Category Archives: People

A tribute to John Sapsford and Rivers Orchard

2008 john sapsford in his later years sHello,

Currently I am preparing the second of two articles about John Sapsford (1922 – 2010) a local history luminary who wrote about Sawbridgeworth and High Wych.

In his later years John was active in promoting the Rivers Orchard Project.  The importance locally of Rivers Nursery (1725 – 1987) cannot be underestimated.  John Sapsford  collaborated intensely with Elizabeth Waugh, author of “THE ART OF PRACTICAL POMOLOGY, THE HISTORY OF RIVERS NURSERY, a book I cannot recommend enough.                                                                                                  Elizabeth came up with the below tribute:

For a number of years, I enjoyed working with John afternoons in his bright sitting room. I was attempting to pull together the facts that would form the basis for writing of the rise and fall of Rivers Nursery, one of the most important in terms of employment and prestige and certainly the longest surviving of local businesses. John was a fount of local knowledge in the best possible sense: he gloried in the accurate recording of events, having a positive attitude to assembling mundane facts in chronological order, in bearing witness to his times from his place in them. Unlike many writers he did not choose to aggrandise himself. He seemed to take pleasure from paying attention in an intelligent manner and noting what he observed.

Although he focused on several other subjects too, his relation to the Rivers Nursery is a good example of his skills. His father was one of the long-term employees of the company which at its height in the early 20th century employed up to 300 people – but one who rose to be manager. John never worked for Rivers but in addition to being a good archivist of his father’s documents, he was quietly collecting information as he grew up and went to work for other employers. As John witnessed the prosperous times and the decline of the business as well as the eventual rebirth of Rivers Orchard as a local heritage, he was there at a crucial period. In his later years, he found time in his industrious way to make notes and take pictures and to share them with all who were interested.

His efforts can be valued for being comprehensive and his own modesty allowed him to see the people and events he walked through without bias. His quiet achievements and accurate knowledge certainly underpinned the efforts to preserve the memory of Rivers Nursery, in its way the embodiment of the rural Sawbridgeworth that is so quickly disappearing.

Elizabeth Waugh

The below picture, taken on 1st September 2016 shows Rivers Orchard in its full glory.  It is good the Orchard has been saved!


John Sapsford, the Sapsfords, the Burys and the Birds

Currently I am preparing publication of an article based on the writings of John Sapsford.  As some of you may know already, John Sapsford (1922 – 2010)  wrote extensively about the history of High Wych and Sawbridgeworth.  I received a lot of help from John’s daughter, Wendy Oxborough who supplied me with some lovely photographs. Amongst those is the below  picture taken in 1907 at the wedding of Alice Sapsford and Walter Bird. Perhaps some of your ancestors are in it as well!

1907 wedding of alice sapsford to walter bird

According to John Sapsford’s writings the people in the above photograph are:

Backrow left to right: Frank Bury, Susanna Thurgood, Percy Saban, Harry Tucker, William Bird, George Childs, Emma Thurgood, Nellie Thurgood, William Sapsford, Jim Eaton, Bertha Rickett, Minnie Rickett.

Middle row left to right: Lilian Bury, May Tucker, Louisa Sapsford, Walter Bird, Alice Bird, Alfred Sapsford, Liza Saban.

Bottom row left to right: Leonard Thurgood, Harold Thurgood, William Bury, George Rickett, Emily Tucker, Arthur Sapsford, William Rickett.

Talk to you soon. Best regards,  Theo

The High Wych Gang reunited

The below picture was sent to me by Eric Willison,  Readers of my articles may remember a group of (then) young people members of a local  youth club who were also involved in plays in the village hall.  The High Wych “gang” also often met in the upstairs room at the Hand and Crown.

HIGH WYCH GANG 2015Recently the meanwhile older (and wiser?) gang members met at the Manor of Groves Hotel. I am told they do not mind this photograph being posted here.  Rasing their glasses are:   Back row left to right: Eric Willison, Bob Springham, John Springham, Rosemary Felstead née Springham, Sandra Lant née Helmer,  Carol Springham née Cutting,  Bob Lant, Alec Felstead and Fred Morris.  Front row: Chris Bullock , Sonia Willison née Towers, Ann Morris née Buckley and finally Janet Springham née Needham.      Hand & Crown & High Wych Youth c1960 s

I can’t resist contrasting this with a picture from the olden days!

Percy Wilson’s passing

The second world war brought hard times to our village. By January 1941, many men were away fighting. Many families had evacuee children from London’s East End staying with them. The presence of a number of airfields also caused problems in our region. There was still talk of a coming invasion. Amidst all that, “normal life” had to carry on. Most of the men staying behind were agricultural workers whose job was essential for the war effort. They engaged in hard physical  graft.

hw 40 percy wilson

Percy with his horses at Actons

Percy Wilson, originally from Langley in Essex moved to High Wych from Sawbridgeworth in 1938 with his wife Beryl and children. There was twenty years between the oldest and the youngest child. Percy had found work as a horse keeper with Wilfred Mynott at Actons farm and accommodation for his family in a cottage next to the farm.  By 1941 the oldest Wilson child,Raymond was away in North Africa fighting with Montgomery’s eighth army, and two of the older girls were “in service”. Father Percy was indeed excused military service because of the farm work he did.

On the 21st of January the weather was awful. There had been snow recently which prevented the children from going to school. The clouds hung low when father Percy left for work. He had to take a cart with two horses and a load of manure over to Great Pennys, a farm just up the road. The idea was to meet a fellow worker from that farm, Ken Clarke, who was coming towards him, exchange carts and then return to their respective farms. As they met, two thirds of the way between Great Pennys and Actons, at 11.45 that morning, bombs were dropped from a German aircraft.
The aircraft was one of a convoy that had set out that morning in order to bomb Cambridge.  After the failure of the Blitz, the nazis engaged in the infamous “Baedeker offensive” and  targeted cities of cultural importance literally picking them from a tourist guide.  Baedeker is of the course the name of Germany’s best known travel book series.                                                                                                                         Because of the bad weather however the pilots turned back and, as they often did, dropped their bombs “just anywhere” in order to lighten their load and get home more quickly. It just happened to be in our parish, on that particular road, at that particular time.
The bombs fell on and exploded right beside the two farm workers and their horses. Ken Clarke lost his hearing as a result but poor Percy Wilson came off worse. Several pieces of shrapnel pierced through his body causing severe injury. The horses were also hit by shrapnel and although Mr Wilson was badly injured he was still most concerned for the animals under his care. Eventually an ambulance came and he was taken to the Herts and Essex hospital at Bishops Stortford. There,three days later at 6.20 in the afternoon Percy Wilson died from his injuries. Two of the horses meanwhile had to be put down.

hw 41 chris mynott's diary pages january 1941 1aPercy’s fate made a great impression  ion High Wych locals, not least  those living and working at Actons.  Young Chris Mynott,  son of  farmer Wilfred, the owner, fifteen years old at the time recorded it in  his diary, see above and below.

hw 41 chris mynott's diary pages january 1941 2bThis left Percy’s widow Beryl on her own with the task of bringing up the children. She found herself without a place to live. Luckily alternative accommodation was offered to her by the Buxton family, then owners of the big house at the Manor of Groves. There were vegetables from the garden and every now and then a rabbit. Eventually Beryl remarried. After the war, together with her new husband she moved into bigger and better accommodation in Mansfield. Beryl’s new husband was the local postman and a widower himself with a young son. That son, Colin, would eventually marry one of the Wilson daughters : Mary.  Colin and Mary were  together for 58 years. Sadly Mary (nicknamed Pixie) passed away in November 2013.

road at actonsThe road near Great Pennys where ………………

On a bright sunny Tuesday morning in the summer of 2012,  I had the privilege of talking to 5 of the surviving Wilson children; they are older now of course but all are still very active indeed. The memory of their dead father is a dear but distant one. Peggy remembers how on that fateful 21st of January the children hid under the table and how the sounds of the aircraft outside frightened them. The others  tell me about their long walk to school in High Wych along the lanes and how they sometimes had to hide in the ditches as the Heinkel and Junkers bombers flew over. Mostly however, their memories are positive. They tell me how their mother had a beautiful soprano voice and was a member of the High Wych and District Choral Society. Above all they made clear how despite all the hardship they look back on the years of their youth with fondness.

hw 65 hw silver lining club concert party b

Beryl Jackson (on right holding doll) in happier days : during a “silver lining concert party”

Information from this article was supplied by Dawn Evans, Peggy Holden, Mary Jackson, Gill Turner, (all 4 nee Wilson), Geoff Wilson, Colin Jackson and Lily Mynott, As always, contributions to and help with this continuing History of High Wych are always welcome. Please get in touch. Contact me at or phone me at 01279 725468


9 – Valentine Fane

This article is written about and dedicated to Miss Fane, a grand and eccentric lady. Many older people in East Hertfordshire still remember her. For that very reason it has been very difficult to separate fact from fiction. Sadly I have been unable to talk to some primary sources. If as a result, inaccuracies have crept in to what is written below, I apologise beforehand.

Valentine Cecil Fane was born on the 30th January 1893 in Nazeing Essex, the daughter of Cecil Fane and Alice Goddard. Related to the Earl of Westmoreland, she came from a privileged and wealthy background. Her grandfather, John William Fane was an MP, a Justice of the Peace and a deputy lieutenant of Oxfordshire who married four times. The ancestral home of the Fanes was Wormsley Park in Oxfordshire, later the home of John Paul Getty, now the home of his son Mark Getty. Valentine’s father Cecil Fane was an Eton-educated civil engineer. In 1899, when Valentine was only six, her mother died. Father and daughter settled at Malting Farm, Little Hallingbury.

1901 census valentine fane reduced

The 1901 census: father Cecil and daughter Valentine at Malting Farm Little Hallingbury

Most probably young Valentine was educated at home although I have been unable to find proof, i.e. mention of a live-in governess. Then, at some point towards 1910, Cecil, Valentine’s father took a job as land agent in Bingley, Yorkshire, and Valentine moved in with her maternal grandparents. The 1911 census lists Valentine residing with them at the Nazeing vicarage. It must have been around that time that she started to write poetry and, during a visit to the Opera, met the love of her life: John Barnard.

Born in 1869, John Barnard was 24 years older than Valentine. He hailed from the Barnard brewing and malting dynasty. John’s nephew was the one time Kidderminster MP and chair of Hertfordshire County Council Edmund Broughton Barnard. Thje Kelly directories listed both uncle and nephew as important local land owners. In 1901 John himself was elected to the Rural District Council representing High Wych. At that time he lived at the Curatage on High Wych Road. John also was a Justice of the Peace. By the time of the 1911 census, he and his mother had moved to Alston Oak on the corner of Redricks Lane and Harlow Road.

Val Ghigha small1912: Cecil and Valentine on holiday at Val Ghigha

What the families on either side thought of Valentine’s and John’s relationship we simply do not know. Traditionally, established aristocracy such as the Fanes would have regarded “trade people” such as the Barnards with some suspicion. Then, in October 1912 Mrs. Barnard, John’s mother, died. John’s dad had already died in 1881. Mother and son had been sharing a house ever since, first in High Wych, later at Alston Oak Sawbridgeworth. Whether John and Valentine’s meeting at the Opera took place before or after Mrs. Barnard’s death we do not know. Still, the loss of a parent is a landmark event in anybody’s life and Valentine Fane must have understood what John B. was going through. She herself had lost her mother when she was only 6. Valentine had also spent quite some time away from her father. They were in some respects kindred souls, thrown together by fate if you want to put it dramatically. 1912 was an eventful year for Valentine. Not only did she meet the love of her life, she also became a published poet and met her dad’s second wife. Looking at the above photograph taken at the island of Ghigha I would say the woman in the background in Marjorie Ferrand, whom Cecil was later to marry. Marjorie was the daughter of Mr. W. Ferrand of St. Ives, Cecil’s Yorkshire employer. Perhaps Cecil had taken his daughter on a trip to Scotland with the express purpose to introduce her to her future stepmother.

Cecil Fane and Florence Marjorie Ferrand married in October 1913, Valentine was a bridesmaid and John Barnard a guest. Whether the two attended the wedding as a couple I did not find out. If they did, it is somehow unlikely there was any ill feeling. It was clear though that John and Valentine were desperately and deeply in love. They may even have been living under the same roof at that time. Why the two of them never married remains a mystery. John Barnard’s will however clearly mentions Valentine as his sole heir. Valentine continued to live at Alston Oak. From the mid-twenties, the Kelly directories list Miss Fane and Edmund Barnard amongst the principal land owners in the area.

Valentine’s poetry shows her to be a sensitive soul with a love of nature and a sense of fun. Her writing was published in Punch, The Windsor Magazine, Grand Magazine and Top Notch, an American magazine. Most of these early poems date from between 1912 and 1915. Her family was certainly proud of her as was shown by the fact that her stepmother carefully cut out her published poems and pasted them in an album.

However, it is the mystery concerning a poem called “the Wind” which really got me interested in Valentine. “The Wind”” was long supposed to have been a late poem written by Ivor Gurney, a poet and composer, who sadly ended his days in a psychiatric institution. “The Wind” was written on the back of some Oxford University Press letterhead. Gurney initialled it “IG” and also wrote “Valentine Fane: on the paper, the implication being that he liked the poem, related to it and wanted to remember who wrote it so he wrote Valentine’s name by his own.  This led to some literary critics suggesting Valentine Fane was the product of Ivor Gurney’s imagination. This assumption was however contradicted by Pam Blevins, Gurney’s biographer who took a lot of trouble to find out about Valentine Fane. Pam got in touch with Sheila Johnson, a niece of Valentine. Both Pam and Sheila have been very helpful in my research.

Below you will find two poems written (or most probably written) by Valentine Fane. One “On the back of a Bike” shows her humorous side and her love of motor vehicles. “The Wind”, if indeed written by her, shows her as the restless, pained soul she must have been.  

The Back of a Bike


If you’re feeling “fed up” and in need of a thrill,

   There’s a topping sensation you’re certain to like;

Let your latest young man take you out, if he can,

   On the back of his new motor-bike.

It is perfectly safe, there’d no chance of a spill,

There is nothing on earth to alarm you, but still

You’ll be planning your will as you rush down the hill

   When you ride on the back of a bike!


 It’s not very easy to do it with grace,

   And people regard you with fear and dislike-

But a motor’s no go and a side-car’s too “slow”

   So nothing remains but the bike.

The corners are really far worse than the pace,

And you clutch your companion with frenzied embrace,

While an anxious expression is fixed on your face

(Just in case) as you race well-all over the place,

   When you ride on the back of a bike.

                              Valentine Fane.


The Wind



All night the fierce wind blew –


All night I knew


Time, like a dark wind, blowing


All days, all lives, all memories


Down empty endless skies –


A blind wind, strowing


Bright leaves of life’s torn tree


through blank eternity:


Dreadfully swift, Time blew.


All night I knew


the outrush of its going.


At dawn a thin rain wept.


Worn out, I slept


And woke to a fair morning.


My days were amply long, and I




In their accomplishment –


Lost the wind’s warning.


                             Most probably written by Valentine Fane


After John Barnard’s death Valentine continued to live at Alston Oak where she was often visited by her father, his second wife and the children from their marriage. Judging from the reports in the family album she was a popular older sister. That same family album also records a memorable occasion in February 1926 when both father Cecil and daughter Valentine starred in “Eliza comes to stay” a play staged in the Jubilee Hall in Malpas where Cecil Fane then lived. In 1927 another memorable event, Valentine was presented at court. It was rather upsetting though that on the day before that presentation, she had frocks and jewellery stolen from her car while she was with her dressmaker.  VF eliza comes to stay pic2

The cast of Eliza comes to stay – VF in the middle at the front

Returning to the subject of poetry, there are the “garage poems”. Amongst material shown to me by Sheila Johnson was a brochure from a garage in Tenby South Wales. The brochure advertises day trips organised by that garage or coach company, illustrated with scenic photographs and accompanied by a series of poems that describe various places on the tours. The poems very much reflect Miss Fane’s style, her sense of humour and her keen descriptive powers. As Miss Fane owned or part-owned a garage in Wales it is seems obvious that she produced these poems to enhance their promotional literature.  Pam Blevins is in no doubt they were in fact written by Valentine Fane.

Fane Alston Oak 21 3  Fane Alston Oak 21 3

A family visit at Alston Oak

At some point in the thirties Valentine then moved out of Alston Oak and into Carters, another property bequeathed to her by John Barnard. There she spent the rest of her lonely life, occasionally visited by family and friends. Sheila Johnson, her niece, who came to Carters together with her father, VF’s half-brother, remembers her as a heavy smoker with skirts down to her ankles. She was a very gentle soul. Slim, not tall and fair in appearance her family members considered her quite clever. Despite her wealth Miss Fane did not live in great comfort. Modern amenities such as gas, electricity and running water were absent at Carters. Water was drawn from a well. Chickens ran about, not just in the garden but even in the kitchen. The absence of electricity meant that the house was in darkness. Once, so the story goes, a visiting doctor was mistaken for a burglar and nearly attacked by a frightened Valentine. 

Greys Garage 7 excerpt

Two pages from “the Garage Poems”

There was however a collection of vintage cars. Some villagers remember her driving about in one of those; the back of her vehicle filled up with boxes. Eric Willison who worked at the post office in the sixties remembers Miss Fane “turning up with parcels from which a gamey smell emanated”. Though Valentine was an animal lover, hunts were held on her land; the “gamey parcels” must have resulted from those occasions.

Lily Mynott, who came to High Wych, in 1943 had a milk round and Valentine Fane was one of her customers. She remembers Miss Fane as a kind and friendly lady. “How elegant she looked as she attended village fetes at the Grange”. Nigel Rivers tells of her love of animals. “She was even reluctant to kill rats. She told me they were her friends” It did not stop her having pheasants shot on her grounds however. Despite her wealth it should be said Valentine Fane was letting herself go. Her finances were not handled in the best of manners. She also became more and more dependent on the people who worked for her. As a result Miss Fane took to living and sleeping in the downstairs kitchen. After a while though, that arrangement too became impractical and the Warwicks the family who lived in Carters Cottage took her in, prepared her meals and generally looked after her. Every now and then she went for dinner at the Wentworth Stanley house. Oliver Stanley later bought one of her properties.

valentine fane

Miss Fane in later life  

vf grave picture from sheila johnson2

The grave stone at Little Hallingbury

Miss Fane was a very generous person. Already in 1926 she financed the restoration of stained glass windows designed by Archibald Nicholson at St. Mary’s Church, Lindsell.  In later life at Christmas time it was her custom to send cakes to the local police constable, the doctor, the vicar, the postman and key staff.

The sad reality was however that Valentine Fane spent all that time, from 1918 until 1977 mourning for John Barnard the love of her life. Not much of consequence happened in all those years. In January 1959 Miss Fane was in court for driving a car without due care and attention. In the late sixties – early seventies there was a fire and there was also at least one burglary. On one of these occasions, it is said, she was attacked. It made her even more dependent on the people that worked for her.

Valentine Fane died in Herts and Essex Hospital Bishops Stortford on the 11th January 1977. Her cousin and god daughter Valentine Sillery was at her bedside and co-signed the death certificate which mentioned bronchopneumonia as cause of death. Miss Fane was buried in Little Hallingbury Church Yard.

The last will and testament of Miss Fane makes for an interesting read. There is the strange stipulation that “before my burial the doctor attending …… shall first sever the artery in my wrist in order to make certain that I am dead”. Valentine’s half brothers and sisters each receive the sum of £500. Five named people receive £100 each and a further twelve receive £50. Some of her staff were given a year’s salary and the right to remain at their cottage free of rent and charges for two years.  Clause 11 states that VF’s animals should be taken care of “until such time as they will have made arrangements for their future” and sets aside £ 1000 to pay for this. Clause 15 than states that “the reason that I have not made more specific bequests even though I have verbally promised to leave certain articles to friends or members of my family is that the majority of the articles have either been stolen or lost in the fire”

A sad and lonely life had come to an end

Sources for this article were Pam Blevins, Sheila Johnson, the Fane family album, Lily Mynott, Nigel Rivers, Janet van de Bilt, the H&E Observer and the staff at HALS.


Book Review

MI 106

If your name is Blackaby, Brace, Camp,   Fish, Holden, Springham, Kempthorne, Macscall, Ward or Wybrew and your family has but the slightest connection to High Wych, Eastwick or Gilston you will find this little book interesting.  The Hertfordshire Family History has produced a handsome booklet listing monumental inscriptions of graves in the three churchyards of our local parishes. The authors, a team lead by Janet and John Pearson, carried on work done by   W.B. Gerish in 1909. All legible inscriptions are listed and an index provided shows which grave is where.My own work as High Wych historian is greatly helped by all this information!

Of course, both Eastwick and Gilston churches are much older than St.James’s High Wych. They both date from the 13th century. St. Botolphs Eastwick must even have been preceded by an earlier church. In 1138 Baldwin de Clare gave Eastwick Church to Bourne Abbey in Lincolnshire. Consequently there is some intriguing stuff to be found on the relevant pages.

Priced at £8.00 inclusive of postage and packing the little tome is more than worth the money.  Order it from the  HFHS’s website:  or by e-mail from their booksales officer at