Hannah’s Tale by Chris Wege: Part 1
Local historian Chris Wege’s history of his granddaughter Hannah’s female ancestors tells a fascinating tale of life in the Central Chilterns from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Chris researched the story as a gift to Hannah, and they have kindly agreed to allow us to publish an edited version here in two parts. Here we meet families who found work in chair making, lace making and later as bead workers. We find out about the ups and downs of their home and working lives, where they shopped, gathered fruit, their family meals and much more.
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The story begins half way through the life of Emma Sheldon (1814-1886), Hannah’s great-great-great-great-grandmother, at the time of her move to Bledlow Ridge, near Chinnor. Emma was born in Watlington in 1814, and married William Barney who came from Bledlow Ridge. The family lived for a time in Reading, where William worked as a millwright, but after William’s tragic early death from consumption (tuberculosis), Emma took her six children to live at her dead husband’s old home, Bledlow Ridge, where his relations could help her. Her eldest son William, was already learning to be a baker, and her 14-year old daughter, also called Emma, had work, but they would have earned very little, so Emma urgently needed a job.
Chris’s story of Emma and her daughter Rhoda begins here.
EMMA BARNEY (NEE SHELDON) 1814- 1886
(Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandmother of Hannah)
Emma Barney found accommodation at Bledlow Ridge as part of the household of a farmer called Mr Newell at Studmore Farm. She worked as a laundress, probably for the farmer. When the two older children left home she had just Rhoda and George with her. The Census taken in 1861 listed Rhoda as being twelve years old, and working as a lace maker, while George was still at school. Ten years on, Rhoda had left home to get married, and young George was now a chair-turner. Emma and George now lived as lodgers in the house of a widowed farm labourer. The next ten-year Census tells us that George had married a girl from Bledlow Ridge who was also a lace maker, and that George had found a job as a gardener at a mansion. The couple had set up home in the Lodge. So Emma was now left living alone; but not long afterwards her daughter Rhoda invited her to join the family at Tylers Green, and there she lived out her remaining years in her daughter’s home.
Studmore Farm, Bledlow Ridge
RHODA BARNEY (1848- 1920)
(Great-Great-Great-Grandmother of Hannah)
Rhoda was born in 1848 while the family was living in Reading; so she was only three years old when her father died. After that sad event came the upheaval of the family moving out of the big town and back to the countryside in the Chiltern Hills. With beech-woods on the surrounding hill-tops, and small farms in the valleys, Bledlow Ridge would have seemed very quiet after Reading.
Near Bledlow Ridge in the Chilterns
Despite being quiet, in those days the village supported a number of trades: amongst them was the chair-making trade, which Rhoda’s brother George joined after he left school – probably when he was twelve years old; also in many of the cottages there would have been a lace maker; in some it could have been a mother and more than one daughter all making lace. Rhoda became a lace maker, and at the age of twelve was working and helping her widowed mother by earning a little money.
Lace is a beautiful textile, made by hand, from either white or black thread. It is incredibly slow to make; about an hour to make an inch of narrow lace for edging the cuff of a dress. Lace makers were paid very little for this skilled work, and had to work all day and every day to make enough money to live on. In good weather they sat at the cottage door to get the good daylight which made the work easier, and also they could see anyone walking by, and exchange the latest gossip. But in the winter it was too cold to work outside, and they had to work in the poor light of the cottage. The windows were small, and there was no electric light, and they could not afford oil lamps. So it was often candle-light; so dim that they had to strain their eyes to see the fine threads, and to work the complicated pattern. Some lace workers became nearly blind from straining their eyes in this way.
Imagine young Rhoda sitting here. Photo courtesy Lacey Green and Loosely Row Heritage Group.
Little Rhoda may have gone to one of the so-called ‘Lace Schools’ in Bledlow. They were set up by the lace traders to teach children the skills needed for lace, but of proper schooling there was very little. I wonder whether Rhoda could even read or write? Sitting round the fire on a winter evening with the day’s work finished perhaps Rhoda’s mother would sing some of the old, country songs to the two children: ‘Buttercup Joe’, ‘The Prickly Bush’, or ‘The Watercress Girl’. She would have known some of the old Folk Stories too – all by heart, with nothing written down anywhere. And Rhoda and George would have memorised them to tell to their own children one day.
In 1869, when Rhoda was 21, she married a young man named George West who lived nearby. His father Ely was a woodman – cutting trees in the woods for the different wood trades. The wedding was at the Registry Office in High Wycombe, and one of the witnesses that had to sign the register was Rhoda’s brother George. He could not write, and so he made a cross with the pen, and the Registrar had to write ‘The Mark of George Barney’. Rhoda’s new husband was 25 years old, and was a chair turner. That meant that his work was at a lathe, turning the legs and rails that are needed in making a chair.
George would have worked out in the woods during the summer months, and he, and perhaps another man and a boy, would have built a shelter out of poles and thatched it roughly. Chair-turners were called ’bodgers’ in those days. The logs of beech wood were cut up and split down into billets. These rough lengths of wood were then turned on the ‘pole lathe’ into chair legs, decorated with a traditional ringed pattern. Stacks of these legs, and the rails that helped to strengthen the chairs, were built near the hut, and left to weather.
Working a pole lathe. Photo courtesy Wycombe Museum, SWOP
Eventually a load would be taken by horse and cart, down the hill to a chair factory in High Wycombe. Maybe George sometimes went on the cart to help with the unloading. The furniture trade was the main occupation for people living in High Wycombe, and the finished chairs would have travelled on the new railway to London and beyond.
A couple of years after they were married there was another National Census. It showed that they were living in a house or cottage in Bledlow Ridge, and that George was still a turner. Rhoda was listed as a domestic, which may mean that she was working for a near-by family. The first two years of their married life was a bad time. Their first baby, a boy, was called William and he died when he was one year old. Rhoda was soon pregnant again, and when this boy baby was born they named him William again. Since she was working as well as looking after this new baby, her hands would have been full. They were sharing the house with a young couple: he a farm labourer, and his wife a lace maker.
Sometime during the next few years George and Rhoda moved from Bledlow to a village on the far side of High Wycombe called Tylers Green. The Census that was taken ten years after that previous one lists their children: four of them now, and the youngest had been named Rhoda after her mother. George and Rhoda had also made a home for Granny Emma who was 68 years old. As little Rhoda was still only 2 years old I expect Granny was able to be very useful, and the little girl would have grown up well cared for. George was listed in the Census as a Licensed Victualler – that is the landlord of a pub. Perhaps he felt he had worked for long enough in the cold and wet of the beech woods, and was feeling his age a little. Some indoor work might have seemed appealing.
Ten more years takes us to 1891, when the Census records George and his family still living in Tylers Green, but now he was working as a farmer. One son was a farm labourer and the other one was the driver of a horse drawn carriage. Little Rhoda was twelve years old, and already working – but not at the lace making. She was doing beadwork. By the end of the 1800s lace was being made in factories by machine, and the lace makers in the villages could not do it fast enough by hand to make a living. They were forced to turn to other work.
Victorian ladies who could afford it, were very fond of beadwork on their dresses. Black beads on black material was a common sight, especially for older ladies, but all sorts of colours would have been used for special dresses and ball-gowns. With her skill in handling thread and material, Rhoda was able to start her daughter off in the bead-work. Years later the skill would be passed on in turn to her grand-daughter.
George West died in 1902 at the age of 58. Granny Rhoda’s family was close by to give her support, and she lived to the good age of 71. The death certificate tells us that when she died of heart failure, it was at her home in Ray’s Yard at Tylers Green. Her son William, and perhaps some other members of the family, were with her.
PART 2, to be published next month, continues with the lives of Rhoda West, Hannah’s Great-Great-Great-Grandmother who worked as a tambour beader in Tylers Green, and her Great-Great-Grandmother Doris Bristow, who continued the craft. Tambour beading was the art of sewing beads and sequins on to textiles using a wooden frame called a tambour, and you can find out more about this skilled craft in the next Woodlanders blog.