The Turn of the Century ~ by Stanley Day
Harwell, Berkshire, at the beginning of the twentieth century, possessed a typical farming community. The farms were mainly arable, the soil being particularly suitable for grain and root crops, also the growing of vegetables. There were also a number of cherry and damson orchards for which the district was well known. The climate being cold and the pasture lands adjoining the railway poor, it was not a suitable district for Jersey herds of cattle; Shorthorns, Ayrshires and Freesians predominated, hence the milk had a low fat content and was sold for 1d a pint. Sheep were reared to improve the manuring of the land.
Farm labourers received 2/- per day or 12/- per week, and paid 1/6 to 2/- per week for their tied cottages; they usually possessed an allotment in addition, and sometimes kept a pig and a few chickens. A mixed farm of, say, 200 acres would employ five men.
Six of the farms were occupied by members of the Day family, including Middle Farm. The Lay family occupied Bishop's Manor and Prince's Manor Farms. Other families were Allen, Bobart, Bosley, Caudwell, Dearlove, Harris, Hitchman, Perry and Tyrrell.
All traction was done by horses - ploughing, harrowing, sowing and reaping the harvest. Corn after cutting, was "stooked", carted to a stack which was thatched with straw, and subsequently threshed when a suitable price could be obtained. There was no guaranteed price for wheat or barley - "free trade" was the political policy - and owing to competition from other countries prices were extremely low; so much so that at that time farmers were unable to make ends meet, and farm buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair.
The only other industry in the village was that of making malt, and there were four malthouses belonging to Tyrrell, Keat, James and Day, to which barley was taken. It was then thoroughly soaked, turned over and over and dried in a kiln. After drying it was sifted, and the resultant malt taken to the brewers for making beer.
There were four principal shops: - Pryor the grocer (later Co-operative Society, in 1985 Napper's newsagent), Keat the baker (in 1985 the village post office), Bosley the butcher and later, Miss Drewett, a general store at the corner of King's Lane, pulled down in 1963. An old Post Office existed at the end of Burr Street. Accounts were delivered once annually to those customers considered creditworthy. An old magpie used to perch on the roof of the butcher's shop and pour a torrent of abuse on passers by.
Refreshment was supplied by five public houses: the White Hart and the Crispin, also the Queen's Arms in Burr Street, called "the Donkey" from an incident related to me: when the landlord was having trouble dealing with some rowdy guests, he brought into the bar a high-spirited donkey, who, on being roused, lashed out vigorously and soon cleared out the trouble-makers; the Chequers was at the south end of the village and the Crown in High Street.
Didcot station on the old Great Western Railway was two-and-a-half miles distant. The chief means of conveyance for Harwell was an antiquated brougham, driven at a leisurely pace by Mr James, a fat, rubicund and cheerful individual. The carriage had a musty smell and bumped along on iron-shod wheels. There was also a conveyance at the Crown, driven by Jefferies. A carrier named Clark drove once weekly to the market town of Abingdon, six miles distant, and would take in shoes for repair, clothes to be laundered and fetch joints of meat to householders, thus saving husbands a bicycle excursion.
My father, Charles Frederick Day, who had left Harwell in 1886 at the age of seventeen, created a sensation in the village when he returned in a 1902 six H.P. one-cylinder De Dion, and excited groups of villagers clustered round to inspect the novelty. Farmers drove their rounds daily in dogcarts behind quick-stepping horses urged on by ash sticks or hazel, cut from the hedgerows, and the local tradesmen drove similar vehicles for deliveries.
There was a hand-operated fire engine at the end of the village, which was used by volunteers for fires to thatched roofs, which were frequent, and to extinguish burning hay or straw ricks. Thatched walls surrounded many of the properties and a good example is still to be seen near the Parish Church, close to the entrance to The Park.
Main water was not available and each property possessed a well from which water was pumped. There was no main drainage and earth closets were in a shed in the garden. These had wooden seats and in some instances were of two heights to accommodate adults and children. A tin of "Sanitas" or a bucket of ashes was provided, and the pits were emptied from an opening at the rear of the shed with a long handled shovel - the longer the better! Rainwater tubs provided water for washing. There were no houses beyond the village along the Didcot Road except for Zulu Farm, nor leading up to Rowstock.
Great rivalry existed between churchgoers to the Parish Church of St Matthew and the Methodist Chapel. My family, the Days, were stern dissenters, and occupied many of the box-like pews in the Chapel, the harmonium being played by either Ted Day or his sister Sophie. The family considered Isaac Day, who attended the Parish Church, a heretic. Old George Day, who had never left the village during his seventy year lifetime, once remarked to me when wishing to speak with disapproval of a certain young man: "He was the sort of chap who didn't wear his best suit of a Sunday".
A Salvation Army band usually played at the corner of Grove Road on Sundays. The parish school, controlled by Hugh Lloyd, was in School Lane opposite the old primary school (moved 1962). The schoolmistress was Mrs Union.
Of the few amusements provided, one was the "cherry tree outing" which took place in July, when, after a short service, children and their parents were taken in four-wheeled Berkshire wagons to the Downs, near the spot now occupied by the Atomic Energy Research Establishment: faggots were collected and lighted to heat a huge iron cauldron for the tea making. Bread and butter, cherries, buns and cakes were provided, and games of "twos and threes" indulged in. The three brothers, Bert, Jim and Jack Harris were the mainstay of the village cricket team, which held their annual dinner at the Crown Inn.
The Downs were mostly used for sheep grazing; larks sang and there were flocks of plovers. Shooting parties found a fair number of partridges in the adjoining fields, also hares and rabbits. Land on both sides of Grove Road was arable, the fruit trees being planted later.