Bryan Stratford – Stockton Eccentric
Over the years Stockton has laid claim to many notable eccentrics.
One such was Bryan Stratford. He was born in Stockton in 1819 into a relatively well off family. He received a good education, and as a young man was apprenticed as a Millwright. He was reasonably diligent at his trade and well thought of by his fellow workmen.
From a early age he had shown a strong interest in music, poetry and the stage and was often to be heard reciting quotations from the works of the well known poets and playwrights, with a particular passion for Shakespeare and Byron. He was considered to be something of an intellectual by those who knew him best.
He appeared to have led quite a normal existence and was contemplating marriage when the object of his affections ‘upped and offed’ with a gentleman many years her senior. Bryan never recovered from this blow to his expectations and was a changed man from then on. He adopted less temperate habits and assumed an abandoned lifestyle, giving up his work and living off his wits. He became something of a celebrity around the town, well known for his ingenuity in making ends meet.
He does seem to have maintained his love of the theatre and there are many stories of his quoting from the great dramatists or the scriptures in odd situations. One of the most frequently recalled stories concerns a wedding being held in the vicinity of Dovecote Street. Bryan, finding himself short of funds as usual, saw an opportunity to make a few coppers. He boldly marched up to the house of the bride’s father, confidently ascending the steps and ringing the bell and on being admitted and ushered into the presence of the wedding party began – in his most extravagant manner – to congratulate the bride and groom on their recent nuptials. This so pleased the father of the bride that he rewarded Bryan with half-a-crown (about ten quid today). A delighted Bryan returned to the street where he was asked by his companion to share his booty, to which Bryan replied in a loud and censorious manner ‘NO! Go and do thou likewise!’ much to the amusement of those around the pair.
Heavisides Almanac of 1909 records the following tale… Some two years or so after the close of the Crimean War (1859), the volunteer movement became very popular. Here (in Stockton High Street) one evening the militia companies were being put through various military evolutions, and as usual were witnessed by a goodly number of townspeople. Quite unexpectedly there appeared on the scene Bryan Stratford, who in a trice, with much waving of hands, in a stentorian voice gave the command ’Stand at ease!’. So out of place was the order that the officer commanded Bryan to stand to one side. The son of Mars lost all the patience he possessed and spoke smartly to Bryan, who turned slowly to the officer, and, with serious aspect quoted the words Othello addresses to Cassio ’I love thee, but never more be officer of mine’. Then drawing himself up to his full height, he assumed a mock air of wounded dignity and left the officer, his men and the public convulsed with laughter.
Another story tells of the time Bryan, an aspiring amateur thespian himself at one time, was invited to sing in the pantomime ‘Blue Beard’ then showing at one of Stockton’s playhouses. We can only assume that the lead comedian saw an opportunity to have some sport at Bryan’s expense. Bryan had been asked to sing two songs, ‘My Pretty Jane’ and ‘The Last Rose of Summer’. The theatre was full with those wishing to hear this display of native talent. Bryan wouldn’t disappoint. Dressed in full evening attire, scrubbed, powdered and shaved for the occasion he made his grand entrance, much to the delight of those who had never seen him so clean.
To loud cheers he began to sing the first of the sentimental ballads. Unfortunately he sang in what was described as ‘a most unmelodious manner’ which had the effect of causing the musicians in the band to break into fits of laughter, totally losing the tune themselves. Bryan was so outraged by this that he broke off singing and was heard to shout ‘Nay, damn it all, can’t you play up!’ This mix of sentimentality and profanity only served to make matters worse and, with the band and audience roaring with good natured laughter, Bryan’s performance was brought to a sudden end and he was escorted from the stage to much applause.
Bryan was to spend the latter part of his life in the Stockton Workhouse at Portrack , which he jovially referred to as his ‘Town Residence’. His many friends helped to maintain him there by providing a weekly allowance which was held by the Workhouse guardians for ‘Bryan’s support’. These funds frequently exceeded the sums required by the Guardians, at which times Bryan would apply for the surplus and take himself off ‘on a spree’ until the money was all gone – he would then quietly return to his Town Residence.
In 1881, at the age of 62, Bryan died in the Workhouse after a short illness. He was buried in the Holy Trinity churchyard where a headstone marked his grave until the redevelopment of the area saw the bodies removed to Oxbridge Cemetery.
It is thought his headstone may still exist in the Holy Trinity churchyard. (If I can find it I’ll add a photograph….)
We are extremely grateful to Ruth Russell-Jones who very kindly submitted this photograph of her ancestors’ headstone.
Bryan’s name is the last name on the headstone.