Wednesday 20 April 1988

Smallbrook Farm, Warminster, 1905-1965 Review



Horse and carts racing through the town centre like chariots in Ben Hur, tipsy hens staggering around a farmyard after getting high on cider, and a farmer dabbling in a little bit of property speculation on the side all sound like the sort of stories emanating from a happy parochial country town.

Indeed, they are all tales from Warminster and retold by two of its senior citizens in the latest book by town historian Danny Howell, who has taken on the mammoth task of chronicling the history of the town, its industry and its people in a series of readable and immensely enjoyable works.

His latest is Smallbrook Farm, Warminster, 1905-1965, the story of one of the town’s larger farms through the eyes of two of the people who lived and worked there. The limited edition book, published by Wylye Valley Publications in a handy paperback format priced at £3.50, is based on Mr Howell’s interviews with the last farmer to farm Smallbrook, Bert Dowding, and his sister Beatrice.

And throughout the book’s 80 or so well-illustrated pages the charm and humour of two pleasant, down-to-earth, hard-working Wiltshire folk shine through as they give readers a flavour of life when farming people really had to put their backs into working on the land.

Beatrice remembers when many of the workers on the farm drank from a cask of cider while they were working. To give her father's home-made cider more flavour a few pounds of raisins would be chucked into the cask - then thrown to the hens when the cider had been drunk and the cask was cleaned. The hens at Smallbrook doubtless became known for their unsteady gait as they made their way around the farmyard - but it never seemed to affect the quality of the eggs at all.

And Bert recalls taking the milk to Warminster Station in the mornings for its journey to London. Other farmers also brought their milk by horse and cart, and when the train had departed the carts made their way back down Station Road to the town centre. At the end of Station Road was the Morgan Memorial Fountain, and carts would pass both sides of it. When horses were following each other some had a tendency to speed up, and it was woe betide anyone who got in the way as the carts made their way on to the main street. It seems little has changed in Warminster - except cars replacing the cart.

Bert speaks of his honeymoon during the last war, spending hours waiting for a delayed train at Westbury, and then not enjoying his time in Torquay as much as he would have liked. He and his wife came home early back to their native Wiltshire, and gave the rest of their honeymoon a miss.

And both can remember their father, who farmed for many years at Smallbrook, and who indulged in a bit of property speculation on the side, buying and selling houses. But he came unstuck when he bought Ashton Gifford House in Codford for £3,100 in 1928 and sold it some time later at an unhealthy loss.

Mr Howell's book includes interludes where he fills in details from his own extensive research when Beatrice and Bert mention items which might be of interest. And there are plenty of photographs of the farm, its surrounding area, and the people concerned bringing the story almost to life.

The site of Smallbrook Farm, situated near what is now Prestbury Drive, has since been built on, something which Beatrice regards as inevitable. "They seem to be building houses everywhere in Warminster now. Years ago when you went into town, you knew the names of everyone you saw, and what they did for a living and where they lived. Now you see people you know nothing about. When I was a girl there was always talk if a stranger was in town; someone who was not local was spotted straight away. Warminster is not the same any more, it's a different place now," she laments in the book.

True to form, Mr Howell has brought to light something of historical significance in this recreation of ordinary life. "One thing's for sure; I shall never forget Smallbrook Farm," says Beatrice at the close of the book. Thanks to Mr Howell, nor will posterity.

Steve Moore, Wiltshire Times And News, Friday 15 April 1988.