In the 1980s Ellen Smith – known as 'Nell' – published a series of four books about her life in Wymeswold. The first, Memories of a Country Girlhood, appeared in 1983.A second edition was published by Heart of Albion – on behalf of the Wymeswold Church Appeal Fund – in 2005.
Let's start at the beginning:
Chapter One: The Village
My native village of Wymeswold nestles in a valley on the wolds in the north-east corner of Leicestershire. In the centre of the village the beautiful church of St Mary's stands on a rise overlooking the village square. The church is very large for a village of less than a thousand inhabitants. I have often heard it called the cathedral of English village churches. It was built in the Middle Ages but was restored by Dean Alford in the nineteenth century. On the other side of the square stands the Church of England School. The church and the school were the pivot of most of the social life of the village. The infants' school was further up the Far Street but is now a dwelling-house.
The Methodist Chapel stands in the Stockwell and still has a good congregation. The Baptist Chapel was built just outside the village on the Wysall Lane but was sold in the 1950s because of the dwindling congregation. This chapel is now a dwelling-house, standing in the middle of a graveyard.
The Post Office and shop is situated on the east side of the church and has been run as long as I can remember by the Brown family. Its owner, Mr Philip Brown, was the only man in the village who could take photographs, which he developed and printed in sepia. Sometimes at the village parties he would show these photographs in lantern-shows. We children would love sitting in the dark waiting for the next slide and usually there would be someone we knew on each of them. These old films are extremely valuable now. His granddaughter, Miss Joy Brown, who now owns the Post Office, occasionally allows these slides to be shown on an old lantern projector in the village hall. These films are very much appreciated by both old and new residents.
In Brook Street there was the largest shop in the village, run by Mr Thomas Brown, brother to Mr Philip Brown. This shop, now converted into two houses, sold groceries, shoes and drapery. Brook Street is so called because of the brook running through the centre of the road, called the River Mantle, which frequently burst its banks. One August day there was a cloudburst and it rained steadily all day, causing the brook to flood. In spite of sandbags some houses in Brook Street were flooded. Boats were rowed on the deep waters of the street. The water gradually crept out of the village and down the Hoton Road, eventually flooding a field where a farmer kept a lot of hens. Our family was marooned in our house and we watched the hens being rescued. Now a new culvert and pipes have been laid; heavy rain water is soon dispersed into the brook beyond the village and there has been no recurrence of bad floods. In the hens' field several new houses have now been built.
The third shop was in our street, called Clay Street, and was kept by Miss Wood and her niece, Miss Simpson. Miss Wood had been a lifelong friend of my Wootton grandparents and Miss Simpson was one of my parents' best friends. The shop sold many things. When one entered the door, one was in the grocery department. The room itself would not measure more than twelve feet across and certainly not more than fifteen feet long. There was a wooden counter with brass scales and weights, always highly polished, which were used for weighing sweets and small things. Another set further along the counter, made of copper and much bigger, was used for weighing lard, sugar, cheese, bacon, etc. Next to the cheese and bacon table was a huge red tank from which paraffin was sold. No one was allowed to serve this paraffin but Miss Simpson, in case they were careless and a spot of paraffin fell on the cheese and bacon counter. This arrangement would never be allowed these days.
The shop window was only a yard and a half wide and perhaps one yard in height, so we children had to stand on tiptoe to look at the sweets, which were kept in huge glass jars on shelves inside the window. We never had any pocket money and were never given any until we went out to work at the age of thirteen. Sometimes one of the representatives who called to sell building materials to father would give us a sixpence each – a sprat to catch a mackerel, I suppose. Then it would be "corn in Egypt". We would troop to the little shop and choose a farthing's worth of one sort of sweet and another farthing on a different sort and the rest was put away in our money boxes. Mother always made us save: if we had one penny given to us, a halfpenny went into our money boxes. A treat on Saturday nights came from father, who always brought half a pound of sweets to share between us, and these were usually divided two at a time every morning until they were gone.
The other part of the shop sold drapery, anything from cottons, pins and needles to underclothing and flannelette by the yard. At Christmas the drapery window would be resplendent with toys, quite inexpensive toys but far beyond the means of some of the poorer families in the village. The village kids congregated around this window many weeks before Christmas, gazing with rapt eyes, hoping they might be lucky enough to have at least one toy for Christmas. Over the shop were three rooms, one for storage and another for the sale of boots and shoes. The third room was used for dressmaking. Miss Wood and Miss Simpson spent their spare time making dresses for most of the village ladies; all my mother's and our four girls' dresses were made here. When I grew older and saw some of the work they used to do, I was amazed at the tremendous amount of sewing that went into making one dress and I wondered how in the world two ladies managed a shop of this kind and still did such a lot of beautiful sewing. These ladies were so kind that, if the children of poor families had no shoes, they would fit them out from old stock, even though the parents concerned owed them a large grocery bill. I knew one family with ten children, who all benefited in turn from their generosity.
There were also two small shops, one in the village square, under the shadow of the church, and the other in Far Street. The first is now one of the three grocer's in the village, the second is a small antique shop next to where the James family had their petrol pumps. All these shops in a village with only 600 residents seemed quite a lot, but they all made a living.
My auntie Sarah once sent me to the shop in the square for several articles and she recited to me the things she needed, adding at the end "a pennyiower". I could not think what this was, but I asked for a pennyiower just the same. As the shopkeeper did not know what it was either, she told me to ask my auntie to write it down. "Good gracious me!" said auntie, "I owe the lady one penny." How a child mistakes the meaning of grown up words. One other funny mistake I made for several years was in the line of a prayer. The phrase "Pity my simplicity" I used to think was "Pity mice implicitly".
There were three butcher's, one of which was run by the James family for three generations. We called them old John James, young John James and young John James's son John James. They also had a meat stall in the Loughborough market every Thursday and Saturday, but now that young John James's son has retired, his sons have taken up farming, so the James's butcher business is no more.
Mr Fred Jalland and his sons, Percy and Harry, ran another butcher's shop in Far Street. They also sold meat from a horse-drawn cart in several of the surrounding villages, later using a van for this purpose. Now Harry's son Roger slaughters animals for customers' deep-freezers, but retailing has been discontinued. Fred Collington's sons and grandsons still run their shop on Far Street, the only butcher's left in the village; they also sell meat in several of the other villages.
There was also a pork-butcher's shop on Brook Street, run by Mr and Mrs Savage. Mr Savage killed the pigs, as many as two or three a week, in the yard behind the shop. His wife made porkpies, sausage, haslet, faggots, black puddings and all sorts of cooked meats. Their shop-window can still be seen: it is part of a thatched cottage next door to what was the village blacksmith's. When Mr and Mrs Savage retired, Wymeswold people were lucky to have the Taylor family living in Clay Street, who started a similar pork butcher's business. In addition to selling in the village, they started a market stall in Loughborough, where Taylor's porkpies became famous. Their son Jim and daughter Winnie were the two who built up a thriving business on their stall. Jim also collected eggs from the village farmers, which his Loughborough customers greatly appreciated. Now they are retired and another local trade has gone.
One other craft that died out was stocking making. An old man named Smith, who lived next door to our builder's yard, had a huge machine that made a dreadful noise, but it was fascinating to watch the stockings appearing down the length of his contraption. When Mr Smith passed away, no other person could work the machine.
The three bakers were Mr Warren Walker, Mr Bartram and Mr Frank Wood. Mrs Wood was a wonderful cook: her puff pastry was renowned in all the surrounding villages in the wolds. After the bread was baked, the villagers would take their own pastry, tarts and pies to be baked in the big oven. Tarts were baked for one penny a dozen. When our father killed a pig, Mrs Wood always baked mother's porkpies for around twopence each. Bread is no longer baked in the village.
At one time there were seven public houses in Wymeswold, but in my lifetime there have been only the present four: the Three Crowns, the White Horse, the Windmill and the Hammer and Pincers.
The blacksmith's shop was in Brook Street. We kids were allowed to watch him shoe the horses, some of which were quiet and didn't seem to mind having their new shoes fitted, but others hated it, making a great fuss. Some would kick out ferociously, bucking and stamping, but Mr Hayes was clever in evading their kicks. It was fascinating to watch Mr Hayes shaping a shoe on his anvil to fit the horse's foot. As the new shoes were applied while they were hot, the hoof smoked and smelled horrible. I always wondered why having nails hammered into their hooves never seemed to hurt them.
There was one shoemaker and one cobbler whose thatched shop stood in the square between the lych gate and the sweet shop. It was considered a great privilege for a child to be allowed to sit and watch Mr Wood's clever fingers sewing the boots and shoes.
Mr Morris was the saddler who made and mended harness. He also kept foxhounds, some of which were so fierce and dangerous, children were scared to death to go near his place. Once one escaped and ran amuck in the infants' playground on the other side of the road. Fortunately Mr Morris arrived in time before much damage was done. This Mr Morris used to get drunk and we children used to watch him from a safe distance. His thatched shop on East Road later became a grocery and newsagent's but is now part of the house next door.
Mr Lamb was the village carpenter, wheelwright and undertaker. Again, we kids were allowed to watch when they were fixing iron rims on wooden wheels. They built a fire with sticks and shavings into the size and shape of a wheel, they left the iron rim on the fire until it reached a certain heat, then the wooden wheel was fixed and hammered into place. The whole wheel was then taken off the fire and water poured over it. The work was very specialized and not always successful. Sometimes I realized something had gone wrong and they had to start all over again.
We also had a cheese factory where all the farmers took their milk, which was made into Stilton cheese. We even had a coal merchant, Mr Savage, who sold coal for one and threepence per hundredweight.