In 1700, Helmdon in Northamptonshire was a village of some 400 people.
For all apart from a dozen or so of these, ill health in whatever
shape or form was a grim prospect. Epidemics of fever and plague appear
to have been no less common in this village than in neighbouring Banbury
|BRIAN LITTLE traces the
history of Helmdon from 1700 epidemics with kill or cure
remedies to the present day video diary.
So far as Helmdon was concerned, a likely breeding ground for disease
was an open sewer which conveyed filth to a brook. In warm weather
often there was no water to prevent this waste from accumulating.
Remedies were very much home spun and based on ancient beliefs. A
classic example was the notion of taking the liver from a chicken
while there was a full moon. In its dried and powdered form this part
of the bird was seen as an infallible answer to sickness. A kill or
cure technique was that of bleeding. Extant parish records from the
first 50 years of the 18th century include the entry: "For charg of
Arther Pargiter going to the Doctors and bluding, 9 shillings and
The High Street, Helmdon
Certain people in 18th century Helmdon had technical skills which
could be varied to deal with medically related problems. The village
blacksmith and farrier carried out bleeding techniques for a sixpence
and was also the local dentist.
Some women of the village had a good knowledge of herbs and could
produce concoctions which they were convinced had curative values.
Three hundred years on from these records of village life, Helmdon
has once again been put under the microscope. This time it is not
the single author of 1902 (W.P.Ellis) but a group of keen members
in the local branch of the Workers' Educational Association. They
have produced a video and typescript charting a year in the life of
Helmdon. Last Saturday, visitors to the Reading Room would have been
able to see a visual presentation of events as varied as the carnival,
Scout's barbecue and Christmas pantomime. A more appropriate venue
for the film sessions would have been hard to find. Dating from the
late 19th century, this structure was described by Ellis as "a pretty
building" and "a great attraction to the young men of the village
during the winter evenings, and there is no doubt that it has an excellent
influence on the rising generation".
Helmdon Station was used as
a coach depot
after its closure. A Bedford OB 26-seater
can be seen here in the yard.
The present study group has elaborated on this theme by noting that
the Room was an alternative to the pub for men up to 1914, the only
days that it was not open were Sunday, Christmas Day, Good Friday
and "unofficially the day after Banbury Fair".
Whereas originally the Reading Room was not a place for the females
of the village, since 1921 and the formation of Helmdon's Women's
Institute, ladies have led the way in improving this fine asset.
"A year in the life of a village" is an all embracing study of a place
whose church tower was struck by lightening in 1823 and whose landscape
has witnessed the impact of the railway. A Great Central Viaduct is
still a fine feature though the sounds of steam locomotives can be
recalled by only older members of the community.
Station Road, Helmdon
In a speech made at the Hampshire County Cricket Club Annual General
Meeting in 1951, H.S. Altham, the club's president, said of cricket
that it "enriches our memories, widens and deepens our friendships
and, above all it is essentially English". All this is certainly true
of Helmdon where the local season culminates in a cup competition
for which the trophy is a fine memorial to both a person and the days
of more abundant village services. It was offered in the name of Bill
Duncombe who founded the grocery and greengrocery business in the
In a film made in the 1940s about the Banbury area, Twenty Four Square
Miles, John Arlott remarked that the pub was a place where men went
"to drink a little beer and play darts." Helmdon did have four such
institutions. Now only the Bell survives. Regulars top up their glasses
with Banks' ales and enter into the spirits of a darts match but today
karaoke and jazz are also on the menu.
As fireworks illuminated the Millennium night sky, there must have
been many present who looked back on a lifetime of rural change. Something
of the variations in the tempo comes across in the video and description
and gives more credence to the notion of Middle England than any political
utterances can contrive.
Original article appeared in the
Banbury Guardian 25th May 2000.