Captain Thomas Folliott Powell was a gift to an author looking for interesting minor characters. He appears only briefly, in chapters 2 and 3 of Barefoot on the Cobbles, yet his behaviour has ramifications that echo through the remainder of the novel. When I first discovered that Polly had been a domestic servant at Chudleigh Villas and that the Powells had advertised for a servant in the local press at the appropriate time, I decided that they made a perfect match. On further investigation, the Powells’ story opened up several opportunities.
The position of troops during the mutiny – wikimedia
Thomas Folliott Powell was born on 3rd August 1834 in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, the son of William Powell, a solicitor and his wife, Eliza née Miller. The family descended from minor gentry. Thomas bought a commission in the army in 1853 and served in South Africa, the East Indies and India. As a Captain of the 6th regiment of foot, he was involved in the Indian Mutiny of 1857-9. Thomas retired from the army in 1865 and was able to sell his commission for £2500.
There is some confusion about the name of Thomas’ wife, who appears in the novel as Emily but who was in reality Mary Jane Winter (known as Amy), who had been born in the East Indies. They married in London in 1868. Four daughters and a son were born between 1876 and 1882. We can only speculate why there were no children during the first eight years of the marriage.
The family moved to Chudleigh Villas, Bideford in the late 1880s. Thomas seemed unable to match his lifestyle to his income and he was supported by his widowed mother, who provided the furnishings in their home and made them an allowance of £300 a year. Thomas had first been declared bankrupt in 1883, when he was living in the Plymouth area. He squandered the money he had made from his commission and it seems that a gambling addiction was a major contributor. His father had, perhaps wisely, left Thomas nothing in his will and when we meet him in the novel, Thomas is once again in financial difficulties. The family downsized to Ford Cottages, in New Road, Bideford. His second bankruptcy was annulled in 1898 and Thomas died in Portsea, Hampshire the following year.
‘ Mrs Powell regained her composure and resumed her tirade, ‘Why couldn’t you just have found enough to pay off Mr Tardrew? If you’d only done that, all this might have been avoided. Then there’s that money you owe to Tanton’s Hotel, how could you have run up such a bill? Your mother has been more than generous, we should be able to live comfortably on the three hundred pounds a year that she gives us. What on earth will she think? We cannot expect her to keep making us an allowance if you are such a spendthrift. It is no wonder that your brother has washed his hands of you.’
‘What’s done is done, eh Emily,’ Captain Powell replied. ‘Like as not I shall be declared bankrupt again.’ ’
Barefoot on the Cobbles will be published on 17 November 2018. More information about the novel can be found here. Copies will be available at various events in the weeks following the launch or can be pre-ordered from Blue Poppy Publishing or the author.