TIMES REMEMBERED – 20th Century
As the new Century dawned what a different picture our village presented form the one it does today! Whilst bearing the shape it does, still there were only about half the number of dwellings, housing nearly the same number of people as the present population. Roads such as Danefield, Pollards Way, Cromwell Way, Bunyan Close and Davies Crescent did not exist, and the land occupied by such developments was farmland. Wide open spaces between small groups of cottages, presented a very different aspect from the claustrophobic environment we live in now.
The population, apart from a few wealthy landowners and some who had a trade, consisted mainly of poorly paid farm labourers and their strawplaiting wives and children. Many of the young men were in the prime of life, thickset, rubicund and of enormous strength. Their elders were stooped, with gnarled hands, often riddled with rheumatism as the result of a life spent outdoors in all weathers. Obesity was not a problem. Under-nourishment often was. They had hundreds of proverbs and sayings and their conversation in the eleven pubs and beerhouses was stiff with simile. Things were always ‘hot as hell’, ‘cold as ice’, ‘green as grass’. To try and encourage a person who did not respond was ‘like putting a poultice on a wooden leg’. A temperamental person was ‘one of them as is either up on the roof or down in the well’. Their favourite virtue was endurance. Not to flinch from pain or hardship was their ideal.
There was little mechanical equipment, if any, on the several farms in the village and men and horses tilled, sowed and reaped. Three horses in line to a plough, with a boy at the head of the leading horse and the ploughman struggling to keep the plough to a straight furrow in the heavy clay from early morning until it was dark, with a break for ‘beaver’. Shouts of ‘wert up!’ and ‘Who – o – o – a!’ would echo across the village as the ploughman urged his gentle giants up and down the field. If they were not pulling ploughs, they were drawing carts and William Newbery at his blacksmith’s forge on Great Green was kept busy shooing them and replacing the iron tires on the cartwheels. In hot summers it was not uncommon to see a carter with his horse and cart standing in the village pond to cool down his horse and swell the wooden wheels to prevent the tires from becoming loose. Cars were unknown and villagers could walk in the middle of the road without fear of being flattened by a speeding motorist.
Electric lighting was unknown and villagers went early to bed, partly from fatigue, strawplaiting, washing and cleaning for women, labouring for the men and partly because oil lamps provided a poor light for sewing or reading. Not that many could read. The streets were unlit until 1904 when a Reading Room, instigated by the new Vicar, one of the very few educated people in the village, was opened in the Old National School on Great Green and provided with an oil lamp fixed to the building. This proved so popular that two or three more were donated in the village and a lamplighter was employed.
Mains water and flush toilets were still a long way off. Water had to be drawn from wells and epidemics were quite common. One such of scarlet fever in 1901 lasted six weeks and another of the same type occurred in 1908.
The Vicarage was then at Pirton Court on Prior’s hill and inhabited by Revd. Bedale (1896 – 1903). There being no such body as the National Health Service, Social Services, or even a Savings Bank, welfare relied to a large extent on the benevolence of the better-off and was largely administered by the clergy. The following letter from the Vicar to a local paper illustrates the point.
A certain benevolent lady (whose name I am not at liberty to publish), the light of whose kind deeds cannot be hidden, has sent to me as a New Year’s gift to the poor of Pirton a sum of three guineas. This has bought one hundredweight of coal for each of thirty people and tickets from one shilling to one shilling and sixpence in value for shop goods to about twenty others”.
As most households derived their income from the land winter could be a time of great hardship with men laid off during frosts which lasted for weeks and weeks. It was then that the Clubs into which people paid their pennies regularly came into their own. The Provident Club, the Coal Club and the Clothing and Boot Club were all administered from the Vicarage.
Death too came more frequently as a result of either illnesses which we shrug off with antibiotics these days or under-nourishment as a result of poverty. In December 1904 the Vicar, Revd. Langmore (1903 – 1922) wrote in the Magazine, “During the past year seventeen families have been visited by the Messenger of Death – two more than last year”. Times were hard in those days.
1909 saw the death of Joseph Pollard of ‘Highdown’. The Pollards, although members of the local gentry, did not live in high style at ‘Highdown’. Mr Pollard, who was born in the same year that his father died, came from good Quaker stock but, coming of age, left the Society of Friends to become an Anglican and eventually a senior committee member of the British and Foreign Bible Society. His marriage to Palacia Fenn Howes produced a family of two boys and five girls who were brought up in a God fearing and loving relationship with each other and their parents.
Concern for the poor was a Pollard family watchword and the children were each encouraged to adopt a protégé amongst the poor of Pirton on whom they spent part of their pocket money and for whom they performed acts of kindness. These sometimes went a little too far, as when their Nurse stopped Nellie from giving her own eiderdown to her protégé. “They ar’nt used to laying warm” was the advice of Nurse Primmet. “Primmie” arrived at ‘Highdown’ as a young woman and died there in her eighties. One of the pieces of doggerel she recited to her little charges went:
Some goes to church just for a walk;
Some goes there to laugh and talk;
Some goes there the time to spend;
Some goes there to meet a friend;
Some goes there for speculation;
Some goes there for observation;
Some goes there to doze and nod;
A few goes there to worship God.
Mr Pollard’s concern for the poor of Pirton was manifested in several ways. One of these took place at Christmas when, assisted by his little daughters, he could be seen delivering bags of coal on a handcart to those who could not afford to buy it. A permanent reminder of that caring family is the old people’s cottages in Crabtree Lane, built by Mrs Pollard. She and her husband, in whose memory the pews in church were donated, half by family and friends and half by the villagers, are buried close by the north-west corner of the church together with some of their servants.
Church people seemed to have been much more willing to air their grievances against the dictates of authority in those far off days than they are today. For instance when a new Education Bill was produced in the early years of the century, which gave maximum liberty to evade attending religious instruction in schools and the minimum liability to teach it, the Vestry, composed of ratepayers, declared “This meeting of the parishioners of Pirton, in Vestry assembled, records its solemn protest against the Education Bill of the Government as not only flagrantly unjust and tyrannical but as opening the door to unending religious strife throughout the length and breadth of the land.” A copy of this expression of outrage was sent to the Prime Minister, Mr Balfour, the Bishop and the local MP. No doubt Pirton’s dissenting voice was joined by others in the country because the Bill was withdrawn.
Again, some years later, the following resolution was passed at the annual Vestry meeting, “That as Pirton School was built by Church people and the Schoolhouse was built by Church people and the upkeep of the school is provided by Church people and the salaries of the teachers are paid by Church people, including Nonconformists, this Vestry claims that Church people should have equal representation in the Management and Teaching staff.” The present school was built in 1876 and replaced St Mary’s National School built in 1842 by the Vicar, Revd. Thomas Thirlwell. The new school was a Board School and Revd. Loughborough and Mr Joseph Pollard served on the Board. It was built for £2,420 advanced by the Public Works Loans Commission. Presumably the loan was repaid by the Church and Chapel people of Pirton in the same way that they had to pay for a new Vicarage in later years and hence the reason for their grievance.
As mentioned in a previous article young people were beginning to leave the agricultural jobs and seek their fortunes in the towns and cities. In addition the flow of emigrants to our colonies was also increasing. In March 1911 a farewell service was held in the church for a group of young Pirtonians emigrating to Canada. The following June, news was received that the intrepid travellers had crossed the Rocky Mountains and arrived at their destination, Westminster near Vancouver. Sadly, it was to be but a short time before they would be defending the land of their birth in the mud of Flanders, one of them Albert Abbiss to perish there.
In the same year, 1911, the following lines appeared anonymously in the Parish Magazine under the title Home Hints! “There is a disease prevalent in many parishes, town and country alike, which is known as ‘Morbus Sabbaticus’ or ‘Sunday Sickness’, as it always takes place on a Sunday and never lasts more than a day. It usually affects the head of the household and sometimes their wives as well but their children are, for the main part, unaffected. The patient usually retires to bed on Saturday night, to all appearances quite well but with the dawn on Sunday ‘Morbus Sabbaticus’ makes its ugly appearance and at about the time the churchbells are calling people to morning worship the disease is at its height,.
Some patients are not necessarily confined to bed, although they may be to house and garden. Others recover more rapidly and about the time the bells have ceased are able to take a stroll, and some, even a bicycle ride. The appetite is not seriously affected by the disease, nor is the afternoon nap interfered with to any great extent. In some cases the patients are sufficiently recovered by the early evening that, providing not a few spots of rain are falling or there be ominous looking clouds in the sky, they might be seen wending their way slowly, but not always surely, for some lose their way and mistake the building, to the Parish Church.
With others the experience is different, for between five and six o’clock a relapse sets in, just as the church bells sound for Evensong. However, whether the duration of the disease be long or short the patient is well enough by Monday morning to face another week’s work.
The following prescription is recommended for sufferers from this pernicious disease. ‘On Sunday rise at seven, use plenty of cold water and mix up a dose composed in equal parts of the following ingredients, namely Will, Energy, Self-respect, Determination and Respect for the Lord’s Day; stir well, add a little love to make it sweet and swallow every three minutes until time for church, unless relief comes sooner. If the day is stormy an external application of a mackintosh and umbrella will be beneficial.”
Could the Vicar have written it?
December 13th 1922 saw the inception of the Pirton Social Club now called The Sports and Social Club. I say inception, but perhaps it should be the resurrection because at the first Committee meeting, when the aims and objects of the Club were outlined by the new Vicar, Revd. W.T.Winkworth (Chairman), reference was made to the useful work done by Mr Christmas and Mr Wright on the “Old” Committee. No doubt the Club ceased to function during the Great War.
The new Club got off to an impressive start with the election of a President in the person of W.H. Handscombe Esq. (Pirton Hall); Vice Presidents – Lord Robert Cecil (proposed by who else but the Vicar), H.J. Handscombe Esq., R.Handscome Esq., Messrs R.Odell, Lawrence Franklin (Walnut Tree Farm), E.R.Davis (Rectory Farm), H.Walker, Revd. W.T.Winkworth, Thomas Franklin and J. A.Wright. Mr A.Castle was elected Secretary and Mr A.Walker Treasurer. The following were elected Committee members for one year. Messrs H.Walker, G.Bunyan, A.West, S.Goldsmith; A.Baines, E.Baines, H.Lake, F.Handscombe and R.Kingsley. It is indicative of the age that while the great and the good still bore the title of Esquire, those who were going to do the work were not accorded such status.
The Committee addressed itself to the formulation of Rules with great vigour. Those of 18 years or more would be admitted; subscription to be one shilling per calendar month; anyone two months in arrears would be fined sixpence; anyone three months in arrears would be expelled from the Club; no gambling would be allowed; the Club to be open from 7pm – 9.30pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The Vicar was elected Committee Chairman and it was decided that the Committee would meet on the second Monday in each month.
The initial enthusiasm of the Committee members appears not to have been reflected by the rank and file because a Social arranged for 20th April 1923 had to be cancelled for lack of interest. However, at the Annual General Meeting, curiously held six months after the Club’s inauguration, it was reported that membership had risen from 23 members to 63.
In view of the increased numbers visiting the Club it was decided that the Club Room in the Vicarage, Pirton Court at that time, was too small an accommodation and it was decided to ask the Parochial Church Council if they were prepared to rent the old Church School on Great Green for Club meetings. The PCC agreed and a rent of two shillings and sixpence per week was fixed. As the Old School was in a rather dilapidated state quite a lot of work had to be done on it at the Social Club’s expense.
In the month of August 1923 Committee members of the Social Club, the Cricket Club and the Football Club met and agreed to amalgamate but there is no record of this decision being activated at that time.
Events seem to have progressed satisfactorily, with Whist Drives and inter-village Billiards Tournaments providing the chief attractions, apart from a contretemps with the Boy Scouts over the use of the Old School on certain nights, reminiscent of the feud between Captain Mainwaring and Mr Hodges in ‘Dad’s Army;’. The Club Minutes simply refer to “the delicate position which had been caused between the Chairman and the Club Secretary” but knowing that Revd. Winkworth was Scout Leader and no stranger to controversy it is not hard to imagine the scenario. However, at a meeting chaired by the President, W.H.Handscome Esq., sweetness and light was restored….. for the time being.
Minutes of meetings appear regularly up to and including 1927 when the amalgamation of the Social Club, the Cricket Club and the Football Club finally took place and the Social Club was renamed the Pirton Social and Athletic Club. Between February 1928 and November 1929 only the Minutes of the Annual General Meetings appear but thereafter Committee Meeting Minutes re-appear.
Events proceeded smoothly with membership numbers rising and falling until 1930 when Revd. Winkworth summarily withdrew consent for the Old School being used as a clubroom. The reason for this is not revealed but as a result the Club decided to find alternative premises until it could build its own. Initially this took the form of a room at The Fox Public House for meetings whilst the Club furniture was stored elsewhere pending new premises.
It would appear that meetings conducted in the pub inspired the Committee to arrange more ambitious forms of entertainment than hitherto, all of which will be revealed in a future article.
As in most villages change in Pirton came very slowly through the centuries and for the first half of the twentieth century this was still true. Even after the Great War, which caused so much bereavement here, people settled back into the common round and the daily task in much the same environment as hitherto. Even the Glove Factory, which was Pirton’s nearest flirt with industrialisation, fell victim to the advent of nylon during the years following the War. Most people still worked in the village, mainly on the farms and every other person you met was probably a Weedon, a Walker or a Burton. A few men were employed on the railway at Hitchin whither they cycled to work.
Pirton’s eleven pubs had been reduced to six and that became five when the Shoulder of Mutton in Hambridge Way was burnt down in the nineteen twenties. There were four bakers, a butcher, two grocers, a hardware shop, a sweetshop, a Post Office, which also sold stationery and boots and shoes, an undertaker and a blacksmith. Most men grew their own vegetables and so the village was self-supporting apart from clothes, which had to come from Hitchin.
At the church the vicars came and went. Revd. Winkworth was loved and disliked in equal proportions. Revd. Hewitt arrived in 1933, by which time he was in his senior years and was universally loved. He was affectionately known as ‘The Guvnor’ and drove a Trojan, one of the first cars to be used in Pirton.
But this gentle way of life was not to last. The Second World War wrought greater and faster changes in people and their way of life than ever before. During six years of battle men had travelled to distant places, witnessed and suffered experiences on land and sea and in the air which the trenches of the 1914-18 War had not produced. They came home unwilling to return to the plough and the reaper. They came home more articulate about the sort of life they wanted and the sort of Government that would favour the many rather than the few.
Women’s horizons had also been broadened. Countless numbers had worked in factories doing men’s work on machine tools. Many had driven buses and lorries. Even the Princess Elizabeth learned to drive trucks in the ATS and dismantle engines. Women even dressed like men. Skirts were abandoned in favour of trousers and when the men returned from war women were not willing to give up their new found emancipation.
As a result the pace of life even in the villages quickened and changes became more apparent. As people became more mobile village shops began to disappear. As
horses gave way to tractors on the farms blacksmiths became a dying breed. Even the farmers themselves begun to look at alternative ways to increase their income. By the nineteen sixties there was news of a proposal to build 36 houses on land belonging to Cromwell Farm. This was viewed with great suspicion by some villagers for, unlike Danefield and Pollards Way which were developed on the outskirts of the village, this development would be more or less in the centre. A Parish General Meeting was held and Mr M.F.Anderson, as Chairman of the Parish Council was requested to write to the Minister of Housing expressing the villagers’ concern over the proposed development. Nevertheless, Cromwell Way followed by Bunyan Close came to fruition and many people were glad of the extra housing.
Not all country pursuits were disappearing however. In fact early in the same decade Derek Cook and the habituees of The Fox invented a new one. Tired of discussing each other’s cabbages and onions they conceived the idea of a competition to grow the biggest pumpkin. The idea caught on and the first contest attracted 20 competitors. Much fun and skulduggery among the growers took place and the first winner tipped the scales at 46lbs 2ozs. The winner was crowned King Pumpkin and wheeled round the Village Hall in a wheelbarrow.
It is hard to believe that Great Green with which we are so familiar only began to assume its present appearance in 1966. It was towards the end of that year that repeated requests from the Parish Council to the County Council bore fruit. Men appeared in September of that year and began to put right the disorder and neglect of this prominent site. The ground was levelled and sown with grass. The road was widened and curbs laid and a service road was installed. Improvements to Little Green and the northern ends of Royal Oak Lane and High Street followed.
In the Church too customs altered after the War. Whereas previously the laity had depended on the priest for everything from conducting the services to managing the finances it became more and more the custom for laity to participate in the conduct of the services and decisions affecting the worshippers. As inflation took hold so dead men’s legacies became less and less sufficient to finance the Church of England and the laity were forced to dig deeper into their pockets. Buildings like our ancient church became more and more difficult to maintain in a reasonable condition and bodies like The Friends of parish churches were born. Whereas, a hundred years ago, it was possible to demolish our church tower and rebuild it, re-roof the nave, re-furnish the interior and re-build the south transept, it currently seems impossible to finance even the re-arrangement of the interior.
In May 1967 the first ever Traction Engine Rally to be held in Pirton took place in Franklin’s meadow at Walnut Tree Farm. Thirty nine steam driven vehicles took part in competitions accompanied by steam organs, ice creams and hot-dogs. Some 10,000 people attended over the Bank Holiday weekend and sixty villagers were involved in the preparations, stewarding and marshalling. The profit, after expenses, was divided between the Village Hall and the Recreation Ground.
In the same year the telephone cables along the Hitchin Road were laid underground and the spoil left behind produced a growth of gorgeous poppies all along the road. In the autumn some 300 people attended the weigh-in at the Pumpkin Show and obviously the growers had become more expert since the first show because the winning entry tipped the scales at a whopping 94 lbs! Ah, happy days!
And so we come to the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Years which completed the transformation of Pirton from a rather untidy working village, hidden among towering elm trees, into the rather more attractive dormitory village it is today.
By the 1970’s people were becoming more vociferous with their complaints about their environment. Many were the moans about flooding in West Lane and High Street, the condition of the moat in Docklands, refuse collection and the poor condition of the verges. As ever, the Rural District Council was slow to act but there is no doubt that more improvements were wrought in Pirton’s Swinging Seventies than in any other decade.
In 1971 a weekly refuse collection was installed. In February 1972 a new sewage scheme was promised to accommodate an extra hundred houses and three hundred people but it was nearly two years before it was completed. Furthermore, the mess left behind by the contractors was the cause of further complaints.
According to the District Surveyor the problem with flooding caused by the moat which ran between Docklands and Pollards Way was as a result of neighbours using it as a dump for household and garden rubbish but it was not until 1975 that it was cleared out and filled in. Docklands, incidentally, is a corruption of DORKLINGS, the ancient name of the field on which the housing development took place.
Throughout the nineteen seventies constant pressure on the Local Authority by the Parish Council brought further improvements. Streets were kerbed, verges levelled and grassed, more street lamps were installed, the Knoll at the bottom of the High Street was levelled, the ditch outside the War Memorial was filled in and grassed and a new byelaw concerning the fouling of footways by dogs, introduced by the Secretary of State in 1976 was enforced by the Local Authority.
Gradually the open spaces grew less and the houses more. Jack Burton’s market garden was turned into St. Mary’s Close. The “Live and Let Live” on the High Street was replaced by Franklin Close, named after Laurie Franklin, who farmed at Walnut Tree Farm and did so much for the village during his lifetime.
In 1973 plans were produced for a new extension to the school, to be built at the rear of Docklands and overhead low voltage electricity and telephone wires in Royal Oak Lane and Walnut Tree Road were removed from poles and laid underground.
At the church, the Vicar, Canon Arthur Suffrin announced the introduction of a more modern form of Sung Eucharist to be used throughout the Church of England, called Series 3. “Will it attract more people to church?” he asked. “Of course it will not,” he answered. “People are drawn to church, not by words but by the Holy Spirit.”
In 1975/6 a new pavilion was constructed on the Recreation Ground, to which the North Herts District Council contributed £1500 and in 1977, with the selling off of land in Pirton by Hitchin Priory Estates, came an offer to the Parish Council for the purchase of the Recreation Ground. The Council had a 50 year lease but they jumped at the chance and for £2,250 the Ground became the village’s own.
was Dutch elm disease. In 1972 the Parish Council was advised by the County Council that there was no serious infection but as the years passed it became apparent that many trees were dead or dying. In 1975 the Parish Council took the decision, for safety sake, to fell all dead or dying trees. Within the village there were 185 affected trees with a diameter of two feet or over and 705 saplings. Within the parish boundaries there were another 63 affected trees. During the next five years 196 new trees of varying species supplied by the County Council had been planted by the villagers in the Recreation Ground, on Great Green, in Walnut Tree Road, the Churchyard, Pollards Way and at the rear of Docklands. By 1983 the number had risen to 300. The passing of the elms was marked by a sad little poem by Edith Simpson which appeared in the Parish Magazine.
They felled the elm tree in the field,
For they could never know
The joy its branches were to me,
Festooned in powdery snow,
Sparkling with frost or darkly etched
Against a winter sky,
Singing and sighing through the night
When storm winds tossed them high.
They slashed its trunk with screaming saws,
For they had never heard
The starlings murmuring in its boughs,
Nor seen that magic bird
The white owl, perching motionless
In faint grey morning light,
Or heard him wake with wild, sweet call,
A sleeping summer night.
They felled the elm tree in the field
Then came to me to say
That we’d have wood for many a month-
But I turned my face away.
A casualty of the sale of Priory Estates land was the Traction Engine Rally that was held at Walnut Tree Farm for ten years. Eventually there grew up yet another housing development but meanwhile the ever-inventive villagers produced a new May Bank Holiday attraction, The May Fair. The first one produced an avalanche of visitors and the second was even more successful with eleven village organisations from the Church to the British Legion producing revenue of £1800. A lot of money in 1980.
The decades that followed are notable for only two major events, namely the purchase of the ancient Bury and Toot Hill from Parrish Bros. by the Parish Council and the creation of Colemans Close housing development. During the preparation of this site traces of yet more of the Anglo-Saxon village of Periton were unearthed including what was probably a church and associated burials pre-dating the present Norman building. So as this series of Times Remembered comes to an end it finishes, as it started, with a reminder of the dim and distant past.
It is nearly twenty five years since I started to write Times Remembered and this third series may well be the last. In the process of researching I have found myself
identifying with each period. How do they compare? Certainly the village is neater and tidier, the inhabitants are better housed, better educated and healthier but are they as happy as their predecessors? It seems to me that the tangible spirit of togetherness which people have, who all share a common existence has disappeared in the last two decades. Up till then pleasures were unsophisticated by today’s standards but EVERYBODY either joined in or turned up to watch. Compare the 700 people in 1970 at the pumpkin weigh-in, the 230 at the Barn Dance, the 556 at the Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Show and the 120 who went Carol Singing, with the turnouts now. These days the village is largely composed of quite prosperous, independent individuals whose lives are packed with activities that take them out of the village.
Looking back over the centuries one cannot but be moved by the countless number of people who have contributed in so many ways to the life of this village. Each one playing his or her part for a time, finally to be replaced by someone else to take up the reins and do their bit. It used to be said one needed £1000 and a pig to live in Pirton. Of course that was before inflation but even so there seems to be no shortage of takers – only pigs.