Fanny Lucretia Wale was the eldest of Colonel Robert Gregory Wale’s seven children. When she was born in 1851 the paint was scarcely dry in the spanking new Shelford Hall which her mother’s money had built. Fanny was 18 years old at the time of her mother’s death. By now Colonel Wale was struggling to make ends meet. He had had the bad luck- or bad judgement- to build his palace just when Parliament was repealing the Corn Laws. In the consequent agricultural depression his income had plummeted, and no tenant would farm his land. So he rented out Shelford Hall and took his unmarried children (including Fanny) to live with him in the Hall Farmhouse in High Street. By 1890 he was able to find a tenant to run Hall Farm. The Colonel then moved with his residual brood to Ivy Cottage, which he rented from a relative. He died there in 1892 , leaving his estate to his only son Robert Foulkes Wale. Robert only survived his father by two years, dying in a flu epidemic at the early age of 31. The estate then devolved on the three unmarried sisters, Fanny, Mildred and Francesca. In the depths of depression such a heavily mortgaged inheritance must have seemed rather a poisoned chalice but the three sisters did their best to follow their father’s benevolently squirearchal role in Little Shelford.
Some 30 years before, Colonel Wale had fitted out a Cottage on Camping Close as a library and lecture room for village use. He had provided books, stationery, and heating and gave lectures himself which seem to have been popular, especially amongst his tenantry. From 1895 to 1908 the sisters followed this example, Francesca producing plays and other entertainments, Mildred teaching craftwork, and Fanny giving drawing lessons. The name Studio Cottage dates from this period.
Another artist now enters the story. Colonel Wood was a Royal Academician no less, a widower who had bought Low Brooms House in the High Street. It was Mildred who he married, but he swept her sisters away with her from Ivy Cottage to live in Low Brooms together.
It cannot be a coincidence that the first items in Fanny Wale’s manuscript are dated from that time- 1908. Colonel Wood’s approbation and encouragement may well have been a factor in applying and keeping her nose to the grindstone. However her project had undoubtedly been gestating for a long time, perhaps as an exercise in nostalgia as she experienced the acceleration of change in the village. This would explain the curious frontispiece to the book captioned “In Memory of the Sounds of Shelford Parva”. A drawing of the King’s Mill as it was with its waterwheel before the 1890’s conversion to steam power has the subjoined couplet: “In Shelford’s vale the millwheel once plied its busy lay/
But now in the dark prison it sleeps dull life away.`”
It suggests yearning for what was being lost as mechanisation and the motor car were taking over.
No such nostalgic vibes come from the book that Fanny came to write in a series of entries between 1908 and 1919 . It is, as the new title indicates, a dispassionate record of Shelford, Little and part of Great, as she saw it just before the Great War. It is descriptive rather than analytical, but we can get an idea of the economy of the village from the delineation of the inhabitants and their occupations. One must read between the lines to imagine the hardship that undoubtedly existed in parts of the village at that time. Despite the orgy of cottage destruction during the 1950’s to 80’s, the village footprint has changed very little since Fanny, so her descriptions of streetscapes are still instantly recognisable. This fundamental interest of the work is of course complemented by the Edwardian charm of its presentation, the text on each page lying within a decorative border in watercolour, and the many talented drawings by Fanny, her sister Mildred and cousin Louisa . The charm is in no way diminished by the eccentricity of spellings in Fanny’s handwritten entries.
Colonel Wood died at the end of the War and in 1919 Fanny closed off her book with a tribute to the village casualties of the conflict. Her sister Francesca , who had spent the duration as a volunteer night superintendent at the American YMCA in London, succumbed to the 1918 ‘Flu epidemic. Fanny (now nearly 70) and Mildred were now alone in Low Brooms. So their niece Norah Cecil Wale Powell came to live with her aunts as companion. Mildred’s death in the twenties left Fanny as sole owner of the Wale estate, and with her death in 1936 this passed to Norah.
(The drawing above is of the Queen's Head in Newton by Fanny Wale.)
The story of Norah Powell’s gift of the Wale Recreation Ground belongs to another occasion, but amongst other things she also presented Fanny’s manuscript to the County Archive (or its predecessor). She retained a photographic copy of it bound up in wooden boards and kept with other Fanny manuscripts in a commodious cloth bag with handles. This she would loan to newcomers to the village with the caveat “ You will have to live in Little Shelford for 25 years before you belong”.
Now thanks to David Martin’s and Ray Saich’s dedicated initiative and effort, with the support of the Parish Council and the Local History Society,we can all have our personal copies of Fanny Wale’s book. All that and the assurance that 25 years residence is no longer required for belonging.