by Malcolm Pratt
The Stileman family originated at Otford in Kent where their status was recorded as 'yeoman'. The circumstances of their move to Winchelsea in Sussex are not known but they were certainly well established there by 1766 when the Richard Stileman of an earlier generation successfully registered his right to vote as a freeman of the town. In their adopted town the influence of the Stilemans was far above that of yeomen; they became wealthy leading residents. On 3rd October 1786 Richard's parents married. They are entered in the register as 'both of this parish'. His father was another Richard, (there were Richards in seven out of eight generations of the Stileman family) and his mother was Catherine Gybbon. Their first born, the subject of this study, was baptised on 10 May 1787. By 1792 Richard senior's position in the parish had been considerably enhanced by his becoming a leading overseer of the poor. A considerable amount of information about Richard junior's early life is available to us because, in the late 1820s, he wrote an account of his childhood. For much of the time covered by that account he was deprived of parental influence for both his mother and his father died when he was only eight. The main family influence on him seems to have been that of his Uncle Bob. This was the Robert Stileman of his father's generation, Robert being another frequently repeated Stileman name. Richard was considerably daunted by Uncle Bob's rather dominating presence and says that only in later years did he come to appreciate his uncle's qualities.
However, it was before the influence of Uncle Bob became so important in his life that Richard, on a memorable occasion for him, accompanied his father to the barber's. The barber's shop he describes as 'a magazine of powder and soap'. While he was looking round, the boy's attention was attracted to a small flaxen wig which was on display. His father noticed this apparent interest and remarked jocularly that it would fit the boy very well. Richard went home in a great state of trepidation for he had taken the remark seriously. He most unwisely sought reassurance from his father's servants and from a cousin who was staying with them. This made matters much worse! One day not long afterwards a large box was delivered to the Stileman family home and a servant announced, 'Here's the wig for Master Richard.' The boy was distraught. It was not even the flaxen wig he had seen at the barber's shop but 'a large brown frizzled wig'. Richard clung to his mother crying out in distress, thus greatly disturbing the adults' game of whist which was in progress. Eventually he was calmed down but only fully pacified when he saw the horrible appendage being taken away. It seems that Richard's cousin and the servants had combined to arrange this prank and had borrowed the wig from an old man who lived at the end of the Stilemans' garden. Telling of this incident in his memoirs allowed Stileman the opportunity to reflect on the major changes in men's fashions since the days of his youth. He commented, 'How terribly the tonsor's trade has declined since those days! All gentlemen wore powder - [there were] few who had not their hair regularly dressed every day. I can see the old barber going his rounds with his antique box containing the various engines for torturing the human head into a state of propriety.'