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Little Shelford's bier


The Little Shelford bier
Kent Online coverage from November 2006

From Kent Online 2006
A VILLAGE'S unusual memorial to the dead of The Great War has left Kent and been returned to its rightful home some 100 miles away.

But the bier - a wooden handcart for carrying coffins - left behind a mystery: How did it get to Kent in the first place?

For the last few years it has been used as a fruit stall. Owner Joe Day, from Pembury, near Tunbridge Wells, sold cherries and strawberries from it in Canterbury - and last year even won a prize at the county show.

Neither Mr Day, who obtained it from a friend who bought it at an auction in Tenterden, nor residents of the Cambridgeshire village where it began its life, have a clue how the distinctive and historic bier reached Kent.

The story began nearly 90 years ago in the village of Little Shelford, on the River Cam, a few miles from Cambridge.

Back in 1918 communities across the country were seeking ways to commemorate the sacrifice of those who failed to return from the First World War.

In Little Shelford, veterans who survived the so-called "war to end all wars" and the widows and families of those who didn’t, decided to provide the village with a bier as a fitting memorial to the dead.

Among them was the village’s own war hero, Sid Dockerill, a Sergeant in the Cambridgeshire Regiment, who won the Military Medal for leading a bayonet charge on The Somme.

Sid survived and returned home to become the grave digger at the parish church of All Saints where, for decades, villagers used the bier to transport coffins to the church.

As time went by it was used less frequently, eventually disappearing from village life altogether in about 1980.

Then, earlier this year, someone heard it had been up for sale on Ebay, the internet auction site, and the quest began to bring it back home.

Kentish-born Marjorie Westbrook, a Little Shelford resident for 50 years, opened negotiations with Mr Day.

And the happy ending came in Collier Street, near Tonbridge, on Tuesday when the bier, being stored in a shed in Green Lane, was collected by two villagers.

It still has a brass plaque attached to its side saying: "Presented to the village by the ex-servicemen of Little Shelford in memory of their comrades fallen in the years 1914 - 1918.”

Mr Day said: "It's been a lucky barrow for me. I've sold lots of cherries and strawberries from.

"I knew it was special. When I had it converted for use as a fruit stall I made sure it was not damaged with nails or screws."

Mr Day, in his late 60s, said: "When I decided to slow down a bit I stored it away until I could sell it.

"A firm of undertakers was interested because of its historical significance but I thought it was right for it to go back to the place where it belongs."

Little Shelford Local History Society chairman Ray Saich, who collected it with fellow villager Simon King, said: "The village is delighted to have the bier back where it belongs."

Village organisations and residents, who are once again clubbing together to pay the cost for the return of their lost and found memorial, plan to hold a welcome home party.

David Martin,
15 Feb 2012, 05:49