Our first meeting in 2011, the talk by Jon Weller about John Logie Baird, was a cracker. JLB can come across as a rather dour person, someone who would now be referred to as a ‘geek’, who developed the idea of a ‘hand knitted in Scotland’ type of mechanical television. Nothing could be further from the truth. JKB was a charming and savvy entrepreneur who turned his hand to many diverse and sometimes strangely amusing ways of making money. The ‘jam from Trinidad’ was not the most successful, nor the glass razor blades, but the (mainly caustic) soap was and helped finance his subsequent work on television. Jon brought the story to life, providing an understanding into the personality of the man and deep insight into the development of television. We were treated to museum class exhibits including the world’s oldest off air TV recording, not viewable when made in 1934 but there for us to see now thanks to Jon’s technical expertise. A truly enthralling evening.
Elmer’s windmill at Ockley was a smock mill built in 1803 and run by successive generations of the Coldman family for over a century until it ceased working about 1912. It then fell into disrepair and finally collapsed in 1944.
Peter James gave us an absorbing account of his project to rebuild the mill to look as it did in its heyday, whilst creating a modern home within its walls. The brick base was all that remained in 2003. Fortunately a detailed description of the original mill still existed and this, together with some fine photographs, gave Peter the starting point for his project.
Peter then took us through the project with superb photographs showing each stage of the reconstruction. We not only saw how the mill was put together but also gained an appreciation of the skills and ingenuity of the builders and millwrights of the past. The main structure of the mill is now almost complete; it will now be fitted out internally and the final stage will be to fit the sails.
Peter then showed us the restoration of Lowfield Heath mill with he had also been involved. This post mill had ceased working about 1880 and then steadily deteriorated until a rescue started in 1987 when it was dismantled (just before the great storm!) and moved to its present site. Its subsequent restoration by dedicated volunteers and professionals showed just what can be done, given the will, to save our industrial past.
Due to a bereavement, our scheduled speaker was unable to come, so Peter Bennett gave this talk which had been given to a neighbouring group earlier in the year (thank goodness for memory sticks!).
Present-day Westcott is really the merger of two former single-street hamlets known in medieval times as Westcott Street and Milton Street. The talk began with a look at how these may have become settlements, determined – as always – by the geology. Separate Manors in Domesday; they eventually passed to the Evelyns of Wotton who still hold the Manor of Westcott today.
Three big estates were created around Westcott – Milton Court, the Rookery, where Robert Malthus was born, and Bury Hill which absorbed Milton Street. The estates were the main employers, mainly through farming, forestry and domestic service. Estate owners, such as the Fullers and the Barclays, were great benefactors and did much for Westcott. The coming of the railways brought rapid growth. John Worsfold gave us a chapel. The parish church and school soon followed, and by 1900 there were three watermills, a brickfield, forge, wheelwright, six pubs and ample shops to serve the community. We are fortunate that photographer Walter Rose recorded it all to leave us such vivid pictures of life at that time.
The twentieth century saw great losses through the wars and the decline and demise of the estates. But there were also gains. Sport, music and drama flourished, and for a time we even had a swimming pool! Actor Leslie Howard and broadcaster Jonah Barrington were notable residents. New houses were built, but later years saw a loss of shops and pubs, although the M25 brought some relief to our traffic congestion. The millennium has seen renewal. Reading room and chapel, both under threat, have been saved, youth facilities improved and school expanded. These and other voluntary efforts even brought us a ‘most improved village’ award in the Britain in Bloom competition! Like all other villages, much has happened over the last thousand years.
At our regular ‘Second Tuesday’ meeting in May we welcomed Matthew Alexander to tell us something of the significance of May Day in the social life of England and in particular the merry-making in Surrey. The tradition of fun, festivities and fundraising probably reached its height in Georgian times when local parishes raised much of their money on that day. By mid Victorian times that form of merriment had begun to decline but the ‘climbing boys’ who went up the inside of chimneys to sweep them, were still allowed the day off work for ‘collecting’. They visited the local large houses and solicited donations, holding poles with floral decorations.
The exploitation of children for sweeping chimneys came to an end in1864 and by the time of compulsory education in the 1870’s, May 1st was not regarded as a holiday.
A more mild form of celebration with May Queens and dancers circling around a maypole platting ribbons took hold in the early twentieth century but the advent of WWI marked the effective end of this ‘new tradition’. Now it remains for Morris Dancers to uphold the tradition of revelry and fundraising on May Day. Matthew Alexander presented a fascinating insight into past activities on the first day in May.