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The Williams Family of Hanley Castle

An account of life on the land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries based on interviews with Charlie Williams, who lived at Maisey Cottage, Hanley Castle, until 1937.

Charlie’s grandfather, Richard Williams, was born in Toddington, Gloucestershire, in 1839 and by 1875 he was married with five children, living as a farm labourer in the Cotswolds. He had accepted one shilling in binding annual contract to his employer, but he was not paid regularly. Fearing that if he broke his contract he would be sent to prison, one Sunday he walked 20 miles to a farm in Wiltshire where he was not known and got a job under the name of Rivers. That night he borrowed a horse and cart and returned to his village, putting sacks over the horse’s feet to make no noise, loaded his pregnant wife Mary and their five children, together with some bags of potatoes and a few sticks of furniture, and travelled back to his new farm.

A fortnight later his son Tom was born and christened in the name of Rivers. When they moved back to Gloucestershire two years later, they reverted to the name of Williams. Richard and Mary had nine children, who all received kettle broth – bread in warm water – for breakfast before going to work in the fields, with a piece of bread and onion to last them the day. They were paid one penny a day to scare the crows off the corn.

Meat was hard to come by for labouring families, so they devised ingenious ways of trapping birds and animals. At night they would string netting across one side of a hedge and beat the other side with a stick, causing any nesting sparrows to fly into the net. Baby pigeons would be tied to their nest by their legs and after a few weeks they grew into squabs large enough to eat. Because rabbits squealed when caught, boys would track stoats and confiscate their catch. Raisins attached to fish hooks would trap pheasants, and a butcher’s hook embedded in an apple fixed to a branch would sometimes snare a hungry deer.

Like his parents, Tom never learnt to read or write. At the age of 10, during the great agricultural depression, he had to leave home to find work. He was employed on a farm where he was given cider sops – bread soaked in cider – for breakfast, dinner and supper, with some cabbage and potatoes if he was lucky. As soon as he was old enough, Tom joined the Army and was sent to India where, like the other men who had not been to school, he bought pre-printed letters of greeting to send home.

Discharged in 1896 because of bad eyesight, he returned to Gloucestershire, but ever after suffered periodic bouts of ague, a malaria-type fever. He found work at £1 a week delivering beer from Tewkesbury to pubs in Hanley Castle, Malvern and Ledbury.

By his mid-30s Tom Williams was married and head waggoner on a 1000-acre farm with 16 heavy horses in the Cotswolds at Temple Guiting. But it was bitterly cold in winter and his wife Alice sometimes had to struggle through deep snow to the nearest market 7 miles away at Stow-on-the-Wold, taking her three young children with her and returning with a 2-gallon container of paraffin in one hand, her youngest son in the other arm and two weeks’ shopping on her back.

One Sunday morning in the summer of 1909 the family – with sons Tom junior, aged nine, Bill, seven, and Arthur, three – walked to Twyning, 15 miles away on the banks of the River Avon, to visit Alice’s parents. While he was there, Tom heard that Jimmy Turner at Church End Farm in Hanley Castle needed someone to work his horses. So Tom walked 6 miles to see him, got the job, walked back to Twyning and that evening returned with his family to Temple Guiting, a day’s walk of more than 40 miles for him and 30 miles for his wife and children. The following Saturday night he walked back to Hanley Castle, borrowed a horse and cart and brought his family to their new home.

Until the First World War farm labourers had an allowance of two quarts of cider a day, one being given to them in the morning and the other at lunchtime, which they drank from a small wooden keg called a costrel. It was said that sixpence worth of cider would do more work than a shilling in cash.

Like his father before him, Tom junior was keen to join the Army. When he was 16, he pretended to be two years older and enlisted to take part in the Great War. He survived, but afterwards there was no work for him on the Lechmere estate and he had to go on the dole, walking to Malvern three times a week, eventually finding work with the county council.

Alice used to walk to Twyning and back once a week to do her mother’s washing, even when pregnant, but when she could continue no longer the family decided to move in with Alice’s parents. Tom got a job on a local farm and they stayed in Twyning, where Charlie Williams was born in 1923. “I was the scrapings of the pot”, he says. Three years later, Jimmy Turner asked Tom to go back and work for him, so the family returned to Hanley Castle to live in Maisey Cottage, off Gilberts End Lane.

The cottage had previously been used to take in laundry and there was a large ironing board fixed to the wall, with a stove to heat all the irons and a washhouse at the back containing a copper cauldron. Charlie’s grandparents – his mother’s parents – lived in the front room.

Tom’s wages were now 30 shillings a week, from which 9d was deducted for national insurance and 3 shillings for rent. He gave his wife the rest and she would give him back 1 shilling of spending money, which paid for two pints of beer, or half a pint, plus 1 oz of tobacco and a box of matches.

To make 25/3d feed and clothe her family of five children, Alice would walk them into Worcester where the butchers in the Shambles would pay kids 1d each to start a fight; then the butchers would sell meat to the crowd that gathered to watch. For 1 shilling Alice would buy a string of sausages and half a pig’s head, which she soaked in vinegar and water to give them meat for the week.

Charlie’s generation was the first to go to school – St Mary’s at Cross Hands. “I was ’ard as nails, when I was a young’un”, he remembers. “Dug out a wasps’ nest for the grubs to go fishing and got badly stung, but that didn’t stop me. My mum rubbed raw onion on the stings to stop the swelling. When I was 12, I fell in the school playground and gashed my knee to the bone. They picked out the gravel and stitched me up without any anaesthetic. I still have the scar to this day.”

Some children were so poor they had no pants, vests or socks. “They were covered in sores and boils”, says Charlie. “For their lunch they had a bit of bread and lard wrapped up in newspaper and if you had an apple they’d ask you for the core.” The cottages they lived in had rags stuffed in broken windows and bags under the doors to keep out draughts. He remembers one family of 14 that had no chairs or plates, just an oilcloth on the table. The mother would serve meals straight onto the cloth and they would eat standing up using spoons. They would huddle around the fireplace inside and the chimney outside for warmth in winter and in the summer the children could be found sleeping under the oak trees on the common.

At 14 Charlie left school to work at Holloway Farm – 8 hours a day for 10 shillings a week, from which he saved 6d in the Three Kings Thrift Club and gave the rest to his mother, who allowed him back 1s 2½d. He spent the shilling on two pints of beer at Upton or Guarlford (he risked a beating from his father if found drinking at the Three Kings in Hanley Castle), one on Saturday night and the other on Sunday. With the remainder he bought a pie, a packet of Woodbine cigarettes and ½d worth of sweets.

When he reached the age of 15, he was due to receive another shilling a week, but the farmer could not afford it and sacked him to employ another 14-year-old. So Charlie cycled to a farm in Welland where he got a job pulling up swedes and turnips in the bitter cold months of January – March 1939. When he complained about the cold, the farmer said, “Work faster and keep th’self warm”. He would shelter in a hedge to eat his sandwich of bread and jam for lunch, taking the paper it was wrapped in to line his shoes, which kept his feet warm for about half an hour. To drink, he had a bottle of cold tea wrapped in a sock. At 3 o’clock he ate some bread and cheese and returned home at 5 pm, having earned 11 shillings for the week. When he developed chilblains, his mother cured them by soaking his feet in hot water and whipping them with holly until they bled.

In due course, Charlie learnt to work with shire horses. On a good day, he could plough 1 acre with a team of three, in the process walking 13 miles. Just before the end of a furrow, he would run round, grab the front horse and make sure he turned broadside to the hedge, then the second and the third to keep a straight line. “Otherwise they’d be all over the place and the old waggoners would think you’d ploughed through a wasps’ nest”, he adds. He remembers the colour of every horse on every farm in Hanley Castle: there were three shires and a nag at Herberts Farm, one at the Castle, three and a nag at Church End Farm, two and a cob at Lodge Farm, three at Gilberts End Farm, one at Ivy House, two at Holloway, four plus three foals at Merevale, three at Northend, two at Northfield, two at Cliffey and three at Sink Farm – in all 29  heavy horses, with the same number of men.

The 1920s and 30s were a desperately poor time for those working on the land. Farmers were undercut by imported Canadian wheat, New Zealand lamb and butter, Danish bacon and Argentinean beef. Milk fetched 4d a gallon, pigs sold for as little as 2 shillings and jam fruit was 30 shillings a ton. Horses worked unshod and blacksmiths went out of business. Most tenant farmers on the Lechmere estate, including those at Herberts Farm, Holloway, Gilberts End, Ballards, Cliffey, Northend and Merevale, had to work for other people. One man was found dead in a brook and many believed he had committed suicide.

Tradesmen would resort to trickery to gain any small advantage. Milk would be watered in the churns, grocers would stick a thick rasher of bacon under their scales, wicker baskets of vegetables would be soaked in water overnight to increase their weight from 7 lbs to 10 lbs and coal merchants delivering 20 hundredweight bags would put an empty bag in one sack and claim they had delivered a full ton after 19 bags.

Jimmy Turner at Church End Farm shrewdly turned to market gardening, supplying the hotels in Malvern with fresh vegetables. Tom Williams worked for him until the farmer was killed in a road accident in 1937. Then, at the age of 62, Tom was turned out of his cottage. Although he found work at Merevale Farm, there was no tied cottage available. The only place he could find to live was at Sherrards Green, some 3 miles away, where the rent was not 3 shillings a week, as it had been at Maisey Cottage, but  8 shillings, while his wages stayed at 30/-.  Tom walked to and from work every day, starting at 7 am, in winter sometimes through 2 feet of snow, until he died at the age of 71. All his life he wore the same working clothes – corduroy trousers with leather straps tied below the knees to prevent the mud from squelching up his legs, a thick shirt and, in winter, a waistcoat and heavy jacket. For special occasions, he wore a grey suit and black shoes.

Charlie’s eldest brother, Tom junior, joined the Army as a sergeant in 1940, becoming possibly the only man in the parish to serve in both world wars.

During the war Charlie settled in Guarlford. Often he would be up at dawn, take two horses and a wagon to collect 1 ton of hay from Strensham, get back to Upton bridge by 4 o’clock and home by half past five, when he would give the horses a drink, unload the hay, bring in 24 cows, have a rest, then milk the cows before going to bed at 10 pm. Once he had to take his wagon to Callow End to load 2 tons of sand. On the way back a wheel broke, so he walked back to Guarlford, borrowed another cart, shovelled the sand from one to the other, and set off again, only for the second cart to break down at Clevelode. He borrowed a railway dray and moved the sand for the third time that day before he finally got back to Guarlford, where he unloaded the sand, having shifted 8 tons in total, and milked the cows.

One morning in April 1944 he heard a plane in difficulty coming low over the fields. It crashed near Clevelode. By the time he reached the scene, the plane was burning, but he found an injured airman lying by a crabapple tree and was told that the Australian pilot was still in the plane, so Charlie ran to the cockpit and saw that he was unconscious. “I pulled him out – seat, parachute, the lot”, he remembers. “Then ammunition started exploding, so I dragged him into a ditch and went for help.” The Americans took him to their hospital at Blackmore Park, where he remained unconscious for a fortnight and in hospital for 9 months before being repatriated to Australia. Many years later his son visited Charlie to thank him for saving his father’s life. “I had to go to Buckingham Palace and get the British Empire Medal off the king”, adds Charlie. “I looked down at Georgie and he looked up at me and I thought, ‘You poor little bugger, you never had much tit when you was a babbie!’”


When he was 25, Charlie Williams set up in business for himself, dealing in anything and everything. “I could sell snow to the Eskimos”, he laughs. He learnt from farmers in Hanley Castle how to test whether lame horses brought down from Birmingham were worth buying: stand them in cold water. Some recovered and could be sold on at a profit; those that didn’t were sold for the price of their skins (a guinea and a half) to the knacker’s yard run by Walter and George Beck of Worcester. To test whether a horse was fit for work, he would put it in a wagon and tie the wheel. “I’d take him up a bit of a slope to see if he pulled all right, then untie the wheel, bring him into the yard and stop for a drop of cider, leaving the horse in the wagon. If he stayed calm, I’d buy him”, recalls Charlie. “If you had a kicker, you put him in a stall, hung a bail of straw from a beam and let it knock against his hocks to make him kick; after a while, he’d get tired. There was always more achieved by kindness than knocking them about.”

Charlie bred horses, sheep and cattle. “I used to take my cows, ‘ship’ and ‘osses’ on the common”, he says in his broad Worcestershire accent, where they could graze freely, although the horses would be hobbled to prevent them straying. He got engaged once but broke it off. “I took the ring and bought a horse instead”, he remembers. “The year of the Coronation I bought a Welsh cob from a gypsy and went to Gloucester for a vanner or half-legged horse, halfway between a cob and a small carthorse, and walked him back to Guarlford.” He did eventually get married, in 1958, and that year his ewes produced 112 lambs, which he castrated and docked. He was also a good shearer, finding work at about 30 farms in the summer.

As conditions improved after the war, tractors took over farm work. Charlie remembers the huge quantity of leather and brass horse tackle that was thrown away and the fate of most of those strong shire horses – the knacker’s yard. But he always kept some horses for weddings, funerals and shows.

And he gathered an extraordinary collection of old agricultural implements, including a leather boot, as worn by horses when they were used to pull lawnmowers, docking irons for horses’ and lambs’ tails, collars worn by oxen, sheep bells, a brass grooming tool which, when filled with methylated spirits and lit, would burn the dust off a horse’s coat, a shaped wooden yoke to carry buckets of water, a gambrel to hang sides of bacon, the 1-gallon cider costrel taken into the fields by his father and grandfather, and an 18th-century strickle, or sharpening tool, with its accompanying cow’s horn. Mutton fat stored in the horn would be spread over the four-sided wooden strickle and then sprinkled with sand, the tool being used to sharpen scythes before the introduction of grindstones; soft sand was used when cutting hay, sharp sand for wheat and corn and small pebbles when removing furze.

Summing up his outlook on life, Charlie says that money means little to him. “You can only eat one steak, drive one car or cuddle one woman and, if you wants two, you’m a greedy bugger!”

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