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Sally, Thank You Very Much for telling your tales and letting us share them with everyone.
Emrys Williams, 17 May 2012.
Sally Abbiss died on Saturday 6 May 2017. She was 96.
Sally’s funeral was at Eversholt Church on Friday, 19 May 2017, at 3 pm. The church was full.
Sally is greatly missed.
Sally’s Story – or is it Phoebe?
Sheila and I dropped in on our next door neighbour, Sally, to hear her tales of a life in Eversholt. Sally or Phoebe? Actually, she’s known by both names. Some people call her Sally and some call her Phoebe, and at least one habitually calls her SallyPhoebe. Sheila and I usually call her Sally, but I’m going to call her Phoebe here and explain why later!
Phoebe was born Phoebe Florence Townsend in Bedford in 1920. Her father was Richard Townsend, a pattern maker at the W H Allen foundry there. Richard worked at the foundry when they were making the generators for the Titanic. Richard married Florence Mary Morgan in 1911. Bert was born in 1916, Phoebe Florence in June 1920, and Eric in 1922. They lived in a small terraced house in Queen’s Park. Phoebe went to Queen’s Park Elementary School when she was not quite 5 years old, and stayed there until she was 11. She didn’t pass the scholarship exam for Dame Alice, much to her father’s dismay, but did move up to Harpur Girls’ Central School from 11 to 15.
Phoebe was first a Girl Guide and then a Sea Ranger.
At 15, Phoebe left school and started work in the office of Wells of Bedford, a “high class” furniture store opposite St Paul’s Church. For the first year, she was paid 10 shillings a week – that’s 50 pence. The second year, she was given a 25% raise – to 12/6d, 62.5 pence a week. That was in 1936. Even then, it was poor reward, and Phoebe was very jealous of her friend Irene who worked at Igranic, maker of Electrical switchgear, for £1 a week. When the Meltis Chocolate factory in London Road advertised for an 18-year-old to work in their cost office, Phoebe applied, although she was only 17; she got the job, and the £1.10 a week wages that went with it. Meltis made Newberry Fruits, still in production now by another company (Meltis went broke in 1996), and many other lines, as well as supplying wholesale chocolate to other manufacturers. It was at Meltis that Phoebe Florence turned into Sally. The girl on the next desk said that Phoebe looked like her friend Sally, so she was going to call her Sally. No amount of protest shifted the nickname and it’s lived with her ever since, despite vigorous assertions that she is really Phoebe. Some people call her Sally and some call her Phoebe, especially her family.
Phoebe stayed at Meltis when war broke out in 1939, although chocolate was no longer a priority. Then when she was 21, in April 1942, she moved to the Land Army. Phoebe was a Land Girl!
It was a real wrench and a shock for dainty and civilised young women from the costing office to be thrown into the muck and hard graft of unmechanised farm work. Phoebe and her friend Kath went to live in a hostel in Leighton Buzzard, to be sent wherever farm labour was needed. Her first posting was for two weeks with the Watson family in Woburn, moving sheaves in a barn, which was exhausting and painful. The girls did everything and anything, hoeing, planting, harvesting, pulling mangels, muckspreading. Muckspreading then involved taking piles of manure from the animals with a cart and dumping it on the field, and then carrying the muck and spreading it around the field with a fork, hard and smelly work.
Whipsnade zoo was largely ploughed up for crops, and Phoebe moved there and had a great time. They planted wheat and barley. The barley could be unpleasant because it has barbs on the end which scratch and stick to everything. A machine would cut the crop and bind it into sheaves. Farmhands like Phoebe would walk along behind and stack it up into stoops where the grain dried. They built larger ricks, too, although Phoebe couldn’t throw the sheaves to the top when the ricks became tall.
While they were living a the Leighton Hostel, Phoebe could visit home in Bedford at weekends, as long as it wasn’t harvest time, but it was a long and expensive bus journey. A new hostel was built at Elstow, near Chimney Corner between Ampthill and Bedford, and Phoebe and her friend Kath moved there. That made visiting home much easier, it was 6 miles by bike.
In 1943, Phoebe had been made the boss of a threshing gang of Land Girls. The threshing machine was powered by a big long belt from a steam traction engine. A husband and wife team ran the engine, Alf and Freda Vass. Phoebe stood up on the machine and was passed the sheaves, she cut the binding on each sheaf and fed it in. Grain came out one end of the machine, straw the other. The team was working on the Burton farm in Tingrith, still run by Peter and Diana Burton today. Peter was 13 when Phoebe was there the first time! One day, Freda nudged Phoebe and drew her attention to the chap just arrived. It was Geoff Abbiss, come from his father’s farm in Flitwick to see when the team were going to be arriving. It wasn’t love at first sight – Phoebe’s first words to Geoff were, “Don’t forget our threshing rations,” extra food the team were due. Geoff was sufficiently struck by this directness to relate the story at their golden wedding party over fifty years later.
Geoff was exempt from military service, as a key farm worker, although he did go once a week to stay up all night watching for fires. Phoebe says they didn’t get to hear very much about what was going on in the war, everything was kept very secret. Geoff was very keen on Phoebe and cycled over to Elstow for dates. At Michaelmas 1945, Geoff was able to rent Granham Farm in Rads End from the Bedford Estate. As soon as he heard he had the farm, he proposed to Phoebe, and they were married in January 1946.
That was a big change for a girl from a terraced house in Bedford! The farmhouse was much larger. It had mains electricity and piped water, but no mains sewerage and only an outside loo. They added an indoor bathroom in 1952. The farm wasn’t big enough, maybe 34 acres, so Geoff rented more land round about, including the land around Birdcatcher’s Cottage on the Woburn Road. There were Friesian cattle, pigs, and arable crops too. Their wedding present from the Burtons in Tingrith was a Friesian calf! The pigsties and the milking parlour at Granham farm were eventually replaced by houses, just as the chicken sheds have been a generation later. They had no tractor, but did have a big shire horse called Blossom. It was very hard work!
Phoebe and Geoff’s children were all born while the family was living at Granham, and brought up there. John arrived first, then Richard, then Sally (real-Sally, not nickname-Sally). All the children went to Eversholt School. Phoebe remembers Cecil Brett, the baker, delivering fresh bread to the farm every day. Geoff went to Ted Jarvis, the butcher, to fetch meat which Phoebe remembers being very high quality. Some groceries came from the village shop, but more came from Woburn. Mr Peacock, who worked in the grocer’s, Dudeney and Johnston’s, which is now the Woburn Post Office, would cycle all over to take orders for groceries, then one or two days later would cycle back with the delivery.
Back in 2002, at the Royal Golden Jubilee, Phoebe talked about her memory of Coronation Day in 1953. “Coronation Day was very wet and miserable. I remember a fete being held on the Recreation Ground. There was a competition for decorated small vehicles and I remember we filled a wheelbarrow with red, white and blue flowers and draped it in similar paper round the sides. It did look pretty! John pushed this and we came second. I don’t remember much about the evening. The men had painted lots of jamjars red, white and blue and stuck candles in them and hung them round the rec but the rain put them out. I do remember going to Vernon and Joan Collings’ house (near the school) for a small party but forgot the time and was rather late home. Sally was only six weeks old and was crying for her feed. My mother who was babysitting was rather cross with me!”
The milk from the herd of Friesians at Granham was put into churns and Geoff carted it over to Flitwick every day. Later, a truck would call to pick up the churns. Phoebe remembers making butter, skimming the cream from the milk in large flat pans, and patting the butter to knock it into shape and force the liquid out. In fact, she still has the butter pats today, in her kitchen, in case they’re needed.
The family spent 15 years at Granham. One day, Phoebe saw two men walking up the drive. It was the Duke and W C Williams, negotiating to sell the farm. The Duke wanted to downsize, and Mr. Williams wanted a place in the country. He was a London property developer. He bought a large estate from the Duke, all in one go, about 1960. The estate included many houses in Eversholt, including Berrystead, and a large area of farmland, including Granham Farm, and the remainder today is still called Eversholt Estate. WC Williams sold off various pieces of this land – including Granham Farm. Geoff and Phoebe couldn’t keep it. However, WC Williams also now owned Church Farm, in the centre of Eversholt. Mr and Mrs Woodland, who ran Church Farm, wanted to give it up, so Geoff and Phoebe rented it and moved in to Church End. They were sad to leave Granham but Church Farm was a beautiful big house, renovated specially so they could move in, a lovely place to live.
That was around 1960, and they kept on running a mixed farm. However, the terrible winter of 1963 brought hardship and struggle. It was one of the coldest winters ever. The children had to hunt through the snow for the lambs and bring them in to Phoebe. She dried them off, gave them a teaspoon of gin (!) and wrapped them in warm towels in the bottom of the Rayburn, to live or die as best they could. The winter was a big setback and eventually Geoff went to see WC Williams to tell him they couldn’t carry on. That brought a surprising outcome; W C Williams would take over the farming and Geoff would be his farm manager, getting a salary.
Phoebe says that Mr Williams was very good to the Abbisses, and that Geoff liked him a lot. Their mutual respect carried on to the end of their lives.
WC Williams initially bought the Eversholt Estate for shooting at weekends. It was a posh affair. There was a chauffeur, John Collinson. Mr Williams and his wife would come down from London to stay the weekend at Berrystead, and guests would come for the shooting. Geoff was always involved in seeing that the shoot ran smoothly. Phoebe remembers that Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles and Lord Romsey (Mountbatten’s grandson) were there at various times.
Phoebe and the family lived 15 years at Church Farm, then moved to Berry End Farm in June 1976. Phoebe remembers the time as very happy, disrupted only by the diagnosis of daughter Sally with an illness that needed complicated chemotherapy at Mount Vernon Hospital in the 1970s. Still, daughter Sally left Berry End Farm to marry [at Eversholt Church?] in 1976 and gave Phoebe two fine grandchildren, Emma and Matt. Matt is carrying on the family tradition as a farmer now.
Geoff retired, and he and Phoebe moved to Tyrells End in April 1986, the house where Phoebe still lives. This was yet another property bought by WC Williams from the Duke. Before Phoebe moved in there, it was two separate cottages, but now has become one larger house. Geoff was still very much involved in the running of the Eversholt Estate. He eventually gave up being on the Parish Council after 48 years, being presented with an engraved platter in thanks for his sterling service. Geoff died, aged 81, in April 2000.
Phoebe is still going strong. She gave up driving when she was 91 – “The car was getting very old, it couldn’t keep going much longer.” She says her family are very close, and she sees son Richard and son-in-law Martin every day, and John when he travels down every fortnight. “I tell Martin he’s just an extra son, now.” And although we all mourn daughter Sally’s death six years ago, there is a new bit of the family, Rosie and Chelsea, to grow close now.