Meta Mayne Reid was a well known Belfast based children’s author who was born and grew up in Woodlesford in the years before and during the First World War.
Her maiden name was Meta Hopkins and the 1911 census shows she was living with her parents, a sister, and two servants at Wood End farm, marked on old maps just to the west of present day Northwood Falls.
Meta’s married name, Mayne Reid, is unfamiliar now but, starting in the 1930s, she wrote 23 children’s novels, published poetry and made a number of appearances on the BBC. She also left behind a single copy of an unpublished memoir of her childhood – The Innocent Eye – which is now part of the Special Collections at Queen’s University in Belfast.
From Meta’s description it turns out that although the farm was called Wood End they actually lived at The Laurels, the large house with a garden full of rhododendrons surrounded by a stone wall, which once stood just across the railway bridge at the bottom of Applegarth. As Meta wrote it was “islanded in its acre of garden, built of sandstone and roofed with great slabs of the same material hung on wooden pegs.”
As well as painting a picture of her domestic routine the memoir goes on to give some evocative glimpses into life locally from about 1909, when Meta was four.
For instance this is her description of Church Street: “It was important to me mainly because of its shops in which I spent my ha’penny or penny. Each shop had a personality of its own, though all were untidy, alive, hot-beds of gossip, and full of jumbled goods. Admiral Wilkinson’s was a cave of darkness littered with bulging sacks of vegetables. Mrs S (Mary Stringer) dispensed drugs, toilet trifles and advice with a superior manner. She was a lone Liberal in a wilderness of Socialists. For mere groceries we went to Mr Edwards, who owned the first bacon-slicer in the village, did his brown sugar up in blue paper “pokes”, and kept really large screw-topped bottles of lemonade which would last a whole afternoon.”
Meta’s parents, Marcus and Elvina, came from County Londonderry and took over the 230 acre Wood End farm in about 1904 when Marcus’s name first appears in the electoral register. Previous to that it appears to have been unlet for several years as a notice advertising for a new tenant was first placed in the Leeds newspapers by the Oulton based land agent John Farrer in October 1901.
Previously the farm had been the property of Joseph Crompton Oddie, owner of the paper mill, benefactor of Woodlesford church and previous occupant of The Laurels. He died in 1874 and had left his considerable estate to relatives.
As farmers, the Hopkins regarded themselves as middle class and were wealthy enough to employ governesses to teach Meta and her sister Audrey, so neither went to Woodlesford school. This is her memory of it: “Behind Mrs Downes’ shop stretched the rhubarb fields, and their gaunt black forcing sheds, and on the other side of them stood the school, always plangent with the doleful chanting of times-tables. The school was ugliness personified, a dirty one-storey building in a sea of concrete firmly bounded by high railings.”
Nor were the sisters allowed to go to the summer feast held in the field next to their house between the Boot and Shoe Inn and the canal. “I hung over the wall all day watching the preparations. Every year I went to bed in tears, just as the lights were being lit, and lay awake trying in vain to hear the roundabout. Once I was allowed, or contrived to look over the wall when revelry had begun, and breathed in the essential perfume of all such fairs: sweat and trampled grass and horse-droppings and beer.”
Meta’s memory of the servants who worked at The Laurels is also vivid. Amelia Longbottom was 22 in 1911, the daughter of a railway platelayer who lived at Red Hill in Great Preston. “Amelia is now only a vision of a sniffing girl going home in a cart lined with straw when she got influenza and became homesick for her two-mile-distant colliery village.” Another maid was Amy Lightholder (possibly Lightowler) who “came from a tiny stone cottage with a matchbox-sized garden, and it may have been her mother who told mine that the cure for whooping-cough was to bind a roasted mouse across the throat of the sufferer.”
Katie Tiffany, “a lively, scatter-brained youngest daughter of a long family of Irish-Yorkshire ne’er-do-wells,” worked for the family during the First World War. Born at Swillington in 1907 she was too young to go to the Barnbow munitions factory where many of the older girls developed “yellow” faces from handling nitric acid whilst making explosives. Katie’s father was coal miner William Tiffany and she must have been only about 10 or 11 years old when she went to The Laurels from her home in Beecroft Yard – “a slum which we were forbidden to enter,” writes Meta.
One night there was much discussion amongst the grown ups at The Laurels over “an evening episode” when Katie had been chased over the fields and into Gypsy Lane by a man. The doctor had been called to examine her and it was only in later life that Meta realised the significance.
After travelling by train to attend Leeds Girls’ High School Meta Hopkins left Woodlesford for Manchester University and after her parents went back to Northern Ireland in 1926 appears never to have returned. She has though left behind an engaging memoir of many aspects of the village of her childhood.
This is how she recorded one of the local Christmas traditions of a century ago when young children were allowed to roam freely. “Waits came in the persons of self-organised groups of village children who sang a couple of verses, then hammered on the back door and chanted:
‘Christmas is coming, geese are getting fat,
Please put a penny in the poor man’s hat,
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you.’
We kept a stock of pennies and ha’pence, and when those ran out, apples were gladly accepted, probably by the very children who had raided our trees three months before!”