John Thrussell interview

A talk by John Edward Thrussell of Pirton, Hertfordshire, with questions from George Lancelotte Evans, c.1960.

My name is John Edward Thrussell. I was born in this village in May the 31st 1885. I still live in the house in which I was born.

The back of Cromwell Terrace where John lived, showing the well

All my life I have been in close contact with the people of the village, and have had very close connections with them and their ways.

John mended and sold boots and shoes

Let us go back to eighteen hundred and ninety. It’s early morning, springtime. There has been a sharp frost, snow has lain for some time, but that is gone and the leaves are beginning to show themselves. This morning this road is hard through frost. What is that patter of footsteps that we hear? It’s unusual. The men have gone to work. Six o’clock is their time and its seven now. Listen:

Day today is Valentine,

There are no grapes upon the vine,

There will be some in summertime,

So please will you give us a Valentine.

Of course, this is the fourteenth – we might have known. They are off to the big houses surrounding the village. Very little to be had in the village. Shillington Bury, down the Driftway. Pirton Hall. Rectory Manor. They have to get back for school. Maybe they’ll get threepence, but that’ll be an enormous lot to them, when a halfpenny a week is big pocket-money.

Primrose cottage oyal Oak Lane

Do you notice the houses? This one is a thatched one. Wattle and daub walls, maybe three inches thick, not more, plastered inside. Diamond pane windows, with shutters. They need it. The wind blows through those panes they fit so badly. At the other end is a pigsty, and beyond that a hen house. Wood is the chief construction, but one side of the house is willow herb’s dried stalks being interwoven in wood frame. Inside the house is a fire just flickering. No one is about yet. Father lit the fire before he went to work to warm himself some drink. Oh here comes mother – she’s stirrin’ it up. With the light of the fire you can see there’s a hearth-rug – home made one – made from pieces of cloth – pushed into an old bag. Front door there has a straw mat – a coil of straw wound round and round, home made one too. The furniture, a plain wooden table scrubbed clean, one or two chairs, and a stool or two. See, she’s taken the frying-pan – she’s going to warm some food for the children’s breakfast. ’Smorning its potatoes from yesterday. She’ll put a piece of fat and fry them. Sometimes the father he’ll put some potatoes in the oven and they’ll have baked potatoes. The children – they’ll see that their boots are clean – not polished, but freed from the mud. The roads outside by this time are covered with mud for its thawed – mud to an inch in depth and known as sludder. Woe betide the child if he drops a penny in it, or if he’s going shopping and drops his mother’s money – can’t find it. If he falls over, or is accidentally knocked over, the only thing to do is to scrape him with a knife and very few boys have a knife but they will always help one another and do it.

Let us go along the road. Here comes a row of ducks – they are going to the pond. They have done their work, laid their eggs, and are let out, and they’ve been trained to go to the pond, they’ll follow one another. Can you hear that noise? That’s a thrashing machine coming along. And there’s something else – behind it is a wagon, with two horses, loaded with corn, and two carts – they are going to the mill with the corn. Notice the long whip of the driver – not to whip the horses, but just crack it, to encourage them when the road is hard or they get in a rut. Notice too in front of the wheel is a large iron box – that’s a slide, to put down when they go down hill to ease the horses. And at the back of the wheel you’ll see a roller, running along the road, just behind it – that’s if anything should break, it’ll stop the wagon from running backwards down hill.

Threshing machines like this one were owned by the big farms.

Hello, here comes old Jim. He has his barrow and his beetle and wedges. He’s going docking. The farmers allow them to get the wood called dock from a tree when it is fallen. Most of them let them have it free. Here and there, a farmer – who’s a tight un, he wants one third of the wood. But they are up to him – they’ll put the little pieces at the bottom of one heap, and big pieces at the top, and vice versa the other two – they know which the farmer will take. That wood is sold sixpence a barrow load. He may get three barrow loads – that means 1/6. He’s too weak too and too subject to bronchitis to work all the week and there’s more labour than is needed. So if he can get enough to keep him off the parish, that’s a good thing to him for that is the most hated thing in the village. Here come some of the poor old creatures – they’re going to collect their money – look at their faces. They know they won’t be spoken kindly to, for the relieving officer is one of the hardest old nails you’ll come across. If he knows they do enough work to earn threepence he will stop their allowance. The mothers take the babies to him to be registered – he’s registration officer too. Very sharply does he speak to them and frightens them.

The Thrussels were members of the chapel on Chipping Green. This was demolished by a doodle bomb

See that woman with her umbrella, and basket – that’s the medicine woman. Her job is to go to Hitchin two or three times a week and collect the medicine from the doctors. Notice she has pattens – that’s to keep her out of the dirt, and she’ll walk to Hitchin and back without a splash. There’s the baker, delivering the bread, and here comes the old people with their half-a-crown each – half-a-crown to live on for the week. Well, its – can you hear that music? Ah, that’s the German band – very good band too and very rarely does a band come, quite a lot of people listen. They may pick up fourpence or fivepence. Where they come from no one ever knows, and which way they go, no one knows.

But its getting toward dinner time – lets see what they’re getting for dinner in this house. The mother cuts a piece of pickled pork from the er tub – pickling tub, and a much larger heap of potatoes – may have a bit of onion – and er parsley – puts them all on a board, and chops them up very finely, turns them over as one would making cement. She then has some flour – some flour from her gleaning, some that she has bought, and makes pastry. She knows how much to make to make two dumplings – one for herself, one for her husband, and she’ll make a bit more – there’s a reason for that. After rolling the pastry and putting it around and making the dumpling, she takes the piece that’s left, pulls it out round and makes a hole in the middle – she may do two of them – they are swimmers for the children. When the father comes home the children will have their swimmers and a small piece of his dumpling. The vegetables have been put in a net, locally made, always used – potatoes, parsnips, sweet turnips, greens all put into the net, and the whole lot is put into the boiler. Its very nourishing food – the salts from the vegetables go into then dumpling and the fat from the dumpling into the vegetables.

Good and nourishing food, and they need it, for the man has been ditching all day – cleaning out the ditches, trimming up the banks – very little else to do with the ground so soaked after the winter. He goes back after his meal. The mother picks up her plaiting, goes to visit old granny. Poor old girl she’s a widow – no one to look after her. She just goes in and takes the little child. The child cheers up the old girl and she’ll tidy her home – may stop a little while and plait – do a ten, then she’ll go home.

Sarah Thrussell John’s mother, plaiting. The photo was made from a plate found at Cromwell Terrace

We’ll walk on farther down the road. There’s a water cart in the pond – I should suspect that’s for the thrashing machine. The ducks are there – quite a lot of them – in various groups – each belongs to various owners. When evening comes they’ll all find their way home. Here comes the wagon and horses up that muddy lane – that’s a nearer way than the high road. And how muddy are the horses legs – ah, you wait a moment – he’ll take his wagon, and the carts right through the pond and wash their legs. We go a bit farther, we turn the corner – that’s known as Sawpit Corner – there is evidence of a sawpit having been there. The road is sunken here. Farther on – the corner, to the right, it goes along another sunken road, to the left, to Hitchin, known as the New Road to the older inhabitants, and the corner, known as Galers Corner. Galer was an old man’s lived near to the corner, a maker of flat mills, flails, and various other things – thatcher, a very clever man, and very cynical in his talk. In the meadow, there are some walnut trees, well known to the boys. We go on, we turn right again, through what is known as Town’s End, till we come to the Green. There, the boys are playing shinny. That’s an old game. The downtowners play the uptowners on Boxing Day. But they’ll soon have to finish their play – for soon as the soil is dry enough they’ll have to help their father with digging. Its getting later now, mother is getting the evening meal ready. The bigger boy gets the firewood for morning for father to start the fire, and the bigger girl helps their mother. They still file the old ditty:-

Lay the white cloth for his coming, dear mother.

Set out his chair where he likes it to be.

You shall stand by his side little brother,

and baby shall sit like a queen on his knee.

And here comes father. He goes quietly to the pantry. The children all know – nothing’s said. He comes out and they have their meal. The bigger ones put the little ones to bed and their mother just and goes tucks them in. Then she says “What did you put in the pantry father?” “Ooh” he said, “I knew there was a rabbit in that ditch, and I had to wait until the boss was gone. I pulled it out with a briar – I soon had him. Be sure and bury the skin in the dungle”. The dungle is a hole not far from the house where all uneatable stuff is thrown, and the slops. And the bones, you must burn them. Children won’t say anything – they are too well trained. If the farmer knew, he might even use it to discharge the man, for he considers everything on the land is his. The father, after his meal, he looks at the pigs – two pigs – one for themselves, and one to pay the rent of the house. It won’t exceed four pounds a year – the rent. Then he tidies himself, puts on a little better coat, and goes off to the inn on the lord of the manor’s estate his house is on too, and there, it is the night when they draw for wood – from the nearby wood. Each tenant has the opportunity of drawing for a lot of wood. Poles there’ll be in the lot, pea sticks, bean sticks, and then the brushwood for making faggots. He draws, he gets number ten, has a pint of beer, comes home. “Well”, says his wife, “what lot have you?”. “Ooh”, he says, “ten”. “How you going to get it down?”. “Oh”, he says, “I ask old Fred – he’ll help me, and I shall get the boss to let me have a cart, and together we’ll bring it home. Then, they go to bed, for it’ll soon be six o’clock in the morning. The whole of the pink of the day proves that its not a big house, its not money that makes love, its pulling together to make the best they can of this little that they have – ten shillings a week doesn’t go far.

Johnny Olly invented this bike in the 1950s


GLE:- Er, what is shinny?.

JET:- It’s a game very similar to hockey. The boys would get a stick with a big knob at the end and … it was hardly any rules with it other than you must keep your side – not strike from the other side. A condensed milk tin was the usual ball that was used, and this was knocked from one goal to the other. Rather dangerous but I never knew anyone hurt.

GLE:- Yes, it sounds like, er the Celtic game of er shinty, doesn’t it, the Irish, the Irish hockey?

JET:- Well, probably, yes.

GLE:- Yes, an interesting survival. Um, you also say something about the children having er their jobs to do.

JET:- Yes, the children, everyone had a task to do. In the ordinary way the boys was to get firewood. Chop and split wood, to light the fire and provide enough to er – for their father to warm up something for his morning meal, before he goes to work, and he’s … he must get to the farm at six o’clock. And so he would if he could get the milk – very few had it – but a few had it from the farm – perhaps a pint of skim milk – and would make a milk mess, or, it might be a water mess with milk in it. Nourishing it was, and would help him until ten o’clock, and he would get his beever.

GLE:- What’s in the mess, er you make it with bread?

JET:- Bread and sugar. Some would have pepper and salt.

GLE:- Yes, yes. And what about the beever – and what did they er, did they take the beever out?

JET:- Yes, they would mostly take bread and cheese.


GLE:- Yes, yes. Umm. Oh yes, about the ducks. Um, how did they – when they all went to the pond like that, how did one er owner distinguish his ducks from the others?

JET:- On their tails usually, or on the top of their head where they would paint them with a certain colour.

GLE:- Yes, yes.

JET:- Your ducks would be red, mine might be blue. Another persons’ green.

GLE:- Yes, and they actually – they all went – they all they were trained to go to the pond?

JET:- They followed one another just as if they was a file of soldiers.

GLE:- [Laughing] Really?

JET:- And there’s there’s a well known saying that one old lady, when she had finished training them at the very first and they went straight onto the water, “Ah”, she says, “you’re landed now”.

GLE:- [Laughing] Yes. That little song you sang – the Valentine song – that’s er, one I’ve never heard before.

JET:- Ahh. Very common.

GLE:- Yes, yes. Is that is that just from Pirton, or from…?

JET:- I’ve not heard it elsewhere. I’ve heard two lines that a curate tried to teach my father, or the children at that time, but I can never get any more:-

Cold winters disappearing,

the birds, the pretty birds are pairing.

GLE:- Hmm, and that’s as much as you can remember?

JET:- That’s all – that didn’t take.

GLE:- Hmm, hmm. This was an invention of the … of the vicar was it, er?

JET:- That – the one – it was a curate – there wasn’t a vicar then.

GLE:- Oh, really, that’s interesting. Er, was it run with another parish?

JET:- Yes, Ickleford.

GLE:- With Ickleford?

JET:- Yes.

GLE:- Hmm. Er and the vicar was at Ickleford?

JET:- The vicar at Ickleford and he had a curate …

GLE:- … and the curate here …

JERT:- Lived, er, mostly where Flint lives.

GLE:- Oh, er, this, this one up here on the um …

JET:- Yes.

GLE:- …yes, did he? What about the big rectory?

JET:- Wasn’t one.

GLE:- There wasn’t one?

JET:- No, not at that time.

GLE:- Hmm, hmm.

JET:- Course that’s before my time – before – well, I’m telling you about the big house.

GLE:- This is your father’s time?

JET:- Yes.

GLE:- That’s … what is it … er

JET:- When they was young.

GLE:- A long, long time ago.

JET:- Yes, yes.

GLE:- Yes, yes. So how old was your father when, when he died, cause he was er …

JET:- Sixty-six.

GLE:- Yes, so I mean he could go back until the eighteen … forties.

JET:- His mother was ninety, she’d go back – she could remember the Duke of Wellington, and er return from the Mutiny.

GLE:- Good heavens! Could she really?

JET:- She was in London then.

GLE:- Yes.

JET:- She – mother was one of those few that could read and write. Fact she was chosen to teach the other children.

GLE:- Yes, yes. She could remember right back to the 1850s.

JET:- Yes.

GLE:- Yes, that’s remarkable isn’t it that is.

JET:- Born in forty two.

GLE:- And she could remember right back into oh, she could even remember the Duke of Wellington’s death could she?

JET:- Yes.

GLE:- That’s eighteen, what eighteen fifty two. Wasn’t it?

JET:- She was in London at the time.

GLE:- Good heavens above.

JET:- And saw the soldiers return from the Mutiny …

GLE:- Yes.

JET:- … and she was a very intelligent person.

GLE:- Hmm.

JET:- Well my father was too, but mother particularly.

GLE:- Yes, yes. And she could remember the Crimean War quite easily I suppose – that oh, that business.

JET:- Yes, yes.

Here the interview ends – quite abruptly, but it may be that nothing has been lost. It is only surprising that the interview was not dated, but it is likely that the recording was made in about 1960 when John Edward Thrussell would have been seventy five. JET was buried at St Mary’s, Pirton, in 1966, as was his widow Alice.

George Evans was in charge at Hitchin Library from 1950 until he died in 1979. He was also Hitchin Museum curator from 1950 until he relinquished the post when the library was modernised in 1963. The recording, made by George Evans, is a result of his interest in local history and of his realisation that such accounts of rural life are important and deserve preservation.

by kind permission of Jeremy Evans


Hertfordshire Life  VOL 21 No. 90  Oct 1966 


The Story of John Thrussell – a self-Taught astronomer by Margaret Tarr 


John Thrussell devoted hours of study to research and observation of the solar system and in time became a member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers.  He sent the results of his work monthly to Harvard and to the British Astronomical Association.


Recently local newspapers recorded the death of John Thrussell of Pirton, a man who for many years had given much service in his life as chairman of the parish council (thirteen years), school manager, and trustee of various village trusts and foundations.  They also paid tribute to his studies in the direction of solar research.

Over fifty years ago my father returned from his usual meander through the country-side, visiting relatives at Puckeridge, Sandon and Ashwell, and finally reliving his childhood memories of Pirton and Holwell.  After visiting the church in whose graveyard his forbears lie under tottering and almost indecipherable tomb-stones he would wander around the village to trace any surviving relatives.

From one visit he returned particularly elated because he had met a young cousin who, like himself, was keenly interested in the stars.  The young lad had constructed an ingenious telescope from condensed-milk tins and other oddments.  In an improvised observatory – a darkened shed – they had excitedly seen various con-stallations normally invisible to human sight.  From that time my father sent any of our science books pertaining to that subject to Pirton, but John Thrussell grew beyond the need of such help.  He devoted hours of study to research and observation of the solar system, and in time became member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers and sent the results of his work monthly to Harvard and to the British Astronomical Association.

This in itself was a great achievement.  It was one of the many facets of his studies of some of the most valuable things in life, nature, skilled crafts, tradition and the lore of village life.  A treasured letter from the late Reginald Hine reveals their association in research into the history of Hitchin.  Like Charles Lamb, each had “the soul of an antiquarian,” a veneration for the past and a questing spirit which carried them forward to discover treasured records and activities of the past.

After fifty year I determined to seek out this distant cousin.  Arriving at Pirton we stopped a delivery van and asked the driver if he could tell us where Mr Thrussell lived.  “Thrussell?” he repeated.  “Oh you mean the astronomy man.  Oh yes, the first cottage round the corner, opposite the pond.”  No need for further instructions, for as the cottage door opened to our knock there stood before me an image of my father.  Recognition was mutual, with a swiftly awakening sense of kinship and we went into a little front room which was a glorious combination of workshop and museum.

In a few minutes, of family treasures were hunted out grandfather’s axe, his own handiwork, with his name still imprinted on its much used metal;  an ancient clothes brush, made of stout bristles from the family pig I imagine, with its strong tufts still intact.  Best of all there were great-aunt Ann’s pattens on which she pattered four miles to sell her straw-plait in the forecourt of the Sun Inn at Hitchin.

Then came the tools of her craft;  the small bodkin-like instruments of varying sizes for splitting the straws and the plait mill like a toy mangle which finally prepared the straws.  Cherished specimens of her work showed the finished plait in different widths.  I have those little splitting tools and scraps of her plait which John gave me and I looked with envy on the little worn patten which looked as if it might have been cruel to the small foot it carried.  An ancient crested silver spoon showed traces of former family prestige, but it was in the handiwork of his forebears that John Thrussell’s greatest pride lay.

Time passed rapidly until the hoot of the car reminded us of our long return journey, and that we had not even seen the major work of this man of many parts;  his observatory and his telescopes.“I’m on sunspots now,” he said quietly, making no reference to his wide achieve-ments in this sphere, or to the recognition he had received for it from Harvard.We planned a further visit, but his death intervened.  Letters of appreciation of his work still come from America, and British astronomers have paid tribute to his detailed study through the years.

Inside John’s observatory which was in Hallworths builders yard. he used to send monthly reports to Harvard USA

Hertfordshire is not backward in its appraisal of its distinguished men.  Like Reginald Hine, “the uncommon attorney,” John Thrussell cherished the worthwhile things of village life.  He was too “uncommon.”  It is surely fitting that his life of patient study and observation in his cottage home at Pirton should find some record in the pages of HERTFORDSHIRE COUNTRYSIDE, for the county was enriched by his public life and by his scholarly contribution to the study of the mysterious wonderland of the heavenly bodies.

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