Talk to Reg Meredith of Bettisfield.
Dated 3rd June 2014
The changes to Bettisfield in the last 80 years
I was born in 1929 and can remember from 1933 onwards. One big difference I can remember is the traffic. If you saw a car in those days it was an event. I think in those days the only people who had cars were the farmers. The ordinary working class didnít, if you had a car you were somebody. You look around here every day and about every half minute a car goes past. Goodness knows where they go to or where they come from but they go past.
The Jobs available
As far as people working; quite a big industry was on the moss; peat working. It had been done from many hundreds of years by just local people- mallholders mainly. All the local houses were on the Hanmer estate. (Photo of Sir John Hanmer, left) Most were smallholders- the only others were farmworkers cottages. They were tied to the farms and the people in them had to work on that particular farm. The smallholders usually had about 5,10 or 15 acres of land with them. They also had a piece of moss which also belonged to the Hanmer Estate. If you had a smallholding you had a little piece of moss and you were allowed to go and cut your own peat on there. In the village there were also peat cutters. They worked on the farms and they also cut peat as a second job. They used it for fuel. Then a company opened on the moss- I cant tell you the date; and started doing it commercially. They employed quite a lot of people. They were doing it during the wars- I think they were using it for explosives. It was granulated- I believe it was used in the First World War and the Second. It was also used for cattle bedding. It was sent away in bales. When that closed, that side of the work went. Today English Heritage own the moss and they are putting it back to its original form- a peat bog. I havnít been down there for a long time, I donít know what they are doing now.
The other source of work was farmworking obviously. Now a lot of the farms have gone. They donít produce milk, its all coming from Europe. Only 1 or 2 farms are producing milk where there used to be 30 or more. Of the others, quite a few of them are producing grain, potatoes, that type of stuff. Many farms have closed- thatís another change.
In the late 1930s they started to get cars, they started to get popular and people were going to work in the neighbourhood, Shrewsbury, Wrexham and travelling. Like when I was a kid if you wanted a job you had to get on your bike. When I started to work I went to work at the Sentinal at Shrewsbury and served my time there- in 1945 just at the end of the war. I used to bike to Wem to catch the bus every day and that was 6 miles. You wouldnít find anyone biking 6 miles today- they donít know anything about that. The Prime Minister tells us we are all in this together- heís never got up at 6a.m. Ėthey donít understand that sort of thing- and thatís all gone thank goodness. With cars they all started travelling greater distances. I was there until 1950 and then I went into the Air Force, had to do National Service- I did 6 years in lieu of National Service. Then I came out and went back to them- it was Rolls Royce then, and I finished off there. Other people were all travelling by that time. Ellesmere, Wem and the neighbourhood where there were jobs.
I know we never wanted the war but the war did a lot of good for this type of area. It industrialised it. Around Wem there were jobs and there were jobs going at Shawbury, RAF Shawbury. They were all good paid jobs and they were in the area. Years ago they didnít have that- and they couldnít travel. Thatís one thing that has altered quite a bit. Now today- Iíve lived here all my life and I only know a handful of people. There all strangers, from all over the country- well you can get people from all over the world today. Round here they are all British people but they are from miles away. They have a different style of living. When I was a kid we all knew one another- they were virtually related. Iíve always gone to Maunds in Wem- Iíve known him since I was a kid- and I was only saying to Geoff one day- if someone went past, I knew so-and-so and they were related. Now, they are total strangers, even in Wem and Ellesmere. Times have changed completely.
Industries in the area
They made bricks at Fennís bank. Foreign competition killed it -bringing bricks from Holland. This place is built with Dutch bricks. They are not English bricks. They are good bricks but why canít we make them. Its down to wage rises- we lead Europe in wage rises. We had strikes and unions. Well, if it hadnít been for unions we would have been back in Victorian times working for a pint of beer a week or half a pint of milk. Problem is half of this country are rich people and half are doing the work, and it doesnít matter if its communism thatís how it works. Youíve always got the people at the top making money and doing nothing Ė they donít do the work. Thatís how itís always been and always will be.
Photo J.C.Edwards bricks made at Ruabon in the 1960s
The colliery closures didnít affect us much. There was a couple in the village that worked at Ifton. They found other work, one at Ellesmere and he had been a miner all his life. There were a few people in the war worked there- they were directed there by the Ministry of Labour. Probably half a dozen then, but mainly, there was never anyone in the mining business. Ifton closed in the 1970s. It was a big industry round Ruabon- a lot of people from Oswestry worked there. It affects a lot when a mine closes- it affects a lot of people on the top.
On the station, there was only 3 worked- it was only a small station. Two signalman-porters and a station master. Thatís 3 jobs gone- they have closed the signalbox at Wem to run it from Cardiff. I donít trust electronics, especially when run from Cardiff!
The Farms and the mills
There was a windmill at the bottom, the very bottom (of the village). It was always there, Iíve never known it working. I think it was built in 1729 Ė I used to think how did they get any wind here. The other mill, thatís nearby, I cant remember the actual date, thatís 1890 or something. Iíve got a photograph of that somewhere. Thereís a block in the wall with the date on it. Hughes(?) were the people. Philip Hughes was the miller. I think they had been a farming family somewhere, then part of the family turned to the milling side. They used to do flour years ago. I can remember when it closed- in the sixtiesís I think it was. I canít remember the actual date though I could find it. It was well after the last war, and they supplied all the farmers. They had wagons around to deliver all the grain around the farms. They were the same as Wem Mills. The thing that killed that off were the bulk grain carriers. On the farms, where you used to have men to cut the corn and thrash it you have these combine harvesters- you never see the grain- it goes straight out of the combine harvester and its gone. Times have changed there completely. I remember my granddad saying- he was an old farm worker, he had been, on the estate, and this place originally had 3 cottages for farm workers and the one he lived in- he was born in was part of the Cornhill Farm now belongs to the retreat, this Buddhist retreat. He went to work there as a trainee waggoner. He left school when he was 11 he had to go to work to help the family. My great-great grandfather and mother, I think they had 6 children in a 1 up and 1 down house. He left school long before he should do, but then he could read and write. My great grandmother on the other side, on my motherís side, she was a schoolmistress Ė she taught my granddad I think, and her boast was she didnít turn a kid out of school that couldnít read and write at 10. Now, they canít read and write when they are 17.
The shops and produce of the villageThe farms used to sell butter and they all made cheese. Not one type of cheese, they all made their own particular type of cheese. Once a month on turn, each farm would supply a four wheel cart and four horses and they would go round the farms and collect the cheese and butter and take it to the butter market in Shrewsbury, and it was a 2 day trip. They would go today and unload it at the butter market and come back to the Bridgwater Arms at Harmer Hill. They used to stay there overnight and come back the next day. Two day trip. Going to work in the car it used to take me 20 minutes. It was 16 miles from here and my granddad went like an idiot. . Anyway like today, he wasnít satisfied with the money he was getting Ė farmers didnít pay too well- he got married so he went to Ellesmere Port, Port Sunlight- to work on the docks as a waggoner where the money was good, and he worked for the Pricesí candle works for a time- Lever Brothers. Then my Grannie, she couldnít stand the smell of the fat and stuff they were making it from and she was ill all the time and they came back. Then they found the old baker had died, he came to live in the house here and the other people had died so Lord Hanmer, who owned the place, decided to make it into one house and a shop, so they stayed in a cottage down the road until they finished this house off- and they opened the shop- this was in the late 1890s- and there was a baking oven at the back and he used to bake bread and they used to sell pretty well everything. Over the years there have been other people opened shops but they havnít gone for long. They kept going for quite a long time Ė into the sixtirwís, then the vans stated coming round, and supermarkets started and killed the village shops off, and you used to get people coming on a Sunday night and asking Ďhave you got a box of matches- I went to Tesco yesterday and forgot themí You canít keep the shop going- well mother, she ran it when the old people died. She used to do it as a matter of interest rather than making money out of it- she didnít make any money for years out of it. One or two people have opened shops in the village since then.
The village pub
The pub closed in the 1970s- I canít remember the exact date. Years ago, the pub was the only thing In the village. Originally it was a private house. It was built in 1729. What few old houses there were in the village were built around that time. It was opened as a malthouse in the first place, not as a pub. Two ladies from Loppington- I canít remember their names, started it. The canal came through Bettisfield in 1790 and logically, that is when it was turned into a pub. The canal was built by Irish labourers and there was a potato famine in Ireland and they came over here and worked cheap- for a pint of beer for wages or something like that. That Telford was a very great man, he wouldnít have done it today would he? I think the pub was turned into a pub then. One very famous family, the Prestons, were there for a few years in the latter part of the 19thC. And they had this maltkiln- it was still there when I was a kid. There was a big building at the front like a big storehouse- a big warehouse out from the house- must have been 50 yards long-it was a granary. At the house end of it on the upper floor was a recreation room and they called that the club room. Where it got its name from Ė the didnít have National Health Service and they used to have Friends Societies and the one round this area was the Oddfellows Club and all the working folk where in this in case they were taken ill and didnít have any money, and the Oddfellows paid them a little bit of money to keep them alive as they didnít have any National Health. Whether they helped to maintain this room or not- they probably they did. There was a couple of full sized billiard tables in it, and a bagatelle table. They had everything, table tennis and everything- when I was small I can remember it. Over the years this Preston family used to brew their own beer- I can remember their was a big boiler there- a big copper boiler where they used to brew this stuff- and it was canal water they used. It was good water but I wouldnít like to drink it today. They had a filtration plant on the canal bank near the bridge and it was piped from there across to the Nag.
The 'Nags Head' was the building with the creeper in the photo.
They got some of the first mains water really. They brewed their own beer- it was good stuff. This went on and then the Preston people died out- around the turn of the Century and then another family came in and they were there for many years. Round about that time it was bought by Soames Brewery of Wrexham which in turn turned to Border Ales. Border bought Soames out. They didnít do anything at the place- they wouldnít maintain it. Since there was these trading estates came out in the Wrexham area, and where they have trading estates they want pubs and the council would only grant them so many licences so what they did, they took the licences off outlying places and moved them into Wrexham. It needed a lot of modernisation and thatís how it closed. The people who took it over carried on for a while then they finished with it.
The army in the village
In the war, Bettisfield Park was commandeered by the army and it had been an army camp in the first World War Ė Royal Horse Artillery camp- the bit overlooking Hamner Mere. Then in the Second World War the Royal Artillery took the house over as the Headquarters of an anti-aircraft unit. There were quite a few searchlights round this area, searchlights and anti-aircraft guns and sound-detectors that they use. They wernít any good- they scrapped them after a bit -they were supposed to listen for enemy planes but they werenít any good- they only used them for a short while. This was the headquarters from where it was all co-ordinated from. Then later in the war when the Yanks came, they took over all the old First World War camp area as a transit camp. Theyíd come in Ė 4 or 5000 troops would come in over night at Bettisfield station Ė they were under canvas at Hanmer- they would take them up there Ė sort them out where they were going to go to, and they would be gone by next morning. They were in transit. That carried on until the end of the war. They did come down to the village, not a lot, they were not there that long. When we were kids we got to know a few of them. Not for long as they were coming and going. Then again there were airfields around, there was Slepe and another near Wrexham, a nightfighter place. Then of course we were right on the flightpath of the Germans coming to Liverpool. Then we got this thing on the Moss, this decoy business. They never lit it Ė if they had lit it, we would have got it here. They had one at the back of Denbigh- in the hills at Denbigh and they lit that a few times they did and they were bombing nothing Ė they were bombing gorse and it was a good job, and we were all expecting this lot to be lit and it never was. Then again during the day they used it as a bombing range- a bombing and aerial gunnery range and they were flying from Rednal- Spitfires and Mustangs from Rednal and they were flying low over the hedges- they donít know what low-flying is today. A lot got killed you know, more pilots got killed in training than in actual combat. There was one crash down the village, down the bottom of the village.
In World War 1, part of the camp was used for soldiers and part for remounts. The remounts came from the farms and anywhere they could get them from- it was a big industry. So many got killed poor things. They shipped them out by rail. If you go down that driveway to Bettisfield Station to the station house, on the right hand side here was a siding- thatís gone years ago but there was a siding especially for loading horses. It was there until after this last war- recent years. It was there until about 1950 until they filled it in. I remember the track being there, the Americans they didnít use it but it was there. It was used for loading troops and horses.
Sports and activities in the village
When we were young we were always playing football and cricket but now all they do is push buttons on computers. Iíve known quite a few youngsters and you canít get them interested in anything. When I was at the Sentinal, I was an inspector there and I used to have apprentices there Ė at the end I wouldnít have apprentices. They were an absolute pest. Then the bosses would come round and ask Ďwhatís that lad doing lolling on the benchí and they would tell you Ďget him something to doí. You would make themselves look as if you were doing something when you werenít, but they canít do that. You would ask them what they were interested in and they would say Ďnothingí. I canít understand that. When I was a kid we was always interested in making things- I used to make aeroplanes. I was always interested in model engineering, thatís my interest- I still am. I donít know what some of these kids do these days. I wonder how they can get jobs- imagine going to an employer with that attitude in mind.
We had a policeman in the 1950s- Hanmer was the policeman. He used to come by on his push-bike. They were dead scared of him. He went and we went under Overton, I think it comes under Ruabon now. It takes them 2 days to turn up. There hasnít been a police house in Hanmer for a few years now. They come in panda cars now, and they have special constables. You see them come down here occasionally, we are fairly law abiding down here. Mind you, we would never leave anything unlocked when you are not around- I lost 2 hedge cutters 2 or 3 years ago- all these scrap people coming around. Thatís stopped now as they have checks on them and that has stopped it. Stopped them in their tracks- they were not paying any tax on it. Very clever the person who thought of that Ė they were coming around in the daytime and looking around and telling their mates. Then their mates came round at night and pinched it.
Local names in the area.
There is a Clapping Gate nearby but I don't know the meaning of the term. people who lived out there it was an old bargee. It was something to do with the canal but I canít tell you what. I seem to recollect someone telling me what it meant but I cannot remember what. There are names round the Hanmer area I donít know- there is an Arowry round there and I asked a fellow round there if it was where they made arrows and he said not. There is a Big Arowry and a Little Arowry- two different areas. Thereís lots of these things to find out.
If you look at the map you will see a pond by the railway line known as the Gospel Pool. A story connected with it concerns a lady of Bettisfield Hall. The story goes she was trying her wedding dress on and got caught by a candle flame and it caught on fire and she was burned to death. Her ghost haunts the hall there. Iíve heard my granddad say- there was 20 or 30 people working in the house- servants and the like, and there was a chapel, and she was in this chapel and was burned to death. There was a mark on the floorboards where she died, anyway the chapel was sealed off and she haunted this place and it got to the stage where none of the hired workers would go in this place. So they got the rector of Hanmer to exorcise this ghost, and he caught this ghost and put it in a bottle Ė how he got it in the bottle I donít know- but he got it in this bottle and threw it in the pond and itís supposed to have remained there until this day. The pond has been dredged I donít know how many times. Anyway, they got rid of the ghost and everybody was happy again. In recent years, not the current owners but the previous owners Ė he was a farmer Ė Frank Hitchin- he sold it and his son-in-law built a house just this side of the vicarage there and he kept all the land but sold the house. The bloke that bought it was a bone-surgeon from Oswestry. I donít know what happened, but they had so many windows sealed off- due to the window tax- and they had them all unsealed and reworked inside Ė spent a lot of money on it. During this time, I donít know what happened- he and his wife parted Ė anyway he and his new wife opened the chapel out and there was no mark on the floor.
That was the pool that during the big freeze, some village lads went skating on the ice and fell in and drowned.
All photographs in this article, except those of the Nags Head and the bricks, were taken by Reg Meredith. Our thanks to him for permission to reproduce them
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