Godmanchester’s past brought to life

AN EXTRAORDINARY DVD has captured the memories of a life-long resident of Godmanchester.

Neville Markham remembers peering out of a bedroom window from his home in Cambridge Street and watching a procession of German prisoners being marched to work on the land.

The year was 1918 and the country was at war. Neville was only four at the time.

The 96 year old’s remarkable photographic memory means he is able to recall in accurate detail events, people and places which would otherwise be long-forgotten.

Voices of Godmanchester, a 42 minute DVD produced by Kate Hadley, ensures those memories can never be lost and helps to put them in their historical context.

Neville begins by describing the tragic impact of World War I on the town which lost dozens of its fathers, brothers and sons.

A grim roll-call of the town’s war dead features on the DVD revealing how whole swathes of families, sometimes as many as five people with the same surname, were killed.

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Worried wives and mothers would take the long and excruciating walk to The Grove, which served as an army information centre, to learn about the whereabouts of their men-folk.

Neville remembers watching his own mother Naomi in tears because she had heard no word from her husband Martin, who was fighting in France.

His father was one of the few to return from war, though Martin Markham spent the rest of his life suffering with a crippling cough after surviving a gas attack.

Many families were not so lucky. Neville’s aunt Lil was one of the town’s many widows after her husband John never returned.

Neville said: “Everywhere there was wounded and disabled people. I remember wives on their own, the majority of them never got married again.

“It’s hard to lose your husband in war when it seems unnecessary.”

Neville’s grandfather and great grandfather are buried in Godmanchester churchyard. His family were master-builders and responsible for many of the town’s homes before World War I.

After the war, the building business collapsed as recession took its toll. But Neville, who left school at 14, was determined to start work.

He began by helping on his family’s farm, which he describes as a ‘terrible job.’

“I had to get up at 5am to milk the cows and then go round the houses with a half a pint measure and a big can delivering milk. I had to start up a night if a cow was going to calve. I hated the job, but I stuck it out for 12 months.”

He also helped his mother to produce her own cheese.

While families like his own struggled to make ends meet, the gentry owners of the big houses in Godmanchester, lived in a different world.

They employed a whole raft of servants to do household chores.

Girl servants, sometimes as young as 12, were ‘bought’ at the annual Easter horse fair, known then as the largest horse fair in the county.

The horse fair ended before Neville’s birth but he was told about his grandmother.

Mothers would take their daughters to The Three Horseshoes pub, now an estate agents on the corner of Cambridge Street, where they would be picked out by butlers or housekeepers in need of an extra pair of hands.

The girls earned just �25 a year and had one day off a fortnight. Neville says they were treated as “second class citizens” by some of their masters and mistresses.

He said: “It did not matter what little they wanted doing. If they wanted a lump of coal on the fire, they used to pull on a cord that would correspond with a bell in the kitchen, so you knew what room to go to.

“The kitchen maid had to go up to the room just to draw the curtain. Half-an-hour later they might want a lump of coal on the fire.”

Through the Hunts Post, Huntingdonshire’s newspaper since 1870, Neville learnt of a place available in St Ives as an apprentice butcher and so began a 40 year career.

Neville set up his own business in Godmanchester and to this day his sausages are locally renowned. Though the recipe is a closely guarded secret.

He said: “The secret to my sausages was the flavouring but I’ve never told anyone my recipe.”

Film-maker Mrs Hadley hopes the DVD, which are available for �10 at the Porch Museum from this month, will provide an insight into life for families in the 1920s and 1930s.

She said “Neville has seen cars come, planes arrive and the introduction of electricity. He can completely portray a time before the world changed.

“It is important for everyone to see it and for future generations to hear it and imagine what it was like. The present is rooted in the past. “Just as everybody says about their parents ‘I wish I had asked them more questions” - we are doing the wishing.”

INFORMATION: The Voices of Godmanchester DVD will be launched on Friday, March 18 at the Porch Museum. New book Godmanchester: A celebration of 800 years by Pam and Ken Sneath, will also be launched on the night and the museum’s new 3D map of Roman Godmanchester will be unveiled. Tickets for the launch night are �3 and include food, drink and a raffle. Proceeds from the night and from sales of the DVD will go to the museum, part of educational charity The Friends of Queen Elizabeth School. For more information or to order copies of the DVD call Mike Brown on 07979240972.