Retired dinner lady's book captures slice of village's social history

Brenda Picking outside the church in Hessett with a copy of her book, A Portrait of a Suffolk Village

Brenda Picking outside the church in Hessett with a copy of her book, Hessett: Portrait of a Suffolk Village - Credit: Jill Carter

Life in a Suffolk village from times past has been captured in a book that is the culmination of 50 years' research.

Brenda Picking, 80, has put together a portrait of Hessett, a small village in west Suffolk, which became her home 60 years ago.

The 160-page book reveals how the village has changed, from the days when the land was owned by the abbey in Bury St Edmunds to later centuries when agriculture dominated the lives of every family.

Edna Hazelwood delivering post to Jimmy Bauly at Spring Farm

Edna Hazelwood delivering post to Jimmy Bauly at Spring Farm. - Credit: Supplied by author

Mrs Picking has uncovered some fascinating facts, including a list of people convicted featuring one woman who got three days hard labour for stealing acorns.

She had always been interested in history, but it was the late Frank Whitnall, a former headteacher at Beyton Middle School where she worked as a lunchtime supervisor, who encouraged her to embark on research of the local area.


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Mr Whitnall had asked her to find out about Beyton's history, but she also picked up pieces of information about the neighbouring village of Hessett and decided to carry on.

George Bullett with a horse called Dodman and Sid Bullett with Smart at Hall Lane.

George Bullett with a horse called Dodman and Sid Bullett with Smart at Hall Lane. - Credit: Supplied by author

Mrs Picking said: "It's been a labour of love. It started off being something for somebody else and then I got into the swing of things and wanted to find out more."

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"There's no book on the village of Hessett," she added.

Mrs Picking had moved from London to Hessett in 1962, a year after marrying Don, who took up a job at RAF Mildenhall.

The couple bought a home on The Green in Hessett where they brought up their two daughters, Diane and Janice.

When they first arrived the local farms employed many of the men in the village and there was a wide range of home-grown entertainment.

Regulars at the Five Bells in the 1890s

Regulars at the Five Bells in the 1890s - Credit: Supplied by author

News was exchanged in the pub – The Five Bells – and at the butcher’s and local shop and post office. There were also many groups like the Scouts, football and darts teams and social events in the village hall and at the rectory.

The Suffolk Archives has been an important source of information and Mrs Picking has spent many hours at the Bury record office, painstakingly searching through documents like the Census, tax records, court cases and wills, plus maps and photos.

Another rich vein has been conversations with older villagers who reminisced about their lives, and some stories were passed on by relatives.

This social history includes wartime adventures, the village school, thatched cottages burning down, trips into town by horse and cart, picking wild strawberries for jam, befriending American airmen during the war and life in service.

Valentine hoe demonstration. 1949?

William Valentine, far right, on the back of his invention - the Valentine sugar beet hoe - in 1949 - Credit: Supplied by author

Mrs Picking said she was "fascinated" by people's stories, and mentioned one of particular interest: William Valentine.

The story of Mr Valentine, who was born in 1917 and died in 1998, was passed on by his daughter.

He is quoted as saying: "I was asked to join this kind of secret service way back in 1937 when I was at Old Bucks Farm. We were sabotage secret undercover agents and we used the Home Guard as a cover after the war started.

"The powers that be thought even in 1937 that the Germans would invade via Harwich and travel up to Manchester."

Harvest time: Left to right, Fred Bullett, Harry Cocksedge, Ray Rogers on the tractor, Ivan Rogers, Bill Davies and Herbie Bullett.

Harvest time: Left to right, Fred Bullett, Harry Cocksedge, Ray Rogers on the tractor, Ivan Rogers, Bill Davies and Herbie Bullett - Credit: Supplied by author

Mrs Picking said the book, which is dedicated to her late husband Don, took so long to put together as she fitted it in around work and family commitments. 

She has already sold more than 80 copies of the book, Hessett: Portrait of a Suffolk Village, with all the proceeds going to the Hessett Church Preservation Society.

Copies, priced at £7.99, are available from Rougham Post Office or from the author on 01359 270909.

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