Forest of Dean Customs
Even in 1910 this village on the edge of Dean Forest was, in its customs and outlook, at least fifty years behind the times. There was still a strong feudal atmosphere, and class distinctions were rigidly observed. The “gentry”, the school teachers, the
well-to-do farmers and shop keepers, right down to the poorest miner and farm labourer, everyone had his own level and adhered to it strictly.
The first group comprised only three families, those at the Hall, the Rectory and ourselves. The “real old” family which had owned the Hall for centuries had died out, though memories of them still lingered in the village. The owners at this time had been in possession for some ten years or so, but were still regarded as newcomers, and though they were the landlords of most of the village and of a wide area round, they never took much part in village life and interests.
It was only natural that Mother, with her strong sense of duty and the inherited instincts of the responsibilities inherent in the position of the lady of the manor, should assume the position easily and effortlessly, and it fitted her like a
glove. The village very soon recognised this fact, assimilated us into its structure as closely as if we had been there for generations. The women and girls would bob curtsey to Mother, and all the younger girls would do the same to me, child as I was. It was quite a usual sight, if we happened to be walking down to the village after the school had closed, to meet a dozen or more little girls
returning home, all hand in hand in a string across the road, which seemed to be the correct procedure. As we approached the whole string would stop and bob down simultaneously, all eyes fixed upon us.
At first I found this very surprising, but I soon realised the position, and lived up to what was obviously expected of me. So thoroughly did I absorb the atmosphere that it was not long before I would call any little delinquent to order, and demand to know why the curtsey
had been omitted.
With the boys of the village I met a tougher proposition, but was quite ready to stand my ground. Poor little Ben was, as usual, the problem. The boys soon realized that he was not normal, and quite unable to take care of himself, and they would shout after him and pelt him with lumps of mud and sometimes stones, if he went down to the village by himself. As soon as Mother found out about this, he was never allowed out alone, and naturally the duty of keeping a constant eye on him devolved upon me. I was sent down to the village every day on some
errand or other, and always had to take Ben with me. On one occasion he insisted on dragging a little trolley cart behind him, and this the village boys found irresistible. There was a long stretch of road between the end of the village and. the cluster of cottages round our house, and as soon as we left the village we were surrounded by a crowd of boys. They kept rushing up and dropping stones into Ben’s little cart, till it became so heavy that the poor little fellow could not pull it, and was on the verge of tears. Several times I tipped the stones out and turned
indignantly upon our tormentors, but I was only one small girl trying to protect a tiny helpless boy, and my protests only drew forth more jeers and tormenting. Eventually I picked up the little cart and carried it under my arm. Thus
foiled of their fun, the boys proceeded to slash my legs with their top-whips, and continued in this pleasant amusement till we were nearly within sight of home. By this time I was trembling all over with fright and fury, though fury certainly predominated, and I dashed in to Mother and
showed the crimson wheals all over my legs. For once Father and Mother were thoroughly roused. Father asked me if I should be able to recognise the boys, and on my assurance that I should, he clapped on his hat,
seized my hand, and we raced off down the hill to the village. The group of boys were playing with their tops, and I pointed them out to Father. Dropping my hand Father burst upon the group with unintelligible howls and yells, whirling his arms round and round like windmills. After one horrified glance the boys shot over a low wall and fled down the adjoining field with Father in hot pursuit. He did not lay hands on any of them though he could easily have done so, contented himself with giving tongue to a series of terrifying snarls and growls without a single spoken word, which struck the most abject terror into the hearts of my tormentors. One of them tripped and fell flat at Father’s feet, and lay there howling, while Father took a flying leap over him in his headlong stampede. I climbed on the wall and bounced up and down clapping and cheering, nearly hysterical with excitement and delight. Having chased his quarry out of sight Father
returned, breathless with running and yelling, and completely helpless with laughter. We reeled home together up the road, both laughing so much that we were absolutely incapable of telling Mother anything for about ten minutes. Father and I both
had the capacity of collapsing in helpless fits of laughter, and whenever we were together our explosions and subsequent collapses were of very frequent occurrence. Our minds, temperaments and sense of humour were so closely similar that we were
always completely happy in each other’s company, and could convey anything we liked to each other by a mere glance, or inflexion of the voice. He and I understood each other’s
innermost thoughts so well that very often words were scarcely necessary, though as we were both of an extremely conversational nature, our flow of talk was almost incessant. The glance and inflexion technique was only employed when in the presence of other members of the family, none of whom could ever quite keep up with us.
That party of boys never again showed any lack of respect to Ben or me, and caps were sheepishly touched whenever we met. About the same time however another group of small boys and girls shouted after Ben, using his name without the
requisite prefix of “Master”. These were smaller children and more of my own age than the other party of boys, and I unhesitatingly called them, and lined them up in front of me in the road, and gave them a lecture for the good of their souls. I told them that they always used “Miss “ to me, and that therefore they must always use “Master” to my brother. I threw in a few pointed observations as to remembering their curtseys and
cap-touching, then marched off with my small nose in the air, enveloped in an aura of vast dignity. Astonishingly enough, it worked, for thenceforward the greeting to “Master Ben”
was always as assiduously forthcoming as were the greetings and curtseys to myself.
This all sounds like rank snobbery viewed in the light of these present democratic days, but it was actually by no means as pure
snobbery as it appears. The people of Dean Forest had long been known as an exceedingly wild and lawless lot, and for hundreds of years the fastnesses of the Forest had given sanctuary to rogues, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice of every kind. The Forest bore a thoroughly bad name right down to the last century, as was exemplified by the prison, sturdy and bleak as a frontier fortress, which stands at the far end of the village. In Gloucester Cathedral is a large tomb to the memory of a certain Sir George Onesiphorus Paul (a name which has always delighted me) whose great claim to distinction is the fact that he “cleaned up the Forest”, and by his strong measures and justice, reduced the lawless inhabitants to order. Judging by the harsh, stern face that sneers so disdainfully from
the bust on his tomb, he would certainly appear to have been the right man to undertake this formidable task. The prison was built during his jurisdiction. In our time it was used as the police station, though I believe the local Magistrates sat there as well, but the cells
rarely had any occupant save an occasional drunk, and when I was taken round the yard was bright with the sergeant’s flower beds, and the cells usefully employed in storing his potatoes.
Despite the fact that the foresters were by now law-abiding citizens, there still remained a strong element of wild uncouthness in the descendants of those
bygone outlaws. Once your position had been assigned to you by the unspoken, but immensely powerful, force of public opinion, you were expected thenceforth to hold it in accordance with the recognized rules. Too
much familiarity would immediately be looked upon as a sign of weakness and prompt advantage taken. The foresters were swift and merciless in their judgement on weaklings. Friendliness and civility invariably met with wholehearted response, and we had many good friends in the village and district, but they were
of the breed that understood and respected the high hand, and, always provided that it was backed by what their keen instincts so unerringly recognized as gentle birth, they
responded to and appreciated a certain amount of natural hauteur. Even as a child I realised this, though it was not till many years later that I came to analyse it.
The rector who was in charge when we first went down there, was a perfect case in point. He was a direct descendant of Robert Bruce, and himself bore the same name. He was a tall, thin, gaunt old gentleman, with a bony, eagle face framed in beautiful long white
hair, and we were told by someone who had seen a contemporary portrait of the original Robert Bruce, that the old rector bore a strong resemblance to his famous ancestor. His wife was a tiny dainty old lady, extremely fastidious and precise; she always dressed in the style adopted by queen Victoria, even to the
bonnet. Dr. and Mrs. Bruce had spent many years as missionaries in Persia, and were I believe, the first English people to penetrate to many parts of that country. The long years in that climate had given the old
lady a permanent dread of the sun; she would often appear thickly shrouded in a black veil and carrying a parasol, and she was constantly harrying the maids about drawing all the curtains at the slightest sign of sun light. My early recollections of the rectory always seem to be of entering a darkened mausoleum.
The old rector and his wife had got the village exactly where they wanted them, and the village loved and revered the overbearing old couple,
and seemed thoroughly to enjoy the frequent verbal castigations to which they were treated. Dr. Bruce was a magnificent old gentleman, violently
hot-tempered and ruthless in dealing with his unruly flock, yet as loveable and gentle to those in need of help, either spiritual or material, as the truest
saint. His sermons were a joy, and a real high spot in the arid wastes of the village services.
The living was at that time in the gift of some Evangelical Body which ensured that only clergy of the lowest and most evangelical type were ever appointed there, and to hear Dr. Bruce inveighing against Papacy - which subject somehow invariably obtruded itself into his sermons, from whatever text he was preaching — was a perfect delight. He would come striding down the Chancel, his cassock flapping round his long legs and his surplice billowing, climb
into the small pulpit, out of which he towered overpoweringly, and proceed to shout and rave at his bucolic congregation as if we were Jezebel and the Scarlet Woman rolled into one. He would pound his fists on the book
rest, and gesticulate with long arms and flying surplice sleeves, which latter were always impeding his action, and usually ended by being grabbed impatiently and rolled up out of the
way. On one occasion the book rest cracked under his onslaughts, which provided a delightful diversion; but an even more joyously memorable occasion was that on which his false teeth came adrift under stress of his
vehemence, and were only saved from an ignominious crash on the floor by a wonderful bit of sleight of hand. This was so exciting that for weeks afterwards the congregation was more alert and attentive than ever to his preaching, in the hopes of seeing the fascinating performance repeated.
I was very fond of the old gentleman, and he was never anything but gentle and kind to me, I believe he had a very soft spot for me and I never came under the lash of his fierce tongue. With Father it was far otherwise. He and Dr. Bruce became very good friends, and Father was very soon appointed
Rector’s Warden, which post he held for so many years that his re-election became automatic, but despite this Dr. Bruce never spared him, and Father would often come home from a stormy interview over some parish matter, looking extremely rueful and shaking his ears, declaring that he had been made to feel like a naughty little boy. But there was never any ill feeling, and their friendship continued unbroken till the old gentleman’s death.
Dr. Bruce never hesitated to scold anybody if he felt they deserved it, no matter who they were. On one occasion he happened to call, and found Mother very busily making a sun-bonnet for me to put on my beloved cat, and there and then gave her a good trouncing, in front of me,
for wasting her time on such frivolities. I listened in petrified horror at the idea of anyone daring to speak to Mother like that. She, poor dear, was so completely taken aback
that she took it like a lamb, and only regained the old gentleman’s good graces by meekly explaining that she was doing it to give pleasure to me.
A weekly Working Party was held at the Rectory under the aegis of two sisters, both of
whom taught in the village school. Most of the members were quite young girls, and Mother saw to it that I joined. The walk down to the village was long and dark, so it was arranged that the daughter of a neighbouring farmer should call for me and bring me home again. It was very seldom that Mother would pander to my fears, as one of her chief ambitions seemed to be to make me as fearless as she was herself, in which she was never
conspicuously successful. I was always thankful to have Dora’s company. Lanterns were a normal
part of the outfit after dark, and at evening service in the winter the Church porch was stacked
with an array which took quite a bit of sorting out, as they were all of the invariable
The Working Party was in aid of the London Mission to Jews, and garments of all sorts were made for the sale which was held once a year. Orders were also taken, and most of them were for
nightdresses of a voluminous and old fashioned pattern. Every stitch was done by hand, and I well remember the endless tucks and ruffles and
buttonholes that had to be worked, usually in white flannelette. It was at the Working Party that I was initiated into the mysteries of double and treble
feather stitching at which I speedily became adept, though I doubt if that form of decoration has been seen on underwear for many years past. We all sat on hard chairs round a small, otherwise unused, room in the Rectory, and Mrs. Bruce used to come in and read aloud to us for half an hour or so. We all stood
up when she came in and again when she left, and woe betide any small maiden who was found supporting her short legs by hitching her feet on the
bar of her chair. The old lady seemed to have some uncanny sense which told her at once if this sin were being committed, and although her eyes never appeared to leave the book, she would call the offender to order in exactly the same tone as that in which she was reading, and interpose her corrections with never a break in the flow of words. This was very bewildering till one became accustomed to it, for it sounded exactly as if the admonition, “Daisy take your feet off the bar of your chair”, were part of the story.
Village social activities
All sorts of social activities took place in the village during the time that Dr. and Mrs. Bruce reigned at the Rectory. Mother and
Father and I always entered into everything with great gusto. We were invited to the Sunday School Treats, the Church Workers’ Teas, the Sunday School Christmas Tree and all the rest, officially on account of Father’s position as Rector’s Warden, but also because Mother had established herself as Dr. Bruce’s unpaid curate, and I tagged on behind simply because I “belonged”. The summer Sunday School Treat was held in the glebe meadow adjoining the rectory garden, and swarms of small fry scampered wildly about the place, occasionally being organized into egg and
spoon races, three legged races, sack races and obstacle races. Father introduced a most popular innovation. He supplied himself with
large seven-pound tins of vicious looking sweets from the village shop, and primed with one under his arm he would race top speed all over the meadow,
scattering handfuls broadcast in his wake. After him would stream all the juveniles, shrieking with excitement, gathering the sweets in frantic haste, stuffing hands and pockets and pinafores and mouths in a joyous welter of noise and stickiness. If the official sports flagged for a moment, Father could be relied upon to galvanize the
entire community into a shrieking pandemonium of energy and delight. There was a huge tea, in which colossal amounts of sugary buns and cakes disappeared with staggering velocity. The Christmas Sunday School Treat was also characterised by noise and an atmosphere of
all pervading buns and stickiness. I used to go and help with cutting up endless piles of bread and butter, which, strangely enough were apparently even more popular than the cakes and buns. My brothers were usually at home for the Christmas Treat, and we used, each of us, to signal out some exceptionally
competent trencherman among the children, and keep scores of the amount that our chosen champion had devoured. I should be afraid to mention after all this time,
the actual quantity of food consumed by any given child, but I know that the scoring sometimes amounted well up into the
teens. There was a bran-tub, and a father Christmas, and on several occasions George officiated in this capacity. George was extremely good with children, and has always had a wonderful power of entering into their interests and outlook. Jack would help in a quiet and unassuming way, and I thoroughly enjoyed handing round the plates of bread and butter and buns, though I was never keen on having too much contact with hot and sticky children.
We also had a Christmas party at homes to which Mother invited the dozen or children who lived in the cluster of cottages round our house. The high spot at our own party was the ancient and smoky magic lantern, which George operated with much smut and smell. He had invented a most ingenious way of preparing our own slides, and he and I spent hours in preparation for each
Christmas. In making them, we procured squares of plain glass, of the correct size, and painted them all over on one side with paste. This was allowed to dry, then with mapping pens and
Indian ink we could draw upon the pasted surface, which held the ink quite adequately. We would trace pictures out of our old fairy tale books, or draw pictures out of our heads. Then
thrown upon the screen all the inequalities of line, and the smudges and blots
were hugely magnified, besides which we usually got the order of the slides mixed up, and had forgotten what,
if anything, the story was originally supposed to be about, but who cared? George and. I were more than equal to inventing a story about any slide that happened to appear, quite
regardless of what it might be. Our small audience was anything but critical, and sat in absorbed
delight, as he threw one after another of the smudgy and almost unrecognisable slides on the screen, while I gave a running commentary, with frequent interpolations from George, which
all too often led to brisk interchanges of opinion between the operator and the
Mother had evolved a very cunning method of protecting ourselves from the overwhelming attentions of the small carol singers. Our house was one their chief
gold mines, and their non-stop performances would commence long before Christmas, and keep us busy running to the
door from morning to night. Mother’s solution was designed to discourage too much of this, while at the same time not entirely sending them away empty. During the octave before Christmas we handed out
coppers, but all the time before that the rewards consisted of oranges or a handful of
nuts which of course were nothing like as desirable. This soon became known throughout the neighbourhood, which ensured us a certain amount of respite.
The Flower Show was a very fine and well-organized affair, and entrants sent in from miles round. A large marquee was erected in the rectory field, the local colliery band attended
resplendent in their uniforms, and the standard of the entries was really remarkable. The vast majority of the windows in the village were never opened under any circumstances, and were entirely filled with the most glorious arrays of begonias,
fuchsias and other flowering plants, and were used more as hot-houses than with any idea of admitting light or ventilation. Years later, when Father was Medical Officer
of the district, he was called to a case of acute pneumonia. He found the patient gasping out his life in a tiny room, in which was a roaring fire, and a hoard of relations and friends, the atmosphere being enough to stifle a fit person, let alone one dying with pneumonia. Father immediately ordered the window to be opened, but was met with a chorus of dismay, the window had not been known to be open within living memory, and in any case was immoveable by reason of successive coats of paint, applied over the years. Knowing that the patient would die unless he had some fresh air, Father thereupon set his shoulder to the window frame and, amid outcries of horror from the assembled company, heaved the whole thing out into the garden. Whereupon, despite the direst prognostications, the patient proceeded to recover.
One of the Flower Shows happened one year to coincide with a visit which Father’s brother was paying to us. He and Father determined to make this a really memorable affair, and they proceeded to organize what they called a “Flour Show” to be held in conjunction with the official one. This Flour Show consisted
of a competition between pairs of one man and one boy against all other pairs. The man acted as the horse, and the boy was seated on his shoulders. The boy was armed with a paper bag containing flour, and in his other hand held a raw egg. The Riders had to belabour each other
with the bags of flour, at the same time protecting their eggs from being broken, while the horses had to dodge about and give all assistance
possible. The winners of the knockout heats were the pair who came through with the rider still in position and his egg intact. This excited great interest throughout the neighbourhood, and there was a large
number of entries. I had to present the prizes which were donated by Uncle George, and consisted of a real gold sovereign for the winning horse, and a real gold half sovereign for the rider. This must have been almost the last time I have ever handled real gold
Church Workers’ Tea
The Church Workers’ Tea was held at the rectory at the invitation and expense of Dr. and Mrs.
Bruce. This was an extremely formal and genteel occasion, everyone connected with Church work turned up in their
Sunday go-to-meeting- best, the ladies in dresses of the most amazingly
old-fashioned cut, and the men in uncomfortable collars and highly polished squeaky boots. There was a magnificent spread, thin bread and butter, ham sandwiches, and a huge variety of the most exquisite cakes, all of which were served and handed round by the rectory maids in the most classy style. The atmosphere at the beginning of these teas was highly charged with
self-consciousness and painfully good manners, but under the influence of tea and cakes, and the charming ease and kindliness of the host and, hostess, the tension
soon relaxed. The party always had an entertainment, given for the most part by the guests. A standard performance which reappeared each year with unfailing regularity and evergreen popularity was a
duet given by the blacksmith, who was also the People’s Warden, and the old man who had been for many years coachman at the Hall under the real old family, and who still worked there as general factotum. The song began with the
Tis fowerty years, my old friend John
Since we were b’ys together,
and everyone joined in the chorus of:
Since we were b’ys, merry merry b’ys,
since we were b'ys together.
Me thinks it seems but yesterday,
Since we were b'ys together.
As the words were probably quite true of the two sturdy old singers, the song, in broad Gloucestershire dialect, took on a touching significance.
The old coachman also would invariably “oblige” with a solo, of quite unintelligible
wording, and interminable length, of which the only words I could ever grasp
I’m sure you know me, Mistress Jean,
I’m honest Richard of Taunton Dean,
Singing Dumble-dum Deary,
Mrs. Bruce would sing Persian songs, accompanying herself on the piano. This performance must have been of quite outstanding merit and interest, but the sounds were so utterly discordant to the ears of the village audience, that her recital was usually drowned in roars of laughter, as they quite believed she was intending to be funny. Father and Mother, however, took it with the seriousness which the old lady intended, and made me realise that I was hearing a performance of real interest and very great cleverness. The bell-ringers would also give recitals on the
hand -bells. The sexton and leader of the ringers was old Daddy Nash, a bent old man with a long white beard. He was terribly crippled, having had his chest crushed in by a fall of rock in the pits many years before, but despite this he led the ringers, and pulled the tenor bell for a great number of years, and was an unfailing attendant at every
service. He was so extraordinarily like Miss Dorothy Sayers character, Hezekiah Lavender, in “The Nine Tailors”, both in appearance and occupation, that she might have based the character upon him.
Mrs. Bruce died about eighteen months or two years after we want to live there, and her death was the beginning of the end of an
era. Their widowed daughter and her two children came to make their home at the rectory, and run the house for Dr. Bruce.
The boy was two three years older than I, and the girl, May, about three years younger. All this time I
had had no friends whatever of my
own age, and May and I became, and have continued, very good friends. Her mother was far in advance of her time in her outlook, and May was allowed, and encouraged, to make friends with the village children in a way that Mother never would have countenanced in my case, nor, be it admitted, would I ever have
desired. May was an extremely high-spirited young lady, far stronger physically than I, and almost as tall, despite the difference in age. She had no inhibitions whatever with regard to social
status, and held her position with the aid of tongue and fists, without any extraneous aids such as the use of the title “Miss”. She was plain "May” to everyone, and she soon established herself as a dominant feature in the village. All the children adored her, and she was seldom seen without a flying crowd of small urchins in her wake, for May did everything at the gallop. She stood no nonsense from any of them, and reports of her escapades kept the village in a state of seething excitement. Many of the older and more staid of the inhabitants shook their heads over her, and did not consider her “goings
on” at all in accordance with their ideas of suitable behaviour in the rector’s
granddaughter, but no one could resist her gaiety and high spirits, and she was far more popular than I ever was.
May never hesitated to indulge in stand-up fights with the village boys, and could throw a stone or yell an insult as unerringly as they. She had a pony
on which she would charge through the village like a whirlwind, usually riding
bareback, and on one famous occasion she scared the village out of its wits by mounting a horse, well known for its bad disposition, and riding it
bareback in response to a “dare” from some of the boys. The horse was standing at the far end of the village street, and its stable was by the pub at the Cross. The stable was entered by a door barely high enough to admit the horse
rider less, and directly it felt May upon its back, the brute bolted for home. How May ever stayed on neither she nor anyone else ever knew, but all heads popped out with screams of alarm as she thundered down the street, everyone expecting her to have her brains dashed out against the top of the stable door. At the last moment she realised the danger, and flung herself flat on the horse’s neck, and slid off in the stable to be immediately collared and given a sound shaking by the alarmed and indignant landlord.
Nothing could dampen May’s spirits however, and the next thing we heard was that she
climbed on the roof of the school, armed with a pea-shooter, and proceeded to enliven the lessons by taking pot shots at the schoolmaster’s bald head through the sky-light. She was an incorrigible young imp, but though she drove the village quite mad with her pranks, no one could ever be angry with her for long, and she was far more truly and widely beloved than she ever realised. I never joined her in these riotous goings on, and never had the slightest wish to play with her gangs of children. In fact, I always found her physical strength and tremendous vitality very exhausting, and I think she probably found me rather proper and dull. However that may be, our friendship has remained unimpaired for over forty years.
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