From Queen Edith to Frances Hitchman
Queen Edith, who survived her husband Edward the Confessor and died in 1075, held the manor of Long Wittenham near the English city of Oxford, this manor later becoming the village where Greenways was built almost a thousand years later. The village’s origins can be traced back to much earlier Saxon, Frankish and even Bronze Age settlements although the land where Greenways now sits is first visible on maps dating back only a few centuries. On the map below for instance, a Long Wittenham Parish map dated 1800, the plot now occupied by Greenways can be seen in the middle of the hatched area, between Berry’s Piece and Town Furlong where the now Didcot Road branches off the now High Street at an angle: just above the letter ‘o’ in ‘Town’. Note that this map shows the river Thames near Greenways as it was before the 19th century addition of the Clifton Cut to the river (the new straight line bit of river visible in the coloured Ordnance Survey (OS) photo below the map), the old heavily curved river and the two weirs also being visible not far from Greenways in the recently taken OS photo of the village and surroundings).
Greenways was built here in 1896 by the Bush family, an up and coming lineage that established itself within the village throughout the middle of the nineteenth century. A number of the family played a significant part in Long Wittenham’s village school (still with us in the 21st century as the village’s Primary School), Church Vestry and also as land surveyors, the triple achievements of education, church service and property thrusting them presumably into a certain wealth, and also into the ‘headlights’ of recognised village society. They are mentioned in passing by Kathleen Burk Jewess in her book ‘The Parish of Long Wittenham 1800 – 1920 A Brief History’, (Wittenham Women’s Institute 1984, Berks record office D/EX 867-1, pages 15-16) as new nineteenth century arrivals into the prestige family circuit of Long Wittenham:
“Within the parish, then, it was the Overseers of the Poor who were responsible for ensuring that no one starved in the parish, or that those who were ill had help. The Overseers were chosen, along with the Churchwardens and other parish officers, by the Vestry, the organisation which served as a parish council before councils as such were established by law in 1894. The Vestry was made up of the Vicar and the more substantial landholders and tradesman, who controlled their own membership. The same names recur: Hewetts and Haywards, Clutterbucks and Sadlers, later Tames and Bushes.”
John batten Bush, who died in 1863, may have been the family member who helped establish them to the point where they could consider building a new house. He was a schoolmaster, land surveyor and rent collector, and it was probably his son, Harry Batten Bush, living at the family’s Lovegroves Farm (Laurel Bank as it was then known) that was in charge of the new building project, on land that would presumably have been a part of the Farm and adjacent to the fifteenth century farm labourer’s thatched cottage (the present Footbridge Cottage next to Greenways that was later the home of the great artist and publisher Robert Gibbings). Harry’s wife Frances – a tailor – had in fact died in 1892, four years before the building of Greenways. Had her death been any sort of motivator for Harry to set about a project for a new house?
A family tree of the Bushes, prepared by members of Long Wittenham’s historical society shows Frances (Fearn), John Batten Bush, and Harry Batten Bush’s place within the family. From it we see that Frances and Harry had four children; Frances, Mary Ann, Harry and Sarah Bush:
From this tree, (much of it gathered from various County Post Office Directories), it is clear that Harry Batten Bush only just lived long enough to see through the project of the new house, if indeed it was his project. He died in 1897, the year after it was built, at the respectable age of 67.
We know a lot about what the original house was like because in all major structural respects it is now as it was when built, a reflection of the good judgement in the initial design and layout. There have been a few additions and subtractions; the change of the scullery into a part a type of pantry, the erection of the garden room in 1981, the new kitchen replacing the old pantry including the plastering over in the 1990s of the then painted open brickwork, the taking down of the oil store shed on the northwest wall (still evident from colouration marks on the brickwork), the demolition of the wall separating the old toilet and bathroom at the back of the house on the first floor, again in the 1990s. Then the various garage, woodshed and garden store room changes in the second half of the twentieth century. But in essence, it is as it always was; a thoughtful, useful, handsome, classic and skilfully balanced family home.
There are a few quite remarkable and elegant pieces of design – the doorway, the stair banister posts, the kitchen range, the front elevation and room proportion balances, the interior paving, the bell system – which show that the house was classically refined and thoughtfully balanced but also utterly modern. In the picture below one can see the care, for example, that went into the ornate vegetation carving of the two major banister stop posts:
Or the intelligence of the beautifully coloured diamond and square leaded light panels that form the front door and side panel junction between the flamboyant exterior gothic arched front garden opening and the interior of the house, and bring light into the house without any expense on its privacy:
It is all in the detail, a fact that is reinforced by blowing up a small section from the picture above, of the tiles placed throughout the ground floor of the house. A good eye can just pick out the deliberately placed inaccurate red tile on the lower left not far from the banister post, where the pattern should have demanded a black one. (A conventional and understood sign for humility: the good Lord, perfect, above. Humanity, with its fallibility, beneath. How apposite for a floor).
All of these details sit happily with other more modern turn of the century advances. Perhaps the Premier Eagle Range built into the original kitchen, was the biggest technical extravagance. A special high level turned wooden mantelpiece had to be designed to wrap round and over it, and more than a hundred years after its manufacture by the Eagle Range & Grate Co, of Aston Birmingham (showrooms in Liverpool, Bristol and 58, St Paul’s Churchyard London) it is still going strong and in perfect working order, complete with a dusty original set of instructions, the clarity of whose language is beyond reproach and a lesson to our present century:
The range was distinctive enough to merit mention in a 2007 Daily Telegraph article on Mrs Beeton’s influence on Victorian houses, which also describes the classical form of the room layout: “The earliest-known, surviving fitted kitchen, which dates from the 1920s, was brought over from Frankfurt for the V&A exhibition on Modernism last year. It was the fashion for these that swept away so many original Victorian kitchens (the cream tiles, the caramel gloss paint, the plate racks) are all gone. A rare surviving kitchen range is, however, still in situ at Greenways, Long Wittenham, near Abingdon in Oxfordshire. It looks handsome in what is now the dining room, and the double-fronted house, built in 1896, still has its hierarchy of four reception rooms, five bedrooms and a good, ornate tiled fireplace in the sitting room.”
But it is essentially in the combination of all these striking features with the usefulness of the rest, and a complete and concomitant lack of any fussy or pretentious ornamentation anywhere in the house, that Greenway’s true quality and distinction is continuously evident. It is a quiet sense of value; unhurried but unfussy, and a combination we are increasingly unused to. The now massive Wellingtonia tree that marks the boundary of Fieldside and the Didcot Road is another example of this set of traits: to plant such a beautiful yet non native tree on the border line of the house at the end of the nineteenth century was yet another typically thoughtful but unexpected gesture.
On the back of this cornucopia of good taste in combination with practical living one might presume that the members of the Bush family were sufficiently happy with the result of their (or Harry’s) work. And in fact it appears that they actually ‘signed’ the work of the house, for towards the front of the northwest side wall of the house can still be found the initials of all the family members who were the first to live in the house, incised into the brickwork next to the date 1896. It is unlikely (though not impossible) that this would have been done much later than 1896. Near the breakfast room window there is another, possibly later, and somewhat more crudely executed enigmatic signing ‘P. W. 1896’.
The 1901 Census records the new abode and its inhabitants, but from it, as from other sources, we can see that the house was not at first called Greenways. That came later. It was known originally as Ivymeath (the amount of Ivy is evident in the early pictures such as one of the house taken, probably in the 1920s that is part of the memorabilia referred to above).
The Census records the first inhabitants of Ivymeath:
Harry S Bush Head of the Household, 34 years of age, Single, Land Surveyor
Frances E Bush, sister, Single, 40, no employment given
Mary A Bush, Single, 38 Governess School
Sarah E Bush, single, 32, no employment given
‘HBB’, one notices, is the only initial from the wall not in the 1901 census. But then that was the eponymous Harry Batten Bush who had died four years before the census, just one year after entering his Valhalla. His sole son Harry Stewart James, who would have been around thirty when his father died, became the only male in the household, but he also did not have long in the new house. His death is recorded in 1902.
Harry Stewart’s passing – surely in part at least – explains the arrival of the next resident of Ivymeath, when in 1903, Frances, the oldest remaining Bush family member in the house, married Josiah Hitchman. In some ways it might have seemed a curious match for a girl of the standing of Frances Bush. Mr. Hitchman was a local tailor, a widower from a modest house on the High Street, 61 years old when he married Frances and thus almost twenty years older than her. But his wife had died only the previous year, and that probably explains it: a marriage made from combining a young house without a man with an old man without a wife. A local marriage then that helped all parties even if we cannot say that love might not still have been, however unlikely sounding, the spur.
A picture of Frances in the front garden of Ivymeath, signed from December 1900 but clearly from at least the summer before, reveals a petite handsome thoughtful looking women. Across the bottom are the confidently penned words ‘Wishing you a Happy Xmas 1900’. She holds onto a black and a white dog, one on each side of her. Her mouth is set, the eyes focused in the distance towards the front door of the house, and the fact of it being a photograph is yet another reminder of the modernity of the family. On the back, in a more contemporary hand is written “Mrs. Hitchman with Kalpi (the white dog) and Lion”, though of course at this stage Frances would not have been Mrs. Hitchman, but Miss Bush, and her brother Harry Stewart would still have been alive. Despite the posed slightly glassy eyed look to Frances Bush – as if she was being directed by the erstwhile cameraman to look into the middle distance in the general direction of the new railway town of Didcot – there is a solidity here, something seemingly utterly trustworthy about her. You can see that she is not overly grand, even if the setting and her dress suggest more than a certain comfort.
Other pictures still in the possession of the house, on post cards from the company ‘Wari and Andrew, Photographer, Abingdon’, contain words and instructions printed not only in English, but also in French and German. They carry two differing stamp rates for ‘Inland’ and ‘Foreign’: half-penny for Inland, One Penny for Foreign. Looked at from today their language seems quaint to the point of amusement, for despite being both modern and cosmopolitan for their time, they are messages from an almost infinitely simpler age, and an epoch when the ‘world’ was still divided into two: the country (as well as the Empire) that was home – represented by the pink coloured bits on maps of the world – and then the rest of the world, incurably foreign and essentially not only unknowing, but also perhaps unknowable.
In these pictures from another age, Ivymeath’s front garden is awash with roses, and in one, Miss Bush – or perhaps by now she is Mrs. Hitchman – holds ‘Tatters’, the cat. On the reverse of another picture, Tatters helps her (or him) self to milk and cream from a jug on a table in the garden, and spidery lines, apparently in the hand of Frances’s sister Sarah Bush, are addressed to a Miss Maggie Tame at the Elms in Long Wittenham, another member of Long Wittenham’s erstwhile new families of substance.
In line with the language and images of the cards, life seemed to go on as before. People died and married and gave birth and moved on, including the Hitchman family itself, parts of which moved on (or was it back?) to Iffley near Oxford when Josiah married into the new Bush dynasty and moved into Ivymeath. But the prospect of real change, as we would recognise it now, must have seemed quite remote. The picture below of the Cross, taken from just outside Ivymead’s fence and looking beyond the Cross to the thatched cottages on the High Street that still stand today opposite Greenways, suggests a world that had not changed in centuries, and an idyll that one might think never to end.
It was not to last. Josiah Hitchman, taylor, of Oxford, died in 1913, and the coming first world war changed the country, the village, and quite probably the family, forever. By the time the war had ended, Ivymeath’s composition itself had also changed. The 1911 census informs us that the household had taken on a servant in the form of 14 year old Grace Ellen Green, an arrival into service from nearby Little Wittenham, whilst Frances’s sister Sarah, who was still in the house, was working assisting in a Boarding House. (Not Ivymeath; it was later in the story that the house became divided into flats, as one can see from the still existing old double electricity meter cupboards in what is now the breakfast room). Frances’s other Sister Mary Ann had moved on, and seems to have died in an asylum in Cholsey in 1918. There were no children from the marriage, but Mrs. Frances Hitchman herself lived on to the ripe old age of 83, dying only a year before the end of the second world war. What was her story in those tumultuous intervening years?
There is precious little that we know of that, even if we wonder if she is not present in pictures such as this one below of a feast day by the cross around 1928-9, taken just as the great depression was about to strike. In the background is French’s Riverside, French’s, and Greenways boundary fence and then abundant foliage.
And of course, depression or not, life went on. This advert for the famous Eagle Range found at Greenways (though a less grand one than that to be found in the house), of around this time, shows the company to be still going strong despite the economic strictures, even as the language and imagery is already changing:
But for a proper connection and view onto Frances Hitchman né Bush, you have to look elsewhere, to a wonderful copy of the bible that still exists, and that conjures Frances up in this intervening period, as well as opening an elegant door onto that old vanished world from which she and her family has issued. The bible was presented to her father, our old friend Harry Batten Bush, on the occasion of his marriage in 1859. In a gorgeous flowing hand, the front page dedication to him is made by the Reverend James Charles Clutterbuck – pretty well as eminent a personage as Long Wittenham has managed to summon up in its almost two thousand years of history. It is given, writes Vicar Clutterbuck,
“ … as a token of regard and in remembrance of a faithful discharge of duty in the parish of Long Wittenham, December 22nd 1859”.
That was some dedication to the man who probably commissioned the building of Greenways and to whom it thereby owes its origins. But that is not all. Underneath, in a personal delicate hand that has become blotchy over time are the words,
“presented to Long Wittenham School by Frances Emma Hitchman, daughter of the above, December 22nd 1935”.
December 22 1859 … and 1935. Two different centuries, two worlds – universes even – pass between those hands yet still share the same page. Between them lie incalculable spaces, immensities however which must surely have been the everyday stuff of experience, the very texture, of Frances Hitchman’s life. The end of an empire, the descent into the horrors of two world wars (when she died Hitler would still have been alive), and the loss, or perhaps it is simply an exchange, of certain unspoken senses of what it is to be a human being. All present on the one single opening page. She was not perhaps quite Queen Edith, the holder of Greenway’s land from so long before, but there is nevertheless a kind of aristocracy at play with Frances, and you can picture the 1935 pre Christmas scene as hushed village schoolchildren would have been gathered to listen attentively to the grand old lady whose father and grandfather had taught before her in the school.
I am glancing again at the Reverend Clutterbuck’s words “… as a token of regard and in remembrance of a faithful discharge of duty in the parish of Long Wittenham …”. and as I peruse the document I sit in the front drawing room of Greenways, of Frances and Harry Batten Bush’s old Ivymeath in the parish of Long Wittenham, staring out across the darkness of the evening High Street to the village school and the church beyond, that welcomed these people for the celebration of their weddings and the remembrance of their lives. And in this house is the link. Perhaps that is why I write, holding the memory just so before it otherwise vanishes. For in some strange sense, when the memory goes, time vanishes and the house itself becomes that little bit less.
So to whoever is the next incumbent of the chairs in the house, to whoever inherits the ageless view across the village through the central sash window of the first floor, and the knowledge that it was the Robert Gibbings in the studio next door who painted, and travelled the oceans, and returned to create the mighty Golden Cockerel Press and pen the likes of ‘Sweet Thames run Softly’ and ‘Until I end my song’. And the fact that Elena Casagrande Marcus as a little girl thought the foliage on the top of the back garden wood shed (that no longer exists) to be South America, or that Patience Empson, Gibbings sister in law and later partner next door at Footbridge, loved not only Robert, but also William Blake and birds, and had a fine Bernard Leach collection, and smiled whenever and wherever beauty passed. And so to that person, I bequeath the memory and the story (and also perhaps the responsibility) for The Origins of Greenways, Chapter One. Dear reader, somewhere, soon it will be your turn …