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1986: Mrs Wiles Remembers Old Arbury and Chesterton: Part 4

The Brett family in the Park Meadow at Manor Farm, Arbury Road, 12 September, 1908. Left to right: Back row: Henry ('Harry'), Alice Maud ('Maud'), Charles, Mabel, Alfred. Middle row: Ellen ('Cissie'), Elizabeth, Richard, Amelia, Arthur, Louisa. Front: Frank and Lily.

Our coverage of Mrs Wiles's 1986 contribution to the Arbury Archive continues. The First World War has a devastating effect on the Brett family, and Mrs Wiles recounts a strange tale from the 1880s...

'It's strange to look back - two world wars in one lifetime,' said Mrs Wiles. 'But that's just the way it is. We're like birds and animals really - territorial - for all our beautiful poetry, colour tellies and machines that make you a cup of tea in bed!

'I was a tot when the First War started and I was used to seeing my uncles in uniform when they were on leave. They had to wear their uniforms or somebody  might give them a white feather for cowardice if they were seen in what was called "civvies". People could be very nasty, even then. 

'A lot of men were made to go. Uncle Albert had his decorating business and a family to support, but they made him go in the end.

Albert Richardson Jones, husband of Elizabeth, suffered a minor injury during the conflict. His sons, Mrs Wiles's cousins, Harry and Reggie, sent him a postcard to cheer him up while he was in hospital. 'Can I have your bike?' the letter ends. Children don't change!

Albert Richardson Jones at home with sons Harry (right) and Reggie.

'Uncle Alfred was already in the Territorial Army before the war started. He died in 1918. Uncle Arthur got through, bless him. Uncle Frank was gassed in the trenches and it affected his health permanently.

'There was a lot of upset over Uncle Alf. Not just because he died, which was an awful tragedy of course, but Gran found out that the bit of the Arbury where she lived at Manor Farm was in Impington parish. This was a shock as Gran had always thought she was in Chesterton parish, and she'd put that on the census returns. She wondered of she might get into trouble for putting the wrong parish down. Uncle Alf's name wasn't allowed to go on the Chesterton memorial, but had to go on the Histon and Impington one.

Amelia Brett was concerned that she had wrongly listed her younger children's place of birth on census returns and that she might get into trouble with 'the authorities'. The Chesterton/Impington parish boundary line fell across what is now the Arbury Town Park and Campkin Road, placing Manor Farm in two separate parishes. Nothing came of Amelia's error, of course, but confusion reigned at the farm as parishes were then considered of great importance and some neighbours weren't sure where they lived!

'Now, the Bretts came from Histon and Impington and Mum said they went to Histon Feast and everything when she was a kiddie and saw their relatives there at times, but it was further to go out there to lay a wreath and to Gran and Grandad it didn't make any sense at all. It doesn't to me, to be honest. Manor Farm was in Cambridge town, as it was then, and so were the Arbury meadows where Manor Farm was - they were part of Chesterton, which was part of Cambridge. Histon and Impington weren't! It was... well... it was very odd!

'Aunt Cis had always been very close to Uncle Alf, and she had a big framed photo of him up in her house in Aylestone Road to the end of her days.

In Memoriam - Alfred Brett from his family, 'Cambridge Daily News', 1919.

Lance Corporal Alfred Brett and the Histon and Impington War Memorial (in 1986).

'Years and years later we met somebody who'd served with Uncle Alf and he said he'd been shot by a sniper who'd crept up behind him.'

As well as her own memories, Mrs Wiles had a fund of handed-down memories from older relatives. One of the most repeated, both by Mrs Wiles and her cousins, was the strange tale of the night Amelia Brett was saved by a trail of sprats.

'I was told that Victoria Avenue Bridge hadn't been built then,' said Mrs Wiles. 'But Gran liked to go into Cambridge one day a week to shop. This was in the days before the Arbury meadows were in Cambridge. In fact, Chesterton was a separate place entirely to Cambridge, if you can imagine that.'

I think the events described took place in the 1880s.

'Well, one day Gran got ready to go to town and she asked Grandad what he'd like for tea. He fancied some sprats, so she set out. It was a cold day, with ice on the ground, but that didn't bother people then like it does now. There were no buses from Arbury when Gran was a young woman and people walked for miles.

'Anyway, Gran used to walk into town down the Milton Road [Ely Road] and Chesterton Road and Chesterton Lane. I was told she had a friend in one of the cottages in Chesterton Lane, on the left as you go into town, and would sometimes stop off to see them, so it made a nice day out.

'On this day, Gran didn't come home. When Grandad got back from working on the farm, frozen, Gran wasn't there and he was very worried. A thick fog had come up and he worried there'd been an accident. He lit two lanterns, got Uncle Arthur, who was then only a little boy, and set off up the frozen Arbury Meadow Road to look for Gran.

'They kept calling for her, but there was no reply. Well, imagine how they felt! Out there in the fog, with Gran missing!

'When they got to Milton Road, Grandad asked his son to go down what is now Union Lane, into Chesterton village, and said he'd look towards Cambridge. Uncle Arthur was only little and Grandad wanted him to take the safe route straight into Chesterton. But then the lantern picked out something lying on the ground. Can you guess what it was? Well, it was a sprat! It was just past the Arbury corner, towards Milton.

'Well, the lantern picked out a spread-out trail of them, so Grandad and Uncle Arthur followed it. Uncle Arthur always said they wondered if Gran had been carried away by something weird!

'Now, there was no King's Hedges Road then as such, just a dead end cart track with a gate across it, private. There was no Golden Hind. They were out in the country, calling and calling into the fog. Sometimes there'd be a big gap between sprats, and they wondered if the trail had run out, but then there'd be another one. Sometimes there were two or three close together.

Postcard to Miss Lily Brett from Mr Claude Skinner, nephew of Mr David Camps, who also lived at the Manor Farm. 'I expect Alf is alright,' he wrote. Sadly, this was not the case in 1918.

'They were right up near Milton [Railway] Gates when they got a reply to their calls, and found Gran, sprawled in a ditch, and blue with the cold.

'Uncle Arthur got help from somebody who lived in a cottage not far off, and they got Gran back to Arbury.

'Uncle said she was tucked up in bed, with hot food and drink inside her, before they'd let her tell them what had happened. She'd left Cambridge with the fog coming up and the cold had got into her bones. By the time she reached Milton Road, she wasn't feeling very well, and got confused - lost her bearings. She'd got her string bag with the sprats in caught on a branch sticking out from the hedgerow, and this had torn it, although she hadn't realised. She'd just wrenched it out and carried on.

'And so the sprats had started dropping out and she'd wondered on, looking for the Arbury corner, way past it, until she'd slipped on the ice into the ditch near Milton Gates.

'Isn't that extraordinary? I remember Aunt Lil saying she got into terrible trouble for losing a knitting needle she'd bought on Gran's instructions on her way home from school one lunch time, and being sent all the way back to look for it - and Auntie Lizzie got into terrible trouble when she was a child too for losing a bloater! But the trail of lost sprats that night almost certainly saved Gran's life!'

Alfred Brett gave his sister, Ellen, this book at the end of a spell of a leave in 1915, a romantic, patriotic novel. The first page was inscribed (see below). Ellen treasured the book until her death in 1965.

Part 5 of Mrs Wiles's memories is here.

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