The History of Ilmington - Chapter 15

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Late 19th century and early 20th century Ilmington from local memory

For many of the older people of today memories of their youth are vivid, and it is on these that the account of village life in the early years of the 20th century has been based.  Official records for Ilmington for this period are hard to come by but the accounts of the people when checked one against another have seldom been inaccurate.  They have often been substantiated by old photographs and at times by the local newspapers.  The people who have contributed material for this account were born between 1887 and 1920, so there is a little overlap with an earlier chapter.  Life in this village up to and even after the first world war was much more akin to that of the 19th century than to that of today.

One of the highlights of the year was Club Day held on the first Tuesday in June.  It began with a procession round the village to the church for a service.  The procession was accompanied by the brass band and an old photograph shows it coming up Back Street with the men wearing the sashes of which some were so proud that they were buried with them.  There followed a meal for the men, sports, and a tea for the women and children.  The feast was held in a marquee erected for the purpose at varying places, sometimes where Windmill Close now stands.  The chosen ground was entered through an arch decorated with 'Whitsun Roses' and these are said to have been gathered from a guelder rose tree outside what is now Bevingtons.  There is still a tree there.  The club owned its own blue and white crockery with silver lustre tea pots.  This was stored above what was then the baker's but is now the Post Office.  It was the duty of the baker's daughter to wash it in readiness for the feast.  The crockery was sold when the club was disbanded, but the exact date of this is not remembered, possibly just after the first world war.

Exactly what this club was is still uncertain.  Some say it was the Oddfellows - a subgroup of the Tysoe branch.  This, however, was only formed in 1912.  In Tysoe the lodge appears to have replaced an earlier insurance society and such a society had been founded in Ilmington in 1815.  The rules of this society have been found at the Birthplace Trust Record Office (1).  It was founded for the purpose of relieving "such members as shall be prevented from working through sickness, lameness or other infirmities; for burying the dead and paying widows or children of the deceased the money owing to them".  It had a President, Treasurer, two stewards and a clerk of accounts, and was based at the Red Lion.  There were thirteen rules of which number seven reads as follows:- "No benefits shall be paid to anyone till he has paid into the Society for two whole years.  No benefits shall be paid for venereal causes, inoculation for small pox, immoderate drinking, fighting, wrestling, football playing, cudgelling or any such like malicious exercise."  The last rule states that no more than £20 is to be kept in the Box, the rest must be invested.  It is the date of the feast day of this club which connects it with 'Club Day'.  In the rule book of this club there is no mention of the blue sashes of which the men were so proud.

A second insurance society, Ilmington Unity Sick and Dividend Club, founded in 1893 also at the Red Lion was disbanded in 1965.  In this case payments might begin after two months membership.  These records consist largely of the lists of officers and cash accounts for the year.  There is one mention of 58 dinners at 2/- each in 1896 and in 1898 'Dinners £6.4.0'.  In 1893 its 38 members received a dividend of £1.1.10 but there is no further mention of dividends.  Its income during the 1950s averaged about £160 a year and its membership ranged from 38 in 1893, 58 in 1895, to 121 in 1953.  It was certainly not this club which was responsible for Club Day.

 

Another colourful occasion was bonfire night.  The bonfire was built on the Upper Green and in the days when faggots were stored for the winter, and the wheelwright's wood was seasoning outside what is now the garage, it was an anxious night for some.  These recollections are almost certainly 20th century.  The Parish Council had tried to forbid bonfires in 1900 and their efforts against encroachment by timber do not appear to have been outstandingly successful.  The wheelwright's family was not allowed to attend the bonfire but must mount guard over the wood.  It was, too, an anxious night for the village policeman.  One story is told of an enthusiastic farmer who encouraged people 'to fetch more wood where that came from' only to discover the following morning that it had come from his own store.

A pig roast was held in October behind the Howard Arms and a faded photograph of the well and deeply scored pig still exists.  A plate of excellent roast pork for a large family could be bought for 1/6.

Several fairs visited the village in those days and were stationed on the Lower Green outside the Howard Arms.  It must have been difficult to get much sleep in that part of the village on those occasions.

Until at least 1914 the village had its own brass band.  One of the original members of this is still alive and remembers where the great drum was to be found until recently.  The band, which began with that of Halford, but later became independant, had a smart blue uniform with red stripes on the trousers.  It played for the functions not only of Ilmington but also those of other villages.  The bandmaster came from Shipston.  There was also a team of bellringers, who after ringing the peal at Ilmington went the round of other parishes on foot, and returned at night, not only foot sore but somewhat the worse for wear in other ways.  This tour was made on Boxing Day.

The last of the timber dealers also kept the Howard Arms; earlier there had been two timber dealers in the village.  His timber was stored in 'The Square' in front of the Howard Arms and the saw pits were behind the cottages at the end of Middle Street next to the present grocer's shop.  Coffin boards and pit props were sawn, and timber was sold to the wheelwright.  Here again encroachment seems to have continued.

The wheelwright's shop, a bakery, and the accommodation for a pony and trap kept for hire formed a complex where the garage, the post office, and the post office garage now stand.  The wheelwright's timber was often stored on the opposite side of the road, perhaps encroaching on the land where the gardens of Washbrook Place now lie.  The wheelwright made carts, wagons and delivery vans.  One of the last wagons is still to be found at Blackwell.  It was made in 1900 and cost £32.  Old photographs show the tyring of a wheel in the space behind the present post office, also a newly completed wagon with the men who had just completed the work.

The flour of the allotment holders who had their bread baked by this village baker was stored in calico bags, each with the name of the family on it.  A week's supply of bread was baked individually for these families at a cost of ½d. a loaf.  Bread was delivered over a wide area in a horse-drawn van made at the wheelwright's shop.  In times of deep snow the delivery was made on foot.  The salt for the bread was stored above the great bread oven and a year's supply was bought at one time.  An itinerant salt merchant visited the village and called at the baker's, demanding a somewhat higher price than the baker was prepared to pay.  After completing his tour of the village, on his return to the baker, the price would often have come down and the deal was concluded.  This bakery was still functioning when the Northumberland Fusiliers were stationed in the village during the second world war, and the turkeys for their Christmas dinner were baked in the bread oven.  It must have been a fine procession when they were carried up to the village hall. For a time the widow of an itinerant tinsmith was allowed to live in her caravan in the orchard belonging to these premises.  While the tinsmith lived their caravan was parked in Happy Lands along the Shipston road.  The tinsmith was famous for his dutch ovens and his courtesey.  He would mend almost any cooking utensil and would make baking tins to measure.  His wife was a colourful character with her black hair and clay pipe.  In this group of buildings the board with the toll charges for the turnpike road from Halford Bridge to Campden was recently found.  In the 1851 census Rod Meadow Tollgate and Armscote Meadow Toll House are both mentioned with people living in them.  Just where the board came from is not known, but it is hoped to have it restored and displayed.  This turnpike appears to date from about 1817.

The Wharf on the Armscote road was at one time an inn and the separate building alongside the road housed the skittle alley.  The oldest contributor to these memories remembers going there as a boy to set up the skittles.  At one time the father of the famous Ilmington jockey, E.P. Wilson, lived there before he moved to the Manor Farm.  Later still it became the headquarters of the hoop maker.  According to Father Ingram in 'Shepherd's Pie' these hoops were made for bales for the Manchester cotton trade.

The stonemasons were skilled and knowledgeable.  They were responsible not only for dry stonewalling, an art now almost lost, and stone building, but for some of the restoration at Ettington Park.  They also made grave stones, and some in the churchyard show particularly good lettering.  The traditional skills of stone building are happily still present in the village.

At the turn of the century or thereabouts gangs of mowers from the village used to travel south for the earlier hay crops of Middlesex and work their way north even as far as Cheshire.  Great was the surprise of one when he was charged in the south 1/- for a hair cut, which in his own village would have cost him 2d.

Soon after 1920 tree fellers also worked away from the village, taking with them on bicycles their tools and food for the week, including apple dumplings.  They would return on Saturday, work in their allotments, play in the football team and leave again on Sunday evening.

Wages in the village were still very low.  A laborer earned 10/- a week, a craftsman 12/-, and the top one 18/-, a boy leaving school at thirteen to work with horses 3/-, a domestic servant living with one of the best families earned 1/- a week in 1900.  Her younger sister in 1912 in the same family earned 1/6 a week.  A month's wages would buy a pair of boots.

Allotments were still therefore a most important part of the family's economy and at one time as much as 100 acres were being rented.  They were widely scattered and as many as six different sites are remembered.  Sometimes the man's wife would meet him on his way home from work with a meal, and they would go straight to the allotment to work there till dark.  By this time, though many still did all the cultivation by hand, some were able to afford to have them ploughed.  The corn was stored communally in a barn (different ones have been mentioned), the individual crops being marked by straw, and the allotment holders combined to have their corn threshed by machine.  Crops including beans were much as before and threshing by flail of the bean crop continued for some time.  No doubt some of the bean crop was sold to the Wilsons for their horses.  The pig was still a most important member of the family and the day he was killed a sad one.  One of the youngest contributers remembers the haunted feeling of the house when he was hanging at the foot of the stairs, and must be passed on the way to bed.  The feeling no doubt wore off as the bone pies, joints of pork and rosemary flavoured lard were ready for distribution to friends and relations.  Pork pies do not appear to have been a feature of this village.

Wash day is still remembered as the worst day of the week.  In spite of the provision of the 'fountains' of the previous century, water still had to be carried for what seemed a long distance by, in this case, the oldest daughter of a very large family.  For many of the houses, as for this one, the wash house was a separate building shared by other families.  This meant that wash day was fixed, wet or fine.  For this family the wash might include as many as twenty pinafores or dresses, without other larger items such as shirts and sheets.

However, as well as the sadness of pig killing, and the sheer horror of washday, the family week and year had many highlights.  There was the visit of the grocer's van from Shipston with special sweet biscuits, the fishwoman in her smart cart on Thursdays to this partly Catholic village, and the watercress man, though it is difficult to think of cottage people buying watercress; the old man with his 'five oils' who called once a year, and another with peppermint cordial.  (A friend of the writer still uses 'nine oils' for acute arthritis but it is now most difficult to obtain.)  There was tea in the hay fields, and the pleasures of harvest, which however did not include the band laying to bind the sheaves.  Later too there was dancing at High Croft to the village band.  This was out of doors on summer evenings which no doubt in those days were always fine and warm.  Occasionally, usually after payment of the harvest wages, there would be a visit to Stratford by carrier's cart.

Though the accounts of village life have intentionally been kept anonymous it is difficult to avoid mention of the Wilsons.  William Wilson, both father and son of the same name, were well known trainers of race horses and the older son, E.P. Wilson, was a jockey winning important races in the 1860s and the Grand National on Voluptuary in 1884 and on Roquefort in 1885.  He is described both in the Book of the Grand National issued by Country Life in 1937 and in the Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News of the last century.  A photostat of this article was kindly supplied by Manchester Reference Library.  In the latter the stables are described at Newbold but in the 1851 census Mr W. Wilson senior was at The Wharf, and in 1871 at the Manor Farm.  Local memory gives much of the training as taking place on Nebsworth and a string of up to twenty horses being maintained at the Manor Farm.  Skilled horsemanship spread through the village, some of whose members were employed at the stables.  When they left the skills went with them.  One man became chief huntsman of the Horsham Hunt, another went to manage the dray horses for Spilsburys in Cardiff, others to look after horses drawing timber, and another to Birmingham Corporation to care for their horses.  Some became jockeys and one was killed racing.  In 1885 the Wilsons gave the village a great celebration of lunch, tea and later dancing.  An account of this is to be found in the Evesham Journal for May 1885.  The oldest contributor said he had been taken to this celebration as a babe in arms but here memory had become confused and he was referring to the very similar Jubilee celebrations of 1887.

The migration of the young men mentioned by Purser continued and a group is remembered leaving about 1910, still in the carrier's cart, for work in the mines of North Warwickshire.  Even before the first world war a number of men had emigrated to New Zealand, Canada and Australia.  Some returned with the armies for the war and a few remained in the village afterwards.  However, emigration was still continuing in the 1920s.

Somewhat earlier than this Morris Dancing was revived under Sam Bennett and for a time teams visited surrounding villages, and went to dance in the Bancroft Gardens at Stratford.  A short life of Sam Bennett, though now out of print, does exist and no more of him will be said, save that his fiddle and hobby horse are still to be found locally.

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It seems to be impossible at this date to speak with certainty of the tradition of Morris Dancing in this village, as distinct from the revival which occurred led by Sam Bennett.  What is quite clear is that Sam Bennett learned his tunes by ear from the father of one of the older inhabitants.  This man played the tunes on an old pipe, which is well remembered but now lost.  No one now remembers a visit of Cecil Sharp but it seems probable that he did collect from this village.

Attempts have been made to ascertain which, if any, dances or tunes were peculiar to Ilmington but so far without success.  Shepherd's Hey, Mowing the Barley, and Pitch Pole Jack were mentioned.  One man is remembered as dancing a Patten Dance.  A member of another old established Ilmington family remembers playing the tabard for Morris dancing.  The Christmas broadcast of 1934 introduced from Ilmington referred to the playing of the pipe and tabor, then well remembered.  A flute belonging to the family of the old gentleman, who taught Sam Bennett, was dated to 1870 but this is not the pipe which was used.  This same family refers to a drum and fife band which long preceded the brass band already described.

Mention of the Mummers' play to members of these two families who have been in the village from at least the 17th century still elicits the spontaneous quotation of some of the lines, though they agree that it has probably not been performed for at least 100 years.  Again, Sam Bennett is said to have tried to revive this without success.

Reginald Tiddy collected Mummers' plays in this district before the first world war.  His book The Mummers' Play, published posthumously in 1929, has been consulted.  In it he gives the plays peculiar to Great Wolford, Pillerton, Ilmington and Weston Sub Edge among other villages more remote from Ilmington.  Of these, that of Ilmington is much the longest.  Since his book is now not in general circulation it may be permissible to say that he believed the Mummers' plays to have a sacrificial origin far back in pagan antiquity, to be deeply rooted in the folk memory of somewhat isolated villages and that there may have been a very late printed version in the 17th or early 18th centuries of which existing forms are garbled versions handed down by oral tradition among largely unlettered folk.  By this time many characters had been incorporated in the plays and transformations had taken place, for example Saint George became King George.  Their humour is peculiar to them, and is always topsy turvey patter which he regarded as the garbled survival of magical incantations.

Because the play as known 60 years ago is not now in general circulation, Reginald Tiddy's version is given here.  Of how it was collected no information is given in his book.

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By kind permission of the Oxford University Press. The book from which this is taken is about to be reprinted.

1. Jack brings in any ridiculous object

2. Pronounced pays and intended to rhyme with waists.

The Rev J. Harvey Bloom includes a slightly different version in 'Folklore in Shakespeare Land'.

Conclusion

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It is fitting to conclude the story of Ilmington with its own version of the Mummers' Play, nonsense though most of it must appear to present day readers.  The spontaneous quotation of a few of its lines accompanied by a gentle possessive pride, seems to typify the reality of oral folk memory.  This is to be found in the elderly members of those families whom the records show to have been here for generations.  At the present time it has a span of something like a hundred years. 

Alongside this run the traditional skills of the country man and country woman.  In this village building with stone, working with wood, and in the past thatching, are crafts with a long tradition and it would certainly be an oral one.  There is a deep knowledge of the land, of the crops it will take, and of their yields in the past.  There is the understanding and care of animals; an evaluation of the use of machinery, and an almost affectionate re-use of its parts when certain pieces become obsolete.  It is the exercise of these skills, and one man possesses many, which give so much satisfaction. 

In one of the old families a smock is a treasured possession.  It is a working smock, and it is sufficiently well known to be recognised as not belonging to the Ilmington tradition.  No true Ilmington smock has yet come to light. 

Cider making in an old cider mill occupies much spare time during the autumn.  The local apples are used and the raw cider is later suitably enriched.  Wine making is practised in the homes.  This is not the wine making for which the almost foolproof apparatus can now be bought, but that of the old country tradition, the upper green providing a rich crop of dandelions, and many of the fields cowslips.  The sight of two old men, enjoying their dandelion wine, sitting on a stone wall on a hot summer afternoon, and the offer of a taste, is one not to be forgotten.  Even an old turnip masher, later used for the pig's potatoes reveals the skill of the smith who made it.

The overwhelming impression left by a study of Ilmington's documents is of a bewilderingly frequent change of ownership of land and buildings, of tangled mortgages, and absentee land lords, and with some notable exceptions, rectors.  It would seem that no one person has ever imposed a pattern on the village though the fields until recently bore that imposed by the Enclosure Award.

Ilmington has been shaped, until recently, by the everchanging needs of its community and by the traditional skills of its craftsmen.

  1. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Unnumbered printed matter.