Canon Wilson was Rector of Witley between 1910 and 1945, when he retired aged 76.
His son Christopher Wilson has written his memories of growing up at the Rectory and offers some fascinating reminiscences of that time. The family was closely connected with Witley Court and the local people and Christophers memories written in 1995 paint a wonderful picture of local society during that period. Judy Henshaw has transcribed his writings below, or you can view the original hand written notes containing additional drawings and notes.
‘I was five years years old when we moved from Hints Staffordshire to Great Witley Rectory. The district was not unknown to us, as my mother’s family the Gibbons were closely connected with these parts; my grandfather the Rev Benjamin Gibbons was curate at St Mary’s Kidderminster. In 1851 the year of his marriage he was vicar of Stourport (then known as Lower Mitton). He retired to Waresley House Hartlebury; my mother the 14th of his 15 children was born in Stourport vicarage in 1871. Her sister Connie lived at Hillhampton Farm on her marriage to Beville Stainer in 1895. William Carnegie was Rector of Witley, he had been abroad as a travelling companion of the 2nd Lord Dudley. It was through my aunt Connie’s friendship with Carnegie that we went to Witley. She was staying with them in Dean’s Yard Westminster when he said to Connie ” Lord Dudley has asked me to find a new Rector for Witley, do you know of anyone” She suggested her brother in law Rowland Wilson.
We went in 1910 and stayed until 1945. His predecessor was Horace Monroe from Newfoundland, Lord Dudley met him in Ireland when he was Lord Lieutenant. Monroe came in 1905, he found Witley tame after the gaieties of Dublin; he told me years later when Vicar of Wimbledon and Sub Dean of Westminster that on his arrival in Witley the Abberley Clock Tower had played the “Irish Emigrant” but he did not regret his five years in Witley, as they qualified him for a Dean & Chapter living. He made a striking improvement to the Rectory gardens by planting yew hedges on the lower side of the lawn, turning them at right angles and continuing them down to the lake with broad flower beds in front.
Before Monroe Canon Melville’s son in law Col. Gaskell made another striking contribution to the garden by planting rhododendrons round the lake and fine fir trees, Deodar Cedar and Stone pine with cones the size of pineapples and Acacia, these trees in the lowest pastue south east of the Rectory Glebe.
Rector Thomas Pearson married a Gibbons of mother’s family, my grandfather had stayed at Witley as a boy and was very pleased when father was appointed Rector as it was a prestigious appointment. He gave us a portrait of Pearson by Linnelle which hung in the church vestry in my father’s time, when he retired he thought it would be safer in the Shire Hall Worcester, they were glad to have it as Pearson had been Chairman of the Quarter Sessions. It was officially accepted for the County by my brother in law Sir Chad Woodward. Some years later my sister Lady Woodward tried to find it but there was no trace of it. Thomas Pearson, his wife nee Gibbons and her unmarried sister are buried at the left of the main entrance to Witley Church. They finally lived at the Elms Abberley, later it was aggrandised by Sir Richard Brooke who built on two substantial wings. Mother became friendly with Lady Brooke, a lively personality. The Brooke’s were race horse owners and had paddocks for their horses, they had moved from Lancashire when their property had become urbanised.
When we came to Witley it was still feudal but owing to the prolonged absences of “the squire” Lord Dudley in Ireland and Australia, then Le Touquet, where he lived with his mistress the actress Gertie Millar, the Rector was so to speak the managing director. Munro told me that in his day he once remarked to Isaac ? of one of the Wall House cottages on Martley Road, over his unusual absence from church, Isaac said “oh you won’t take away my cottage will you sir” The Dudley’s gave a great ball at the Court on their return from Australia in 1914, I still remember my mother’s dress which was sheath like, the days of “hobble skirts” and covered with purple sequins. Lady Dudley was an energetic hostess, she gave regular children’s parties or sometimes just had a few to tea. These would generally be Mollie & Bill McGeogh from Hillhampton House, Betty & Wyndham (Blogs) Baldwin from Astley Hall, Mary & Bob Lea from Dunley Hall. The youngest of the three Ward girls, Patsy was about my age, when I was about ten I asked mother if a parsons son could marry an Earl’s daughter. My most memorable recollection of Lady Dudley is her dramatic entry into church dressed from head to foot in creamy white with ropes of pearls round her neck. She was kindly but rather alarming, on one occasion we were playing hide and seek, some of us were on the roof which was out of bounds; Lady D saw us and Patsy said “look out she will rise” so we kept out of her way. When my elder brother Raynold became a naval cadet in 1915 she asked to see him to congratulate him and generously gave him a wrist watch. I still have a rather dilapidated “Second Jungle Book” given me by Morvyth ( Dicki) Ward for my birthday in 1912, she was the sister above Patsy and a teenager. She was very out-going and attractive and was Master of the village Scout troop.
They were known as Lady Morvyth’s Own, the wore her badge on their shoulders There is a picture of them with Mr Wall the schoolmaster on the right, he may well have been more than just a figure head.
These early years of ours 1911- 14 were the time when the “Court family’s ” presence most affected the Village. Lady Dudley was in charge and saw to it that her children took part in village festivities. Such as the annual Christmas Entertainment organised by my mother.
This consisted of songs, recitations, sketches etc. We had been brought up on Sketches from Alice in Wonderland etc. progressing to The Unlucky Family by Mrs H de la Pasture. Many people were trained to sing in public, amateur dramatics were a normal activity in a large Victorian families, my mother had this early grounding, encouraged particularly by her brother Ted who wanted to go on the stage. His father the Rev. Benjamin considered that there were only two possible professions, the church or the law; Ted became a reluctant barrister volunteered for service in the Inns of Court volunteers, caught Typhoid and died on a troop ship on the way to South Africa, much to the distress of his brothers and sisters, where he had been a bright spark.
To return to my mother; she was energetic and vivacious and a great asset to my father as rector. When Lady Dudley had an urge to act the Lady Bountiful she would naturally consult my mother on who were deserving cases for gifts of blankets or what ever. My mother suffered some deterioration in health about 1915 but by judicious resting managed to continue doing what she wanted including her voluntary Sunday School almost until she died in 1945. Through this activity she got to know and appreciate many of the village children and on their leaving school at 14 was able to place them in good domestic service, much sought after in those days,
As I have already remarked Lord Dudley was seldom in residence at the Court. I never saw him in Church and in fact, can only recall seeing him once; this was the occasion in 1911 of the cricket group with my father as captain, shown in Mr Walkers book on Witley. He was a competant cricketer and played for Eton v Harrow, but was recorded as absent for the second innings.
Lady Dudley was a keen church woman; she presented the silver sanctuary lamps as a thanks offering for the safe return of her husband and his brothers from the South African War. Later on she presented the raredos mosaics, lilies and the cross on a gold ground as being more appropriate to the church than tables of the ten commandments. It must have been about this time that she designed and planted the “Garden of Remembrance”
as a family burial ground, adjoining the cemetery at the Great Witley Chapel; this was a magical spot, it had ornamental iron gates which were kept locked, but there was a weak spot in the yew hedge which you could get through. There was only one grave to start with; the Hon Gerald Ward, killed I think in the South African War. The next grave was Lady Dudley’s own in 1920. She had a private refuge in the west coast of Ireland and we heard suddenly that she had been bathing and drowned; she had a troubled life and there were of course rumours that it might have been suicide. It was in the papers that she had to go to law to obtain payment of her agreed personal allowance of I think £9,000 a year. The Dudley’s eldest son Lord Ednam had a good business head and was said to have put his father on an allowance. When the Witley estate was sold 1920 the Ednam’s restored Himley Hall Staffordshire to be their main residence; Himley had been in the hands of caretakers since the Wards bought Witley some 80 years before. Some fine mahogany doors which had been removed from Himley and brought to Witley but never installed there were now returned to their original setting. The Duke and Duchess of Kent were lent Himley for their honeymoon. The sale of Witley, where they had been brought up was a sad occasion for the Ward family; however they still had Himley and an opulent London house in Carlton Gardens, now the Ladies Annex to the Athenaeum Club. Dudley House in Park Lane was sold to Lord Dudley’s younger brother, Sir John Ward who had married an American millionairess Miss Whitelaw Reid, daughter of the American Ambassador. When Lord Ednam was married in 1919 to the daughter of the Duke of Southerland the wedding reception was at Dudley House; my parents were invited. The house is still there now offices.
The new owner of Witley Court was Sir Herbert Smith Bart a self made Kidderminster carpet manufacturer. He was proud of his humble origins and when referring to the Parish Church which joins the Court; he said “They wouldn’t let me buy the best room in the ‘ouse”
The estate sale naturally caused an upheaval, instead of one owner there were now dozens. but fortunately quite a number of tennat farmers and cottagers managed to buy so that the character of the village did not substantially change. The chief influx was retired shopkeepers from Birmingham district, however the Martley Rural District Council stepped in here and built a number of council houses at reasonable rents for the displaced locals. The new situation posed two main problems for my father, Sir Herbert Smith and his own stipend. Sir Herbert’s attitude with his grand new property was “Keep out” instead of freely available rights of way, enjoyed for centuries. The parish church had been built by the Court family (Lord Foley) and since had been largely maintained by them and the Dudley’s, so it was very important to maintain some flow of funds from this quarter if possible. My parents had considerable success in their handling of Sir Herbert, he said to my mother ” I likes you, I’m fond of you”. He put electricity into the church when installing it in the Court. He was a keen musician in his early days, he played a violin in Kidderminster pubs. He kept his musical contacts and suggested that Robert Radford should give a concert in Witley Church which raised a good sum towards it’s maintenance. My father’s second problem his stipend. In the Dudley era until 1920 he had been paid tithe from the estate office. The collection of tithe became a major problem which he handed over to Queen Anne’s Bounty. This was a trust set up by Queen Anne of whatever ecclesiastical property, confiscated by Henry VIII still remaining in royal hands. My father arranged for the patronage of the Church livings of Witley and Holt to be transferred by Lord Dudley to the Bishop of Worcester, also for the transfer of the Church of England Schools at Great & Little Witley, also the Old school or Parish Room & two cottages, (built by Queen Adelaide, when living at Witley Court) to Parish Trustees. Little Witley Chapel had at one time come under Holt, the Rectors wife Mrs Sale had done a considerable amount of stone carving during it’s restoration. She once fainted during a service, when she came to she said “I thought I was in heaven ’til I saw James Best”. He was the tenant of Holt Castle. Mr Sale had a number of David Cox’s paintings which he left to Birmingham Art Gallery.
Hillhampton House was always well lived in when we came to Witley. A family called McGeagh a widowed mother & two children, Mollie & Bill also a governess, Miss Hempson whom we shared before going to boarding school. We were driven over in a pony cart by our mother or our gardener. The McGeagh’s had one of the first three cars that were then in the village, the others belonged to Lord Dudley & Dr Dykes.
A horse bus, Owen’s of Abberley went into Worcester daily, coming out in the afternoon, on Thursday it went to Kidderminster, market day. In the mid 19th century Hillhampton House had been occupied by mothers great-uncle Benjamin Gibbons who had built a picture gallery, we used it as a schoolroom. It was demolished by the new owners after the sale Mrs Bernard Goodwin from near Kidderminster, she was a Palethorpe, of the sausage making family. They were good parishoners. In 1913 The Dudley’s held a monster fete at the Court, it was so well advertised by my fathers curate Mr Hall, that 2,000 streamed in, Mrs McGeagh was in charge of the catering, at a committee meeting Mr Hall ventured to suggest that the scale of her prepartion was inadequate, Mrs M was formidable and rose importantly to say “I propose that Mr Hall takes over the catering” he was duly soothed down but in the event the food ran out and panic supplies had to be bought. Gustav Humel was billed to make a demonstration flight, but disappointingly made only a brief appearance in the far distance, planes were rare sights in those days. When war broke out it was suspected that he had been on a reconnaissance flight.
Before proceeding with the Smith era, I think that some of the village characters that we used to visit on afternoon walks with my mother are worthy of mention. There was Harriet Joiner, a dwarf about 4 feet who kept house for Howard Limbrick, she was observed at a parish tea party happily munching buns with their paper covers. The Limbrick’s had some nice things, my father bought an interesting picture from them which was painted on metal and included a clock in a tower and a mill wheel, which had had works and which he got replaced. Another quaint woman was Mrs Morris, we disliked visiting her because of the smell, bathrooms were few then. She used to walk through our garden as the nearest way to fetch her milk from Mr Goode at the village dairy. One day Grace & I heard moaning noises coming from our upper pool, Mrs Morris was sitting in shallow water, we hauled her out and she ws despatched to Martley District Home (Workhouse) when they bathed her they removed 7 vests. Quite different were the farms, Hill House Farm was lived in by the old Proudmans, whose son Garner had Redmarley Farm. Hill House had a very interesting relic of it’s “Manor” days some massive brick gate piers abandoned in a field on the west side. Hill House was bought by Herbert Banks the Kidderminster auctioneer and estate agent, he made a lot of improvements. His son Tony continued and I think became High Sherriff. In Little Witley Well House Farm, The Whites, Mr White hunted with the Worcestershire hounds, Mrs White used to give us picture books or chocolates, she was blind but unaffected by it. Their daughter married David Ogg don at New College Oxford, my father married them. Our chief farmer fiends were the Tottenhams of Walsgrove Farm Toby & Cecile and 3 children, Charles, George and Dora, the boys were a little younger than my younger brother Alwyn, Dora was even younger . All the boys were keen hunters and had a pack of mongrel dogs called the Rareity Hounds with which they hunted rabbits and rats. Walsgrove still had hop yards, all the village used to help with the picking. This was revolutionised some years later by invention of a Hop-picking machine by Freddie McConnel then living in Martley, small hop yards were already dying out and Walsgrove was the last in Witley. We were very sorry when the Tottenhams left Walsgrove, they could be relied upon to take part in parish affairs, Toby was in the choir and on the Parish Council. Mother said” I hope Toby will be at the meeting then we will have a good laugh” Later Charles inherited the title Marques of Ely. Back to the Smith era, Sir Herbert was a heavy drinker, my father called on him one morning, he was already imbibing and invited my father to join him, he refused politely but then thought he would join him as Sir Herbert would not drink so much, but he ordered another bottle. He had a son and a daughter aged about 20-25, the son Herbert known as Jim, daughter Dora known as Do. Jim married Squeak Norton, sister of Mrs John Brinton of Redmarley. Do led a rather lonely life at the Court, she often called on my mother and played with Alwyn aged 10 whom she called “Angel Boy”. She took us the Birmingham pantomime in the family Rolls, we picked up Sir Herbert in Kidderminster who was drunk, so we had a fairly unpleasant drive. Having dropped us at the theatre Do took her father back to Kidderminster and then came to join us, After the show I was dropped at the station with my trunk as I was on my way to Rugby. Do and Jim both had quite good voices and took part in our annual Christmas entertainment in the Village School in 1922, I have the programme, she sang “Autumn” & “A little winding road” & “The early morning also “Oh mistress mine” He sang “The deathless army” & Oh lovely night” It all seems a long time ago and another world. Do made a run away marriage to a young auctioneer and her father cut her off, so sad. I left school in 1923 and went to London to work in the Bank of England. I was given an introduction by the Wallace family, Worcestershire neighbours who had a merchant bank, Wallace Brothers, from then I was only at home on occasional visits until 1928-9 when I worked at the Birmingham branch of the Bank of England, and was at Witley quite often. On one of these visits my father and I were invited to a shoot at the Court, one of Sir Herbert’s friends peppered me on the legs, fortunately from such a distance no harm was done. Do was still at home and put on a very good spread after the shoot. Then in 1937 came the disastrous fire at the Court, there were several stories about it, one that the house was so big that the fire was not noticed, two that the staff had no feeling of loyalty and just let it burn, three that it was to get the insurance. The fire was the finish of the Smith era and the remaining slice of the Witley Estate which surrounded the church, and the problem of it’s maintenance grew. The approaches, the two old private drives to the Court became worse and were riddled with potholes. My mother was the first person to raise money from outside the parish, by getting an article in Country Life, this raised about £1,000 and paid for urgent repairs to the roof, the war was looming by this time which did not help. My father carried on as rector until 1945 when he was 76, longer than he would have wished due to the war. Our good friend Louie Biggs of Rectory cottage (more of who m later) said there was never a proper rector after my father, the nearest approach being Arthur Moore the highly successful manager of Witley garage, who stood in as lay reader. Louie Biggs was born Louise Hook in Snuffy Row Structons Heath. My mother spotted Louie as a likely girl and she was a good sport. It was the way she spread the bread and butter at a parish tea. She came to us on leaving school at 14 and remained on and off in our family circle. She bathed me when I was 6 I remarked to her, knowing it was naughty “Bloody Motor Louie” I was duly ticked off. She left us on promotion to one of the noble Coventry families on the other side of Worcester, where she met and married Bert Biggs from the Coventry estate at Croome Court. At the end of the war in 1918 they came to live with her mother at Structons Heath, Bert was just out of the army and without a job, he asked my father if he could come and work for him, apart from a big garden we had 2 cows, pigs and poultry and a fruit orchard of several acres. My father said he could not really afford 2 gardeners but he could come temporarily he stayed for 26 years to 1945 when father retired. He and Louie moved into Rectory Cottage, which my father bought for them at the estate sale in 1920. From then on they remained loyally available in my parents day to day life, when the second war came and domestic help disappeared, Louie took over at the Rectory and did the cooking. In addition she was a good dressmaker, and helped my sister Grace to make her party dresses. She had two children John and Pam, Pam was injured in the road outside her house, later she took over Rectory Cottage. My mother reported from her Sunday School “Johnnie is bright” he passed the 11+ and went to Hartlebury Grammar School and at 18 went to work for Brinton’s carpets. During the war he was a pilot, John Brinton had taught him to fly in his private ‘plane taken by the government at the start of the war. After that he became Brinton’s representative in the USA and a partner at Brinton’s. A great success story which Louie lived to enjoy, she said “now that John is a Partner, Mrs Brinton kisses me” they were close neighbours and Louie sometimes went to help her in the house. The last time I saw Louie I was staying with Grace at Arley (Lady Woodward) and we had Sunday lunch at Rectory Cottage, this was a slap up do, roast beef , Yorkshires etc. all done to a turn, we enjoyed it so much that we all danced round the table. Returning to the problems of Witley Church and it’s maintenance. without a squire, and through amalgamation the parson with other parishes the Church gradually sank. But a miracle happened in the person of Mr W A M Edwards, he had bought a plot of land near the Worcester Lodge and built a house for his retirement from being a director of ICI. He was recruited to the Parochial Church Council Restoration Committee as treasurer. He enlisted the big names, Historic Churches Preservation Trust, the Pilgrim Trust and Department of the Environment. Owing to his efficient efforts Witley Church is now the sparkling baroque monument to the Foley’s and an inspiration to all. My most memorable family occasions were brother Alyn’s christening in 1910 and sister Grace’s wedding to Chad Woodward in 1934 kept family ties with Worcestershire. Grace’s 3 daughters kept Arley Cottage as a shared country house and I have just, November 1995 spent a week there.’