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.

The Loddon Valley

The Loddon valley has had a profound effect on the local history of its surrounding parishes. The river flows through Swallowfield and when it is joined by the Blackwater it forms the boundary between Arborfield and Shinfield. It has been suggested that the parish name derives from the ‘shining fields’ seen when the sun shines on the flooded meadows. Maps of 1761 and 1790 use the word ‘Shinefield’ for the parish. A tangle of small streams, ditches and backwaters flows slowly across the flat valley floor and was a major impediment on routes between the Thames valley at Reading and the towns of Hampshire and the south coast. Tracks came downhill from the north towards tentative river crossings. Pearmans Lane is shown on Ordnance Survey maps passing Pearmans Copse in Earley and continuing through fields south of the M4 and Cutbush Lane, to cross the Loddon near the remains of the paper mill and old Arborfield Church. Part of this route is followed by Shinfield Parish footpath walk no. 2. Two other bridging points are now main road routes, on the A327 to Arborfield and on Basingstoke Road B3349 at Sheepbridge. Further upstream, the historic Kings Bridge crosses the Loddon, extending from Woodcock Lane. This route was used in the early C19 by the author Mary Russell Mitford when she moved from Three Mile Cross to Swallowfield.

The Loddon at Pearmans Lane
The Loddon at Pearmans Lane

The river was essential to the mediaeval economy. It provided food (fish and eels), water power for mills at Arborfield and Sheepbridge, and was navigable for small boats. Wildflowers and small animals were abundant in the damp woodlands and meadows along the valley. Mary Mitford wrote of her delight in ‘the bright, brimming transparent Loddon’. However she also tells of the river flooding over ‘fields, roads, gardens and houses‘. Such floods are still frequent. It is expected that the improved A327 road will not flood. The new Shinfield by-pass incorporates ‘gated’ tunnels where it is raised across the meadows to allow more retention of water on the fields. At Sheepbridge, a mill was recorded in the 11th century Domesday Book, and Guy Stiff, in an article for the WI, in 1996, recalled seeing the last mill at work. The three storey building had a pair of 12 feet (3.6 metres) diameter cast iron wheels taking their power from the river. The mill became disused after World War II, and the building was destroyed by fire on 2nd August 1961. Now we can see the mill pond, the mill race and its weir. The Mill House hotel next door is a modern building and the moated house across the road is a historic moated building.

In dry times the meadows are grazed by sheep and cattle. The Loddon is part of the Thames catchment and when levels rise in that river, then the flow of the Loddon is likely to be held back and water levels rise in Shinfield. Riverside land by the old bridge from Pearmans Lane is a site of nature conservation value.

In 2010 the braided watercourses were restored and improved by the Environment Agency, which put in a fish by-pass to assist fish spawning, and reinstated weirs to lower the risks of flooding upstream.

Gravel deposits over river alluvium have provided pockets of better drained land suitable for grazing animals and growing crops. Small scale gravel was extracted to maintain tracks and improve access. This often left uneven ground and hollows which became ponds, for example northwest of School Green and south of Sussex Lane.

Now major extraction works are planned for the fields west of the A327, to supply forthcoming developments. It is intended that affected land in Shinfield will be restored for public use with lakes and meadows. This will link with the Langley Mead area which is designed with restored wildflower grazing meadows and footpaths, parts of which are raised boardwalks for times of flood.

Casual play in the fields and by the river has always happened. Children would swim in the Loddon and jump and splash in its ponds. Nowadays access is more restricted. Fishing has become a club activity with special fishing rights, and playing fields are planned with careful drainage to be useful for as much of the year as possible. The south-facing sloping fields near Sheepbridge are used for arable crops, and recently a solar panel array was installed over one field to feed electricity directly into the overhead pylon national grid line.

We are fortunate that despite the changing landscape, the valley retains its visible presence.

Patricia Green

 

Farms and Farming in Spencers Wood and Three Mile Cross

Farming and providing items for use in agriculture were always the major occupations in this area.

During the Middle Ages, people grazed animals, fished and caught eels in the Loddon, and grew crops on the drier ground. Poor labourers worked on the land and for the lords of the manor. In the 18th century, improvements in land drainage and new equipment made farming more viable. Auction papers from 1815 describe some land in the area as being “fertile and well cultivated”, but most land remained unenclosed until later.

Mary Russell Mitford
Mary Russell Mitford

Mary Mitford of Three Mile Cross wrote in the 1830’s of being “fortunate” to live in an unenclosed parish, thanks to “the wise obstinacy of 2 or 3 sturdy farmers and the lucky unpopularity of a ranting madcap lord of the manor’.

She mentions sheep amid the gorse, meadows alive with cattle, and farms with orchards and ponds. Vegetables were a main arable crop and she saw women and children stooping for eight hours a day “setting” beans (planting the seed beans).

Highlands and Stanbury were the two large houses in the area, surrounded by parkland with small farms such as Weathercock Farm and Hill House Farm. By 1870 Whitehouse Farm near the Common, and Yew Tree Farm with its orchard were established on the high ground looking west. Lambs Farm was nearby on the west side of Basingstoke Road, and on the east was Mullins Farm, south of the post office. Wells for fresh water were important, and the 1871 Ordnance Survey recorded wells at Wilders Farm on Ryeish Lane and at the nearby Clares Green Farm. On Hyde End Road, both Floyers Farm and Grovelands Farm had orchards.

Growing fruit and vegetables for the busy town of Reading became profitable, and new farms were established: Nullis Farm near Wilders Grove Farm, Ryeish Farm near the junction with Hyde End Lane, and May’s Farm on Hyde End Lane. Great Lea Farm managed land south of Three Mile Cross. During the early 20th century, some farms amalgamated and more land was used for orchards, for example near the school at Ryeish Green. Flowers also were grown commercially, at Dearlove’s Nursery and at Prior’s Nursery, both beside Basingstoke Road.

By the 1890’s, both Pursers Pedigree Poultry Farm on Basingstoke Road and a 3.75 acre paddock with poultry on Hyde End Road had been established. Until the 1970’s, animals were taken to slaughter at a building near the allotments in Basingstoke Road. The meat was cut up, and either returned to the animal’s owner, or sold in the butcher’s shop at the front of the building. Fresh milk was delivered locally from Channel Islands cows at Mays Farm, and Spenwood cheese was produced in The Square.

Patricia Green – with thanks to Margaret Bampton for input.

Mary Russell Mitford’s writing were first published in “The Lady” magazine.