Memories of a Decal Estate

By Edward Newell, Beds Times, May 1942

Recently, Mr Newell who has completed 50 years as our correspondent ,contributed an article to this newspaper of his early memories of Milton Ernest, his native village, and his description of the times when it had many industries and businesses and was practically self supporting, aroused widespread interest.

In the following article , with equally happy touch, he looks upon Oakley when it formed part of the estate of the Duke of Bedford, and later recalls a pleasant regime when the Duke’s agent Mr Prothero (afterwards Lord Ernle, Minister of Agriculture during the last war), lived at Oakley House, and who exercised such a wise and kindly influence on the village generally, and was a great supporter of social activities. Mr Newell’s story begins:

In the 1890’s the whole of Oakley belonged to His Grace, Hastings Duke of Bedford, and the Marquis and Marchioness of Tavistock were in residence at Oakley House, and Miss Rachel Gurney, who was staying at Oakley House and was a relative of Lady Tavistock. She was later married to the Earl of Dudley. The estate was well kept up. Mr Charles Clarke, the head gardener had a staff of seven gardeners, and of them, Mr William Beard is still living and is in his 90th year.

Mr Alfred White was the water bailiff and head gamekeeper, and was assisted by his son and the undertaker Joseph Bird. Pheasants, partridges, and wild duck were reared in large quantities, and hares were in abundance. You could count more than a hundred hares in one field near Westfield Farm. Town Farm was farmed then by the Marquis, and Mr W. Cheatle was the farm manager, and the Marques had a large enclosure on the farm for rearing of game. The fencing was foxproof and pheasants roamed the roads and scratched like so many chickens.

There was hardly any traffic in the village, and there were not many anglers from the town to be seen at that period. The late Mr Harry Thody, Mr W E Taylor, and Mr T S Porter, and a few others, fished in the Oakley waters.

Church Revival

The Rev C J E Smith, of Bromham, was the vicar, but there was a  small congregation at the church. The vicar played the harmonium. Mr Samuel West was the parish clerk; Mr H V Gosling and Mr Robert Horrell were churchwardens, but they only attended at the Easter vestry meetings, and they continued in that state until years later, when the Marques became Duke, and he only held the Dukedom for a brief period, and it then came to the late Duke Herbrand.

He with the Duchess made a stay at Oakley House and saw the state of affairs, and he appointed and paid a curate, the Rev T A Williams, and a wonderful curate he was. He got together, a choir, bellringers etc., and put his  heart and soul into the church.

He was an excellent preacher, and on Sunday evenings in the summer, the church was filled. He approached the Dowager Duchess Adeline on the matter of a Reading Room for the village, and by her influence, the Duke had a Reading Room built in 1897 which proved a great boon to the village.

The Rev T A Williams was the president and the writer acted as the secretary. When Duke Herbrand succeeded to the Dukedom he appointed Mr Walter Laurence as Chief Agent, an office he held for only a short time, as he was offered a Government position in India. He was succeeded my Mr R E Prothero, who came to Oakley House and from the very first took a keen interest in the village and the inhabitants. He had a bookcase fitted in the Reading Room and supplied the library. The Reading Room had hardly enough members to make it self supporting, so we supplemented it with concerts, which were always well attended. We always provided a good programme, and had some good artists from away, besides our local talent.

Music and Cricket

The Bedford artists included the late Mr William Paige Stewart, Mr Charles Dunkley, Mr Harry Stroud, Mr F Panchaud, Mr Fred Lennard, the female impersonator, and many well-known vocalists. The chairman at these concerts was the late Mr William Hartop, and right well did he carry out his duties.

A little later we started a dancing class, Mrs Hauberg was the instructress and Mr Hauberg played the piano. We held a class each week and  a ‘long night’ each month. These functions were a great success. We had a concert each month, so there was plenty of life and amusement in the village in those days.

Mr Protheroe, who was a first class cricketer suggested a village Cricket Club, and one was started the next winter, he had a pitch laid out. That job was done by Dick Rogers the well-known Bedford Modern School coach, and a beautiful pitch it was.

The curate at the time, the Rev L O Frewer, was an excellent cricketer, and Reg Horrell was a fast bowler and a big hitter. Arthur Hartop, W Perkins, I Swain J Ruffhead, Joseph Hulatt, A Tatman, F Panter, A Pepper, S Quenby and J Horne made a useful team. We played only friendly matches.

Mr Protheroe was the president and also captain of the team, and I was the secretary. When visiting teams came to Oakley, they were entertained to tea on the field by Mr Protheroe, who afterwards handed round cigars to the players and also to visitors who came to watch the game. Whit Monday’s fixture was with Kempston, and we played our return match on Dr Bower’s ground in September, when Dr Bowers kindly entertained us.

A good man goes

And so we carried on very happily until 1914, on that fateful day in August, which finished off our cricket, for so many members joined the Army

In 1918 the Duke of Bedford sold the Oakley estate, and we lost the best man Oakley has ever seen. Mr Protheroe wanted to buy the estate, but the Duke wished to keep Oakley House in the family, so Lord Ampthill bought Oakley House. Mr Protheroe, who by then had changed his name to Lord Ernle, bought an estate in Berkshire.

The Reading Room was sold, and all the festivities in the village ceased. Lord Ernle, who was Minister of Agriculture in the last war, did more for Oakley than any living man. The schoolchildren had a treat in the Summer, where he hired Mannings roundabouts, and giving them a good tea. At Christmas they had a similar feed, and Christmas tree with presents off it for all.

The women in the village had their meat tea and a good concert each October. The Cricket Club had their supper at the close of the season, with roast beef Yorkshire pudding etc. His Lordship gave a bat each season for the best batting average, and a bat for the best bowler.

The scene changes

It was a sad blow to Lord Ernle when is son, Mr Jack Protheroe was killed on the morning the Armistice was signed. His daughter Miss Hope Protheroe, was well known in the Oakley Hunt. She was a splendid rider and had some excellent horses. One in particular ’Cheriton Lass’ was much admired and a perfect fencer.

But when the Oakley Estate was sold, bungalows and modern houses were erected, trees cut down and, a change came over the village scene. Now there are only a few of the old Oakley people left. Rents have risen and the whole village has had a very great transformation. But we older ones like to look back on the past happy days.