A few yards along the road from our house stood a tiny cottage known as “The Old Pike House”, which was obviously an old turn-pike. Here lived an old man who was one of the most memorable characters I have ever met. He lived entirely alone, and had the name for being surly old curmudgeon, a
woman-hater and a thoroughly bad character.
He was paralysed all down one side, the arm hung shrivelled and useless and he lurched along dragging the helpless leg. The boys would shout after him and throw stones at him, which used to rouse the poor old man to violent outbreaks of helpless fury, during which he would use the most shocking language and call them every vile name he could lay tongue to. He had probably been tormented for his helplessness all his life, which accounted for his habitual surliness and bad temper.
But in spite of having only one usable arm he was an extremely clever carpenter. A large shed was built against the side of the cottage nearest our house, and here he could be found at work early and late. He had invented all kinds of cunning gadgets for holding the wood and the tools, to compensate for his useless hand. At first I was very frightened of him, and terrified of passing his shed door, last he should come out and bawl me away as he always did to any venturesome village child. Mother was very much interested in the lonely old man, and made a point of always giving him a friendly greeting. For a long time her greetings were entirely ignored or merely acknowledged by a grunt, but gradually the barriers broke down as the poor old man, treated as an outcast by the whole community, came to realise that we were genuinely anxious to be friendly.
When he allowed us to approach more closely it could be seen that poor, dirty old Bill Smith had the makings of a very handsome man. His hair and beard merged in a tangle of thick
iron-grey curls all over his head and face, and out of this jungle looked a pair of
deep set and most beautiful blue eyes. His speech was the broadest of broad Gloucestershire, almost pure Forest talk in fact, and the speech of the true Forester at that time was almost unintelligible. What lay behind
his hatred of women we never found out, but the fact remains that until he lay dying and a niece was reluctantly allowed to come and
"do" for him, Mother and I were the only members of our sex that were ever known to cross his threshold. Once we had gained his confidence, our friendship developed rapidly. He would allow me the free run of his
workshop and I delighted to poke about in there among all his fascinating tools and shavings, feeling all the time as if I were in a lion’s den and liable to be roared at, at any moment.
One of the most amazing exhibitions of skill that I have ever witnessed was old Bill Smith’s method of using an adze. He was
constantly in demand for making ladders, and I became adept at helping him. As everyone knows, long ladders are tied together at the interval of so many rungs, by master rungs which go right through both uprights, and are fixed in position by means of small wooden pegs. These pegs are not much bigger in circumference than a pencil, and only two or three inches long. Old Bill could not use a chisel on these tiny pieces as they were too small to fit into his clamp, so he would put his foot on the strip of wood and
take off the most minute and delicate slithers by means of the adze. This was a truly terrifying implement, having a steel blade about eight inches wide, with an edge like a razor. This he would swing directly towards his own foot; a most
murderous looking performance. When the pegs were almost small enough, poor old Bill would find them
extremely difficult to hold, arid he would ask one or other of the men who were usually lounging round, if he would hold the peg on the ground so that he could do the final shaping. This was a request that few cared to grant, for that great razor-edged adze would take off a hand as soon as touch It, and the blade had to swing within a fraction of an inch of the fingers that held the peg. One day old Bill had a lot of pegs to make and no one to help him. He held out a handful of partly shaped pieces to me, and asked me to hold them, adding with a twinkle in his eye,
“Thee bean’t afeered, be ‘ee?”
Of course I wasn’t, and dropped at once on my knees before him as he directed me how to hold the pegs. I well remember my
thrill of pride as, flinging back the ubiquitous curls which always dripped into everything, I obediently followed his orders. Probably my slim little fingers were far better at holding the pegs than the large and horny hands which he usually had to rely upon. Even as a child I was impressed by the marvellous skill with which that great adze could be made to remove the tiniest shavings, and I felt not the slightest fear as old Bill swung it high above my bowed head and brought it down so delicately, almost daintily, within a hairsbreadth of my fingers.
Unfortunately for Mother, she happened to come out into our front garden while this was going on, and caught sight of the alarming spectacle over the fence. She has told me since, that it was one of her greatest tests of
self-control to prevent herself from calling out, which of course would have been fatal. Afterwards, when I was out of hearing, she made a mild protest to old Bill, but was entirely reassured by his smile and
earnest reply of,
“Never you fear, M’am, I wouldn’t touch a ‘air of ‘er pretty ‘ead.”
Two sisters at the Infant School
Many of the people in the village might have stepped straight out of the pages of “Cranford”. In particular there were two
sisters who had run the Infant School since time immemorial. They were neither of them qualified teachers in the eyes of the Educational Authorities, but they had the far higher qualifications of whole hearted devotion to the generations of children who passed through their hands. These were not the sisters who conducted the Working Party; those two taught in the Upper School, but these two had been in the village much longer, and people then of middle age had been their pupils in the Infant School. The elder one was large and stout with a florid face which betrayed her one great and tragic weakness. She was a sweet and motherly soul, excessively “ladylike" and she always adopted a tone and manner when addressing any of the “gentry”, which was quite painful in its gentility. The younger sister was a tiny, thin little thing, the living image of Miss Matty. If ever there were two saints on earth they were these two sisters.
Not content with teaching infants all the week, they both also taught in Sunday School, and Miss Alice, the younger one, also played the
harmonium in Church. It is said that true saintliness and devotion sound as sweet melodies in Heaven, and taking that to be the case, one can only hope that the Angels enjoyed dear little Miss Alice’s performances more than Mother and I did. She would stamp away on
the pedals, nearly falling off the chair in her enthusiasm, but the only result of her efforts on the manuals was to produce a volume of blurred sounds which could only be resolved into a recognizable tune by the powerful voices of the choir.
On one occasion Miss Alice had been energetically playing a voluntary for some minutes, when it slowly dawned upon me that there was something in the mass of sound that was faintly familiar.
Listening carefully I at last recognized it as one of Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne
Worder, which I had recently been learning myself. The finding of anything recognizable in dear Miss Alice’s playing came as such an unspeakable surprise that I turned and gazed up into Mother’s face, to see if she also had recognized it. Poor Mother had been enduring it with the fortitude with which one bears acute toothache, and she said afterwards that my expression of blank amazement, eyes and
mouth wide open, was almost more than her sense of humour could stand. She became as nearly convulsed with laughter as the sacred surroundings would permit.
Miss Alice had played for the services every Sunday for more years than I dare name, something like thirty or
thirty five years I believe, never once missing a Sunday, or a service. She always sang energetically while playing, and as she grew older she found the combined effort increasingly exhausting. On several occasions Mother deputised at the
harmonium for a week-night service, and the way she made that astonished instrument sit up and sing to the glory of God was a revelation.
These two sisters were as generous and loving towards any suffering animal as they were towards the children that they tended so devotedly, On one occasion when I went to their house I noticed a little cat which I had not seen there before, and of course began to pet it, and asked its name. Miss Alice gave me the surprising information that its name was “Inasmuch”, and went on to explain that one snowy evening recently, they had heard it mewing on the doorstep. It was
obviously a stray, and they had forthwith adopted it. The elder sister had expressed her conviction of the rightness of their action by quoting the text
"in as much as ye have done it unto one of these least”. So “Inasmuch” the little cat became, and
Quite a number of cats in the village and neighbourhood had six, seven and sometimes eight toes on each paw, giving them a most odd and clumsy appearance. Anyone owning one of these cats was immensely proud of it, and all these
splay footed cats could be traced back to one common ancestress which had been introduced to the village by Mrs. Bruce many years before. I believe some of the same breed can be found in the village to this day.
Miss Edith and Miss Annie
The other pair of sisters were considerably younger than these two, and the elder one was a qualified teacher. Shortly before we knew them a regulation had been introduced ordaining that all teachers should hold a qualification, and this had caused great distress and mental strain to the younger one. She had been obliged to study desperately in order to gain the required diploma, in spite of the fact that she had been an excellent teacher for a number of years. The results of the worry and overwork involved, in addition to her long hours of school work,
showed in a curious white streak that ran through the eyelashes and eyebrow, and straight back through the soft brown hair on the left side, and she was ever after a victim to the most
excruciating headaches. She was a sweet and gentle soul, very much dominated by the strong-minded elder sister, very pretty in a shy, Edwardian way, and was probably in her early thirties when we first knew them. She was the object of my first “crush”, and none of all my subsequent “crushes” ever had a more loveable and worthy object. That early “crush” developed into a deep affection between us, which continued till her death some ten or twelve years later.
She was one of the gentlest and most loveable people I have ever known, with a charming shy humour, and a power of being deliciously shocked at the mildest of ribaldries. We all came to love her dearly and in later years Mother would often have her to stay with us when she was recuperating from her frequent illnesses.
For the last year or two before I went to school, Mother arranged for her to come up twice a week, and coach me in arithmetic, that being Mother’s Waterloo as far as my education was concerned. Mother had painstakingly bucketted me through the multiplication tables, and
the tables of weights and measures as set out in a small tan covered paper book, which was an object of loathing to me. She had also given me her usual sturdy grounding in addition, subtraction,
multiplication and division. We had even struggled as far as long division and “Money sums" but beyond that Mother, for once, owned herself beaten. Hating arithmetic herself, it was the one and only subject which she could never succeed in making interesting to me. My
adoration for Miss Edith, as we all came to call her, was a great stimulus to me in the study of the otherwise loathly subject. Miss
Edith would also at Mother’s request, take me for “botany walks”, which I enjoyed immensely. We would roam round the fields and lanes collecting leaves and flowers, which we would carefully pull to pieces, while Miss Edith expounded, in her soft voice, on sepals, petals, stamens and anthers. There always seemed to he something faintly improper about fertilization and ovaries and I did not probe these mysteries till I arrived in the bracing and antiseptic
atmosphere of school.
The elder sister, Miss Annie, was a very different type from the ‘ gentle Miss Edith. She was several years older, very stiff
and upright, with a sharp and domineering manner. She adored her younger sister, watched over her like a dragon, and
bullied her unmercifully. I was rather frightened of Miss Annie, but as I grew older and became less alarmed by her abrupt ways, I came to realize what a sterling good sort she was. She had a powerful and strident singing voice, and she it was who invariably picked the tune out of the mists of sound which little Miss Alice produced from the Church harmonium, and led the choir triumphantly on the right path.
The choir was a “mixed” one, very mixed in fact. Of course a surpliced choir would have been anathema, a direct pointer on the
downward path to Papacy; so the choir gave wide scope to individuality of all kinds. The leader of the male voices was the blacksmith, who was another great friend of ours. He had been People's Warden for many years, and prior to Father’s appointment as Rector’s
Warden he had kept all the Church accounts. When he thankfully handed them over to Father, the latter
spent weeks tearing his hair in frantic efforts to reduce them to order. The most frequent
item came under the heading “Ommitted” (sic) which stymied Father completely. Mr. Morgan was a dear old man, very large and stout and slow-moving, with a round cheerful face and beaming smile. He had the charming unstudied politeness of a perfect nature’s gentleman, and a very beautiful singing voice.
Quite recently May and I met and spent a happy afternoon talking over our early days in the village. She gave me a piece of
information about old Mr. Morgan which absolutely amazed me. In all the many years that we knew him he had never given any hint in the village of the fact that he was a cousin of Sir Edward Elgar. It
is typical of the dear old man’s modesty and unassuming manners that no one had ever become aware of this, for had it been public property we should undoubtedly have known it. He had pointed out Sir Edward Elgar in a family group, when May had been in his cottage on one occasion.
Father and Mr. Morgan, the two Churchwardens, were great friends and they always took round the collecting boxes in Church. It was an amusing sight to see them returning to their places after taking the offertory up to the rector at the Altar,
or Communion Table as it was always called. The Chancel is very long in proportion to the Nave, and Father, small, slight and dapper, with great ideas of military smartness ( he had served in the old London Rifle Brigade) would about face briskly, square his shoulders, and then find himself
in hopeless difficulties in trying to keep step with Mr. Morgan’s large, slow gait. Mr. Morgan would roll calmly down the Chancel in his squeaky Sunday boots, completely unconscious of Father’s frantic efforts at his side.
Mr. Morgan was also the undertaker, and responsible for the organization of all the village funerals. This was no sinecure, as all funerals were “carried”, and when the coffin had to be brought from some outlying cottage, often across fields and stiles, from a distance of a mile or more, it was necessary to have relays of carriers. Mother was
punctilious in her attendance at all the funerals, and I was invariably taken too. For sheer beauty and emotional tension, I have never known any funerals to approach those simple village ceremonies, particularly when conducted by Dr. Bruce. We would wait with the rest of the congregation outside the Church, lining either side of the flagged path, the bell,
tolled by old Daddy Nash, droning above our heads. Presently down the hill would come the cortege, and the heavy boots of the bearers would come to a halt outside the Church door. Then Dr. Bruce would emerge to meet them, reciting those glorious,
heart rending words, beginning, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord”, and we would all turn and follow the coffin into the Church. The Service was
conducted precisely as laid down in the Prayer Book, with which no other form of burial service can compare for dignity, consolation, and pure delight of
sonorous phraseology. Then out to the grave in the quiet churchyard on the hillside, where the cows
in the fields on the opposite slope would gaze at us with unemotional eyes. Dr. Bruce was always at his patriarchal best a funeral, and his tall figure, with white hair and surplice ruffled by the wind, surrounded by his
black clad flock for everyone wore deepest mourning, whether relatives or not, made an unforgettable picture. Before leaving the graveside Mother would gently push me forward to drop a bunch of flowers on to the coffin, a little gesture which was always much
appreciated. by the mourners. Those funerals made a deep impression upon my childish mind, arid probably, combined with Mother’s teachings, went far towards bestowing upon me the absolute fearlessness of the thought of
death, with which I have been blessed all my life. Even dear Miss Alice’s version of the Dead March in Saul, which was quite the most easily recognizable item in her repertoire, fitted in with the atmosphere of peace, and enhanced the simple dignity of those
So many of my memories seem to be focussed around the Church, for it was indeed the centre of village life in those early days. I must record just one or two more memories before I move away.
The singing, as may have been gathered, was a somewhat uncertain quantity, though, owing to the strong Welsh influence in the
neighbourhood, there were many very good, though untrained voices in the village. When we had the local painters and decorators in the house the most beautiful
part-singing would re-echo throughout the place all day, as they, the maids, the daily woman and the scullery maid all joined in, each one taking his
or her part in perfect harmony.
Each house of any size or importance had its own pew, assigned by immemorial custom, and the
Hall pew ran along the south wall of the Chancel, far away from all the rest of the congregation. The lady of the Hall had been a
well-known singer in her younger days, and had often sung at the Queen’s Hall, the Albert Hall, and many other famous concert halls. The sufferings she endured through Miss
Alice’s performances and the untrained efforts of the choir, can well be imagined. On very
rare occasions, when she could endure the torture no longer, she would suddenly let out her magnificent, trained voice in the middle of a hymn, completely overpowering harmonium, choir and congregation, and, as Father put it, “lifting the roof and making the pillars rock”. It always took everybody by surprise and
added another grateful diversion to the services.
Father also played his part in creating diversions. He was appointed to read the Lessons as soon as he became Rector’s Warden,
and being gifted with a great sense of the dramatic, he would throw himself heart and soul into the reading. He would get so carried away by the beauty of the Biblical language, and the thrill and vitality of the stories, that his voice would break and crack, and when this happened I could feel poor Mother tensing herself at my side, in a nervous agony lest his feelings should get too much for him. She used to say she dreaded his having to read any very emotional sections, as she was convinced that he was going to break down and burst into tears. Father had a most beautiful reading voice, and on one occasion, when reading David’s lament over Absolom, he literally reduced many in the congregation to tears. He could run the whole gamut of emotions by the art and drama of his voice alone, and to hear Father tolling out stanzas in Latin and Greek used to send thrills and prickles of delight all over me.
Father always took his duties as Lesson Reader with the utmost seriousness, and would often have grave consultations with Mother on the pronunciation of such pitfalls as the name Chenaanah, and would practise dangerous
tongue twisters such as the “weaver’s beam” with the greatest assiduity all the way down to Church. I used to hold my breath as the fatal words approached, half hoping in my wicked little heart that he would come a cropper and announce that the staff of Goliath’s spear was like a beaver’s weam, yet I would always heave a loyal sigh of relief when he came
Contents << >>