You are in [Themes] [Ham Village in the 1950s]

This article was written by Robin Buchanan-Dunlop in 2012:

The Way we were: Ham 70 years ago:

These snapshots of Ham some 70 years ago stem from a recent discussion in the Crown & Anchor about who lived where in the village in the 1950s. They are based on various reminiscences, notably those of Christine Webb (now Perrott) who lived as a child and teenager in No 4 Manor Farm Cottages throughout the 1950s decade.

Nos 3 and 4 Manor Farm Cottages now form Hill House but back then they were part of four identical agricultural tenancies. In No 1 lived Mr and Mrs Dowse and their son Robert. Next door in No 2 were Mick and Marjone Miles and their son Donald. Roy and Peggy Mills and their five children lived in No 3, and Christine’s parents Norman and Rose Webb lived with their four daughters in No 4. Life was frugal but fun for the children. Water was pumped from the windmill further up the road to a stand-pipe across the road at Elston Lodge (now Elston Farmhouse), the bungalow lived in by a widow, Mrs Spowage, whose son-in-law Mr Banyard, a policeman, was “to be avoided at all costs” by the children. Baths were in a tin tub in the kitchen, the water heated in a large boiler in an outside shed which had a fire underneath it. Cooking was done on a black-leaded range in the kitchen. Most of the cottages grew their own vegetables, and there were hens, ducks and geese.

Wartime thriftiness survived. Potato peelings were cooked as fodder for the chickens, jam jars carefully washed for reuse, and surplus fruit and vegetables were bottled, pickled or made into jam. After household chores the children would help on the farm when not at school. Health and safety had yet to rear its head and farm machinery was handled with impunity. Let loose, the children from the cottages hunted as a pack around the village getting into all sorts of scrapes. Only Wansdyke Farms (now the Three Counties Farms) were avoided, the peppery Major Huth and his farm manager being regarded as enemies.

Their great ally was “Zina” Wahl (pronounced Wall) who lived with her husband Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Wahl in Little Field Cottage. She acted as a sort of den mother, patching up the children’s cuts and bruises and saving them from getting into trouble with their parents.

Zina Wahl started life as Zinaida Gregorievna Afonina, a White Russian who escaped from the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution with the help of her nursemaid who hid her in a barrel with a cache of jewellery. The two of them slowly crossed the vast expanse of Russia, eventually ending up in Shanghai. There she met Douglas Wahl who was an Assistant Commissioner of Police and became the nursemaid to his young son. The rest of the story is not difficult to fathom. Zina and Douglas fell in love. Douglas divorced his American wife Dorothy who decamped back to the United States with her son on the SS President Roosevelt, and Douglas and Zina were married. Douglas was born a German but served in the First World War in the Royal Engineers, returning to fight in the Second World War. Afterwards the couple came to live in Ham and both now lie buried under a single headstone in Ham churchyard.

Continuing south towards the centre of the village, Mrs Cummings, a widow, lived in Hill View (now Yew Tree Cottage) which in the 1950s was in a very dilapidated condition. Opposite in Ham Manor Farmhouse was the local farmer, Henry Horton, who before his marriage was looked after by his housekeeper Miss Brown (a name immortalised in a pantomime jingle of that era: I called on my sweetheart,/ Her name was Miss Brown./ She was having a bath/ So she couldn’t come down./ I said, “Slip on something,/ Come down for a tick”./ So she slipped on the soap/ And came down like a brick!). South House was then two cottages lived in by Mr Cheek, a bank manager in Newbury, and his wife and daughter. The latter was severely disabled and the Cheeks left Ham when she died at a young age. Forge Cottage was still a working smithy at the beginning of the decade, Dick Wiggin sharing his blacksmithing services between Ham and Shalbourne, but it did not last.

East Court farmhouse was leased in the early 1950s to Bernard Venables who achieved national recognition with his daily cartoon strip Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing in The Daily Mirror. It later became a best-selling book. Miss Harland who was responsible for the set of kneelers in All Saints’ Church lived in Bridge Cottage (now Candlemas Cottage). Across the road the Chant family lived in one half of Manor Cottages, then two semi-detached cottages. Lilian Chant came from a long line of Ham residents. Towards the end of the war while her husband was away fighting she had been the Partridges’ housekeeper at Ham Spray House. They had three children, John, Anne and Doreen. Doreen would marry Robert Miller. Anne was a particular friend of Christine Webb and life in the Chant household echoed much of that in Manor Farm Cottages. Until the cottages were refurbished in 1956 bath time was a tin tub in front of the Rayburn, and the lavatory was in a shed at the bottom of the garden, adjacent to another shed belonging to their next-door neighbours, Rupert and Kate Rolfe. In 1953, like many other families in Britain, the Chants rented a television set to watch the coronation.

Along Church Lane at Ham Manor lived the popular Ralph Brown who had steered the village through the Second World War and his wife, Irene, a striking redhead who, before the war, had enjoyed dressing in the latest Paris fashions. Mr Wheedon was the landlord at the Crown & Anchor assisted by his wife who ran a small general shop at the back of the pub. But the real village stores were in the Old Malthouse which was also the bakery famed for its delicious lardy cake. It was run by George Mills who had been the baker in the village since the beginning of the century. Towards the end of the decade the bakery and shop were sold to Norman and Rose Lansley. On Sundays Norman would play the organ in the church with Rose working the bellows. At that point Reg Stevens joined the bakery team and was responsible for two delivery runs around the neighbouring villages each week. Opposite the pub, Ivy Tarratt lived in Well Cottage as its first residential owner. The cottage had started life in the 17th century as three semi-detached cottages for the poor of the village which were known as Reprieve Cottages. Before the Second World War one of the cottages had become a butcher’s shop but that disappeared and, in 1949, Major Huth overcame opposition from Wiltshire Council to convert it all into one cottage, which was renamed Well Cottage following a village competition won by George Mills.

The village school was run by a very attractive woman whose husband was a teacher in Marlborough. Rumoured to be involved in a number of extra-marital affairs, she had a reputation in the village as a “fast piece”. On one occasion she took all the schoolchildren to hide in the Village Hall to escape from a lover. She met her Waterloo, however, when she was discovered in delicto flagrante, wrapped in the arms of the rector, underneath a hedge by the owner of the Old Rectory out walking his dog. Both headmistress and rector exited Ham as a result. Miss Little became the new headmistress. The rector was not replaced and Ham and Shalbourne became a combined benefice.

The new rectory which had been built in the 1930s was sold in 1956 to Geoffrey Webb who renamed it Vale House. At the time Geoffrey Webb was one of the two scriptwriters for the popular BBC radio series, The Archers, and much of the farming gossip at the Crown & Anchor would find its way into the programme.
For most of the decade Viscount (Robin) Hudson owned Dove’s Farm, living in Dove’s House, then known as The Laurels, with his wife Marie-Claire. Their daughter Annabel often played with the children at Manor Farm Cottages. The farmyard on the north side of the Green was where Sunningdale, Staddle Stones and Ham Green Cottage now stand. Paul Marriage, a grain dealer in Newbury, purchased Dove’s House and the farm in 1958. There is a sad postscript to Robin Hudson’s tenure. Marie-Claire left him in 1962 to marry Duncan Sandys, the Tory MP and cabinet minister, who became embroiled in the notorious divorce case of the Duchess of Argyll and a “headless man” the following year, the same year that Hudson died at the early age of forty-one.

Beyond the farmyard was Ham Cross, the original Dove’s farmhouse. Before the war it had been the home of Henry Deacon Woodman’s two unmarried daughters who had named it Ivy Cottage, because they did not wish to become known as “the Misses Dove”. They had given No 2 Malthouse Cottages, across the Green, to their housekeeper, Winnie Bowley, who lived there with her brother Norman Scutt who had served in a bomb disposal team during the war. During the 1940s Ham Cross had seen a succession of inhabitants but for most of the 1950s it was owned by a Mr and Mrs Murray who were responsible for its present name. In 1959 the house was purchased by Rear Admiral Sir William Jamieson and his wife Elizabeth.

At the beginning of the 1950s the Old Rectory was owned by Mrs Whatton, a widow, who lived there with a noisy peacock and an uncontrollable Dalmation called Wongo. She had purchased the house in 1933 when it ceased to be the village rectory and had called it The Lodge. In 1954 it was purchased by Ernest Opperman who ran an engineering business in Newbury. He had been forced out of his previous house on Greenham Common when it was compulsorily purchased to become the residence of the commandant of the United States Air Force base there. He then renamed the house The Old Rectory. One summer when Ernest Opperman and his wife Josephine were away for the weekend, his elder son Michael surreptitiously invited a few friends down from London. Having just obtained his pilot’s licence he decided to crown the weekend with a flypast. He hired an Auster from Thruxton, flew low over the house, touched his wheels briefly on the lawn on the far side – a considerable feat even in those days when the trees were smaller - before taking off again and flying back to Thruxton. In the process he caught his undercarriage in some foliage which delayed his return to the Old Rectory. Expecting a hero’s welcome, he found instead his embarrassed guests huddled in the drawing room together with his parents who had returned unexpectedly early, and Robin Hudson and a police constable. The last two were there because some weeks before Hudson had been driving his combine-harvester when he was buzzed by a low flying aircraft. Taking avoiding action, he had crashed the combine-harvester into a ditch, breaking an ankle in the process. Now, having just seen Michael Opperman’s acrobatics and scenting revenge, he had summoned the police, only to discover to his chagrin that he had shopped the wrong man.

Further along Spray Road, the three bungalows had yet to be built, and at the beginning of the decade The Severalls comprised only Nos 1- 4. In 1954 Nos 5 and 6 were built in response to agitation by Ralph Partridge at Ham Spray House to provide accommodation for his housekeeper Ivy Hoare and her family who subsequently lived in No 5. The Partridges had little truck with the rest of the village, partly because of their vehement pacifist stance during the war and partly because, as her biographer remarked, Frances Partridge was not a ‘joiner’. Christine Webb briefly stood in for Ivy Hoare as their housekeeper when she was fourteen. She recalls being asked to stay inside while they were using the swimming pool. Only many years later, when the lifestyles of the Bloomsbury Group had become general public knowledge, did she realise it was because they were skinny-dipping.

At the far end of the village Major Geoffrey Huth lived at Wan’s Dyke End (now Coombe House), the house he had built when he arrived in the village in 1924. Remembered chiefly for his short fuse and a deep, morbid religiosity, he was also a kind and generous man, building some 30 cottages for workers in the local area, including Acorn Cottages at the end of the war.

Mired in post-war austerity – food rationing did not end until 1954 – and in an era when capital punishment was still in force and homosexual acts between men and abortion were criminal offences, the 1950s are usually depicted as a grey, bleak and repressed decade. But while life in Ham was certainly no rosy rural idyll, these sketches suggest that there was nevertheless another side to it all.

See also:

- Ham Spray House

- Below Stairs at Ham Spray House, by Robin Buchanan-Dunlop

- Bloomsbury Group