Nostalgic visit for former farm children to West Swindon educational and cultural centre
In early August Phyllis Webb, 80, and younger sister Molly, 66, top, returned to Lower Shaw Farm, the place of their childhood, for a trip down memory lane, and to tell current residents Matt and Andrea Holland and their children about their recollections of growing up there in the 1930s and during the war.
Foundry-worker turned farmer Charlie Webb, and his wife Ivy from Motcombe in Dorset, moved into the farm in 1933, with their two children Phyllis and Bobby.
Seven more children were born at the farm. Molly, Cynthia, Collin and Rosemary in the front parlour, what is now the Swindon Festival of Literature office (second image); whilst Margaret, Celia and Roy were born upstairs, and all had to do their bit as soon as they were old enough. "From quite an early age I was given the job of riding the shire horse bare back to Purton to have his shoes changed," said Phyllis who recalls helping to milk the farm’s 40 cows by hand. “We each had a three legged stool and it would take two hours in the morning; I never liked getting up on the frosty mornings but you got quite warm leaning up against the cows and squirting the milk into the bucket.
“After milking I would go to school in Lydiard Millicent; a bus would pick us up in Old Shaw Lane. When I came home, because I was the oldest, I would look after the babies and play with the children, then I’d do another two hours in the milking parlour. We were usually in bed by 8pm because we were tired out.”
Phyllis’s memories of the house are quite vivid. At the staircase in the front hall, she recalled the war years. “The gas masks were kept in the cupboard under the stairs, which was our air raid shelter. It was a very small space for all 11 of us.
“One day I was upstairs with scarlet fever and a German bomber flew over; my father was outside in the field and I watched him run for cover between two hay ricks. We were all quite frightened.
“The room where the television is now used to be where my father would hang the pig to cure, and there used to be a huge marble slab down one wall used for cutting up the meat."
The hayloft above the kitchen is now used as an activity room for meetings and yoga sessions, but Phyllis remembers it being where all the apples were kept during the winter.
The biggest surprise for Matt, director of the Swindon Festival of Literature, was that the front parlour, now his office, was the birthplace for five of the Webb children. Phyllis said, “the room hasn’t changed much at all. There’s the same door and windows, and the same fireplace. There used to be brown lino on the floor. I didn’t know there were wooden floorboards.
“We had to use a chemical toilet in an outhouse and at night we all had chamber pots under the bed which we would empty in the morning. The children had a bath once a week in a tin bath in front of the kitchen Rayburn, using the same water.”
Molly has fond memories of the walk-in larder, (fourth image) which is the same as it was in her childhood, and of their Sunday jaunts in the milk cart. “Father would clear it out and put seats all around the side and the shire horse would take us on a ride around the area. It was lovely on a Spring or Summer day.
"One event I’ll always remember was when the hay caught fire in the Dutch barn. The baker was coming up the drive with the bread in a basket and all of a sudden the flames burst out from the hay stack. It burned really hot. Sadly nobody remembered that the donkey was tied up on the far side and he perished."
"Our father Charlie was a good footballer and a trial in goal for Swindon Town during the war but he said he was too busy on the farm to play regularly. But he leased a flat piece of land at the top of Old Shaw Lane so that Shaw Football Club could play home games."
"With a growing family money was always very tight. There was no NHS in those days and the mid-wife had to be paid with every new arrival. We were always knitting so that the younger children had something to wear as they got older.
“It’s wonderful that Lower Shaw Farm lives on, it’s changed very little over the years. You get the sense of the slower pace of life we enjoyed when we were children, but it has a modern purpose which families enjoy now.”
The visit of the Webb sisters came fifteen years after their mother Ivy had come to see the farm for one last time. Matt said, “I’ve retold the stories that Ivy gave me to visitors; it was terrific to have them corroborated by Phyllis and Molly. When they saw how we’re using what was their farm today, nearly half a century later, I was reminded how important continuity is for people."
As a teenager living in Purton in the 1960s, Matt would help a friend with a tractor during haymaking and at harvest time. They would tour farms, including Lower Shaw, earning money cutting hay and humping bales. Little did he know that he would return to live there in the late 1970s.
He added, “Places like Lower Shaw Farm provide real and tangible links between the generations. Continuity and community go hand in hand. To feel Phyllis and Molly’s appreciation of that and their joy at seeing their home so well used by so many people was magic.”
Bottom picture, children of the farm, Phyllis Webb with Matt Holland, right, with Molly, centre, and Jake and Anna Holland, born at Princess Margaret Hospital, and brought up at Lower Shaw
See the Lower Shaw Farm activity programme at www.lowershawfarm.co.uk