Decima Britten

Mrs. Decima Britten nee Coldicott.

CHAPTER 1 – The Ullenhall pages of the Coldicott Chronicle.

Arthur and Annie’s first home was at Crowleys Oak, Ullenhall. Their first child, Margaret, was born at our Granny’s home at Stratford-upon-Avon. After the death of their second child (who died in infancy) they moved to Brook House, Ullenhall. Here the last of their eight children were born.

It was a fine Georgian farmhouse, with a large, attractive garden, Coach House, Stabling, Cow-shed, Pig-sties, and a Loft over the stables. We had a swing, fastened to the great oak beams of the Cow-shed. It was indeed a wonderful place for children. Father was Agent for the Barrells Estate. The Squire was Mr. Newton and later Mr. Hugh Newton.

The estate comprised:

The Mansion, with a Lodge at the main entrance. Farther down the drive (which was lined with tall Wellingtonia trees) were Gardeners’ cottages and Coachman’s house. In later days this was used by a Chauffer. The Old Thatched Lodge, on the other side of the estate was the Gamekeeper’s home. The Squire also owned most of the village cottages as well as the farms. He had two shooting lodges; one called Heath Lodge, above the village, and one in Scotland in Glen Cripesdale.

Ullenhall at that time was a small, rather straggling village set in the heart of the beautiful Warwickshire countryside. The nearest railway station was Danzey (for Tanworth-in-Arden) nearly three miles away.

Spring brought Hyacinths in the lawn beds, a great drift of Daffodils at the top of the garden and Primroses, Violets and Celandines in the country lanes.

Summer was a time for Cricket with village matches played in the field below our lawn. Whenever possible tea was on the lawn. We wore brown leather sandals, “Holland” frocks and sometimes cotton sun-bonnets. On Sundays we wore white, starched, embroidered frocks with coloured ribbon threaded through insertions at the waist. We had pretty straw hats, white cotton socks and black strap, or buttoned shoes. There were always several of us at Church with Father or Mother at Oldberrow Church. Most of us enjoyed Sundays and we were never forced to go to Church. Each year we had a summer seaside holiday in a reserved Great Western Railway carriage. We travelled to Weston-super-Mare, Llandudno, Rhyl, Boscombe or Bournemouth, where Father rented furnished houses. He sometimes let Brook House and it was interesting to know that (the later famous) General Auchinleck was one of the holiday tenants.

When Autumn came our rather scratchy little Sailor Serge shirts were taken from the large old oak chest on the landing and our cotton frocks, ‘Rough-Dried’ and stored in the chest. Tops and hoops replaced bat and ball. As always we enjoyed walks, Blackberrying, running in the rustling fallen leaves and the last of the Russet Apples.

Winter called for us to be very Spartan, for we slept in lofty Bedrooms, with absolutely no form of heating. The one hot water bottle was only for a sick child and for those with ear-ache or tooth-ache the old real Shetland shawl was brought out. However, we were lucky enough to be able to undress before a glowing coal fire in the Nursery and warm our nighties by hanging them over the high fire-guard. We rather resented the little black boots we had to wear, especially when they had been smeared with evil smelling dubbin by old Seely our Gardener handyman. Thick woollen stockings or socks sagged over our black boots. But in spite of these set-backs, winter was a magic time for we children. From the up stair Nursery window we would watch the first snowfall settling softly on the trees and bushes in the shrubbery, giving us that cosy, “world-of-our-own” feeling.

When confined indoors by bad weather we played with our numerous dolls, work our sewing cards with ‘Bright-Eyed’ sylko or our wool work on canvas, and made dolls clothes. We played games of Halma, Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, Draughts and Happy Families. We were all fond of drawing, painting and crayoning. Father was able to bring old wallpaper pattern books from Barrells Hall. These were a source of great delight, for crayoning, cutting out and re-papering the Doll’s House.

When Christmas came there was a party for all the village children with presents from the big Christmas tree and sweets and oranges. The girls in the village each received a red riding hood cloak made of soft refer material. The little girls, in their red cloaks were very much part of the village scene. At Brook House on Christmas Eve we excited children were tucked in bed as early as possible. We must have finally dropped off to sleep for we don’t recall having seen our stockings being filled. It was still dark when we awoke. Who can describe that magic moment when paper parcels rustle at the foot of the bed? But for us more excitement was to follow when Barber, the Squire’s Chauffeur, arrived in the big motor car, laden with a beautiful present for each one of us. These had been carefully chosen according to our age, probably by Mrs. Newton.

We had our hair cut by Mr. Buttery. He was travelling Barber who cycled from Handsworth, Birmingham, carrying the tools of his trade in a large leather bag. These included scissors, clippers and long wax spills, for we all had our hair singed. He never failed to produce a large packet of Mexican chocolate for us. We were fond of Mr. Buttery, with his trim black beard and twinkling brown eyes. Mother always provided an especially good dinner when he came. He enjoyed this so much and the fact this false teeth clicked intrigued the children.

Our parents could not have been rich with that large family to feed and educate. Even so, with wages for domestic work so low, they were able to afford a weekly Washer Woman call Mrs. Horward. She was a great character in her sacking apron and man’s cap with large hat pin stuck through it! We also had a Maid who wore a blue cotton uniform in the morning and a black dress in the afternoon with white starched frilly apron. At Brook House we always had a long-suffering Mother’s help. Between us we remember Rose Terry (Quin), Miss Earp, Miss Sheath (Dossie) and red haired Miss State, from Stow-on-the-Wold. Maggie helped in her school holidays from Lichfield High School, and was later to become a devoted, almost second Mother to her younger sisters, coping with our earache, toothache, colds, clothes mending, homework, walks, chilblains, bad dreams and all our childish troubles.

During the latter part of our time at Brook House Cottie and Cecil were at King Edward’s School, Birmingham. They went by the Milk Train from Danzey Station early each morning. They were both good at games; Rugger, Fives and Cricket, also Tennis, played at the village club. They both belonged to a Dramatic Society for young people at Henley-in-Arden.

The Old Church was on the outskirts of the village, surrounded by fields and a graveyard, full of wild flowers. The newer and larger Church of St. Mary stood on a hill just above the village on the road to Redditch. We called this Church Hill. The Vicarage was close-by.

Ullenhall had a Church School, an Inn called “The Spur”, a Bakery and a Post Office Shop. This was kept by an easy-going man called Billy Richards. Here we could buy Raspberry, Pear and Acid Drops as well as Humbugs, all sold from large and often sticky bottles, and wrapped in conical paper bags. Billy would sometimes leave the shop in charge of Mrs. Richards while he rain across the road to the village Tennis Club for a set or two. He served underarm, which was unusual for a man, even in those days!

But it was the Smithy, or Blacksmith’s Shop, which fascinated us, especially Cecil, who spent a lot of time there. We liked to watch the smith, in his leather apron, using the large bellows to set the sparks flying from the anvil fire. Then came heating the iron until red hot and shaping the new horse shoe, followed by the singeing smell, as it was nailed on to the horses hoof. We were always lost in admiration, at his sheer skill, and his handling of those great cart horses.

Those of us who were old enough, were taken to see their show ‘Robin Hood’, in the Public Hall, Henley-in-Arden. It was a truly enthralling experience. Cottie was undeniably handsome as Sir Richard-of-the-Lea. His girlfriend Marjorie Hawkes was Maid Marion and Cecil one of the scruffy, comic Merry Men. Costumes, scenery and footlights were all beautiful. The Prologue was spoken with perfect elocution, by Barbara Webb. She was a farmer’s daughter, and a friend of our brothers. In her tights, tunic and jaunty cap, with feather, she really enjoyed herself, especially the sweeping bow as she doffed her cap and swept its Pheasant feather to the floor at the end of her recitation. It is interesting to note that Barbara finally became an actress. Although she never achieved fame, she had a varied and interesting life and was seldom out of work. From time to time, one or another of us would see her in Repetory Companies in the provinces. In her fat and somewhat blowsy old age, Barbara Bruce (as she was stage named) joined the ‘Crazy Gang’ at the Victoria Palace, London. She was seen, after her death in a nostalgic programme about that famous show. Robin Hood was certainly an unforgettable night for the little sisters, not least because we went to Henley by motor car, instead of by our usual means of transport, Ralph Franklin’s trap!

But in 1913 all this came to an end. The Squire, Hugh Newton, died. The Estate was split up, and Barrells Hall was sold. The farms, cottages and contents of the Mansion met the same fate. So Father lost his job, and we lost our beautiful home.