A Publican Who Sold Home Brew (6 June 1975)
Occasionally there comes into the hands of local newspapers material which is of historical interest. This happened to the Gazette in 1949 through a letter from Mr E. Troughton, who lived at Weymouth, but who spent the first 19 years of his long life at Water Eaton in the 1870s and 1880s and who often re-visited the village later. Some of the many thousands of people now living on the Lakes Estate at Water Eaton may be interested by it.
Mr Troughton wrote that the village was vastly different from when he had lived there (and this in 1949, before even town expansion under the 1952 Act had come into operation). He said that in his young day it had only 40 houses, not including the farms, the two inns, or the school house “and seemed the last place likely to be caught up with the development of Fenny Stratford or Bletchley, as it is now.”
At that time the part of Water Eaton Road between the brook bridge and the crossroads was known as the “old end.” There were seven cottages along that stretch and he regretted that the last vestiges of these had disappeared, along with other former cottages at the green. His letter continued:
“The Home Farm was farmed by Thomas Belgrove, who was replaced by Henry Makeham. Sycamore Farm was tenanted by Mr Willison – known locally as “Pinafore Billy” – and the Mill Farm by Mr Hitchcock.
“There was a piece of land opposite the school, the site of two former cottages, which was known as ‘Raggy Betts’s bit.’ Mr Betts had a large garden even before he took over the ‘bit’ and grew vegetables which he pushed around in a truck. I am afraid he sometimes found his truck in the middle of the pond which then existed near the Plough Inn.
“The pond was a mecca for we youngsters when ice-covered, which was frequently the case in those days.
“There was a small shop kept by Mrs Betts (wife of ‘Raggy’) and Mr Curtis was the shoemaker. For all else we had to go to Fenny and many is the time I have had to sprint to Fenny before school to obtain the necessaries for the day’s dinner.
“Highlights for us youngsters were the annual sheep-washing at the mill, the Cock and Hen Feast, and Water Eaton Feast. We got plenty of fun out of them.
“The sheep-washing lasted most of the month of May and the way to the mill was noisy with the baaing of sheep in all keys from early morning to late afternoon.
“There were times when a flock bound for the mill met one returning from their wash. There was then plenty of ‘language.’
“In the washing, about 20 sheep at a time were driven into a temporary pen in front of the mill (pond) and the sheep were dropped tail-downwards into a railed-off space holding about six. Their fleeces were rubbed with long-handled hooks shaped like an ‘S’ and the water was running through the wheel chamber and carried away the dirt. When the sheep were clean, they were ducked under a pole and swam their way out onto the road.
“The operation was a sweaty, thirsty one, and great quantities of beer were consumed, so that towards the end of the day there was a large amount of horse-play. On several occasions one of the crew was dropped into the mill race, which generally sobered him pretty effectively. At those moments we youngsters kept our distance – prepared to run when the crew were on the rampage.
“The ‘Cock and Hen Feast’ was a local dinner run in connection with a local thrift club with headquarters at the George Inn. The dinner was held in a marquee pitched in the field then known as ‘Hitchcock’s Backside.’ In the afternoon a local band came on the scene and played selections until evening and then for dancing until dusk.
“Water Eaton Feast was held near the school and was never a large affair. Those occasions have now ceased to exist and there is now no trace of the sheep-washing apparatus at the mill.
“Mr Robert Goodman kept the Plough in those days and used to brew his own beer twice yearly. James Sparkes, who followed, also brewed for a time, but it is many years since home brew was sold there.
“I can also remember when all corn was cut by scythe and sickle and gleaning was freely permitted. The gleaners thrashed the corn with flails and took it to the mill to be ground into flour, the miller keeping the offal (the corn husks used for cattle feed. ed).
“I recollect a heavy snowstorm one September when corn was standing in the fields, and I recollect as many as 26 horses pulling the ice-boat to keep the canal clear for traffic.
“On Sundays I went to Sunday school at 10am, then a long walk to Bletchley Church for the 11 am service, then Sunday school again at 2pm, and then, as I was a choirboy, another walk to the church for evening service.
“Now when I pay my periodical visits to my old home I reflect with some regret on the changes that have been made and wonder if the youngsters of today, who expect pleasure and entertainment to be made for them, are any happier or more content than we were. Sometimes I doubt it.”
So ends one of the most graphic accounts of local life as it was lived a century ago that I have ever read – and from the pen of a man whose formal education probably ended at around 11 years of age at that.
For serious students I recommend that it should be read in conjunction with the many references to Water Eaton contained in both volumes of Sir Frank Markham’s History of Milton Keynes and District and in particular with the sub-section in the second volume which deals with a survey made in 1863 for the Duncombes of Great Brickhill, who at that time still held no fewer than 894 of the village’s 1,016 acres.
To the population at large I would say: be proud of your Anglo-Saxon village and take good care of it. The earliest known documentary reference to any construction whatever in this part of the new city that may be said still to exist in any form is to Water Eaton mill (Domesday Book, 1086 AD). Few places in the whole country can better that.