Miss Vera Davis of Pirton Grange

Times Remembered – Vera Davis of Pirton Grange (part 1)

Many people in the village will remember Miss Davis of Pirton Grange who died in 1996 at the age of 89.  After her sister Edith died in 1985 she resided alone in that rambling old house, under a leaking roof, where she had lived since 1931.  Before that the family inhabited Rectory Manor Farm.  Her father was Ernest Robert Davis, farmer, chairman of the School Board, member of the Board of Guardians, the first chairman of the Parish Council and also the church’s treasurer.  Many were the fetes and other village jollifications that were held in his fields.

Pirton Grange

Although Pirton Grange is situated just inside this parish and Hertfordshire County Boundaries, Miss Davies obviously identified more with Shillington in Bedfordshire albeit many of her memories were relevant to both villages

In her last years, like most old people, she spent time remembering what life was like in her younger days.  Through the good offices of Jim Moffatt, who now lives in Pirton Grange, we are privileged to share her reminiscences.

‘In the 1920’s I was at school and then college.  Life was very pleasant for us.  There was plenty of domestic help and much of the food was home produced.  For servants it was also a pleasant life if you had a good home.  You see, mothers regarded it as a prior duty to see that their daughter “had her legs under a good table” and if they worked in the village, in a big house, they probably had their relations working on the land all round them.  It was the job of the young men on the farm to clean the windows outside and if you were feeling kind you saw to it that the maid got her boyfriend up the ladder.  If she was flighty she only got a brother or cousin.  We didn’t have girls until they were sixteen and having trained them they went off to work in London or a bigger household until they were married.

‘In Shillington many servant girls had flower names.  Aunt Harriet had a Rose and a Lily, sometimes two Roses and two Lilys.  There were many Violets and Ivys and Daisies.  Pirton wasn’t as floral.  I believe that in towns if you didn’t like the maid’s name you changed it.  I knew a lady in Hitchin who had a cook apply and when asked her name she said “Victoria mum”.  “I don’t think I could call you Victoria” said the lady.  “What’s your second name?”  “Jubilee mum”.  “I don’t think she got called by either.

‘Domestic servants had one evening off a week and a part of either Saturday or Sunday.  If there was a dance, a rarity, they were allowed to go to that.  They had one day off a month, after pay day, to go to Hitchin where they went to somewhere like Fishy Furr’s for lunch.  You had a fourpenny piece of fish, a pennyworth of chips, a piece of bread and a cup of tea.  Sixpence the lot.

‘Before the Great War when children used to go round collecting money for Guy Fawkes Day they were not allowed to do it until two days before. After school they walked to Shefford to buy fireworks.  In the village shop they could only buy sparklers and coloured matches, because you had to have a licence to sell squibbs and jumping crackers.

‘There were at least eleven pubs in Shillington.  They were graded according to the customer’s social standing.  At the bottom of the High Street, opposite the Post Office was the Engine, where the officials drank. Halfway up, on the way to the church was the Commander-in-Chief where the foremen drank.  The rag-tag and bobtail drank in the beer houses.  On the back road was the Musgrave Arms, which is still there and the Swan which isn’t.  Then you came to the Crown, which is still there.  Down Hillfoot Road was the Five Bells and the Noah’s Ark, which is still there and the Bedford Arms and the William IV.  Opposite the Meppershall turn was the Red Sign Post and finally there was the Marquis of Granby.

‘Pirton was smaller and only had nine pubs.  There wasn’t a lot of drunkenness.  They hadn’t the money.  They had to make a pint of beer last the evening.  Halfpenny clay pipes could be bought at the pub. They used to break off some of the stem and use the bowl as a nose-warmer in winter.  When the men went out drinking the women stayed at home.  They had innumerable children and Shillington mothers hadn’t always got good control of their children, Pirton mothers had.  In the apple season my father would ostentatiously set out for church on a Sunday.  Then, when boys were nicely up the trees, scrumping apples, he would cut back home.  He would then go and sit in the orchard, smoking his pipe and offer the lads the option of coming down and feeling his walking stick or being late for Sunday lunch and feeling their mother’s.  Not many chose their mother’s.  In Shillington it was quite a common thing to hear women say “I can’t do anything with him, he won’t do as I tell him”.  You never heard that in Pirton.”

‘The men on the farm used to take their bottles of cold tea out to the fields.  In Shillington they took a clanger for their midday meal.  This was a dumpling, made with beef or pork, onion and potato with jam or treacle in the end.  H.E.Bates described a clanger as a gastronomical bomb.  Pirton people didn’t make clangers.  They made sage and onion dumplings.  Beef dumplings were known as gravy puddings.  They also made pickled pork, onion and potato dumplings.

‘A nice tale about a couple from Hillfoot Road went like this.  They had been out for the day and when they got home they couldn’t find the doorkey to get in. Each swore that the other had taken the key.  After some trouble they managed to get in their house and later the wife found the key where her husband had left it behind.  Next day when he sat down in the field to have his clanger, there wasn’t any meat in it.  Only the key!

Vera Davis of Pirton Grange (part 2)

‘Pirton was a straw-plaiting village and so the women earned as much or more than the men in a good many cases. There was some straw-plaiting went on in Shillington but nothing like there was in Pirton.  In Shillington they took in lodgers who were coprolite diggers.*  Fred Deveraux, who lived next door to Windmill Lodge, remembered the coprolite industry.  His mother took in lodgers and the children had to stay in bed until the lodgers had gone to work.  There used to be this tantalising smell of bacon frying and they didn’t get any.  Fred said to himself then, “When I grow up I’m going to have bacon every morning of my life” – and he did.

Pigs were always running round the village.

‘Practically everybody in Pirton kept a pig.  The village was known as ‘Piggin Pirton’.  You killed your pig before Christmas.  Most people didn’t turn it into bacon.  Mostly they made it into pickled pork and kept it in a pickle pot.  Cured pork had to be smoked and it wasn’t so easy to keep, whereas if you had a pickle pot you just cut off a bit of pork and added it to whatever you were making.  The Elms family, at Chestnut Tree Farm on the Green at Shillington used to do a bit of pork butchering.  They kept a few cows and sold milk and pickled pork.

‘There were two butchers in Shillington;  Palmers up Handscombe End Road and Simkins in Church Street.  Both delivered to Pirton, as there was no butcher there.  People only ate pork or bacon or beef.  Cottage folk hardly ever ate mutton, which was more expensive than beef and there was no lamb.

People ate bacon fried with vinegar on it.  They had vinegar on their boiled cabbage too.  There were only two kinds of soup mixes to be bought, tomato and green pea, made by Simingtons.  A great standby were ‘pluggers’.  These were suet dumplings in green pea soup.

‘The main meal of the day for the men on the farm was when they came home in the late afternoon from work and consisted of what had been put into the pot to boil.  In harvest, however, the wives and children sometimes took a hot meal into the fields at midday and the family had dinner together.  The favourite spread on bread was lard, home made, unless you had any dripping.  Margarine was in its early stages and lard was preferred to butter.  Joints were usually boiled but bakers heated their ovens on a Sunday for people to bring their pork joints to be roasted.  They took their joint with their name on it and their Yorkshire pudding in a jug, to be put into the oven at the right time.  They collected them on their way home from church.

The workhouse. Pirton

‘My Uncle Henry owned a row of cottages, on the corner by Pirton pond, which had been the Workhouse.  An old dame who lived in one complained to him about not being able to cook on her grate.  He said “you can have a new grate if its as bad as that.”  Next  morning Gatwoods, the ironfounders in Hitchin, arrived with a new grate  in a horse and cart.  It was wash-day and she had everything boiling on the grate.  They took the fire out, they took the grate out and put a new one in.  Then they told her she couldn’t use it for three days, until the cement set.  Uncle Henry said he never heard a word about others wanting a new grate!

‘The Workhouse in Shillington was in Church Street, behind what was the butcher’s.  My sister farmed behind and in her yard was a little cottage, one up, one down, which had been the infirmary for infectious disease.  I think they must have died pretty quickly because there was a fireplace downstairs but not up.  In the nineteen twenties and thirties people who were ill went to the North Herts Hospital in Hitchin.  You had to have a ticket to be admitted.  Everything had to be paid for in those days and subscribers who donated money to the hospital had tickets to give away to deserving people who had to go there.  Usually people who subscribed gave their tickets to the Vicar or the Doctor because they knew where the need was.  People didn’t go to hospital unless they were really ill.  For the destitute there was the workhouse infirmary at Chalkdell, in Hitchin.

‘There was a doctor in the village who rejoiced in the name of Kilham Roberts.  His father was a doctor too.  Wouldn’t you think he’d have had more sense than to name his son Kilham?  The son was short and fat and wore leggings and a short waterproof jacket to ride a motorcycle.  He looked like The Michelin Man, on wheels.

‘There was a District Nurse in Shillington in the 1920s and Aunt Harriet was a nurse.  Not a trained nurse and she could only work under instructions from the doctor.   The doctor attended most confinements himself but if you couldn’t afford to pay you had a neighbour in.  Some families had a child a year.  I hate to think how many lived in Walking Stick Row in two bedroom cottages.

*Coprolite was fossilised animal excrement from the Palaezoic, Mesozoic and Tertiary periods. In other words dinosaur dung, which made valuable fertiliser.  Pirton Hall was built on the proceeds of its discovery on Handscombe land. 

Pirton Hall was built by Mr Hanscombe of The Grange using the profits of the coprolite digging.

Pirton Hall was built by Mr Hanscombe of The Grange using the profits of the coprolite digging.

concluding the reminiscences of Vera Davis of Pirton Grange

‘There were quite a few houses in Shillington that were called single-double houses.  They were semi – detached and one house had two or three bedrooms while the other was a one up, one down house.  In the larger house lived the parents of their young married child in the smaller house.  When the parents’ family had all moved out they swapped houses and so father did not have to part with his garden.

‘After the Great War the Government had the bright idea that returning soldiers would like to become smallholders.  The local councils bought or rented farms and let out parcels of 25 acres to smallholders.  Pirton Grange farm was divided among the Elms brothers plus one field called the Meads which was let to a Mr Jenkins, ever after known as Twitchman*.  That was because twitch was the only crop he grew on it.  The scheme did not last long because it was soon discovered that it was not viable for supporting a family.  My father had retired from farming by the time we moved from Rectory Farm to the Grange in 1931.

Bob Davis with his 3 daughters Helen, Vera and Edith

‘With the advent of Vauxhall Motors at Luton more people started working outside the village and travelling to and from work by bus.  There was an embroidery factory in Ickleford and women from Shillington cycled there and back if they could afford a bicycle.  The average cost of these was about ten pounds at the start of the century but they had gone down by about  half by the nineteen twenties and thirties.

The 3 Davis sisters Vera, Helen and Edith nicknamed Tiger

‘Girls were still going out to service, right up to the Second World War.  Many of them were so naïve they came home with more than they went.  At one time a Pirton person would not dream of marrying anyone from Shillington but by the nineteen twenties they had got over that.  Pirton people once referred to Shillington  as “ingon” country because they peeled onions for the pickle industry and were thought to be simple, like the onions.  My father could remember when, on a Sunday, Shillington men walked up to the top of the hill and Pirton men to the little rise below it.  If any crossed the demarcation line they fought.

Freddy Bell shoeing a horse at the smithy on Great Green Pirton

‘There was one blacksmith in Pirton, William Newbery, and two in Shillington.  Hilliards from the Musgrave Arms had a smithy where Bowles Garage is now.  Several generations of Hilliards had that.  Jimmy Hilliard, or Walter, used to go to a forge at Hexton once a week to shoe horses.  The other one was Eric Wilson on The Green.  Matches was the undertaker and carpenter, making carts and Wilsons were undertakers and also wheelwrights, where Wheelwright Close is now.

‘Pirton is a small, compact village.  Shillington is like a spider. Church Street is the body, the church is the head and then there’s legs in all directions.  There were more shops in Shillington than in Pirton but not so many bakers. There was a general store kept by Daisy Wilmer and her old father.  There was Pruttons where the Post Office used to be opposite the church and they had a drapery section.  Ann Ruffell kept the Post Office.  There was a chemist in Church Street and he pulled teeth!  There was a general store in Bury Road and Miss Cole at the Arch.  Hinges had the “Noah’s Ark” and they also fried fish once a week.

‘The schoolmaster used to walk round the village in the evening and if any boy did not raise his cap to him he got the cane next morning.  In fact many men carried a walking stick and if they saw boys misbehaving they got a whack.  The schoolmaster was a bigger deterrent than the police and there was very little delinquency.  When most people had very little money or possessions you could leave anything about and nobody stole – excepting a policeman.  He went to somebody’s house at night and stole some logs and when he got them home they were too big to go on his fire, so he went back the next night and stole the ‘beetle’ and wedge to split them!

‘You couldn’t get away with much in the village.  Those who didn’t work were curtain twitchers and there were always men working in the fields. Between them they saw everything that went on.  By and large though it was a lot less stressful than life is today.

‘Twitch or couch-grass’ – a widespread and troublesome weed.

 ‘Beetle’ – a heavy wooden mallet.




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