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Life at Little Shelford Hall

I have been asked to write down some of my father’s memories of growing up at the Hall in Little Shelford, to coincide with the 90th anniversary of its destruction by fire in February, 1929. 

My father, John Altham, (pictured on the left in the photo when he was Chairman of the Parish Council) was born in 1909 and lived first in Cowes, where his father was a naval officer. His beloved sister Psyche was born in 1912. Unfortunately their parents became estranged and with their mother, Fiorella, they came to live at the Lodge midway through the First World War. They were invited by Isa Eaden, John and Psyche’s great aunt, who lived at the Hall with her husband Jack Eaden, a solicitor and partner of Eaden Spearing and Raynes in Cambridge. 

Even before they moved to the Hall the grounds and garden delighted the children. “We had the free run of the lovely garden surrounding the Hall where Aunt Isa and Uncle Jack lived. The mysterious grandeur of the Hall with its servants, its houses, the old mulberry tree, strawberry beds, peaches on the wall, the apple loft, pigs in their pens, chickens running around the stable yard, the big dog kennel with Bess, the shooting black retriever, always so excited to be talked to, the orchard running down to the river - and THE RIVER - the greatest excitement of all!” 

There were horses kept in the stables, hunters for Jack Eaden and others for the pony and trap (a duckboard). Harry Want was one of the grooms and became one of my father’s oldest friends. William (Billy) Wisbey was another groom and gardener and he and John would aim at the two bells on the roof of the Hall with their airguns - with only limited success! “

The kitchen garden was a thrill too. Walled in, it had everything, including two strange pits about four feet square and two feet deep, with wooden covers over them, as a spare water supply for hand watering cans. These were inhabited by enormous toads, quite frightening for children! The green houses, full of exotic plants for the house, were heated by coke boilers and enormous iron pipes running under the staging, and they smelled as only green houses fully furnished can smell - quite delicious.” 

To come back to the river! John and Psyche were allowed to take the punt out on the river on their own, sometimes going out all day, going up past the Manor House into the open fields towards Hauxton, or up towards the Mill, where they would swim in the Weir. Swimming and diving in the Weir was considered safe as the water was clear - unlike the Perch Hole which was deep and murky. (Now marked “Deep water”.) They would fish in the river “which abounded with wild life, with birds, butterflies, rabbits, moorhens and very special - the kingfishers. (A word about the punt. It was made by the local builder, Mr Walker, father of the Walker Brothers who went on to build so much in Little Shelford.) 

In 1923 Jack Eaden died and Aunt Isa invited John, Psyche and Fiorella to live with her in the Hall to keep her company. 

When Jack died, Isa enjoyed a busy social life (he had been rather austere). There were tennis parties, an annual cricket match against the village XI, an annual pageant, where one year my father and his sister were dressed as miniature green flies! Psyche, a talented dancer, would dance for dinner guests on the lawn “in the lights of Uncle Barry Willis’s car!” 

This idyllic life came to an end in 1929 when the Hall was tragically burnt down. Isa and the family were in Cambridge at the time, living in Brookside where they spent the winters - the Hall being too costly to keep warm. The Hall was rented to some cousins. Legend has it that some sticks which had been left to dry in front of a stove caught fire. Because of a thick fog the fire engines couldn’t arrive in time to save the house.

I believe that my father’s great affection for the village stemmed from the marvellous years spent first at the Lodge and then at the Hall. In his mémoires he writes more intimately and in more detail of his life there, but I hope that this account will offer a glimpse of what it was like for a small boy and his beloved sister to grow up in such a wonderful and privileged world - which he always appreciated as such, being endlessly thankful to Aunt Isa for all she gave him and his family.

Jane Lagesse
February 2019
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