Widnall’s Reminiscences of 1830s Trumpington

In 1889, Samuel Page Widnall published a short booklet of Reminiscences of Trumpington 50 Years Ago (the 1830s), transcribed in full in this page.

Title page. Reminiscences of Trumpington 50 Years Ago.

Group having tea in the garden of the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, including Samuel Page Widnall and his wife, photograph by Samuel Page Widnall, 1867. Source: Christine Jennings.

Preamble (2020) Samuel Page Widnall (1825-94) grew up in Grantchester and knew Trumpington well from his childhood, including going to Cuming’s school (in Trumpington High Street). In adulthood, he wrote about the history of Grantchester and published these reminiscences of Trumpington. A farmer, he lived at the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, from 1850 to his death in 1894. He planted an orchard nearby in 1868, later the Orchard Tea Garden (see History Trail 9). These short reminiscences (25 pages) were printed by him ‘in his private press, Grantchester, 1889’, with copies available ‘at the Post Office, Trumpington, or post free from the author’. Reminiscences of Trumpington 50 Years Ago, by S.P. Widnall, 1889

Preamble (2020)

Samuel Page Widnall (1825-94) grew up in Grantchester and knew Trumpington well from his childhood, including going to Cuming’s school (in Trumpington High Street). In adulthood, he wrote about the history of Grantchester and published these reminiscences of Trumpington. A farmer, he lived at the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, from 1850 to his death in 1894. He planted an orchard nearby in 1868, later the Orchard Tea Garden (see History Trail 9 ). These short reminiscences (25 pages) were printed by him ‘in his private press, Grantchester, 1889’, with copies available ‘at the Post Office, Trumpington, or post free from the author’.

Reminiscences of Trumpington 50 Years Ago, by S.P. Widnall, 1889

Illustration: The Old Blacksmith’s Shop. Taken down about the year 1855. Sketched from memory. Reminiscences of Trumpington 50 Years Ago.

Illustration: The Old Blacksmith’s Shop. Taken down about the year 1855. Sketched from memory. Reminiscences of Trumpington 50 Years Ago.

Reminiscences of Trumpington 50 Years Ago

People have often remarked how very firmly small events and circumstances of early life seem to be embedded in our memory. I suppose everybody who can look back over half a century will be better able to call to mind certain trivial events of their youth, than some things of much greater importance that have occurred in later years. Our minds at that time, as somebody says, are like a fair blank sheet of paper, on which our early ideas were so strongly marked, that all the crossing and re-crossing of the lines of after life have not been able to efface them. Still the many changes and passing events of the day often cause us to overlook these old memories, and it requires some effort to recall them; nevertheless there they are when the effort is made. I have in these pages made the attempt to brush off some of the dust of years, and to recall the days of my childhood.

We often remark, what would our Grandfathers say to this or that modern invention, for instance, what would they think could they stand now on the Trumpington road, and see the telegraph wires, or the puffing trains in the distance! —but I am strongly inclined to think that if the present inhabitants of Trumpington were to see some of the traffic on the great road of fifty years ago, they also would be somewhat surprised. First at the number of
beginning soon after 2 a.m. at which time the ‘Lynn Mail’ passed on its way to London. Then came the ‘Times’, leaving Cambridge at 6 a.m. followed by the ‘Star’ at 7, and the ‘Beehive’ at 9, the ‘Telegraph’ and ‘Fly’ at 10. a coach from Lynn at 12, as well as two others from Wisbeach at about the same time. The ‘Lynn and Wells Mail’ and the ‘Rapid’ left Cambridge at midnight.

In addition to the coaches there were the
the ‘goods trains’ of the period. These were of an enormous size, drawn by eight horses, and at the back was a projection shaded by an awning, or tilt, for the accommodation of travellers who were too poor to journey by coach. I well remember seeing them looking very comfortable sitting in the straw. Really when one comes to think of it, it must have been a rather pleasant way of travelling, if one had but fine weather and pleasant travelling companions, jogging on thus at a slow pace, so that one could get down and walk when so inclined and then mount again and survey the slowly moving landscape at your ease and leisure.

Of course the road is still the London road, but not so emphaticically as it was fifty years ago, for how few of the vehicles now passing through the village are bound for ‘London town’, whereas in those times numbers passed every day having London for their destination ; not only the coaches and waggons went through, but many private carriages also.

was then no uncommon thing. At the end of term the members of the University had to book their places days beforehand, and even then some could not get away by coach, so other vehicles were specially chartered to convey them. I remember driving more than once with my father, when we stayed at the ‘Four Swans’ in Bishops-gate street, a curious old inn since pulled down; two tiers of galleries ran round the yard, giving access to long rows of bedrooms.

for the London market formed part of the traffic up the road, often some of the oxen would fall lame from walking so far, these were taken to the village smithy where John Nichols the smith would shoe them, the shoes being not like horse shoes, but in two parts, one on each side of the cloven hoof.

The blacksmith’s shop in those days was a thatched building that stood near the avenue gate, the site is now planted with trees and shrubs, at the south end was the village pound, and between this and the avenue entrance was the stocks and whipping post; at the north end of the smithy were the yard and stables of Arthur Cambridge, a carrier, the stable abutted against the cottages still standing there.

at that time had to wend their weary way to town on foot, to supply the Londoners with Michaelmas and Christmas dinners: these last I think would cause surprise now-a-days if they were seen passing through Trumpington in large droves on their long walk.

were in those days placed at intervals on turnpike roads to weigh vehicles in connection with the tolls.

One of these weighbridge houses stood at the corner of the mill road, where the telegraph post is placed from which the wires branch off, some to Cambridge, and some towards the Hills road; this was called the New weighbridge, and a house still standing near the spot where the Shelford and Hauxton roads meet, was called the Old weighbridge, though I never remember any weighbridge there.

The people of Grantchester when wanting to take a coach, would have their luggage taken to the old weighbridge and there wait for the coach to pass.

As I have said it was no unusual thing to drive to or from London. A number of cabs used to come from London at the time of Stourbridge fair, almost the only time such things were seen in Cambridge fifty years ago, but the cabs of those days were very different from those of today; they were most like the Hansom cab but rather more like a gig with a hood, and the seat for the driver was an excrescence on the side, projecting over the right wheel.

While speaking of cabs being uncommon in Cambridge, I may mention something else of more recent invention than is generally supposed, and that is the Umbrella; I have heard an old gentleman say he could remember the time when there was only one in Cambridge, and it was at a shop, I think in Benet street, and let out on hire.

I am perhaps wandering from my subject of Trumpington reminiscences in speaking of umbrellas, cabs, and Stourbridge fair, but at any rate the cabs must have passed through Trumpington, and over what is called ‘Stone Bridge’, why Stone Bridge, when it is built of brick? I have asked many persons this question without getting a satisfactory answer. I have little doubt it is an abbreviation of mile-stone-bridge, as at one corner of it stands the first mile stone from ‘Saint Maries Church’ as the inscription tells us. Before this bridge was built this spot was called ‘Trumpington Ford’, and probably the water from the ‘Nine-wells used to flow over it, until, as some old writer says, ‘Hobson the carrier had Trumpington Ford carried into the town.’

While speaking of roads and bridges I may as well refer to the other end of the parish, and the bridge on the way to Grantchester; this bridge was built in 1790, between the 25th of October and December the 4th, at a cost of £90.14.0. carriage and all materials included. Previous to this the river had to be forded, but a plank bridge was provided for foot passengers, some fifty yards or so below the present bridge, from which a footpath proceeded through Mr. Pemberton’s plantation, and out near the church. But when the bridge was built, the road on the Trumpington side did not pass by its present route but went on the other side of the gardens on the south side, and came into the present track by the short deviation which may still be seen leading in the direction of Byron’s Grove, and I think there is no doubt that in old times this road continued through the grove to the old mill, near which there was probably a bridge, as Chaucer says :—
“Att Trompington not farre fro Cantebrigge
There goth a broke, and ovir that a brigge,
Upon the whiche broke there stant a Mell,
And this is is very sooth as I you tell.”

I believe the old foot bridge and path were done away with when the straight road was made from the bridge, (Brazel bridge, why Brazel ?) at the same time a hedge was planted and a fence put up to protect it until it should grow up, portions of it may still be seen, but it never grew up, and the fence has had to be renewed, probably more than once during the 70 years or so since it was first put there.

which stands just beyond the village school house on the opposite side, (and is I should say at the least 200 years old) has several iron rings under the eaves. I have asked many people if they knew what they could have been used for, but never got a satisfactory reply, so I have had again to fall back on my own conjecture :— Many years ago, as I have been told, an order was promulgated, probably by act of Parliament, that as a precaution against the spreading of a fire, there should be kept in every village, among other appliances, some long poles with iron hooks at one end and rings at the other, so that in case of fire the house might be pulled down by fixing the hooks to the roof and attaching horses to them by the rings. I have seen some of these in country villages, and think there are still some at Swavesey, they were generally hung under the eaves of some building in a central position, and I think it probable that some may have been kept here suspended from these rings.

in my young days lived in one of the pair of old thatched cottages still standing a little distance back from the road about half-way between the house with the rings and the main road; she was reputed a witch, her common appellation was ‘Mother Sivill’. I remember hearing of persons going to her to have their fortunes told, or to inquire as to future events. I believe she was a bad old woman and had to pay periodical compulsary visits to the magistrates to be punished for her ill doings. I heard of her sleeping in the church porch, and also under the trees in the open air, and I believe she once stood in the pillory in Cambridge.

used to told by an old lady, a native of the village, whom I knew in my youth, of a Trumpington lad who on one occasion went to London, and having a sister in service there he determined to call and see her, but unfortunately he did not know the number of the house or even the exact street, though he had some clue to the neighbourhood; when he arrived there he hit upon a curious plan to find his sister, he went up one street and down another shouting in a sing-song voice—”My sister Mary, My sister Mary.” Fortunately for him the girl was up stairs at her work, and hearing a shouting in the quiet street, she looked out at the window and exclaimed to a fellow servant, “Why, if that is not my brother!” and then she ran down and called him in.

This story reminds me of another— Two young girls, sisters, and connections of my own, who were staying in London, went on one occasion to call on some friends but had forgotten the number of the house although they knew the street, they also knew that the children of the family had red hair, so one said to the other, ”We will walk along the street and look into the windows on the opposite side, and if we can see any children with red hair we will ring and ask if Mr. A. lives there.” After a time they saw some children looking out at a window with hair of the desired colour, and accordingly they crossed over, rang and asked, ”Does Mr. A. live here?” and to their delight the answer was “Yes.”

I have yet one more Trumpington story— At the farm on the road to Grantchester, which stands at the west end of the church yard, there is a Horse-chesnut tree, close to the back of the house; I have been told that on one occasion the then tenant had a pheasant being prepared for dinner, the cook found in its crop a small chesnut and being a large thing for such a bird to swallow, it was remarked upon and so someone planted it and this tree is said to have sprung from it.

passed through Trumpington from Grantchester where it may be traced at the back of the school, across the Cambridge footpath down the bank to the river, which it crossed by a ford the slope down to which is still to be seen. At Trumpington it crossed the London road at right angles, at the spot where there is still a lane closed by a gate, on one side of which is a stone wall and on the other the commencement of the long plantation on the left going to Cambridge. After crossing the main road it passed over what is now the site of a pair of cottages, and at the back of these, in the grass field, it again becomes visible, and here is a spot to which I should like to call the attention of antiquarians; by the side of this ancient track is a circular mound on which stands a fine elm, which has unfortunately been much damaged by wind, and surrounding this mound may be traced a square enclosure formed by a ditch, or rather hollows which were probably ditches once. I have wondered if this could be the remains of a small Roman fort, it would be conveniently placed for guarding both the London road and the old way I have mentioned. There was no doubt a large camp at Grantchester, and it seems probable there would be a small outpost on this side of the river. This old road was a continuation of the one leading to the Gog-Magog hills by Wort’s causeway.

was a well known establishment of Trumpington fifty years ago, also long before that; I was one of the pupils and as schools are very different now, I propose to give some of my recollections of this one. The building was pulled down only a few years ago, and the house now called “St. Mary’s” built on the site. Mr. Cumming senior used to live in the house since called “Alpha Cottage” adjoining the school. I believe he built it when he gave up the school to his son Charles; he was in my time a very aged man and blind, to entertain him we boys used to be sent to repeat some of our more interesting lessons to him. I well remember going to him to recite “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, ” &c. For several years I went daily from Grantchester as day boarder, that is I had my dinner there. I must have been a very little fellow when I first went, I forget the exact time. I still have a little book in which I used to jot down small matters, I find one entry— “1834 July 25 I weighed 4 stone 3 lbs. In my last year I was a full boarder; we used to take our meals in what was a kind of front kitchen, with a brick floor and a curious kind of crane by the fire to hang a pot on, though the cooking was I believe done in a back kitchen across a small yard. In this our dining room was a long table, at one end of which sat Mr. Cumming, and at the other his sister, round this we stood to take our breakfast dinner and tea, we never sat down to our meals, indeed there was no provision for this purpose. Our breakfast was always a bason of bread and milk, I never remember any variation; at dinner a good supply of pudding first and meat after, of which I think we had a fair supply. After breakfast and dinner we used to go out to play until school time, which was from 9 to 12 in the morning, and 2 to 4 in the afternoon. Mr. Cumming at this time was unmarried, and his sister lived with him as housekeeper; she was always kind and considerate to us boys, and so indeed was he, but, he had of course to keep up the dignity of his office, so we naturally used to think him rather stern.

Let me try and recall the appearance of our old schoolroom. It was a large square room, at the upper end were two windows looking south, on the left two more looking east. At the upper left hand corner stood the master’s desk on a dais raised about six inches from the floor, here he sat on a high stool, so as to well overlook the school. In the corner behind him were cupboards containing stationary and bundles of quills that he made into pens for us, there were also some parcels of small books varying from 2d to 6d each, which we used sometimes to buy. From what I remember of them they were such as Jack the Giant killer, Puss in boots, and such like. Somewhere in one of these cupboards there was kept an instrument of torture called ‘a spanker,’ it was a narrow piece of wood about a foot long, with a circular piece at each end, the delinquent had to hold out his hand and receive a smart blow on the palm, and it used to be whispered among us that a hole in the middle of the spanker produced a blister on the hand, which I doubt, but cannot say from experience, this punishment was chiefly inflicted on the children of the hardy sons of toil, perhaps their hands were considered more suitable. This leads me to explain that some benevolent person of former times left a sum of money for the education of the poor: as there was no village school in those days, this money was handed over to Mr. Cumming, in consideration of which a certain number of the village children came to his school. I remember they used to sit at a large desk at the lower end of the room.

On the right hand upper corner of the room was a door leading into the house through a small room or study, this door was very seldom used, but I remember on one occasion some of the boys were ill with some complaint which was considered infectious, and they were kept isolated in this room, and a piece of wool was placed in the keyhole to prevent any of the infected air from passing into the school-room. Now some of the boys had an idea that the invalids were being petted and having nice things, and wished they might catch the complaint, to this end they used to pull out the wool from the keyhole and take a prolonged sniff, but I do not think they succeeded in their wicked designs.

The school-room was almost filled with desks fixed to the floor, except at the lower end where the large double desk stood used for the village children.

Suspended from a beam in the ceiling was an old gun with a flint lock, at which we used to look almost with awe. I never saw it touched or taken down. At the lower end of the room was the fireplace, and in each corner a door, one leading to the house, through a small yard, and the other through a porch (where was the rope to ring the school bell) into the playground which ran at the back of Alpha cottage, at the end was a shed in which we could play in wet weather.

Our chief punishment was having extra lessons to learn, and until these were accomplished we were considered in disgrace and could not go out to play, or speak at meal times. I remember on one occasion breaking this rule, and I think pardonably, I was as usual standing at dinner, when I suddenly called out, (although in disgrace) “Oh ! if you please a wasp has stung my leg.” One of these insects creeping about on the floor had crept up inside my trowsers.

We had half holidays on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when we usually went for long walks; Mr. Cumming used to farm a little land and had a field on the Shelford road, and so we frequently went that way, it was near what was called the Half-way, or Dead-woman’s Bush, and while the master was looking at his crops we used to climb up into the old whitethorn tree, which was then a very fine one, but has now almost if not quite disappeared. He also had an orchard at what was then called “Dagling end.” The part so named could be reached by passing through the “Camping- close” down the avenue for some distance, and then bearing off to the right; Dagling end consisted chiefly of cottages, several of them owned by Mr. Cumming, and now with one exception pulled down. At the back of these was the orchard, also owned by Mr. Cumming, and we boys were sometimes allowed to help in gathering the fruit, as a great treat.

One of our favourite walks was through Byron’s grove and round by Grantchester mill, there was no restriction as to walking there in our days, and no fence to prevent our passing at the sluice gates. In the grove there is still standing a fine beech tree, on which some of the boys cut their names or initials, one may still see B. Wells, though a stranger would scarcely decipher it, so much have the letters altered by the growth of the tree, but I remember the time when it was quite distinct and I have watched the change for many years. There are also the initials A. M. W. W, and traces of others now illegible.

Sometimes on our walks we used to take our towels and bathe in the river, not at Byron’s pool but in the mill dam about half way down, where there was then a sandy spot, and a much more sheltered place than at present, as the bank was almost covered with underwood, with a path between it and the river.

On some of our walks a few of the elder boys used to take lessons in land measuring, the first lesson generally was measuring the length of the mill road, then without any obstruction in the form of a railway.

I remember in some of our long walks I used to get very tired, and put in practise a plan that to this day I cannot tell if it would be beneficial or not. It was this— I used to run on ahead of the rest some five or six hundred yards, and then take a rest until they had passed, and then repeat it and take another rest—Query, did the run fatigue more than the rest relieved or not ?

In bad weather we had to amuse ourselves in the schoolroom. On one occasion a boy professed to be a barber, and invited customers to come and be shaved or have their hair cut. Now in a box under the master’s desk he had found a bottle of “sweet oil” falsely so called, for the smell was anything but pleasant, I presume it was used by the master when sharpening his knife to make our quill pens. And as it was customary for the barber to put pomade or oil on our heads when he cut our hair, so our schoolboy barber thought he would do likewise, he therefore rubbed the heads of his customers with some of this abominable oil, which got him into trouble.

On one occasion a tame bird died, a canary I think it was, and we resolved to give it a grand funeral, so a coffin of cedar wood, (part of an old cigar box) was constructed, I believe I was the undertaker, as I was always fond of carpentering; then from the same box where the barber found the oil, under the desk, we got a bell, there were several there, I fancy they had been sheep bells, I have no doubt we choose the one with the most solemn tone, and used it for the funeral, one of the boys tolling it, as we all marched in procession bearing the coffin through the playground, through the wood-yard and on into the meadow, where we were allowed to play sometimes, and here under an elm tree, in a grave I should say at least six inches deep we laid the canary to rest in his cedar coffin. The tree can still be seen from the high road when near the mile stone on looking across the grass field which was at that time divided by a fence parallel with the road, but now thrown into one.

It must have been in my very early days, before I became a boarder at school, that Greenfield the driver of the Fly coach, came to my father’s on one occasion and told me that if I would ask my schoolmaster to let me come out a little earlier on the following day, and look out for him as he passed, he would give me a ride on his coach to Cambridge, and not only so but he would take me to his house to tea and after that drive me home to Grantchester in his pony trap— (Stay I do not think that name had been invented then, it would be pony gig, or pony cart, and a carriage with four wheels used to be called a four-wheel-machine.) I was some time I remember before I could screw up my courage to go and ask the master the momentous question, but I did so at last and he gave his gracious permission, so when the Fly coach came there was I standing by the school gate. The coachman had not forgotten me and I was soon mounted on the top and clashing off on the way to Cambridge. I was greatly delighted as I had never been on a coach before; when he had finished his business we went to his house to tea, he lived somewhere in Emmanuel road, near what was the Police station, and which was I think originally built for stables, indeed I fancy a portion was stables at that time, for I have an idea that his pony was kept there.

In my school days there was great excitement in Cambridge in politics and electioneering matters, of course this was reflected in our school life, we were all Whigs or Tories then, I do not remember anything of Conservatives or Liberals, I think extreme whigs were beginning to be called Radicals. Of course we had elections in the playground, candidates were proposed and elected, but our greatest delight was the chairing which always followed the election, and was managed thus, we took two of our strongest hoops, which were made of stout ash; we then pushed one through the other at right angles, tying them at the intersection at the top and bottom, thus forming a kind of globular cage; into this the member got and seated himself on the lower part where the hoops crossed, then four boys would seize the frame and lift it to their shoulders and march round the playground, preceded by the band, and followed by the boys shouting and waving flags, formed of pockethandkerchiefs on sticks, and I have no doubt the sheep bells were also called in requisition. I think all the boys took part in this, irrespective of which side got in, the chance of hurrahing and making a great noise was not to be foregone because their candidate had not been elected, so the cheering and shouting were at least unanimous. The most envied position was to be in the band, and anyone who could make a noise on any kind of instrument was proud of the distinction. I remember claiming to be admitted, having made a very primitive kind of instrument of a piece of reed which emitted sounds resembling that produced by a comb and piece of tissue paper. My instrument was rather despised, and I had to give a solo first to show its power. Our chief performer played the flute, and when he left school went to the Royal Academy of Music, and became celebrated as one of the best flute players of his day.

I have spoken chiefly of our amusements. From what I remember of our school work I fear it would not be considered satisfactory at the present day. I have still one of our class books, Pinnock’s First Catechism, it is certainly very varied in its instruction, we had a certain number of these questions and answers to learn, some of them left an impression, for instance the chapter on bread—
“Question What is Bread?
Answer. Bread the chief support of man, is a baked mass of dough &c.
Q. What is French Bread ?
A. It is a kind of fancy bread, prepared with warm milk, instead of water, and having the addition of eggs and fresh butter &c.” This I thought must be very nice and when I went home tried to instruct my mother in that matter, and urged her to make some for me.

In the matter of reading, we used to stand round the master’s desk, and from the New Testament each read a verse in turn. I fear we did not understand much of what we read, I remember the passage in the 12th chapter of St. Mark, “Master, Moses wrote unto us &c. ” was read as though Master were his title, just as one would say Master Jones wrote to me.

For our writing we used copy books in which we copied from narrow copyslips, generally using quill pens, though I believe steel ones were just corning into use.

We had geography books, grammar books &c. and we were set to learn paragraphs from these by rote, when that was done we were supposed to have imbibed that amount of knowlege, it was done with and we proceeded to something else. I do not remember any examinations but we used to have prizes awarded, these consisted sometimes of books, I still possess one, White’s Natural History of Selborne, but I also remember having a small pestle and mortar, and a Parian bust of George IV.

On sundays we went to church and sat in a pew in the south aisle close to the wall; the church has been a good deal altered since then, there were old high square pews, and at the west end a “Singing gallery” where John Nichols the blacksmith sat in the forefront leading the singers and keeping the boys in order; there was no organ but various instruments of music, such as violins, flutes, violincello &c.

The vicar of those times was a Mr. Hailstone, then very old and unable to officiate but he attended regularly, and sat in a pew, I think about where the reading-desk now stands, his eyesight was probably not very good, for he used to bring with him a single barrelled opera glass and stand leaning with his arms on the pew, where he would watch the congregation one by one as they entered, through his glass, following them with it as they walked up the aisle, a custom rather embarrassing to strangers.

I must now bring my rambling notes to a close and trust that my readers who have followed me thus far may have found something interesting in these reminiscences of half a century ago.

2020 Transcription

Editing, Andrew Roberts
OCR of source text, Howard Slatter