Life in a Victorian gamekeepers cottage.

 

Now that we are in  the 21st century, it falls to those of us in our later years to try and remember and record the stories that our parents  and grandparents told us about their lives in the days of Queen Victoria, before the turn of the 20th century. Few of these old folks would have dreamt of writing about their experiences, but they loved to talk about the days of their youth. In these notes I try to portray life in a Victorian Gamekeepers cottage , as it was told to me by my father, grandparents uncles and aunts.

 

My grandfather, Alfred Henry Brown (1867--1943)My grandfather, Alfred Henry Brown (1867--1943) was born in Basingstoke, the son of a railway ganger. He went to work on the estate of the Earl of Calthorpe and in due course took up the post of under-gamekeeper on the estate of the Earl of Strathmore, the Queen Mother’s father, at St. Pauls Waldenbury, Hertfordshire. There he met and married my grandmother, Mary Ann Abbey (1873-1972) There they set up there home in one of a pair of flint cottages outside the church gates (still there in 1995) and started their family life.

 


         Brocket Hall as it is todayLater he became gamekeeper for Lord Mount Stephen who at that time lived at Brocket Park, near Hatfield, Hertfordshire. While he worked there they spent the period from the late 1890s to about 1912 in a cottage in Cromer Hyde Lane, near Lemsford, and it is life in this cottage  I have tried to portray.

 

 

 

 

Outside the old cottage about  1906The cottage was one of a semi-detached pair at the end of the lane, which zigzagged for about a mile from the Chequers Inn (now called the Crooked Chimney) on the road between Lemsford and Wheathampstead. Much of the lane ran between fields, as it still does, and  the houses  were mainly lived in by farm labourers and the like, with Cromer Hyde Farm at the end of the lane. It must have been typical of thousands of English lanes at that period, not made up and with grassy banks and hedgerows on either side.

 

 

This meant that the middle of the lane was mainly cleared by the infrequent passage of people  and horse drawn vehicles and there was no need for footpaths at the side of the lane. In summer it was idyllic, with the hedgerows in bloom and the cowslips, bluebells and many wild flowers in the banks, untouched by the scythe. Winter was a different story, because the heavy cart wheels cut deep furrows, some 12 inches deep, and these filled with water in wet weather. This made it difficult to walk along , especially for the ladies with their long skirts. To help overcome this they needed to wear a belt with clips on to lift up their skirts, but shoes and boots got very messy and Wellingtons were not to be had
           
The pair of cottages were identical, each with two rooms up and two rooms down, and were built of brick with tiled roofs. The front gardens were small with a white picket fence and gates , but the back gardens were large. The back room downstairs was the kitchen , with a small range for cooking and a large strong kitchen table with chairs--not forgetting the Windsor chair for the head of the family. There was a meat safe on the wall, much used before the coming of refrigerators. It was a simple wooden cupboard with sides and door of perforated zinc that kept the contents cool and the insects out. It left the large larder free for less perishable foods. In one corner was a simple flat stone sink, which emptied into a large bucket underneath.

The front room downstairs was the parlour, containing the best bits of furniture the family could muster and whatever treasures they had. The parlour was an important room in Victorian culture,  although seldom used in working class families as they lived in the kitchen.. On the mantelpiece there was an old marble clock, two brass candlesticks and some polished brass shell cases filled with long pheasant feathers .The mantelpiece cover was of chenille velvet with macramé work and bobbles hanging down. On the chest of drawers stood a glass dome with a stuffed owl and owlets, together with an oil lamp. On the wall there was a picture frame containing grandfathers  certificate from the Oddfellows, together with old sepia prints of adverts for cartridges, showing pheasants and empty  cartridge cases in the long grass. The most important item was a glass case containing two shotguns , one double barrel and one single bore.

 

 

One of the bedrooms was used by the children with girls in one bed and boys in the other. The beds were large and strong with thick feather mattresses. The other bedroom was used by my grandparents and the youngest baby, which would either have slept in with my grandparents, or in a simple chair bed pushed between the main bed and the wall so that the baby didn’t fall out. They did not have cots or cradles. Each room had a washstand with a large bowl on top and a jug standing in it , with an. Enamel slop bucket , complete with lid, at the side. Each bed had the essential chamber pot underneath it and there were a few single items like chest of drawers and large chests for storing bedding and clothing. When a child had a contagious condition,like chicken pox or measles, no attempt was made to segregate them. The philosophy was the sooner they all had it the better--indeed on there was one occasion when five of the children all went to hospital at Hertford to have their tonsils out at the same time! All this seems a bit harsh by modern standards, but the primitive conditions and limited space prevented most other arrangements.

There was no water laid on and no pump in the garden, so when they were big enough this was a job the boys   had to do and there was an old fashioned yoke so they could carry two buckets at a time, down the lane to the well.  This meant that water was a very precious thing and not to be wasted--how different our attitude today when we get it at the turn of a tap.

Naturally, there were no sewers either, and toilet arrangements were a shed in the garden with a seat and a large bucket underneath. The men and boys went behind the hedge most of the time and when the bucket was full it was taken to a midden at the end of the garden and in due course dug into the soil. This was the standard arrangement for isolated cottages in Victorian times and continued well into the 20th century until piped water arrived and, with it, water closets. Then cesspits or a septic tank had to be provided.

The large garden provided,  practically all of the family’s vegetables and the adults worked to provide produce throughout the year. Potatoes, Swedes and carrots were stored in clamps in the garden and onions in the shed.

Mary Ann Brown 1873--1972My grannie was the daughter of a Victorian head gardener ( he had at one time worked for Sir Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan, at Stagenhoe Park near Hitchin ) and she loved gardening all her life. There were fruit trees and bushes and, in the front garden, old English flowers and roses.

 

 

 

 

Heating was by coal or wood, the former being supplied by coal merchants in their horse drawn carts from Hatfield coal yards by the station. When they delivered to the area, everyone who could afford it participated, and it was stored in outhouses in gardens. Wood for burning and kindling was collected from the woods and hedgerows---they were not allowed to cut down trees but fallen branches and dead wood was gathered up. Collecting wood was  a continuous process over the year , and if you were lucky you started winter with a well stocked coal and wood store. The out house also had a  copper, much used on wash days, and a galvanised bath tub for the weekly bath. It was also where the paraffin oil was stored which, together with strings of onions, the coal and the wood gave it a smell that lives in the memory. Lighting was by oil lamp and candle and on moonless nights the lane was very dark. It was common practice to put an oil lamp in a window with the curtains open and the points of light provided welcome beacons. Hurricane lamps were used if necessary, especially for the toilet , where at night the children often went in groups to save lighting the lamp and for companionship in the dark garden.

 

Like most country people, they had chickens in a run kept on scraps and chicken feed, and the children gave them all names. Eggs were always assured for the kitchen and as the hens grew old there was an occasional roast which was very welcome

Pheasant eggs , when available, were also eaten, broken  onto a tray and baked in the oven. Foxes and predators were always a hazard, otherwise the chickens could have roamed free , and a run  also meant you were sure somebody else would not find your eggs. They also had a pig in a sty, purchased from a farmer as a piglet and then fattened up on waste and acorns. The children collected the later and if they were plentiful as they usually were in season, they sold them for a penny a bottle, which was a wooden vessel about half a gallon. When the pig  had to be killed a local butcher came and cut it up  and only the squeal was wasted. My grandmother then salted down joints by rubbing in salt petre and salt and then hung them up wrapped in old curtains in the outhouse. Relatives and friends shared in the abundance of meat and reciprocated when their pigs, in turn, were killed.
           


Keepers and Beaters at a shoot. Dad on far leftMeat came from the butcher in Hatfield, who called twice a week in a pony and trap, as did the baker. Milk and butter came from the farm in Brocket and groceries were purchased at a little shop in Lemsford or in Hatfield. In those days, if you could afford it, large joints were usually eaten and kidneys liver and other offal were often thrown in free with the joint. In large houses, such as Brocket, this meant that there was always an ample supply of dripping in the kitchen  and it was a Victorian cooks perks that she could sell this. In London, it was sold to street merchants who took it round and sold it in the streets. But in the case of a country mansion it was sold to staff who did not live in the house , such as gardener and gamekeeper, and my grannie bought her dripping in this way for a few pence. a pound

 

There was always a large stew pot on the stove and in it went any meat scraps left over.  The boys were encouraged to kill with stick or stone, birds and rabbits which were quickly cleaned  and popped into the stew pot. If it was a game bird, the feathers were quickly burnt to destroy the evidence, as game birds were not the right of ordinary folk, especially gamekeepers.

Clothing a  large family was always a problem and clothes were handed down to get maximum wear. They were eventually wore out and it was common to make rag rugs by cutting up heavy material  and sewing them on to a sack---they made good covering for floors but they did tend to hold the dirt. Jumble sales did not exist as working class families never parted with anything until it was worn out or passed on to relatives or friends. Each Christmas, Lord Mount Stephen used to give a length of dress material for each girl and a strong woollen jersey for each boy. Sacks were boiled to make them soft and then they made very strong aprons and had many other uses.

Boots and shoes made by the village shoemaker Wilmot in Lemsford were for everyday use and repairs were usually done by the Father of the Family. The method used was called clumping and entailed cutting a  leather sole roughly the size and nailing it over the existing sole. It was the trimmed to size with a knife and smooth at the side with a piece of broken glass. Finally it was sealed with hot wax  applied with a special iron ,and then given a generous covering of steel studs and  blakeys to make  sure they took a lot of wear before it got through the new leather, when the process was .repeated

Like all gamekeepers at that time, My Grandfather had  a large selection of traps which he kept in the outhouse. He also had two  gundogs which lived in  a kennel and run in the garden. They were working dogs ,not looked on as pets, and never allowed in the house. Nobody could do anything with them except Grandfather, but they would do anything for him.

The children went to a village school at Lemsford , which is still there today. It was built by the Desborough family, together with others in Hertfordshire--there is still one at Birch Green near Hertford. There were no school meals in those days, so having walked two miles to school the children stayed all day and took something for their lunch, although sometimes my grandmother would take it at mid-day Discipline was strict at school but it gave the children a good basic education of the three Rs

Chequers 1904On Sundays, the family went to church at Lemsford in the morning, the children went to  Sunday School in the afternoon and very often they all went to Evensong too. For the parents there was a drink at the” Chequers “or “The Long Arm and the Short  Arm” in Lemsford and perhaps lemonade or biscuit  for the children.

 


If the family went visiting it meant walking and they naturally went by the shortest route, be it lane, footpath or over fields and through woods. It was a common sight in those days to see a family strung out in a crocodile, parents and youngest in front and older children in the rear, all smartly dressed to impress those they were visiting. Sometimes it meant walking all morning, with a lunch to look forward to before a rest in the afternoon and the long walk home before dark.

In the case of serious illness, the doctor would come from Hatfield in his pony and trap, but for everyday illnesses and ailments old country remedies were used, passed on  from generation to generation. Headaches were treated by dipping a rag in vinegar and tying it round the head, or if it was a summer headache my grannie recommended crushing a bit of washing soda to powder, putting it on the thumb and sniffing it up the nose. I tried this once and the effect of the soda on the tender skin almost blew my head off. I certainly forgot the headache! Iodine was always applied to cuts and abrasions, and for chest colds a piece of brown paper smeared with goose  grease and then applied next to the skin, under the vest. Another remedy at that time for tooth ache was to smear a piece of brown paper with grease, shake on pepper and then apply this to  the cheek where the tooth was painful and wind a scarf or towel round the head. This had the effect of making the cheek very hot and uncomfortable---so much so that the toothache became secondary. Rosehip syrup was used for sore throats and colds.

The future George V and  Lord Mount Stephen  at one of the shoots. Dad is the boy with the guns at the back. To Enlarge click on imageMy grandfathers whole existence, together with his fellow keepers, was to rear , tend and guard the thousands of pheasants, bred for the great shoots for which Brocket was famous. The future King George V was a renowned shot and sometimes went to Brocket, so it was important that everything, including a generous supply of birds, was the best possible.

 

 

The cottage and the entire livelihood of the family therefore depended on grandfather keeping his job, so it was not surprising that, like all keepers at that time, he would shoot on sight any predator that would hurt or kill his precious birds, even sitting up all night with them. When the day of the shoot came, gamekeepers and their dogs came into their own and a successful shoot meant a good time for all. Keepers and beaters were given their own lunch and some of this went home as a treat as a treat for the children.

About 1912 the family moved to a newly built gamekeeper’s cottage cromer HydeAbout 1912 the family moved to a newly built gamekeeper’s cottage with its own well, further down the lane. This house is still there today, although the old cottage was demolished between the wars.

 

 

In the late 1920s he became gamekeeper for the Honourable Michael Bowes Lyon, the Queen Mothers brother and had one of a pair of cottages at the lodge gates of Gastlings, at Southill near Bedford, and this time they had a cold water tap in the kitchen but still no other services. In the 1930s when the Queen visited her brother ,the Hon. Michael Bowes Lyon at Gastlings, the car used to stop at the lodge and sometimes, to my Grannies delight, the young princesses used to come into her kitchen.

 My Grandfather died in 1943 but my Grannie had good health all her life and lived until she was 99. She never travelled very far --in fact she didn’t see the sea until she was over eighty, but she was a most contented person and in spite of the hardships of her early life, she never envied anybody anything there.

 

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