Part 4 Memories and Chronicles

Memories of Thurlow between the Wars


My father (1856­1942) bought the Little Thurlow Estate in 1898 from the Soame family. Eight years later he bought the Great Thurlow Estate from the W. H. Smith family (Lord Hambledon). On my father’s death in February 1942 his executors sold all his considerable estates in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire (and later Yorkshire) but his children had the first refusal for any part they wanted. I was in the army at the time but took the Great Bradley part. My mother was his second wife (1883­1974). Sue Ryder, his youngest child, was born in 1924. By his first wife he had five children, one of whom, William, Yorks. Hussars & RFC, was killed in the First War, and by his second he also had five children. Part of the propeller of the aircraft William was piloting incorporates a memorial to him in Little Thurlow Church.

My father and his second family and the household lived part of the year in Yorkshire and part at Thurlow ­ latterly at Great Thurlow Hall. He had considerable business and family interests in Yorkshire. When the family and household moved to Suffolk or to Yorkshire a special carriage was arranged so that they did not have to change at Peterborough or Ely and the carriage, if I recall aright, was moved by horse. My uncle Frank, 3rd Dragoon Guards, lived part of his life at Little Thurlow Hall until he died in 1920. Then it was let to Hugh le Fleming, brother of Basil le Fleming, Vicar of Great Thurlow, until it was sold to Major K. Horn.


From the programme of the Pageant of Thurlow, 1938

The Old Park was a relic of a late medieval Deer Park ­ hence Hart Wood and the Tuft (a deer hunting expression). This was an area to the right of the road beyond Temple End. Between the wars it was grassland with a good number of blackthorn bushes. Quite a few horses were kept on it as well as highland cattle. The Island, an isolated moated house site (the house long since gone) was also part of the Old Park, which was ploughed up early in the war for production of wheat and other crops. Before the war we all took for granted the relatively small fields, the plentiful hedges, wild flowers and elm trees. The sound of cocks and hens was never far away, since many households kept poultry.

The Soames house was originally an early Jacobean mansion (no part remains of it). I believe it fell into disrepair and was replaced by the present house. The Soames created the “Walks”, which I believe was a way for horsed vehicles used particularly by the Misses Soames in the latter part of the last century. You can still see a fringe of trees surrounding the park and house and gardens at Little Thurlow Hall. In that fringe there was a pathway or track called the Walks. The hunt kennels and the stables were lodged close to the present house. My father’s head groom was Bamby (Ambrose) Williams, a real character, who had been injured in a riding accident and who did not usually ride, but made sure that the horses had plenty of oats to eat, which made them more lively, particularly on hunting days.

Bamby’s son, Albert Williams, who was also a groom, would accompany my father in his later years, when he rode round the estate and out hunting. I recall riding round with my father on many occasions. He farmed some of the farms in hand, partly because no one would rent them. Times were that bad for farmers in the thirties, particularly on the heavy land of East Anglia. Those who now live in the countryside can hardly believe that there were farms that went out of cultivation and went down to couch grass in those days. Brickwall Farm at Hundon was one. There was therefore considerable rural unemployment. But my father was very considerate to his farming tenants and he also made sure that all able-bodied men on his land in hand had a job.

The list of employees on the Estate presented to my father on 26th January 1936 on his 80th birthday included:

140 farm workers on the land in hand
(this did not include tenant farmers’ employees)
43 general estate workers
2 directly employed blacksmiths
5 in the stables
4 in the gardens
7 gamekeepers
3 in the engineers shop
1 Hall staff
Total 205 (of all ages and all male)

In those days cottages and houses did not have mains water but relied largely on wells. The summer of 1921 was an exceptionally dry one and water had to be carted long distances for people and for livestock. There was no mains drainage and no electricity. Thurlow depended on two shops ­ the present one and one near the turning to Temple End. There were two pubs in Great Thurlow and two in Little Thurlow. Haverhill was the town for other shops. Papers were delivered by Mr. Gardner, the man who ran the bookstall at Haverhill Station. He used to walk from Haverhill to deliver them. He lived in Thurlow.

Of course football and cricket were played, the latter on the grass field to the south of the Hall. I recall Bob Rowlings saying that he had seen a batsman hit a ball clean over the wall! He was fond of pulling people’s legs, particularly children’s.

The Estate in those days had its own timber yard and sawmill. Mr. Paxman was the head woodman. Not much planting was carried out between the wars but the sawmill and certainly the carpenter’s shop were busy. There was also the Estate maintenance staff, who did all the repairs to the many houses, cottages and buildings. The carpenter’s shop was headed by a man called Mr. Womack.

The war changed the scene because food grown at home was vital to the nation in the war effort. On my rides with my father I remember seeing steam-ploughing and mole-draining. One steam engine was at one end of a field and another one was at the other and pulling a plough or a mole drainer between them. It was an excellent way of dealing with the heavy clay before the arrival of the crawler tractor. The use of steam engines was carried on for threshing the corn from stacks before the arrival of the combine harvester. Rats were a problem in the stacks and steps had to be taken to kill them at threshing time. And in the early fifties I recall hearing Jim Cook referring to “sheening”, an expression he used for machining or threshing corn. Also, I recall that in about 1950 on a stack at Little Thurlow Park there was a huntsman (Charlie Field), a retired game keeper (Jim Cook) and a sculptor (Lis Frink), all working at the same time.

My mother was a constant visitor of people, especially to those less fortunate, in those days, than us. As children we used to visit the Almshouses and since, I expect, they didn’t see many people they were glad to see us. Tom Adsett, who had lived in the village and had been head keeper before he retired, was another character. He had come to the estate with the Smiths from their estate near Henley in Oxfordshire. He had a delightful way of speaking with a real West Country burr. Jim Cook was another gamekeeper and when he retired I employed him at Great Bradley. He was a fine shot. Alec Sadler was the postman. He it was who delivered the telegrams which Mrs. Pemberton Barnes used to exchange with my father, although they lived less than a mile apart. She was an eccentric yet very kind-hearted character, especially with children.

Ernie Bailey, who latterly lived in Little Thurlow, was a groom. He had been in the regular army and when riding with us he told about life in the army in Egypt, when he and his mates nearly died of thirst in the desert ­ a tale embellished no doubt because his listeners were children.

Mrs. Barnes gave Little Thurlow a sort of village hall, the architecture of which reflected her eccentricity. At times when she would appear at a gathering no one knew what mood she was in. Certainly once my mother reported that Mrs. Barnes had hurled apples and abuse at the ladies on the platform who were obliged to take cover. It did not do to ignore this lady, even if it meant getting out of bed late at night to accept her letter or telegram. Once the Estate had to carry out an alteration to her house which did involve altering a window in some degree. The intrepid Mrs. Barnes at once had a large notice put up in front of her house saying “The Lord is my light”.

My father had a succession of agents, the last of whom was George Senior. George Dale, a Yorkshire man, was my father’s chauffeur. Latterly he drove a Buick, but he never drove very fast. When cleaning a car he would “siss” continually as if he was washing down a horse. Like many chauffeurs in those days he had been used to dealing with horses and was unused to filling up with petrol and oil, only with water. The earliest car I can recall at Thurlow was my uncle’s. I think it was a Ford.

Captain Frink and my mother did not agree on what to do when nearing a crossroads. One held that you should accelerate to get over quickly, the other that you should slow down and hoot. Not so much hooting is done these days! Talking of Captain Frink (my godfather) I recall his labrador Bruno lying in the middle of the main road outside his house. There was so little traffic in the early fifties, and no doubt it slowed down and did not disturb the old dog.

Although hunting was the main outdoor sport there were also shooting parties. My father himself did not shoot owing to his eyesight, but he invited friends and neighbours. Rabbits were numerous in those days and shoots were organised, particularly for rabbits. Widgham’s Wood was alive with rabbits and perhaps hundreds were shot in a day. Partridges were about, in so far as the foxes (which were many) allowed, and pheasants were reared.

Going blackberrying was an occupation I recall as a boy. We used to go in a horse carriage to Lophams Hall in Carlton, where the hedges were high and wide and the blackberries were many. Great excitement ensued at the end when each of us revealed what we had picked.

Although I say it myself my mother was a real Christian, always on the move, always out to help people. Some said she should have been a parson’s or a bishop’s wife. She had great energy and a love that matched it.

My memory of Little Thurlow is linked with my memory of Great Thurlow, where we lived. Going to church in one or the other was, I was going to say, compulsory or nearly so! We went over the fields to Little Thurlow church. At that church we occupied the box pew, where it was easy for my father, as an old man, to have a nap during the sermon, although the rector, Charles Rogers, was not a dull preacher!

A great event in the life of the Thurlows was the Pageant of Thurlow held in 1938 and 1939. It was held at Little Thurlow Park and conceived by my mother. She got friends, relations, family and those in the Thurlows to take part. Sir Malcolm Campbell, who broke the world speed record in his car ‘Bluebird’ and was a famous figure, opened the pageant. He was a friend of Major Horn. Some of the older people in Thurlow no doubt remember it. The director was a schoolmaster from Gosfield. Sir Stephen Soame was represented, as well as Charles II playing bowls on the lawn at Little Thurlow. I am sure this tradition is correct, as Charles II frequently came to Newmarket for the races and would have visited the Soames. There were wenches as well! My sister Mary has many photographs. The Pageant involved dressing up and making clothes for the men, women and children ­ it was all great fun but hard work for such as my mother’s wonderful helper, Bay, who used her sewing machine far into the night. The pageant was possibly the last occasion for the village all to combine together before war caused many of the young men and some of the girls to join up and new faces and evacuees, in particular, to appear.

In the mid-thirties a looming threat to the quietness of Thurlow and the surrounding area was the plan to build an airfield for bombers on part of the Thurlow Estate at Hundon and Stradishall. It was to be called Stradishall, as Hundon could be confused with Hendon. My father resisted the idea but was overborne by the Defence of the Realm Act, which was invoked by the Defence people. The land was particularly heavy and some people wondered whether it was too wet for aeroplanes. However, they forgot the power of concrete for the runways. The aerodrome played a vital role as a bomber base during the whole of the war. After the war it continued with the R.A.F., latterly as a training airfield. It also gave employment to local people. When its days as an air base were over it became Highpoint Prison.

After the Thurlow Estate was sold in 1942 my mother remarked that she was glad that it had gone to someone who could aVord to spend money on it and to keep it up. She meant what she said. I’m sure she had in mind the extremely hard times on the land in the twenties and thirties that the Estate had to endure.