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Oral Reminiscences - Cora Russell

Cora Russell
Cora Russell


I was born at Stone Gables in Helmdon in 1923, was christened in Helmdon Church and later married there.

My father's family came to live at the Priory Farm sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century. My grandfather James Wood and my grandmother Mary Jeohaddeh Wood with five of their children are listed in the 1891 census at Helmdon, my father being the fourth of the family listed. Two further children were born at Helmdon. I understand there were two older children born before they came to live at Helmdon who died of fever in infancy.

My grandfather owned the Priory Farm and, after that, Fatlands Farm. His sister Alice Jessett and her husband Harry owned Lukes Farm. My grandfather Wood also at one time owned Shortlands cottages which at one time was a farmhouse. He also owned the land adjoining this property but never occupied the house.

My mother's parents bought the house behind the school which was at one time known as School Hill. They came there when my grandfather William Jackson retired from his work at the Woolwich Arsenal. They lived in Plumstead Common where there was a fine view of London below.

My grandmother Charlotte Jackson's family were the Hopkins, an old Northamptonshire family. Her father was a journeyman shoemaker and the family had a carrier business at one time. They lived at Weedon Lois and Weston, I believe. The Hopkins family were related to the Jones and Hinton families, both of these families were connected with Weedon Church. The Jones family gave the church its font and there is a plaque on the wall at Weedon Church recording members of the Hinton family.

When my father first married, my parents emigrated to Canada, where they were farming in Ontario. They lived in a log cabin. My eldest sister, Minnie, was born there. They returned to Helmdon after my mother's eldest brother, a merchant naval officer engineer, was drowned in Lake Huron. My mother came back to comfort her parents and my father followed later.

He worked for his father at the Priory Farm as a dairyman. At one time he farmed a smallholding at Stuchbury They lived in a three-storey thatched house across the fields. I believe it was called "The Shepherd's Cottage". There was no road to the house, just a cart track through the fields. My two eldest sisters went to Helmdon School from there. When floods made the route through the fields impassable, they walked to the village along the railway track which ran nearby. My eldest brother Robert Seymour William Wood (always known as Bill) was born there.

It was a beautiful little farm. My father and mother as well as my father worked at Priory Farm. All the animals were so tame. I am told that my sisters used to ride on a tame pig when they were young. One day my Uncle Bert visited the house and as he walked across the meadow he saw the cows all wearing daisy chains around their necks and horns which my sisters had made.

Many years later when we returned to live in Helmdon in the house at School Hill I often walked up to the old ruined house across the fields. The best water I have ever tasted used to bubble up through stones near the house. It was pleasure to drink the cool water after a climb on a hot summer day. When my parents lived there they had a motor pump to bring the water to the house and for drinking water for the animals.

I never lived there. I often wish I had because it was such a restful place to be in. My brother Frank and I were born at Stone Gables (then owned by my father Robert Wood). It was there that my younger brother John was killed in an accident in the coach house there. The house had a yard which was entered by two double doors where horses and carriages could enter. There was a walled garden, an orchard and a paddock there. Now most of that ground has been developed with several houses built and the coach house converted to another house.

Helmdon has greatly changed from how I remember it as a child. We moved away to the Brickyard Farm near Towcester when I was two years old and from there to the Manor Farm at Tiffield. Both of these farmhouses are now private dwellings and the surrounding farm buildings and land developed.

We used to visit Helmdon when I was young, riding in a pony drawn trap. We had our first car when I was 5-6 years old. We often came to Helmdon to visit the aunts and uncles and my grandparents. Grandfather Wood died before I was born. I can just remember my Grandmother Wood who died when I was 3 or 4 years old. Her family can be traced back to 1601 to a marriage in Nottinghamshire. I have quite a record of The Woods, Cliftons and the Jackson families but nothing as far reaching as the Barlby family who originally came from Normandy.

We returned to live in Helmdon during the War after my father retired from farming. My elder sister Minnie and Eva went to Helmdon School. My brother Bill won a scholarship to Towcester Grammar School from there. Years later when we lived in Tiffield. I also attended Towcester Grammar School, now Sponne Comprehensive.

I remember Helmdon when there were many little thatched cottages most of which have been demolished. It had a house with three bedrooms at one end and a barn, stables with lofts above at the other. The roof overall was very steep; later my father lowered the roof over the barn and stables.

The house at School Hill is very old, several hundred years old, one of the oldest houses. There was a row of old cottages in the lane by the house, which were condemned and demolished. My grandfather owned the field behind the house and at one time the field and stables were let. My grandfather took in some of the field to plant fruit trees and later still my father extended the garden to make a large kitchen garden. He grew all the vegetables needed for the house and gave away the surplus. He also kept chickens and goats in the field.

After both my parents died my sister Eva occupied the house until she was unfit to continue to live there. We cared for her here in our home until her death aged 87. I would have liked to have restored the old house but could not afford to do so, so sadly the old home went out of the family after so many years. My grandparents came to live there soon after the First World War. Now the old house has been restored and modernised.

That old house holds many memories as does the village and the surrounding countryside. There were families who had lived there for generations, their histories can be traced in the old churchyard and church registers.

It was these people who made the village, cared for the land for generations to come and gave their skills to create much to benefit their homes and farms. The history of the village travels through good times and hard times, of injustices and even in ancient times of oppression. They survived through all these times by helping each other and making the most of what they had.

I knew the old house at Priory Farm, a one time Priory. It is a strange house with lots of character and atmosphere. I have stayed in that house and also in the farmhouse of Luke's Farm. I love these old stone houses. My father sold Stone Gables to his sister Alice Jessett when we left the village.

My parents lived in Helmdon for quite a few years before moving. I was born on my eldest sister's sixteenth birthday. I am told that my two sisters once drove a herd of cattle to Northampton Cattle Market when they were young teenagers. The country lanes were very quiet, as there was little traffic. There were few cars on the road, and when we lived in Tiffield ours was the only car in the village I recall.

Both my sisters and eldest sister Minnie were members of the Helmdon Choral Society run by Canon Bartlett. They sang a variety of pieces, oratorios and including at one time the whole of the Messiah. Both my mother and Minnie were skilled pianists. Minnie played the church organ when quite young. Minnie and Eva both were taught music by Miss Wrighton. Minnie was far more gifted than Eva in music.

I remember very well Sammy Walters bus service to Banbury and Northampton on market days. There was a late bus back so that people could stay for a late show at the cinema and a meal out.

There were two railway stations in Helmdon. My father was about nine years old when the viaduct was built across the valley on their farm. Many men left the land to work on the railway at that time. My father recalls how men left the farm to work on the railway when there was a field of corn ready for cutting. This work used to be done by hand. However, my grandfather immediately bought a new binding machine brought to Banbury for sale from the Earls Court Exhibition. The men going to work on the railway the next week were amazed to see the whole field not only cut but lying bound in sheaves. Wages for work on the railway were not much different from farmworkers' pay but work was assured during the winter months, whereas many farm workers would be laid off.

When the railway was being laid off there were many Irish labourers in cottages in the village or they slept rough in barns.

In Helmdon there is a row of terraced houses with a porch over the door of one of them at the end of the row. I am told that used to be a beer house frequented by the Irish navvies. I believe there used to be a shop in one of these houses.

I remember Bob Buckingham the local butcher, and Wilsons the builders, and Oakeys the bakers (Mrs Oakey did the flowers and made my bouquet for my wedding). I also knew Mrs Shrimplin who ran the sweet shop and old Mr Shrimplin. He recalled meeting the old man with his donkey cart taking parcels up to the station. The donkey would not budge, however much the old chap used him with "Come on Gyp, come on Gyp" to no avail. He remarked to my father (then a lad), "I only takes old Gyp when I be in a hurry".

My father had endless stories to tell about the village and its people. He told me there was a man he knew who was born in Helmdon, married in Helmdon, died and was buried in Helmdon churchyard, who never once in his life crossed the parish boundary.

When Helmdon had two railways it was possible to get about to any place in the country. Express trains could be caught by changing at Brackley. I often visited my friends at Tiffield by putting my bicycle in the guard's van and getting off at Towcester. Travelling by rail was cheap because it was subsidised by the profitable trade in freight trains. There was constant traffic of goods trains on the Central Railway line carrying all manner of goods, coal, stone, cattle, etc. Many villages are more isolated today than they used to be. Those who do not own a car cannot travel about as they once could.

I have many memories of Helmdon and the surrounding villages. There have been many improvements in modern times but much that was good that has been lost forever. I feel privileged to have lived through a time of great changes and also to have memories of how things used to be.

I love the village of Helmdon and the beautiful countryside, the winding lanes along which I often cycled, where every bend in the road gave new view across the farmlands spread out over the undulating hills. In my memory I can still travel along those old lanes and remember every inch of the way.

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