|In almost all the pictures of L33, the Zeppelin that came down at Copt Hall Lane, Little Wigborough in 1916, there is a pair of little farm cottages, barely 20 yards from the wreckage, dwarfed by the 645 feet long skeleton which straddled the road. This is New Hall Cottages and Bernard Ratcliffe has lived in these tied cottages since his marriage in 1955; for 15 years next door in No. 2, New Hall Cottages and then No. 1 ever since, 48 years and counting!
Bernard was born in 1933 in Dedham. His father, Ernest William Ratcliffe, was a cowman and moved around from farm to farm working at different times for farmers in Ardleigh, Steeple Bumpstead and Wivenhoe (The Wivenhoe Park Estate) before coming to Great Wigborough in 1948 where the family moved into Hill Farm Cottages on School Road. Bernard attended Birch School for a little while but began work at the age of 15.
The local farmer in New Hall, Little Wigborough was Mr Victor Gray and following a conversation between Bernard's
Mum and Mrs Eva Gray on the bus one day (it was the Osbornes bus from Tollesbury to Colchester) Bernard started
work for Mr Gray at New Hall Farm. Bernard worked with the cowman Mr Fred Taylor and, to start with, helped with the chickens and milking the cows.
In 1952, Bernard met his wife, Gladys Irene Mary Gammon and they were married for 59 years, bringing up two children, before sadly she died about four years ago. Their wedding on 5th March 1955 was at Great Wigborough Church and the reception was in the newly restored Coronation Hall, which had been the old school building. Bernard recalls it was the first wedding reception held in the newly refurbished hall and cost £33! Earning £4 a week on the farm that was a lot of money for a young farm-worker!
A photograph of New Hall Farm, sometime before Victor Gray was there.
At New Hall in the early days, just after the war, Bernard remembers there was only one horse (called Captain) and one Fordson tractor. They had pigs, cows, sheep and chickens. Mr Gray developed a turkey business and every year they would pluck the birds, eventually amounting to three and a half thousand every Christmas.
Bernie Ratcliffe, Fordson tractor
Peldon Forge and Tronoh House on Peldon Common
The nearest forge was Mr Greenleaf's in Peldon. Post World War Two, Italian POWs were still working locally on the land, at New Hall hand-digging a drain from the cowshed to the wood (Copt Hall Grove). They lived at the Women's Land Army Hostel on Wigborough Road in Peldon and would help with the harvest too. A binder would be borrowed from Mr Gray's brother, Alan, who lived and farmed at Mersea.
In the 1953 floods the water came right up to Copt Hall Grove following the path of the brook which meanders along the field margins to Sampson's Creek. Some of the sheep drowned although most made it to high ground. In the 60s Victor Gray levelled large areas of marsh for cultivation and shortly after the farmer at Copt Hall and Robert Davidson at Brick House Farm, Peldon, followed suit.
On his mantelpiece Bernard proudly shows off the clock he was presented with for 36 years of loyal service with Victor Gray. His job came to an end when the Grays sold up in 1988 and Bernard was to move on to work part-time for Robert Davidson also gardening for the Stuttafords at Moulshams on Wigborough Hill.
Little Wigborough is a sparsely populated hamlet with its church, St Nicholas, (famously displaying a piece of the structure from the Zeppelin) and Copt Hall which is now owned by the National Trust. Previous owner of Copt Hall, 'Sammy' Sampson was the Commodore at West Mersea Yacht Club and a crew member for Edward Heath on MORNING CLOUD.
The largely single-track Copt Hall Lane is surrounded by fields bound by sea walls. Copt Hall Grove is a stone's throw away from New Hall Cottages. Bernard sees marsh harriers and buzzards, lots of long-tailed tits too and muntjac deer. Sometime in the 70s or 80s Gordon Purtell, the tractor driver, who lived in the cottage adjacent to Bernard's, shot a polecat because he was worried it would attack their chickens. Such a rare native animal that Mr Gray put it in the freezer to await someone who could identify it.
Bernard still grows some of his own vegetables, the potatoes were chitting ready to go in at my last visit! He loves his tractors and has many photos of different models. He has quite a collection of Zeppelin photographs as well as old newspaper articles which are of such interest to anyone researching modern history of a village!
It was a pleasure to meet you Bernard!
Peldon History Project
Sadly, Bernie died 6th April 2020. Anne Owen wrote an obituary for Peldon and Wigborough Parish Magazine:
Memories of Bernard (Bernie) Ratcliffe