The Dramatist from Three Mile Cross

London life was bustling in the 1820’s. The Napoleonic war was over and literary salons, theatres and opera were bright with talent. Mary Russell Mitford was a well-liked member of the social scene, writing poems and small dramatic sketches. Then in four years she wrote four full-length plays which were performed at Covent Garden and other London theatres, and transferred successfully to America.

Mary Russell Mitford

Famous actor/managers like Kemble and Macready were eager to appear in her works. She had turned to writing for commercial productions when her family became very poor and moved to live in a small cottage in Three Mile Cross. She had to provide their sole income. Her plays were termed ‘poetical tragedies’, generally set in five acts and based on historic characters. The final versions of the plays were settled through discussions with the main actors and Mary spent many days in London attending and directing rehearsals. There was a renewed interest in southern Europe after the wars, and Macready encouraged her work on the first play, ‘Foscari’, a Venetian Doge. In 1821 it was ready to go into production when Byron announced that he too had a play about Foscari. Both works were shelved.

Mary had to turn to another subject and by 1822 her second play ‘Julian’ was written and accepted at the request of Macready. In 1823 it was performed at Covent Garden. Mary was paid £200, to her great relief. Next she wrote ‘Rienzi’ which had enthusiastic audiences and for which she received £400 for the production, and also the profits from the sale of thousands of copies of the printed play. She then wrote ‘Charles I’. This tragedy was thought to be too near to current politics by the Lord Chamberlain, who refused to give it a licence. Meanwhile it had been realised that Mary’s ‘Foscari’ covered a different scenario to that of Byron’s play, which had been considered inferior and had been withdrawn. Kemble promoted Mary’s play, and her version was produced on stage in 1826.

Mary’s influential friends wanted ‘Charles I’ to be seen on stage, and in 1834 it was produced at the Victoria Theatre, south of the Thames and outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain. Again Mary supervised rehearsals, working with the leading actors to prepare the final version of the text. This was Mary’s last stage effort because by then she was earning more money and fame from her articles in The Lady’s Magazine.

Patricia Green     Jan.2019

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.