From 1925 onwards I have worked on the building, restoration or repair of almost every building on the Bury estate, although I must admit that at the age of fourteen my job was usually to fetch and carry. Once while the chauffeur was conveying Sir Edwin Lutyens from Ashwell station I was allowed to sweep the drawing room floor and dust the tables and chairs set out for his visit; and on one memorable occasion the great man thanked me for preparing a stippling mixture for his experiments on the front walls of the Bury.
I have always been interested in people and over the years have made mental notes, some of which I have now put down on paper. It is here that I would like to thank Philip Coverdale, who very carefully reads my notes and keeps me on the right path. He thought I was being unkind when I described one Ashwell lady as ‘dictatorial’. If only he had known Mrs R. This lady is now in heaven, but I feel sure she would have forgiven me.
I have tried to write of Mrs Fordham as I knew her. I saw her in all kinds of moods and under my breath I said wicked things about her, but I always had a great respect for her. I was working at one of the estate cottages on the cold snowy day when I was told that she had died. I felt very sad and knew that Ashwell would never be the same without her.
Albert W Sheldrick, 1983
Phyllis Fordham nee Gribble
Phyllis Gribble was born in London in 1882 into one of the more prosperous Victorian families. The family bought Henlow Grange, now the well known Bedfordshire health farm, in 1900. In his book ‘Off the Cuff’, published in 1964, Philip Le Grand Gribble describes the house as ‘A rather lovely Georgian or Queen Anne house in a park of one hundred and twenty acres, with surrounding farms of another fourteen hundred acres. The Grange has about twenty four bedrooms, and I and my four sisters all older than I occupied the top floor. There as the usual big household; three in the nursery, a ladies maid, three house maids, three in the kitchen in addition to the housekeeper, four menservants, three laundry maids, three in the stables, an estate carpenter, two keepers, nine gardeners, and also much of the time a French governess and a tutor.
Every summer my father took the whole family sailing a yacht round the French coast, all except my mother who very seldom faced the sea, – she took an active part in local government, but it was religion and its trappings that dominated her life. – Looking back one way and another I suppose I was automatically accustomed to the influence of affluence. My sisters and I worked in the winter evenings quite a lot making clothes for the poor. I used to do the feather stitching on the red flannel petticoats, and also knit mufflers on a round wooden knitting ring.
Marries Wolverley Attwood Fordham in 1903
In 1903 my eldest sister Phyllis married Wolverley Attwood Fordham, a neighbouring brewer.’ For the people of Ashwell it was the wedding of the year, if not of the century. The rector wrote a special piece for the parish magazine entitled ‘ASHWELL WEDDING REJOICINGS AND FESTIVITIES’, describing a week of unprecedented rejoicing.’
“On Monday large numbers of parishioners went to Henlow to view the wedding presents. On Tuesday they flocked to Henlow to witness a scene of great splendour and happiness in the wedding itself of Mr Wolverley A Fordham of the Bury to Miss Phyllis Gribble of Henlow Grange. On Thursday the enthusiasm began in real earnest; a sumptuous dinner was given to every cottager and wife in Ashwell. The mammoth proportions of this feast may be gathered from the fact that 400 lbs of meat besides the usual adjuncts was provided and tea, mineral waters and beer as a choice of drink. On Saturday a tea was held in one of the brewery buildings when 1150 people partook of tea, cake and ‘good fare’, while the Ashwell Brass Band played some lively tunes. On May 23rd the employees of E K & H Fordham Ltd with the London branch are to be entertained, they not having taken part in the dinner or tea.”
After the honeymoon Mrs Fordham settled in at Ashwell Bury, a plain Victorian house, probably one third of the size of her former home and she soon became known to the village people as she cycled around the streets and lanes. It was at this time she made a statement which unfortunately gave her a nickname which lasted among the villagers for the rest of her life. Mrs Fordham claimed that the wife of a working man should be able to produce a dinner for her husband at a cost of not more than four pence, and of course it was absolutely true at that time when wages were very low. So she became known as “Fourpenny Phyllis”.
Farm and Cottage Renovation
As the Victorians would have said ‘there was no issue’, and in my opinion because of this the lady devoted her life to the estate and, like her mother before her, to local government. The Bury estate consisted of several farms, farm houses and cottages, all of which had been neglected during the hard times of the previous century. So, whilst her husband, who was secretary of the Cambridgeshire fox hounds, spent a good deal of his time riding, breaking in young horses and supervising the farms, Mrs Fordham tackled the property. Always aiming for the best she selected Walter Tapper to restore Bluegates farm house, Ashwell End house and the Mill Street cottages. The work was undertaken by F J Bailey & Co, the Ashwell builders, during 1911 and 1912.
At Bluegates it included an entirely new set of farm buildings. The timber was all sawn on the spot and came from elm trees that were grown on the estate, as was the thatching straw. The architect insisted that the original honeycomb and oyster shell pargetry and the mouldings of the window mullions be copied as closely as possible. At the rear of the Mill Street cottages the farm yard manure was removed, old buildings pulled down, the whole area levelled and divided into neat gardens for the five cottages; a new lodge cottage was built to match the existing cottages.
Commandant of the Bury Convalescent Hospital
The Great War came in 1914. According to a minute book at the Merchant Taylors boys school it was recorded that Mrs W A Fordham, Vice President of the Ashwell Red Cross Society, had asked if the school could be closed and the building used as a convalescent hospital for solders. This idea was turned down, but in 1916 the Fordhams moved out of Ashwell Bury into Redlands Grange, and the Bury became a convalescent home. The Ashwell branch of the British Red Cross and Voluntary Aid Detachment was set up with Commandant Mrs Fordham at its head. Beds were loaned, socks and all sorts of comforts made. One farmer gave a weekly supply of eggs, another flour and a butcher gave sausages. Mr Ernest Thair, the Royston hairdresser, trimmed the solders’ hair. Baldock cinema allowed them free entry and free horse drawn transport was laid on. Those soldiers who were fit enough attended Matins at the Parish Church on Sundays, sitting in the front pews wearing their hospital blue uniforms with red ties.
The Station Road maltings were surrounded by barbed wire fences and German prisoners of war arrived. The prisoners marched out each day to work on the farms escorted by armed soldiers. The war ended, the Germans returned home, the wounded soldiers left the Bury and Ashwell settled down. Then in 1921, at the age of sixty two, Wolverley Attwood Fordham died.
Funeral of Husband
I remember the funeral: Morgan Biles, headmaster of the Merchant Taylors school lined the boys up on either side of Mill Street with strict instructions to stand with heads bowed and on no account look up as the procession passed. Then he hurried away to play the organ for the service. However as the cortege passed through our ranks to the solemn tolling of the church bell, I just had to take a peep. First came four estate men carrying on their shoulders not as I expected a coffin, but a flat polished box containing the ashes, resting on two crudely cut elm branches. This was followed closely by Ted Ashby, the groom, leading a horse and then came the mourners.
Life had to go on, a farm bailiff was appointed to run the farm and a secretary to deal with the paperwork. Later both were dispensed with and William Wallace, a keen young farmer, brought in to manage the land.
Lutyens and the Bury
Once again Mrs Fordham turned to building, a task that was to occupy her for over three years. First she had to find someone with the knowhow, the experience and the ability to re-model the plain Arlesey brick Ashwell Bury, which according to her late father-in-law Edward King Fordham, the brewer, was paid for with “Fools Pence”. This was no doubt a reference to Fordham’s Ashwell Ales which in his day probably cost a penny a pint. Suggestions were made by friends and visits made to houses designed or altered by a number of architects, until the final choice was made of Sir Edwin Lutyens.
After a survey, the suggestions and preliminary sketches, came the difficult task for the architect: to explain all this to a difficult client. Those of us who worked for her knew only too well that he must have been a very patient man, as it was also at the most busy time of his career, during the building of New Delhi. F J Bailey & Co was the main contractor. London firms supplied the coke fired central heating system and the electrical system complete with generating plant and battery storage, for Ashwell was still without mains electricity. The dark central part of the house was gutted roof to cellar, then rebuilt surmounted by a glass and timber lantern designed to light the wide oak staircase and hall below. One complete wall of mirrors on the first floor reflected the light downwards, whilst on the ground floor a bullseye window on each side lit the garden room and the passage from the kitchen to the dining room. The chimney stacks were rebuilt in thin red bricks with stone cappings.
An extension to the drawing room had a flat roof, which could be approached from one of the front bedrooms. This looked down on a secluded flag stone terrace with stone balustrade and across to the gardens laid out by Miss Gertrude Jekyll.
The south facing front elevation was completely changed, the arched frames were replaced with well designed ash windows and shutters and the tall central doorway was surmounted by a simple hood. The anaemic brickwork was stippled with a mixture of Leighton Buzzard silver sand and American white cement as Sir Edwin said “to give the appearance of a stone built house.” Decorations were a problem: should the garden room ceiling be black or green? The walls of one bedroom must match a delicate pink rose plucked from the garden; the landing and hall the green of a willow leaf; an impossible task for the decorators of those days with only distemper in the basic shades. The work was completed eventually, then began the really serious task of curtains and furnishings, another nightmare for all those involved.
The Village Hall
About the time that the Great War ended J R Page & Co closed their brewery at West End. The brewery and brewer’s house were bought by Mr J W Bailey the builder, who moved into the house and sold the rest to Mrs Fordham, who wanted it for two reasons. The offices would be converted into a cottage for one of her dairy men, and the long low malting she would sell to the people of Ashwell to be made into a village hall, for the use of the Women’s Institute, Drama Group, Men’s Club, Library, Dances and so on.
During the 1920s, Mrs Fordham was probably the busiest person in Ashwell. Apart from the work at the Bury she had converted the Bacon farm yard in High Street into an up to date dairy. She had persuaded the War Memorial committee to erect a stone cross, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, on one corner of the recreation ground, rather than a memorial cemetery chapel. At West End she had supervised the conversion of the brewery offices into Westbury cottage and had a very big hand in turning the malting into a panelled hall complete with stage, seating, central heating, kitchen, clubrooms and two bathrooms, where any Ashwellian could have a hot bath on payment of sixpence. At the same time there was the Bury staff to supervise the flower and vegetable gardens, the greenhouses and flowers for the house and church. There were meetings of the Parochial Council, the Rural District Council and the Magistrates’ Court both at Royston, the Board of Guardians again at Royston, the Parish Council, the Women’s Institute, the Nursing Association, the Gymkhana and a score of other committees, besides which she was a Girl Guide Commissioner and School Governor.
Church and Tower
During 1928 and 1929 she was not only involved in the restoration of the church tower, which the experts said was falling down (they said the same in 1904), but also employed Sir Charles Nicholson to restore the drab interior of the parish church. In the 1860s a new organ had been installed in the north aisle, the rood screen destroyed, the box pews thrown out, the Lady chapel screens moved to the back of the church and the large east window partly blacked out. In 1929 the organ was moved to the back of the church, the Lady chapel screens taken back to their rightful place, and the east window cleared.
Ducklake farm house was the main target for the 1928. This long narrow house, of a similar style to Bear House in High Street, had become vacant, so it seemed a good time to investigate its interior; of course there was another reason, an old school friend thought she would like to live in Ashwell. Apart from a coat of pink lime colourwash the exterior remained unaltered. The interior was stripped out room by room and “a wealth of beams” uncovered as the estate agents would put it. The big fireplace in the dining room was opened up, and the oak panelling, which probably started off as part of the church box pews, was cleaned. The front door, it was agreed should open into the centre room, forming a large hall with staircase and ingle nook. Quite by accident 16th century frescoes representing mermaids, mermen and pomegranates were found on one wall. Behind the house old piggeries and cow sheds were pulled down to make way for lawns and informal gardens sloping down to the river, where there was once a thatched bridge. When Will Freeman lived here in the 15th century he used this as a short cut to church. Mrs Gladys Raikes rented Ducklake and settled in with Tom Watson as a sort of butler man servant. Mrs Watson was cook housekeeper and Sadie the general maid; they were all brought down from the depressed north of England.
A normal day in Mrs Fordham’s life was breakfast, the newspapers, correspondence, the day’s menu sorted out with cook, and off to the gardens or the greenhouses to discuss with the head gardener the finer points of the gardener’s world. Then if the current building job was within half a mile of the Bury she would set off on foot, carrying a stout walking stick with a spud attached to uproot any dandelion or plantain that happened to get in her way. Several of these sticks were kept at the Bury, because from time to time one was left behind. If the building work was at a distance, the bicycle would be brought out; there were occasions when that also was left behind. As one job was completed there was another one waiting and sometimes two. At the same time that Ducklake was being put in order Mrs Fordham was involved not only in the restoration of the little Tudor building which was to become Ashwell Village Museum, but also a member of the committee which organised the whole thing.
In 1932 Elbrook House was bought and some alterations made, ready to receive Colonel Eustace and Mrs Barbara Hill with their family, the first time this century that young people had lived in the house. For Mrs Fordham life must have become a little less lonely, with a sister living in the house just across the meadow; it would be about this time that she considered the future of the Bury estate and who would carry it on after she had passed on. A few years later the framed photograph of a young man appeared on the grand piano in the drawing room; it was that of her nephew, Anthony Eustace Hill.
For a few years there was a lull in the building programme, until Professor Richardson of Ampthill found his way to Ashwell. After examining a section of the Ducklake fresco at the Ashwell museum the architect introduced himself to Mrs Raikes and by 1935 had persuaded Mrs Fordham to build on an extension which not only preserved the frescoes, but also included a staircase and a first floor studio with a Venetian type window.
There were two small properties lying side by side in North fields, in the middle of the Fordham estate. The first was a long thatched cottage, which had been the “New Found Out” public house during the coprolite excavations in the nineteenth century. Later it was owned and occupied by Tom Sansbury a gardener and fruit grower. When Tom died about 1930 the cottage was bought and added to the estate cottages. The second, a small house with a large orchard was owned by Jim Bennett and by his father before him; in fact the land leading to it is called “Bennetts Lane”. It is said that in the eighteenth century the house was licensed as a meeting place for Protestant Dissenters. It was around 1934 Jim decided that enough was enough; it was hard work pedalling the old tricycle up to the village at nine every morning to collect the “Daily Mail” from Nelly Christy at the Post Office; not only that Miss Wilson his housekeeper was always asking him to bring back groceries from Harry Christy’s shop. So Jim and Miss Wilson moved into the village and sold the house and orchard to Mrs Fordham, whose niece Cynthia Hill was about to be married.
There were many discussions: could the house be adapted for the young couple? Plans were drawn up by John Bailey, the retired builder, to alter and extend the house; including a drawing room with bathroom and bedroom over, and a back hall and staircase. From one of his storehouses Mr Bailey produced the most suitable set of stairs, it seemed familiar, of course it was the original staircase from Ashwell Bury. The work was carried out by W A & F Bray the new Ashwell builders.
Then there was another lull in the building programme although there was always something to repair or renew on the estate. At one time it was proposed that Elbrook House should be connected to the main sewer. Trial holes were dug and levels taken, then as rumours of war were heard, it was thought not to be quite the right time to bother with sewers.
Anthony Hill joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. The war came in 1939 with evacuees, blackout, gas masks, rationing and all kinds of restrictions. The Home Guard was formed with William Herbert Fordham at its head and one of their first tasks was to roll the “Dixies stone” from the Bury stables, where it had rested for nearly a century, down to the Mill Bridge, where it was to be used as an obstruction when the Nazi tanks invaded Ashwell. Colonel and Mrs Hill moved into the Grange and Elbrook House was divided into flats. The war ended in 1945; the name of Sqd Ldr Anthony Eustace Hill, DSO DFC is among those recoded on the Ashwell War Memorial.
Rationing continued for sometime; even building materials were rationed, therefore only essential work could be done. In 1947 the editor of “Country Life” sent Christopher Hussey to write up Ashwell; his articles, with extremely good photographs, appeared in two issues and a third dealt solely with Ashwell Bury. But there was more to this than meets the eye; the houses and cottages were hastily patched and given a coat of limewash; tree branches, which offended the photographer, were cut off; whilst at the Bury there was a hasty re-arrangement of furniture and even arguments as to the date of some pieces.
It was about this time that the Wallace family needed a bit more space at Bluegates Farm house. Mrs Wallace had in mind two rooms, one up and one down, very simple, matching the existing house with its Tudor oak mullioned windows and plaster pargetry. Sir Albert Richardson was consulted; he had other ideas. As a member of the Georgian Society, and as one who wore Georgian clothes for dinner, the Bluegates extension must have something Georgian about it, so he designed heavy oak frames instead of the simple little Tudor frames.
It must have been in 1953 that the three Butt Way cottages were modernised, with the help of an improvement grant. They were occupied by three of the farm workers and their families. Until then they had neither sanitation nor electricity; just a sink in the kitchen with a cold water tap over it, but no drainage to take away the waste, and only a privy in the garden. The main sewer from the village was a hundred yards or so away but it had always been assumed that it was not possible for these cottages to be connected to it. Trial holes were dug, levels carefully taken and with the surveyors blessing the drains were laid. Bathrooms with hot and cold water were installed and electricity brought on poles over the fields.
Soon after this Nikolaus Pevsner came to write his piece on Ashwell for the book “Buildings of England”. On page 42 you may read his tribute to Mrs Phyllis Fordham. “The village has perhaps more architecturally worthwhile houses than any other in the country, and these are, thanks to an uncommonly discriminating and public spirited landowner, in a very good state of preservation.”
When Hitchin Rural District Council decided that Ashwell’s streets should be named and numbered, it was Mrs Fordham who asked to see the proposed plates and lettering, and it was she who decided that there must be a better design somewhere. So, with her chauffeur, she set off to hunt it down; when about to give up, the perfect plate was found at Welwyn Garden City. THE HRDC readily agreed, because not only was the design more fitting, so also was the price.
Life was not all roses for the lady; there was the case of the accountant whose accounts didn’t add up. From time to time there were troubles with the Bury staff; there was the case of the pregnant maid – she was sacked immediately; it was so easy in the 30’s, to obtain a replacement from the north of England. But by a strange twist of fate just after the war, when there was full employment and household staff was almost unobtainable, HM Services made available suitable young women, in the last months of their pregnancy, to work in civilian households; so a pregnant member of the Womens Auxillary Air Force came to work at Ashwell Bury.
Henry Leverett, a London businessman came to live in Ashwell in the early 30’s. When he discovered that the District Nurse was expected to cycle, in all weathers, out to the surrounding villages he organised a collection to buy her a car. It was Henry who purchased a fleet of buses and started the first daily bus service from Hitchin to Cambridge via Ashwell. But when he had a disagreement with Mrs Fordham the result was as though a bomb had been dropped in the High Street. A pair of old cottages owned by Henry Bowman stood immediately in front of Mrs Fordhams’ thatched Bluegates dairy. Leverett persuaded Bowman to sell the cottages, and within days the cottages were a huge pile of rubble.
Ashwell Parish Councillors were always elected at the annual parish meeting. The candidates’ names were written on the school blackboard and, as the name of each was called, the clerk would count the hands raised in support and chalk up the number against the appropriate name. As her name was called Mrs Fordham would look over her shoulder at the assembled villagers and watch the hands shoot up in her support. Then we would see the satisfied smile followed by that little peculiarity – the long tongue slowly passed round her lips. All that ended in 1946, when there were almost enough candidates to form two parish councils and since that year the parish council has been elected by the ballot box.
There was a strange unexplainable sort of slyness or reserve about Mrs Fordham, so different from her sister Mrs Barbara Hill. It softened a little as she grew older and naturally, as she grew older, so her relatives and friends passed on and there were fewer visitors to Ashwell Bury. Some of the rooms were no longer used; the dining room was used only to dry walnuts on crude wire netting frames. The period of austerity immediately after the war, seemed to have settled permanently on the house. The pleasant rose garden surrounded by well-groomed yew hedges had been dug up; “Dig for Victory” had been a wartime slogan. At one time, apart from the gardener and chauffeur, the household staff consisted of Audrey Brown and Connie Dover and they were only part-time. Whilst working on the Butt Way cottages I remember Mrs Fordham, on one of her daily visits, asked Elsie Oyston: “How does one cook prunes?” She was told that they should be soaked overnight before stewing, to which she replied “Its too late, I am having them for lunch, but I will tell Connie to soak them in future.”
There are still stories told of the way in which Mrs Fordham would walk into the cottages without knocking; this is not quite true, but she certainly would if repairs or alterations were going on. She was a curtain fanatic and would try to guide her cottagers towards neat little flowery chintzes instead of the plain material or gaudy patterns, which some of them preferred for the small lattice windows.
One great service the estate provided for the people of Ashwell over a number of years was a supply of cooking and eating applies. There were several orchards and at one time a young fruit expert from Oaklands was employed to prune and care for the trees. The fruit was picked by the gardeners and stored in the old malting building near the original Bluegates dairy in the High Street. Then on Saturday mornings from 9 am to 12 noon all through the winter one of the gardeners was on duty, and for sixpence it was possible to buy a small basket of apples.
In early February 1958 I went to ask Mrs Fordham if she felt well enough to attend a museum meeting (she had injured her hip). A German family was in charge at this time; the husband, who would have been more at home on a building site, ushered me into the drawing room. After we had discussed museum affairs Mrs Fordham told me that she was rather concerned about rot in the oak cills of the Mill Street cottages. I pointed out that 46 years was a long time for a piece of wood to be exposed to all kinds of weather and experts now believed that timber should be treated with preservatives. The long forefinger was waved at me and the tongue moistened before she replied: “I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as an expert.” I recall two unusual remarks made by Mrs Fordham; when describing a man who did not know his own mind she said, “He is like a straw in the wind.” On another occasion when she thought she was not getting a fair deal, she said: “I demand by full pound of flesh.”
Ashwell lay under several inches of snow when on the 14th of February 1958 Phyllis Fordham died, aged 76. At Ashwell cemetery her name was carved on the handsome stone which she had commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to design on the death of her husband thirty seven years earlier. The following words are also carved on the stone: “Wisdom reacheth from one end of the world to the other with full strength and ordereth all things graciously.”
The Will, dated 27th April 1949, appointed Philip Le Grand Gribble and George Seebohm Executors and Trustees. A codicil was added to the Will on 4th April 1957. On 7th May 1968 the Trustees conveyed the estate to Michael Gurney Sheppard. Each year that passes proves that the lady could not have made a wiser choice.
There are those who believe that a small committee meets from time to time in heaven, its brief is to keep watch over Ashwell and the Bury estate. The members of the committee are Phyllis Fordham, Gladys Raikes, Janet Beresford and Albert Richardson (titles are not allowed in heaven), sometimes William Wallace is invited to give his opinion on farming matters, and quite often Gladys Raikes insists on Blanche Serocold being present. Matters discussed include the devastation of Ashwell by Dutch elm disease, the planning and siting of the new houses in Ashwell, the speed of traffic through the village, and at the Bury the loss of the kitchen garden.
On the credit side there is the bold tree planting programme by the parish council, the sight of a policeman once again cycling through the village, the fact that the house across the meadow is once again Elbrook House and that the Gymkhana is still a great success.
At the Bury the new kitchen and the conversion of the old one into an office it was felt were signs of the times. But there were other worthy events on the estate like the re-thatching of the Gardiners Lane cob wall, the restoration of the Mill Street cottages, and the fact that cows can still be seen in Ashwell, although the milk is taken away to make cheese. The greenhouses are in use again, where plants were raised for the house and church.
As each meeting draws to a close the little group look down at the stables, once more filled with horses, and down the drive where the Bury too is alive again.
Published by The Friends of Ashwell Village Museum c1987