Saturday, January 19, 2008

Great Tew, previsited

Several people responded to my post about Great Tew with memories of how the place used to be about thirty years ago – neglected, with tattered thatch, broken windows, and a few tenants hanging on amongst the dilapidation. I seem to remember that the Sunday Times of the Harold Evans era featured it in a piece about shamefully unmaintained villages left to go to ruin by their landlords. When I went there in the 1970s the plight of the residents was dire. It seemed to take one back to the debunking essays of Robertson Scott (England's Green and Pleasant Land was the ironic title of his most famous book) that showed country life in the early 20th century for what it really was – cold, hard, and painful for many. And yet the place had an eery quality evocative of another time that no spruced-up picture-postcard village could ever have had. The lost domain.
The photograph comes from TrekEarth, here, with thanks to Liberal England for the original link.


Peter Ashley said...

I lived in a cottage like this once. It was fascinating to lie in bed and see a mushroom poking through a gap in the wallpaper.

Neil said...

The landlordism of neglectful squires, that was such a blight on the Victorian village, can still be felt today in the English countryside.
J. W. Robertson Scott, the founder editor of The Countryman magazine, was one of the first to really kick against it. Scott was a kind of anti-squire - although he lived in the manor house at Idbury, Oxfordshire, he was a freethinker, a feminist, a vegetarian, a teetotaller, a liberal, a pacifist, an internationalist, a fierce opponent of hunting and other cruel sports, and a believer in what he called "rural advance", through education and social improvement. As Victor Bonham-Carter who worked for him at The Countryman, writes, "Not surprisingly he was much disliked in the neighbourhood". He did have a few like-minded friends locally, of whom the most notable was probably the distinguished socialist Sir Stafford Cripps at Filkins (whose son John Cripps would become the second editor of The Countryman), but Scott was definitely resented by the rural hierarchy of the day.
Idbury, to which Scott moved in 1923, is one of 47 English villages listed in K. M. Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales as "Places supposed to be inhabited by simpletons". When Robertson Scott arrived it was a run-down, fairly unremarkable hamlet. It was a village in decline – down from 113 residents in 1851 to just 41. The first thing Scott did when he retired here was a write a book called The Dying Peasant. Yet within a decade the village was a thriving place, with 8 new council houses built on land acquired and donated by Scott, and a new sense of pride and purpose in village life, from the children who were chosen as "parish marshalls" and charged with keeping the village tidy to the adults who suddenly found their knowledge valued and their opinions listened to. It was a remarkable transformation, and although Robertson Scott may seem now rather paternalistic in his attitude to the villagers, at the time his willingness to mix with them on equal terms was really extraordinary, and was I think the mainspring for the village’s revival.
This improvement of the village – the picturesque houses are in a very bad state, let’s find the land and the money to build some new ones – was a typical piece of practical philanthropy from Scott. It is interesting too that he made sure the cottages had plenty of garden to grow vegetables, or keep a pig; in fact village lore has it that he had to be restrained from making the very substantial gardens twice as big again. The speech he gave to the children at the laying of the foundation stones in 1926 was recorded in the local paper:

"All the children in the school, including the infants, marched to the site from the school, with Miss Jones (headmistress) and Miss Soden (assistant teacher) at their head. The proceedings began with a short explanatory address to the children in the school by Mr. Robertson-Scott. He said that, just as in some places boys were still playfully whipped in ‘beating the bounds’ of the parish, so that they should remember the boundary lines, the head boy and head girl of the school were being chosen that day to lay the foundation stones of the new cottages so that the whole of the school children should remember, when they grew up, how these cottages came into existence. The ceremony, which was for the children only, was also to remind them how, by means of educating themselves as well as they could and by using wisely the votes they would have when they became men and women, other good things could be got, not as gifts, but by their own exertions. The cottages had been obtained because people had held meetings and asked for them in the right way. The children had to work hard at their education so that they could not only get things for themselves, but give the world something. Mr. Green, who designed the cottages, and Mr. Parsloe, who was building them, would not be where they were if they had not worked hard. Mr Robertson-Scott showed the children a piece of crystalline limestone from a pocket which had been dug up on the site of one of the cottages. He pictured the time when the sea still covered nearly all the ground on which Idbury stands, and how a very little stream that, had there been human beings on the earth at the time, no one would have thought would have been equal to anything, had made the deposit which produced this beautiful white rock. Thus all of them, however humble and unrecognised they might be, could make their mark in the world.
The stone-layers did the laying of the stones, which have cut on them '1926,' in good style. Then all the children sang the prophetic 'These things shall be' and 'Till we have built Jerusalem,”'and gave three cheers, on the call of Mr. Robertson-Scott, for the Surveyor, the builder, and the District Council."

There is some evidence that villagers transplanted from their old cottages to the new ones pined for their original homes, however insanitary and dilapidated they might have been. Country Neighbours by David Green, who worked for Scott at The Countryman, has quite a bit about a lady, a retired washerwoman and local midwife, whom he names Emma Bramley. He writes, "The cottage she lived in – a new, semi-detached nonentity run up by a benevolent council – she hated. She was for ever wishing herself back in the old thatched place which had been 'modernized' for somebody else; though while she had lived in it she had called it her 'hovel'."

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Neil, for your fascinating extended comment. Scott may have been paternalistic, but in ensuring that the people of Idbury had a proper education, decent housing, and the wherewithal to grow their food he was certainly helping them in at least three important and tangible ways to "advance". as he put it. How poignant that those houses went up in 1926, a year when much of the country was mired in the General Strike.

Anonymous said...

Goodness me. I only know Great Tew from the perspective "imagine being able to live here" angle. Various birthday's spent at the Falkland Arms, that sort of thing.

Are you quite sure this was not taken by William Cobbett for the illustrated "Rural Rides?"