Paperback: 208pp

Published: Eye Books (November 2022)

ISBN: 9781785633683

Melford Memories

Ernest Ambrose

£9.99

50th Anniversary Edition

Foreword by Ashley Cooper

‘A damned entertaining read’ – Andrew Clarke

Born a stone’s throw from the church and educated at the village school, Ernest Ambrose was brought up to respect God, his parents, Long Melford’s two local squires and the rector.

That didn’t mean rural Suffolk life in the nineteenth century was quiet. Poaching was rife, the excesses of the Whitsun fair were an annual highlight, and young Ernie’s friends risked their necks to master the new-fangled ‘high bikes’, or penny farthings.

He witnessed the legendary street-battle when factory workers from neighbouring Glemsford stormed the village, the violence only quelled by a bayoneted militia. With the rest of his generation, he went off to the First World War. And, as the church organist in another nearby village, he heard at first hand the accounts of the hauntings that would make Borley Rectory a nationwide media sensation.

Looking back in his tenth decade, he describes a vanished world of rural customs and culture with wit, intelligence and a freshness of observation that have made Melford Memories – now reissued on the 50th anniversary of its first publication – a much-loved Suffolk classic.

Extracts

I wondered why ma got me up so early. I usually had to stay in bed till pa had gone to work; but on this special day I was told to get dressed in my best clothes. My face was scrubbed at the kitchen pump, my boots were smeared with blacking, and I was hustled along to have breakfast with father. “You’re going to school today,” said Ma. “You’re three now and it’s high time you started. You can go down with pa on his way to work.” So that was the meaning of all the fuss. Pushing my floppy cap well over my head and ears as well, and giving me a quick kiss as if of apology, Ma sent me off to school.

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Extracts

I wondered why ma got me up so early. I usually had to stay in bed till pa had gone to work; but on this special day I was told to get dressed in my best clothes. My face was scrubbed at the kitchen pump, my boots were smeared with blacking, and I was hustled along to have breakfast with father. “You’re going to school today,” said Ma. “You’re three now and it’s high time you started. You can go down with pa on his way to work.” So that was the meaning of all the fuss. Pushing my floppy cap well over my head and ears as well, and giving me a quick kiss as if of apology, Ma sent me off to school.

We lived in a cottage in Church Row, so the journey was not a long one. We walked down the road to the Black Lion and crossed over where the roads from Cambridge, Bury and Sudbury converge. At the top of the Green was a busy old fashioned shop presided over by Mr. John Spilling and his family. He was already out there sweeping the cobbled forecourt. “Mornin’ Mr. Spilling,” said Pa. “Mornin’ John.” I was bursting to tell him I was going to school, but even at my tender age I had already learnt that small boys must not speak until spoken to, so I held my peace.

Opposite Mr. Spilling’s Old Top Shop on the corner of the Green were two remaining plinths of the old market cross, which had been destroyed during the Commonwealth. I loved to sit on these thick stones and watch the horses and carts and carriages go by and see all the interesting people on the road as well as the cattle and other animals grazing on the Green. This morning there was only a little donkey tethered to a post and a drover with a herd of cows grazing. Pa went on steadily down the casey (causeway) alongside the Green and I perforce had to run a little now and then to keep up with him.

We soon arrived at the village school and I was thrust inside without much ceremony. Pa produced the one penny for a week’s education and I was duly established in our local seat of learning.

Memories of my first day at school are somewhat dim, but as it is now ninety-one years ago perhaps I may be forgiven. However I do remember my teacher, Miss Syborn. She was very kind and gentle to me, as I was a new boy I suppose. She squeezed me in on the front bench, telling the other children not to push me. She seemed very big and stately, but this was probably accentuated by the fact that she wore a long black dress which swept the floor and rustled a great deal, and a stiff high-necked blouse with lots of ruffles about it. Her hair was piled up high and finally came to a point, and I spent much time wondering however she managed to keep it that way. As I was a small boy for my age she seemed to tower above me from a great height, and I looked up to her with awe and respect. She had a bustle which stuck out at the back and some of the boldest pupils would dare one another to tiptoe behind her and gently place a slate pencil on this protuberance. I thought this a very bold act!

I was very happy at school as I knew quite a lot of the children, especially those who came from my end of the village. The school windows were high so our attention was not distracted. The brick walls were all decorated with educational and scriptural texts and pictures. The blackboard was the chief aid to learning, combined with the constant repetition at the top of our voices of the Creed and Catechism, the Ten Commandments and scriptural texts, the alphabet and multiplication tables.

It was a church school and the rector, the Rev. Martyn or one of his two curates, visited the school every Friday to give us lessons on the Bible and hear us recite our texts. Religious knowledge, strict obedience and the three R’s were the foundation of our learning, in that order, followed when we were older by history, geography and nature study. The continuous chanting of so many facts was a hopeless mumbo-jumbo to me at first, but gradually light dawned and I began to see what it was all about and enjoyed finding out more.

The chief aim seemed to be to give children sufficient education to carry on the life of the village, which was at that time a self-contained unit. Very few ventured outside the parish boundaries to earn a living in those early days. They mostly stayed in their own neighbourhood and started work as soon as they could to add to the family’s slender exchequer. The school authorities were not too strict about attendance and if any child was wanted to work in the fields during the week they didn’t make much fuss so long as the penny was paid every Monday morning. This charge was later raised to twopence and later still to fourpence.

Discipline was stern when I was a boy and the cane was used somewhat freely. Quite small children were made to stand in the corner facing the wall for some slight misdemeanour; the girls having to put their pinnies over their heads and the boys “hands on head”. In the Big Boys the more unruly ones (or those whose sums wouldn’t go right) had to stand in the corner holding a pile of slates on their head.

Our head master, Mr. J. Phillips, was a learned man and a very good teacher. Though he was a strict disciplinarian we all liked and respected him. We felt we could always rely on him being fair. If we did wrong we knew we would be punished and we accepted this as just; and in this matter he always had the backing of our parents. We were brought up to respect (or honour was the word usually used) God, our parents, our teachers and especially the two squires of the village and the rector, who were the appointed leaders of our little community.

There was a comfortable family feeling about our school and the village too. We felt we all belonged to one another. We all knew each other and the teachers lived in close proximity to our homes, so they had good knowledge of our home life and family background. The strong moral teachings instilled in us produced a firm foundation and a clear understanding of right and wrong, and in consequence the school was remarkably free from dishonesty both in word and deed, and swearing was never allowed. The only time I had a whack on the hand from teacher’s cane was when a prim little girl in a stiff white pinny decorated with an abundance of goffered frills (a sure sign of opulence) and with a lot of bobbing ringlets, dared me to say a swear word to her. I promptly said Damn! Then she told teacher I had sworn at her. For a long time after that I hated little girls, especially those with ringlets; but I never swore again – at least not in school!

I saw this same little girl in the Top Shop a few days later, jam jar in hand, asking for “a pen’oth a golden syrip which poor people calls trickle”. When I told ma about it she said, “The stuck up bit of a mawther.”

Boys and girls were segregated from an early age, and certainly after the age of seven when we went up into the Big Boys or Big Girls. But even as infants we usually sat in our own groups except for needlework when the girls had to sew long seams of tiny stitches and the boys had to knit. I can still recall my feeble efforts at this art. The girls were instructed to cast on and do a few rows of knitting for the boys. You could very easily see where the girls left off and the boys took over, and mine was no exception! But I did excel at one subject at school and that was music. We had singing lessons with tonic sol fa, and this came easily to me. I suddenly felt I had music inside me which wanted to come out and I revelled in it.

As we got older we were allowed to use slates and pencils. The agonising squeaks these produced made me squirm. I can’t imagine what it must have meant to teacher. When we went up into the Big Boys we were allowed to use pen and ink. For this purpose we had copy books, which were precious as they were in short supply. In them were printed in copperplate writing various proverbs which we had to reproduce in similar copperplate style. I can still remember my laborious efforts in those early days, and still remember many of the proverbs:

Do not grasp too much or you may lose all.

Waste not, want not.

Look before you leap.

The wise man looking at the stars fell into a ditch.

I always thought the last one very funny. But as a result of our laborious and much repeated efforts to write “proper” these precepts became firmly fixed in our minds. They all seemed very good sense to me.

We had plenty of reading and spelling lessons and were taught very thoroughly to read and pronounce words correctly, but once we got outside we lapsed immediately into our own native dialect, and most of our h’s were dropped on the school doorstep. We almost spoke two different languages.

Among the villagers at that time speech was slovenly and lazy. There was so much illiteracy that folk didn’t know how words were spelt, or if they did they were too lazy to pronounce them properly. Their vocabulary, often spattered with mispronounced Biblical quotations, was slow and ponderous, as often happens to people who live in small or isolated communities. It was far easier to say “Thass-wa-a allus-saay” than to enunciate clearly “That is what I always say”. It rolls smoothly off the tongue and there is something very pleasant about the sound.

Those in authority, however, did their best to improve education among the older folk in the village, and they organised little gatherings of people to hear Penny Readings. These were held in our school in the evenings and were conducted usually by one of the Rev. Martyn’s charming daughters. A selection from Dickens’ works was the most popular reading and the meeting would be concluded by an extract from a “good book” of an edifying nature.

My grandmother used to go to these Penny Readings and would call on mother on her way home to tell her about them, and laugh and talk about the people there, retailing the latest bits of village gossip over a dish of tea. Sometimes these readings would be held at the rectory in the parish room and a full house was always guaranteed on these occasions as a cup of tea and a biscuit would be thrown in.

quotes

‘Ernest was an intelligent and articulate man who witnessed nearly a century of change in the region. His wonderful reminiscences cover all aspects of village life from poaching to bell-ringing. To anyone interested in our local history it is essential, if only because it’s such a damned entertaining read’

Andrew Clarke

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ABOUT

Ernest Ambrose

Ernest Ambrose was born in Long Melford, Suffolk in 1878, the son of a foreman at the local coconut matting factory. Ernest worked as clerk in the same factory then worked variously for a local solicitor, as housing manager for the district council and as parish council clerk, before running a general store in the village from 1950 until his retirement in 1967. His second wife Emily helped him set down his vivid, witty memories of 19th- and early 20th-century rural life, which were originally published in 1972, in Ernest’s 95th year. He died in 1973.

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