In November 2004 I was fortunate enough to meet Mary Morse and her husband Leslie at their home in Wootton Bassett. I was researching the former West Swindon farms for a local history project I was writing for the primary schools in the area. I completed projects for Salt Way (closed in 2006), Shaw Ridge, Tregoze and Brook Field Primary Schools, and my intention was to write further projects for Toothill and Oliver Tomkins primary schools, but unfortunately funding ran out.
Mary was very generous with her time, sharing her memories of growing up and living in the parish of Lydiard Tregoze.
I filed my notes and unfortunately they were never published. Sorting through my boxes of research I recently rediscovered Mary’s story, which I am posting on the Friends blog. I’m sure there are many local residents who will recall those times and remember Mary.
Mary’s father Wilfred Parsons returned from service in Egypt during the First World War and in 1920 he became a tenant at Whitehill Farm, then owned by Wiltshire County Councils.
Whitehill Farm was once part of what was known as the Charterhouse Lands. In 1611 high ranking civil servant Thomas Sutton founded a hospital for pensioners and a school for forty poor boys at a former Carthusian monastery near Smithfield in London. He bought various properties, the rents of which funded this charitable venture, among them Whitehill, Mannington and Toothill Farms in the parish of Lydiard Tregoze.
In 1616 John Lawe farmed 65 acres at Whitehill Farm. In 1799 Richard Dore King signed a twelve year Lady Day lease on the farm where the wealthy King family remained in residence for much of the nineteenth century.
The three farms continued in the ownership of the Charterhouse Trustees into the 20th century. They were eventually sold in 1919 to Wiltshire County Council and broken up into small holdings for the use of returning ex-servicemen following the end of the First World War.
Mary’s parents met at St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Park. Ada Carter was originally from Ashbury while Wilfred came from Lydiard Millicent where his parents kept the village shop.
Before the war Mary’s father had worked as a groom for Captain James Sadler at Lydiard House, Lydiard Millicent. Mary still had a leather case used to store shirt collars presented to her father by the Captain on the occasion of his 21st birthday.
St Mary’s played a major role in Mary’s life and she spoke with great affection of the Rector who had been there during her youth and the Fellowship group he established. She mentioned the names of members of the congregation who continued to worship there in 2004.
She recalled watching Lady Bolingbroke and her son Vernon taking their place in the St John family pew and church events that punctuated the year, some of which took place in the mansion house.
Mary was born in 1928 at Whitehill Farm. She had an elder brother Gordon and talked about being ‘daring’ and joining in with the games the boys played. She recalled the swing the boys made using a rope slung across a branch of an oak tree just inside the farm gate. She had one go on the swing then as the boys winched her up again the rope snapped and she came crashing down to the ground.
A local nurse checked her over and said she had not broken anything but to rest for a day or so. Her father would have had to travel into Swindon to get a doctor so he was grateful for the diagnosis. In later years Mary suffered from intermittent back pain and after the birth of her second son the doctor said she had some damage to her spine and queried whether she had ever had an accident as a child.
From a very young age Mary had farm chores to complete. At just three years old she helped to feed the hens and as she grew older she helped at busy times on the farm such as haymaking. She milked the cows and helped her mother churn the butter. She pumped water from the well to use in the dairy and cut with a scythe the strip of grass the mower couldn’t reach close to the hedgerow.
Mary and her brother attended Clifton Street School in Swindon, cycling behind their father’s horse drawn milk cart. Wilfred delivered milk door to door in Swindon, ladling the milk from churns on the cart into jugs provided by the housewives.
Mary had vivid memories of living at Whitehill Farm during the Second World War when a camp with a hundred soldiers was billeted on one of the fields. 377 Battalion, followed by 419 Battalion and later both German and Italian prisoners of war camped there. Three antiaircraft guns and a machine gun were erected in this field (which is now the site of Beaumaris Road) and Mary recalled seeing a Messerschmidt plane fly so low she could see the pilot.
There was no NAAFI for the soldiers billeted at Whitehill so Mary’s mother provided them with provisions while the officers used the farm parlour as a living room. Mary recalled the camp dances and celebrating her 21st birthday in one of the Nissan huts.
Mary told me she had no desire to work anywhere other than on the farm with her father. However Mr Deacon from the china and jewellers shop in Old Town offered her a job. She was to have a month’s trial but after the first week she told her father she didn’t want to be an errand girl. Her father told her she would have to work out her month’s trial. Mary ended up working for Deacon’s for 55 years.
Mary’s brother took over the farm after their father’s death, but post war changes for Swindon were already on the way.
With the adoption of the Town Development Act 1952 Swindon embarked upon an ambitious development programme. Further boundary changes added a large part of the old parish of Lydiard Tregoze and with it the former Charterhouse lands.
‘A 300 acre site at Toot Hill south of the A420 Swindon to Wootton Bassett road will provide the homes in a new urban village,’ the Advertiser reported on Wednesday November 17, 1971 as Thamesdown Council received approval for the western expansion of the town.
Today Whitehill Farmhouse stands on the corner of Beaumaris Road and Rowton Heath Way in Toothill, and remains a Swindon Borough Council owned property.
Mary died on December 20, 2009 aged 81. Her funeral took place at St Mary’s, Lydiard Park, the church that had been central to her life where she served as churchwarden, chorister, a member of the parochial church council and on various church committees.