Beyond the pages …

In Sheila Stewart’s Lifting the Latch, in a chapter towards the end of the book, Old Mont sadly reflects on how, by 1947, with the advancement in technology and with the advent of WW11, a great deal had changed in the agrarian communities in which he lived and once worked:

But I be forty-five, old-fashioned in my ways, getting left behind on the land…. The need for all my proud old labouring skills was vanishing fast…. I’d reaped my last swathe–… I’d built my last [hay] rick…. I’d yelmed my last thatch…. reaping, ricking, thatching, threshing were disappearing fast into the maw of the new combined harvesters that landed like locusts….” (Lifting the Latch, 2003: p.p. 184-84, 187)

Old Mont was in his old age when he retired, and he and his brother Jim, a firm union man, moved from Twiggs’ Cottage (Twiggs was a ‘tied’ cottage; a ‘tied’ cottage is one which is tied to the job) to their “new” house in Fulwell:

Our new cottage were the one that Katy and me first had our eyes on in Fulwell. The old two-holer privy be still there at the end of the overgrowed garden, very handy if me and Jim was took in emergency. But the thatched roof now be tiled, the kitchen had a brand new range, there was a real bathroom, and–standing in the corner, with its door’s wide open, warm and willing–was a brand new AIRING CUPBOARD. I don’t know if it was Taff as wangled it, but I be very pleased.  (Lifting the Latch, 2003: p. 203)

In no way was Old Mont materialistic, the only item he had ever yearned for was an airing cupboard. In the book, Lifting the Latch, Old Mont also reveals how his “new” cottage at Fulwell, the cottage which is now owned by Mr and Mrs Parsons, came by it’s name, Biddy’s Bottom. Old Mont says:

The only thing our millionaire’s abode lacked was a name. Jim offered to scratch one if I’d invent it. I were sitting in the warm kitchen toying with ‘Home on the Range’ when the Ditchley agent called to see if we be settled in satisfactory…. ‘Warm enough for you?’ he says…. ‘Warm as a biddy’s bottom,’ I says….And it’s been ‘BIDDY”S BOTTOM’ ever since. (Lifting the Latch, 2003: p. 203)

On the Wednesday afternoon in May this year,  (2015),  as we sat chatting with the Parsons in their front-room, David Parsons showed Bob and me two framed old photos–both showing the row of attached houses of which their cottage, Biddy’s Bottom, is the last cottage in the row. In both photos, Biddy’s Bottom  is on the far left. The top photo below is dated approximately 1904, and the houses had thatched roofs. In the second of these photos (the bottom photo below), taken in the 1920s-30s, the houses still had their thatched roofs.

Out of sheer curiosity I asked Mr and Mrs Parsons, “When did the house thatches get replaced by slate-tiles, what year exactly, do you know?” They didn’t know. David Parsons lifted another framed photo from the wall. “Do you know this lady standing in the middle next to my wife?” I examined the photo [below]: “Why, it’s Sheila Stewart!” David Parsons: “Looks just like her, doesn’t it, but it’s not. That lady is from America, she came all the way here from America with a copy of that photo [bottom photo above]. She found the photo in her mother’s things after her mother died. One of her older relatives told her that the lady sitting on the steps in the photo, the steps of our cottage, Biddy’s Bottom, was her great-grandmother, or perhaps her grandmother. She thought that the little girl standing at the top of the steps was her grandmother, or maybe even her mother. Small world, isn’t it?”

We had been talking with the Parsons for hours. The afternoon was slipping away.  Much as we had enjoyed meeting this lovely old couple, we felt it was time to thank them for making us feel so welcome, and leave them in peace. David Parsons followed us across the road to where we had parked our car. “Just before you go, I’d like to show you how Fulwell has changed.” He pointed to a very small, very old building that stood almost on the edge of the road, and just behind our car.  “This is the old pump house. Up until about 1955-56, the houses in this street didn’t have running water laid on. The houses on top of hill, in the street that runs along the top of our street, had water connected. Those houses on top of hill were connected to the Ditchley water system that were fed from the brook that supplied Ditchley House which were owned by Sir Robert Wills, the Wills of tobacco fame. Sir Robert Wills had the pump house put in for us who lived in this street. We each had key to the pump-house, and we’d take a bucket and go across the street to the pump-house and draw our water for our houses. Me and her, the wife, never had to do this here in Biddy’s Bottom of course–we only moved here into this cottage after Old Mont died–but my parents had to fetch all their water. In 1955-56, Sir Robert Wills had the water connected to the houses, and then the old pump-house weren’t needed.


“We didn’t have the electric on, either. We all used paraffin lamps. Some time after he had the water connected to our houses, Sir Wills had the electricity put on for us. But we didn’t have the phone at all, that happened a fair while later again. Once the water and the electric were connected to our houses, Lady Wills had a phone put in the old disused pump-house, and the old water-house became our telephone exchange. Each household were given a key to the phone exchange in the old pump house. When you wanted to use the phone you went across the road to the exchange, opened the door with your key, put your money in the slot  under the phone then wound the handle, and you’d be connected up to whoever you wanted to speak to, but you had to remember to keep feeding money into the slot otherwise you’d be disconnected. It were years before we got the phone put on the houses. I remember it were a while after her (the wife) and me had moved into Biddy’s Bottom before we could finally get the phone on in the house.”


The old pump-house telephone exchange is still a good solid building, made of good solid stone blocks, but it’s open to the elements now. It doesn’t have a door anymore, and it lacks a roof. David Parsons said: “The old door and roof beams were nice and solid, and the roof tiles were nice slate, good slate. As soon as it wasn’t needed any more as a pump-house telephone exchange, people  started pinching bits of the building. You never saw anyone doing it, though. It’s a shame, I suppose, but the building is no longer used anyway.  At least the door and roofing materials aren’t going to waste–someone’s put them to good use, I suppose.”


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