The story of the Crangs at Halsway starts with John Crang, organ builder. He was the son of a Devonshire farmer. He learnt his trade with a well-established organ building family in North Devon. Having served his apprenticeship, he went to London in the early 18th century to workshops near St Clement Dane in the Strand. He may have been befriended by the elderly Handel and given work by him; it is a fact that the MP for Barnstaple, Sir George Amyand, Handel’s executor, encouraged Crang and put commissions his way, including the the servicing of Handel’s organ in Great Coram Street. As time went on he became a leading figure in the organ world, installing new swell organs in St Paul’s Cathedral and the churches of St Peter’s, Cornhill and St Clement Dane. He was retained to repair and improve many other organs in the City of London and the Home Counties. His instruments can still be found at St Peter’s, Barnstaple, commissioned by Sir George, at St Mark’s, Godalming, in Surrey and at St Peter’s, Pertenhall, Beds. One of his spinets is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. John Crang retired in the 1780s, the firm continuing as an organ maintenance business for another forty years.
Money from John’s flourishing business had gone into farmland in Devon, much of it worked by his many brothers and sisters. Another beneficiary was a nephew, James Crang, the first of the Halsway Crangs. He was assisted by his uncle to set up at the manor as a tenant farmer around the turn of the century. When Mary Stoate bought the estate James’ tenancy continued and on her death the manor was left to him in trust. The farming maintenance records from 1818 are still in existence in the possession of Mrs Meg Crang-Botting now living in Aldershot
The first James Crang at Halsway died in 1846, probably back in North Devon. His son, also James, continued to farm at Halsway and died a year later. His burial in Stogumber Church was contentious to say the least. The family’s opinion was that ownership of Halsway Manor entitled burial in the Halsway Aisle in the church. The church in turn insisted that, although Halsway by name, the aisle had been built by the Stradling family and was really the Stradling Aisle, built for the gentry and not for a farmer who was in any case a very irregular churchgoer. Nevertheless, the coffin was brought to the church. The unfortunate curate had no vicar or churchwardens present to support him and with the threat that otherwise an opening would be made in the church wall, he was forced to allow the sexton to unlock the church door and allow the burial to take place.
Two years later, on the death of the late James’ mother-in-law, the family adopted another tactic, using a solicitor to enquire as to the cost “if any” of her burial in “the family burying place.” The reply came in no uncertain terms in an indignant letter from the same curate. His indignation was not lessened by the manner in which the request was presented to him, by hand in the street after morning service, with a curt verbal demand that if the request was not met the family would go to the bishop. After protesting about the peremptory attitude of the bearer, the reply detailed “the circumstances under which the measure of Mr Crang’s sepulture in Stogumber was there extorted and accomplished” The letter concluded, “we deny that Mr Crang or his family had any such burying place in Stogumber Church or any portion of it.” The family did not pursue the matter and the old lady was buried elsewhere. The correspondence between the Crang’s solicitor and the curate is attached to page 88 of the burial register for 1847, now in the County Archives in Taunton. The letter from the curate is masterly in its restraint and style and the use of the word “sepulture” is particularly relished.
We may find this incident from the distant past amusing but it would be unfair to let it detract from the family’s contribution to the manor’s progress. The records show that the land was farmed efficiently and well, which is more than can be said for some of the previous owners. It is said that Elizabeth Stradling had to sell the property to meet gambling debts and we know that under the Cades, for whatever reason, the estate became heavily mortgaged.
In the years that followed, Henry Poole, Robert Evered and William Thorne in turn farmed for the Crangs at Halsway. During the Thorne’s tenancy the artist John North, his friend Frederick Walker and others lodged there, finding inspiration in the manor and the surrounding countryside. Their work can be found in many collections and the Somerset School has a place in the history of Victorian art.
The third James Crang resumed residence in 1869 and the Thornes with Walker and North moved to another farm at Woolston a few miles from Halsway. The Crang connection ended in 1873 when the manor was sold to Charles Rowcliffe.