Mary Russell Mitford attempts to improve Education for local village girls

Mary Russell Mitford

There is a book in Spencers Wood Library called Records of a Friendship between William Harness and Mary Russell Mitford.  The book is based on correspondence between the two.  For the last four years of her life, Mary had moved from Three Mile Cross to Swallowfield.  Having been always keen on village education, Mary had wanted to establish a school for the local girls.  She had already suggested a scheme for creating a rural Library whereby her friend, Mr Lovejoy, a book seller of London Street, Reading would travel around the villages with books, but this didn’t come to fruition. Mary then set out her ideas in a statement to William Harness and should anything come from it then he should be prepared against the evils to come from it.  Mary said that girls would rather work in the fields for 2 or 3 days a week with tea, bread and butter than be comfortably housed and fed in decent servitude.  The local rich would also prefer this as girls were cheaper than boys to hire.  The way to overcome this was education, advocating household work.  Religion was also required whether they were dissenters or churchmen and they must attend Sunday Service.  The girls also needed to know about the wider world and English history.  Mary, though, deprecated singing including hymns.

Other friends came to help in the scheme namely Charles Kingsley of Eversley (living at Farley Hill) and Hugh Pearson, the Rector of Sonning.

Just as Mary had written this, Mr Watson, the curate made his appearance to announce that he had received nearly £1000 in relation to the Russells, of Swallowfield Park, little school scheme which Mary scathingly called a Dame School.  Mary said that the school could just as easily be built in Shinfield for the girls there.

The Russells’ school went ahead, opening in December 1854 as Mary indignantly describes it being built over an old dunghill of a farmyard which they had taken into their Park and will make it serve as a lodge.  ‘They had only an ignorant young woman and Miss Priscilla for teachers, took none but small children, make them pay so much per week, clothe them in a shabby uniform and make them pay for it!’  (Mary had imagined a school for all ages including an evening school for adults.)  It was shortly after, in January 1855, that Mary died.  There was some talk of naming the school after Mary but no, it was called Sir Charles Russell School. A proposed school in Three Mile Cross that didn’t materialise was also to be named after her.  Although, when Ryeish Green School opened in 1908, that too, was suggested to be named after her.  Neither did that materialise.

Margaret Bampton    March 2020.

Sussex Lane off Hyde End Road

Sussex Lane is marked on old maps.  The 1740 map shows some plots of land that were unchanged for centuries.  The plot where “Hardy Cottage” was built in 1889 was marked on the map of 1740 with a “bothy” and the plot outline was exactly the same when it was purchased by Harry Cook in the 1960s.  The Lane is part of the route from Swallowfield to St. Mary’s Church in Shinfield, which goes partly across fields as a footpath, and partly on tarmac roads.

When St. Michael’s Church was built and the new ecclesiastical parish was carved out of the original St. Mary’s parish in 1911, the centre of Sussex Lane formed the boundary between the two, with houses on either side in different parishes.  The Lane still forms the boundary between the separate parts of the civil and ecclesiastical parishes.  The fields at the southern end of the Lane were worked for gravel extraction from gravel pits owned Mr and Mrs Robbins of Glenwood, and local children used to swim in the lakes.  The pits were filled in with rubbish during the 1960s by Wokingham Council.  At that time the Lane was called “Gravel Pit Lane” or “Pits Lane” and the later residents had to petition to change the name to Sussex Lane.

Only three dwellings along the Lane date from before the second half of the twentieth century.  The oldest property is Meadow Cottage, formerly “Glenwood” and originally two Elizabethan cottages.  It now retains parts of the sixteenth and eighteenth century Georgian building.  Wooden stables with a loft over were pulled down in the mid-1960s to make room for the Meadow Cottage Nursery School which took children between the ages of three and five years.  Sussex Lodge has deeds dating from the mid-1850s.  Hardy Cottage, previously called Lane End Cottage, was built in 1889 and was lived in by the gardener to one of the local estates.  The soil there is a deep rich loam built up over the years and there is still a working well in the garden.  At the entrance to Sussex Lane there was a market garden where no.205 Hyde End Road now stands.  The production of fruit and vegetables for markets in the Thames Valley was a major land use in Spencers Wood during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Beyond Hardy Cottage, the land where Laburnum was built in 1958 had been a small-holding.  The Lane and Hyde End Road were re-aligned in the 1960s and further properties were added in Sussex Lane during the 1960s – 1980s.  Jordan Close and new houses fronting Hyde End Road were added in the 1990s.

Sources

Mrs Kay Kennedy, Sussex Cottage 2004

Mr Harry Cook, Hardy Cottage 2004

 

Patricia Green, February 2011

Three Shows in 2019

The Group enjoyed having a stand at three local shows this summer.  We showed some archive material while promoting our publications, and looked forward to discussions with visitors.  Our theme was “Then and Now”.  The display boards have contrasting photos of land and properties taken in the last century and again recently.  In July it was a windy day for St. Michael’s Church Fete.  People were surprised to recognise places they knew before development.  Often this prompted a discussion about the past and we gained some gems of information for our records.  The photos are supplemented by maps of Spencers Wood before 1914 and by aerial photos.  Now we expect to compile a library of photos taken by drones.  Some older aerial photos show the 19th century Enclosure Act fields which survived until recently in their original small square pattern north of Hyde End Road.

For the Swallowfield Show, on those hot days towards the end of August, our stand was in a large marquee. The Children’s History Box, as usual, caught the interest of youngsters who have never  seen small milk bottles, or a horseshoe, or pre-decimal coins. Some parents do not remember these either!  One visitor told us of World War Two defence activities at Loddon Court Farm, where troops armed with BOFUS light artillery guns were part of the outer London defence and were linked to the Thames/Kennet valley ‘STOP’ line.

The Spencers Wood Carnival on the recreation ground in September was our final outdoor event. People new to the area checked on our maps for the site of their new homes. Others have given the group the old deeds of their homes, written by hand on parchment. These documents form a cherished part of our archives. The information we are given often links to material on file and fills gaps in our knowledge. We are always pleased to receive extra details which can be sent by email: spwood.localhistory@googlemail.com.

Patricia Green        November 2019

World War Two – Evacuees in Spencers Wood

Evacuees came to Spencers Wood in September 1939 at the outbreak of World War Two.  In a wish to keep at least our future generations safe, young children were removed from the cities and towns which were likely to be bombed, and taken to country villages.  Spencers Wood, Ryeish Green, Three Mile Cross and surrounding villages were designated reception areas particularly for children from London.  Mothers with very young children came also but most children came alone or as a group from school with a teacher.  The children for this area travelled from Waterloo Station to Wokingham, where they transferred to coaches for the rest of their journey.  They each had only a small case and the all-important gas mask in its box fastened with string round their necks.

Children were allocated to local residents and it is heart-warming to know that many children regarded their time here as some of the happiest of their lives.  Not all placements were successful, of course, and some boys and girls returned to London when there was little or no bombing during the autumn of 1939.  However most of them returned when the air raids began in earnest.  The John Ruskin School and the Cypress School in Croydon brought whole classes of children here.  The children had to continue their education and the local school buildings had to accommodate the extra pupils.  At first, Ryeish Green (then a junior school) and Lambs Lane schools arranged to have separate sessions with their own children taught by the original staff attending in the mornings, and the London children having their lessons in the afternoons.  This was soon changed and the children were mixed together to have lessons for the whole school day.  It was quite a culture shock for both groups of children and rooms were described as “bursting at the seams”.

As the town children settled in, they regarded their surroundings with amazement.  There were few of the amenities they were used to – no street lighting, few houses with electricity, many with no mains water.  It was strange to get water from the well in the garden or from the communal well on the Common off Basingstoke Road.  Instead of narrow streets with their neighbours’ houses and industrial buildings, there was all that sky and lots of open space with green fields, woods and animals!  Children had to fit in with the customs of the families they were staying with, but many found plenty of time for play and for exploring the wide countryside.  Children roamed with their new friends to Shinfield or to Grazeley, enjoying streams and woods. Clocks were put forward two hours in summer to get the most daylight in the evenings and everyone was expected to assist in getting in the harvest.  Schools closed so that the children could help in these vital labour-intensive tasks since all the younger men were away at war.

With the abundance of children in the villages, special efforts were made to entertain them during holidays and at Christmas.  Church and chapel were important.  Concerts were put on and shows at schools were rehearsed and polished ready for performances there and in the village hall.  Local children recall that some of the refugees were “rather boisterous” but that they all learned to become tolerant of one another and some formed lasting friendships.  Several of the refugees who attended Lambs Lane School recorded memories reproduced above.

Patricia Green   September 2009

Memories of Evacuees during WW2

Thank you to the residents who have recently given us their memories, including war-time ones.

We heard about the family that lived in Church Lane, Three Mile Cross, where a bomb fell in the field opposite and damaged their house and they had to move out. Another bomb fell in a garden in Grazeley Road and blew off the front door of the house during the night while the family continued to sleep upstairs. We spoke to another resident who had been a child evacuee to Reading who was separated from her mother and younger siblings and housed with many different families and, at one time, even had to sleep in a garden shed.

The evacuee children from the London area came from Waterloo Station to Wokingham, where they were transferred to coaches for the rest of their journey to Spencers Wood. They each had a small case and the all-important gas mask in its box, fastened with string round their necks.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 caused a halt in the installation of main infrastructure services. Spencers Wood remained a rural village, causing amazement to the evacuee children who were sent from London and other cities. It was a shock to find no electricity, no piped gas, no running water. Dotti Johnson who was 7 when she came to Spencers Wood told us: “The grey stone cottage was without sanitation or running water. Drinking water came from a well in the back garden. Lighting was obtained by oil lamps and candles. Cooking was done by a small kitchen range.” Many houses had wells in their gardens or in their outhouses where fresh cold water could be pumped directly into a sink.

There were no street lights, and the wide starry skies sometimes over-awed the city children. However, they generally loved the freedom of the countryside, exploring and playing in the many surrounding fields and woodlands and picking fruit, nuts and flowers according to the season. Schooling was shared with the village children, and some teachers came with the evacuees. The resident grown-ups (all able-bodied men were called up into the armed forces) often felt that the village was over-run with children, and they arranged many concerts and other activities in the village hall. These delighted the youngsters. We have records from evacuees saying that this was the happiest time of their lives.

Jackie Blow and Patricia Green   June 2017

The Landscape of the early Twentieth Century

Percy's Farm
Aerial View of Percy’s Farm

Before the M4 and the By-pass, the local landscape was one of fields, hedges and orchards with small clusters of houses. It
was truly rural: people lived ‘in the country’. Old photographs and maps show many groups of trees, particularly the double avenue of Wellingtonias surrounded by even older oak trees near the hilltop. The west side of the main road through Three Mile Cross and Spencers Wood was thickly bordered with trees defining boundaries of farms and estates. The grounds of Highlands and Stanbury House were enhanced with more ornamental trees and, beyond the common, a mix of native trees formed a wooded skyline.

Footpaths had developed for people to get to church, work, and to the new schools. One took people from the Stanbury estate down to Grazeley Church (part of Spencers Wood was in Grazeley parish). Important paths were paved, but not Woodcock Lane. Beneath its avenue of oaks, it developed a wooded complex of trees, shrubs and ground flora. Woodcock Lane joined Basingstoke Road north of Three Mile Cross, passing the pond at the end of Grazeley Road. There were many ponds in corners of fields and
beside footpaths and roads. The largest one reached to the side of Basingstoke Road and had an eastern outlet stream which continued partly culverted in a series of ponds and damp ground south of Hyde End Road. A pond at Three Mile Cross and one near the entrance to Basingstoke Road allotments were later filled in.

Other ponds survived and trees shaded them to create rich wildlife habitats. The ponds held rainfall run-off from fields and roads, fed through open ditches protected by banks and verges. These were a major feature among the small late-enclosure fields north of Hyde End Road. Here corners of dense hedgerows grew into copses complete with hazel, elder, wild roses and brambles, giving a harvest of nuts, berries and fruit for animals and people. Many houses were for farm workers who were expected to feed their families with produce from their long back gardens. After World War I, allotments were established on fields in Beech Hill Road, behind Basingstoke Road and Clares Green Road, in Ryeish Green and Three Mile Cross.

The area was renowned for the many small farms and orchards. Food and flowers went to market in Reading and by train to London.Priors Market Garden was on the hillside south of Three Mile Cross and Dearlove’s Nursery in Spencers Wood supplied their shop in Reading. Dairy farms delivered milk, and there were poultry farms, a pig farm and even a tomato grower with greenhouses on the hilltop. The Ordinance Survey maps show many orchards, for instance in Three Mile Cross, along Basingstoke Road and Hyde End Road, around the junction of Croft Road and Hyde End Lane, and even in the centre of The Square. There was a large orchard off Clares Green Road – now the Appletree Lane area where many houses had an old fruit tree left in their garden. The blossom of these orchards and the hedgerows was a splendid sight in spring.

Patricia Green      October 2019

Brief Early History of Spencers Wood

The earliest settlement in the Shinfield/Spencers Wood area was in Anglo-Saxon times and Domesday book records that the land had been held by Sexi from King Edward the Confessor. The report of the late eleventh century continues:

 

There is land for six ploughs.  (There are) eight villeins and five borders with

seven ploughs. There are two serfs and a mill worth five shillings and 150 eels

and five fisheries worth  550 eels and sizteen acres of meadow and woodland

to render ninety swine. It was (formerly) worth seven pounds, now eight pounds.

 

This was an insignificant area on the western edge of Windsor forest, with the River Loddon its main asset. The church at Shinfield and any early village settlement on the well-drained land nearby would have been the local centre. Villagers were bound to the open field farming system where each man had scattered strips and all had to cooperate in deciding the rotation of crops and sharing the oxen to draw the plough. Until the middle of the fourteenth century most men were also bound to the lord of the manor to work his land which was in the east of the parish, away from Spencers Wood. In 1229 the king had sold some of these lands to Geoffrey le Despenser, whose name may be the origin of ‘Spencers Wood’. The Black Death and recurrent plagues during the fourteenth century created a shortage of farm labour and made the opportunity for labourers to rent their own farms. In due course increased prosperity lead to more independent farmers, and the emergence of tradesmen to serve their local community.

 

However most people in rural areas like Spencers Wood lived in great poverty and this became an acute problem during the late eighteenth and early nineteen centuries. The Poor Law was intended to help and the Overseers of the Poor were appointed to deal with poverty among their communities. Substantial farming families like Pither and Body cared about this, made decisions and paid much of the poor rate. One scheme started in 1700 was to provide land or parish cottages on the edge of the common at Spencers Wood where families could have room to grow vegetables and keep pigs and geese, but life was still hard there. In the 1770’s a new workhouse for the poor was built at Great Lea Common just north of Spencers Wood. People hated having to go to the workhouse, and preferred to take ‘outdoor relief‘, in which the Overseers provided items like ‘a truss of straw to lie on’, shoes, smocks, or coals for the truly destitute. Many families living in Spencers Wood were very poor, which does not feature in the writings of Mary Russell Mitford in the first half of the nineteenth century. She wrote ‘if anything be ugly you strike it out’, which was following the tradition of Jane Austen and Charles Lamb.

 

However she does record the trades that catered for the local people – blacksmith, butcher, and bootmaker for example. Also she relates how the main roads through Spencers Wood were surveyed by Mr McAdam  who decided that the low road – Woodcock Lane –  was less suitable than the road along the higher ground for his new system of paving. Improvements from tracks to paved road surfaces made a great difference to movement between communities.

 

By the end of the nineteenth century the trades listed in the census returns and the directories list more trades catering for a wealthier population. Spencers Wood had been farmland in 1872, and continued to supply food which now could be taken on improved roads to the quickly expanding town of Reading. Much of the better drained land on the hillsides of Spencers Wood was used for market gardening and orchards.

Patricia Green  January 2020

Christmas Window Display 2019

Christmas Window 2019As always, we were very happy to be invited to contribute to the Christmas Window Display at St. Michael’s Church. We were one of ten local groups taking part – the others being: Creative Minds, 1st and 2nd Spencers Wood Brownies, 1st Swallowfield Rainbows, Shinfield Voluntary Car Service, Oakbank School, Chapel Lane Pre-School, Pound Lane WI and 1st Spencers Wood Rainbows.

The theme for Christmas 2019 was “Light of the World”. As a local history group we always like to link our display into village history and so we chose to interpret the word “light” in the sense of a domestic light source. The church has large windowsills so in our display we wanted to highlight the different types of light source people would have used (and often still use in their homes today), for example, open fires, candles, oil and gas lights, battery powered lights and torches. During our research we found it interesting to discover that electricity didn’t arrive in Spencers Wood until after World War Two. We hope you enjoyed looking at our interpretation (and of course, all the other colourful displays).

If you have any memories/details you would like to share with us about living in Spencers Wood, we would be very happy to hear from you via email: spwood.localhistory@googlemail.com. Lesley Rolph