A book that has stayed in my mind, long after I first read it during my teenage years, is the classic memoir, Cider with Rosie by Laurence Edward Alan “Laurie” Lee, MBE, an English poet, novelist, and screenwriter. Cider with Rosie was first published as part of an autobiographical trilogy in 1959. It gives a vivid account of Lee’s childhood in the Cotswold valley of Slad and it is his most famous work. Lee was a great master of prose and his memoir contains evocative descriptions of village life and the beautiful landscape that surrounded Slad. It is also full of wonderful stories about memorable characters who lived in a village that was about to change irrevocably, as motor cars opened it up to the outside world. As such, it gives an amazing insight into life in the country, and describes experiences that would have been familiar to our own ancestors in the period just after the First World War.
To begin, I’ll tell you something about Laurie’s family. Laurie’s father was Reginald Joseph Lee, a grocer’s manager in his civilian life before he joined the Army during the First World War. At the time of the 1911 census, just a few years before Laurie’s birth in 1914, he was living in Stroud with his three young daughters, Marjorie aged 8, Dorothy aged 6, Phyllis aged 4 and a housekeeper. His wife had died the year before after the birth of twins, who also did not survive. Their eldest child, Arthur, was living with Reginald’s brother and his wife.
Laurie’s widowed father needed a housekeeper to help him look after the children and he advertised for one in the local newspaper. Annie Emily Light, Laurie’s mother, got the job.
When she moved into his tiny house in Stroud, and took charge of his four small children, Mother was thirty and still quite handsome. She had not, I suppose, met anyone like him before. This rather priggish young man, with his devout gentility, his airs and manners, his music and ambitions, his charm, bright talk, and undeniable good looks, overwhelmed her as soon as she saw him. So she fell in love with him immediately, and remained in love for ever. And herself being comely, sensitive, and adoring, she attracted my father also. And so he married her.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.120, 121
Reginald and Annie married just over a month after the 1911 census was taken. They soon had a family together: a daughter, Frances Nemariah Joan Lee (b. 1911) who died aged 4, followed by three sons, Wilfred Jack Raymond Lee (b. 1913) Laurence Edward Alan Lee (b. 1914) and Anthony Lisle Lee (b. 1916).
At the time of this second marriage he [Reginald] was still a grocer’s assistant and earning nineteenth shillings a week. But his dearest wish was to become a Civil Servant, and he studied each night to this end. The First World War gave him the chance he wanted, and though properly distrustful of arms and battle he instantly sacrificed both himself and his family, applied for a post in the Army Pay Corps, went off to Greenwich in a bullet-proof vest, and never returned, leaving Annie waiting for him for thirty years.
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.60, 61
Laurie grew up with very little contact with his absent father. When he was three years old, the family moved from Stroud to nearby Slad, which was situated in a deep and isolated valley between the towns of Stroud and Painswick.
The village to which our family had come was a scattering of some twenty to thirty houses down the south-east slope of a valley. The valley was narrow, steep, and almost entirely cut off; it was a funnel for winds, a channel for the floods and a jungly, bird-crammed, insect-hopping sun-trap whenever there happened to be any sun. …The sides of the valley were rich in pasture and the crests heavily covered in beechwoods.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.41
Their new home was Bank Cottage (now known as Rose Bank Cottage).
Our house was seventeenth-century Cotswold, and was handsome as they go. It was built of stone, had hand-carved windows, golden surfaces, moss-flaked tiles, and walls so thick they kept a damp chill inside them whatever the season or weather.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.78
… a cottage that stood in a half-acre of garden on a steep bank above a lake; a cottage with three floors and a cellar and a treasure in the walls, with a pump and apple trees, syringa and strawberries, rooks in the chimneys, frogs in the cellar, mushrooms on the ceiling, and all for three and sixpence a week.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.10
A few years after their arrival, the family headed by Annie, aged 41, her three stepchildren, Marjorie aged 18, Phyllis aged 15 and Harold aged 13, plus her own three children, Wilfred aged 8, Laurence aged 7 and Anthony aged 5, were recorded in the 1921 census:
As family historians, we usually encounter our ancestors on significant days of their lives, when they were married, appeared in court, boarded a ship or made the news. Even census days only occur every ten years. However, through reading a memoir such as Cider with Rosie, one forms an impression of every day life. Here is Lee’s account of Mondays in the scullery, when it was laundry day:
The scullery was water, where the old pump stood. And it had everything else that was related to water: thick steam of Mondays edgy with starch; soapsuds boiling, bellying and popping, creaking and whispering, rainbowed with light and winking with a million windows. Bubble bubble, toil and grumble, rinsing and slapping of sheets and shirts, and panting Mother rowing her red arms like oars in the steaming waves. Then the linen came up on a stick out of the pot, like pastry, or woven suds, or sheets of moulded snow.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.15
Lee also reminisces about the meals that the family prepared and ate. I imagine that many of our grandparents or great grandparents would have had a similar diet at the time.
Large meals were prepared in this room, cauldrons of stew for the insatiate hunger of eight. Stews of all that grew on these rich banks, flavoured with sage, coloured with Oxo, and laced with a few bones of lamb. There was, it is true, little meat at those times; sometimes a pound of bare ribs for boiling, or an occasional rabbit dumped at the door by a neighbour. But there was green food of great weight in season, and lentils and bread for ballast. Eight to ten loaves came to the house every day, and they never grew dry. We tore them to pieces with their crusts still warm, and their monotony was brightened by the objects we found in them – string, nails, paper, and once a mouse; for those were days of happy-go-lucky baking.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.16
Like many homes at this time, the kitchen was the only room in the cottage that had a fire. As a result, it was the congenial centre of the house, the common room that was shared during waking hours, where the family would sit companionably around the table, gossiping and pursuing pastimes.
The kitchen, worn by our boots and lives, and our growing years, was scruffy, warm, and low, whose fuss of furniture seemed never the same but was shuffled around each day. A black grate crackled with coal and beech-twigs; towels toasted on the guard; the mantel was littered with fine old china, horse brasses and freak potatoes. On the floor were strips of muddy matting, the windows were choked with plants, the walls supported stopped clocks and calendars, and smoky fungus ran over the ceilings. there were also six tables of different sizes, some armchairs gapingly stuffed, boxes, stools, and unravelling baskets, books and papers on every chair, a sofa for cats, a harmonium for coats, and a piano for dust and photographs.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p. 64, 65
The family home was t-shaped and there were two cottages in the top stroke. These were each inhabited by two old ladies, Granny Trill and Granny Wallon, perhaps the most memorable characters in Cider with Rosie, who are described in detail in the chapter, “Grannies in the Wainscot”.
Granny Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves, and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed much of my early days. With their sickle-bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair, they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike. In all their time as such close neighbours they never exchanged a word. They communicated instead by means of boots and brooms – jumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as “Er-Down-Under” and “Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint”; for each to the other was an airy nothing, a local habitation not fit to be named.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.78
Granny Wallon was famous for her homemade wines, which were excellent, whilst Granny Trill was “frugal as a sparrow” and sat for hours in her chair, combing her thin white hair and taking snuff. She lived on tea and biscuits and porridge sent to her by the local squire. She also loved spending time in the woods, where she had lived with her father as a child. There was an intense rivalry between the two old ladies and when Granny Trill died, after suffering a fall in the woods, Granny Wallon was incensed that her rival’s age was estimated to be ninety five. She claimed that she was, in fact, the eldest and made a big scene at the graveside. According to Lee, Granny Wallon died about two weeks later.
Family stories often contain some truth even though when you research them, the facts can somewhat differ. I took at look at the 1911 census and found a 74 year old widow, Elizabeth Terrell living in Slad. Could she be Granny Trill? She was recorded in the 1921 census in Slad but was buried aged 88 on March 19th 1925 in the churchyard of Slad. Her death merited a mention in the local newspaper and the circumstances surrounding it match the description given in Lee’s account, though her name is recorded here as Perrell:
I love Lee’s description of Granny Trill’s passing:
Like a delicate pale bubble, blown a little higher and further than the other girls of her generation, she had floated just long enough for us to catch sight of her, had hovered for an instant before our eyes; and then had popped suddenly and disappeared for ever, leaving nothing on the air but a faint-drying image and the tiniest cloud of snuff.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.92
Unfortunately, I am less sure of the identity of her rival, Granny Wallon and there may be some artistic licence going on with regard to her story. She may possibly be Elizabeth Waldron, a 70 year old widow living in Slad in 1911. I can’t find her in the 1921 census but she died some years later, being buried in Slad on January 26th 1932 at the age of 91. Whatever the truth concerning their identities, the story of the “Grannies in the Wainscot” illustrates the importance of neighbours, and how they were a big part of our ancestors’ lives, particularly if they lived in a rural community.
In our current age of instant communication, it is easy to forget the insularity of many isolated villages. Tight-knit, they kept themselves to themselves and looked out for the interests of each other. One particularly noteworthy story told by Lee involves a murder. A man returns to Slad, the village where he had grown up, after the War. He had made his fortune cattle ranching in New Zealand and splashes his cash around in the local pub, buying drinks, boasting of his wealth, and showing off his gold watch. On his way home, drunk and merry, he was ambushed by the young men in whose company he had spent the evening. He was beaten up, left unconscious and his pockets were emptied. His gold watch was also stolen. After laying in the snow all night, he was found frozen to death in the morning. Lee was a young child at the time but he reports that the village covered up the truth and kept quiet, so his assailants, local lads, were never caught.
The police came, of course, but discovered nothing. Their inquiries were met by stares. But the tale spread quickly from mouth to mouth, was deliberately spread amongst us, was given to everyone, man and child, that we might learn each detail and hide it. The police left at last with the case unsolved; but neither we nor they forgot it ….Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.97
Who was this mystery man who met such a terrible death? Lee only names the victim as as Vincent. Looking at local newspapers is a good way of finding out about significant events that took place within the local community, which would have made a deep impression on our ancestors. I discovered the report below in the Cheltenham Chronicle in 1919. There are some uncanny similarities with the story narrated by Lee:
The police were not informed until a week after the incident, when it was clear that the victim was not going to recover. This delay suggests that the villagers of Slad had closed ranks to protect the perpetrators. The newspaper report describes the victim, Albert Birt, as a solider, but further research suggests that he had joined the RAF before the end of the War. Albert’s middle name was Victor, not a million miles away from Vincent. No doubt he had returned to Slad after serving abroad, even if he was not a New Zealand colonist. Albert Victor Birt, (who was 42 years old), was buried in nearby Sheepscombe, and has a Commonwealth War Grave headstone. As far as the police were concerned, the case was never solved.
Our ancestors must have had wonderful memories of special celebrations that took place in their communities. When World War One ended, Lee remembers seeing women dancing around bonfires in their gardens whilst men were getting drunk at the pub.
How everyone bellowed and scuffled and sang, drunk with their beer and the sight of the fire.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.23,24
This was followed by Peace Day in 1919, when all the children marched in fancy dress costumes :
It was a day of magical transformation, of tears and dusty sunlight, of bands, processions, and buns by the cartload; and I was so young I thought it normal…Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.184
In the winter, the Parochial Church Tea and Annual Entertainment was a long-anticipated treat in Slad. In an age where there was little outside entertainment, everyone participated in the show, whether singing, telling funny stories, acting out sketches or playing music.
It took place in the schoolroom, round about Twelfth night, and cost us a shilling to go. The Tea was an orgy of communal gluttony, in which everyone took pains to eat more than his money’s worth and the helpers ate more than the customers. The Entertainment which followed, home produced and by lampllight, provided us with sufficient catch-phrases for a year.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.197
Village outings were infrequent, and for many, the annual choir outing was often their only trip outside the parish. However, with the coming of the motorised charabanc, outings were further afield and more exciting.
One memorable trip that Lee remembered was the village trip to Weston-Super-Mare. Can you imagine your ancestor visiting the seaside for the first time and the deep impression it would have made on them?
The weather cleared as we drove into Weston, and we halted on the Promenade. ‘The seaside’ they said: we gazed around us, but we saw no sign of the sea. We saw a vast blue sky and infinity of mud stretching away to the shadows of Wales. But rousing smells of an invisible ocean astonished our land-locked nostrils: salt, and wet weeds, and fishy oozes; a sharp difference in every breath. Our deep-ditched valley had not been prepared for this, for we had never seen such openness, the blue windy world seemed to have blown quite flat, bringing the sky to the level of our eyebrows. Canvas booths flapped on the edge of the Prom, mouths crammed with shellfish and vinegar; there were rows of prim boarding-houses (each the size of our Vicarage); bath-chairs, carriages, and donkeys; and stilted far out on the rippled mud a white pier like a sleeping dragon.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.194
Most of the time, children played outdoors and and during the summer holidays, they would have roamed free for hours in the countryside.
There was nothing to do. Nothing moved or happened, nothing happened at all except summer. Small heated winds blew over our faces, dandelion seeds floated by, burnt sap and roast nettles tingled our nostrils together with the dull rust smell of dry ground. The grass was June high and had come up with a rush, a massed entanglement of species, crested with flowers and spears of wild wheat, and coiled with clambering vetches, the whole of it humming with blundering bees and flickering with scarlet butterflies. Chewing grass on our backs, the grass scaffolding the sky, the summer was all we heard; cuckoos crossed distances on chains of cries, flies buzzed and choked in the ears, and the saw-toothed chatter of mowing machines drifted on waves of air from the fields.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p. 150, 151
In contrast, wintertime was a struggle for survival and Lee comments that many of the old people died during the winter, succumbing to illness in their damp, cold homes. Suicides were also more common. For children though, winter transformed the landscape, their playground, into a crystal kingdom.
We saw the frozen spring by the side of the road, huge like a swollen flower. Water-wagtails hovered above it, nonplussed at its sudden hardness, and again and again they dropped down to drink, only to go sprawling in a tumble of feathers. We saw the stream in the valley, black and halted, a tarred path threading through the willows. We saw trees lopped-off by their burdens of ice, cow-tracks like pot-holes in rock, quiet lumps of sheep licking the spiky grass with their black and rotting tongues. The church clock had stopped and the weather-cock was frozen, so that both time and the winds were stilled; and nothing, we thought, could be more exciting than this; interference by a hand unknown, the winter’s No to routine and laws- sinister, awesome, welcome.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.138, 139
The villagers themselves had three ways of living: working for the Squire, or on the farms, or down in the cloth mills at Stroud. Apart from the Manor, and the ample cottage gardens – which were an insurance against hard times – all other needs were supplied by a church, a chapel, a vicarage, a manse, a wooden hut, a pub – and the village school.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p. 42
The village school at that time provided all the instruction we were likely to ask for. It was a small stone barn divided by a wooden partition into two rooms – The Infants and the Big Ones. There was one dame teacher, and perhaps a young girl assistant. Every child in the valley crowding there, remained till he was fourteen years old, then was presented to the working field or factory with nothing in his head more burdensome than a few mnemonics, a jumbled list of wars, and a dreamy image of the world’s geography. It seemed enough to get by with, in any case: and was one up on our poor old grandparents.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p. 42
Lee gives a wonderful depiction of school life, the classroom, his classmates and the head teacher, the village schooling that many of our parents, grandparents or even great grandparents would have known, which involved chanting times tables and learning simple facts and calculations.
Cider with Rosie is full of family history. A whole chapter is devoted to Lee’s mother, Annie, who was clearly a big influence in his life. There are some lovely passages describing her character.
Our Mother was a buffoon, extravagant and romantic, and was never wholly taken seriously. Yet within her she nourished a delicacy of taste, a sensibility, a brightness of spirit, which though continuously bludgeoned by the cruelties of her luck remained uncrushed and unembittered to the end. Wherever she got it from, God knows – or how she managed to preserve it. But she loved this world and saw it fresh with hopes that never clouded. She was an artist, a light-giver, and an original, and she never for a moment knew it….Cider with Rosie p. 126
Annie was the eldest, and the only sister in a family of boys. She went into service when they were old enough to take care of themselves and there are wonderful anecdotes about her time as a servant in big country houses. Many of our female ancestors would have gone into service too and had similar experiences.
Sometimes, for instance, faced by a scratch meal in the kitchen, Mother would transform it in a trance of memory. A gleam would come to her hazy eyes and a special stance to her body. Lightly she would deploy a few plates on the table and curl her fingers airily…’For dining, they’d have every plate just so; personal cruets for every guest….’ Grimly we settled to our greens and bacon; there was no way to stop her now.Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee p.114, 115
Annie’s father, John Light, was a coachman from Berkeley, who then took a pub, The Plough Inn, which was situated on the old coach road to Birdlip. Annie was in charge of its running for most of the time and her father was dependent of her. This was why she married in her thirties. Perhaps some of our female ancestors similarly married later in life because of their family circumstances.
Another chapter is devoted to Lee’s maternal uncles. All had inherited their father’s skill with horses. Two fought against the Boers and all five were cavalrymen in the First World War. Miraculously, all survived. There are wonderful stories about Uncle Charles, who ended up as a barman in a Rand diamond town after the end of the Boer War. Then there was Uncle Tom, who was something of a dandy and did peculiar things with his eyebrows. He had to suffer almost continuous pursuit by girls. There was also Uncle Ray, “prospector, dynamiter, buffalo-fighter, and builder of transcontinental railways” in Canada and Uncle Sid, a champion cricketeer and elite bus driver.
My aim in writing this article is to illustrate how useful it is to read a memoir. Cider with Rosie certainly provides an insight into the world that our ancestors would have known. It helps us to discover what their lives were like, even on ordinary days as well as on special days during the year. We can get an inkling of their experiences attending school, for example, or what it was like to fall sick with a childhood illness. If you seek out a memoir for a place where your ancestors once lived, you may even find them personally mentioned. Certainly, you will at least know more about their neighbours and the people in their community. These rich stories are irreplaceable and are a valuable part of our local and social history. One is reminded of the fact that although official records provide the framework of our ancestors lives, they cannot fill in the gaps. However, a good memoir provides some redress.
© Judith Batchelor 2022