It was nearly 80 years ago that I, the writer, was brought into this world. 5 ½ years later I was to find out there were hard times for me and my family. My father was one of the village builders at the time my memories start.Charles Stacey
Lisa Barkworth posted about her great-grandfather on Facebook, and with Lisa’s very kind permission I’ve pulled all that Charles wrote about his remarkable life into one story.
Written by Charles Stacey (Born 1884) – Part 1
It was nearly 80 years ago that I, the writer, was brought into this world. 5 ½ years later I was to find out there were hard times for me and my family. My father was one of the village builders at the time my memories start.
At the end of January in 1890, I was a lad of 5 years and 9 months. It was a cold wintry morning when my father took my brother and a young workman to a lone barn in the fields some two miles from home. He had taken a job to remove some debris from a 130ft well at Greenhill, Baydon. The well had been closed down for a long time and the air must have become foul for I understand my father descended the well and then shouted to be pulled up, but when he reached halfway up he could not breathe and fell back to the bottom. Had he been properly tied on; he would have come up dead or alive. The young men with him became frightened; one ran into the field where shepherds were tending their sheep. Having learnt what had happened, a young shepherd named Herring volunteered to go down and try and help my father. He too was overcome and died. The young men returned to bring news to the village and soon everyone seemed to be running over the hills to try and help. Police and doctor were there but no one was able to go down and grabbers had to do the work.
I well remember that dark winter evening when a farm wagon drew up at our door, seeing the lifeless bodies of two men – my father aged about 40 and the shepherd aged about 20 or 21 – carried into my home. Although this happened many years ago I can still see my mother with my two-year old brother run into the back room of the house. The family was then split up for a few days until we all united that Sunday.
For a lad less than 6 years old this did not mean much but was very hard for my mother, left with a family when there was no such thing as compensation, widows pensions or children’s allowance. With four children aged from 2 to 12 and two other old enough to earn their own living, I think the going must have been hard for a woman to feed and clothe a family on nothing, so with starvation facing us, application had to be made for bread; 6 half gallon loaves were provided every Thursday, so we had new bread once a week. One gallon of bread per child per week was allowed as only the 3 children under 12 were allowed help. There was no grumbling as in those days, people had to be thankful if they could eat and, with a large garden and plenty of hard work, we managed to get plenty of potatoes. Sometimes a few coppers extra could be earnt taking round the milk before school and pushing out the coal in the evenings. You see, my grandad was the village milk vendor and coal merchant carriers to the towns so there was always plenty of work overtime. When working overtime, we did not get wages but when we returned the empties, two slices of bread and butter would be provided which had to be shared with my bothers. My mother had a very great job to make ends meet and I have seen her take off the old pair of elastic sided boots (given to her by a relative) to send me to school. The old boots were large enough to make me two pairs. It was that or stay away from school.
The price of a sheep’s head was 6d, sometimes a pig’s backbone for Sunday was an extra. No waste in those days as we were hungry. I remember the times when it was a race to see who would get the job to take the neighbours tea.
In those days, if my mother could not find the 2d on a Monday morning we could stay at home from school, although I was working much of my school time in the summers of my 10th and 11th years; I managed to get through my exams and at 12 years old I was allowed to leave school for good. I was taken to a very wealthy farmer and landowner who offered me the noble sum of 2/6 per week, winter months, and 3/- in summer. The hours were 5.30am until 5pm. On the hay and corn harvest we kept going till 7 or 8pm. Bread and rancid margarine with plenty of boiled potatoes was the main diet.
The village in those days had no amenities of any kind. The roads (if one can call them roads) were made from flint stones picked off the fields by the very poor women (mostly widows) for a few pence a load in appalling weather conditions. The stones were then hauled to the roadsides where they would be required. The aged and crippled men would sit and break them for very low prices and, as a boy, I used to see these poor, cold and wet old men trying to earn a few shillings per week to prolong their stay at home because their next move was the workhouse. In those days that’s what the aged had to look forward to. The stones would be laid on the roads and left for the horse drawn vehicles to wear in.
There were always plenty of vacant cottages and a freehold cottage and garden could be purchased for £10 or £12. The rents in those days were 1/- to 1/3 per week. People were born and lived all their lives up to the age of 80 and had not been 2 miles away from their homes.
As stated earlier, there was nothing for those who lived here. The nearest doctor lived 3 miles away. He was known as the walking doctor as, in those days, one could not send a wire however serious the illness. There was not a wire in the village at that time and there was no transport, so it meant someone walking the 3 miles and, if it was in the night, the doctor had to be rattled up, then 3 more miles walking before he was able to get to the patient. If the patient happened to be a maternity case, it has been said that the new baby would have been born and, if a girl, almost ready to give the doctor the ‘glad eye’.
My (3rd year at work?) I walked 2 miles each way for 4/- per week. I remember taking out my bread and cheese that mother had put for lunch but, knowing that there was such a difficulty with 4/- to buy anything but bread, so after showing the cheese, it was bread I ate; the cheese went back into the lunch bag and was used again the next day. Sometimes it was bread and lard with a sprinkling of sugar. It was difficult to keep this until lunchtime. My mother would rather have starved than plead or let others know our position
I was very fortunate later as one of the village builders wanted a strong lad. This was my chance. I was determined to learn everything I could about building and at the end of two and a half years I left and the builder who took me on trial put me on top wages. Within a week as a bricklayer, I had learnt to build and slate a new house roof or to tile a roof. In another 3 years there was not much I could not do in the erecting of a house.
Aldbourne at this time was a fast-dwindling village. Farmers laid their land to pasture; complete farms in the parish went down to sheep farming. Farmhouses, cottages and buildings went down; in about 20 years there were 60 to 70 dwelling houses that fell or were pulled down, and another 20 lost by converting two into one. There was no waiting list for a house. If a couple got married, there would be two or three vacant cottages to choose from. There were about 230 dwelling houses in the village when I was a boy and there were 130 owners. Many of these were labouring people with not much to spare for repairs for soon my services were sought and very soon I was able to take on where my father had so tragically given up some 19 or 20 years earlier.
By the time I was of the age of 26, I had a one-man builder business, plenty of work and a few employees.
But there was another setback waiting; the 1914 war had come, and I had to close down my business and join His Majesty’s Forces. Again, I was lucky, and I managed to get in the Engineers; for the next 2 or 3 years most of this time was spent in France and Belgium.
When I returned, I had to make a new start; this didn’t take long. I arrived home on Sunday, the last day of January 1919, started Monday and by Thursday had two employees: from then on, never without plenty of work. Before the 1914 war, we could purchase a cottage for a few pounds.
I remember buying my first cottage*. It was a detached cottage and garden. The owner asked £15, I offered £12, and I finally paid £13 for it. After making alterations and doing lots of repairs, I sold it. When it was finished, a Miss Cox from London came to the village and wanted it for a weekend cottage and paid what I asked, £48.
(*This was South Cottage, 16 The Butts, in 1912. Currently owned by Charles’ granddaughter who did not realise the connection until studying the deeds sometime after purchase! The Miss Cox who bought it originally was Ka Laird Cox, a member of the Bloomsbury Group).
My next pair of cottages, vacant with qt of an acre, cost me £40- and it was these that caused me so much worry and concern. After spending some £60 or £70 on repairs, they caught fire.
Before going on, I must tell you what happened at that fire. It was just 11 o’clock on Saturday evening when I was awakened by someone shouting my houses were on fire. I went to the fire as fast as possible. I was accosted with ‘Mr Stacey, the fireman wants some beer’! I said this is no time for beer, but for water to put the fire out. People were carrying water from wells that had to be pulled up some 90 to 100ft. I and a friend got his horse harnessed and got a water barrel filled and hauled to the fire. This was about 200 gallons, but Captain Loveday wanted to know who gave me the order fetch it.
In the meantime, a barrel of beer had been fetched from the nearest local and the pumps were stopped; the Capt shouted ‘all beer drinkers this way’. You see, in those days many men used to spend the Saturday evening in the local. Beer was cheap and stronger, and it appeared to me that many of the leading firemen were finding the effects of what they had had.
I ought to have mentioned, there seemed little fire when I arrived. But fireman Braxton was on top of a long ladder (that had been left by the thatcher who had that day finished thatching the cottages). He seemed to be poking up the thatch around the fire to catch it alight better. He finally had to be fetched down as the ladder had caught fire and he may himself have caught alight. When we arrived with the water, fireman Jimmy Brown poured buckets of water down the well with the remark that ‘we will save this till later’.
The pumping stopped; the fire burnt on. It is true, the fire fighters only had manuals that had to be worked by hand pumps and by feet.
I feel to this day that if someone had been on the ladder with the hosepipe or a bucket of water, the cottages would still be here. Very soon the walls only were left and we went home. Not all, for a few firemen stayed on guard; it was 3 o’clock on Sunday morning when I returned to the site; you see I had lost my cottages and could not sleep. When I arrived, I found the guard firemen in the only building that had been saved – a woodshed – and this was on fire!
You will agree that the effect of the beer lasted a long time for I had to rouse them to put out the fire of the shed they were protecting.
I still had the will to get going so, with the best of the material left and what new was required, I erected a new house. This was a double fronted four- bedroom cottage, but when completed no one wanted it. One can understand that when we only had stone roads; the stones cut like knives. As stated earlier, the stones were picked from the fields, broken, and laid for the traffic of those days to wear in. There was no lighting and no water, except that drawn from wells. Nothing in those days, then the roads started to be made usable. Very soon followed the buses and electric lighted streets. Water mains were laid and then gas. Only one thing missing – sewerage.
When roads improved, people found the village. More old cottages were pulled down or were made attractive by outsiders who settled. Cottages were wanted by the people and very soon I had erected about 50 bungalows and cottages, with a further 26 council houses. Other builders have since erected another 30 council houses (I understand there are about 50 on the waiting list and it is getting quite a noted place now). I have built houses and bungalows in many different districts and gone as far as Folkestone, Kent.
Since WW1 some 140 cottages have been built and this is now the best village that could be found for many miles around. It must have been one of the worst in England 70 years ago, that’s about as long as I remember clearly. I know of a square of 12 cottages with only one communal toilet. There were 4 groups of 4 cottages with one toilet for 4 cottages and 1 set of 5 cottages with one toilet. No wonder cottages were cheap. Most people worked on the land for wages at 9/- per week. There was no half day on Sat.
I was talking earlier about the village doctors. We, the villagers, had a second doctor, but he lived about 5 miles away. He was known as the hunting doctor and used to visit the village two or three times per week on his hunter.
I remember when he was called in to see my baby brother, then about 2 years old. The doctor sent over a bottle of medicine, but the Dr had got the labels mixed up. Mother poured a little onto a teaspoon and gave to the baby; he at once started fighting for breath, so Mother and Father ran out into the air where the baby recovered. When this Dr called again and was told the story of what happened, the Dr just casually said he put up this to rub into some poor old man’s back and took the medicine to the old man and brought back the baby’s medicine without so much as an ‘I am sorry’!
By the time the 1939 war started, my employees numbered 45 but I had much to learn for I lost 5 young men in the first day of war. Then D.O.R.A. meant so much then. I repeatedly had to give up men for war work officers in the lab exchanges. First (they) wanted several men for defence work, then the American camps had to be built and again a call for men. Then the London Blitz or Hitler’s rockets on London lost more. I was left with 12 men, and they were over 60 or under the doctor. £10 worth of work only allowed without a licence, little or no materials allowed, everything had to be rationed so the law had to be continually broken to keep going and by the end it got me down and I had to sell up, but as I sit and think over the past there is much to cause a smile.
There is a funny side to everything which brings me back to one old farm carter that worked on one of the lone farms about 2 miles out. He saw (or imagined he saw) a well-dressed gentleman in various places around this lonely dark farm. As his cottage was across a meadow with no road, he used to take the lonely path which led through a plantation of trees. He used to speak to the gentlemen with a ‘good night, sir’ but never got an answer. His job was to feed the horses very early in the morning and very late at night. One night, it was after 8 o’clock, he made up his mind the next time he met him and said goodnight, if he did not reply he would strike him with his stick; this he did, and the stick went right through him! He at once turned into a ball of fire, rolled along the meadow and into the pond. This finished both the ghost and the old carter for the fright was more than he could stand. He was under the doctor for the next 3 months and had to lose his job. I asked the shepherd who lived next door what he saw when he was up and about at all hours of the night in the lambing season, but he still says nothing, so I think people imagine things.
My grandfather, as I think I said earlier, was the village carrier and used to drive with his horse and van. One night the vicar of Baydon walked over to Marlborough. By the time he got back to this village it was getting dark, but he went on to do the other two miles (as that was the distance from Aldbourne to Baydon, but only 1 ½ miles back so the old folks say). When the vicar got halfway, he saw, at Dore’s Grave, a ghost, so he ran back to this village and hired my grandfather to drive him home. When he got too the place known as Dore’s Grave (where the man Dore hanged himself in one of the trees and it is said his ghost can be seen ever since), the vicar laid flat on the bed; when asked why he did this, the vicar said he saw the man with his arms stretched wide but he had no head and he couldn’t face him.
Now I am getting up to Baydon, a village I have always been interested in as my mother was born and lived there as a girl, where my father lost his life before I was six years old, and when my earliest memories start. You will understand why I am interested. Baydon is one of the healthiest villages there is. My memories are that it was a village of 50 dwelling houses, one church, one school, 2 locals, 2 chapels, one Wesleyan, one Baptist. Now the Baptist has gone to make a farm building so there is one nearly new Methodist and only one local. There are many new houses and bungalows, at the time of writing between 20 – 30, and lots more to go up.
The first stories were when they built the church and tower, a portion of the land was left around the church for a burial ground or churchyard. Those in charge wanted to open the graveyard officially but, in such a healthy place, no one died. After years of waiting, the church official decided to kill the oldest man.
They only had water from the village pond, the cattle drank the same water, but it was health giving water. After the farm workers had been working until dark in the harvest field, they had to go to the village pond, fetch the water, boil some and make the drink for the next day. There was only one very deep well, this was at the manor, but as time went by, people started to dig and build underground storage tanks, then put up gutters and catch the water from their roofs. It made very nice tea, but one always thought of the washing of the roof. Everything has changed and water is taken in pipes from a pumping station many miles away. The village now has lighted streets.
As the years passed, the writer became an undertaker and being such a healthy village, there was little to do. So little that no grave digger could be found, I had to send my own man. I told him the story how they first opened the graveyard. I went to see how he was getting on and he said he’d just found the remains of the old man they had to kill.
As I have already said, there’s a funny side to nearly everything in this life even undertaking. For the cottages were built with small bent staircases that, if it was impossible to take a coffin up the stairs, then the body had to be brought down and put into the coffin in on the ground floor. On one such occasion the man helping was very nervous. When the breath that was left in the body made an uncanny(?) noise, the man said, ‘I’m off, if he can make noises like that then he can get down the stairs himself!’.
During the last war when Hitler was killing people with his bombs and the churchyard was filling up, the parish council got frightened and looked for another burying place. The chairman of the parish council asked me to come and help decide the best piece of land for this new cemetery. They had three sites to choose from. In the village, news spread, and one old man took home the news to his wife. The wife replied, ‘they can make their new cemetery but they won’t put me there so long as I am alive and well; the old man took a different view and said ‘well I hope please God they will put me there if I am live and well’. It is interesting to note that after nearly 20 years they are still burying in the same churchyard so they must have come across the first man killed in ever the story was true.
Part 7 (last one!)
(Back to Aldbourne) I made mention earlier that the village consisted of 240 dwelling houses. There was one parish church, 3 chapels and the salvation army. There were 5 locals. This is where people went for their entertainment. The salvation army has been nearly forgotten, the church and two remaining chapels are trying to carry on but with plenty of empty seating. In fact, part of the church is now the Aldbourne Museum, for the old fire engines are housed there. I think this is a very bad thing for any town or village, when places go where one can learn the best way of life.
Some 4 years ago I gave up what had been a very interesting, very worrying business. Why worrying, did you say? Well, there are many people who seem to think that a businessman can just send his men, pay them, carry out the customers’ requirements, then send in his accounts for many months, sometimes years and in plenty of cases, they never pay. There have been many headaches for me through these thoughtless people. Many a large overdraft, which never should have been. Although my business would be considered big for a village, with sometimes nearly 50 employees, I never made money, but I did make friends and always had plenty of work waiting.
Sometimes I think if we attended church and chapel and took our children as our parents did, we would not have our newspapers filled with the doings of the bad boys and girls and men and women, there would be more room to write about the good ones. It doesn’t cost ratepayers anything to keep these above-mentioned places going but the prisons are very costly. I have been rambling away from what you came for, that is something about myself. Well, I must tell you, I am one of the happiest persons in this village although I am now unable to work. I had planned several improvements such as putting up miniature buildings and I have here a plan of one, and this is the church*. I may get a start again someday.
(*Charles did build several miniature buildings, including a replica of Aldbourne church, in the garden of Inglenook, 14 Lottage Road).