W D Vernon

This is a transcript of a photocopy of an account of life in Gamlingay at the turn of the twentieth century, written by Mr W D Vernon. He sent it to me in 1980, saying that he was glad ‘a son of Gamlingay’ was taking an interest in the village’s history. At the time Mr Vernon’s correspondence was being sent from addresses in Paris, London and Canada, but ceased in 1981. Spellings and capitalisation are as in the original manuscript.

My contact with Mr Vernon came through my father, who says that Mr Vernon told him he lived at the Rose and Crown on the crossroads at the turn of the century. He mentioned it because my great grandfather George Brown, referred to in the text, came to lodge there at around the same time from Elsworth. Mr Vernon was the uncle of Howard and Maurice Knibbs, known to them as ‘Uncle Billy’, and came to stay with them occasionally.  

[Jim Brown]


Looking back it appears that there were many more interesting individuals in the village then, than one encounters these days. I suppose one reason is that in the early part of the century Gamlingay, like so many similar villages, was completely self supporting and apart from the railway service, almost isolated as far as transport was concerned.
Indeed very few people owned bicycles, and one moved by horse transport or walked. So as there was little exudos [exodus?] perhaps one noticed one’s neighbours more; many of them depicting a way of life the present generation would find hard to envision.

Let us start with the ladies.
The first to come to mind is Miss EMMA YOUNG who could so often be seen with long straws in her mouth which she was plaiting. These long plaits were sent to the LUTON hat factories for making the straw hats for which the they were famous. I think at one time she was employed in one. She did indeed make the hats of several village ladies.
Her sister Miss Harriet YOUNG worked at the Cock INN and chastised any boy who whistled on Sunday.
Mrs SALLY BRITTEN wore a crinolene [crinoline] without the hoops and thought nuns were wicked people because they wore crosses.

There were 2 Pillow lace makers, MRS PAYNTER the wife of the Methodist minister, and MRS Larkins in the Armshouses [Almshouses]. Both used to work at their open doors to obtain the best light. Their workmanship was exquisite and it was a joy to see their beautiful bobbins flashing to the dexterity of the handlers. I wonder if this [is] now a lost art?

Miss LETTIE HILL owned a donkey and cart which she rented out to among others laundry women to collect and deliver their clients heavy laundry baskets.
There was Miss ANNIE ARNOLD who had an impediment of speech and was a little simple, but was a valued member of the community running errands for many people, especially the jugs of supper beer for ladies who considered it “infra dignitatem’ to enter a public house. – Beer then cost two old pence a pint -. Annie attended every wedding and funeral in the village, and every church service:

Many people kept a few chickens, some a pig or two, and at harvest time it was a familiar sight to see women gleaning. They would return home in the evening with huge bales on their heads. Although eggs at Eastertide were only 10 pence a score and rarely more than 2 for 2 pence the rest of the year, one commends the thrift of these ladies.

A Miss MARY DEW lived at DENNIS GREEN and augmented a slender income by making and selling for a few pence, pot & kettle holders.
A MRS BLOSE lived in STOCKS LANE; in her younger days she had been an excellent seamstress, especially in children’s clothes, and was very proud that she had made the first clothes for the children of the Rev W CROUCH, Master William and Miss Etheldreda.
But in her later years was more known for always losing her oil can.

Most clothes were made in the village and there were several dressmakers.
MR Robinson the Draper in Mill ST supplied many needs, and his wife was a millener [milliner] doing excellent business at Easter when it was customary to wear at least  a new hat, if not a new dress.

MRS Charles Wilson was the local mid-wife. A very stately yet formidable lady, full of common sense and no nonsense. She always attended Chapel dressed in her best black bonnet and black satin cloak, as did so many VICTORIAN matrons, for had not the good Queen worn black since many of them could remember?

MRS ANN CROOT lived in a small cottage at Green End, then a picturesque part of the village. She was an expert at cleaning pigs-bellies. A great delicacy almost unheard of these days, but much sought after then at 4 pence a pound. Home made black puddings could be obtained from MRS Ridgeley’s shop also in Green End.

Miss Jane Larkins ran a sweet shop in Pear Tree Row. It was most popular with the village children because most of her lines were 4 ozs a penny, and she always allowed the scale to go well down. Any child was extremely fortunate if he or she received more than a halfpenny pocket money per week, and any pennies earned for running errands usually went into the Christmas Club at MRS TOTT’s shop in MILL ST.

The Statute Fair the last Friday & Saturday in September was a great event, with the Harris family supplying most of the attractions, but always there was MRS Sally Shore or Shaw famous for her “COME UP ROCK”. This she made with two types of brown sugar plus other ingredients and it was excellent, if bad for the teeth.

A few women still worked in the fields but it was usually light work gathering vegetables, etc, etc. MRS Gravestock kept a Boot & Shoe shop 2 doors down from Flower [Fowler] Bros. & MR Howe one in MILL ST. The word shoe was quite superfluous as man, woman and child all wore boots, and good sturdy ones at that.
The 3 main grocers also sold drapery and boots.
The first lady to own a bicycle in the village was MRS Edgar Dew. I think she also possessed the only camera with which she took some excellent photographs.

So much for the ladies, now to the menfolk.

The first to come to mind are the roadmen, MR David Bird and his assistant MR Jessie Swannell. Both dressed in heavy cordoroy [corduroy] with trouser straps under the knees, and wearing heavy hob-nailed boots, they kept the parish roads in excellent condition.
The roads then were of heavy granite not macadamized like those of today; and about every mile on the verges was kept granite for their use.
The paths in the village were for the most part cobblestones, some of lose [loose] gravel.

MR AQUILLA ARNOLD was the sexton of the parish church. At that time the funeral knell was rung, and he was often kept busy in that duty. At his own funeral the full choir attended and went in procession to the grave.
He was succeeded by a son of MR DAVID BIRD and was also leader of the bell ringers.

The local rat catcher was MR “TAPPER” CROOT, he and his ferrets were much in demand at the many farm rick-yards.
The Emery brothers were expert bird catchers which I think they sent to the London Zoo. They also dug out briar roots from the hedgerows, so many of which have disappeared. I think the briars were used by nurserymen for grafting purposes.
One of the brothers was a thatcher. MR George Gear was the brother of the blacksmith, lame, he strutted around often wearing a top-hat. He was a great teaser and scandalmonger.

Both blacksmiths MR Town and MR Gear were expert smiths and defied anyone to find a hammer mark on one of their finished horseshoes.
MR Jessie CROSS played the fiddle and was always in demand at the various Harvest Homes for the feasting, singing and dancing in the big barns.

Farming was a way of life in those days. I wonder if there is an affinity between man and tractor compared with man and horse. How proud the horse-keepers on all the farms were of their charges. MR Norman was horse-keeper at Avenelles Farm, MR “Tossle” Daisley the cowman, and MR “Crimp” Daisley the shepherd.

It is amazing the number of nick-names inflicted upon people then, but none I think viscious [vicious]. Sergeant Maskell was the village policeman, aided as a special constable by MR “Caliph” Jiggle. Crime as such was negligible, the odd poaching or petty theft being the most prevalent, and 7 to 14 days was the usual penalty.

In spite of the fact that there were 21 public houses in the parish, some of the farmers brewed their own beer, especially a[t] hay-making and harvest time. Using their own grain they could brew 20 gallons at a cost of 3 shillings and 6 pence whereas 20 gallons would cost 26 shillings & 8 pence from a public house. The present day price is staggering in comparison!

Coal was about £1 per ton, yet many families sent their Sunday roast to be cooked at the bakehouse by MR George Brown cost at 2 pence rather than stoke a big fire at home.
Faggots could be obtained for a few pence from the woods by arrangement with the gamekeepers, MR WHITEHEAD & MR Croot.

The Rev W. CROUCH was the incombent [incumbent] at ST MARY’S. A very hard working priest, he held 4 services plus Sunday school and a service at ST Silvester’s each Sunday, more at Easter and Christmas. During the week he and his wife were continually visiting the sick by bicycle. No wonder some of the elderly ladies used to curtsey to him. He held Bible classes and games for boys each Friday evening 7.30 pm to 9.15 pm in the Parish Hall, and was Patron of the Cricket & Football clubs.
MR Leet Peters was the hard working Secretary of both clubs.

Two Arnold brothers were in the football team, known as “BIG TUT” and “LITTLE TUT”.
The Rev GUY was the Pastor of the Baptist Chapel. A rolypoly little man with a droll manner of speaking.

MR PAYNTOR has already been mentioned, and the ZOAR chapel was served by visiting and local preachers.

MR COX was the Undertaker, his chief carpenter being MR Jarvis who later set up his own business, and there were several other carpenters.
MR Garret was the timber merchant and there [sic], and one could always see two or three massive oaks seasoning in his yard.

The WRIGHT Bros in Green End made beautiful farm and tradesmens’ carts, all of course with iron shod wheels.

The first motor cycle to puff around the village was owned by MR George Evans of Merton Grange, then Master of the Cambridgeshire Hunt. This was shortly followed by his brother MR Arthur Evans owning a car, which terrified most of the horse flesh when it passed, and dogs and chickens scattered.

MR Charles Wright lived at Havelock Cottages now pulled down. He was a small-holder and drove an old white horse which was always given a quart of beer after the day’s labour, and it made a weird loud snorting noise until this was supplied.

MR “TACKIE HOWE” was the Barber and Cemetery attendant. Haircuts were 2 pence, but he was at his busiest on Saturday evening when many had their weekly shave.
MR “MUSTER JAKES” was a postman, and there were others of that name employed in agriculture, and one a shop assistant.
MR John Sarle [Sarll] was the landlord of the COCK INN, owned the attached tailors shop and the Grocery shop opposite; he was also a farmer.
His son ARTHUR was a bit of a character. He and a comrade contemplated going to Australia, and deciding that they should bank their money, hid it in the high bank on the Station road: Although they retrieved the money they never reached Australia.

MR Thomas Jiggle was the cobbler. He was known as “HANGMAN” because he had unsuccessfully applied for the post of public hangman: He was very proud of the fact that he had never missed a Sunday in the church choir over a period of 30 years.

MR Powell the Veterinary surgeon [and] with his daughter Alice used to drive around the district in an old VICTORIA. He had a wide practice with mainly farm animals. People did not pester the Vet in those days with dogs and cats. etc, etc.
Another MR Powell was the head-master of the Boy’s school. He succeeded MR James Fowler, and was a strict disciplinarian, and ruled largely by the cane.

Take a look at some of the names mentioned:


All anglicized from the FRENCH.







It may be assumed that these families are descendants from the NORMAN artisans who built the church.

Alas, many fine young men bearing these names were killed in the 1ST WORLD War.

There were surely many more local characters at the beginning of the century than those mentioned here, but the eddies of time swirl out of the pool of memory.

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