Sometimes, personal and broader histories intersect in striking ways, and where the point of intersection finds the form of an object it can become a strangely weighty site of memory. This is one such moment, and one such object, rooted in the now legendary village of Tyneham in Dorset. Tyneham is a place that has literally gone down in history – an unassuming coastal settlement taken over by the War Office in 1943, as the preparations for the invasion of Normandy ramped up. Tyneham’s inhabitants were exiled from their homes, with the promise that they could return once the national emergency was over. But that promise was broken, and the village became something of a cause célèbre in the postwar decades as some among the dwindling numbers of its former inhabitants protested over their ongoing exclusion, and others took up their cause. In the process, the place itself became a melancholy ‘lost village’: a hauntingly deserted tribute to wartime exigencies and a ready site for modern emotional investments in the histories of rural dispossession.
The starting point for this story is one of Tyneham’s temporary inhabitants – a girl named Annie Manktelow, who was sent by her parents, aged about 10, to live with her grandmother in the village. Annie was from Lewisham, then relatively recently absorbed into the suburbs of a London growing outwards along its railway lines. Annie Manktelow was my partner’s grandmother.
Annie spent her early teenage years in Tyneham helping her widowed grandmother Sarah Manktelow look after Sarah’s ageing brother, Annie’s great uncle George. A few years after George’s death in 1914 she joined the Women’s Land Army, before entering domestic service and eventually marrying a sailor – a decade or more her senior – then settling in Cambridge to bring up her four daughters.
‘The Only Poor Ones in the Village’
George Richards was one of the village’s local characters. He was born in 1827, so he was already full of years when Annie came to help her grandmother with his upkeep. Sarah Manktelow was by now around 70 herself, which might explain the need for additional help as much as the old man’s no doubt increasing infirmity. George was an agricultural labourer who lived in one of Tyneham’s lesser dwellings, one half of ‘Double Cottages’. In her memoir of life in Tyneham Lilian Bond – daughter of the landowning family who had owned the village for centuries – described the cottages as ‘both small and inconvenient, the only poor ones in the village and only suitable for housing one or at most two persons’. Nevertheless, between Annie’s arrival and George’s death three people were crammed into this tiny dwelling.
Annie attended Tyneham’s small school, alongside her friend and later chronicler of village life, Helen ‘Beattie’ Taylor. She left her descendants a photograph of the class of 1912, a picture which can also be seen in the restored schoolhouse visited by thousands every year.
In her own reminiscences, Helen Taylor recalls the ‘dilapidated cottage’ in which George Richards lived; she also remembers how her father, seeing George up in the fields at work on a Sunday, would send her to remind him that it was his appointed day of rest. ‘However, all the other days of the week George, who had risen at the crack of dawn, was to be seen out in the fields hoeing the turnips and swedes.’
‘I s’pose by rights I should have packed it all in years ago’, George would say, ‘but the truth is I’ve got into such a way of it that I don’t think I could even if I wanted to. And if I did I should only have half a crown parish pay to live on, and what’s the good of that with a small loaf being tuppence and butter a shilling a pound. And they say a pair of weekday boots has now gone up to four and eleven pence.’Andrew Norman and Mary Hurst, Tyneham: the Lost Village of Dorset (2003), 56.
Clearly, for some of its inhabitants, life in Tyneham was not exactly a bucolic rural idyll.
‘The Last Person in Tyneham to Wear a Smock’
One of George Richards’ idiosyncrasies was his fondness for his smock. Presumably more an embedded habit than an affectation, this features prominently in Helen Taylor’s recollections as recorded by Andrew Norman and Mary Hurst. ‘He was the last person in Tyneham to wear a smock’, she says:
Smocks were made of home-grown flax, a tough material which would stand any amount of wear and tear and keep the wearer dry in all weathers. The top part around the chest was gathered up and then embroidered with a pattern. You could tell a person’s trade by his smock. A shepherd’s smock might depict crooks and hurdles, whereas a carter might have whips and wheels. George’s smock, if I remember rightly, had flowers and leaves – why I do not know, unless of course it came to him secondhand. If you were well off you had one smock for work and another for Sunday best.Norman and Hurst, Tyneham, 56.
Strangely enough, the story of George’s fondness for his smock was one of the few details of her Tyneham days that Annie Manktelow passed down to her children, entirely independently from Helen Taylor’s recollections. It was even said that his smock had outlived him and been brought away from Tyneham by either Annie or her grandmother, who lived till 1931. After Annie died in 1995, some of her belongings passed to her eldest daughter, my partner’s mother. Among them, it was said, was the smock, and we both recall something like it being fished out of a drawer at a family get together a couple of decades back. But it went back into that drawer and wasn’t there the next time anyone thought to look for it. The smock had slipped out of our world to become a low key, prosaic myth.
Return of the Smock?
So it was a bit of a surprise, this last summer, to find a strange garment folded up at the back of a wardrobe in the same house where the smock had last been spotted. It didn’t really look like the thing we remembered; in some ways, it didn’t look like a smock at all. For a start, it didn’t have the smocking where we’d expect to find it, but only on the cuffs. It was shorter than we thought it ought to be. But it was undoubtedly made of the right kind of fabric, showed signs of damage and repair, and was extensively embroidered – not with the flowers and leaves recalled by Helen Taylor, but with elaborate swirls and tracing around the neck, collar and shoulders, and the feathers and motto of the Prince of Wales prominently stitched onto its front.
Could this possibly be George’s smock? Without any other evidence it’d be hard to say for sure – the fact that it didn’t fit the description given by Helen Taylor, might suggest it wasn’t – but then what else could it be?
Luckily for us, some other evidence emerged from a box of photos. It’s an image from Tyneham that I’ve not seen in any other context, and it shows a group of young people dressed up for country dancing. Among them are Annie Manktelow and Helen Taylor, both picked out with an ‘x’. And Annie is wearing an item of clothing that looks suspiciously like the embroidered over-shirt found in the wardrobe.
Turning the photo over confirmed those impressions. In Annie’s distinctive handwriting was the legend, ‘Me country dancing in Uncle George’s smock. 1916. Church Fate [sic]’. So that clinches it.
And this kind of smock wasn’t quite so unusual as we initially thought. Two short smocks of a similar design survive today, both from the later nineteenth century. One was worn by a West Dorset shepherd, Job Green, who was born in 1814 in the fabulously named village of Toller Porcorum – it’s now in the collections of the Dorset Museum in Dorchester. The other, perhaps surprisingly, comes from Essex, and is displayed at the Valence House Museum in Dagenham.
The survival of these brother smocks raise a question for us. We know the plausible route out of Tyneham taken by George’s garment – preserved after its owner’s death by his sister and granddaughter, coming eventually into Annie’s possession, then left to her daughter – but what should happen to it now? Yes, it’s a piece of my partner’s family history, but its association not just with Tyneham but how ‘the lost village’ is remembered and encountered today seems to imbue it with a greater significance. Does it belong back in Tyneham, where its first wearer is buried, and where visitors encounter its, and his, story? How should it best be preserved, now it’s emerged from a century’s obscurity?
This post was updated on 12/12/21 to incorporate information on similar smocks kindly provided by Dr Alison Toplis, to whom I am very grateful.