 Census that the Spenceʼs had a John Lindsay living with them; the grandson of George Lindsay, the previous Post Master, and the nephew of Margaret Spenceʼs family. When the 1851 Census was conducted in Melrose, John Lindsay was living with his aunt, Helen Crease, Margaret Spenceʼs sister, and his occupation was listed as Solicitors Writing Clerk.
A James Henderson also worked for Spence. Henderson would be implicated in a crime that shocked the nation in the 1850s in what was known as “The Bramhall Tragedy”
The Bramhall Tragedy
The Henderson family originally lived in Galashiels before renting a farm in Gordon. James, the eldest son, was apprenticed to John Spence as a Solicitorʼs Clerk before leaving to work with Messrs. Sanderson and Murray, wool merchants.
The family moved to Hardy Farm on the Bramhall estate in Cheshire. On September 30,1857, James Henderson, senior was murdered as he lay in his bed, shot at close range by a musket.
James junior was arrested for the murder of his father and committed for trial. He was described by the police as being "five feet four inches tall, light complexion, hazel eyes and a deeply sunk forehead." We also know that James suffered from some form of deformity of his feet. Those that knew him described as “being a person of quiet habits, and though disposition what is called deep, not all likely person to commit such a dreadful crime as he stands charged with.”
There was a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence that would appear to support the case against hi. The mot damning was reported in "The Berkshire Chronicle" on Saturday October 10th 1857. The correspondent wrote:
“The strongest evidence against the prisoner is the wadding found upon the breast of his father, on the landing, the stairs, and that found under the pear tree, where he shot a sparrow Tuesday morning, the morning before the murder was committed - all of which have been torn from a page of “The Cottage Girl", or "The Marriage Day.” A piece of paper corresponding to the wadding and evidently forming part of the same leaf, was also found in the prisonerʼs chamber service, under his bed.”
Perhaps the time served as John Spenceʼs apprentice was time well spent!
Spence chose Thorn Park to build his house, The Thorn, which is a lasting reminder of one of the predictions of Thomas the Rhymer, Earlston's 13th century poet and prophet
"This Thorn-Tree, as lang as it stands, Earlstoun sall possess a' her lands."
"As long as the Thorn Tree stands / Ercildoune shall keep its lands".
Robert Chambers, the nineteenth century publisher, claimed that the “Thorn Tree” as one that was uprooted in a storm in either 1814 or 1821, that had been growing on the last remaining acre belonging to the town of Earlston. The prophecy was lent additional weight at the time, because as it so happened, the merchants of the town had fallen under bankruptcy by a series of "unfortunate circumstances".
According to one account, "Rhymer's Thorn" was a huge tree growing in the garden of the Black Bull Inn, whose proprietor, named Thin*, had its roots cut all around, leaving it vulnerable to the storm that same year. [An 1825 trade and business directory identified William Phin as one of Earlstonʼs inn-keepers.]
The prophecy certainly came true for the landlord of the Black Bull inn. The demise of the business is captured in the 1855 Ordnance Survey Name book with the description “A house of entertainment formerly having a licence but having lost the licence. It is used as an Eating House.”
John Spence died in Melrose on December 19, 1852. His wife, Margaret, died of acute bronchitis on December 29, 1859. She is buried in Earlston churchyard.
The newly formed “Earlston in Bloom” has adopted as its logo the Thorn Flower in recognition of its significance to the village.
With grateful thanks to Jeff Price of the Auld Earlston Group
for researching and writing this article.