Cotsmere was the name given to a house at Townsend when Charlie Bland built it in the 1920s to house his family. Charlie’s widow Elizabeth sold the house to DF’s parents in 1944.
DF has been reminiscing about the time he spent here before moving away in the 1960s. He recalls the house had few services at first, just a well, an earth closet and a bath you filled by hand, and how this was remedied by his father. First to deal with the sewage:
“When my father purchased Cotsmere, the garden area was limited and obviously this was where the Septic tank possibly needed to be constructed.
Taking this on board, my father approached the MOD about the possibility of purchasing the land area to the West of the Cotsmere boundary to the Eastern Boundary of No 1 Abdon Close. His request was considered by the MOD and approved, that’s the good news, unfortunately the MOD had one problem, their action to put the wheels in motion and get the deal done was dead slow and stop to say the least.
After what seemed ages, my father took it on his shoulders to go in person to Whitehall to get it resolved and this worked. From memory I believe he paid about £60 plus costs for the land.
At the same time he was given permission to connect to the water supply at the stables, however this is another story.
When the time came to start the Sewage disposal project, it was summer holidays for me, so I was given the task to excavate the hole by hand, approximately 4 metres long 2 metres wide and 2 metres deep with pick axe & shovel and a wheel barrow.
My father would not hire an Excavator with operator as the price then was about £2.50 an hour and he thought that was extortionate.
So the next move, was to dispose of the spoil removed. To this end, my father was aware that there was a disused well by the side of the road only a short distance from our property so he said, right we will fill it in it’s dangerous !!!! And that is exactly what I did, wheel barrow after wheel barrow, the well was dry at the time and was approx 7m deep x 1m wide, believe it or not, sufficient to accommodate all of the spoil that I removed.
When I started, there was a frog at the bottom of the well and as the well was filled in the frog gradually came up to the surface and when the spoil reached almost to the top, it hopped out and away.
Opposite the well lived Gladys Grant and when I started, she came out swearing. She claimed that when the spring waters came back, as the well could not fill up, all of that water would flood her cottage!!! What rubbish.”
I thought you might like to see this fascinating article from January 1887 in the Warminster & Westbury Journal. Discovered recently when friends were looking for an old newspaper article about the village 1887 Jubilee Celebrations.
The church was only 25 years old in 1887, someone had been neglecting to service the coke stove!
The father of the gassed boy, Joseph Dean 1846-1927, one of the Imber Deans, farmed at Chitterne Farm (now known as Chitterne Farm East). His wife was Louise Chisman from Stockton 1846-1932. There’s a field known as Chisman’s Field alongside the B390 to Warminster.
Joseph and Louise had three sons, any one of them could have been the victim. Edgar Wilfred born in 1878, George Leslie in 1880 and Joseph Percy in 1881. I have written in detail about Joseph Percy re the Scout Motor Company for an entry in the Chitterne history timeline here: Percy Dean
Wilfred who went on to have a long life died in 1958. He lived in Chitterne until at least 1903 and inherited some cottages in Bidden Lane in 1895.
George Leslie however died quite young, aged 47 years in January 1928, so perhaps he suffered the worst of the gassing as a young lad.
This neat little exercise book was recently discovered in an attic in Townsend. As they say, you never know what you may discover in an old attic. Perhaps something like this fascinating gem, which records the meetings held in the village about the proposed celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee to be held on the 21st June 1887.
Most interesting are the lists of subscribers to the jubilee fund who must represent every family in the village at the time. These I will scan and include in this blog. I am sure some of you will find some ancestors listed, there are a lot of familiar names. But first to run through what was proposed and arranged for entertainment and memorial of the day.
A meeting was held on 24th May 1887 in the National School Room, chaired by Rev. Charles Avery Pinhorn with the main village farmers supporting him: Messrs Cleverley of All Saints Manor Farm; Blake of Chitterne Farm; Burbidge of Clump Farm and Wallis of The Manor, St Mary. The schoolmaster William F Brown was secretary and a very legible one too. Other village worthies: Messrs W Candy, F Maidment; Abdon Polden; Augustus Polden; William James Feltham (Maria’s son); Frank Polden; Clement Polden; Frank Bartlett and others not listed.
Mr Cleverley proposed that “the parish be canvassed for subscriptions, and that according to the amount collected, it then be considered what form the rejoicings to commemorate the Queens Jubilee should take.” This was seconded by Mr Wallis and carried.
A committee was formed, of course, on June 2nd 1887 to collect subscriptions throughout the parish and Mr Cleverley was appointed treasurer. Mr Cleverley then moved “that the Jubilee Day June 21st shall be the day for the rejoicings at Chitterne.” This was seconded by Mr Brown.
The committee was later re-appointed as the Committee of Management and new names added: Wm Compton; Wm. Wish; A J Polden; Joseph Williams; Geo. Feltham; Geo. White; Stephen Sheppard; Herbert Feltham; Edward Ashley; Fredk. Carter; John Smith; James Day. The committee was to be left to carry out all details of the work. In the good old Chitterne tradition the rejoicings would involve food. A dinner for all parishioners over 12 years of age, and a tea for those under 12.
At a later meeting held on 7th June 1887 it was agreed that: “sufficient finds should be reserved to purchase and plant a tree on the Parish Green in memory of the Jubilee, and to procure a strong iron fence to protect the same.”
A sub-committee was formed of Messrs Cleverley, Maidment, Jacob Smith, Brown and Abdon Polden “to procure the requisites for the dinner and to provide for the cooking of the same.” Others were to arrange sports, to arrange tables and provide proper accommodation, to attend to the juveniles, and most important to attend to the beer. Mr Cleverley consented to the dinner being held in his Farm Buildings; the service in the Church was to begin at 12.30 and the dinner at 1.30 and and copies of a short narrative of the Queen’s life were to be distributed to each house.
On the back of the estimate we find who provided what. 160 lbs of Veal from Mr Cleverley; 40 lbs of Ham from Mr Maidment (General Stores at 93 Bidden Lane); 300 lbs of Boiled Beef and 240 lbs of Roast Beef from Mr Blackmore (Heytesbury); 35 lbs of Plum Cake from Mrs Bartlett (Grocer at 60 Bidden Lane) and another 35 lbs of same from Mr Maidment; Plum Puddings from Mrs Smith (General Stores at 17 Townsend); the two village landlords Mr Burr at the King’s Head and Mr Poolman at the White Hart provided 18 barrels of Ale each as well as Ginger Beer; plus various sundries, butter, sweets, sugar, calico, music etc.
On 14th June, the week before the celebrations, at a further committee meeting it was decided that: “no single young man shall be admitted to the dinner without having contributed at least 6d. to the expenses. That no outsider be admitted without having contributed at least 1s.6d. to the expenses. That the ringers be paid 10s. for ringing the church bells on Jubilee Day”.
Note the name W H Laverton. I was surprised to see a name from Westbury, my neck of the woods, on this list from Chitterne. He was the nephew of Abraham Laverton, of the A Laverton & Co. cloth mills in Westbury, who had succeeded his uncle at the mills in the 1880s. I have no idea what William Henry Laverton was doing contributing to the village fund. If anyone does know please contact me.
The subscriptions amounted to £54.18s.0d. Together with some sales of meat, calico, butter, bread and some discounts, the amount raised in total was £58.9s.10½d.
Several village business folk had made gifts as follows:
Mr Maidment 16 gallons of bread
Mrs Smith 12 gallons of bread
Mr C Ashley 4 gallons of bread
Mrs Bartlett 20lbs of cake
Mr Poolman 18 gallons of beer
Mr Burr 18 gallons of beer
Mr Bartlett 18 gallons of beer
Mr Blake 36 gallons of beer
So the final expenditure looked like this:
A few names here to comment on: Coates from Warminster we still find today at Coates and Parker the newsagents and stationers in the Market Place and Haden of Warminster was the predecessor of S L Corden at the hardware store in the High Street. Corden suceeded Haden in the late 1880s according to the ‘Warminster in the Twentieth Century’ book by Celia Lane and Pauline White.
A few weeks after the Jubilee Celebrations a final committee meeting was held on July 13th 1887. It was decided that: “£1.1s. of the balance be given to Mr Brown for his trouble as secretary, and that the remaining £1.5s. be retained to plant a tree (supplemented by any further subscriptions which may be given) in memory of the Jubilee.” Sadly, there is no description of how the celebrations went, so we must assume the day went off in the usual Chitterne fashion, with everyone catered for and enjoying themselves.
“We passed closer to the “Eurydice” than I have ever been before, and I must confess, going at such speed at such a place made me feel a little nervous. I fear there is not much hope of her ever being raised.”
We now know that Maria’s first cousin Arthur Cockrell had been one of the victims of the disaster. Arthur was a Royal Marine based at Gosport, Hampshire. He was born in Warminster on 24th April 1843, the son of James Cockrell of Chitterne All Saints (1811-1857 brother of Maria’s father William) and Mary Ann King of Bishopstrow, Warminster. He would have been 28 years old when he went down with the HMS Eurydice off the Isle of Wight on 24th March 1878.
The phrase “than I have ever been before” also suggests that this wasn’t the first time Maria had been at that spot. Perhaps she had previously seen the wreck from the coast or from the Isle of Wight, but this time her employers had purposely sailed quite close to it for a better view. No wonder she took such an interest in the wreck and wrote with so much feeling to her family back in Chitterne.
St Mary’s Chancel is all that’s left of Chitterne’s two old 15th century parish churches, making it one of the oldest buildings in the village. The nave of St Mary’s Church was demolished about 1861, leaving the chancel for use as a mortuary chapel. Nowadays it’s just used for occasional church services.
Ivy covers the end wall in this photo dating from the early 1900s. Note the old thatched barn on the right where Birch Cottage is now. The barn belonged to the church when the vicar of St Marys parish received part of his pay from the tithes raised on the crops grown on church land. Typically a tenth of the value went to the vicar. ‘Glebe’ land was church land, so Glebe Farm was the church farm, and the barn stood in Glebe Farm’s stockyard.
In this photo taken a little later the ivy has been removed and the site of the old nave has started to be used for burials. Note behind the chancel, in both photos, the old cob wall that once formed the boundary of the graveyard. The wall was knocked down and replaced by a fence in 1928 when Ushers Brewery, owners of the King’s Head Inn, gave a part of the inn’s land to enlarge the graveyard.
Recently, when a house the other side of that fence was sold, it was unclear who was responsible for maintaining the fence. A trip to the History Centre in Chippenham to see the original 1928 deed provided the answer: the fence is the responsibility of the Parochial Church Council.
I admire the medieval builders of this church, they had the good sense to site it far enough away from the Chitterne Brook for the dead to be buried in dry ground.
Here’s an early 20th century shot of Bidden Lane (Shrewton Road) photographed by Marrett of Shrewton sourced from Wylye Valley Photos.
It shows a very different scene from today as the cottages on the right were knocked down to widen the road in the 1960s. The cottages on the left still exist. Where once the inhabitants of the demolished cottages grew vegetables and dried their washing there is now only a sloping chalky bank.
Twelve cottages were demolished, they were known collectively as Red House. In 1936 the end wall of the first cottage collapsed, as reported in the Warminster Journal on Friday 17 January 1936:
“As a result of the heavy weather experienced for some weeks previously, and during the middle of last Thursday’s gale, the end of a house in Chitterne collapsed. The house was that tenanted by Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Grant, who were married last August. Ominous cracks had appeared in the end wall of the house – which is at the end of a rank of cottages – and at the height of the storm the entire wall collapsed, completely exposing the scullery and one of the bedrooms, and leaving a great gap under the roof. The cottage is the property of Mr. Wilfred Dean, and is situated opposite the home of Mr. W.F. Brown, a former chief of the ‘Big Five’ at Scotland Yard.”
Wilfred Dean was the eldest son of Joseph Dean of Imber who had lived and farmed at Chitterne Farm in 1890. William Fred Brown lived at Syringa Cottage.
Stan Grant (1906-1997), the village lengthsman (Parish Steward), had married Hilda Knight in August 1935. He and Hilda moved to 5 Council Houses (Abdon Close) after the collapse of the wall. There is a paragraph in Ferdinand Mount’s book ‘Cold Cream’ that sums up Stan very well:
“By then (September) Stan Grant will have scythed the roadside banks. He does this scything in a smart white collarless shirt and grey waistcoat and trousers. He inclines slightly to finish each stroke and the sun catches the silken sheen of his waistcoat backing. It is as though he came down the road in his immaculate three-piece suit and suddenly took it into his head to take off his jacket and hang it on a branch and do a little scything. He is equally nonchalant when fielding at cover point for the village cricket team which my father captains for a couple of seasons. I remember him standing there in his waistcoat, kneeling gracefully to stop the ball and return it to the keeper, all as though he is not actually part of the team but just happens to be passing when the ball comes his way – but this must be nonsense because now I think harder Stan wears flawless whites, is famous for them in fact, and anyway the pitch is tucked high up on the sloping field some way from the road.”
Winter is definitely here and it’s time I got back to Maria Cockrell’s story. When I left her in 1879 I was hoping to find a reference in her letters to her son Jimmy’s business, Polden and Feltham, which he and his cousin Clement Polden had started in 1878, or so I understood. (Maria’s married name was Feltham of course, Cockrell was her maiden name). Maria often mentions Clement in her letters to Jimmy but not their business. Strange, you’d have thought Maria would have had something to say on the subject, but I have found nothing.
Whatever, Polden & Feltham did exist at Flint House until about 1972 and the company is the subject of this blog, with specific reference to a P & F ledger covering the years 1888 – 1897. Mercifully this ledger was saved from the bonfire by AS in the 1970s when P & F closed down. I have been hanging onto the ledger for a while so my grateful thanks to AS for his patience.
It is a weighty tome, beginning to crumble around the edges, but it records almost 10 years of work done by P & F, in the village and nearby. It starts with estimates for work, then hours of actual work done and by whom, lists of materials purchased and the settling of accounts. Most customers were well-to-do village folk, farmers, landlords, the vicar, the school managers etc. Besides mending farm implements and equipment P & F also repaired the interiors of houses. One of the houses renovated in 1897 was my house, the Round House, which had been bought from the Long family’s Chitterne Estate by Alice Mary Langford, spinster granddaughter of Frederick Wallis who farmed at The Manor.
This page dated August 1897 gives the work carried out on the left, and list of materials used on the right (plus an unrelated entry in a different hand at the bottom of the left page). The main work done was to the two rooms in the round end, the parlor downstairs and bedroom above. This part of the house was originally built in Regency times about 1814 when the Morris family leased the property from the Methuens of Corsham. Charles Morris died aged 94 in 1879 and the house was afterwards let to the Wiltshire Constabulary to house the village policeman. Until, in 1896 Walter Hume Long of Rood Ashton decided to sell all his Chitterne properties, and it was bought by Alice Langford. Hence the refurbishment in 1897.
I was interested to see what remains today of the works done by P & F in 1897.
The floor boards and joists in the sitting room (parlor) were replaced and remain (under carpet). The sash windows were refurbished in both round rooms and the roadside sash windows are still mostly original. The skirting was replaced in both rooms, but only the bedroom skirting survives. The walls of the rooms were decorated using 12 yards of canvas stretched over battening, sized with 4lbs of glue and papered with 18 pieces (rolls?) of paper and 22 yards of border. None of this survives but I imagine it looked grand.
Three panel doors were replaced in the rest of the house, two of these remain with their white ceramic handles, locks and brass keyhole plates. They are much shorter than modern doors, only 6ft high, causing grief to tall people.
The outside earth closet was completely rebuilt of wood and was still here when we moved in, complete with wooden seat and soil bucket. It was demolished to make way for a car port. I wish I had been in the habit of taking photographs back in the 1970s, but that was before history took hold of me. The completely refurbished lean-to wash house went when the house was extended to accommodate my mother in 1986.
The main things that have survived the last 120 years are the porch and the round cast-iron guttering. The porch was constructed with a curved sheet of iron held up by two iron brackets, bolted and screwed together costing 5 shillings 1½d. (25p). While the curved iron guttering cost 14 shillings (70p), plus £1. 0s. 6½d. for making the pattern and fixing. I wonder if this was made in the P & F forge by Alfred Burt the blacksmith.
All in all it was some undertaking, it cost Mr Wallis (if he was paying) £75. 11s. 7½d. It took 5 men to do the work:
When Alice Langford moved in she required more work from P&F. There is a further page in the ledger listing dates in September, October and November 1897 under Miss Langford’s name for work P&F did at the Round House.
They repaired a dresser, put up shelves, bells, stair eyes and blinds and later wardrobe hooks in the round room closet, coat and hat hooks in the passage and fitted a new tin plate to the fire. I remember this walk-in closet, it’s now a shower. The servant bells in the hallway were still in situ when we moved in. A row of brass bells on curly springs, connected to the upstairs rooms by wires. Again no photographs but one last bell hangs outside the front door.
For more on the Poldens of Flint House and Polden and Feltham see link below :
Thanks to LW, who sent in this photo of a postcard featuring Chitterne Church, I have had fun looking into the identity of the sender and receiver.
I’ve seen this postcard of our church before, it’s one of a series published by Frank Maidment, Post Office Stores, 93 Chitterne, but what’s really interesting for me is the message in pencil on the reverse. Mostly postcards that come my way are blank on the back, I rarely see an old Chitterne postcard that’s been written on and posted.
Here is what the message addressed to Mr L G Found, 83 Radcliffe Road, Fortham, Southampton, Hants says:
Dear old bean
Just a card hoping you are all well as it leaves everybody here. I hope Ethel is feeling better. We had it fine here yesterday for a wonder. Give my love to all ….. Frank sends his love to you all
Mr L G was Leslie George Found, the youngest son of George Found and Harriet Haines, both of Chitterne. The Found family lived at 65 Bidden Lane and Haines family a few doors away at 71, but George had found work on the railway and he and Harriet moved to Southampton after their children, Ethel, Lilian, Minnie and Leslie were born.
I think the postcard was written by Leslie’s sister Minnie who married Frank Grant in 1927 – so Frank sends his love makes sense – and I think the Ethel mentioned is Leslie and Minnie’s older sister. Ethel was born in 1894, Minnie in 1897 but I don’t know when Leslie was born.
Minnie was the mother of Connie Grant, later Gorry, who lived for 60 years at Robin’s Rest, 29 Chitterne (now called Apple Tree Cottage) on the Tilshead Road. Connie was born and lived at Southampton until World War 2, but was evacuated here during the war and married Brian Gorry in 1952. Sadly Minnie died aged 35 in 1933 when Connie was about 4 years old.
Our local pub the Kings Head is to close at the end of this week. Like many local pubs its fortunes have been stormy since the clamp down on drinking and driving and the ban on smoking in public places, but it has survived until now. Who knows what the future holds. In the meantime I thought I would take a look at the pub’s past.
The first reference to an inn here comes from the 18th century when the inn was part of the Chitterne estate owned by a series of wealthy landowning families. The George Inn burnt down in Chitterne St Mary when Thomas Bennet was the tenant and the Paulet family were the owners. James Wheeler took on the tenancy in 1742 and presumably changed the inn’s name because the Wheeler family were still there in 1826 when another James Wheeler was the copyholder of the “King’s Head Inn, outbuildings, garden, yard etc.” which he held for the lives of Mary Huntley 62, Mary Wheeler 32, and William Huntley Wheeler 10 (mother-in-law, wife and son). By then the owners were the Methuen family who had bought the Chitterne estate from the Paulets in the 1770s. Wheeler and Huntley memorials are still visible on the outside walls of the chancel.
The Long family bought the Chitterne estate from the Methuens in 1830. The Wallis family of Chitterne St Mary Manor were their tenants and William Wallis’s mother-in-law Ann White was the innkeeper. The Wallis family continued to be associated with the inn until they gave up malting their own barley around 1910. In 1896 the Longs auctioned the estate and the inn sold for £1350 to ‘Marjant? Bladworth’ (pencilled none too clearly alongside the inn details on the auction catalogue) who could be agents for a brewer. Bartletts brewery in Warminster were supplying the inn with beer in the early 20thC before they went bust in 1920.
Landlords of the inn changed frequently after Ann White. Henry Hull 1841; John Whatley 1851; William Compton, saddler and innkeeper in 1861 and 1871. Then the 3 Bs: James Burr 1880-1887, William Beak 1888-1894, George Brown 1895-1897. By 1901 Sidney and Alice Daniels were landlords followed by another B, George Burgess during World War 1.
Ushers Brewery of Trowbridge acquired the inn after the demise of Bartletts brewery. Joseph and Kate Robberts ran the pub in 1925, George Turner in 1927 and Thomas Burbidge 1928-1932. William and Florence Jones in wartime and in 1945 Mick and Winifred Benson took over and stayed until 1954. Their daughter Jeanne married Ernie George, a Chitterne lad, and settled in Townsend. Ernie made a drawing of the pub yard as it looked in 1948.
Cecil and Doris Newton took over as innkeepers from the Bensons in 1954 and stayed until Cecil’s sudden death in 1980. The other pub in the village, the White Hart Inn closed permanently in the mid-1950s, so that gave Cecil and Doris a boost and they made the most of it. During their time the pub Cribbage team won the league in 1974 and the darts team played in the Till Darts League in 1977, winning against the Royal Oak at Shrewton, but then losing to the Catherine Wheel 10-9.
The Kings Head was still an Ushers pub in 1980, but before 1990 it was up for sale and brewers Gibbs Mew bought it.
After the Newtons 26 year tenure landlords came and went with alarming frequency, none staying more than four years despite the pub winning the Bulmers and Gibbs Mew competition for the best display of flowers in 1995. From 1980 to 2002 the pub had eleven different landlords and then changed owners once again.
Gibbs Mew sold the pub around 2002 to Enterprise Inns. The new owners revamped the bar area considerably, replacing the optics with shelves and updating the floor surface and eating area. The pub re-opened on the 29th November 2002, but despite these efforts the pub’s fortunes didn’t improve, the final straw was the closure of the road outside the pub for bridge works, which lasted several months in 2005.
Four more landlords came and went, the optics came back, and closures in 2008 and 2009 led to Enterprise Inns offering the pub for sale in September 2010. They were heading to auction in February 2011, but at the last moment agreed to sell to the current landlord. The pub opened as a Free House on 1st April 2011, and has been open now for eight and a half years, the longest serving landlord since the Newtons.
Now Saturday night will see the pub close once again. What will the future bring?
Recently JM shared with the village a transcription of a newspaper article from 2010 written by Ferdinand Mount, former resident of Chitterne. I am sure ex-Chitternites would like to see it too so I am sharing the transcription and the original newspaper article here.
Ferdinand Mount is currently our most famous past resident. He is a writer, journalist and political commentator, writing for The Times and Daily Telegraph, former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, author of several novels and “Cold Cream” an autobiography.
Cold Cream has wonderfully evocative passages describing Mount’s childhood in Chitterne. He lived here from birth in 1939 to adulthood. His parents had bought the small two-up-two-down cottage adjacent to the former malt house in 1938. Before that in 1925 the cottage was known as Pine Cottage and the malt house still stood next door. The malt house was later demolished and the cottage took on the name Malt House. The Mounts added an extra wing with a sitting room and two bedrooms, and planted the yew hedge at the front.
Going back to the article. Mount describes his first brush with politics as a young boy attending the Conservative Party fete held at Chitterne Lodge “by kind permission of Mrs Payne”. Mrs Payne was Gwen Payne, wife of Lt Col. L H H Payne R A, resident of the War Department’s Chitterne Lodge. The War Dept. had purchased the Chitterne Lodge estate in 1937, which included Chitterne Farm east and the Racing Stables. The Paynes lived at the Lodge from about 1940 to 1949.
Here is the transcription:
The Conservative party fête was held at Chitterne Lodge by kind permission of Mrs Payne. As our MP, Mr Grimston, got up to speak, he put down his bowler hat, not on the table beside him which was draped with the union flag but on the chair behind him. He spoke about the need to support Mr Churchill in the struggle that lay ahead. Mr Grimston had been our MP since 1931. He had a thin moustache and a general air of severity. As he warmed to his theme, I noticed a small boy, smaller than I was myself, about four years old perhaps, crawling through the flowerbeds immediately behind Mr Grimston’s chair, which was right at the edge of the sunlit lawn. The small boy took hold of the bowler hat with one hand, then got a firmer grip on it with both hands and rather slowly, almost ceremoniously, put it on his head so that it came down over his ears. It was impossible for any adult to reach him without crashing through Mrs Payne’s flowerbeds. I do not know in what direction Mr Grimston’s remarks were now turning, possibly the perils of socialism, but like the rest of his audience, I was gripped by what the small boy would do next. To our vast disappointment, at that moment a woman in a flowery dress risked her high heels on the rosebed and dragged the small boy away, snatching the hat from his head and replacing it on the chair. This is my earliest political memory: the sun-dappled lawn, the small boy and the bowler hat. It is my only memory of Mr, later Sir Robert, Grimston, who continued to represent Westbury until 1964, rising to become deputy speaker and later Lord Grimston of Westbury.
Political enthusiasm was not much in evidence in Chitterne. When Churchill finally got back in, in 1951, the group captain who lived at the Grange stuck a union flag pennant on the bonnet of his car and drove through the village honking his horn. This was thought to be going too far. It was Groupie, too, who, during the fuel shortages of 1947, complained to my father about “the damned miners starving us of coal”. But his was, I like to think, a minority voice.
The Westbury division began then and still begins in our village. As you come over Salisbury Plain from Stonehenge and down Shrewton Hill, you cross the constituency boundary. Samuel Pepys rode down the hill with his wife and family on the evening of 11 June 1668, having lost his way on the downs, and “with great difficulty come about 10 at night to a little inn, where we were fain to go into a room where a pedlar was in bed, and made him rise; and there wife and I lay, and in a truckle-bed Betty Turner and Willet”. The servant here referred to only by her surname was the delectable Deb Willet, whom Pepys was later that year to be caught fondling by Mrs Pepys in a manner so intimate that he recorded it in the diary in the cod-Italian which he used for sexual encounters. The diary does not record how the commercial traveller felt about being turfed out. But Pepys was so grateful for his rescue from this trackless wilderness that he roared with laughter at the landlord’s jokes about the henpecked sailors at Bristol. The next morning the Pepyses discovered that the beds they had thought good were in fact lousy. The great diarist was still so nervous about the wild country that he was relieved when the landlord of the White Hart volunteered to lead them the whole way across the constituency into Somerset.
Yet Pepys referred to this remote, almost inaccessible place as a “town”. Nor was he misled in the darkness. Chitterne, like other downland villages, had once been much larger. As late as the mid-19th century the population had been 800, as opposed to no more than 250 in my childhood. Yet even in the 1950s, the village possessed a primary school, a racing stable, two firms of builders, a blacksmith, two shops, a village policeman in his tied police cottage on the Green, Mr Withers’s fleet of two elderly buses, Graham Dean’s garage, which he diversified into a mink farm during the Suez petrol shortage, not to mention the White Hart where the Pepyses stayed, and a post office next to the Baptist chapel. The last two were both operated by the amazing Frank Maidment, the “Bishop of Salisbury Plain”, who preached the gospel and delivered the bread to even remoter villages for 75 years.
All gone now of course. I remember the White Hart closing after 300 years when I was in my teens, leaving only the King’s Head in business next to where the garage/mink farm had been. There used to be six dairy farms, none now, though the milkman still calls. The number of farmworkers has gone down from 29 to four. The population has recovered a little after a couple of the abandoned farmyards were turned into pleasant little housing estates for commuters to Warminster and Salisbury. The bells of All Saints church may still ring on Sundays, but, like so many other villages, Chitterne is a quieter place than it used to be, just as pretty as it always was, but a little frozen. I am sure there are plenty of homeworkers tapping away on their Macs. But the hum of the keyboard does not quite have the same resonance as the clang of Alf Burt’s hammer shoeing the steeplechasers of my youth.
As far back as 1893, the village schoolmaster Mr Brown recorded that “all the brightest boys look forward to getting away to the towns at the very first opportunity”. How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Trowbridge? The four smallish towns that dominate the constituency – Warminster, Westbury, Bradford-on-Avon (now ceded under boundary changes to the new Chippenham seat) and Trowbridge, surprisingly the county town rather than Salisbury, all have delectable old centres – tall churches built on wool money, flint-and-brick cottages and superb classical mansions in Bath stone. The sheep still share the downland with the tanks (the army has been training on the plain since before the Great War), but the fine big mills are all converted into heritage centres or Poundstretchers.
Warminster, our nearest town, looks on the surface much as it did 50 years ago. The Old Bell and the Bath Arms still stare across the Market Place at each other, and the stationers Coates and Parker still publishes the Warminster Journal , which was the first place I scraped into print, with a rather over-dramatic account of the Mendip farmers point-to-point. Down the hill below the golf course still stands the imposing Portway House where I used to go to have electric shocks for my flat feet. Yet, as in all town centres nowadays, there are charity shops where there used to be grocers and greengrocers, and most places need a lick of paint. Half the premises in these towns seem to be given over to raising money for Alzheimer’s sufferers and half the suburbs given over to homes for them. You begin to wonder whether short-term memory is somehow a casualty of modernity.
Politically, you might think that nothing much had changed in these parts. Ever since 1945, the Tory MP’s majority has usually hovered somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. The present incumbent, Andrew Murrison, is a former surgeon-commander in the navy who served in the first Gulf war and then, remarkably, after being elected went out to serve again as a Territorial in the Iraq war – no lounging by moat or duck-house for him.
Yet there is a significant underlying change here, as elsewhere in Wiltshire and much of southern England. Where once the runner-up was always Labour, today he or she is invariably Liberal (or now Lib Dem). In many ways, the revival of the Liberals is a return to an older tradition in Wessex, where nonconformist chapels abound. In the lowland parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire, where weaving has been the staple industry since the middle ages, you can trace the dissenting streak back to the Lollards.
But the immediate cause is the fading of Labour in the southern county constituencies of England. It is not so hard to explain. South-West Wiltshire, as the new constituency is called, is largely post-industrial, but Labour still is not quite. For the past half century, the party has been vainly struggling to extricate itself from the dominance of the trade unions – from Hugh Gaitskell’s struggle to junk clause IV, through Harold Wilson’s failure with In Place of Strife, to Tony Blair’s efforts to free the party of financial dependence on the unions. Now after the scandal of the millionaire donors, Labour is back where it started, reliant on the unions and knee-deep in sleaze as well. Pepys, whose later career was dogged by accusations of “cash for influence”, would have sympathised.