The Memoirs of Miss Henderson - Part 3

Part 3 of 3

Vicarage Hill
R.F. Postcards collection

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The Vicarage was enlarged while we were at Benfleet by the making of attic bedrooms, the throwing out of the dining-room bay window and building on the scullery. My father’s mother lived with us, also an aged cousin, and sometimes, a pupil to be coached. I had five Uncles at Leigh who constantly walked over to see us; sometimes, when they were working in London, they would tramp down from the City, arrive in the early hours of the morning, have a few hours sleep in the hay loft and appear at breakfast before resuming their walk to Leigh. So we were generally a large and merry party.

My father was a non-smoker, and smoking in the sitting room was not allowed. Our Cook, Ann Webb, kept the kitchen spotless. My grandmother used to ask the men to smoke in her bedroom before she retired to drive out the mosquitoes. As a girl I once stayed at Leigh Rectory with Bishop King, Uncle of my friends – the daughters of the family – came to stay. They made him an apple-pie bed and prepared booby-traps of wet sponges on the doors.


We had a few domestic worries, for our staff was a Cook and a Boy who waited at table, looked after Traveller, our Cob, and did odd jobs. His name was William Turk and he came from Hadleigh, and his father, an expert Gardener, came twice a week. Often a younger girl came from the Village to help. One of these, Susannah Wiseman, was my devoted friend and companion to the day of her death.  Mrs. Lawrence’s father was a Wiseman, went to sea as a lad and eventually settled down as a Sail-maker; his mother’s family had a pedigree reaching back to William the Conqueror. His mother, a few years before her death, had Susannah to live with her and brought her up. Susannah came to nurse my father in 1902, and, after his death, remained with me.

One poor lad, suffering from kleptomania, served us, but so many household things disappeared that my mother opened his box and found, not only the things we had missed, but carrots, potatoes, one of my father’s clerical collars, and even some of his sermons. He was not a Benfleet boy.

While we were living at Benfleet Vicarage we kept pigs for which I used to collect acorns. In the field there was a flock of white leghorns which looked very ornamental. We had also a dog and a cat, a cob, Traveller, and for some years a pet donkey.  Traveller was a very knowing beast, alright when my father or a boy were driving him, but with my mother and grandmother it was a different matter. I remember the two ladies setting out in the pony trap in state and dignity to a tea party in the neighbourhood and their return in chastened mood a little later. Traveller at a certain point had made up his mind that he had gone far enough and refused to go further, took no notice of the two ladies, but just turned round and trotted home again.

We also kept bees, and one Sunday morning, just as we were setting forth for Church, one of them stung my father; there was no time to attend to it and the congregation had the added interest of seeing his eye swell and swell until before the sermon, when there was no eye to be seen.

One trying experience I shared with Traveller was a return journey from the Island. The tide was coming in, but there was time to cross. We were just doing so, when Traveller got off the Causeway and began to sink into the mud; the water got inside our trap and we were in real danger. Happily Gladwyn, the Ferryman, saw our plight and rowed to the rescue.

My father attended Church each morning for 8 a.m. Matins, after which he retired to his study. He found time to copy out the old Elizabethan registers which belong to the Church and are not easy to read. We dined at 1 o’clock and he spent the afternoon visiting; my mother often visited as well. Often we finished up at the School and a number of the children would accompany us back to the Vicarage and play with me in the garden. In Advent, Lent and on Saint’s Days there was Evensong about 3-30 p.m. according to the light.

After tea my mother and grandmother would settle down to needlework and my father would read aloud to them. He took for papers The Times, The Guardian and Punch. These were the days when Darwin’s theory of evolution was becoming known. My mother once took me, aged about six, to London to visit and Uncle, and later we all went to the Zoo.  I had seen in Punch, cartoons ridiculing Darwin and Spurgeon who attacked him, and on this day I piped out when we came to the monkey house, “Oh look, Mummy, what a lovely Spurgeon!”.

Dickens was writing his books and the Ingoldsby Legends were newly published. My father would play chess with Mr. Churchwarden Brown. As I got older we played whist. We went to bed at ten.

My biggest treat was, in the summer, to go armed with cake, bread and a saucepan, to Leigh Beck. Mrs. Hall, the Clerk’s wife, boiled us a kettle. We collected drift wood to make a fire, and paddling, collected periwinkles, lit our fire, boiled a saucepan of seawater and so had tea.

Three memories of my early days stand our very clearly. One day we were going through the Churchyard to the station when Brewit, the Sexton, who was digging a grave, told my father that the Prince Consort had died. On another occasion I was taken to the upper part of our field leading to Boyce Hill to see the ship which was bringing the Princess Alexandra to her wedding, sail up the Thames. And there was a visit to the “Great Eastern” which was anchored some way off Shoebury.

One Christmas Day we invited the six oldest inhabitants, who had no family of their own with whom to keep the festival, to dine with us, and we entertained them afterwards with the “Wheel of Life”, which was the earliest approach to moving pictures, and we all thought it was wonderful.


After some seven or eight years, my poor father fell a victim to that scourge of Benfleet, the Ague. It was a curious complaint. The victim had warning of it’s coming by a headache and a feeling of lassitude, then a violent attack of shivering. My mother filled hot water bottles, piled up blankets and eiderdowns, but my father still felt deathly cold and the bed shook with his shivering. High fever followed and he became burning hot, and after that such excessive perspiration that the sheets might have been dipped in water. Then the patient would come back to normal, though be left very weak. A month later it would all start again, even more violently, and yet more violent in the third month.  School children would be kept at home because it was their Ague week, and I remember an old man replying to a query as to his health, “If I be alive and well, it be my Ague day tomorrow”.

As a result of the Ague, Dr. Warwick of Southend, ordered my father to leave Essex. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster granted him a long leave of absence. We went to Tonge in Lancashire, and later we took a house at Llandrindod Wells, and our friends came as paying guests. But shortly after we returned to Benfleet my father fell victim again to the Ague. Dr. Warwick warned my mother that if we did not move again speedily my father would not live many months.  The very next morning a letter came asking him to go as Vicar to Heywood in Lancashire where he had once been Curate.

So I close these memoirs with some rambling recollections.

Sewing meetings at the Vicarage, and the women weeping as my father read “Enoch Arden” to them, laughing at the humour of Dickens. Each quarter a man called round with a load of books for the Villagers to borrow, always coming first to the Vicarage to make sure that the Vicar did not disapprove of any of his volumes. Once this man brought some copies of Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs”; my father disliked this volume as being historically untrue, but rather than argue, himself purchased the three volumes. Next time the man called he said, “I’ve sold a great many Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs”, sir, for I told them that you liked it so much that you bought up all my copies”.

Every cottage had its Bible, but not everyone read them. One old lady, when my father called, had her Bible prominently displayed on the dresser and opening it in his presence, suddenly exclaimed, “Why if here ‘ain’t my spectacles as I’ve been looking for these three weeks past”.

Other favourite books were “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Robinson Crusoe”. Many took a Church monthly magazine called “Penny Post”.

The Churchyard was kept cut by turning sheep into it to graze.

The Bargees formed a floating population, literally, and there was a story of one bringing his child to be christened “Venus” after the barge, by Mr. Cook.  In those days the Vicar was often asked to write a Villager’s letter for him. One old lady asked my father to address an envelope to her son at “The Oil Ship of Kent” only later did it occur to him that she meant “The Isle of Sheppey, Kent”.

A little boy in my Sunday class was the son of Mrs. Baker Wright, so called because her husband was a Baker; a child of eight, he had gone out with other boys, but at dinner-time failed to appear. His elder brother, sent to look for him, returned to say that is companions had long since come home and one had told another that a boy had fallen into a ditch. Search was made, and he was found, face downwards in a ditch, suffocated in the mud. No one every discovered what really happened.

Of course, as in every small community, there were occasional ‘pin pricks’, and my father or mother would find someone look the other way, and instead of the usual friendly smile and curtsy, pass with the toss of the head or averted face, when they were utterly unconscious of having given any offence. One old lady had a grievance which kept her from Church for months, for once when the Church was crowded, her usual seat in the nave was taken and she had been shown to a place in the South aisle. “I b’aint going to sit in Bowers Marshes – not for no one”, she said.

A family named Bromley rented the Nash’s house for the Summer; they were all Artists and their son an R.A..  They were an unconventional family. Calling one day, we found them in the kitchen making rhubarb wine. Mrs. Bromley was feeding the mangle with the juicy sticks and Mr. Bromley was catching the juiced in the washing tub. Once at Reed’s Hill Mr. Browne offered Mrs. Bromley as many gooseberries as she could pick, and she arrived with a pair of her husband’s trousers sewn up at the bottoms in which to put them.

We had much fruit in the Vicarage garden. One apple tree was beloved by our Pony which used to back against it with all his weight to bring down the fruit.  There were greengages too, quince, figs, damsons and a medlar tree.

As I write these rambling recollections, many Benfleet names come back to me, of boys and girls of my own age, or younger, in whom I was interested; Ellis, Wrights, Wallers, Warrens, Wisemans, Andrews, Andersons, Brewitts, Jennings, Germains, Kirkhams………… I know that none of my generation of the Wisemans survive – Mrs. Lawrence was the last, and older fold to whom my father ministered and who so faithfully in their day and generation did their best to help and support him in his work for God and his Church.  The Freemans, Miss Plowright, Mrs. Turner, Elizabeth France, the Howards, the Blakelys, the Peases, the Brownes, the Daines, not forgetting the Parish Clerk, Brewitt.

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