Saturday 8 July 1989

Shadows From The Past


In March 1984, Alexander Thynn, more often referred to as Lord Weymouth of Longleat, launched an appeal, via television, radio and newspapers, to the senior citizens of Wessex (Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Avon, Somerset, Dorset and Devon) to put down on paper their personal memories. A small cash payment and the promise that the submitted potted-autobiographies would be included for posterity in the Longleat Library, were the incentives to start things rolling. The response to the appeal was overwhelming and Lord Weymouth soon realised that the manuscripts he received deserved a wider audience. A first anthology, titled Where Have All The Cowslips Gone? was published in 1985, and contained extracts from 21 contributors including a shepherd, a fisherman, a miner, a cobbler, a groom, a parlour-maid, a carter's wife and a Duke's daughter.

Shadows From The Past is a follow-up volume, similar in style to the first, and contains another 20 written reminiscences including, this time, those of a doctor, two farmers - one seemingly richer than the other, a stone mason, a bargee, a gardener, and one of the Automobile Association's first mechanics. Although Lord Weymouth (born 6th May 1932) is not a senior citizen, he has contributed some of his own memories for this book. They tell of his childhood at Sturford Mead, Corsley, near Warminster, and also record something of London life. He excuses his own inclusion in the book by saying "I offer them to this anthology of Wessex memories (even if I did occasionally stray across the borders into London), by way of an untroduction to the Wessex theme."

One chapter concerning the Warminster district is that of Richard Stratton, a Kingston Deverill farmer, who writes of the days when his home village was in isolation because of the lack of motor transport. He notes: "The village was, perforce, a community on its own. We worked and played together and life centred on the farm. My father employed fifty men and thirty carthorses were in the stables." He also relates how farming was beseiged with pests, particularly birds. He says "Rooks demolished the corn ricks from outside while rats flourished on the grain from within. Corn fields were proportionately scarce and rooks played havoc with germinating corn and at harvest. In early May local farmers visited the rookeries in turn and hundreds of young rooks were shot. Rook pie was considered a delicacy as were lambs' tails which often coincided."

The bird problem did, however, appear to provide some childhood fun. Mr Stratton continues: "One of our family ploys in winter was to go sparrow catching round the dwellings and barns after dark. Father held the clap-net between long bamboos while I tapped the ivy or prodded under the thatch eaves with a long hazel. My sister worked the torch and the two youngest had a basket each. Many birds eluded the net but we would sometimes achieve a bag of 75 sparrows and starlings, some having lost their heads in the process! A starling once drove its beak straight into my brother's ear. No warning to householders of this activity was deemed necessary and startled heads would appear from bedroom windows."

Rabbits also proved troublesome. Mr Stratton remembers: "The hill country of Wiltshire, most of it then covered with enormous patches of gorse midst virgin downland, was literally crawling with rabbits. Several thousand a year were killed at Kingston. In open crates they went to Whitbread and Co in Smithfield market via Warminster passenger and 9d. each was considered a good sale. Every corn field was attacked by rabbits. Sometimes a fifth of the crop could be lost. Each winter's day at least two men would drive away in a pony and trap ferreting. Lunch was half a fresh cottage loaf each and a huge chunk of cheese. At the end of the day one hundred rabbits would be collected up and paunched while the pony was harnessed into the trap. A favourite maxim was - 'Never put a ferret in after 4 o'clock.' Crazed with cold the pony would depart at a gallop all over the myriad ant heaps with men, spades, ferrets and rabbits flung about in a motley."

These are just some of the evocative memories captured in Shadows From The Past. Editor, Veneria Murray (a former journalist with the Picture Post and the Sunday Telegraph, and author of three novels) in her introduction comments: "The stories are a mixture of anecdote and fact, spiced with much humour and self-mockery. The modern, young reader may well be astonished that this kind of world existed within living memory - but what a fascinating world it is to read about. These reminiscences are being as useful to the serious local historian as being riveting to the general public."

Review by Danny Howell.

Shadows From The Past. Edited by Venetia Murray. Hardback. 244 pages. Published by Bishopsgate Press Ltd. £12.95.