Experience ‘time travel’ at Museum of East Anglian Life exhibit

Emily and Fred Wilding in about 1950. Note the church in the background - a landmark common to many

Emily and Fred Wilding in about 1950. Note the church in the background - a landmark common to many pictures from Crowe Street Picture: Archant photograph of Museum of East Anglian Life display board - Credit: Archant

Tour of Crowe Street Cottages gives visitors a unique glimpse into the past

Crowe Street Cottages in Stowmarket hide their secrets from the casual passer-by. The pinky building is old, clearly, but there’s no hint that behind its white doors lies our past.

One side: the hum of the 21st Century, where we carry the world with us on a handset in our pocket or bag. Two centimetres the other side: a living-room from yesteryear, where news of far-off Moscow, Marseilles and Minsk comes from a cream-coloured wireless… if only we can twiddle the tuning-needle into the right positions.

It was here that Emily Wilding came to live in the 1930s. She would run a dairy from the back – skimming-off the cream early in the morning and selling milk from the door.

For 200 years or so, the cottages were home to a changing cast of farmworkers and their families. Emily was the last resident.

Emily Wilding with step-granddaughter Margaret in about 1941 Picture: Archant photograph of Museum

Emily Wilding with step-granddaughter Margaret in about 1941 Picture: Archant photograph of Museum of East Anglian Life display board - Credit: Archant

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In her 70s, she made a gift of her furniture and many belongings to the Museum of East Anglian Life, effectively her neighbour. She told staff about her 40 or so years there, too. The museum also became guardian of the building itself.

Emily’s things were put back in the rooms, and visitors today can see how she used to live.

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There’s a table with a teapot and a couple of cups and saucers. The lead and collar for husband Fred’s dog, Lassie. Emily’s apron. A tankard that head horseman Fred used to drink from while out on the fields – and which his wife used too: to measure out a pint of water while cooking.

Low ceilings, sloping floors, creaking stairs, coal-tongs. No 82-inch TV screens.

“Crowe Street Cottages were opened to the public in 2012 after being restored thanks to funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund,” says Chloe Brett, the Museum of East Anglian Life’s marketing officer.

“Since then they’ve become the museum’s most popular tour, frequently requested by groups and day visitors alike.

“The personal items given by the Wilding family have helped to bring the cottages to life. It gives you a real sense of how the family lived and I think that’s why the building resonates with our visitors.

“When you walk around, you really feel as if Mrs Wilding could still be living there.”

Emily Rice was a Victorian (just) born in 1990.In December, 1922, she went to “live in” at Abbot’s Hall in Stowmarket – to work as a cook. She found herself supervising three other domestic staff – parlour maid, housemaid and in-between maid – as well as catering for the Longe family and any guests they might be hosting.

For afternoon tea she might bake gingerbread, cakes (sponge, Madeira) or rock buns. For tennis parties in the summer there might be shortbread adorned with half a glacé cherry.

In 1929 Emily said goodbye to her job to marry Fred Wilding, the estate’s horseman, and inherit an instant family.

Home became the intriguingly-named Seabreeze Cottage, not far from the hall. Fred’s new wife was stepmother to his lads Ken and Len.

Fred Wilding, born in 1889, was foreman, head horseman and relief cowman. He’d prove the last horseman at Abbot’s Hall farm.

The story of the couple, and their lives and times, is told on display boards dotted around Crowe Street Cottages.

Fred had started work on the estate in 1919 after being demobbed following the First World War. He’d lost his first wife in 1914 (the year younger child Kenneth was born) but was lucky to have tied housing for himself and his two children.

The estate didn’t have a tractor early on, so Fred had to use horses. His working day began at 5am and he toiled seven days a week.

The farm bred and kept Suffolk horses, Red Poll cows and silver-laced Wyandotte chickens. The range of crops included rye, barley, wheat, potatoes, beans and mangels. It was among the first local farms to grow sugar beet, too.

As foreman, Fred had to keep the accounts and pay staff. He would collect a cheque from Captain Longe at the hall and take it to the bank to be cashed. On Saturday mornings he would pay the permanent agricultural workers and any temporary staff taken on to help at busy times, such as harvest.

Emily and Fred moved into Crowe Street, not far away, in about 1936.

The cottages had been built for workers on the estate. The museum says: “Unremarkable in themselves, they are the point where Abbot’s Hall, its farm and the town of Stowmarket meet.”

There was the chance to run the dairy at the back of the cottages. Emily took it. She prepared milk for “the big house”, selling to local people any milk and cream that was left.

Tuesday was the day Emily usually made butter – she did it once a week. The butter was taken to Abbot’s Hall for the family’s use.

Visitors today can walk in the rooms that used to be the cottage dairy. When the museum was given the building in the 1970s, this area included a lobby and inside loo. Another room was next-door.

Building work seven or eight years ago took away an asbestos wall and let staff open up the space to recreate the dairy. They didn’t know precisely how it would have looked when Emily toiled there, but have used objects from the museum collection to give an impression of how it might have been.

In Crowe Street, Emily also took care of domestic chores, such as cooking and keeping house. Her husband continued with his jobs as head horseman and foreman.

“Her day may have started when Fred brought her a cup of tea as he went out to work at 5am,” says the museum, “but there is no doubt that she was the last one to bed at night after all the daily chores had been done.”

It also points out that many objects in the house date from Fred’s first marriage. They were kept over the years – partly for sentimental reasons but also because the Wildings didn’t have the money to replace them.

“Few people could afford to change their furniture, so the pieces bought when they married lasted throughout their lives. Although this may sometimes have been hard for Emily, she got on with her life cheerfully.”

Ken Wilding had grown up in and around the Abbot’s Hall estate. He and older brother Len worked as milk lads while still at school. They carried milk around the town twice a day, and also cleaned the chicken houses of Miss Ena Longe’s silver laced Wyandottes.

After leaving school at 14 Ken became a “backus boy” (back-of-the-house boy) at the hall. He kept doing the milk round, and did odd jobs and cleaned cutlery. He also helped the two gardeners: working in the kitchen garden, hoeing paths and weeding rose-beds.

At 17 he became under-cowman. Each morning he had to round up three or four cows, milk them by hand, do the milk-round, fetch the cattle’s food and muck them out.

In 1940 Ken and his first wife had daughter Margaret. Sadly, the baby’s mother died not long after. Grandparents Emily and Fred helped bring her up.

There’s a nice picture of Fred and his granddaughter playing with dog Dilly in the garden of Crowe Street Cottages in the mid-1940s.

An armchair from the time of Fred’s first marriage was adapted for the young girl by shortening its legs. It’s in the parlour today.

Margaret, by the way, got married in the spring of 1960.

The Abbot’s Hall estate and the town of Stowmarket was the sun around which family life revolved. Fred grew fruit and veg, or it was given to them by friends, while milk came from the farm.

Emily shopped locally, in the main – at the International stores, Burrows greengrocers and Turners grocers. There was also a market twice a week. “The only time Mrs Wilding shopped further afield was for clothes, as she could not get the right size in Stowmarket.”

Emily appeared adept at making friends, including people who’d employed her and Fred: Cora (housekeeper at Abbot’s Hall) and even the Longe sisters.

The Frigidaire fridge now in the kitchen was owned by Miss Vera Longe and later given to Emily. It didn’t actually work by then, but the resourceful new owner put it to good use as a cupboard for food.

Emily was a religious soul. She was a regular at chapel on Sundays. Later, she went to women’s meetings and over-60s groups at the Gospel Hall, Elim Church and Salvation Army.

“As her family grew up and her work as dairywoman came to an end, Mrs Wilding found more time for herself and used her skills in caring for others,” explains the museum.

“She was a local member of the Women’s Institute, as well as a very active member of the Women’s Voluntary Service.”

During the Second World War the Wildings gave a temporary home to at least four soldiers. There were also a couple of Land Army girls, from Sheffield and Stonham Aspal, who helped with milking, feeding, mucking out and cleaning.

In the late 1940s Captain Longe, from Abbot’s Hall, retired. The farm animals that were left were sold.

Fred died in 1964. By that time, the way of life he’d known was changing fast and folk concerned about the loss of traditional skills, equipment and buildings were doing something about it.

Rural artefacts were collected and cared for, and went on temporary display around Suffolk. Then Vera and Ena Longe offered room on their estate to set up a museum. It opened in 1967.

Abbot’s Hall itself, and more land, was passed to the Abbot’s Hall Trust and leased to the museum in 2004, after the sisters had died.

Emily died in 1978, and stepson Ken in 1991. But memories – tangible memories – of the joys and challenges faced by the family and folk like them live on in the photographs and objects so cherished by those who value the past.

“These humble cottages give a rare and fascinating insight into rural working class life from the 1930s to the 1960s,” says the Museum of East Anglian Life.

The Crowe Street Cottages are, in essence, “a rich record of the lives of ordinary people”.

“Down at the Dairy”, a tour of Crowe Street Cottages in Stowmarket, runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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