Home to FeltwellTour Feltwell Today Tour Old Feltwell See Feltwell's History Read Feltwell's History RAF Feltwell Memorial Pages Special Photo Sets
Feltwell's Timeline
Historical InfoLoops Photo of the Month Feltwellians Worldwide Feltwell Links

Mrs Charlotte Rolfe   (July/Aug 1998)

Four months ago I was at an Archaeological and Historical Society meeting when the Chairman brought to our attention the fact that Mrs Charlotte Rolfe had received a telegram from the Queen congratulating her on reaching the grand age of 100. I have been privileged to be allowed to talk to Charlotte for this column and the text below is the result of our conversation. We focused upon Charlotte’s memories of Feltwell mainly from before WW1 but, of course, we inevitably rambled! Throughout this piece I have tried as much as possible to use Charlotte’s actual words for the sake of authenticity.

Charlotte was born in 1898 when the family lived and farmed at Cross Hill Farm. Her father, Christopher, was son of Gregory Walker who owned the farm. She recalls that "Feltwell was a poor place with very little work and very small." She remembers that the Reverend O’Rorke "used to drive a pony and trap around the village issuing tokens to those out of work to use at the soup kitchen that night at the Rectory. That way they got one hot meal a day. The Rectory was a very big place. They used to employ a lot of servants up there. Rev. O’Rorke had 3 daughters, one ran the choir and the choir was allows full because she used to pay the mothers a little, every so often, to send the children to the choir practice. So it was allows full because the mothers made the children go to get the money. Another daughter used to go off round the fens visiting people and taking them things and the other one was Miss Lucy who used to have us older ones for the Sunday school on a Sunday afternoon from 2.30-4.00pm. We used to sing hymns and she would tell us stories and such like. When we went home you didn’t go out after tea in those days, girls didn’t go out, they were all in bed by nine. Grandfather used to play the organ after he’d milked the cows. He’d have a half-hour playing the organ and we’d have a few hymns. Miss Lucy O’Rorke used to take it upon herself to find employment for the girls in her Sunday School class. Charlotte explained that in order to come home to visit, "you had to save up the money and then take a pony and cart to the station, get a train to London and then to Lakenheath and then walk from there to Feltwell. In those days nobody hardly ever went out of the village, they didn’t go to any other village, they had to walk it so they didn’t bother to go. It wasn’t easy to get home so when you got away you had to stay. The halls employed servants from away because if they were Feltwell girls they’d run away home if anything didn’t suit them. But the girls from away couldn’t run back to Wales and places like that. Feltwell girls were sent up to London for a year, with a fortnight’s holiday. It gave them a chance to earn some money and their mothers and fathers had got rid of them to earn their keep. I don’t think anybody ever seen the sea cause they couldn’t get. So they’d live and die in Feltwell and never know there was a sea."

The church was always full because all the servants (from the Halls) were made to go to church and they all had to walk from the big halls down to the church and they all used to wear cloaks and bonnets. The people themselves sat one side of the church and the servants the other so the gentry could watch and see if anybody was missing. And then they walked all the way back. The gentry came in horse and carts with their coachmen to look after the horses whilst they were inside.

St Nicholas’s was used after the tower fell down. Edmund’s (Lambert) mother and father were the last ones to get married in there. (The tower fell down in the same year that Charlotte was born) If you look on the church you will see a hook; it used to have a bell on it. Well, in the old days the women used to go gleaning the corn up after the harvest. So they used to ring the bell there at the church, when the last load went out of the village, so the women knew they could then go and take the children out and glean up all the ears of corn that had been left. They used to take them home and get them ready to be ground. And my Grandfather is buried there and he was a 101. I think it’s the country air."

At the age of four the family moved to Methwold Hythe to farm and at the age of 13 the farm at the Hythe was sold and they moved back to Cross Hill. Of that time Charlotte recalls that, "We (the schoolchildren) walked as a group to the school in Methwold. We took our own lunches. We used to always start with the Lord’s Prayer and then a hymn to the harmonium. We learned our lessons together – reciting, learning tables, doing sums, that way we remembered. We didn’t have paper; we did writing on slates. Mr Harrison was the Headmaster at Feltwell at the time. We used to play with skipping ropes and a spinning top that you used to whip with a bit of string on a stick. It were different in those days, there was nothing of girls taking the young men home when they were of school age. We had to be older than that, we weren’t allowed to take the boys home at all."

She recalls Mr Willett the Village Crier, who was a gardener, but who would, when events such as the pot auctions on The Chequers Green were due to take place, walk around swinging his bell announcing the event. And talking of bells, "When someone died you always knew if it was a young person or an old one because they used to ring the church bells. A long ring meant an old person and a short ring meant a young person had died."

Her memories of Feltwell are many and varied, for instance, she recalls, that "well before the noisy trucks, loose straw used to be put down on the roads for quiet for those who were ill. I remember it covering Bell Street all the way from Parnells to the Church. Goodness knows how folk cope nowadays with the noise. Of course we had the fair on what is now Fair Close. The horses used to be trotted up from Oak Street for sale. Horses pulled the fair caravans and the owners used to sell the spare horses. The fair lasted 2-3 days. We had roundabouts and swings; some were powered by steam from traction engines. The fair came twice a year, once in April and then again in October.

She recalls that her "…grandfather used to go coursing at the big matches. He had two dogs. He used to have to walk across the fens towards Ely.

Down the High Street we had Neville’s the butcher and alongside that Mr Barley Porters. He had the grocery one side and the drapery the other side. Before you got to the Elm Tree was a big farmhouse (Elm Tree Farm?) next door to Coronation Hall. Well, there was a bomb dropped on it and the lovely farmhouse disappeared (WW2). There was a lot of small farms when I was young. Where Basil (Vincent) had his bicycle shop (now the furniture shop) was originally a square with houses all around it. I was told that the people who lived their used to work in the rope factory at the corner so it was rather busy at that corner with a Blacksmiths at one side and a rope factory at the other. And of course there was an Elm tree in the middle of the road, seems like there was a tree in the middle of all the roads! We had more shops then. We had Siers, before Broadwaters (Londis), the Post Office was smaller and run by Mr Palmer and there was Steward the saddle maker in High Street. You used to have go down to the Post to send a telegram, we didn’t’ have phones till the 1920s. Couldn’t afford them, had hard enough time getting enough money for a loaf of bread. We never had any cafes everybody made stuff for themselves. There was Smiths the Bakers, next to Broadwaters, where he made the bread. He used to heat a big dustbin full of red hot farthings and tip them out in the road when the children where going to school and they’d all be scrabbling along trying to pick them up because they’d be hot. I don’t know what day that was but it must have been to celebrate something. We didn’t have a newsagent. A man came with the papers from Brandon on a Sunday. Must have been after 1920 because he had a bicycle. So there couldn’t have been any before then. News was just what was spread by word of mouth. A lady butcher used to come from Methwold and take orders for a piece of beef because the farmers would be killing the cows. People would only want a piece of fresh beef for the weekend. Then she’d come back with the orders."

You had to pay the doctor. He used to set of for the fens on his horse. Dr Archer lived in the same house as Doctor Nisbet lives. He’d be gone all day so if you got ill you just had to wait for him to get back.

We used to have travelling players come from Lynn to the Coronation Hall. They performed by oil lamp and the place was always full. And we had two chapels, the Wesleyans and the Primitives. The Primitives is now the greengrocers and the Wesleyan Chapel on Hill Street is now two bungalows. I even remember before the War (WW1) three men in a travelling band. We used to call them the German Band, they played trombones and drums and such like. I remember people came in boats from all over the Fen to walk up the hill to St Nicholas Church. There was a big pond at Story’s end of the village that was part of the Beck that ran under what is now Mulberry Close. I think they used to water the horses there."

Of course there were no houses on the left between the Oak and the Mill in those days. I remember the first houses being built in 1920, I think, at what is now the surgery end of Wilton Road.

When the war started in 1914 all the young men had to go in ‘Kitchener’s Army’. You can see how many we lost on the cenotaph; nearly all who went didn’t come back. The village was practically empty.

On the topic of food and housework, "Everything was home-made you couldn’t get cakes. The only thing you could get was the biscuits which used to be in those big tins and you bought by the half pound or pound. For breakfast we used to have porridge made from the oats grandfather had grown. The men used to kill the pig and cut big slices off the side of a pig that hung from the ceiling. ‘Cause they had them big hearths, there weren’t no coal, everybody used turf and at the end of the day there was a big pail of ash to carry out. But those hearths were lovely and warm; we all sat round in front of the lovely blaze in the big kitchen where we lived. Of course there was poaching to get a stew.

She recalls her "Grandfather taking a sack of corn up to the old mill for grinding. He would then bring back the flour and Grandma would make bread with it. On a Friday Grandma used to make lovely butter with all along the top a row of roses and things she’d done. It used to look lovely. She used to take it to Siers shop and he would sell it and she would take payment in shop things. In those days we only had butter there weren’t no margarine. All home made. The butchers used to sell great big pads of dripping so that the poor could put it on their bread. And those with children used to make a dumpling that needed to be boiled for 20 minutes, came out like a ball of fluff, but if cooked longer they come out flat, that’s the reason they were called 20 minute swimmers.

They were good cooks from the time they could start cooking. Because the women didn’t never go to work outside, they were so busy working in the house in those days they didn’t have time to do anything for anybody else. They’d have washing on Monday, ironing and sewing on Tuesday. They’d have to clean the floors on their hands and knees or with a stiff brush. And the children coming in from school had to be looked after, because they didn’t allow them to run around like they do today. Their husbands who worked with the horses all left off at half past two and their wives had a hot pudding ready for them. Then they’d go back to work. How the women managed to get the great big boilers full of washing off the hearth I don’t know. They used to have to pull them off with the sheets in, then turned round and put the washing into first a big bath of cold water and from there they’d wring them into the next big bath of blue so they’d come out nice and white. If they couldn’t afford a mangle they’d have to wring them with their hands. And of course we never had such a thing as a laundry. They did it all on one day.

I remember the lovely big walnuts all over the Newcombe estate. Every year my husband used to gather a big sweet jar full of walnuts which I used to make into walnut ketchup. You had to catch them exactly right so that the shell inside hadn’t turned woody. It had to caught whilst it was soft enough to stick a needle through otherwise you couldn’t eat them, so he used to take an old knitting needle with him and try them every week when he was out walking. Then gather them, I put them out to dry and then make the ketchup for him. They turned black, fill the jar and pour vinegar and spices over them. I used to make a lot of pickles every year – a jar of pickled red cabbage, one of onions, one of mixed vegetables all in those big jars. They’d last the year. Food was very seasonal.

On how Feltwell has changed. "Look how Feltwell has changed. The roads were made of gravel. They had road sweepers to sweep up where the horses had been. I remember all the lanes. Munsens Lane used to be a lovely green lane with violets growing in the hedge all along and of course all the May blossom in the hedge. Well it’s all gone. You can’t walk along a nice lane and look at the lovely things. I can remember the fens being drowned twice when the banks burst and the water reached the Southery road. For many years you could see marks on some of the houses of how high the water had gone.

Everything changed very slowly. It wasn’t until after the first war when the women had had to be called up to work on munitions and things. Well of course when they came back everything had changed; they weren’t going back to the same way of life they had before they were called up. Things changed altogether. I think this was the biggest change in my 100 years.

Electricity came when the airforce came. People had it put on when they could afford it. Many people didn’t bother with it; they stayed with their candles.

And there we finished, after four hours of conversation, which I found totally fascinating. Charlotte, thank-you very much. Paul.

Back to Times Remembered