Wiltshire Biography - Alice Collett, My Early Life


The family lived first at Starvall Farm, but I was born in a thatched farm cottage at Fresden, which was just two isolated cottages a mile and a half from Coleshill. The first home I really remember was at the bottom of Eastrop Hill in Highworth. It was two houses knocked into one, with a huge great living room, kitchen, and a parlour. There were two bedrooms upstairs. The front door opened into the scullery, with a red and black tiled floor, coconut matting, a big copper, and a big open fireplace with two hobs: one an oven and the other a hot water tank with a tap. There were deep cupboards on either side. There was a large pantry, a great big scrubbed table, and a whacking great dresser.


The parlour became a bedsitting room for Grandma (Mother's mother, the only grandparent I knew) when she came from Bishopstone to live with us. Lighting was by oil lamps, and sanitation was an outhouse at the end of the garden--a one-and-a-half-holer over a pit which had to be emptied out by Father every so often. Father had no education, and couldn't read or write. He was a farm labourer and head cowman. In later years he worked for Mr. Wolfe Barry, son of Sir John Wolf Barry (architect of the Barry Docks and of Tower Bridge). Father wore a milking smock to work, and earned 14 shillings a week. Mother worked in the mat factory, the Vorda Works, making coconut matting, and got 16 shillings a week. She wore a "palm"; of leather with a steel patch to push the needle through the mats. She had to bring work home. When Mother went off with another man, Flo took over running the house. She worked on finishing mats and I had to help. The mats came in rolls with lengths of the fibre connecting the mats, and this had to be cut and woven back in. When I was old enough I had to do a dozen before I went to bed. Food included rabbits, chicken, meat--a weekend joint and pieces for stews. Vegetables--cabbages, savoys, broccoli, cauliflower, parsnips, onions, turnips, swedes (from the fields), runner beans, broad beans, peas and potatoes--all grown in the garden. For a while Father also had an allot-ment, although that may have been just an excuse for him to stop off at the pub and have a drink. In Highworth the pubs were the Fox, the Fishes, the Red Lion, the White Horse, and the Saracen's Head. For afters we had tapioca and rice puddings, pancakes, fruit and custard on Sundays, suet puddings, boiled in a cloth, either ";currant duff"; or plain with jam. Jam was always home-made--plum, blackcurrant, goose- berry, redcurrant, and rhubarb. I was 12 before I tasted marmalade--- Mum went shopping into Swindon and brought a jar back, but it was bitter and I didn't like it. Mum and a couple of other women would go into Swindon on a Saturday afternoon. One day they bought some margarine at a Maypole shop, and that was my first taste of margarine. My first tomato was when I was about 10 or 11, and I didn't like it. You got to Swindon on a cheap train from Highworth, by way of Hannington, Stanton Fitzwarren, and Stratton St. Margaret. There were three houses together where we lived. At the back there was a concrete yard with a big brick shed and coalhouse. In the shed there were ";prongs";--T-bar digging forks and pitchforks--spades, and dutch and draw hoes, rakes, and dibbers (including a special long one, 4"; in diameter, with a 1"; cross grip, for planting potatoes). There was a large front garden and a huge back garden. They were all flowers in the front--lilies, michaelmas daisies, ";Granny nightcaps"; Father did look after the front garden. Some kids would play in the lane and keep kicking their ball into the front garden. Eventually Dad wouldn't let them have their ball back, so young Charlie Southam went bawling home to his father. Pretty soon the father came to our front door, with ";Please, I be come to ax thee civil, ut thee gi'e I my boy's ball. "; To which Father said ''No ! I usn't. "; Reply: ";Thee rotten bugger. . . "; and so on. The way people used to speak: ";Her be a lazy wench"; ";Tha's needn't come home with that sart of talk, tha bist the same wench as when tha went."; "Tha bisn't in Lunnon now, tha bist at 'ome."; and one of Dad's favourite sayings when it was raining out: ";There en't nobody out partickler while I be in."; My old Dad was a plodder. He'd plod on and on and do what we had to do. He wouldn't just knock off. If there was something on the farm he thought needed doing he'd stay and do it. At the Coronation in 1911 we had Coronation mugs, a holiday from school, and a party on the front lawn of Highworth School--we were usually only allowed on the back grass--sitting on the grass, with bread and butter and currant buns. We were all given flags to wave. We were all lined up and we marched around the centre of the town and then back to the school. We had combs with tissue paper and played them going around the town. I remember singing:

Bring the comb and play upon it!
Marching here we come!
Willie cocks his highland bonnet,
Johnnie beats the drum
Mary Jane commands the party,
Peter leads the rear;
Feet in time, alert and hearty,
Each a Grenadier!