Memories of Wilburton School, Snowstorms, and Edwardian Earthworms

Memories of attending Wilburton Primary School, Cambridgeshire, during the Edwardian era, including snowstorms and earthworms.

I started school when I was 5 years old [1904].

My mother [Adelaide (née Bishop)] was very good, she used to show us how to write, count and read as she taught the infants at Little Thetford school. Our school [Wilburton Primary] consisted of two rooms – a big one divided by a wooden and glass partition which was pulled across.

Mrs Alma Marchant with children from Wilburton Primary School, Cambridgeshire in about 1904.
Mrs Alma Marchant with children from Wilburton Primary School. Maude is apparently 5ft from left, on the third row. Image: CCAN.

There were over 100 of us with two teachers, Mr Harry Marchant and his wife Alma, who lived in the school house. The school was built on the back of their house.

Alma A. Marchant mistress at Wilburton School
Strict or soft? Alma A. Marchant mistress at Wilburton School. Image: CCAN.

The girls and infants had to go in the front way. We had a small playground and the laboratories were in a block across there with the fuel shed. We only had a small porch for hanging our coats and bags in, so they had to hang over one another which wasn’t very well on wet days.

There’s something in the water

We had a basket behind the door with a tin bowl on it where we used to wash in and a roller-towel on the door. We used to have to pump water to wash in but we were not allowed to drink the water as we used to pump earthworms up sometimes and our teachers had to fetch their drinking water from another house.

We used to take food with us for midday and go out begging for water to drink. There were quite a lot of us dinner children, as the came from far away places.

Mother always cooked us some hot dinner when it was cold.

Lost in the snow

We lived a long way from school. I remembered my next sister, Jessie and I got lost in a snow storm. We had to walk down a long path. It was dark and snowing hard and the school master had kept us in until 4pm.

The big children ran home without us, so mother ran to the station and told father (the stationmaster) and he had to run up the path looking for us in between train arrivals.

We were lost and it was snowing hard and we did not know which way to go. We were heading the wrong way – back to Wilburton. Jessie was five and I was six.

I think poor old dad didn’t get and tea that night. He used to have to get his meals when he could and if he had to put overtime in when trains were late he had to lay off the next day to make it up.

During dinner times we played with skipping ropes, hoops, tops, marbles and balls. We sat in school at long desks attached and tightly pushed together and it was very cold for those at the back as the stoves didn’t send much heat back there.

Father sent a letter to the school master the day after we got lost, and gave him a good telling off! It was too dark to do lessons, so why didn’t he keep us in?

After that, Mr Marchant let all the long-distance children go home sooner when it was dark early.

Schoolmaster Mr Marchant, with children at the Wilburton Primary School. Image: CCAN.
Schoolmaster Mr Harry Marchant, with children at the Wilburton Primary School. Image: CCAN.

Making Do

We were very poor as he only brought home about 15 shillings and 10 pence after he had paid house rent and club money.

Father was a good gardener and he grew us plenty of vegetables. He kept bees so that we got some honey and mother made a lot of jam. We used to do sewing and knitting at night when we had washed up.

Mother was good at that and she used to put us right and we used to teach other dinner children. We used to pull old socks undone to do it and children from farms brought fencing nails as needles.

We used to have some happy times, and we used to play in the road.

Passing exams and saying ‘goodbye’

I passed an exam when I was twelve and had to go and work in the fruit gardens to earn a few more shillings but the poor Dr. Banardos children were sent to Canada and Australia to work when they were twelve.

It did seem a shame and we didn’t see them again, poor little things. The people who had them were very upset over that as some of them had had them from babies.

In Pictures: Father’s Day

Celebrating Father’s Day 2013 this weekend – check out my photo gallery of 14 of my ancestral fathers.

It’s Father’s Day here in the UK this Sunday, so in the same way that I marked Mother’s Day with a photo gallery, I thought that I would do the same for my paternal and maternal fathers.

Interestingly, there are fewer photographs of my male ancestors. This will of course be down to one or two instances where illegitimacy leaves them absent, but maybe the luxury of late-19th and early-20th century meant photography was only afforded for their wives?

Paternal Fathers

Maternal Fathers

Happy Father’s Day!

The Guy Fawkes Night Fire

Mourning the death of her husband James Yarrow, Mary (née Gothard) loses her thatched cottage on Guy Fawkes Night when a stray firework burns it to the ground. Just 3 months later, she too passes away.

Whilst Guy Fawkes Night is marked this weekend with bonfires and fireworks, the night was one far from celebration in the small village of Little Thetford, near Ely, Cambridgeshire.

On about the 28th October 1930, my Great Great Great Grandfather, James Yarrow died aged 84yrs. He was buried in Little Thetford on 30th. His widow, Mary (née Gothard), aged about 83-84yrs survived him.

James Yarrow and his wife Mary (née Gothard)
James and Mary Yarrow outside their house in Little Thetford, pre-late October 1930.

With the memory of her husband’s death still fresh in her mind, Mary went to stay with her middle son (my Great Great Grandfather) James Yarrow at nearby Wilburton Station.

However, six days after James’ funeral, and on Guy Fawkes Night (5th November), a stray firework landed on the thatched roof of her home. The building was razed to the ground.

The Cambridgeshire Times reported the story as follows:

“… The cottage was the property of Mrs. Lister, and had been in the occupation of the Yarrow family for many years. It was the one in which Mr James Yarrow, whose death was recorded in our last issue, died only a week and two days previously, and the advanced age of 84 years.

The outbreak of fire was first noticed about 8:30pm, but the Ely Fire Brigade was not summoned until 9:35. They responded to the call in their usual speedy manner, and were on the scene of the fire by 9:50. Meanwhile, Mr. H. E. Kisby and a number of willing helpers had been working heroically in an endeavour to keep the fire subdued. They experienced some difficulty in preventing the flames from spreading to a house standing opposite in the occupation of Mr. F. O. Yarrow. Fortunately they were able to save all the furniture inside the burning cottage, which was not occupied at the time. The widow of the late Mr. James Yarrow was living with her son at Wilburton Station.

When the Brigade arrived under the charge of Lieut-Col. G. L. Archer, they endeavoured to get water from a nearby pond, but this was found to be unsuitable and they had to move the engine to a drain some 500 or 600 yards from the scene of the fire. The supply of water from this was not very good, and the brigade had to use several lengths of hose. They were unable to put out the flames and the old cottage gradually burnt itself out”.

It was fortunate that Mary was away, and extremely fortunate that her neighbours had rallied around to rescue as many of her possessions as they could.

Mary Gothard (1847-1931)
Mary outside her house before the fire.

The effects of this double tragedy are recounted in Mary’s obituary on page 15 of The Cambridgeshire Times of the 27th February 1931 – just 3 months after the fire.

“Death of Mrs Yarrow – The death took place on Saturday week of Mrs. Mary Yarrow at the age of 84 years. Mrs Yarrow, who was most highly respected in the village, was the widow of the late Mr Jas. Yarrow, whose death was reported a short time ago. She had just moved into a small cottage, her old home being destroyed by fire a few days after her husband’s death, while she was staying with her son Mr Jas. Yarrow  at Wilburton, and undoubtedly these two events hastened her end.”

I’m very fortunate to have located 2, possibly 3 photos of James and Mary – which may have even survived only because of the bravery of those villagers who entered her burning property and retrieved her belongings.

So, whatever you do this Guy Fawkes Night, please stay safe and act responsibly when near to bonfires and fireworks. Here’s some safety tips from BBC’s Newsround.

Stretham Old Engine

The Stretham Old Engine.

It’s been there on my horizon every time I visit my parents. Every time I pass it, I think ‘I’ll visit that soon’. By complete chance, today was that day.

The Stretham Old Engine, which sits on the banks of the Old West River is now in the hands of The Stretham Engine Trust, who open it for a few days each year to the public. By complete chance, I happened to find the website and saw that it was open this afternoon.

Long gone are its days of steam – the engine became redundant when it was replaced by electric pumps along the bank of The River Cam. However, this doesn’t stop The Trust from lovingly taking care of this beautiful example of industrial innovation.

The Engine Wheel

Years ago, someone told me that there was a Yarrow mentioned on a plaque here. This had slipped my mind until I was already driving through Wilburton on my way to Stretham village.

Sure enough, there on the front of the engine room, sits a plaque to commemorate the building’s construction in 1831. Amongst the names, is a ‘J Yarrow’ listed as one of the commissioners.

Whether this ‘J Yarrow’ is John Yarrow or James Yarrow, I’m unsure, but both would have had an interest in the drainage of the fens as the family were substantial land owners in the area.

Erected in 1831Whilst the guidebook and exhibits don’t appear to mention the full name of Mr Yarrow, and there’s no mention of who it might be online, I’m sure that there’s some documents somewhere that will soon provide the answer as to the full names of those commissioners.

It’s nice to feel that my family played a pivotal role in shaping this part of the landscape.

Check out the rest of my photos and a video of part of the engine in action.

Surname Saturday: YARROW

Surname Saturday: The Yarrow family.

An unusual surname lives on through large families and a drive for business.

My maternal great grandmother gives me my connection to this unusual surname of Yarrow. She, Maude Yarrow, was born just over 110 years ago, living to the ripe old age of 104 – an age that is not unlike those reached by her many siblings – some of whom are still alive today.

Yarrow siblings
Six of the 15 Yarrow children during the 1930s.

Occupations

During the Victorian era, my Yarrow relations were concentrated in the villages of Little Thetford and Stretham, just a few miles outside of Ely, Cambridgeshire. Here they seemed to have dealings in practically every business going – pubs, shops, farms, church, school, dairy, brewing, charities for the poor, musicians, railways, parish council and even the parish’s census returns.

The Yarrow family owned and ran both The Wheat Sheaf and The Three Horseshoes pubs over the years, often alternating ownership between them and the Dewsbury family. Neither pub is operating now.

The Yarrow name, despite being unusual, was relatively common in these fenland parts due to large families. Despite riots in Little Thetford during 1833, then inclosures in 1844 benefited the family when they gained large areas of land – with William Yarrow receiving the second largest chunk of land (45 acres) after Mary Hammond (60.5 acres), and another Yarrow member receiving a smaller chunk. This event would inevitably set them up as major land owners and employers, as well as influential people in the parish.

A Victorian boy-band?

William Yarrow in Liverpool Cathedral
William Yarrow (far right) at Liverpool Cathedral.

During the late 1800s my Gt Gt Gt Grandfather, James Yarrow, is well recorded as having performed and travelled with his “fine alto voice” accompanied by his equally able brothers, Owen, William and Albert. Newspaper reports praise their regular performances and fine singing voices. I can only assume that they were some kind of early boy-band! Whilst Albert is noted as being an organist at one point, William eventually moves north, where he is a key member of the choir – performing for Kings at Liverpool Cathedral.

Both myself and my mother both have musical skills and it’s a nice thought that perhaps this is where it comes from.

Large Families

In my ancestry, it is the Yarrow family that appear to have had the largest families. My own Gt Grandmother was one of 15 live-born children – none of whom were twins, and most survived into adulthood. She claimed that there were 21 children, but church records don’t support this (although this might not cover still-born or miscarriages). Meanwhile, her aunt and uncle – John ‘Jack’ William Yarrow and his wife Amy Ann (née Howard) had a family of nine children too. Of those that did survive their first years, reaching the ages of 90 and 100 is very common, which suggests that perhaps the Yarrow genes have an air of longevity to them.

Looking at the Yarrow families of the late-Victorian era, there is a higher frequency of female births, which may suggest a reason why the surname has become uncommon/unusual, with daughters adopting married names.

Origins

It is unclear as to what is the true origin of the Yarrow surname. It could be from the Achillea plant, a river in Lancashire, a place in Scotland, or a Viking target in South Tyneside.