Securing our history for the future

Charlie Wheeler

We didn’t have many outings or entertainments but every Christmas all the children were marched up to Knowle Hall, lined up round the huge dining room table and each given a silver sixpence and an orange.”

Mr Charlie Wheeler will be 96 in October but his memory of early days in Bawdrip is still vivid. “The squire then was a Mr Sheppard, and every day he used to be driven to Bridgwater station by a coach and pair where he would catch the train to his business in Bristol.”

As a small boy, Mr Wheeler remembers seeing his first spluttering motor car and running in to his parents shouting “there’s a carriage going by without any gee-gees.”

Before leaving school at 13, he did gardening and other odd jobs to earn a few pennies and  remembers one early morning chore of dragging an elder bush along rows of turnip seedlings to keep away pests.

This had to be done when the dew was still on the grass and I believe it worked very well. When I had an allotment I bought cabbage seeds for a penny a packet. The other day someone showed me a small packet of seed which cost £l.20p.

His first job was working for the local rector cleaning boots and knives and doing gardening any other job he wanted, and there were plenty of them. He paid me ten shillings a week and l had a shilling for myself. But you could have a good night out then in Bridgwater for a shilling.”

Mr Wheeler was not born in Bawdrip but came there at the age of five when his father went to work for the Jarman family as a gardener. One cottage they lived in belonged to the village carpenter and cost about £200. “Now that same place is for sale at E76,000.”

Mr Wheeler was nearly 19 when the First World War broke out and he volunteered for the Royal Artillery “because I thought I would rather ride than walk. The pay was sixpence a day.

“Two other friends joined up with me and on the way down to camp in Portsmouth we saw our first casualty, when a sailor was swept off the platform and killed by a passing train.”

Mr Wheeler joined on a three and nine engagement, three years with the colours and nine on the reserve. But his active service was longer than he bargained for and he saw bitter fighting on the Somme, at Ypres and around Arras. “The food was glorious, a tin of bully and a few biscuits and a liberal dose of mud. We used to take up shells by mule and often you would see an arm or a leg sticking up out of the mud. 

“But we always had to take care of our animals, because the army attitude was that a horse cost £40, yet they could get another man for a shilling.” Returning from France with three service medals, Mr Wheeler found there was not even a job for him at the Rectory, so he went on the dole.

When the National Strike broke out he was called back into the army to serve during the emergency but was discharged because of problems with his eyesight and was bitter at losing £200 reserve pay, a lot of money then.

Finally I was offered a job as a gardener at Knowle Hall and that paid me less than the dole and  reserve money, but at least it was work.”

After some years, Mr Wheeler took other jobs finally spending 20 years working for the ROF at Puriton. Now unable to leave his cottage, he praises a neighbour, Mrs Hawkins, for her kindness in looking after him.

Bawdrip village was first mentioned in the Domesday Book and is a “classic” village, at beautiful church, surrounded by a lane lined with houses and cottages and flanked on one side by an old farm,

This is one looked after by the Cranes, the oldest farming family in the parish. Mr Dennis Crane says their father was started in the l880’s by his great grandparents who were cheese makers.

“My grandmother used to say the north aisle of the church was known as ‘the cream end’ because it was reserved for farmers and gentry.”

Today the farm is looked after by Dennis and his elder brother, Eddie, a parish councillor, assisted by their father and mother, Mr and Mrs Jack Crane, who are semi-retired.

Another person who has many memories of the village is 86-year-old Mrs Minnie Stone, whose father was born in a little Bawdrip cottage. “Later on we moved to another house and then the old cottage came up for sale. Dad said he was going to buy it back whatever it cost and so he did. There l had some of the happiest days of my life.”

Mrs Stone`s Brother, Oliver, went blind after a severe illness as a boy, Like many other Bawdrip children he spent summer days swimming in Kings Sedgemoor Drain and it is believed that he may have picked up a germ there. But later he trained as a basket maker and became one of the best known craftsmen in Somerset. “His little workshop at the end the cottage always attracted visitors, for Oliver was a lovely man with a wonderful outlook on life. Children adored him.”

Mrs Stone still has the notice board which hung outside his workshop and which proclaims three of the major prizes he won for his work, one being First Prize World Competition, 1934. “When l was a girl, Lord and Lady Fitzgerald lived at Knowle Hall and they were kindly people. He would sometimes visit my grandmother and give her a rabbit for a meal.

 “Of course, those were the days when people had to mind their manners. If  Lord and Lady Fitzgerald drove by in their carriage the boys were expected to take off their caps and the girls drop a curtsey, so if we heard the carriage coming along the lane we would hide in the hedge.

“There was a little sweet shop in the village and when we had the money we used to go in and ask for a halfpenny dip, out of a box on the counter. “There wasn’t a lot of entertainment for the children and we used to roam about the countryside and sometimes climb to the top of Knowle Tower. But that was getting rather shaky then and was not encouraged.” This folly was built on a hill overlooking the village. The story is that it was erected by one of the Greenhill family, the builders of Knowle Hall, who married a Frenchwoman who suffered badly from homesickness. lt is said she would climb to the top of the tower and look out over the Bristol Channel to Wales making believe it was the coast of France.

Mrs Stone remembers that apart from the Christmas visit to the hall another big event was the Sunday School outing from the village chapel to Burnham, by horse and decorated wagon.

The train did not stop at Bawdrip then, the halt was built later, and if we wanted to go shopping we walked to Bridgwater over the fields.

“Later she learned basket making and for two happy years helped her brother at his work. Mr Wheeler, who often dropped in for a chat, used to lend a hand sometimes by driving Oliver`s donkey cart to Bridgwater to deliver baskets.

Says Mr Wheeler: “I remember those trips very well, because Oliver had two donkeys and they would both trot like ponies.” Another man well known in Bawdrip was Mr Albert Rouault, who as an amateur photographer took many pictures of the area. Today his daughter, Dolly, still lives on the outskirts of the village. The beautiful little church of St Michael and All Angels contains an effigy in armour of Sir Simon de Bradney, a knight of the shire in 1346. Between the hands there is a heart cut in stone, which means only his heart is buried there, his body lying in another parish. Another monument links the Lovell family to the Mistletoe Bough tragedy. The bride is believed to have been the one who hid in a chest during a Christmas game and was suffocated, her body not being found until many years later. The early name for the village was Bagetrepe and Baggdrippe and it was held in the Conqueror’s day by Walter de Dowai. In 1292 the church living was taxed at 12 marks.  

From an Article in the Bridgwater Mercury 1993/4