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Ruth White on life at the historical Old Parsonage at Newchurch

Interview by Rebecca Smithson

Ruth White and her daughter Zoë have lived at the Old Parsonage in Newchurch for the past 20 years. With her keen interest in history and preserving local memories of the past, it is no surprise that Ruth found her home in a building and which has so many stories to be uncovered.

It’s fascinating that you live in such an old and beautiful house…

We moved here in 1994. There’s been some redecoration but not a huge amount of it. We have these cornices, they’re very decorative, and we used to have two sets of stairs but the servants’ set was taken out, I’m not sure when. In the church there’s a list of the vicars, so you can find out more about them and their lives in the vicarage and church.

The medieval chapel is aged 1250, and the church tower is from 1635. The main bit of the church is mostly about 1544, although a lot of it is rebuilt. We had to make it wider and longer, the roof was too heavy, like many churches they get altered over time to what people want.

© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson

Do you ever wonder what it was like for your predecessors in this house?

Of course! What was it like in the house? What were they dressed like? I think about someone designing it, and then building it. The tools were very different from what we use now. I think of the ladies who’d look like Jane Austen and then you’d go into the Victorian era, all the decoration would be different again. It used to be very cold too. We’ve got reports of that from when people visited for communion.

Before that it was quite a big vicarage for such a small parish; were the people here quite grand? When I’ve looked at the parish records, it’s not just the vicar and his family in the house, there were curates staying here, and the housekeeper and servants…It’d be interesting to look at the parish records and see exactly who these people were.

You seem very knowledgeable on local history, where did you source all this information?

Well, I’m part of a little history group, Pendle Forest History Group, often we just go along and have a talk. One was about lime kilns in the area. One was a farmer from Abbeystead who found a lime kiln on her land from 1240, it was amazing!

There was one about Polish airmen who had crashed just near Skipton, how they traced all their relatives, how they set up a memorial for them. Once I went and heard about Benedictine monasteries. There are little snippets of history that I’ve never even considered of thinking about. It’s nice to be surprised.

There’s the ones about farm buildings, ones about monasteries and mills- local people have been looking in Reid about where the old mill sites and river courses used to be.

I’ve always gone thinking ‘I’m not interested in this’ but I come out going ‘Woah, I never even thought anything could have interested me in that way’. I’ve never come out of it disappointed.

© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson

Much of Pendle’s history is often overshadowed by the famous stories of the witches but I saw that you’ve held events to celebrate a more varied local history.

A few years ago we had a Victorian weekend in the village, where everyone dressed up in Victorian costumes and I hired some things from Preston for a display in the church.

There’s a lady, Catherine, who lives in the village and can remember walking to the school in clogs. They had an open fire where they could lay down if they were poorly whilst someone was sent down to get their parents, and she had to walk to school from Sabden fold. Catherine turned up with these beautiful long Victorian dresses, from working people, and 2 capes; a patterned one with ribbons attached, another beautifully embroidered. There was a child’s cape with thread running through it too. It was just extraordinary. She said that she just went and got some dresses from her mum’s house. A visitor even asked whether I minded if she took some pictures because she studied Victorian costumes and this was the best display she had ever seen.

It’s interesting seeing it in the church as you see all the children running around in costume and the church hasn’t really changed.

It really sounds like a step back in time.

Yes! We also did a World War II event and we got a wedding dress made of smuggled silk from Europe, wrapped around someone’s body as they traveled home from France.

We have a lady in the village, Geraldine, who loves World War II songs and she started singing Vera Lynn – she was fantastic! She made her own costume and was up and down the aisles singing. People brought along picnics and they were dancing in the aisles to her wonderful singing. We had St. Christopher’s band and everyone got dressed up, even the band.

People are amazingly generous, someone knitted a doll for the display! A few people couldn’t come, but came down the day before with cakes for the event as an apology. We even got help setting up a stage at the school. Everyone got involved, there was no payment, nothing. People are honestly so generous.

© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson

What was your motivation for organising an event like that?

It was partly because I wanted children at the school to have some idea of history. When it’s just out of a book it’s very flat, isn’t it? I wanted them to think about what it was like here in Victorian times, in World War II…

If you look at the Brontë parsonage, the front of our house looks very similar, though theirs is dated much later than ours. But it’s possible that Charlotte Brontë passed through here, her dad was a vicar. So in my head it was like: ‘what would it be like if she came here?’ [Laughs] And everyone got involved in my fantasy!

If you’ve got the means and the people willing to help, it sounds like a great way to bring history to life.

When I first mentioned it people were reluctant to dress up, but if you go to the Hippodrome on a Monday night you can hire costumes for all kinds of things. They have a box of aprons here and a box of top hats there…so we all went along on a Monday night and got our costumes.

I asked the mayor, Sheena, if she’d mind opening the events. She wasn’t sure if she could wear her mayoral train and dress up, but luckily she could!

Another man dressed up as a really convincing old-fashioned policeman, as it’s his day job, and he was going around ‘arresting’ young kids. He had this book of people arrested in the early 1900s that he found in a tip! Who’d put that in a tip?

Is there another on the cards?

I’d quite like to do a 1960s one, but it’s hard to get the school, church and community involved in an event and to get them dressed up!

© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson

You’re very close knit here, I can’t imagine it being feasible to pull everybody together like that in every village.

We’re lucky with the school, that gives everyone a focus here. It used to be part of the church of course. We try to do things for the children when we can. But everyone gets involved, there’s weaving and spinning and for the displays we’ll do some flowers…

There’s a little group of us and we’re called the Flower Fairies, and if they have an event or they want to make the church look nice, we get together and do the church flowers. It’s like pop-up flowers really. It’s to encourage people just to get involved. You don’t need to go to church, you don’t need to have any experience, just come along and help to do some flowers if you want.

Is that just in Newchurch?

Yes, it’s just for local people to come along and do.  We helped with someone’s wedding; we didn’t do all the flowers, they had a florist do their proper flowers and got us to do some extra flowers. But how exciting is that? They wanted a country feel which was kind of easy because none of us are professional florists.

© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson

Zoë mentioned that you’re also interested in your own family history.

I am really interested in my family history and I’ve been tracing my family tree. I was lucky as I was looking at my grandmother’s family tree and found some hints on this website. Its maker asked if I had any information on their relative who died in World War I, Joseph Hukes. He’s my great-great-great uncle and we’ve ended up with pictures of him and a medal. It was really sad actually because he joined up when he was overage and he survived 9 months on the Somme.

I rooted out the picture of Joseph Hukes and I found this medal that he got in World War I. I scanned the picture for her; on the back it had his name and his regiment, which was really lucky because that’s so uncommon for pictures! I scanned the medal too and took pictures of that. In exchange, she sent me back some information that she knew, including a lot of my family tree.

Completely by coincidence?

Yes, the other day I was looking at my grandfather’s history in Barwell and I’ve got some pictures of a shoe factory where he worked. I’ve got these pictures but who’s going to look at them? Zoë might look at them but if I put them on a site for other people, then everyone can benefit from it.

© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson

That’s incredible! It’s like you’ve got a little museum in your house.

Sometimes we take things along to people…[she shows me an old service booklet]

This was from a thanksgiving service. My grandfather was in Berlin at the end of WW2 and we have a program and his tickets for the Berlin opera. It’s just something that you put aside, but then what else do you do with them? It’s like Joseph Hukes’ medal. I might give it to someone from the same place as him or it might be nice to give it to the church. Either way, so that he’s remembered.

He was there at the same time as my mum’s dad who was in the New Zealand forces. His parents were from Scotland, they emigrated to New Zealand and had 3 kids whilst they were out there.

It’s often difficult to look back further than a couple of generations. Do you have any other tips for rooting out your past?

If you have any family bibles, quite a lot of people write in them…[laughs] we have a lot spare! Sometimes when you open them up, you can see dates of births etc.

I’ve also got my dad’s school reports and random stuff, such as my mum’s certificate for going to ballet school, even though she wasn’t any good at ballet, especially when she was 4! I think I just hoard stuff, maybe I’m abnormal [laughs].

Some families don’t keep anything and it’s a shame really, it stops you from knowing more about your past. At least Zoë and her kids will know more about where they came from.

I think that’s one of the reasons I do it. All the photographs, they’re all in boxes. I got my mum to go through some of the stuff whilst she was alive because I don’t actually know who’s who!

© Rebecca Smithson
© Rebecca Smithson

To me, photos are the best way to capture moments before they pass away and it’s nice to look back on the past to see how things have changed. Are there many old photos of the Old Parsonage?

Well actually we did a photography project here in the village. Not long after we moved here, we went to the parish council and they wanted someone to help with doing photographs and writing comments. I didn’t do the photographs but I compiled them into a book.

They now look quite old fashioned. Usually if you look at photographs they just look the same but things have changed quite a bit within 20 years; a lot of people have put on extensions or changed the walling. The church has had its pointing done – it looks different than before and the church has a different feel to it. But if you dont’t take pictures then you forget what happened.

Was it just the village that photos were taken of?

It was about built heritage, so just pictures of the houses and listed buildings, but I took pictures of anything I found interesting. There’s a mounting block outside the house so I took a picture of that.

Also, throughout the village there are metal hooks, though we don’t know whether they were used for hauling loads coming up the hill. People have said it was for the Germans coming because you could attach chains to it. But why would they come to Newchurch? They’re not going to stop the German invasion in Newchurch! [laughs]

I also did some views.  There is a stone, like the base of a cross up the hill, but who knows what that could be? So I did it to have a record of things.

In fact, I was talking to Cathy, the churchwarden, about the graveyard. It’d be nice to have a record of the graves, as they get weathered and they tell you who the deceased were, where they lived, when they died and sometimes interesting snippets of poetry.

One name on the gravestones was Aitken, commemorating a man who came down with Bonnie Prince Charlie who settled here. I just think, what would it have been like for these marauding Scottish? Culturally it would be quite different: what was it like here, what were people doing?

And then he stayed in the area. It was probably lucky for him as the army was slaughtered in Culloden, so he probably survived by staying. But why? Did he meet someone here? Was he injured? What was his life like here?

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