|A study of the village of Wymington between the years 1870 1970
Stella Reynolds, Bedford College of Education.
Wymington - village study
Wymington lies in a corner of north-west Bedfordshire, and the parish boundary forms in part the division between that county and Northamptonshire.
At one time the village was wholly rural in character, with a cluster of stone houses round the church, several farms within the village, and outlying farms making up the rest of the parish.
Although in Bedfordshire, Wymington is not really characteristic of the county. Its soil is not suitable for the market gardening carried on in some adjacent areas, as it is a mixture of heavy clay and limestone, like the Nene Valley of Northamptonshire. Part of the parish of Wymington comes under the Nene catchment area and part under that of the Bedfordshire Ouse.
Wymington Church, built mainly of the lovely gold-grey local limestone, has in some of its courses a contrast of rich brown ironstone like many of the nearby Northamptonshire churches with their beautiful delicate spires. Like the church, the village combines elements from both counties.
The purpose of this work is to show how Wymington has developed over the last hundred years in the light of the rapid urbanisation of Rushden, a mile and a half to the north, just over the county border.
About the middle of the nineteenth century, the boot and shoe trade was becoming of increasing importance in Northamptonshire, and several factories had been built in Rushden by 1870. Some of Wymington’s workers were engaged in the shoe trade by the 1870’s and the number grew as Rushden grew. Most of the houses built in the parish by the end of the century were for people who earned their living in the Rushden factories, and the resulting conflict between rural and urban interests was noticeable, especially in the Parish Council and in the school, where there was increasing opposition to the hitherto undisputed control by the church.
However, in time, village affairs seemed to stabilise themselves, and the Parish Council, with representatives from both the old village and the newcomers, worked hard to provide public services and amenities comparable to those enjoyed in Rushden. The school was brought into an excellent state of order and progress, and church co-existed amicably with chapel.
It was not until the late 1920s that a second period of change became apparent when the need arose for several more homes, and the Rural Council began its first building project in the village. The council houses along the Rushden Road were the start of the ribbon development which soon stretched from the old village to the parish and county boundary by 1937. Rushden people moved away into the relatively cheap semi-detached houses and the village settled down again.
By the late 1940s the population of the village was expanding rapidly, and a second, much larger, housing estate was built by the Rural Council, but the village somehow seemed to retain its ‘family’ atmosphere, and again, there was a period of little change.
This lasted for fifteen years until, in the early 1960s, several north Bedfordshire villages were chosen by the Rural Council as development areas for the county. Wymington was one of these. The resultant demolition of many old houses and building of many more new ones so completely altered the look and character of Wymington, that there began a drift away from the village by some of the families whose relatives had lived there for generations. Some of the old council houses, and many of the new ones, are tenanted by families who only stay for a few weeks or months, and who have little interest in village affairs. In many ways, Wymington seems to have become just a convenient dormitory for workers in Bedford, Rushden or Wellingborough. Yet, in spite of this, the village retains some of its rural character. There are still families who walk the fields and footpaths through all seasons of the year, who are attempting to preserve the trees of the parish, and who deeply resent suggestions that Wymington should be integrated into the urban district of Rushden.
The following is in no sense a history of the village, but a study of areas where change has been most apparent. The Parish Council minute books and copy letter book, and the old school log books have been studied. Information has been gained from newspapers, chapel magazines, the correspondence belonging to village organisations and above all, from people who lived most of their lives in the parish. Especially valuable was the help given by the oldest lady in the parish, Mrs. Clara Wooding, aged ninety-five. I am indebted to her for much of my information regarding the old village, as her clear and lively memory extends to when she started school in 1879.
The Village - Houses
"Wimington is an obscure and ruinous village consisting of thirty-five indifferent stone houses, all but one covered with thatch".
This rather derogatory description was written by the historian Oliver St. John Cooper in 1785. He was at the time vicar of nearby Podington, and had, twenty years earlier, been curate at Wymington. It does not appear either to have been wholly deserved description, as a hundred years later all thirty five houses were standing, most of them still in good condition. Today, fifteen houses remain of the thirty-five. By 1870, when this study begins, the number had risen to seventy one, and the population had increased by a hundred from 216 in 1780.
Wymington was not typical of other North Bedfordshire villages in the neighbourhood. There was no large house or hall to give employment or cohesion of interests to a large proportion of the villagers. Neither was it completely rural in character, as by 1870 its proximity to Rushden had markedly affected its development. Geographically and economically it seemed that Wymington should have belonged to Northamptonshire, politically it did not.
In 1870 Wymington was a compact village lying in a hollow about a site to the south of the Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire border. Certainly it was “obscure” in a physical sense, as little of it was visible from any of its three approach roads. Manor Farm and a small cottage were the only habitations on the Rushden Road to the north of the church.
Poplars Farm in the lane leading to the Bedford Road was the last house on the east side, and the New Inn Farm lay at the junction of this lane (later the High Street) and the Rushden-Podington road. All the remaining houses were contained within this small triangle. They were built of the local limestone with their foundations resting on the seam of rock which ends abruptly near the surface here. A few yards away in the churchyard, graves are dug in six feet of clay.
Church Lane was a narrow cul-de-sac rising steeply from Rushden Road, and in 1870 ten of the old houses were left in the lane. They included Church Farm on the west side of the churchyard, and the old Rectory on the east side. Five of the cottages still stand in the lane, although one is derelict. Two of them have been converted into one house, the Rectory has been made into two cottages and Church Farm became the school.
The old cottage walls are all about two feet thick with huge stones in their lower courses. The absence of damp courses apparently presents no problem, as the combination of steep slope and drainage through the limestone rock ensures dry walls. The flimsy construction and complaints of damp in the modern houses in the village is in unfavourable contrast.
An old house opposite the church gates shows very clearly how the level of the road has dropped over the years. Its foundations on their bed of limestone are exposed to a depth of over a yard, and there are traces of a stopped-up doorway about four feet above the present road level. The lane in 1870 was only a cattle track leading to the fields opening out beyond it. Its surface has gradually been worn away until now it runs low between houses and churchyard.
There are no thatched roofs left now in the village. They have been replaced with slate, tile and in two cases, corrugated iron. The house opposite the church gates, number 8, is typical of many of the old houses. Like its neighbours it now has a pantile roof. Its chimney is high, even taking into account the lowering of the road. It still contains the iron chains with hooked ends hanging from a swivel, where cooking pots were hung, although the chains are now fastened back into the chimney, and a brick fireplace has been built into the huge opening which previously held an oven and boiler. There are four rooms, and the ceilings, still very strong, are covered with rough plaster over long reeds. Upstairs the ceilings are bowed and uneven as the roof timbers are tree trunks, still bark covered. The windows are now unique in the village, being three section lead lights, the central part opening by sliding to either side. Some of their glass was replaced about fourteen years ago, but many of the panes are very old, thin crinkled glass. The other old houses retained their small casements, or had them replaced by sash windows.
The rest of the old houses were scattered along the High Street from its junction with Podington Road for about two hundred yards up to Poplar Farm. This farm dates back to 1640 in its old part; it has been added to at a much later date, but in the same kind of stone and the whole has been re-roofed with slate. Mr. David Smith, the present owner, found a fine stone fireplace in the old part of the house recently. During repair work to the floorboards, part of the drawing-room grate became broken, revealing a blue tiled one behind it. Mr. Smith removed the top grate and decided to remove the tiled one as well. Underneath this he discovered the original fireplace which he cleaned and has left exposed and in use.
The New Inn has been combined with a farm for as far back as is known. It faces the site where six old cottages stood, and one of these was reputed to be the old inn; it was certainly much larger that the others, and had extensive outbuildings only recently removed.
Manor Farm, on the northern edge of the village, was built in 1612 on the site of one of the two Manors, both, confusingly, called Wymington Manor. The spelling of the name of the village was the same in the thirteenth century as the modern way, although there have been many variations both before and after. Doomsday Book records both manors, but the position of the second one cannot now be definitely established. When a pair of houses was built in 1938 opposite the White Horse Inn, traces of wide stone walls were uncovered when the foundations were dug. It is probable that this was the site of the second manor as Cooper in his account of 1785 says:
“In the middle of the town, and on the south side, the foundations of a capital mansion are yet visible, the ruins of which were removed within the memory of man.”
Oddly, apart from a Roman coin, no other relics of antiquity were found in the village when large areas were cleared and excavated for two major housing projects.
There are still seven of the old houses left in the High Street. They have been painted and re-roofed.
By 1870 the pattern of life was changing in the village. Previously, farming had been the most important occupation, there were four farms and three smallholdings in the village itself, and there were four more farms within the parish boundaries. The national depression of the early 1870s hastened the drift from the land, and there was a succession of disastrous harvests culminating in the ‘Black Year’ of 1879. Foreign corn then began to flood the British markets and many farmers were driven out of business. Wheat prices were dropping lower than ever and matters did not improve, even when a Board of Agriculture was established in 1889. Many farmers at this time were turning to beef cattle and dairy farming, so fewer labourers were required.
This was the time when the boot and shoe industry of Rushden became of increasing importance to Wymington. Men turned to employment in the factories, as the wages paid, although low, were more attractive than the eight or ten shillings earned by farm labourers working longer hours. Houses built in the village about 1870 reflected the change clearly. Thirty six had been built since the days of the Rev. Cooper and most of them were of a type to serve the needs, not of a rural community, but an industrial one. These new houses were mainly brick and slate terraces built in or just off the High Street. Their kitchen windows faced across small asphalt yards. They had outdoor lavatories and wash-houses with coppers like the older houses had, but they all had a new, most important common feature. This was ‘the shop’. This was a small room build between kitchen and lavatory, reached through the kitchen, and here the trade of boot and shoe making and mending was carried on. There was a stout wooden bench under the window to obtain the best light for the leather to be cut. Some men, skilled craftsmen, made the footwear completely by hand as out-work for the Rushden factories ‘bespoke’ departments. Others made and mended footwear for customers in the village. Many men, even if they continued working on the local farm were able to mend their family’s shoes.
All the 'shops' had either a grate or a stove where leather bits were burned. These were the trimmings from the thick sole leathers, given away by the sack full from the factories. They had no value except as a fuel, and a poor one at that, but it was free. It smoked, smouldered and emitted an acrid stench which permeated the house. Today, every valuable scrap of leather waste is reclaimed and utilised. Synthetic materials have to a large extent replaced leather in the manufacture of footwear.
The new terraced houses were occupied mainly by families concerned either full or part time in the boot trade, but a few houses were built for farm workers, and Brook Farm, opposite the New Inn, was built on the site of an old farm, the stone barns of which were, and are, still in use. Several detached houses were built, including a new Rectory about a quarter of a mile from the church, on the Rushden Road. Curiously, in spite of the increased number of houses the population dropped by thirty four to 315 between 1861 and 1871, where there had previously been a fairly steady rise. A possible explanation for this is that at the time, many houses were being built in Rushden, then rapidly developing as a major centre of the boot and shoe industry. These new houses would have been considered very desirable for the full-time factory workers of Wymington. They were built near the factories and shops and they had piped water and sewerage. Not that the terraces or ‘places’ had low rents. The poorer type houses were about 3/6d a week, and better ones, with a front room were about 5/-. One particular mean looking row still standing in Rushden earned the derisive name of ‘Pinch-Out Alley’ for obvious reasons. High rents meant less for food.
The 1870s saw the passage of several Acts designed to better the lot of the working classes, and one of these was the Artisans Dwellings Act of 1875; brought in by Richard Cross, Home Secretary in Disraeli’s Government. It was motivated by the great need at that time for cheap housing for the working classes. Local Authorities had permission to clear slums and to embark on housing schemes, but there was no form of compulsion. This Act was not implemented in Rushden or Wymington, so rents were whatever landlords could obtain. (It was not until 1926 that council houses were built in the village.)
In 1897 a new estate was developed outside the village, on the northerly boundary of the parish. A long terrace of seventeen houses was built in the Windmill Field and was called the Windmill Estate. The mill itself stood on the opposite side of the road on the bridleway which forms the boundary between Wymington and Rushden, it was actually on the Rushden side.
Short side streets with a row of six houses in each were built at each end of the main row, then a pair and a detached house were erected. Thirty two houses within a year. The rents were lower that the new houses in Rushden owing to the lower Bedfordshire rural rates.
Most of the tenants came from the town, with little benefit to Wymington. The village had lost families who had lived for many years in this almost rural community, and it had gained families who were more attached to the life in the town. A comparison can be made here with the conditions of the second Local Authority housing development described below. Little Wymington as it was then called, was not integrated with the rest of the village for many years.
Little building was done in the village during the early years of the twentieth century, and there was only a small increase in population between 1901 and 1931, when it rose from 509 to 518. A row of eight was built in Church Lane in 1902, and an obvious attempt was made here to build houses in keeping with their surroundings. Although brick was used for the back walls, the fronts of the houses are in an unusual and attractive packed stone work. The builder was John Hill, a stonemason who had settled in the village and who had bought several of the older houses to renovate.
The Bedfordshire Rural Council was responsible for the beginning of the ribbon development between Wymington and Rushden. About half-way between the old village and New Wymington (as it became known) they built twelve council houses and a Police House. Four of the houses were build in 1926, and the reminder in 1928. Two fields lay between Manor Farm and the Rushden boundary, and they were developed as building land along their whole length, the back land remaining for some years as allotment ground. The remaining plots on each side of the Council’s development were sold to private builders at £30 each in the early 1930s.
Most of the houses were of the typical pre-war semi-detached pattern with five or six rooms and bathroom. Prices were low at this time and there was a boom in house building. The country was slowly recovering from its economic depression of the 1920s, and working men were able to buy their own homes. The cost of a three-bedroomed semi-detached house on the Rushden road was about £500. There was a drawback not realised until later. Most of the houses lacked garages or space to build one. The motor car was not yet the transport of the working man, but when ownership of cars became common, garages were added to some of the houses, but others had only the space to construct a car stand in front of the house.
Only two of the plots were not sold on the Rushden Road; they were at the foot of Rectory Hill, next to Manor Farm paddock. Mr. W. W. Smith of Poplar Farm owned the fields, and after selling the rest of the frontages for the building, he gave one plot to the Boy Scouts in Wymington for the erection of a hut. This was done and its use was shared later by the Girl Guides, but when both organisations disbanded, the hut became derelict and was taken down in 1965.
The other plot was given by Mr. Smith to the Wymington Branch British Legion, and although it was discussed over a long period, their hut was never built. Although a thriving branch at its inception, the Wymington British Legion became inactive and was later amalgamated with the Irchester branch. Legion officials tried to sell their land as a building plot, but the County Planner refused to grant building permission, and the rather amazing reason given was that the building of a house there ‘would constitute ribbon development’. The two plots remain vacant and overgrown, with no foreseeable future, and no-one feeling responsible for clearing them.
There are other places in the parish where huts once stood. During the construction of the Midland Railway’s loop line through the parish, temporary shacks and huts were put up for the navvies. There were two of these encampments. The first one was put up in the north-west of the parish where the lines diverged for the loop. When the line progressed over the great embankment necessary at this point, the navvies shifted their shelters nearer to the village. The second encampment was behind the New Inn, where the railway had enclosed a wide piece of land, possibly for sidings or sheds, but nothing was ever done with it. Most of the rough huts and shelters were moved on when the navvies went but two remained. These had belonged to foremen and overseers, and were more substantial than the others. They survived, inhabited by Wymington families until 1925.
The building of the loop line must have been the cause of the marked fluctuation in the population of Wymington at the time. The census figure of 315 in 1871 rose to 488 in 1881, and then dropped back to 336 in 1891, in keeping with the pattern of increases noticed from previous figures. The incursion of over a hundred navvies into the village must have made a terrible impact. The newspapers of the day contained many accounts of their rowdyism and misdeeds. The fights that broke out after their Sunday drinking bouts led to the closure of the Wymington public houses on that day. A situation which endured for over fifty years. The seven-day licence was successfully restored in the mid 1930s when a petition, signed by the rector, the Rev. J.T.M. Rogers, was sent to the Licensing Authorities.
There were two major council house developments in the village after the Second World War. The first was in 1957 when forty houses and ten pre-fabricated dwellings were erected on a site between the High Street and the railway loop line, a site which was considered highly unsuitable by everyone concerned apart from the Regional Planner, who over-rode all objections.
The population of Wymington had grown to nearly 700 and there was a waiting list for homes. Many couples, married during the war urgently needed bigger houses for their growing families. Most of the original tenants of South Grove were Wymington born, and for ten years it remained a quiet, respectable community. Some houses were exchanged as families grew or decreased, but there was little movement away from the village.
In 1964 the rural council began a massive building programme. Wymington, together with Thurleigh and Riseley, was chosen as a development area. The old stone houses and Victorian terraces were almost all demolished, with an enormous change in the character of the village. The occupants of the old houses were offered accommodation either in South Grove as it became available, or in other villages. Some families moved to Rushden.
Church Lane is now dominated by a block of flats, and anther block has been proposed. The long terraced row of St. Lawrence Walk backs onto a similar row in the High Street. They are separated by high wooden fences, but there is little privacy. Tenants are forbidden to cultivate the front ways, as it is designated an open plan grassed area to be kept mown by the Rural Council. The mowings are infrequent. Little children stray onto the rod unless confined in the cramped fenced backway. It is a debatable point whether the new houses are much of an improvement on he old ones they replaced. In maters of construction and privacy, they probably are not. There are certainly many more of the new houses on the same area. The Rural Council has put up twenty-seven houses where once fifteen stood, and that figure does not include the flats.
It was intended to build bungalows for old people on the site where the pre-fabricated houses stood. The occupants could not understand why these useful houses were to be demolished, as they were still in very good condition, and most of the tenants were elderly people, or small families who needed no more than the two bedrooms. Few people accepted the flats offered, two families moved into the new terraced row in the High Street, and the rest left the village. Bungalows were never built and the old ‘pre-fab’ site, a derelict rubbish dump for four years, is now scheduled for private development. The Rural Council appeared to have over-estimated the number of houses it could let in the village, as flats and houses change tenants frequently and there are usually several empty at any one time. About half of the original land bought by the council for their development has been sold for private building. The original plans sent by the rural to Wymington Parish Council for comment and approval bore no resemblance to what was finally erected. The quiet and pleasant atmosphere of the village was destroyed.