Living History

I’ve loved the Weald and Downland Living Museum for as long as I can remember.  I first went there on a school trip from Primary School and was immediately captivated by the place.  The Granary;  the Tudor Winkhurst farmhouse; the 15th century wealden hall-house Bayleaf; 17th century Pendean; and the Tollhouse.  They all captured my imagination.  I assembled cardboard models of some of the buildings and very soon we had family outings there too, exploring the woodland and learning all about charcoal burning.

Open air museums such as this truly bring history alive.  You can feel the buildings, smell the woodsmoke, peer through the darkness of a dimly lit room and wonder how people kept warm with no glass in the windows, managed to sleep on such rough beds and kept children safe round the open fires.

As the years have gone by we enjoyed taking our own children there too, where they had a go at ploughing with heavy horses and made corn dollies.  The museum has been there now for 50 years and new buildings keep arriving.  On my latest visit a couple of weeks ago I was able to see the new bakery and dairy near the mill and the structure of stables being erected near Bayleaf.  But I also took the opportunity to revisit some favourites, among them the early nineteenth century school building from West Wittering.  It is buildings such as these that help me to relate to my more recent family history.  Having looked at Victorian school log books it is great to see the benches with inkwells and slates, the old school bell and the primitive looking stove.

Weald and Downland
Victorian school

I also paid a visit to the Victorian Whittakers Cottages, furnished as they might have been in the late nineteenth century for a labouring family.  Inside, a reenactor was sitting darning socks.  Such volunteers add greatly to the visitors’ experience, and I love the way that they talk to you in character, explaining what life is like for them.  The reality of seven children sleeping in one bedroom is brought home seeing the size of the room.

Victorian cottage

It was the first time I had seen the new visitor entrance, and along with the lovely new café and shop there is a new gallery explaining the background.  I saw that they have used the census to research who lived in some of the houses, and again that makes it all so much more real.

I have visited a number of other such museums, such as the Chiltern Open Air Museum, Beamish and Ironbridge, but I think that the Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton will always be special for me.  What a great place for all ages to learn about their history.

Weald and Downland

I don’t think it will keep on much longer

Writing home on 11 June 1918, just 3 weeks after his first letter, Jack Wakefield is putting on a brave face.  He expresses optimism that the war will soon be over (“I don’t think it will keep on much longer”) and looks forward to getting home (“well Mother, let us hope for the best, then what for a good time in Blighty, it will be grand”).

He repeats some of the information from his first letter, including details of his capture:  “I had the misfortune to be taken prisoner….I had the letter with that paper in it that you said went to Frank and Will on the Tuesday.  I was captured on the Wednesday.  It seemed funny I was the 3rd one”.  Maybe the ‘paper’ was a newspaper cutting – I wonder whether it told of other local lads who had been captured?  That would appear to make sense of the reference to the “3rd one”.  Frank Bookham was soon to be married to Jack’s eldest sister Annie.  He was serving with the 631 Motor Transport Company of the Army Service Corps, and earlier in the war had been out in East Africa.

Having now been a Prisoner of War in Gustrow, Germany, for seven weeks, Grandad is understandably anxious for some provisions from home to supplement what must have been extremely basic provisions in the camp.  “Well dear Mother, do your best to send me a parcel as soon as you can.  The Post Office will let you know what to put in it.  You know, a good big cake, some fags, tobacco, pipe and fag papers.  Send plenty of them for I can make it up with you all when I get back.  See if you can let me have one or two books.”  In order to emphasise the point, at the bottom of the letter Jack adds “send a parcel each week – get Nell to help”.  His next eldest sister Nell was obviously the sister to be relied on – it was she that his brother Will had turned to the previous Christmas when he was short of money.

I recently came across the journal of the Central Prisoners of War Committee of the Red Cross and Order of St John for January 1918.  This edition of the ‘British Prisoner of War’ carries an advert for suitable cigarettes and tobacco to send in parcels.  Whether or not Jack’s family attempted to send any of these we will never know.  The journal also contains useful information on how to send parcels and what could be included.  Unfortunately for my Grandad that did not appear to include “a good big cake”!

Although written on 11 June, the postmark on this letter was a month later – 10 July.  What an anxious time for his family back in Woking.