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1986: Mrs Wiles Remembers Old Arbury and Chesterton - Part 6

Mrs Muriel Wiles, then Miss Muriel Ashman, at work at Pye's in the 1920s.

The sixth part of Mrs Muriel Wiles's memories of Old Arbury and Chesterton, added to the Arbury Archive in 1986, takes us into Mrs Wiles's early teens - a time of ill health and great concern for the Brett family in Arbury, contrasting with happy memories of leaving school and getting a job...

'When I think back, it was like, when I was a kiddie, Gran and Grandad had always been at Manor Farm and always would be,' said Mrs Wiles.

'But that was silly, of course. I used to spend a lot of time in Arbury with Gran, and then she started to get ill and started spending days in bed and it was quite frightening to me at first because... well... it was a big change. I was very worried. Grandad had Dr Fordyce out quite a few times from Chesterton Road. There were more and more motor cars about, nothing like today, of course, but he always arrived in a horse and carriage, and quite often I'd turn off Arbury Road into the Drive and see the horse and carriage outside the house and my heart always sank.

'And then they said Gran was a TB case. I'd go up and sit with her in her bedroom. Apparently, Doctor Fordyce recommended an occasional drop of brandy for the pain, but Gran wouldn't hear of it. She thought alcohol, well, at least spirits, was "wicked", you see. It was what you might call "The Demon Drink"!

'And then Aunt May [Mabel] started getting ill too. Her arm started jerking at times, then other parts of her body, and she started feeling tired and rough. She hadn't been married long. She married Frank Andrews, who used to lodge with us. He was a motor mechanic. See, the motor car cropping up again!

'Anyway, the doctor said it was "sleeping sickness", which was a terrible thing that was going about then, and she gradually got worse and worse, spending more and more time in bed.

Boston Elphinstone Fordyce, doctor, surgeon and local politician.

'Now, Aunt May didn't have a natural way with us kiddies. She was quite stern and stiff with us, and we weren't terribly keen on her, to be quite honest. But Mum and her other brothers and sisters loved her - she was very kind and thoughtful with them. She just wasn't on us kiddies' wavelength.

'Well, me and Grace were very sorry. She'd always been such a busy person, working at the knitting factory and so on, and not long married, and to see her go downhill was awful. Grandad got several doctors to see her, but it was useless. She just kept getting worse.

'So, going over to Arbury wasn't very happy for me then. I was old enough to understand - I think I was about twelve or thirteen when Gran got ill, and I spent as much time at the farm as I could, but it was terrible having two serious illnesses in the house. 

'Grandad bought Gran a reclining chair for the days when she felt well enough to go downstairs. I think it came from Eaden Lilley's.

'I remember Gran sitting there, twiddling her thumbs, first one way, then the other. "Coming in, going out" we called it. I was sitting on the floor beside her chair and noticed her hands seemed a bit funny, sort of worn and out of shape. "Why's that, Gran?" I asked. "Well," she said, "I don't know. I suppose it's because I've worked so hard."

'I remember something Gran said quite a lot. It was, "a creaking gate hangs on the longest." It meant somebody who seemed perfectly healthy might die sudden, but somebody who suffered a lot of aches and pains might live to a ripe old age.

1920s map of Arbury and part of Chesterton. We have inserted details of locations featured in Mrs Wiles's recollections.

'I can't say I remember things in their exact order, but looking back it always seems a time of real contrasts. Me and Reg and Grace were growing up and leaving school around the same time and that side of life was all very happy. It's funny how life can be so varied at times, when you stop and think about it.

'I left school at the same time as Grace and Reg, although they were both born the year after me. It was something to do with the way our birthdays fell. I was fourteen when I left. In Mum's day the leaving age was eleven.

'Grace went for a job at Pye’s in Old Chesterton. She was very nervous and I went with her to keep her company. She was in a terrible state of what you might call "The Jitters". She'd got herself really worked up. Well, we got there and she was in such a state that she daren’t even knock on the door! I did it and she stood a little way off. When the door opened, I turned to beckon her, but she’d bolted! I turned to find a finger beckoning me inside!

'Well... I was fascinated by this beckoning finger and so in I went. I was interviewed by a very nice man. Well, interviewed... it was hardly that really! It was more like: name, address, and then a quick look at the workroom. Mum had arranged for me to be apprenticed to a dressmaker, but the Pye's job was better money - and once I found out I would be using a hammer, I was caught! Dad had made me my own hammer when I was a kiddie because I loved watching him at work on jobs round the house, and I loved it!

'So, I came out of Pye’s, due to begin work that afternoon.

'Well, poor old Grace had run all the way home, and Aunt Annie [Lydia] came along to find out exactly what had happened. Once I told her I’d got the job she was furious! She followed me all the way home along Chesterton Road, telling me off: "Fancy stealing your cousin’s job! You’re a wicked, wicked girl!'"

Feathers were soon unruffled when Grace quickly landed a job at Pye’s with a slightly higher wage. 

In an interview with Mrs Grace Hinchcliffe in 1988, she told me: 'I was on winding transformers at thru’pence an hour. Muriel was ironing up at tuppence ha’penny - a ha’penny less! I worked an eight-and-a-half hour day. The entrance to Pye’s was on Cam Road - nearly opposite the Fleur De Lys pub. There wasn’t so much at Pye’s then - just a machine shop, winding and ironing shop and offices.'

Workers leaving Pye's at the end of another day in the 1930s.

The three cousins - Mrs Wiles, Mrs Hinchcliffe and Mr Jones - Muriel Ashman, Grace Brett and Reg Jones - had been very close as children, and all ended up working at Pye's.

'Reg worked somewhere else first,' said Mrs Wiles. 'But then he came to Pye's too. None of us were working together, but it was nice knowing they were there too!'

10 January, 1923: the wedding photograph of Hubert Levitt and Lily Brett.  Left to right: Walter Levitt (brother of the groom and best man), Muriel Ashman (bridesmaid), Hubert Levitt, Lily Brett and Richard Brett. 'Grandad looks ill in the photo,' said Mrs Wiles. 'He was terribly worried about Gran and Aunt May. But it was one happy day during a very unhappy time.' This photo provides the only known glimpse of the outbuildings in the back garden of the Bretts' house at Manor Farm.

'We had a family wedding in the middle of all the troubled times,' said Mrs Wiles. 

'Aunt Lil married Bert Levitt, and they went to live at Chittering. Gran was too ill to get up to come to the church or be in the wedding photo and I thought how different it was to my Mum and Dad's wedding photo because it was all done in a hurry, a rug put down near the privy door at Manor Farm and the photo taken. But, under the circumstances, Aunt Lil didn't expect a lot of fuss. I was close to Aunt Lil and got to be the only bridesmaid - and a witness - and Aunt Lil was very happy. Uncle Bert was a lovely man, a farmer so he fitted right in, and we all liked him.

'Grace was going to be a bridesmaid too, but she was ill in bed. She was so disappointed!'

More change lay just ahead.

'It all seemed to come out of the blue, looking back, but suddenly Gran and Grandad were leaving Manor Farm,' said Mrs Wiles.

Miss Lily Brett with canine companion on Arbury Road, by the entrance to Manor Farm, around 1920.

'Aunt May dearly wanted a home of her own, and as she was becoming more and more ill with the sleeping sickness, it seemed time might be.... well... running short. Gran liked the idea of being somewhere a bit livelier for days when she was able to get up out of bed and see people coming and going, and so Grandad and Uncle Frank Andrews decided to go in together and buy No 1, Arbury Road.

'I always remember Gran standing in the Park meadow and looking up at the blue sky over Arbury, long before she was ill, and telling me all about the beautiful Golden Gates of Heaven just beyond it. Of course, she knew nothing about space! Gran and Grandad and Manor Farm went hand-in-hand to me, it was difficult to imagine them living anywhere else.

'Another thing that seemed strange was Gran and Grandad moving but still living in the same road, but No 1 was in a very different part to Manor Farm, near Milton Road and what became known as Cherry's Corner.

'That was before Mr Cherry had the shop on the corner, and the shops now next to No 1 Arbury Road were built in his back garden. We got so used to saying "Cherry's Corner", but I'm sure when Gran lived at No 1 it wasn't there.

'It was a nice house, and I know Aunt May was pleased with it, so it was a good thing. She was finding it harder and harder to get about, and as time went on even to talk - the sleeping sickness was affecting her speech.

'Cambridge Evening News' archive photo of the Arbury Road junction with Milton Road in 1981.

'We still went to Manor Farm, to Uncle Harry's smallholding for picnics. I remember the council started chopping down part of the old orchard and they built a little council cottage there around the time Gran and Grandad left. So, the farm Drive seemed different to walk down. That... well... it sort of... tied in, I suppose, in my mind anyway, with Gran and Grandad going and different times. That cottage still stands today, but it's the only thing that's left of Manor Farm, apart from trees.'

Amidst all the changes wrought by her grandmother and aunt's illnesses, Mrs Wiles recalled the pleasures and embarrassments of her early teenage years.

'One day, me and Grace were down by the river near Victoria Avenue bridge and the swimming pool. Two young chaps came up to talk to us, and we had a nice chat and walked by the river. The one who talked to Grace was… well… quite plain, but the one who spoke to me was very handsome. 

'Before they went on their way, he kissed me on the cheek. I went home with a very red face! There was this medicine Mum always kept at home… I can’t remember the name, but it was a common thing for all young ills and it didn't taste at all nice. Aunt Maud was visiting, she’d come to see Gran, and when she saw my bright red face she got the medicine out and gave me some - "Because we don’t want you to be ill as well!" '

'Grace and I were more like sisters than cousins, and there was a bit of rivalry between us. Not so much on my part, because I was very shy, but still... I couldn't help being pleased about the... well, it was only a peck on the cheek really - after I got over my blush! And I said so. So Grace said: "He liked me best. He told me!"

'We were very close. Grace and Reg being around meant  I never really felt like an only child after we moved back to Cambridge from Newmarket. They were both more outgoing than me and brought me out of myself a bit.

'Mentioning Newmarket reminds me of something else. When I was little and we lived in Newmarket, I have this memory. It's just like one scene, nothing leading up or it or following it, but I remember standing at one of the bedroom windows at Manor Farm, me and Mum often stayed nights there, with my head barely level with the sill, so I must have been very small. It was dark and Gran and Mum and Aunt Lil were there. I'd been in bed, and there was a glow in the sky out Histon and Impington way. A farm fire. Grandad and my uncles had gone to help.

'That's the memory. I can't remember where the fire was - though we must have found out later - or anything else, just standing there, watching the glow in the sky.'

Andy's long ago trawl of the Cambridgeshire Collection local newspaper archive for rural Arbury area references and other points of interest related to Chesterton and Cambridge produced seven bulging folders of material, and there are at least two possibilities. We will return to the question in a future article.

Part 7 of Mrs Wiles's memories is here.


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