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Berkshire Family Historian
December 2001

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, December 2001 Contents

Farm life in the nineteenth century

Daphne Spurling

My great grandmother, Mary Duddridge, died in Tilehurst in 1927 aged 92. She had an excellent memory and loved telling stories of her life on a farm in Somerset. An American cousin collected these stories in 1932, providing a rich source of material when I started family history 40 years later. Here is Mary's account with additional comments from my visit to the farm in 1999, over 160 years after Mary was born.

Her parents John Duddridge and Lena Thorne married in 1824 and moved to Halsway, a lovely old farmhouse a mile west of Crowcombe on the southwest slopes of the Quantock Hills, midway between Taunton and Minehead. The picturesque two-storied thatched house stood in a garden with an orchard at the back. Water came from a spring at the top of the hill, and until the late 1920s was brought into the house by a chute in the scullery from which it fell into a stone basin. The spring water is still used but to obey modern laws it passes through a filter and is delivered through taps.

John Duddridge was honest, upright and industrious, farming his land well. He was small, a bit pompous, and had inherited a terrible temper from his mother. Lena was a sweet and gentle woman and a devoted wife, though she often suffered from of her husband's hasty temper. They had two children: John born in 1832 and Mary in 1836.

Farm life was busy. There were calves to rear, cheese and butter to make, bread to bake, and sometimes beer to brew. The cider press is still in the barn but no longer used. A cheese room was furnished with racks on which to dry the cheeses. Bread was baked in a big brick oven built by the side of the open kitchen fire. Bundles of wood were placed in the oven itself and then lighted; when sufficiently heated, it was well swept out and the bread placed in it. The door was then closed very tightly to keep in the heat and, if necessary, a little clay plastered around the door. The kitchen range was still unknown. The open fire was kindled on the hearth, and chains with crooks hung on the wide chimney, on which pots and kettles were suspended for boiling purposes, and crocks were placed on the hot ashes for roasting or baking 'crock pies'. A spit, placed on irons called 'dogs', was used for roasting joints. One of Mary's frequent duties as a child was to sit on a small stool in front of the fire and turn the spit. Pies, cakes and milk puddings could only be cooked on baking days in the bread oven after the bread was removed. The original four-foot deep inglenook fireplace dominates the old kitchen, now the dining room. The open fire has been replaced by a wood-burning stove and the bread oven is now an architectural feature with lights inside.

The family believed in education, as Mary was only five years old when sent as a boarder to Mrs Chapman at the Stogumber Chapel House, just three miles from home. Here she was taught to sew a patchwork quilt. It was the age of wonderful samplers wrought by small hands and often setting forth very pious but decidedly melancholy sentiments. The next year this school was closed and

Stogumber Baptist chapel where Mary Dudderidge went to school as a boarder aged five years.

Mary was sent to Mrs Sutton at the Watchet Chapel House. Mr Sutton, the Baptist minister, was a kindly man who had been a missionary in India for some years, and tried to soften his wife's heart towards her youthful pupils. Mrs Sutton was a firm believer in 'Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child' and any offender against her strict rules was punished with a cane or ruler or confined to his bedroom without food for some hours. Mary and a friend were the only girls among the several boy boarders. When the holidays came, a boy was sent with a pony to fetch Mary, and when passing through Williton, Mary, wishing to look grown-up, would whip the pony to make it canter, leaving the boy far behind.

In 1848, 12 year-old Mary went to Miss Stockman's School at Bristol, where she spent many happy years. Part of the time she was a pupil-teacher, and so allowed to go more freely than the other pupils. She had many friends in Bristol and was there during the terrible outbreak of cholera. Mary and her brother, John, were great chums and spent much time driving together to visit many relations and friends who lived on neighbouring farms. But these pleasant days came to an end. John and his father did not agree on many things and frequently quarrelled. John began to deal on his own, lost many cattle in a run of bad luck and decided to emigrate to New Zealand in 1859. Mary saw him off at Bristol. She and her mother had packed him a box filled with hand-sewn shirts and packets of needles, buttons and thread; and also rice, tapioca and cornflour, provisions for the voyage which he had in part to furnish himself. The parting was a deep grief to Lena Duddridge and mother and son never saw each other again.

John later moved to Australia where he managed sheep stations. The great disappointment of his life was that his only son, Richard, refused to become a 'squatter'. The boy had no love for the land, but went before the mast on the S.S. Carlton, the highest masted ship in the world, before or since. Richard sailed to England but was too diffident to visit his father's relatives. However, they knew of the ship's arrival, inquired at Lloyds, and located him at the Sailor's Home in London. This was the first of many visits to his Aunt Mary's home, as he later married his first cousin, Mary's daughter.

Mary, who settled down at Halsway with her parents after her schooling was completed, was a pretty girl who had her fair share of fun and flirtation. On February 19th 1855, she became engaged to her brother's school friend Henry Shorney. They married in December 1862 when her parents moved into Culverhays Cottage and turned Halsway Farm over to them. Trying to find Culverhays Cottage in 1999, I asked for it at the Post Office in Crowcombe but the lady behind the counter was a stand-in: 'Who are you looking for? "Well, my great great grandparents lived there 150 years ago'. 'What a pity', she said, 'you've missed the post master, he might have known because he is about 100 himself.'

Both mothers joined the young couple at the farm in 1868 after the deaths of their husbands. Of the two grandmothers, sweet and gentle Grandma Duddridge was the favourite. Grandma Shorney had a more difficult nature. Her little weakness was medicine and she loved to dose herself with quack remedies for real or imagined ailments. Grandmothers then were very different from those of today. They covered their hair with lace caps and when invited to tea, carried circular cap baskets containing the dainty lace caps or in the case of a widow, a tulle cap with streamers. In later years, Mary Duddridge loved to tell the story of her cousin Lena Duddridge who at the time of her second marriage had lost all her hair and wore a wig. So cleverly did she manage things wearing a lace cap by day and a night-cap in bed, that it was several years before Mr Heynes discovered his wife was bald. Coming into her dressing room unexpectedly one day, he was startled to find her changing her cap and wig. 'Well, Lena,' exclaimed the mild-mannered Cornish man, 'this is a surprise!'

Life at Halsway had its dark days of anxiety interspersed with the colour and excitement of frequent visits between relatives and friends. The centre of their social life was the Baptist Chapel at Stogumber. For many generations, the Chapel was filled with Duddridges, Shorneys, Shepherds and other relatives and friends. A cousin, Laversha Duddridge, played the old organ for the chapel from around 1880 until she died in 1945. The chapel is now Stogumber Arts Centre with its own-labelled wine.

Mary and Henry had six children. The youngsters of the Shorney and Duddridge clans were very special friends. The men often went rabbiting - a day in the woods with ferrets and guns, followed by a hot supper at one of the homes and a pleasant evening around the roaring fire. It was a family joke that Arthur, the youngest child and my grandfather, chose one of these evening for his entry into the world.

Other pleasures were a 20 mile round trip to Taunton market in a two-wheeled wagonette, or to Watchet where Mary could get a better price for her butter and eggs. No account of life at Halsway would be complete without mentioning Elizabeth Gadd, who during the week worked in the fields. On Saturday morning she helped bath the children. A big tin bath was placed in front to the hearth fire, and as each was washed and dried, Elizabeth piggybacked them so that their little feet would not get cold on the stone floor.

The final quarter of the nineteenth century was a period of great depression for farmers. The family had a real struggle farming. Since Henry became a semi-invalid, his sons had to help on the farm when very young and their education suffered. They had governesses at first; and later the boys went to Mr Huggins' school at Crowcombe. Mr Huggins taught writing magnificently, but knew little of grammar or history. He caned often and was brutal to those he disliked. Walks to school had their pleasant side. In the spring, there were primroses and birds' nests in the hedgerows. In the autumn, the boys filled their school bags with apples to munch on the way. A great calamity befell the Henry Shorneys with the occurrence of liver fluke (called coad in Somerset). Henry lost a flock of sheep three consecutive years in a row: 1879,1880 and 1881. When son Edgar was only 12 he skinned 40 sheep in one month. These were dark days with very heavy monetary losses. The boys all worked very hard, too hard for their tender ages, as their father was in ill health and deeply depressed by the ill fortune that seemed to dog him. Fortunatelv Mary had a strong constitution and a very optimistic nature, both great assets in those difficult days. After 6o years in the family, their beloved Halsway was sold.

After leaving Halsway there followed 10 years of wandering as the family rented four farms in turn (one in Somerset, two in Berkshire and one just over the Oxfordshire border) before settling at Langley Hill Farm in Tilehurst around 1895. After Henry died in 1909 Mary moved between their son Edgar at Langley Hill Farm, Calcot, and daughter Kate Frazier in Tilehurst.


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updated 25th February 2002