Meet the venerable but charming inhabitants of Stockley, near Calne, Wiltshire. Mrs Susannah Summers, aged 90 plus, who was taught how to milk as a child and “was never better than when among the smell of the cows”. Mr Henry Trembling, aged 82, who had an ambition to fly: “I should like to go up in an aeroplane to have one bit of a ride but I don’t s’pose I shall now”. Mrs Surman, an 80 year old widow, of whom it was said: “She will walk the three miles to Calne, and back, and come back like a cricket.”
What I love about these excerpts from a newspaper article is the picture it paints of country people, living in a remote hamlet. These characters appear in a newspaper article I found in the North Wiltshire Herald, published on February 22nd 1933. The characters that emerge from the article are just priceless. Many seem eager to tell the reporter something of their experiences and what emerges is fascinating information about their lives. There is valuable biographical detail concerning their ages, where they were born, and how long they had been married, but most significantly, their answers give an insight into how they perceived their lives and what they considered most important or noteworthy. As well as having value to the family historian, the article is a wonderful piece of social history.
One afternoon in 1933, a reporter from the North Wiltshire Herald visited the hamlet of Stockley, near Calne, when he heard about the remarkable longevity of the inhabitants:
Right off the beaten track, the hamlet presents a scene of real rural tranquility, nestling under the hills in one of the most healthy spots in Wiltshire, as the great age of the inhabitants testifies.
The reporter had discovered that over one third of the 69 inhabitants of Stockley received a pension, and were therefore over 70 years old. (Lloyd George’s Old Age Pension Act of 1908 had set this as the qualifying age). This was unusual enough in 1933 to warrant a visit so he set off for Stockley:
The hamlet resolves itself roughly into three distinct clusters of houses, with one or two outlying farms. At the bottom end there are to be found in seven houses, eleven residents whose ages range from 90 (at least) down to a comparative youngster at 65.
Just like a census enumerator, the reporter knocked on the doors of the houses and asked a few questions, visiting a fair proportion of the 30 or so houses that made up the remote hamlet. The elderly folk told him their ages, where they were born and clearly, some got into conversation and started telling him their life stories.
Back in the office, the reporter sharpened his pencil and jotted down the names of 25 of the Stockley inhabitants, “veterans of rural England”, with their ages in another column alongside. He then did his sums carefully, adding up their ages until he came to the figure of 1870 years. Hmm, 1870 divided by 25 ….. ah, the average age was a fraction under 75. It was quite remarkable that there should be such a high proportion of elderly people in a small place like Stockley. His article, cataloguing them, appeared in the Friday edition of the North Wiltshire Herald on February 24 1933, entitled:
25 PEOPLE: 1870 YEARS –
A Wiltshire Hamlet’s Record of Longevity
One of the most memorable of the characters the reporter met was Mrs Susannah Summers, who loved milking, smoking and was a cat lover:
Mrs Susannah Summers
Mrs Susannah Summers the eldest resident, is over 90 years of age – how far beyond is not certain, for no copy of her birth certificate can be found. But over 20 years ago her right to the old age pension (at 70) was established by the record of her christening. She is a remarkable old lady, in possession of her faculties to a remarkable degree and regularly smokes “Woodbines” as a relief for asthma and bronchitis from which she suffers. She was born at Langley Burrell, but was brought up at Stanley. As a girl she attended a school at Buckhill, run by the late Marchioness of Landsdowne, a condition of her acceptance into the school being that she should remain for three years. That was all the education she received. The girls were provided by the Marchioness with red cloaks.
She was not over strong as a girl, and a doctor prescribed milking for her as of advantage and in her own words, she was “never better than when among the smell of the cows.” She was then 10 or 11 years of age, and her father taught her to milk. At the time of her marriage at Hoxton, her husband was a Metropolitan policeman, but he was invalided out of the Force, and the family returned to farm work in Wiltshire.
There were 11 children; five of whom are living, and the descendants include a number of great-grandchildren. Mrs Summers has been a widow for 35 years. They lived at Tossell’s at the time of Mr Summer’s death and for some years Mrs Summers remained on the farm, milking with her sons.
“I’ve worked hard, at one thing and another, on the farm and in the dairy,” she ruminated. “I’ve worked from four in the morning till eleven at night, but hard work don’t kill or I should have been dead years ago. It’s hard work and a contented mind that keeps ‘ee alive.”
Mrs Summers has smoked cigarettes for over 40 years, and says they afford her relief from catarrah and bronchitis. She confessed to a great likeness for cats and has three “for company.” She has a niece in the house with her, and next door lives her son-in-law, Mr. Henry Southwood, who at 65, is the youngest of this remarkable bevy of old age.
Mr and Mrs Joshua Gregory:
In the third house in the row live Mr and Mrs Joshua Gregory, Mr Gregory being 70, and his wife a few months his junior. They had been married 48 years. Mr Gregory was born at Stanley, and has two older brothers alive at Studley and Bremhill. In his younger days Mr Gregory had a milk round at Radstock, but, experiencing two or three coal strikes, he sold out, and returned to his native Wiltshire. He settled at Stockley, and for 20 years was employed on Mr Percy Cole’s farm. He gave up work at the age of 65.
Mr and Mrs Frederick Strange:
Next door to Mr and Mrs Gregory are Mr and Mrs Frederick Strange, and at 74 and 75 respectively, who celebrated their golden wedding last September. They have lived all their married life in their present house. Mr Strange is a native of Stockley. Mrs Strange’s parents, who lived next door, died at the ages of 87 and 86 years respectively, and celebrated their diamond wedding.
Mr and Mrs Tom Chivers
Mr and Mrs H.J. Pocock
A few yards away, in a pair of houses erected by the Calne Rural District Council, are Mr and Mrs Tom Chivers, both of whom are 70 years of age, and Mr and Mrs H.J. Pocock, Mr Pocock being within two months of his 70th birthday, and Mrs Pocock a year or two his junior.
At the village store and former school house was Mrs Simeon Bullock, (the wife of my own ancestor), and Mrs James Little. Stockley was tiny hamlet, with no church, post office, or public house, just the village store and a Methodist chapel. Although there had once been a school, it had closed 60 years previously. Families had moved to nearby towns for work and better facilities, thus depopulating the countryside:
Mrs Simeon Bullock and Mrs James Little
Almost opposite are to found, at the village store – the sole building of other than a purely residential character – Mrs Simeon Bullock who is 87, and whose husband died four years ago at the age of 80, and Mrs James Little (70). These two live with Mrs Little’s son-in-law and daughter, Mr and Mrs Hunt, and the house is the old school-house. Adjoining is the school, erected in 1854, but used as such only for a few years.
One of my favourite characters is Mr Henry Trembling. He is the only pensioner whose physical appearance is described. One can deduce that he would have got the job of entertaining children as Father Christmas! Although he had led a quiet life, working hard for more than 50 years on one farm in Stockley, he had wider horizons and looked back on memorable trips to the seaside and to London. You can imagine him straightening his back as he hoed his garden, looking up into the glare of the sky at the sight of an amazing airplane, and wondering what it would be like to fly:
Mr and Mrs Henry Trembling
Mr Henry Trembling, a venerable figure with flowing white beard below twinkling eyes, and his wife are respectively 82 and 83. Unfortunately Mrs Trembling has been confined to her bed for 15 weeks, but Mr Trembling is remarkably active, and with a justifiable pride announced that he looked after his ailing wife and the spotless house. They have lived in the house for over 50 years, and have been married for 61 years.
Mr Trembling was born half a mile away, at Broads Green, and Mrs Trembling came from Cherhill. They were married at Calne Wesleyan Church. Mr Trembling worked for more than 50 years on Stockley Farm – first for Mr John Maundrell, and then for Mr Dew – only giving up six years ago. He has visited London, and a good many seaside towns, and his last words were “I should like to go up in an aeroplane to have one bit of a ride, but” (regretfully) “I don’t s’pose I shall now.”
Mr and Mrs Thomas Paget
Close by, living in their own house, are Mr and Mrs Thomas Paget, who are respectively 74 and 78 years of age, and who have been married 56 years, all of which period have been spent in Stockley. They have four sons and four daughters, and there are 17 grandchildren. All four of the sons served in the Army during the war, and one, Mr Charles Paget, now living at Calne, was awarded the D.C.M. Both retain all their faculties, and Mrs Paget’s spotless house is a tribute to her industry. Mr Paget was at work in the garden, and still works half an acre single-handed.
Next door to this active couple lives Mrs Surnam an 80 year-old widow, who was on a visit to her daughter at Chippenham. “She’s still as active as you like,” said Mr Paget. “She will walk the three mile to Calne, and back, and come back like a cricket.”
Mr John Hatton is the cuckoo in the nest, as he was not a native of Stockley and had seen the world during his career in the Army. I have looked into his life and discovered that he was a bandsman. You can imagine that he was a popular member of the community if he entertained his neighbours with music on a regular basis:
Mr and Mrs John Hatton
A couple of doors away is a well set up “youngster” of 70 – Mr John Hatton, who served his country with the 10th Hussars in India and in three campaigns – one in Afghanistan and two in Egypt. His father served with the Dorsets in the Crimean War. Mrs Hatton is four years her husband’s junior.
The First World War had ended 15 years previously but for Mr Jacob Summers, the contribution his sons had made in the War, serving their country, was in the forefront of his mind:
Mr and Mrs Jacob Summers
Farther up toward the hill are five houses, with seven residents whose ages aggregate 522 years. A remarkable couple are Mr and Mrs Jacob Summers, at 87 and 86 respectively, Mr Summers is a native of Stockley, and is the last survivor of those who attended the village school during its brief career. This couple were married at Calne Parish Church nearly 63 years ago.
Mr Summers has worked on the land all his life, and for 21 years was a small-holder, giving up some five years ago. They had nine children, seven of whom are living – four sons and three daughters. Two of the latter reside in Swindon. They had five sons in the war, three being on the Reserve at the outbreak of hostilities, and going overseas to the Mons action with the 1st Wiltshires. Another son was serving in India, and was brought back to France, while the youngest who was in Australia, came over to France and returned to Australia at the end of the war. One son was killed in 1915, and another, who went right through the war, and was disabled, has died since.
Mr and Mrs Frank Reeves
Next door are Mr and Mrs Frank Reeves (72 and 69), who have spent the whole of their 49 years of married life in Stockley, and on the other side is Mrs Hatter (69).
Mr Henry Huband
Mrs Dan Summers
In an adjoining row are Mr Henry Huband (70), and Mrs Dan Summers (69), whose husband died four years ago in his 70th year.
Mr Flower Ruddle
At Willowbrook Farm resides Mr Flower Ruddle, who is also 70.
I’ve concluded from the answers given to the reporter, that this retirement community chose to live in Stockley because of their deep local roots. Many had lived in Stockley for years and were born there or in the vicinity. Given the rural character of the area, most had spent their working lives engaged in farm work. That is not to say that they had not seen anything of the world. Mrs Susannah Summers had married in Hoxton, Middlesex and had lived there until her husband was invalided out of the police force. Mr Joshua Gregory had at one time run a milk delivery service in Radstock, Somerset. My own relative, Mrs Simeon Bullock, had married her husband in 1871 in Kensington and they were still living there 30 years later when the 1911 census was taken. Even the venerable Mr Henry Trembling, with the twinkling eyes and flowing white beard, who had worked for over 50 years at Stockley Farm, proudly tells the reporter about his jaunts to the seaside and to London.
The figure that stands out as an exception in the community was Mr John Hatton. He was the son of an Irish soldier, born in Colchester, and had spent most of his life as a bandsman with the 10th Hussars, serving overseas in exotic places such as India and Afghanistan. What was he doing in sleepy Stockley? Perhaps he had had enough excitement to last him a lifetime and wanted to see out his days somewhere peaceful. In addition, he may well have had family connections locally as his mother was born in Devizes, Wiltshire.
This is a charming portrait of folk who though now in retirement, formed an independent community. Most of them would have known each other for years and formed long-standing friendships. Given their relative isolation, they would have relied on each other for social interaction, perhaps even enjoying some music from Mr John Hatton. The impression I get is that the Stockley pensioners were still living life to the full and were very fit and active for their age. Mrs Surnam, at the age of 80, walking to Chippenham and back, a six mile round trip, and Mr Thomas Paget, still tending his half acre smallholding stand out in this regard. Perhaps they had also had acquired a degree of contentment over their long lives. It is notable how many of the couples had celebrated their golden, or even diamond, wedding anniversaries, no doubt celebrated with their families. They must have considered themselves fortunate, as many of their contemporaries were long gone. The losses of the First World War had also cast a long shadow, with many families losing their youth too. It can be seen from the interviews that many had considerable pride in their sons who had seen service.
I loved hearing the stories of the Stockley pensioners and if they were your ancestors, what a treasure trove of information on their lives! Newspapers are such an important source that add greatly to our knowledge of history. However, is there something we can learn from these pensioners? What was their secret to a long life? Mrs Susannah Summers put it down to hard work and a contented mind. That’s something to think about. Of all the characters, I would especially like to meet this venerable lady, the former milk maid, who loved cats and smoked woodbines for her health.
@ GenealogyJude 2020