You are in [Themes] [Hungerford 1900-1918]

Life in Hungerford 1900-1918:

[The text of a talk given by Barbara Hope (nee Astley) to the WHY Group, c1992.

You have kindly asked me to relate a few of my memories of my life during the first 18 years of this century. I hope they may interest you, but they are naturally very naïve and rather limited.

I was born in July 1899, so all I am writing about what took place while I was growing up, four years of which I was at Boarding School (Cheltenham Ladies College) and I may have missed hearing of many interesting events, as mentioned in those interesting books of this period – The Vanishing Age by H.E. Bates, and The Growing Boy by Cecil Roberts.

I have tried to give you a verbal picture of the different world we lived in before the First World War.

The sound of the watering cart going up and down the street to allay the dust heralded to us children the start of summer. The milkman driving his milk float containing numerous milk churns, his horse standing quietly when he stopped and alighted, with a large pail full of milk with measures hanging round the rim, to call at his customers' doors, where he doled out in jugs the amount wanted for the day. Should a wind be blowing, where we lived the dust blew merrily off the canal bridge, covering the milkman, milk and cook holding jugs.

I remember the butcher with his high trap and spanking horse, getting the ordered fresh meat to his customers as quickly as possible. The butcher also employed an errand boy, who went on foot and later by bicycle to deliver meat to near customers, and I always remember every spring hoping to see the large basket covered with spotless, white cloth, which when removed showed us dozens of little lambs tails, skinned and cleaned ready for the cook to make lambs' tails pie, a delicacy (only in the spring) very much enjoyed by Edwardians.

The baker's trap arrived early in the morning with baskets of fresh loaves, buns and lardy cakes. Most goods were delivered daily in those days.

A very memorable occasion for me was on the afternoon of 23rd September 1910, when the new motor fire engine acquired by the Voluntary Fire Brigade was christened outside the Town Hall and all the town seemed to be there for the occasion.

Col. Willes, chairman of the committee asked Miss Sawbridge, daughter of Captain Sawbridge of Denford Park, to christen the engine. Capt. Sawbridge had been one of the main contributors towards its purchase. Miss Sawbridge then stepped forward and lifting a bottle of champagne attached by two coloured ribbons to the front of the engine, smashed it at the third attempt and named the engine "Dreadnought", and "may you have a useful life" and "God speed".

After loud applause, little Miss Barbara Astley (I quote the Newbury Weekly News account) stepped forward and presented Miss Sawbridge with a bouquet of red carnations and lilies of the valley, the brigade's colours.

Miss Sawbridge then took a short trip on the engine accompanied by Miss Astley, Col. and Mrs. Willes, the Captain George Cottrell and Lieut the Rev. T.S. Gray and other firemen. This was, of course, the crowning joy for me. We went right up the High Street to the top of Salisbury Hill, everyone at their doors waving and clapping. I remember when lifted down at the end of the trip and a fireman helping Miss Sawbridge to alight, he observed with dismay a patch of oil on the hem of her long dress. I remember looking at it also in consternation – it being to me such a beautiful dress.

A few historical details about the Voluntary Fire Brigade, which my father wrote in his Hungerford Reminiscences, published by the Newbury Weekly News after his death in 1940. I quote: 'Another event of note was the start of the Hungerford Voluntary Brigade in 1891. Previously there was no brigade. There were four of us, George Cottrell, owner of the Iron Works at Eddington; George Platt, the brewer; myself, and John Beard, the coal merchant.

I must confess I thought we were aiming rather high when we decided to go in for a "steamer". However, our project was well supported by the residents of the town and neighbourhood and we soon had sufficient money to purchase the engine and equip the brigade. You can imagine how proud we all felt when we first appeared in our new uniforms and shining brass helmets!'

My father also mentioned in his reminiscences the winters at the end of the (19th) century being very cold, skating being enjoyed almost every winter on the canal, and one very cold winter (I think in the mid 1890s) a party of us skated from Hungerford to Devizes and back.

We also had some very cold winters at the beginning of this (20th) century, especially 1917, which was a terrible time for the soldiers in the trenches in France.

I remember learning to skate at this time and my father warning me that if ever the ice gave way to keep quite still with arms outstretched. A lucky warning! We had enjoyed a week's skating on the marsh and on the Monday morning (no skating was allowed on Sundays) though the weather was changing we hoped to skate for one more day. First on the ice, I struck out towards the centre of the canal, when the ice gave way. But I was held up by my outstretched arms over the ice. Two other girls and the vicar, T.S. Gray, were the only other skaters, but there were two or three spectators of convalescent soldiers from the Red Cross Hospital in the High Street.

We had no rope or ladder, but the vicar being a very tall man lay down on the bank. Two soldiers held him by his ankles and very carefully he edged his way on the ice with outstretched arms towards me. I was able to grasp his hand and as the soldiers pulled him back I was dragged through the breaking ice to the bank. I can't remember feeling either very frightened or very cold and after running all the way home along the towpath I arrived sodden but glowing!

My cousin watching from the bank said that with my large velour hat (a fashion at that time) and not much else of me showing, I looked a peculiar object arising from the deep!

I must now devote a space to the Rev. T.S. Gray, vicar of Hungerford from about 1904/5 to 1924.

In my long life I can't remember a more handsome man, jolly, kind and young in spirit. We all adored him. He was especially kind to my generation who were growing up at such a dreadful time, when brother, cousins and so many young men of our times were being killed in the dreadful First World War. He entered into any little gaieties we could arrange and how glad I was he never missed an opportunity of skating!

When the war ended, we all tried to get back to normal and with his help we organised a weekly dance at the Church House (now Croft Hall). We danced tirelessly waltzes, valetas, one- and two-steps, at least one set of Lancers ending with a gallop and Sir Roger de Coverly. The Lancers, always a jolly boisterous dance became a riot with the vicar! The poor pianist, the only musical accompanist, must have been exhausted!

We all provided simple refreshments with lemonade and sometimes claret cup! We had no chores to do as dear little Mrs. Sturgess the caretaker's wife did it all. She and her husband also cared for the welfare of the curate who lived at the Church House.

The vicar was a very efficient Lieut. in the fire brigade, and I expect in many other activities besides his parish work. On leaving Hungerford in 1924 he took a small living in the Highlands of Scotland, finding I expect time to enjoy his hobbies of fishing and shooting. He wrote a splendid book on fishing "Leaves from an Angler's Notebook". He was indeed what the Victorians called "A Sporting Parson".

Another equally sporting parson was the Rev. Butler, for many years the rector of Inkpen. But his hobby was fox hunting. I remember from childhood on Wards seeing him at many meets we drove to in our pony traps conspicuous among the red coats in his clerical black with a black shovel clerical hat with a black cord from the back of its brim to fasten on his coat collar to prevent it being blown away. I can't remember any of our other clergy wearing the 'shovel' hat, but it was brought back to my memory in the recent re-showing on T.V. of "The Barchester Chronicles".

Now a short account of entertainments. There was no wireless, no television, and gramophone only just coming into our homes. I think we had one about 1906. I remember we sat round the dining room table while my father manipulated it with the few records we had. So there were lots of amateur entertainments, concerts, theatricals and the like. At an entertainment of tableaux at the Church House, I remember when very young being 'Little Miss Muffet', sitting very still on a stool with a bowl, supposed to be curds and whey on my lap. A large spider as big as my head was lowered on a string to my side and I was thrilled to be able to drop my bowl and rush shrieking from the stage. The next I remember was "Alice in Wonderland" at the Town Hall. I was the white rabbit and my brother the King of Hearts.

I remember when I left boarding school in 1917 (the worst and most depressing year of the war) with my father's help, he having been in many amateur theatricals in the last part of the 19th century, I organised a troupe of Pierots called the Pom Poms, all girls but some of us dressed as boy Pierots. We rehearsed frequently the songs, dances, small sketches and recitations. During the winter we went to many of the nearest villages where we had enthusiastic audiences. The performance at the Town Hall that winter was so popular that "House Full" had to be posted up outside and a promise of a repeat performance the next evening.

Whilst talking of entertainment, I must not omit the name of Miss Margaret Willes, one of three spinster daughters of Col. and Mrs. Willes. Col. Willes' ancestors had purchased Hungerford Park in 1796, and the family had lived there until the beginning of this (20th) century, when financial difficulties forced Col. Willes to sell Hungerford Park, and they came to live in the High House in Charnham Street. The three Miss Willes did a tremendous lot of good work in the Parish and Margaret, who had a very charming soprano voice, formed a "Glee Club" which I joined when very young. We gave concerts at the Church House, Town Hall, and local villages. At Christmas time we always gave a concert at the workhouse, and I remember the sad old faces of the audience.

As a reminder of that sad time when old people went to the workhouse, old Mrs. Tucker, who had lived at Ham all her life until her last few years in her late 80s when she came to live with her niece Mrs. Tubb on Canal Side, told me the story, when as a child playing on the green at Ham, she ran into her mother's cottage to say to this neighbour old Mrs So and So was sitting on bales of straw in the farmer's wagon and being driven away from the cottage. "She's going to the workhouse", said her mother.

Going back to the curates, I remember many living at the Church house, including the Rev. Wardley King, who was curate before the First World War, and who we welcomed back as our vicar when the Rev T.S. Gray went to Scotland in 1924. The Rev. Wardley King was our vicar until about 1953, I think. He lived with his mother and two hard-working spinster sisters at the old vicarage and baptised both of my children.

Another parson I must mention was the Rev. Denning. He lived with his wife two sons and a daughter at 4 Parsonage Lane and, with the help of his brother, ran a school for older boys, coaching them for further education, but it wasn't running soon after this (20th) century started. His parish duties were Sunday morning service at the workhouse; a service at Hungerford Newtown in the afternoon, and somehow squeezed in a service at the chapel at Denford Park. I think his only means of transport was a very high old-fashioned bicycle with two cross-bars. To mount it, he placed one foot on a small spoke sticking out from the centre of the back wheel, leaning over the saddle, he seized the handlebars and with a big push and a spring, he was away! A joy to watch, especially as he was a small tubby man!

He, his brother and sons Jack and Bob were all splendid cricketers. I think I am right in saying he started the Hungerford Cricket Club. They had a splendid eleven including two good cricketers I knew well – Dr Gordon Starkey-Smith and Mr Fred New, agent for Littlecote. The cricket pitch was on the new recreation ground on the common, and had a nice wooden pavilion now long gone. They played many local elevens, and in August each year had an amusing match – Men v. Ladies – the men playing not with cricket bats, but with a type of club!

Modes of transport: many of us had our pony traps, or larger horse-drawn vehicles, and later on bicycles. To get to our concerts and winter parties "flys" were hired from the Three Swans and the Bear Hotel.

In my childhood many lovely summer outings were in the wagon, either hired again from the Three Swans and driven by their head driver called 'Fishlock', a wonderful character who must have many tales to tell. He wore at times the old coachman's long coat and high hat with a cockade. The wagonette was a long open vehicle with bench seats on each side, that could take 10-12 children sitting facing each other and one or two could sit on the high seat in front with the driver. We had outings to the forest, Coombe Hill and Donnington Castle etc.

The first motor cars appeared early in the 1900s. I remember our nice Scottish doctor, Dr Dickson having one, and whom we often met driving around country roads to visit his patients. He only went at about 15 miles per hour, but we immediately stopped the pony and one of us jumped out, went to the pony's head and patted and soothed him as the noisy thing went by.

When the first cars came up the town, most people ran out to see them and tradesmen came out of their shops to watch.

In another ten or twelve years we were running out of doors to gaze into the sky to see an aeroplane!

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They were youngish women not educated quite enough to apply for posts as governesses, but they could help us with our home work, take us for walks, etc. and they were always good needlewomen. They lived as the family and went with us on our annual seaside holiday. I remember one Miss Dyer, who was with us for many years, showing my mother a bathing dress her mother had made for her. Voluminous garments as they were then, it was made of thick navy serge, decorated with braid! On my mother saying "You will find it very heavy when wet", she replied "mother made it to keep me warm by the sea"!

Appertaining to my four years at Cheltenham Ladies College, a lady at the meeting (see below) asked if I had been there with Miss Beale, an outstanding headmistress. She left before I went, but she and Miss Buss, a headmistress of a big girl's college near London were renowned as the two most famous headmistresses of that time.

I soon learned the famous couplet:
"Miss Buss and Miss Beale,
Cupid's darts do not feel.
How different from us,
Miss Beale and Miss Buss"!

[The meeting was "WHY" – Wives, Husbands, You – a discussion group held in members' homes in Hungerford from c1980 to the early 1990s].

Photo Gallery:


George Batt, baker, delivering bread, c1899.

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hsl-17 ws parry
hsl-17 ws parry

Barbara Astley was born in The Bridge (on the right) in July 1899.

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hsl-17 ws parry hsl-17 ws parry

The "Dreadnought" fire engine on which Barbara Astley rode on its first trip through town, 23 Sep 1910.

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The milkman on his rounds

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UHS-046 c1900
UHS-046 c1900

A pony and trap waiting outside the Three Swans Hotel, c1900

UHS-046 c1900
UHS-046 c1900 UHS-046 c1900
people-Rev Gray
people-Rev Gray

Rev "Tom" Gray, Vicar of Hungerford 1909-1924

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people-Rev Gray people-Rev Gray
people-Rev Denning 1921
people-Rev Denning 1921

Rev Denning with some of his sporting trophies

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people-Rev Denning 1921 people-Rev Denning 1921

- Barbara Astley was born in The Bridge (on the right) in July 1899.

- The milkman on his rounds

- George Batt, baker, delivering bread, c1899.

- The "Dreadnought" fire engine on which Barbara Astley rode on its first trip through town, 23 Sep 1910.

- Rev "Tom" Gray, Vicar of Hungerford 1909-1924

- Rev Denning with some of his sporting trophies

- A pony and trap waiting outside the Three Swans Hotel, c1900

See also:

- Hungerford in 1937