David Stanley on Wroxton Lane in 1967, in the background the Ironstone Railway bridge
David Stanley on Wroxton Lane in 1967, in the background the Ironstone Railway bridge
The 1920s and 1930s Robert Pearson wrote elegantly about his childhood for his children:
‘My boyhood years, in the 1920s and 1930s, were not all that far removed from the late 19th century, extraordinary as that seems now that we are in the 21st century, and village life then reflected this in many ways. The importance of the church and the Vicar in village life; the squire (country gentleman and major landowner); people of independent means; local tradespeople, and what could be classified loosely as ‘working people’. It was a society set in aspic – how things had been for hundreds of years, little affected by the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when centres of manufacture had, with mechanisation, been transformed. In the towns so affected, the links with the past had been largely severed, so there was this dichotomy between these places and rural areas which has taken many decades to develop some kind of equilibrium. But not for much longer would rural areas remain unaffected. Generally speaking, rural areas nowadays, except the most remote, enjoy most of the facilities available to town and city dwellers – and certainly essential ones.’
When we were young the oldest people in our village could remember back as far as the 1880s. They recalled how they had coped with the difficulties of wars (always fought far away), varying weather conditions, and epidemics. During their childhoods change had come to the village slowly. The old men and women had seen the drift of people away from the village into the towns with the improvements in the efficiency of farm implements. They had witnessed a revolution in transport and felt the influences of a number of new inventions, but even if their generation had all received compulsory schooling, which their forebears had not, the way of life of many people, although improving, was not so very different from a hundred years before.
Traditionally the working-men of Horley laboured on the farms. Some were in domestic service along with the women. All were beholden to the handful of middle-class families in the village, the landowners who employed them, and they worked long arduous hours in poor conditions for low wages.
After a life-time working on the land in all weathers, the men looked old once they had reached their sixties. The leather gaiters that they wore marked them out as belonging to a different age from ours. The women fared rather worse. If they had not adopted the modern ways with ‘perms’ and hair-colouring, their hair became grey and wispy and was normally twisted back into a bun. But the most telling sign of age was the loss of teeth: older people were toothless though they had an immaculate set of false teeth recognisable by their whiteness and regularity, which were often so uncomfortable they were only worn on special occasions. Restricted diets in the past had not made strong bones and elderly people in our village suffered a good deal of lumbago, arthritis, rheumatism and chest complaints. Nonetheless they had learned to be hardy and lived stoically with illness and disease.
To us as children in the 1940s the village and its people seemed as though it had been like that forever. Changes seemed very few and very slow, but we did not understand that we were a generation with different expectations and we did expect things would get better after the war. However, we could never have envisaged in our wildest dreams quite how far our lives would change and how comfortable we would become.
By 1950 Horley along with all the other villages in the country was beginning to feel the influence of social and economic change and development that would finally see the end of the working village. The change while it brought undoubted benefits that made everyday living more comfortable, was quicker than any previously experienced. The elderly remarked on it constantly and told us that the alteration was so complete that nothing remained the same. We found this hard to understand. The village looked to us as if it had not changed for decades. There were no new buildings other than the six Old Council Houses that had been built between the wars, and the four Manor Cottages that replaced the thatched cottages destroyed by fire. Most houses still had no electricity, no running water and no sewerage system. But it was not that which they were talking about. The loss they felt was of the village society, for they had witnessed the almost total disintegration of a thriving agricultural community, and had we understood the significance of the evidence available to us, we could have seen that there was plenty to support their claims.
The main period of this book, 1940-65, was the end of an era.The Second World War delayed progress for a while. In the 1940s our milk still came warm from the cows, unpasteurised, in a churn or bucket and at the door was ladled out into the jugs or cans housewives provided. Horses were still used in the fields. At harvest time men came home from work in Banbury or on the Ironstone, had their dinner/tea and then went to help harvesting until, even with double summer-time, the dusk settled over the countryside. I remember waking up as the harvesters went past The Vicarage singing. Older women still went gleaning at harvest time, families went sticking (gathering firewood), and men went ferreting to catch rabbits for family consumption.
Decay seemed to lie all around us. There was not much building in the years after the war for there were not the materials or the money – indeed building was forbidden without a licence. After the prisoners of war had left Horley House, and the sad, Displaced Persons found a job, Horley House which had once been the main house in the village, lay unoccupied and increasingly dilapidated, the drive closed in by overgrown laurels. Bought at a knock-down price (no-one could afford the cost of keeping large houses), the lead tanks in the attics were removed by the Banbury building company that had bought it and sold for scrap.
It was during the immediate post-war period that the unused mill was reduced to one storey and the stone used for a house in Alkerton. A crowd gathered one sunny afternoon to see the upper storeys being taken down. At this time Horley was very poor. It was a period when some people were forced to mend holes in windows with sacking stuffed with straw; when thatch was patched and paint peeled from windows and front doors, and paint, if available, was black, dark green or brown, giving the village a severe and sombre aspect.
The nearby Oxfordshire Ironstone Company offered welcome alternatives to farm labouring and thrived during the Second World War and 1950s, then declined and suddenly closed in the late 60s. As a consequence more men had to look outside the village to seek work in Banbury or become self-employed.
Socially it was a different time with different values and ways of doing things. Although there were fewer and fewer people working on the land, the vast majority of people came from agricultural families either in Horley or in other villages. So we saw ourselves as an agricultural village. Culturally we inherited all sorts of assumed rights. There was an unspoken and unchallenged belief that farmers managed the land, but the countryside belonged to everyone. For our part we shut gates, walked around the edge of fields with hay or other crops, and did not allow dogs to chase cattle or sheep. I never appreciated the great freedom I had wandering over the fields, playing in the ponds and spinneys. It was my world. No mobile telephones for my parents to keep tabs on me. I never considered it would ever be otherwise.
Living in a small community could be intense and feelings could run high leading to hurt pride and angry disagreements that were never resolved. But there were also deep friendships which stood the test of time.
The village was also divided by those who went to Chapel or to Church – some people went to both at different times, and some went to neither.
Coming up in part 2 and 3:
Clare Marchant, June 2015
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Clare Marchant was born in Horley Vicarage, Oxfordshire in 1941 and spent her formative years there until 1965. She now lives in Greenwich, London
First published in 2015. All rights reserved. The rights of Clare Marchant to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the consent of © Clare Marchant. Copyright for each image rests with the contributor.
 Clocks were two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, so darkness fell after 10pm