Hannah's Tale: Part Two

Hannah’s Tale: Part Two

Read the final chapter of Hannah’s Tale, another amazing story of life in the Chilterns, uncovered by our Woodlander’s Lives volunteers.

In the last Woodlanders blog, we read Chris Wege’s account of the life of his granddaughter Hannah’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandmother Emma Barney (formerly Sheldon), who lived in Bledlow Ridge and worked as a lace maker.  The story continued with the life of her daughter Rhoda who lived in Tylers Green. As lace making declined in the Chilterns villages, women turned to the craft of tambour beading, which was the art of sewing beads and sequins onto textiles for the fashion industry.  This craft was much in demand by the fashion industry in London. Tambour agents would supply women with materials and patterns to work on at home.  Rhoda, and her daughter Doris both contributed to their family incomes using their beading skills.

Woodlanders volunteers are finding out more about the tambour beading industry in the Central Chilterns. If you would like to join them, contact Helena.chance@bucks.ac.uk

RHODA WEST  (1878 – 1953) 
(Great-Great-Grandmother of Hannah)

Rhoda was born on December 20th 1878 at Tylers Green. The household was quite large, as she had three older brothers and sisters. A few years later two younger sisters had also been born. Little Rhoda’s granny lived with them as well. Her father George ran a pub in the village.

When Rhoda was twelve years old she was already working, and her skill was as a bead-worker. Mother (who was also called Rhoda) had been a lace maker at the same age, and would have been able to teach her. Her two younger sisters were still at school. Life was busy, doing the bead-work to bring in some extra money for the family, and then helping her mother look after the family in any spare time.

When she was 19 years old she met and married Benjamin Bristow who was 21 and was a labourer, living in the same village. They found accommodation in the village, with four rooms to use. Over the years that followed, a total of eight children were born! It must have been very difficult to make ends meet – Rhoda’s hands were full with looking after such a large family, and as a labourer, Benjamin’s earnings would have been small. As the children grew, they were able to help in various ways and the life of the family is described below, based on the memories of one of Rhoda’s children, Florrie:

Florrie, talking to her son John:
After trees in the woods had been felled, people from the village could go to the Vicar. If he thought they were poor and deserving, he would give them a ‘wood-chit’. This gave permission to go into the woods and collect any fallen or left-over branches for the fire. Rhoda’s sons Les and George used to do this, and throughout the summer the boys would collect any wood that they could find for the winter. They had to do this before going off to school.

Food was a serious preoccupation in those days. Ben, now working as a gardener, provided the family with most of the vegetables that they needed. They didn’t have very much meat. Rhoda reckoned to start the winter with 100 pounds weight of jam that she had made. May, she always said, was an expensive month, because the winter-grown vegetables, the stored vegetables and the stored fruit were running out, and the fruit and vegetables of the new season were not yet ready. That meant that she had to buy more.

Rhoda would do her week’s grocery shopping at Beale’s shop in Dog Hill, on a Saturday, after Ben had come home from work with his Friday pay packet. He finished work at 6pm on Saturdays. She would buy a few sweets for the children – 4 ‘suckers’ a penny. For other shopping she would have to go into High Wycombe. She would take one or two of the children with her, and walk through Kings Wood, and down Amersham Hill. Then she would walk back with the children, carrying the shopping – a six-mile return trip!

The Bristow family. Standing: George, Beatie, Ben, Norah, Les. Sitting: Dolly, Rhoda, Winnie, Florrie

One day in the 1990s, Florrie, Les and Win were talking about their sister Beatie. None of the younger generation of the family knew anything about Beatie. It turned out that Beatie was the eldest of the eight children of Rhoda and Ben. When she was old enough, probably about 14, she went away to ‘service’ (being a servant in a rich person’s house) and they never heard of her again!

When Rhoda and Ben’s children were young they had well-water to drink, but used to catch the rain-water which ran off the roof, to use for other things like washing. On occasions they had to collect water from ‘Rayners’ over a mile away.  Flo remembers Tylers Green Common sometimes drying up in the summer to such an extent that many cracks appeared in the dry earth. The children would have to go to Widmer Pond to get a bucketful of water for the ducks, and then sometimes the pond would dry up as well. Flo remembered the hot dry summer holidays when they would be sent out to play on the Common. She would long for a wet day, so that she could stay indoors for a change.

Rhoda’s neighbours the Hunts had an underground tank which was filled by the rainwater from the roof. The Bristows would go over to the Hunts at the Boot and Shoe Shop to get water if they were short. When the water in the tank was nearly all gone, the Hunts would put a wooden box on the bottom and wash down the sides, using the remaining water. Then they put in lime to purify the tank, so that it would be ready to be filled by the next rains. Water was always boiled before being drunk, and any left-over water was then put in a jug for drinking, but not allowed to stand for too long, because of germs multiplying.

There was also a natural spring in the village, bricked round to conserve the water. If other sources of water were short they would go to the spring and fill a bucket, sometimes only able to scoop up a saucer-full at a time to fill the bucket.

Rhoda’s husband Ben started work as a labourer, and then went to Gomm’s furniture factory in High Wycombe, where he was given work in the wood yard. He stayed there for a while until one of the two sons of old Mr Gomm needed a gardener. He worked as gardener in that particular garden all his life, even after new owners moved in!  Ben used to work in all weathers, and until 6pm on Saturdays. He never went to the dentist, never went on a bus, and never saw a doctor until he was over ninety! He wore the same sort of clothes all year round –   ‘What keeps out the cold will keep out the sun!’ he used to say. Ben would go to the pub – the ‘Horse and Groom’ – as soon as it opened, and it was said you could set your watch by Ben’s walk to the pub. So many locals would buy him a drink that he hardly ever had to buy his own!

Rhoda would keep her children off school for two afternoons in September to collect wild blackberries to sell. This would pay for winter shoes for the children. Anything that they picked and was sold more than the ‘shoe money’, they could keep. This pocket money was often spent by the children at Penn Fair, which was set up on the Common every September. The Education Officer told her she shouldn’t keep her children off school if they weren’t ill, and that she could go to prison. Rhoda retorted: “If I go to prison, they’ll have six extra mouths to feed, because I’ll not go anywhere without my kids. At least they go to school well fed and well shod each winter.”

At harvest time Rhoda and the children used to go gleaning – that is, going into the fields after the farmer had cut and harvested the wheat, to pick up any dropped ears of corn. They sold the grain from these, probably to people who had chickens to feed.

Another seasonal task was cherry picking. Tylers Green had many cherry orchards, and its own variety of cherry – a small black cherry with an intense flavour. Rhoda sold these cherries each Summer, but first they had to be picked. The common practice locally was to ‘buy’ a tree for the year, which meant that you could then pick and use the crop from that tree. When the fruit was ripe, she and all her children walked to the orchard in Beacon Hill to pick the fruit. Even the little ones went up the trees on the big cherry ladders. As well as selling the fruit, Rhoda made the most marvellous cherry turn-overs. One of her grandchildren, Dorothy, recalls helping her: “Put twenty cherries in that one”, she would say, and then she would close up the turn-over.

Rhoda earned some money at home doing tambour beadwork, which then had to be taken to Beaconsfield. Flo and Win had to walk there with the work. It was six miles, and Rhoda gave them a pomegranate each and said “Don’t start eating those until you start climbing Knotty Green hill, then eat one seed at a time, and the hill won’t seem so long.”

Every Saturday morning Rhoda had a delivery of a hundredweight (a very large sack-full) of coal. Sometimes, if it suited the coalman Mr. Slade, he would bring her the coal on a Friday night. She would say “It’s no good you leaving the coal yet, Sam, you know I can’t pay you until Ben gets home from work with his pay packet”. “That’s all right Rhoda, I know you’ll pay me. Send one of the kids up with it in the morning”.

When her daughter Florrie was 16 years old, Rhoda opened a shop in the village – a general stores, which was built on to the side of her cottage. Years later, when Rhoda eventually retired from work, Florrie took over the shop from her.

Rhoda’s grand-daughter Mary used to visit her sometimes, and can remember the bus ride and then the long walk to get there. If Granny was still busy in the shop, she would give Mary a bottle of Tizer and a few sweets, and send her out onto Tylers Green Common until lunch-time. The shop stocked groceries and green-groceries, sweets and tobacco. The tobacco was either cigarettes, or blocks of tobacco sold by the ounce. Because it was cheaper, men in those days often rolled their own cigarettes, or smoked the tobacco in a pipe. In addition to the shop, Rhoda had extra business by charging-up the accumulators (old-fashioned re-chargeable batteries) for the villagers. Many people still did not have electricity, and they needed the accumulators to run a wireless set (radio).

Rhoda Bristow

Mary remembers her as being a warm person, but also a no-nonsense one. Determination kept the shop going, and made a living for her and the children. Ben’s earnings would not have been very much. In her later years Rhoda suffered with bad leg ulcers. She could not rest or put her legs up to help them heal, because running the shop meant being on her feet all the time. Her determination must have been tested to the limit.

George and Les became bakers when they started work, and got up very early in the morning to ‘set sponge’, so that the bread would be ready  when the Baker’s shop opened. Later, after the bread was baked, they would deliver it round the village, and call in at Rhoda’s for a slab of her bread pudding. Rhoda used to say that they were always hungry; she could never fill them up. However, Florrie was a poor eater, and when they were sitting at table, Les would eye her plate when she was slowing down – “Are you going to eat that Flo?” He nearly always cleared her plate up for her!

Rhoda had a jam-jar on the mantle-piece into which she dropped any spare pennies. This was in case any of them died, when it would help to pay for the funeral.”

Mary has very fond memories of her grand-mother Rhoda, who died at the age of 75 when Mary was seventeen. She also remembers Rhoda’s sister who was called Emma: she had married and then moved with her husband Walter to Coleshill. There they kept a public house named ‘The Fleur-de-Lys’.

DORIS BRISTOW  (1909- 1989)
(Great-Grandmother of Hannah)

Doris was born at Tylers Green just into the New Year of 1909 – fifth of the eight children of Rhoda Bristow. Some of her early life with her numerous brothers and sisters is described in the passage above about her mother.  It must have been a happy childhood because the older person that I can remember was a loving and kind lady, though she had a no-nonsense attitude to life. There was no dressing-up of words; what she said was what she meant. With her family, Doris was known as Dolly, and this name stuck right through her life.

Dolly with her mother

When Dolly was 16 she went to work for a lady who had an embroidery business in nearby Hazlemere. There was a shop, and the business included the working of embroidery for clients. Before long Dolly was in charge of the shop, and was a trusted member of the staff. The letter below was given to her by her employer when she finally left, and was a reference to help her get another job when the time came. In later years Dolly did needlework at home for the same lady.

She left the firm in 1932, and within a short time had met Edward, who was a driver for the Penn Bus Company.

Letter of recommendation for Doris Bristow, 1932


Doris Bristow

They married in 1934, and bought ‘Penwarne’ near Amersham the next year. Two years later Mary was born, but not in Amersham, because Dolly had travelled back to her sister-in-law’s home in Tylers Green to have the baby.

Dolly’s sister Florrie knew of a pram that was not being used, and knowing that there was little money to buy such a luxury, she walked all the way from Tylers Green to ‘Penwarne’ pushing the pram (a journey of 5 or 6 miles!), so that the new baby had somewhere to sleep by day. Shopping in those days meant walking the mile into Amersham, and then back carrying the food. Without a pram it would not have been possible to do that. I expect the baby was often half hidden by the groceries on the way home.

Mary recalls her mother’s shopping:
Groceries were bought at Hill’s Stores, a shop in Old Amersham, where they were very friendly and knew Mum well. She used to write out a shopping order, and this would be packed up and delivered in a cardboard box. The delivery was on a Monday – always a busy day because it was also Wash Day and the house was in chaos. Anything that could be washed was scrubbed: bedding, clothes, drains (with the soapy water)…It used to be my job to unpack the groceries and check off everything against the invoice, and then add it up to make sure that they hadn’t made a mistake in the bill.

The things that she ordered were very basic compared with today’s shopping list. We grew a lot of fruit and had bottled fruit, and also grew vegetables. If she did need to buy any of these, she would go to a greengrocer’s shop on a different day of the week. On the grocery list would always be tea, sugar, margarine, butter and lard. There was flour (always self-raising), sometimes an extra loaf of bread – though she would usually go to the baker’s for extra bread. Fresh-baked bread was delivered by the baker each week; chosen at the back door from his tray of different loaves. Luxury items might include a tin of fruit for a Sunday, and perhaps chocolate biscuits, though they were really special. We always had our own home-made jam, but sometimes a tin of treacle would be bought – which I used to love on bread and butter. Condensed milk was an occasional buy and evaporated milk in tins, in case we ran out of the fresh milk which was delivered daily.

Dried fruit might be on the list for cake making – but candied peel and glacé cherries would be only for a special cake. When needed there were condiments of course: salt and pepper, vinegar and salad cream. For drinks we used to have cocoa for bed-time, and Camp coffee which came in a bottle, though tea was the usual hot drink. I don’t think that we had instant coffee in those days.

Cheese would be included regularly – not an assortment – always Cheddar cheese. Some weeks, bacon would be in the box, and ham (in a tin). Also in tins might be corned beef or spam for an emergency meal. There certainly was not the variety that you get in today’s supermarket shopping.

On a Friday mother would go to the greengrocer’s and the butcher’s to buy meat for the weekend. The meat would include a joint for Sunday, and also perhaps liver or sausages, and maybe some bacon for boiling. Fruit in the form of apples, oranges or bananas might be included, but you were certainly only allowed one fruit to eat. This was after the War, because apart from apples, such fruits were not seen at all during the course of World War II. Other fruit – apples, pears, cherries – came either from our garden, or from our relatives’ orchards.

Shopping meant a trip twice a week – Tuesdays and Fridays – catching the bus into Amersham – sometimes walking back. There was a Post Office and a Bank in Amersham in those days, so these were visited when necessary.

The meals that Mum cooked were simple and basic. The evening meal was the main one of the day, with perhaps chops or a casserole, or egg and chips, or fish. There was a fishmonger’s in Amersham at that time. On Sunday it was a joint of one meat or another or a chicken. We used to have quite a lot of puddings in the form of suet-crust pastry on steak and kidney, and also dumplings. Then there was bacon roly-poly, or ‘bacon badger’ as it was called in Buckinghamshire – again suet crust pastry cooked in a cloth.

Pastry was also used on fruit pies. Not usually cherry turn-overs as that was Granny’s speciality and she had the cherry trees. If we ever brought cherries away from Granny’s they were eaten before we got home! Puddings were all home-made and included rice pudding or milk puddings and custards. There were no yoghurts or ready-made puddings such as you can buy today.

The day started with a cooked breakfast – bacon and egg in one way or another, followed by toast. Tea was the drink at any time of the day – very rarely coffee.

Improvisation was frequently necessary. There was no fridge at home, and no car for dashing to the shops, so foods sometimes went off. But there were always basic ingredients in the larder, and Mum would make something out of these when the need arose.  Perhaps it would be a meal of a Yorkshire pudding with cheese added. The basics did not include any pastas – they were a foreign food, but a lot of pulses were used – split peas and pearl barley. Rice was confined to desserts – eating it with main courses was another foreigner’s idea.”

At home, Mary’s Mum would fill the time not required for shopping and cooking and housework by carrying on her beadwork. This craft was also known as ‘tambour’ work. The ‘tambour’ was a frame on which the material was stretched while being worked. Dolly worked at the dining-room table using a square tambour frame to stretch the fabric, sewing sequins, beads and bugles onto a pattern. The materials were beautiful silks and satins sent down from London, and when the work was complete the manager of the dress-maker travelled to Amersham to collect it. The extra money that came in made a difference.

In later years Ed suffered from bronchitis, and became gradually more ill until he was an invalid. Doris looked after him at home except on some occasions when he had to go into hospital. It was a time of increasing worry for Doris, and she relied more and more on her daughter Mary for help when Ed was sick.

After Ed died, Doris stayed on at Penwarne for several years, not wanting to leave her first and only home. But eventually she could not manage to look after the house on her own, and Mary found a little cottage in Coleshill close to Rosewood, and Doris moved in there.

She was able to enjoy several years in her little cottage, with the help of Mary and Christopher, and only left it for a brief stay in hospital when she died in 1989.

Doris Coleman

Doris’ Cottage in Coleshill where she lived until her death in 1989.


Photos are all coutesy of Chris Wege.

If you have stories or memories of the Chilterns to share with us and our volunteers, please do get in touch with our Community Engagement Officer, Lizzie Buckley, on lbuckley@chilterns.org.uk

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