The cottages in Broadway that comprise Wells Gardens, Leamington Road, were built and named after Thomas Edmund Wells. Born in Birmingham, England, Thomas emigrated with his father and brother fto the United States in 1870. He later returned to England to spend his retirement in Broadway away from Chicago, Illinois, where he made his fortune. Thomas is credited with being one of the prominent businessmen who made Chicago one of the leading cities in the world.
Thomas’s Early Life in Birmingham, England
Thomas was born in Birmingham on 28th January 1855 the son of John Wells, a butcher, and Diana Wells (née Nash). Thomas’s father, John, was from Rowington, near Warwick, Warwickshire, and his mother had been born at Causeway Meadows Farm1, Dodderhill, near Droitwich, Worcestershire, on 31st October 1826. The Nash and Wells were family friends and John and Diana, whose parents were living at Haselor Farm, Cropthorne, Worcestershire, were married at St Michael’s Church, Cropthorne, by Rev. B. Fawcett on 4th February 1852. After their marriage they moved back to Birmingham where Thomas was born the following year.
Thomas was baptised Thomas Edmund Wells on 3rd June 1855 in St George’s Church, Birmingham. Thomas had a younger brother, Samuel John2, who was born in Birmingham in 1857. Aged 41, their mother died during the summer of 1869 and following her death, John, Thomas and Samuel, emigrated to the United States to join family who had already settled there.
Thomas’s Life in Chicago
By June 1870 Thomas, his father and brother were living in Hyde, an affluent area 7 miles south of downtown Chicago in Illinois. Aged 15 and having finished his schooling, Thomas found work as a bank messenger for the American bank house Lunt, Preston, and Kean. Although young, Thomas excelled and quickly moved up in the business. During the Great Chicago Fire3 which raged across the city a few months later from 8th to 10th October 1870, Thomas just managed to escape the flames before the bank’s building succumbed to the fire and collapsed.
Aged 23, Thomas married his cousin, Mary Nash in Chicago on 17th October 1878. Mary had been born at Rush Farm, Inkberrow, Worcestershire. Mary’s father, Richard Preston Nash4 was Thomas’s mother’s oldest brother who had also emigrated to the US in the 1870s and had made Chicago his home. After their marriage, Thomas and Mary moved to 1733 Vincennes Avenue, Chicago. Thomas had a house built on land he had purchased in what was then a quiet, up and coming suburb of the city. Thomas and Mary had 3 daughters and 4 sons all born in Chicago:
- Mary Wells, 1879-1969, who married William Hamilton Noyes of Chicago
- John Edward Wells, 1881-1945
- Anne Diana Wells, 1883-1957, who married Albert Hamilton Noyes
- Thomas Edmund Wells Jr, 1885-1940
- Richard A. Wells, who died, aged 6, on 23rd January 1895
- Preston Albert Wells, 1891-1974
- Eleanor May Wells, 1896-1978, who married George Dresser Smith
In 1873 Thomas started work at William Kirkwood at the Chicago Board of Trade and in 1876 was promoted to partner of the firm which was later known as Geddes, Kirkwood & Company. Thomas was amongst traders known as the ‘English crowd’ trading corn and grain on the Exchange floor alongside Alexander Geddes, William Kirkwood and Robert Stuart, who was actually a Scot. Robert Stuart was one of the three founders of the Quaker Oats Company and Thomas was later involved in the company sitting on the board of Quaker Oats.
In the late 1880s, Thomas ended up with some Texas cattle as collateral on a loan that defaulted. To house the cattle, he purchased from the Union Pacific Railroad, 10,000 acres of land at Rush Creek in the Sandhills area of Nebraska and the cattle were moved to the site from Texas. Thomas and his young family spent their summers at the ranch and in the 1890s Thomas set up the Rush Creek Land & Livestock Company. At one time the family were one of the top ten landowners in the panhandle owning 155,864 acres at Rush Creek. His two sons, Thomas Jr and Preston became the most involved in the ranch with Preston, in the 1940s, acquiring his first Arabian horse to add to the number of horses at the ranch. Today the ranch and the Rush Creek Land and Livestock Company, which is still owned by the Wells family, is famous for breeding Arabian horses.
Thomas left Geddes, Kirkwood & Company in 1896 to become President of the Continental Packing Company and in 1902 when he set up his own Chicago Board of Trade trading firm, T.E. Wells & Co. Outside work, Thomas was a member and trustee of the Forty-first street Presbyterian Church which opened in 1890 and a member of the Chicago Club, a private members club for prominent Chicago businessmen, politicians and families.
Retirement to Top Farm, Broadway
On his retirement Thomas decided to move back to England and after renting Dr George Haynes Fosbroke’s Georgian house, Rose Place, Claines, near Worcester, for a year or so in 1902 moved to Broadway. Having fallen for the idyllic Cotswold village, Thomas purchased Top Farm from the Capital and Counties Bank, Broadway, in 1904. Along with the fine Tudor house Thomas purchased surrounding grounds of about 11 acres including extensive fruit orchards, a kitchen garden, dairy, arable fields and several outbuildings and cottages.
Thomas spent his retirement updating and extending the main house and outbuildings. Top Farm House was originally designed by the London architect Andrew Noble Prentice and the refurbishment overseen by Thomas in 1905 was carried out by the Evesham builders, Espley & Co. The gardens at the house were redesigned for Thomas and Mary by the garden designer Alfred Parsons, RA, of Luggershill (now Luggers Hall), Broadway.
Both Thomas and Mary became actively involved in village life and Thomas became affectionately known as Tommy. The family were regular worshippers and supporters of St Michael’s Church and every summer the Broadway Council Schools annual tea and sports day was held in the gardens at Top Farm.
In the early 1900s there was a lack of housing in Broadway for the villagers, so Thomas commissioned Espley & Co. to build the Wells Cottages on the Leamington Road which were completed in 1907 and 1908. The cottages became fondly known in the village as “White City”. Some of the cottages were occupied by workers at Top Farm and many of the cottages are still owned by the family today.
The families and workers associated with Top Farm included; Frank Morgan and Hubert Smithin (Bailiffs), Mr and Mrs T.F. Newbury, David William Stanley (Head Gardener), Mr and Mrs H. Brookes, George Frederick Knott5 (who rented one of the cottages at Top Farm), J.W. and Mollie Donovan (Top Farm Cottages), William and Mary Gardner (Top Farm Cottages), George Gazey Andrews and his daughter Bessie (who lived at Wells Gardens).
Thomas died, aged 55, at home at Top Farm, during the early hours of Thursday 4th August 1910 following a bout of appendicitis. The following Saturday a funeral service, conducted by Rev. Francis Morgan, was held at the house. Rev. Morgan who had just retired from Broadway returned to take the service at the family’s request and whilst the service was being held, the minute bell at St Eadburgha’s Church was rung. Amongst the many mourners, which included his widow, Mary, youngest daughter Eleanor, the farm workers and staff were:
- Mr & Mrs John Nash6 (uncle and aunt)
- Mrs Prudence Nash7 and nieces, Mary Nash, Jane Nash and Jennie Nash
- Dr & Mrs Bunting (cousins)
- Mr & Mrs Antonio de Navarro of Court Farm, Broadway
- Dr G.H. Fosbroke (Claines)
- Dr & Mrs Charles T. Standring
- Mr Bridge and Mr Seymour (representing Quaker Oats)
- Mr Bomford
- Mr & Mrs Frank Morgan
- Mr Henry Fowler
- Mr G.H. Hunt (Evesham)
A memorial service was also held at St Michael’s Church the day after the funeral service and Thomas’s body was taken to Evesham Mortuary to be embalmed. On 19th August, his coffin was taken by train to Liverpool, accompanied by Henry Fowler. Thomas’s son, Preston, had made the journey over from Chicago and he returned to Chicago with his mother and his father’s body on the SS Baltic on 20th August. Thomas was buried in Winnetka Congregational Church Cemetery, Cook County, Illinois, alongside his son, Richard.
Thomas’s estate was valued around $1,000,000 and amongst his bequests was money for the building of 10 cottages for married old people in Chicago to be known as the “Richard Arthur Wells Memorial”. His widow, Mary, inherited the household, furniture, jewellery, cars and carriages and the rest of his estate was put into trust with his six children receiving $200,000 each a year after his death. Various other family members and workers and servants employed at Top Farm were also beneficiaries.
After his death his widow continued to spend the summer at Top Farm8. Mary died on 6th August 1941, aged 90 at her home 835 Hill Road, Winnetka, a village north of Chicago, Illinois which the family had built in 1926. Mary’s estate was valued at $2,000,000 and Top Farm was inherited by her daughters.
In 1945, nearly 9 acres of arable fields and orchards owned by Top Farm were compulsory purchased under the Housing Acts 1936 to 1944 to provide extra houses for the village. Adjoining land owned by Collett’s trustees was also compulsory purchased at the same time and several council houses were built along Collett’s Fields in the village.
Top Farm remained in the Wells/Noyes family until 1953 when it was purchased by Professor and Mrs Goiten. The house has since been split into two separate houses and the barns and outbuildings along Bibsworth Lane have also been converted into houses.
Debbie Williamson, Chair of the Broadway History Society, will be giving an illustrated talk entitled Thomas E. Wells and Top Farm, Broadway, on Monday 21st September 2020 in the Lifford Memorial Hall, Lower Green, Broadway starting at 7pm.
Broadway History Society
1. William Hill acquired Causeway Meadows Farm (Corsey Meadow Farm) in 1563 when it was rented from the Lord of the Manor, Thomas Carewe. The farm remained in the Nash family until 1880.
2. Samuel John Wells also emigrated to Chicago and married his cousin Helen “Nellie” Nash.
3. The Great Chicago Fire killed approximately 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles of the city and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.
4. Richard Preston Nash was born Causeway Meadows Farm, Dodderhill, in 1818. By the mid 1870s he had moved with his wife, Prudence (née Arthars) and family to Chicago. He died in Chicago 29th August 1892 and is buried Winnetka Congregational Church Cemetery, Chicago.
5. George Frederick Knott was a teacher at Broadway Council School and one of the founders of Broadway Athletic Football Club. He died, aged 29 in 1936.
6. John Nash, born 11th October 1837 at Dodderhill, died 10th November 1910 in Cleveland, Ohio, and his wife Winifred (née Fowler) born 1841, died 1917, married Bengeworth, Evesham, Worcestershire on 7th August 1862.
7. Prudence Nash (née Arthars), wife of Richard Preston Nash (married 1851, died 1885 see note 3).
8. Top Farm was put up for auction in London by John D. Wood after Thomas’s death on 14th July 1914, however, it was still occupied by Mary Wells and her daughters until 1953 so was probably withdrawn from the sale.