“My Village”, by Gillian Pether
Gillian Pether was 14 years old when she wrote this article in 1959. It was published in the Benson Bulletin in September 1994. To this day her mother still keeps an original copy with tremendous pride. Apparently it hit the local press all those years ago, and one can see why. For us it is a unique reflection at a point half-way between the rural village emerging from the Second World War and our present very much expanded Benson.
The name of my village is Benson, or to be exact Bensington. It is situated twelve miles from Oxford, fifteen miles from Reading and twelve miles from Henley. It is also on the Thames, three miles from Wallingford. Since the nineteen thirties, Benson has become well known because of its aerodrome.
It is a long straggly village nestling between the Chiltern Hills and the river Thames, and it is very close to the Berkshire border. The main road between London and Oxford passes by Benson. In the old coaching days Benson was an important stop for the horses to be changed, and the White Hart, The Three Horse Shoes, The Castle, and the Crown still remain to remind us of those days.
Benson people are very proud of their Parish Church (which is dedicated to St.Helen) because it was first built in the eight century by King Offa of Mercia. It is he who fought and won the Battle of Bensington against the West Saxons on the ground near the house which stands there now and is called “Battle Bank”.
Benson has its own Vicar and Doctor living in the village, also its own district nurse and policeman. Benson school was built by the church in the middle of the nineteenth century, but it has been much enlarged since then. Benson school has five teachers working in it, but at the moment only the Headmaster and the Infants’ teacher live in the village. The others live in Ewelme, Oxford and Stadhampton. Once it was an all age school, now it is just a primary school (infants and juniors) with five class rooms and a new kitchen and new cloak rooms added recently.
When Benson children have reached the age of eleven they pass on to other schools. There is a Secondary Modern school at Dorchester, Wallingford Grammar School, Roysse’s school Abingdon, and St.Helen’s school at Abingdon. Didcot and Littlemore Grammar School.
The residents of Benson are very fortunate in having a wide variety of shops. There are two butchers, two grocers, one draper, and a dairy. Besides all these there are various sweet shops, a cafe, an antique business, an electrician and three garages.
In the year 1920 a War Memorial was erected opposite the Vicarage in Castle Square and in 1952 a War Memorial Window at a cost of £200 was put in the Church behind the font by public subscription.
In the year 1923 Benson had its first Parish Hall, it cost £1,158 and the money for it was raised by public subscription. In 1924 Admiral Miller who was very interested in the Scout movement built the Scout hut at Littleworth, and his widow who is now an octogenarian still helps to keep the Scout hut in its good condition.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Free Church was built opposite the Post Office and later on a Free Church Hall was built in Littleworth.
Benson people are very fortunate in having so many activities in the village. There are:
1. St.Helen’s Men’s Society
2. St.Helen’s Over 60 Guild
3. South Oxfordshire Flower Club
4. The Women’s Institute
5. The Mother’s Union
6. The Parent Teachers’ Association
7. The Benson & District Angling Association
8. The Benson Choral Society
9. The Benson & Ewelme British Legion (men and Women)
10. St.Helen’s Bell Ringers’ Club
11. St.Helen’s Ladies’ Guild
12. Benson Sea Scouts and Cubs
13. Benson Guides and Brownies
14. Benson Dramatic Society
15. Benson Football Club
16. Benson Tennis Club
17. St.Helen’s Church Choir
18. The Benson Orchestra
These activities take place at the Church, the Vicarage, the Parish Hall, the School, the Scout Hut, and the outdoor ones on the recreation ground at Sunnyside. (Incidentally this year a pavilion has been built by volunteer workers, and a changing room at Rivermead is in process of being built, also by volunteer labour).
In the old days farming was the chief means of livelihood. As Benson was a coaching stop between Oxford and London, quite a few villagers were employed as ostlers and post boys. Today however most of the village men are employed by Morris works, Cowley and the Pressed Steel works and only a small proportion of the population now work on the farms. There are four builders in Benson, Mr R.D. Wells, Mr H. Aldridge, Mr H. West and Mr J. Aldridge and between them they employ quite a few men as craftsmen.
There is quite a busy Post Office in Benson where letters are sorted each morning at 5.30a.m. and are delivered to many surrounding villages, Ewelme, Ipsden, Benson Aerodrome, Woodlands, Turners’ Court, Well Place, Berrick, Roke and Roke Marsh. There are five postmen (my Father is one of them) one postwoman and between them they have the use of three post office vans and three bicycles.
Half way between Benson and Wallingford is the Hydraulic Establishment which is in Howbery Park, the former home of Lord and Lady Wittenham. The scientists and engineers, who work here make models of various harbours and water-ways in order to discover why they are silting up, or why the water is flowing in at a certain angle. When they have found the answer to their problem they send a team out to that particular harbour and use their knowledge to put the fault right.
The R.A.F Station at Benson employs civilians for work on keeping the grounds tidy and as waiters and batmen in the Officer’s mess. Both Didcot ordinance depot and Harwell Atomic Establishment employ Benson men and women, and each day buses come to fetch them and return them in the evening.
Manley’s English Honey is known the world over. Mr Robert Manley who lives in Preston Crowmarsh, part of Benson, is the founder of the firm and the honey is collected and bottled there. On the label is written “Manley’s English Honey from the Apiaries of R.B.Manley Benson Oxford, from the flowers of the Chiltern Hills” This firm employs local men too.
The River Thames at Benson provides a great attraction. In Rivermead there is a paddling pool, a shelter, two or three seats and it is at this spot that the Salter’s Steamers moor. Boats may be hired by the day or the week or longer from Benson Lido. Mr Banks is the owner of it and he employs local men and women. The men help to build or repair boats all the year round, and the ladies are employed during the summer to prepare the boats for hire.
There are quite a number of hospitals and nursing homes within two or three miles of Benson which employ Benson people as nurses, male orderlies and domestics. They are Wallingford Cottage Hospital, St.Mary’s Hospital, St George’s Maternity Hospital, the Fair Mile Mental hospital, Rush Court Nursing home and Wallingford Castle, which is a home for retired people.
Apart from the inhabitants of Benson who have lived and worked here for years, there are an increasing number of newcomers who have chosen Benson because of its attractive position. Many new houses and bungalows are being built including an all cedar bungalow just opposite the school.
Many retired people have made Benson their home. They include army officers, business people, clergymen, retired publicans, retired teachers, retired Sub Post-Master and retired Colonial administrators.
It is interesting to note that the population of Benson in 1929 was 1,213 whereas today 30 years later it is 2,300-nearly double.
Postscript to “MY VILLAGE” from Nora St. C Palmer.
I was particularly delighted to read dear Gillian Pether’s essay on ‘My Village’, because I set it for her thirty five years ago! - and what happy memories it has evoked for me and for many other residents of that time.
Gillian had a heart condition which prevented her from attending school, so the County provided home tutors for her, and I taught her towards the end of her school days. She was a lovely girl and a cheerful intelligent pupil, and I enjoyed her company. In the winter I cycled to her home at Sunnyside, and in the summer we worked on the lawn of the Vicarage, in the shade of those ancient yews.
Gillian’s life was a short one, but she was married, and George and I returned from Deddington for her wedding, where I (unexpectedly), was called upon to play the organ. The music for the hymns was there but I had to play the Wedding March from memory and I could only remember the first few bars, which were repeated many times over. I am so grateful to Mrs Pether for having kept Gillian’s essay and for giving us all so much pleasure.
Benson War Memorial with Castle Square in the background, before the development of Castle Close
Sampler by Isabel Taylor