John Ellis BEST (1849–1894)
St Mary Magdalen section: Row 29, Grave L71

John Ellis Best



Loving Memory of






Butler Best

John Ellis Best was born at St Giles’s Street, Oxford in 1849 and baptised at St Giles’s Church on 21 November.

He was the elder son of John Henwood Best (born in St Winnow, Cornwall in 1810 and baptised there on 20 May) and Mary Ellis (born in Queen Camel, Somerset in c.1814).

Both his parents were living in St Mary Magdalen parish when they were married in its church on 25 June 1846: John Henwood Best was described as a domestic servant, the son of the gardener Joseph Best; and Mary Ellis as the daughter of the shoemaker Uriah Ellis.

John Ellis Best’s parents were evidently living in St Giles’s Street at the time of his birth in 1849, but in 1850 his father was appointed Butler of Worcester College.



Right: John Ellis Best, who succeeded his father as Butler of Worcester College (reproduced by kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of Worcester College)

Worcester College at this time accommodated its Butler at Poplar Cottage in Walton Street (originally numbered 167, and eventually settling at 172). This early seventeenth-century Grade II listed house is immediately opposite the college at the south-east end and, like the college itself, falls in St Mary Magdalen parish. It is now known as Worcester Cottage (below): the two wings shown in the photograph were added later.

Poplar Cottage

At the time of the 1851 census John Ellis Best (1) was living at Poplar Cottage with his father John Best (40), Butler of Worcester College, and his mother Mary (36), plus the family’s two servants. His younger brother William Henwood Best was born there later in 1851.

In 1861 John Ellis Best (10) was at the cottage with his parents and his younger brother William (9), and there were also three undergraduate lodgers and a servant.

On 19 September 1870 John’s brother William Henwood Best, aged 20, was admitted to the University of Cambridge as a pensioner at Pembroke College. His home address was given as Worcester College, Oxford.

In 1871 John (21) was at Poplar Cottage with his parents and his brother William (19), described as an undergraduate at Cambridge, was home for the vacation. William obtained his B.A. in 1874.

In 1881 John Ellis Best (30) was described as a college clerk and was still living with his parents at Poplar Cottage. His father John Henwood Best (70) was still serving as the butler of Worcester College. William Drake, another servant of the college, wrote the following in his memoir (published in the Worcester College Record of 2013 and reproduced by kind permission of the Provost and Fellows of Worcester College):

When I entered College in 1881 there were two houses opposite recognised as residences for the Butler, Poplar Cottage, Walton Street, so named because of two poplar trees standing in the garden, and No. 1 Worcester Street for the Porter. Curiously enough, they were both named Best. One was known as Butler Best and the other as Porter Best, a bigger and taller man with a wart on his nose. Butler Best was short and getting on in years, a little bent; he always wore a gladstone collar, a wide black silk tie tied in a bow with fringes hanging from the ends, a frock coat and a tall hat. He used to serve the Commons, bread, butter, cheese and beer, nothing else being served from the Buttery and all over the Buttery Hatch. He used to have a man clerk come in at meal times to book on the Commons, as they were called on by the Bedmakers; no one except the Bursar ever put foot in the Buttery, and that was seldom, except the baker who delivered the bread early mornings. The man clerk who came at meal times was known as old “Doodle” Symonds. He eventually died and Butler Best had his son in to do the books. He was always known as “Little Johnny Best”. He was very short with a hump back and was given the post of Butler when his father died. Johnny died in 1894. He was the last Butler to occupy “Poplar Cottage”.

John Ellis Best’s mother Mary Best died on 2 July 1883, and was definitely buried at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery, but her name cannot be found on any grave marker. Her death notice in Jackson’s Oxford Journal read:

July 2, at Poplar Cottage, Walton-street, Oxford, Mary, the devoted wife of John H. Best, butler at Worcester College, aged 67. The funeral took place at Jericho Cemetery on Thursday afternoon, the Provost of Worcester, at his own request, reading the funeral service. The Bursar also was present, and the domestics and servants of the College also attended.

His father John Henwood Best died at Poplar Cottage at the age of 83 on 22 October 1886 and was buried at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery, presumably in the same grave as his wife, on 27 October. His death notice in Jackson’s Oxford Journal read: “Oct. 22, at Poplar Cottage, Walton-street, Oxford, aged 84, Mr. John Henwood Best, for 36 years butler at Worcester College.”

His effects came to £944 6s. 9d., and his son John Ellis Best, was his executor. The latter was described as a gentleman in his father’s probate records. He was appointed butler of Worcester College in his father’s stead, and hence continued to live at Poplar Cottage.

In the third quarter of 1887 in Wandsworth, John Ellis Best married Clara Armitage (who was born in Clapham in 1859 and was still living in Holy Trinity parish there at the time of her marriage). They had the following children:

  • Ethel Mary Best (born at Poplar Cottage on 5 June 1888 and baptised at St Mary Magdalen Church on 14 July)
  • Dorothy Ada Best (born in Oxford in 1889, registered third quarter)
  • Ellis Henwood Best (born at Poplar Cottage on 20 December 1891 and baptised at St Mary Magdalen Church on 14 May 1892)
  • Frank Percival Best (born at Poplar Cottage on 6 January 1893 and baptised at St Mary Magdalen Church on 28 February).

By the time of the 1891 census John Ellis Best (42), butler of Worcester College, was living at Poplar Cottage with his wife Clara (32), their children Ethel (2) and Dorothy (1), and one servant. Their next son Ellis was born at the end of that year, and their youngest son Frank on 6 January 1894.

Just six days after the birth of his youngest son and just seven years after his father’s death, John Ellis Best died:

† John Ellis Best died at Poplar Cottage, Walton Street at the age of 44 on 12 January 1894 and was buried at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery on 15 January (burial recorded in the parish register of St Mary Magdalen Church).

His death notice in Jackson’s Oxford Journal read simply: “Jan. 12, at Poplar Cottage, Walton-street, Oxford, John Ellis Best, butler of Worcester College, aged 44.” His effects came to £2,070 13s. 2d., and his executors were his wife Clara and the coal merchant Henry Franklin.

Following his death, his wife had to move out of Poplar Cottage. Francis John Lys (who was to be elected Provost in 1919) moved in: he was the first academic member of Worcester College to live there, and it was made much larger: a wing was added to each end, and the kitchen was extended.

John’s brother William Henwood Best died at the Waterman, Mill Street, Wantage at the age of 46 in February 1899.

Mrs Clara Best (born 1859)

Mrs Best returned to London after her husband’s death, and at the time of the 1901 census was living at 71 Endlesham Road, Balham with her four children: Ethel (12), Dorothy (11), Ellis (9), and Frank (7).

She was still there in 1911 with three of her children: Dorothy (21), who was a secretary; Ellis (19), who was an auctioneer’s apprentice; and Frank (17), who was still at school. Ethel Mary Best (22) was a teacher, lodging in Hunstanton, Norfolk.

Her son Ellis Henwood Best served as a Private in the East Riding Yeomanry in the First World War and was killed in Jerusalem at the age of 25 on 16 November 1917 (CWGC page). He is remembered on the war memorial in St Saviour’s Church, Kings Road, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex.

By the 1920s Mrs Clara Best was living at Oxford Lodge, Crosby Road, Westcliff-on-Sea.



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