An Old Man Remembers

A letter to Phillip Paxman at South Farm from John Fyson, who worked at South Farm as a boy.

Dear Mr Paxman,


Thank you for the ticket to see the gardens at South Farm. I worked there as a boy through August and September 1944.

Old Billy Bath owned South Farm at that time along with Manor Farm and Church Farm and one other at Wendy. The farm was run by Sid Bath, son of Willy. I was employed for leading the horses from shock to shock as the men pitched the corn onto the cart. My uncle Ben Acres got me the job, he was resident at South Farm at the time, also horse keeper, having four horses to see to. I was probably the richest 10 year old in Cambridgeshire at the time, in wealth and quality of life.

A Mrs Chapman and her son Frank lived in an attached house at the left hand end of the main house. There were six Italian ex POWs billeted in a barn down the other end of the house (Now the Bridal Suite), one was a housekeeper for the other five working on the farms. I always remember the Italians were never short of meat, they could catch a hundred sparrows at a time by cutting slots in the big hedgerows towards Bassingbourn and beating down them after dusk. I seem to remember a few sour grapes when they received a box of oranges through the Red Cross but like me they were very happy.

Another thing I remember was that the first Doodle-Bug (V1) in the area passed just north of South Farm, having already passed the airbase and came down at Hooks Mill between Guilden Morden and Dunton.

How the Acres family came to be living at South Farm was that Bernard Acres had managed farms in England having had the education and training for it. As a child my mother was brought up at Steyning near Brighton. It was claimed by my mother that her father, Barnard, was brought up as a son of John Innes, the man that originally owned most of the land from Stevenage to Royston. At the time of John Innes death due to lack of a proper will Barnard lost that which he believed to be rightfully his. Hence the legal document to hand over the household chattels to his second wife Sarah.

Another outstanding memory was the record yield of wheat that was harvested from the small four acre field opposite the house and that was after an American Jeep had run some of it down when it failed to make the bend.

I hope you’ll excuse me writing this down but it’s nearly 60 years ago and the memory isn’t so good now.


John Fyson

South Farm Notes

  1. The Italians were billeted here for three years. They never attempted to abscond and though they worked hard they said the Baths were fair and kind to them. They messed in what is now the Bridal Suite, which was open to the roof and had a big sliding door where we built the big window frame looking out to the courtyard. There was just a freestanding turtle stove in one corner. They slept next door in what is now the Stables Bedroom, to which there was a direct connecting doorway. They arranged four sets of two bunk beds each, one above the other. They painted the bare brick walls with simple geometric murals, using what pigments they could find. They remain to this day untouched behind the modern plasterboard. In 2004 a very old Italian man arrived here, from a simple rural background, to revisit his war time prison. When I showed him where he had lived before he uttered not one word but the tears fell from his eyes and he shook convulsively. It took a few cups of hot tea and a Grappa before he dried his eyes and made his way.
  2. John Innes was the son of the John Innes whose bequest led to the establishment of the John Innes Foundation, now a leading government funded agricultural research institute. His name is most famous for John Innes balanced composts which revolutionised plant propagation. We still use the formula.
  3. See the photo of Sarah and Barnard Acres and members of the Fyson family. Clearly John Fyson got his introduction to South Farm from his relations who intermarried with the Acres family. They look almost Hardyesque, but lived here little more than 70 years ago.