Military and miscellany

Chapter Nine of Life Along the River by Kathryn Shreeve

Local historian and writer Kathryn Shreeve has been with Friends of the Rib & Quin from the very beginning. She has published several books on the area through the ages and in ‘Life Along the River’ tells the story of our river valleys through history, serialised into chapters on our website.

Chapter nine remembers those that answered the call to arms from the valleys

Military and miscellany

I was eight and I remember meeting ‘Lumpy’ Day on the bridge and he said he was going to South Africa with the Hertfordshire Yeomanry.  They were camped with all their horses in the Laundry Meadows and the next day they were gone to camp somewhere else on the way to the ship to Cape Town.”  War, in various forms, has always impacted on the residents of the valley, and this wasn’t the only time that soldiers were to be seen in Standon’s meadows.

Arthur Martin-Leake, the first man to twice receive the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. Born in Standon and buried at High Cross

A monument stands to him in Syferfontein, South Africa.

In September 1912 (two years before the outbreak of the First World War) large numbers of troops were bivouacked on both sides of the river there.  This seems to have been connected to the war games conducted over large parts of East Anglia at that time.  According to newspaper articles of the time, at the beginning of the month: “Quite a crowd of people from Standon and vicinity watched the arrival … of four Brigades of the Royal Field Artillery, comprising 12 batteries, with 36 guns, 9 of them being howitzers.  The brigades consisted of 68 officers and over 1,000 men.”  It’s clear that the local tradesmen rose to the occasion: “Mr. T. Clark supplied 1,113lbs. of beef, Mr. W. Burr a similar amount of bread, and Mr. S. H. Stevens general stores for the officer’s mess.  In addition, Messrs. Chapman Bros. supplied 11 tons of forage, and Mr. S. Groom 2,600lbs. of wood.”  And all that was for just one night’s stay!  Apparently: “A constant stream of people visited the camp in the evening.”  All this was then repeated later in the month when another thousand or so troops, presumably on their return journey, did the same thing.  This time they were joined by Hussars and Dragoon Guards.  The horses alone must have drunk the river dry, as can be seen in this photo taken at Paper Mill ford!  Can you imagine the excitement of the local lads!

But of course these were by no means the first times that the drums of war beat over the valley.  No doubt back in antiquity there was tribal warfare aplenty, but this would have been small beer compared to the arrival of the Roman legions that marched up Ermine and Stane Streets.  Whether the Normans made quite such a grand entry is unknown, but many armies throughout history would have used the Old North Road.  During the Civil War of the 17th century Thundridge parish was paid for quartering soldiers, and only recently a stone cannonball was found in the river there.

Each parish along the routes of the Rib and Quin will have War Memorials recording the deaths of its parishioners in both of the 20th century’s World Wars, but in addition there were deaths on home soil as well.  During the Second World War two aircraft crashed over the fields of Standon in November 1941.  Both pilots were killed, with one of the planes coming down by the river at Latchford.  Other crashes followed in the parish during the rest of the war, all of them were British, except for the last in 1945 which was American.  Many bombs were dropped in the valley and machine-gun fire raked fields and farm-workers.  However, it seems that the locals would have been well-prepared.  As early as the 1860s the owners of Youngsbury had laid out a 500-yard long rifle range in Thundermarsh – that same old water meadow mentioned previously.  “The range was used for marksmen-training by the Bedfordshire Regiment Volunteer Corps., and Ware Volunteer copper-gilded tin alloy buttons and military belt buckles have been found nearby, along with Snider bullet heads and detonators.”  Some of the products made at Barwick were also tested here.  Hanging Wood near Latchford also had its own range, as did Barwick. Standon had a slightly smaller affair – a small-bore Rifle Club based in the farmyard at the bottom of Mill End, run by the postman, Harry Burr!  “There was a 25-yard range which was shot from inside the club hut, and a 100-yard range which was shot from the other side of the river in Harry Chapman’s garden.”!

On a slightly less serious note, although not for the gentleman in question, we have the apparently true story of a previous lord of Standon Manor, the third Lord Aston, who, in the late 17th century, on hearing of the approach of a ‘Standon mob’, hid himself in his dovecote and all his valuables in a chest in the river.  “In this way most of the valuables were saved, and the ‘mob’ finding their way into the cellar made themselves so intoxicated that they did no further damage”.  The circumstances that brought this about are unclear, but may have been incurred due to his lordship’s Catholicism.

And while we’re on the subject of mobs, Westmill (the one near Ware Park) has another claim to fame.  Back in the 1960s, during the Profumo scandal that rocked the Tory Government of the time, Christine Keeler went into hiding in this mill-house to avoid the baying mob of paparazzi – all, that is, apart from the one paper that had exclusive rights to her story.  This was the home of the Managing Director of that newspaper!

If you count bathing as a pleasurable activity, then undoubtedly this has been an unrecorded pastime in our rivers since the dawn of time!  As we saw earlier the Roman bath-house had been positioned close to the Rib near Braughing – the site being deliberately chosen so that the water could be taken from the river, and then drained back down the slope from whence it came.  The fact that it was not part of a villa complex implies that it was a public bath-house, although undoubtedly for the elite public rather than the hoi polloi.  It is thought to have been abandoned due to flooding, but ironically was then re-discovered during the 1968 floods!

This was not the only bath-house to be found on the Rib.  The remains of another in the grounds of Youngsbury House can be found on the north bank of the river.  With its flint outside walls and brick interior, it’s very likely to date from the 18th century when a bath-house in the park was a fashionable feature of a country house estate.

The difference between bathing and swimming is of course a fine one, but there are many memories by local people of swimming in the river as children.  The following is typical: “The river Rib was a big attraction to all the youngsters in the village [of Standon] with everyone swimming in either ‘Big Boys’ Hole’ or ‘Little Boys’ Hole’ depending mainly on how tall you were.  These were in Laundry Meadows with trees on the bank for diving off.  We also made rafts from a couple of oil drums obtained from Paul [Garrod’s] father and a few planks and floated on the river.  It was a lot deeper in those days and not silted up as it is now.” [see Braughing photo] Learning to swim was an essential skill for any youngster to save them from drowning, and others remember learning to swim in various places down the river.  Drownings have unfortunately occurred in the Rib as well over the centuries, one of a young girl, the blacksmith’s daughter at Wadesmill, resulted in the road next to the river being fenced in.

Washing clothes must have been another part of life along the river, and of course there has always been the need to drink from the river as well.  In times of drought this became even more essential: “Cattle and sheep drank water from the river – or it was taken to them in other fields in a water cart – that was a boy’s job – pulled by the old brown mare; it was called a water bowser and was filled from the river with buckets.  All the water came from the river which was four or five times as deep then.”  Drinking water for the human population came from wells of course, but these too could dry up.

Another use for the water was to make ice!  Long before the advent of fridges, ice was used for preserving food, cooling drinks and medical purposes, and the sources could be ponds or streams.  Originally only the wealthy could afford to have their own ice-house such as the one found at Youngsbury near Thundridge.  This Grade II listed domed structure was built of brick with the date 1793 on it, and undoubtedly kept the ice-buckets of the great and good at Youngsbury well stocked.  That job became the preserve of the head gardeners of estates such as this one, both in terms of stocking it with ice and then barrowing it up to the house.  We can assume that the ice came from the Rib or ponds close to it, as ice skating was once a popular pastime for the children of Thundridge and Cold Christmas.  In summertime, however, on much the same stretch of river, pleasure craft would have been seen: “Two boathouses are marked here on Victorian maps.  An Edwardian boathouse was still being used in the 1920s: Manning Gathercole Trudget of Wadesmill hired out flat-bottomed pleasure boats, with a trip to the osier beds from Wadesmill costing 1d.” [photo p.58]

It’s certain that any child born since the advent of the Winnie the Pooh books has played ‘Pooh-sticks’ in our river, and it’s quite possible that they played something similar even before Pooh was born!  But it’s only in recent times that ducks have taken the place of sticks!  The ducks are not of course the mallards that are normally found on the river, but ducks (or ducklings) of the yellow plastic variety!  Organised by Roger de Clare school on Standon’s May Day, the principle is the same, but the route is longer and the hazards along the way are many and varied. (photo?)

Apart from the May Day celebrations, other recent developments have been Braughing’s Wheelbarrow Race which used to go through the ford, and of course ‘Standon Calling’, a rock festival held in the grounds of Standon Lordship, not far from the Rib – a novel sound floating over our 10,000-year-old river!

  What future events and sights the river will see remains anyone’s guess, or indeed whether the river itself has a future – let’s hope so.

1 See FORQ website for more on the geology of the area
2 Natural History article – see ‘Sources’
3 High/Nokes, memory of Lillian Allen

Blowers, Emma: Around Cold Christmas – 4th edition, 2020
Gover, Mawer & Stenton: The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, 1938
High, Val. and Nokes, Mary, ed.: No Washing Machines Then: Braughing People Remember, 2004
Partridge, Clive: Skeleton Green: a Late Iron Age and Romano-British Site, 1981
Perowne, Christopher: A History of the Parish of Standon, 1967
Plumb, Philip W., compiled by: The Archive Photographs Series: Buntingford, 1995
Rowe, Anne: Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire, 2009
Short, David, ed.: An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, 2011
Tott, Victor: A Braughing Countryman’s Diary, 2010
The Braughing of Victor Tott, 2010
The Way It Was: A Collection of Memories of Country Life in and around Standon and Puckeridge over the last 100 years, 1999
Hertfordshire Mercury, 26.6.1880: article entitled: “Hertfordshire Natural History and Field Club”

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