Drought Across the Wiltshire Downs 1933 – 34

From the collection of the Aldbourne Community Heritage Group

I have vivid memories of the Summer of 1976 in Wiltshire, although we weren’t in Aldbourne back then so I didn’t get to see this great carnival float in person. (Who made it, can anyone remember?). A summer of long sunny days, stand-pipes, followed by rain at the end of August on my sister’s wedding day. Then a visit to the Lake District and seeing half empty reservoirs.

Drought is a Killer, Everyone knows, but with this up the garden everything grows.

“Let the Flowers Die” – says Denis Howell (Minister for Drought August 1976)

Parish News October 1976 – Aldbourne Community Heritage Group

During research into the village during WW2 I’ve run across the sterling work by the Red Cross hospital supplies depot in Aldbourne. According to the North Wilts Herald (16 August 1940) ‘the credit for its origin must be given to Mrs Ruth Rogers, its energetic secretary, assisted by many ladies interested in Red Cross work, and to Mrs Varvill, who kindly placed her house at the disposal of the organisers’. So I looked up Mrs Maude Varvill on the 1939 Register to see where she lived (Castle Barn, Castle Street), and then noticed that Ruth Rogers was her neighbour at Half Moon – personal occupation given as ‘Literary Agent, Writer’. Several cups of tea later I’d Googled Ruth Rogers and used the online newspapers via Find My Past (beware, very addictive!) to find out a little more about that lady.

Ruth Rogers wrote a long letter to the Ramsbury Rural District Council in March 1934, stating that she was unable to use her cottage at Aldbourne, because the well had gone dry and there was no other means of obtaining water in the village. Reference was made to ‘Medieval Conditions’ . Another letter, from a Mr W Durham of Aldbourne, indicated that he had to rely on the kindness of his neighbours. It was moved by Mr Hawkins (not sure if that would have been Oliver or Christopher?) ‘that the letters should be sent to Aldbourne Parish Council. There was a shortage of water there, and great inconvenience was being caused and he did not know what would happen if the dry weather continued for another fortnight. There were more than 200 wells in Aldbourne and every other one was dry at present.’ Reported in the North Wilts Herald 2 March 1934.

It’s raining again in Aldbourne this morning, after one beautiful sunny day yesterday – a (false?) harbinger of spring – with the Thames Water filtration unit on standby outside the library, muddy puddles everywhere and all eyes to the water table. (Not to mention will there be enough for a Duck Race this year as part of the Easter Extravaganza?).

But back in February 1934 it was a very different story. Mrs Phyllis Tobias (nee Bull) gave us a glimpse of the past in her letter to the Parish News in 1989.

Parish News December 1989 – Aldbourne Community Heritage Group

Mr Cyril Barrett (Aldbourne Oral History Project 2006) shared his memories of Aldbourne when all the water came from wells, with no mains water in the villages at all. Cyril also recalled a visit by Oswald Mosely’s men, when the tanks arrived on a lorry, were filled up and taken up to Baydon – ‘they were in a sorry state up there for water’.

North Wilts Herald Friday 23 February 1934

The local newspapers from the time are full of stories about Baydon, and the extent to which the villagers suffered during times of drought. I have found a fabulous resource in the back copies online of ‘Scene in Baydon’, the serialised history as told by the late R J Naish, JP.

The folk down at Aldbourne were willing helpers to their Baydon neighbours in times of drought. Water carts went to and fro in an arduous routine during such times, despite the fact that the ‘Dabchicks’ had, themselves, to husband their supplies. In times of extreme shortage both villages had to look to the kindly help of Chilton Foliat, which was always, mercifully, enriched by the clear
waters of the Kennet.

A Baydon resident still recalls how he had been sent down to Aldbourne by his boss to fill a farm water cart with about 200 gallons. Having done this, with the kind permission of an Aldbourne farmer, he was preparing to leave when the fire alarm went. His load was quickly commandeered to put out a thatch fire in a Castle Street cottage, so he returned to Baydon empty.

Scene in Baydon April 2011

That brings me full circle to Castle Street again, and I’ll end with a link to the Action for the River Kennet Projects at Aldbourne and Baydon Schools which are a far cry from the press coverage in 1933, where the rainwater tanks for Baydon school and the village as a whole were reduced to a few inches of stinking sludge.

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