Muriel Cobern Memoir

The Day of the Flood

Thursday 13 March 1947, was my mother’s forty-sixth birthday and is a day I shall never forget. In 1938, two years after my father’s death, my mother and I moved to 7 Kennet Place, one of the cottages in the inverted L shaped terrace at the southern end of the Parade in Marlborough. Our four-roomed cottage faced the northern arm of the river and was extremely primitive; the front door opened straight on to the pavement from the living room, there was a tiny scullery with a gas cooker, and two bedrooms; a coal fire, and a gas light in the living room provided the only heating and lighting, apart from an oil stove and candles; the water supply came from an outside tap shared with the next door neighbour, and which required constant vigilance to prevent it freezing solid in the winter. The toilets stood in a row at the top of the tiny gardens and, like the taps, were shared, one between two cottages. However the outlook was pleasant enough.

The Town Mill was still in existence and after being used as a billet for soldiers had reverted to its pre-war role as a youth hostel. It stood at the western end of the tapering tongue of land – where the Town Mill Housing estate was built at the end of the 20th century – between the two arms of the river. At the narrowing eastern end was the public swimming bath which resembled an open-topped box mounted on four legs. Directly opposite our cottage, on the other side of the river, was the Mill Garden, where there was a fine row of flowering current bushes planted to screen the row of toilets erected during the war for the use of soldiers in the Mill.

After enduring the heavy snow and bitter cold of the winter of 1947, the sudden rise in the temperature at the beginning of March was very welcome, but the warmth began a thaw of the masses of lying snow which was exacerbated by heavy rain on 12 March, causing tons of water to flow down the hillsides into the valley and completely overwhelmed the river, flooding the adjacent fields. On the fateful day, my mother arrived home from work at 3 o’clock, but although the river was level with the top of the banks she was not unduly worried, until workers from the Tannery at the bottom of Angel Yard, and who had been sent home early, banged on the door to warn of the impending disaster. I then worked for Mr. and Mrs. Say, who ran a drapery and gents outfitters in the High Street, in the building now occupied by Viyella, and my mothers first thought was to race up there with my Wellingtons. When she got back, water was coming under the back door, and she had to concentrate on getting food, water, the oil stove, matches and candles, upstairs.

By the time I came home at 5 o’clock, the water was knee-deep in the road, and up to the fireplace indoors; looking out of the front bedroom window, we saw, stretching right across the garden boundaries of the houses on the north side of George Lane, a vast coffee-coloured lake flecked with white foam, uprooted trees and other debris.

The water subsided around midnight, leaving behind a black, evil-smelling mess of mud and sewerage, and we were forced to live upstairs for a fortnight while we cleaned it up. Of course we were not the only victims as the Parade and part of the London Road also suffered.

And daddy said a naughty word!

Following his operation during the summer of 1932, my father remained in hospital for six weeks, before returning home. Life gradually returned to normal, and my parents and I resumed our habit, weather permitting, of going for a walk every Sunday afternoon, often to Rabley Wood, where, every spring the ground was covered with a thick carpet of primroses. When they had faded, a mass of bluebells blossomed beneath the trees, their sapphire intensity broken here and there by clumps of Solomons Seal and the exotic magenta-coloured flowers of early purple orchids, which we always called by their old Wiltshire name of granfer goslings.

To reach Rabley, we followed the Mildenhall road as far as Poulton, alongside the south bank of the River Og, where sometimes, if we were lucky, we would catch a glimpse of a secretive red-billed water rail, slipping furtively through the reeds. Just after the Og makes its sudden turn southwards to join the Kennet, beyond the water meadows on the opposite side of the road, is the turning to Rabley. It was once part of the road which linked Marlborough with Oxford, and during the Civil War, prisoners captured by the Royalists when Marlborough was stormed in December 1642 would have tramped along it on their way to captivity in Oxford.

Poulton House, described by Nikolous Pevsner in his book Historic Buildings of Wiltshire as the most perfect house of Marlborough, was lived in during the 1930s by Mr. Sainsbury who ran a well-maintained farm on the surrounding land. My father did quite a bit of work for him, so sometimes we made a short detour from the Rabley road to the back of the house, where his stables and cow sheds were situated, so that he could have a look for any repairs which might need doing. Often on a Sunday afternoon my father would visit people to discuss forthcoming work and sometimes he would take me with him. I well remember going to Manton Down a couple of times to see the trainer Joe Lawson who was thinking of painting the stables with lead-free paint, and wished to know what my father thought of the idea. Our route to Manton Down lay across Barton Down, which in those days was still open down land crossed by gallops, whose limit at their southern end was marked by a small upright sarsen stone. Between the gallops and the path, the grass was speckled with the clear bright colours of harebells, birds foot trefoil, scabious, knapweed and many other flowers; the air was filled with the song of skylarks as they soared higher and higher into the sky, and there was a great feeling of space and even a touch of magic. Sadly this vanished, along with the larks, the flowers and the gallops, when the whole area was fenced off and brought into cultivation soon after the end of the Second World War.

My father also did work for the Rev Gordon Soames, the Rector of Mildenhall, and one memorable Saturday afternoon, I accompanied my father to Mildenhall Church where he had a small repair to do, during the course of which he dropped his hammer behind the organ, and was unable to reach it. As soon as we got home, I rushed to tell my mother about it, adding with great relish, And Daddy said a naughty word!

Some Memories of life at 36 St. Martins during the 1930s

In 1931 when I was four years old I moved with my parents and Jimmy the cat to 36 St. Martins and still retain many memories of our time there, especially of the big garden which Jimmy and I loved. On the opposite side of the road, a few doors west of the Queens Head pub was a small sweet shop where I used to spend my Saturday pocket money. It was run by a Mrs Wiltshire whose husband was the outrider for R. Mundy and Son, the boot and shoe retailer in the High Street. Mr. Wiltshire’s job was to drive around the local villages with their populations of poorly paid farm labourers and collect orders for footwear which he would deliver and collect the money for; most of the items were paid for in weekly installments by the old shilling a week system. Further along the road at the bottom of Blowhorn Street was a bakery belonging to a Mr. and Mrs Baden and their grown-up children, Andrew and Anna.

My father, Arthur Victor Cobern, was a self-employed painter and decorator and sign writer, in partnership with his aunt’s husband Ernst Ponting who ran the business of Ponting and Co. from their home at 7 The Green and employed a painter and an apprentice. During the summer of 1932 my father was rushed to Savernake Hospital with a perforated gastric ulcer. Thanks to Dr. Wheeler’s skill on the operating table, his life was saved but he had to remain in hospital for six weeks after the operation. After Dr. Wheeler retired, his son Dr. Bob took over the practice which later became amalgamated with the Maurice practice. Dr. Bob died in 1978 from cancer.

A few years before, a down-and-out called Swannee Norris was tramping about the country looking for work and was on his way from Bristol to Marlborough, when he collapsed in the Bath Road from sheer starvation, as he had not eaten for several days. A passing motorist picked him up and took him to Savernake Hospital where Matron Lavington nursed him back to health. When he recovered she gave him a job as handyman at the Hospital and he found lodgings on the Green with a widow whom he eventually married! He was very friendly with my father and every morning while my father was in the hospital he would call in on his way to work to see if there was anything he could take up to him.

At this time I had a passion for collecting the black and orange striped caterpillars of the Cinnabar moth and one morning I was sitting on the steps leading up from the basement kitchen to the garden feeding them with groundsel, when Swannee arrived. He was wearing hob nailed boots on his rather large feet and, fearful that he would squash my beloved pets, I cried out Oh, Mr. Norris, mind my caterpillars. Luckily he stopped in time and with a look of complete horror on his face said Just look at all they maggots.

Often I went to see my father; it was a long walk, down Stonebridge Lane, up the London Road as far as the railway bridge, then up across Green Hill – as the far eastern end of the Forest Hill was then called – through the edge of the forest and so in to the Hospital. We always took a bunch of Pinks from the garden with us, and on Green Hill, we would pick some quaking grass, which we called by their old Wiltshire name of Wiggle Wantons, to go with them.

Further recollections by Muriel Cobern of her life during the 1930s

My parents and I, weather permitting, usually went for a walk on Sunday afternoons, and we explored the beautiful countryside around Marlborough quite thoroughly, and should my legs begin to ache, I could always hitch a ride on my fathers shoulders.

One of our favourite rambles was to cross the Common on to Roughdown (pronounced Rowdown – as in noise or quarrel), and go down to the Butts. Having made sure Jimmy the cat had not decided to come with us but was safe indoors or in the garden, we would leave our house in St. Martins and walk up Blowhorn Street to the Common where skylarks abounded and we had to tread very carefully in order to avoid stepping on their nests. My mother loved the downland flowers which blossomed round the fringes of the golf course and under her tuition I soon learned to recognise the different varieties, such as harebell, birdsfoot trefoil and small scabious and small knapweed.

At the northern end of the Common we always stopped at the Clump and paused for a rest on one of the seats surrounding this ancient barrow, and at the sound of our voices a flock of wood-pigeons, rooks and jackdaws, would fly noisily from the crown of Scotch pine trees. A railed wooden fence marked the boundary between the Common and the southern edge of Roughdown and just inside this fence was Roughdown Cottage, an 18th century building which in those days was inhabited by Mr. Christopher, the Barton Farm gamekeeper and his family. A little beyond the cottage, on its eastern side, was a small copse and a tangle of brambles that were laden with blackberries in the autumn and sheltered a mixture of bluebells and red campion in the spring.

The main entrance to Roughdown and the way down to the Butts, however, was west of the Clump through a five-barred gate not far from Turnpike Cottage, alongside the Rockley road. Once upon a time its occupants would have demanded payment from drivers for the privilege of using the road, but those days were long past and there was now no toll bar to impede any travellers progress. The Butts at the bottom of Roughdown, which I remember as low wooden grass-covered structures, were erected in the mid 19th century for the benefit of the Marlborough Rifle Volunteers, and were now used by the Marlborough College OTC (Officers Training Corps) known locally as the College Cadets As they practised with live ammunition, it was not wise to pass through the gate if the red flag was flying, but during the College holidays and on Sunday afternoons we could walk quite safely up and down the hillside without fear of being hit by a stray bullet.

The grassy down-land turf was well-grazed by sheep and cattle, and cowslips and mushrooms flourished in abundance.

Today, the cottages and butts are gone, swept away soon after the Second World War, but the valley is still threaded by the Hungerbourne brook which rises beneath Rockley Manor and flows into the River Og at Bay Bridges on the Marlborough-Swindon Road. Its rising is intermittent, often it does not appear for several years at a time, and then, according to local legend, its appearance, like a resurgence of the doom-laden Horsemen of the Apocalypse, brings the threat of impending disaster.

A favourite Sunday afternoon walk

Walks on Sunday afternoons were always a feature of our life during the 1930s, and a firm favourite with my parents and me was a visit to Savernake Forest. We would leave our home at 36 St. Martins and, turning eastwards, walk the few yards to Stonebridge Lane, which, following a misprint on an 1831 OS map, was always referred to as Stoneybridges, we turned into the lane by Cuckoo Pen, a walled enclosure which still exists; it once contained a short row of cottages but these were condemned and demolished in 1933.

According to legend, Cuckoo Pen had been built a very long time ago in order to enclose the cuckoo to stop it flying away every summer, but the builder forgot to put the roof on the structure and the bird, having heard, perhaps, the old story that Marlborough is the coldest place in the country, had no desire to spend the winter here, and flew over the tops of the walls and off to a warmer country as usual.

Flooding has always been a problem in Stonebridge Lane, whenever a prolonged spell of rain or quickly melting snow causes the river to burst its banks, and then the iron footbridge, which replaced the original stone bridge in 1908, is completely submerged and the footpath on either side is rendered entirely impassable. So to ensure keeping our feet dry we always confined this walk to the summer months, when clumps of water iris bloomed beside the river and the water meadows were golden with the masses of kingcups which preceded the creamy blossoms of sweetly scented meadowsweet. The whole river was vibrant with life; sometimes a heron would rise on slowly flapping wings from among the reeds, or a sudden flash of vivid electric blue marked the passage of a kingfisher as it flew at the speed of light beneath the bridge. Often a silvery glint beneath the water betrayed the presence of a basking trout. Swans, coots, mallards, often with a clutch of youngsters in tow, and dabchicks (little grebes), abounded; water voles swam almost continuously from bank to bank.

After crossing the river we headed southward, passing a large garden on the eastern side of the lane where Mr. Hillier and his three sons grew fruit, flowers and vegetables for sale in their two greengrocery shops. It was eventually acquired for building and Stonebridge Close now stands where the snowdrops, apple trees and potatoes once flourished. On the south side of the London Road was a large cornfield divided by a wide track called Five Stiles, an old name which was retained when St. Margarets Mead housing estate was built here at the end of the Second World War At the far end of the track, was a row of elm trees fringing a fenced enclosure containing a flock of hens and a number of pigs, which was known as Smiths Pigstye, after the man who owned it. Sometimes, as we crossed the narrow wooden footbridge high above the railway line which ran just behind the pigs and chickens, a train would come thundering along and we would be enveloped in clouds of smoke. Rubbing the grit and dust out of our eyes we clambered over the last remaining stile of the five, which had given the track its name, and began the stiff climb up the grassy hillside and into the Forest.

Muriel remembers visiting her grandparents, and recalls some of the old shops in Marlborough during the 1930s

One of the highlights of my childhood in Marlborough during the 1930s was our annual trip – usually at the end of the summer, or just after Christmas – to see my father’s parents in Surrey. Although we never stayed more than a few days as my father was always anxious to get back to the business, these trips did involve some planning, including making arrangements with my mother’s sister at Manton to come in every day to feed Jimmy the cat. My grandparents were both Wiltshire born and bred – grandfather from Whiteparish and Granny from Marlborough – so we always took them the good old Wiltshire fare of a lardy cake and a hock of bacon, and when we went at Christmas, one of my mother’s delicious home-made Christmas puddings, the ingredients for which, along with the cake and bacon, she bought at the International Stores at 127 High Street, although in those days Marlborough had plenty of other grocery shops to choose from. In the High Street alone, apart from the Inter, as it was popularly called, was HW Pocock Grocer at No. 129, Pocock Grocer at Nos. 2/3, the Co-op at No. 7, Mrs. Bennet Grocer at No. 19, and Stratton Sons and Mead at No. 25. While, at the bottom end of Kingsbury Street, Irving’s Grocery Store occupied Victoria House at No. 1, and almost opposite in Dormy House was Figgin’s Grocery Shop. In the Parade, No. 3 was occupied by Burchell’s the Grocers and No.12 by Cumnor’s Grocery Store. All were sizeable shops and most, albeit with some changes of ownership, were still in existence for several years after the end of the War.

On the morning of our departure, we would leave our house in St. Martins and make our way down through The Green and Barn Street, along the London Road and into Salisbury Road, where, soon after leaving the George Lane turning, we came to the old Monastery, built on the site of the Gilbertine Priory of St. Margaret. This seventeenth century house, sinister and forbidding behind its screen of trees was already showing signs of the degeneration that would eventually destroy it. I always passed it with some trepidation, for its reputation was fearsome, to say the least. Many people would not go anywhere near it, preferring to walk by on the other side of the road, lest one of the ghosts that were said to haunt it should suddenly appear. I was too young then to understand its fascinating history, or know about the interesting people who had lived there, but knew only lurid tales about headless monks and wandering spirits.

Immediately beyond the old monasterys surrounding iron railing fence lay the new council housing estates of Isbury Road and Cherry Orchard whose building occupied the first half of the decade. Then it was only a short walk further up the hill and into Marlborough’s railway station, to catch our train to Savernake. We usually had some time to wait, so in winter, we sat in the waiting room warming ourselves in front of the coal fire which burned in a small open grate, and was replenished from time to time with a shovelful of coal brought in by a porter.

Kempson papers. Box 204. Devizes Museum

Alice Muriel Cobern

Alice Muriel Cobern 1927 – 2015

Muriel was best known for her encyclopaedic knowledge of local history (and history of everywhere else as well).  This was particularly remarkable because she left school when she was only 14 years old because her family couldn’t afford the school uniform for her to go to grammar school, even though she had come top of her class.  She went to primary school in Marlborough which was even then called St. Mary’s.

Muriel was a Marlborough woman and lived here all her life, apart from a few years away.  She was born in a cottage in Clatford and a few years later moved to St. Martin’s and Kennet Place.  Her last real home was in Manton – her bungalow was stuffed from floor to ceiling with her collection of books, old newspapers and magazines, and various natural history specimens.  When she became ill and had to go into a care home, her good friends faithfully went through all her belongings so that lots of items of historical interest were given to the Merchants House and the Devizes museum.