Friday, 1 February 2008

Mountnessing: Retrospect (from a talk given in 1950)

A talk given by W.W.Reed, Esq., M.Sc., F.R.I.C. the year after his retirement in 1950. Walter Reed was my great-uncle.

In accepting the very kind invitation of your Society to address them I am conscious of few qualifications to do so. The idea that I should have a fund of interesting experiences to draw on is unfortunately incorrect and the blame for that, in part, rests on those of you who studied at, what is now, the City College[1], for you were generally such well behaved people that life flowed very calmly, and I have had few highlights. However, on looking back over my life I came to the conclusion that, though I am not an old man yet, the sixty-five years of my life have seen some wonderful changes, and I will try to put them before you as the youngest ones of you may be interested in them and the older ones, of my generation, be drawn to speak of the past from your angle.

As I was born in 1885, two years before Queen Victoria’s first Jubilee, I am a Victorian - a term of reproach in the eyes of very modern folk. At the time I was born, outside the chartered boroughs, local government was practically non existent; there were, it is true, Boards of Guardians to look after the poor; the annual vestry which elected Church Wardens, and in London, outside the city, authorities dealing with sewers and drains. In Education, School Boards, created in 1870, existed when people demanded them, and probably more than half the countryside had none. The schools were in general denominational schools supported by voluntary rates. I cannot remember the inception of County Councils and R.D.C.s but I can remember the first P.C. (Parish Council) as my father was a member of that of our Parish. If you ask me how we were governed locally in the county at the time that I was born, I will venture to suggest the answer that it was by the Justices in Quarter Sessions.

I was born in a large parish - Mountnessing; one of the largest in Essex, about five miles by two-and-a-half, traversed by the Roman Road, as it is called on some maps, with one part abutting Billericay and reached by meandering lanes. The village lay for three-quarters of a mile along the main road. The Parish Church was one-and-a-half miles away on the road to Billericay, but there was an Iron Church in a lane close to the village, and two chapels - Congregational and Wesleyan - in the village street, but the latter closed in the early nineties. There were no large residential land owners, but the parsonage house of the parish, in my young day, was let to a military gentleman, a Major in the Regular Army, who was shortly made a Lt. Col. of Militia. He was reputed to have little money but his wife, a member of an old Banking family, was believed to be comfortably off; but he was very public minded and it was due to his energy that £2.000 was raised to restore the Parish Church which re-opened in 1891. I can remember going to the re-opening service. Owing, possibly, to the absence of a Squire there was a very independent spirit politically among the men I knew and possibly most of those not working directly for a farmer were Radicals, as we called them then.

I was born in a Manor House[2]. Not long before three or four gentlemen arrived and explained to my mother that they wanted to hold a Court and with permission used our drawing-room. After ushering them in, my mother withdrew, but was told not to do so as it was a public court. I believe these Courts functioned until the coming into force of Lord Birkenhead’s Land Act in (?) 1924. Copyhold tenure of course dated back to Norman times and had unexpected repercussions. Soon after my birth my parents moved to another house which had, for the size, a large number of sheds including one which had been a cowshed. It was originally roofed with tiles which had been largely blown off. The wooden slats were broken in a big storm one night. As my father had very little use for it he suggested that the shed should be demolished but the landlord reluctantly could not agree as he said the property was copyhold - so he roofed it for us in corrugated iron.

Our drinking water at that house was drawn by permission from a shallow well on property across the road. It was later “condemned” - we never drank it unboiled. For washing and other domestic purposes we used rain water collected in butts, and when they dried, which was not often, we brought water from a pond 150 yards away. On one occasion I can remember our going a mile away one very dry summer to get water from a brook so that we could have some sort of sponge bath. Incidentally, later on, we had to get our drinking water from the school well six hundred yards away. (My father was the village schoolmaster). It is heavy work carrying two 2-gallon pails of water that distance - we never used a yoke as was done on some farms locally, but we did find that a large hoop, one of our play things, kept the pails conveniently from our legs, and often used it. There is now a very deep well sunk into the green and which supplies piped water to the village.

The village was almost self-supporting. There was the old windmill reached by a two hundred yards chase perched on an artificial mound and the cottagers used to have their gleaning corn ground there[3]. We had our general shop where one could buy groceries, boots and shoes, ironmongery, drapery, etc. There was a bakery and a blacksmith’s shop (which may have been seven hundreds years old) - associated with a wheelwright’s shop with its sawpit, and a shoemaker. A new vicar offended the old gentleman shoemaker by genially saying, “Are you the village cobbler?” This caused the old man to draw himself up, and say,

“No, sir. I am the village shoemaker.”

By the way, in the speech of the village, the term boot was restricted to top boots, or those that reached the calf - all else were shoes or ‘shoon’. We had a village tailor, hay binder and chimney sweep. The hay binder was also a thatcher but his main job was getting the hay out of the stacks for the London market. Several wagons went weekly to the hay market just outside Aldgate. The wagons went overnight and came back next day. The hay binder’s wife was the local nurse in confinements. A butcher from Ingatestone - two miles away - brought in meat, but very few cottagers could afford that, except for Sunday. Some of them kept their own pigs and killed them as required. Grocers from Ingatestone and Brentwood (three miles away) used to deliver groceries and a postman walked in from Brentwood. Later, a younger postman was supplied with a bicycle and we had two deliveries and two collections daily from the village post office. There was one inn (referred to in Miss Bredon’s “Lady Audley’s Secret” as Castle Inn, Mount Stanning), three beer houses and one off licence.

I wonder if anyone has seen a man wearing a smock; there was an old man in the parish who I remember did so.

From one farmhouse in the village we could get fresh milk at 3d. a quart but we generally went one-and-a-half miles with our cans to get skimmed milk for which we paid 1d a quart. The dairy supplied the big house with milk and butter. The dairywoman (wife of the farm bailiff) wore pattens. Behind the big house (Thoby Priory) was Thoby Wood and during the winter village boys used to drive rabbits, pheasants and partridges, etc for big shoots. At the end of the day they were given 1/- (a shilling) and a rabbit - a useful supplement to the family’s funds when ordinary farm labourers were paid 12/- a week and horsemen and cowmen 13/- with Sunday labour.

The village school had an Infants Department of thirty-odd and an Upper School of ninety-odd. The latter was in a big room with a. sort of bay, where Standard I sat. The Headmaster looked after Standard IV and upwards. A partially qualified woman teacher took Standards II and III and an unqualified girl or woman (a monitor) taught Standard I. The Infant School had a. qualified mistress. There was a partition between the two schools which could be taken down for concerts, etc. The Sunday School met there, too and both Day and Sunday Schools had really useful little libraries. My father used to train the children to give a cantata once in the winter and the profits were spent on the Day School library. These continued until a new vicar came along who had conscientious objections to Friday evening concerts, etc. This was the only time when the platform could be assembled without affecting the school - it was dismantled on Saturday morning. Occasional concerts were however arranged by other folk.

Now for the roads. We were lucky in having a main road running through the village. It was macadamized with granite, water bound, and rolled in with a steam roller. In winter it was an inch or so deep in mud. The roadmen scraped this off to the side and made it up into heaps which were afterwards collected to form a larger heap on the grass verge. These were sifted by local builders to get grit for mortar. In some places the gutter between road and path was not very plain and. if one cycled home in the dusk, when there was a sprinkling of snow, one did not see the heaps and bumped over them. The lanes were made up of gravel and this in my young time was left to be rolled in by the carts. A quarter mile or so of this unrolled gravel was a nuisance to cyclists. These lanes frequently had cart ruts and often the carts etc kept in the middle of the road, which again was awkward for cyclists, for the carts never made way for them.

Penny-farthing bicycles were ridden - my father had one - but “safeties” were beginning to be popular, though at first they generally had narrow tyres (of the same kind as many perambulators today). Speaking of perambulators, I had the first in the village, and the girl who took me out for an airing was very proud of the privilege.

To the conservative farmer who used carts and traps, bicycles were anathema and it was difficult to pass them in a country lane for they would keep in the middle of the road. Rude boys shouted after cyclists, “Hi, governor! Your wheel’s going round!” or, worse still, “Monkey on a gridiron!” There is a hill south of Brentwood on the main road to London and the local weekly paper recorded regularly prosecutions and fines on cyclists for the dangerous way they went downhill. Freewheels began to come in about nineteen hundred but my cycle engineer advised me against them as unreliable; we had, as a rule, footrests on the front fork and used them in coasting down the hills. There was a step at the axis of the back wheel from which we mounted. The Dunlop patent still held in my schooldays, and the cheapest cycle tyre cover cost a guinea (three guineas in our money) - and tubes I think were about 8/-. Cycles were frequently made by the shopkeeper- he was an engineer. B.S.A. made cycle components - not complete cycles - and the shopkeeper assembled them. Complete cycles were only available from a certain few firms.

As farmers’ sons and daughters took to cycling the prejudice against cyclists abated and the byroads improved and hedge cuttings were not so frequently left in the lanes to puncture tyres. It is hard to realise what a revolution in country life was brought about by the cycle. It was cheap enough to be bought by working men could now get to work away from home - the knowledge of the district in which they lived was extended, but it killed the practice of long walks.

I am old enough to remember the repeal of the Act which entailed the walking of a man with a red flag before any mechanically propelled vehicle, and the famous London to Brighton run to celebrate that. I believe half the cars broke down, to the malicious joy of the general public. It is hard to realise that at first motor cars were such a rarity that when we heard the chug of a car we used to go to the windows of our dining room to see it pass just as in World War I we used to go out and look up at an aeroplane. The coming of the motor car destroyed the surface of the water bound macadamized roads and the county surveyors were driven to using tar as the binding agent. Our excellent main roads are due to motor car traffic. Motor lorries have influenced marketing to a remarkable extent. Up to the General Strike in 1926 a train ran every morning from Colchester to Liverpool Street, stopping at every station solely to convey milk in churns; it brought back the empties in the afternoon. That strike stopped the railway milk traffic and forced dairy companies to send out lorries to get the milk from the farmers. The new way was so convenient for both farmers and dairymen that in a short period of time after the strike finished the milk train ceased to run. The lorries allowed of farmers etc sending vegetables straight to the London market without using railways.

The development of science since I got interested in it is probably known to you all. I can remember, in a magazine for schools, reading of the discovery of argon - that was followed up by the discovery of the other inert gases of the atmosphere. Neon lighting uses a gas unknown fifty-five years ago. Radium, of course, made quite a stir when I was at school. The liquification of air in the later 1890’s was utilised by Ramsay in isolating the inert gases in the atmosphere and the “Daily Mail” had a wonderful article, in its early days, explaining how a pint of liquid air would suffice to drive the biggest ships across the Atlantic. That same paper, as I can well remember, had a vivid description of the capture and sack of the European Legations at Pekin in (?)1900, whereas they were in fact easily relieved by the mixed force of English, American, Russian, French and Germans.

I can remember vaguely the campaign to reconquer the Sudan and very vividly the Boer War 1899-1901. Later, as a ‘Volunteer’ I met, in camp, a Somerset Light Infantryman who claimed to have sent Buller’s message to Geo. White in Ladysmith advising him to destroy his guns etc and to surrender. There was a terrible moment when Sir Geo. White believed that the Boers were pressing him hard and at a critical moment in the despatch the line failed and we did not know till next morning the true story - and feared the worst. Spion Kop just a geographical expression with the Tugelia River - they were as vivid to our eyes as El Alamein to folk in the last Great War. I cannot remember how I learned of the Relief of Ladysmith but I can remember a man selling a London Evening Paper (½d.) and I bought one at ld. to take home to show my father - it was in the stop press. The relief of Mafeking was known during the night, and my schoolmates nearly blew down the playground wall with fireworks, while the Head sat indoors over his newspaper - The Times - and waited for the excitement to calm down before having the bell rung for school.

I think fifty years ago people were happier than now despite the great improvements and inventions.

[1] City College, Norwich was where W W Reed was a teacher. His talk was probably given to the Debating Society.
[2] Arnold’s Farm, Mountnessing
[3] This pattern of rural life was replicated throughout the country.

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