A Refreshing Change Came From The Back Of Beyond (18 May 1973)
Regard with a touch of sadness the coming demise of the local district councils. I have known them since I came here at the end of the war, but how to begin writing about them is a problem. They are such a big subject and especially so in the case of the Bletchley Urban Council, whose ramifications long ago assumed the proportions of a town council and which I shall keep away from in these notes for as long as I can.
But I have always had a special fondness for the local rural councils, Newport and Winslow, though it is a long time now since I attended their meetings in person. Perhaps one reason for this attachment was that preciously I had dealt with all other kinds of local government bodies, but never with rural councils, although I had been aware of their existence somewhere in the great wide open spaces at the back of beyond.
In the event I found them a most refreshing change. They did not actually meet in the lee of somebody’s cow byre or mistal, as I had half hoped, but they did hold conversations – sometimes you could hardly call them debates – which were redolent of everything rural from new mown hay to piggeries and which produced news titbits the like of which could not have come from any other quarter.
I also found that rural councils could be quite different from each other while doing the same kind of business. This was mainly due to the different personalities involved. And what personalities!
For instance, when I first reached the Newport Rural Council premises – via the little “Nobby Newport” train that ran between Wolverton and Newport – I was astonished to find myself apparently back in the army so shortly after leaving it. There was no khaki about. But looking down the list of councillors I noted General Blount, Col. Byam-Grounds, Col. Williams and Col. Wyness, and also Captain FitzGerald among the lower echelons.
Yet the man most definitely in charge was not the general but Col. J.P. Wyness, a tall, straight-backed but somewhat rickety-legged figure who, from his seat at the top table directed operations concerning the backbone water supply scheme and such projects with an assurance and authority I had never known before and have never experienced since in any council chairman. Perhaps no other council would have worn it!
His way with small matters was brisk. “About that affair at Woughton, we shall do this and that,” he would say. Then, as if by an afterthought, he would add, “Agreed, general?”
He seemed to know every cesspit in every hamlet throughout the rural area and could quote council minutes and government circulars by the dozen. He knew every foot step and voice in the council chamber and looked straight at people while addressing them. Imagine my astonishment, therefore, on learning that he was totally blind.
Perhaps I should say now that he came to live at Little Brickhill in the 1920’s after 25 years’ service in the army in India during which, as an Engineer, he had to deal with the road and traffic arrangements of Calcutta. On retiring to North Bucks he immediately dug himself in and also began studying its history in preparation for service of a different kind.
In 1930 he was elected to the rural council. For 17 years, including the war years, he was its undisputed chairman, and he continued as a member until his death in 1954 at the age of 85 – a fighter to the end.
When blindness overtook him he had his wife read the council’s minutes and correspondence to him and memorised them all before each meeting – to the occasional dismay of other councillors who were thus caught napping.
Shortly after that first meeting I met him in another connection and it was not long before I realised that instead of my interviewing him he was interviewing me. I seemed to pass muster mainly on the strength that I was a returned soldier. Some soldier, had he but known it.
But however other people may have regarded him, he was a reporter’s joy. His comments on Directives from the central government in particular were a rare mixture of fire, brimstone and pungent wit where they affected his local kingdom.
And having made one such comment he would turn towards the press table and say, “You gentlemen might make a note of that, especially you, Mr. Hepworth.” Why me in particular? I felt like jumping up and saluting with a “Sah!” Nevertheless I took my orders, like the rest.
Sometimes the colonel gave me a lift back to the Fenny cross-roads in a car driven by an up-and-coming youngster called Dunbabin. We found we had interests in common. For instance, the colonel was a one time secretary of the county’s archaeological society. Bletchley at that time was probing here and there for possible territorial expansion. But to the colonel – and you could never think of him as anything else – Bletchley was just a jumped-up little place that was fast becoming too big for its shoes. “Newport was a town when Bletchley was nothing,” he would tell me.
And in one way he was right. Domesday Book analysts tell us that at that time, 1086, there were only two places in Bucks which had burgesses – Buckingham and Newport. Aylesbury did not have any and Bletchley was simply an unmentioned part of Water Eaton.
I remember one occasion when the colonel was invited to propose the silent toast to Brown Willis at the annual St. Martin’s Day dinner at Fenny Stratford. He did it in a style unapproached by any previous or following chief guest in my experience. His old parish has Wyness Avenue to remember him by and I treasure his booklets on the history of Little Brickhill and Newton Longville which he gave me.